The Progressive Murder
by Ellis Parker Butler
When Philo Gubb paid Mr. Medderbrook the one hundred dollars he had received for retrieving the Dragon’s Eye, Mr. Medderbrook was not extremely gracious.
“I’ll take it on account,” he said grudgingly, “but it ought to be more. It only brings what you owe me for that Utterly Hopeless Gold-Mine stock down to eleven thousand nine hundred dollars and, at this rate, you’ll never get me paid up. I can’t tell when there’ll come along another dividend of ten cumulative per cents on that stock, that I will have to charge up against you. Unless you can do better I have half a mind not to let you see the telegram I got from my daughter Syrilla this morning.”
“Was the news into it good?” asked Mr. Gubb eagerly.
“As good as gold,” said Mr. Medderbrook. “As good as Utterly Hopeless Gold-Mine stock.”
“What did Miss Syrilla convey the remark of?” asked the lovelorn paper-hanger detective.
“Well, now,” said Mr. Medderbrook, “I went and paid two dollars and fifty cents for that telegram. For one dollar and twenty-five cents I’ll give you the telegram, and you can read it from start to finish.”
Mr. Gubb, his heart palpitating as only a lover’s heart can palpitate, paid Mr. Medderbrook the sum he asked and eagerly read the telegram from Syrilla. It said:–
Grand news! Have given up all fish diet. Have given up codfish, weak fish, sole, flounder, shark’s fins, bass, trout, herring (dried, kippered, smoked, and fresh), finnan haddie, perch, pike, pickerel, lobster, halibut, and stewed eels. Gross weight now only nine hundred and thirty pounds averdupois. Sweet thoughts to Gubby-lubby.
“You are touched,” said Mr. Medderbrook as Mr. Gubb put the dear missive to his lips, “but unless I am mistaken you will be still more deeply touched when you pay for–when you read Syrilla’s next telegram.”
“I so hope and trust,” said Mr. Gubb, and he returned to his office in the Opera House Block with a light heart.
* * * * *
With the increase of fame that came to him as a detective Mr. Gubb’s paper-hanging business had grown, and he had left Mrs. Murphy’s house and taken a room on the second floor of Opera House Block, near the offices of ex-Judge Gilroy, attorney-at-law, and C. M. Dillman, loans and real estate. The door now bore the sign
PHILO GUBB DETECKATIVE Also Paper-hanging
On this morning Detective Gubb had hardly reached his office when Uncle Gabriel Hostetter, a shrewd smile on his face, opened Mr. Gubb’s door.
Uncle Gabriel Hostetter was a round-shouldered old man with a long white beard that came to a thin point. He wore old-fashioned gold-rimmed spectacles, the rims forming irregular octagons, and on his head he wore one of the grandest old silk hats that ever saw the light of day in 1865. His principal garment was a frock coat, once black, but now grayish green. He was the wealthiest man in town, and it was said that when he once got his hands on a silver dollar he squeezed it so hard that the bird of freedom on it uttered a squawk.
He opened Philo Gubb’s door hesitatingly. He expected to see an array of mahogany desks and filing cabinets for which he would have to pay every time the detective turned around. When he peered into the room he saw a tall, thin man in white overalls with a bib, sitting on an up-ended bundle of wall-paper, stirring a pail of paste with one hand while he ate a ham sandwich by means of the other.
“I guess I got in the wrong place,” said Uncle Gabe. “Thought this was a detective office. All right! All right!”
“I’m him,” said Philo Gubb, swallowing a hunk of sandwich with a gulp and wiping his hand on his overalls.
“You’re who?” asked Uncle Gabe.
“I’m the deteckative,” said Philo Gubb.
“You are, hey?” said Uncle Gabe. “All disguised up, I reckon.”
“Disguised up?” said Philo questioningly. “Oh, this here paper-hanging and decorating stuff? No, this ain’t no disguise. Even a deteckative has got to earn a living while his practice is building up.”
“Humph!” said old Gabe. “Detecting ain’t very good right now?”
“It ain’t, for a fact,” said Philo.
“Well, if that’s so,” said old Gabe, “maybe you and me could do business. If you want to do a little detective work to sort of keep your hand in, maybe we can do business.”
“I ought to git paid something,” said Philo doubtfully.
“Pay!” exclaimed old Gabe. “Pay for bein’ allowed to sharpen up and keep bright? Why, you’d ought to pay me for lettin’ you have the practice. It ain’t goin’ to do me no good, is it?”
“I don’t know what you want me to detect yet,” said Philo. “I might pay some if it was a case that would do me good to practice on. I might pay a little.”
“I knew it,” said old Gabe. “Now, this case of mine–What sort of a case _would_ you pay to work on?”
“Well,” said Philo thoughtfully, “if I was to have a chance at a real tough murder case, for instance.”
“Humph!” said old Gabe. “How much might you pay to be let work on a case like that?”
“Well, I dunno!” said Philo Gubb thoughtfully. “If it looked like a mighty hard case I might pay a dollar a day–if it was a murder case.”
“This case of mine,” said old Gabe, coming farther into the room, “is just that sort of a case. And I’ll let you work on it for a dollar and a quatter a day.”
“Well, if it’s that kind of a case,” said Philo slowly, “I’ll give you a dollar a day, and I’ll work on it hard and faithful.”
“A dollar and a quatter a day,” insisted old Gabe.
“No, sir, a dollar is all I can afford to pay,” said Philo.
“All right, I won’t be mean,” said old Gabe. “Make it a dollar an’ fifteen cents and we’ll call it a go.”
“One dollar a day,” said Philo.
“A dollar, ten cents,” urged old Gabe.
“One dollar,” said Philo.
“Tell you what let’s do,” said old Gabe. “We ain’t but ten cents apart. You add on a nickel and I’ll knock off a nickel, and we’ll make it a dollar five. What say? That’s fair enough. You ain’t come up any. I come all the way down.”
“All right, then,” said Philo. “It’s a go. Now, who was murdered, and when was he murdered, and why was he murdered? Them’s the things I’ve got to know first.”
“You pay me a dollar five for the first day’s work, and I’ll tell you,” said old Gabe.
Philo dug into his pocket and drew out some money. “There,” he said. “There’s two dollars and ten cents. That pays for two days. Now, go ahead.”
He drew out his notebook and wet the end of a pencil and waited.
“The reason this is such a hard case,” said old Gabe slowly, and choosing his words with care, “is because the murder ain’t completed yet. It’s being did.”
“Right now?” exclaimed Philo excitedly. “Why, we oughtn’t to be sitting here like this. We ought–”
“Now, don’t be in such a hurry,” said old Gabe. “If you mean we ought to be where the victim of the murder is, we are. He’s right here now. I’m him. I’m the one that’s being murdered. I’m being murdered by slow murder. I’m liable to drop down dead any minute. But I don’t want to be murdered and not have the feller that murders me hang like he ought. I can’t be expected to. It ain’t human nature.”
“No, it ain’t,” agreed Philo. “A man can’t help feeling revengeful against the man that murders him. If anybody murdered me I’d feel the same way. How’s he killing you? Slow poison?”
“Gun-shot,” said old Gabe. “Shootin’ me to death with a gun.”
The correspondence school detective looked at old Gabe with amazement.
“Shootin’ you to death with a gun!” he exclaimed. “Ain’t you told the police?”
“I come to you, didn’t I?” asked old Gabe. “If I was to set the police on the feller he might rouse up and shoot me to death all at once.”
“How is he shootin’ you to death?” asked Philo.
“By inches, b’gee,” said old Gabe. “Yes, sir, by inches. Every once in a while he takes a shot at me. Sometimes through the window of my house, and sometimes when I’m walkin’ on the street.”
“And he ain’t ever hit you yet?” asked Philo Gubb.
“Hit me?” exclaimed old Gabe. “Why, he don’t ever miss me. He hits me every time. There ain’t a day he don’t shoot and hit me, and some days he hits me two or three times. I dare say I’m almost dead now, if I knowed it.”
Philo Gubb fondled his notebook uncertainly.
“What–what does he shoot you with?” he asked.
“Well, I dunno exactly,” said old Gabe. “With a pea-shooter.”
Philo Gubb closed his notebook, and slipped it into his pocket.
“If all you was after was to get that two dollars and ten cents, you might have got it without wastin’ so much of my time,” he said reproachfully.
But old Gabe did not move.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Maybe I’m a fool,” Gubb said bitterly, “but I ain’t no such fool as to think anybody is murdering nobody with a pea-shooter.”
“Was you ever shot with a cannon?” asked old Gabe calmly.
“No, nor nobody ever tried to murder me with a pea-shooter,” said Philo Gubb.
“If you ever _was_ shot by a thirteen-inch cannon ball,” said old Gabe, “you’d know it. When a thirteen-inch cannon ball hits you, there ain’t nothin’ left of you at all. But when a one-inch cannon ball hits you, you’ve got a chance to live a minute or two, maybe. That’s the difference between a thirteen-inch cannon ball shootin’ you, and a one-inch cannon ball shootin’ you. And a rifle ball is different, too.”
“I got a job of paper-hangin’ as soon as I can get away from here,” said Philo Gubb meaningly.
“You got a job of detectin’ on hand now,” said old Gabe. “And, as I was sayin’, a rifle ball acts different. Maybe it kills you the first shot, and maybe you can hold three or four rifle bullets before you die, but if they keep on shootin’ at you, you get killed sooner or later. Probably five shots is all any man could stand. I guess that’s about it.
“And then you come down to one of them little twenty-two caliber revolvers. If he don’t hit you in the heart, a murderer could easy enough shoot at you twenty-five times with one of them little twenty-two’s before he killed you dead. But you’d be dead sooner or later. It’s just a matter of what a man shoots you with that makes the difference in time.
“Of course,” he continued agreeably, “you don’t expect no pea-shooter to kill me as quick as a thirteen-inch gun would. If you expect that you’re unreasonable. But the principle is just the same. Shootin’ is shootin’. You know how that pome goes–
‘The constant drip of water Wears away the hardest stone–‘
and that’s just as true of murderin’ a man with a pea-shooter.
“And the beauty of it is that nobody knows you’re committin’ a murder. If anybody catches you and asks you what you’re doin’ you just say, ‘Oh, nothin’. Just shootin’ peas.'”
“Maybe that’s so,” agreed Philo Gubb. “It sounds reasonable. But the thing for me to do is to wait until you’re dead and then catch the feller. It ain’t a murder until you’re dead.”
“It ain’t, ain’t it?” sneered old Gabe. “You’d wait until I am dead, I suppose, and then start out to catch the feller. And you’d lose all the help I can give you. It ain’t often a detective can get the corpse to help him like this.”
“No, it ain’t,” agreed Philo Gubb.
“I got a suspicion who the feller is,” said Gabe.
“Who?” asked Philo Gubb.
“You’ll go ahead with the case? On the terms we settled on?” asked old Gabe.
Philo Gubb considered this carefully.
“Why, yes,” he said at length, “I will. Who is the feller you think is doin’ it?”
“Farrin’ton Pierce, the cashier of the Farmers’ and Citizens’ Bank,” said old Gabe, his eyes shining with malice and shrewdness, as he leaned forward and whispered the words. “My own son-in-law, he is. An’ I’ll tell you why he’s tryin’ it. For my money. So his wife’ll get it, an’ he can be president of the bank in my place.”
“You’ve seen him have a pea-shooter?” asked Philo Gubb.
“No, sir!” said old Gabe. “And I never seen one of the peas. All I ever felt was the sting of it when it hit me.”
“Maybe,” said Philo Gubb eagerly, “maybe it ain’t a pea-shooter. Maybe it’s a twenty-two short pistol with a silencer onto it. Maybe it’s only because he’s been afraid to come nigh enough to you that he ain’t killed you yet. It don’t seem to me that any man would try to murder any one with a pea-shooter.”
“Humph!” said old Gabe. “Maybe you are right, at that. That’s something I never thought of. It sounds likely, too.”
“A deteckative has to think of all them things,” said Philo simply. “If I was you I’d be more careful.”
“I will!” said old Gabe. “See here, if he’s shootin’ at me like that, it ain’t no joke, is it? Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll let you off from payin’ me that dollar five a day. Just you hustle onto this case and keep at it, and I’ll leave you work on it for nothin’. All I want is that you should send me word reg’lar of what you find out.”
“It is the custom of all the graduates of the Rising Sun Correspondence School deteckatives to make reg’lar reports in writing,” said Philo Gubb. “I’ll start right in shadowing and trailing Mister Farrington Pierce, according to Lessons Three and Four, and I’ll report reg’lar every day.”
“Everything you find out,” said old Gabe. “Don’t leave out a thing. And particularly at night. That’s when he shoots me the most.”
“I won’t leave him a minute,” said Philo Gubb. “I’ve got a man I hire to help me on my paper-hangin’, and I’ll get him to finish up this job. I’ll start trailin’ and shadowin’ Farry Pierce right away.”
Old Gabe shook hands with Philo and went out. When the door was closed behind him he chuckled, and all the way home his face was creased in a grin. He felt that he had done a good bit of business and saved himself a good sum of money. Philo Gubb, in the meantime, having put a false beard and a wig in his pocket, went out.
Across the street from the bank was Grammill’s Cigar Store, where the idler men of the town loafed when they had nothing better on hand, and Philo Gubb entered and bought a cigar and took an easy loafing position near the front window. He commanded a view of the only entrance to the bank, and here he waited. At fifteen minutes after three Farry Pierce came out of the bank.
“There’s a man with an easy job,” said one of the loafers. “That Farry Pierce. Nothing to do till to-morrow.”
“Too much time on his hands, I guess,” said another, who–by the way–had more spare time than Farry Pierce. “From what I hear he’d be better off if he had to work all day _and_ all night.”
“The widow?” asked the first speaker.
“That’s what they say,” said the second. “They tell me he’s blowing all his salary and more on that widow. Must make old Gabe crazy to see any of his kin spend money that way. Or any way. He’s a close one, old Gabe is.”
“What you hear about Farry and the widow?” asked the first.
“Makes old Gabe crazy, they tell me. He wants his girl to get a divorce.”
“Who told you that?”
“My girl. My girl is workin’ for his girl. Fr’m what she tells me old Gabe is pretty well worked up about it. Said he’d get a spotter to foller Farry and get some evidence on him if it didn’t cost so blame much. I bet the’ won’t be any divorces in that family if old Gabe has to pay out any money.”
“I bet they won’t. And the’ ain’t no detectives workin’ for nothin’ so far as I hear. Not this year.”
“No, nor next year, neither,” said the other; and as this was in the nature of a joke they both laughed.
But Philo Gubb did not join their laughter. He felt his face grow red. His lean hands folded and unfolded as he watched Farry Pierce disappear around the corner of the bank building. If any one felt like murdering old Gabe with a pea-shooter at that moment, Philo Gubb did. Shadow and trail Farry Pierce! The old skin-flint, coming with a fairy tale and getting the only fully graduated deteckative in Riverbank to shadow and trail a son-in-law and report daily! Divorce case evidence, hey? Talking murderer and working a deteckative into doing scandal sleuthing free of charge! Philo Gubb’s face reddened again with new anger as he put his hand in his pocket and touched the beard and wig he had placed there. But for this chance conversation he would have been following Farry Pierce now, and making a fool of himself. But for this chance conversation he would not have lost sight of Farry Pierce by day or by night. He went back to his office, put on his overalls, and went to his work on a paper-hanging job.
At six he started for home. A block down the street he met one of the loafers he had heard speaking in Grammill’s Cigar Store.
“What do you think about it?” he asked Philo Gubb.
“About what?” asked Philo in return.
“Ain’t you heerd?” asked the man. “Why, it’s all over town by now. Farry Pierce murdered old Gabe Hostetter not more’n twenty minutes after we seen him comin’ out of the bank. Shot him. Killed him first shot. Yes, sir! Killed him instantly with a little mite of a pistol with about as much carry as a pea-shooter. Must have hit him in just the right spot.”
“Did you see the pistol?” asked Philo Gubb nervously.
“No, I didn’t,” said his informant, “but that’s what the feller told me. ‘Killed him instantly with one of these here little pea-shooters,’ was what he said. What you lookin’ so funny about?”
“If you insist to wish to know,” said Philo Gubb, “Mr. Gabe Hostetter wasn’t murdered instantly at all. He was progressively murdered by inches over a long considerable period of time, like little drops of water.”
For a minute the loafer stared at Mr. Gubb. Then he laughed.
“Crazy!” he scoffed. “Crazy as a loon!” and he walked away and left Mr. Gubb struggling for a suitably crushing retort.