A MURDER IN SUMMITVILLE
Lyman K. Wilbur, an able lawyer who had forsaken his profession to become a criminologist of note, sat reading a late mystery thriller in his apartment one afternoon on an early spring day. He threw the book down with disgust.
“They’re all alike,” said he to himself. “Stereotyped! The plots are hackneyed. In nine out of ten you can guess the guilty party after the first two chapters. They’re abominable. They’re rotten. All the authors are alike. Rubbish! Twaddle! And someone said big men read them for mind rest. God! Anyone who can stand the rank and file of them doesn’t need to worry—his mind’s at rest all right. It’s dead.”
Wilbur walked over to a very smart Volsteadian cellarette and brought forth a decanter from which he poured a rather stout portion. He drank the drink with a wry face.
“The damn liquor’s worse than the thrillers nowadays,” he continued to himself. “One’s at least as rotten as the other.”
The telephone rang. He stepped to a small table, picked up the instrument and answered the call.
“Bankers’ Indemnity,” said he. “Yes. A murder! At Summitville—Cashier of the Citizens Trust? Two hundred thousand gone and no trace of it?—Looks like an inside job? Sure I can go—right away! I’ll catch a train at once.”
He hung up. “Damn it all,” he remarked, as he poured another drink from the decanter and shed his dressing gown. “And I just qualified in the billiard tournament. That’s hell!”
An hour later Lyman K. Wilbur was on a train speeding toward the city of Summitville to investigate a murder. At twelve o’clock midnight the next night he arrived in Summitville. He was the only passenger to get off the train. A rather unctuous porter sat his grips on the platform before he alighted.
“Thanks, Mistah Wilbur, thanks,” the porter effused, as he pocketed Wilbur’s half dollar tip and crawled back on the train.
“How the—” Wilbur started to ask the porter how he knew his name, but the train pulled out.
Wilbur looked around. There was no one about the station. A dim electric light shone above some clicking telegraph keys in the oriel window of the agent’s office and lighted the platform slightly. A flickering railroad lantern sitting on the dispatcher’s desk seemed to be alive. The train upon which Wilbur had arrived whistled in the distance; a light shot skyward as the stoker fed the engine of the train more coal; and then all was quiet. Wilbur picked up his grip and walked down the platform toward a street. It was the main artery of Summitville. Coming to the street he put his grips down, lit a cigarette and calculated the main thoroughfare.
“So this is Summitville! Ha! I’ll bet a damn good drink of Bourbon whiskey the case is a suicide,” he said to himself. “This dump would drive anyone to it. A suggestion of murder is outlandish. I’ll bet another drink someone’s been reading those impossible detective yarns down here. Oh, well, Hell!”
Summitville justified all Wilbur’s impressions, if not more. It was located on the junction of a U.S. and a state highway, which roads ran through the place simply because there was no evasion. The place was infected with seven thousand inhabitants. Dog ate dog in the business section. Chain stores alone escaped this form of cannibalism. Customers couldn’t park on the main street because all of the merchants had their own cars in front of their own places.
A scab-minded attorney who had a notion that Blackstone was some form of granite juggled the city politics with the aid of underlings who continually and ravenously ate his sop. As a consequence the mayor was an easy shifting sort, the police department a dog pound and the board of works—just that. From the fact that Summitville represented a considerable percentage of the county population, the mange-minded attorney controlled the county officers, and although the county seat was in a neighboring small town it functioned from Summitville. A clique ran everything. There were three large factories in the town, a few small ones and a nursery. Bootlegging flourished. Drinking was the town diversion. There was a chapter of the D.A.R., a women’s club, a W.C.T.U.—those necessary organizations for female quidnuncs and morality righters. A few men with gyratory thoughts made up the Chamber of Commerce. The sunken, the damned, and the moral lepers hung out at Storer’s cigar store where they played “rummie,” bet on baseball pools or concocted plans for practical jokes. This was Summitville where three rivers met, surrounded by numerous lakes.
Lyman K. Wilbur walked up the main street in search of the hostelry. The street was deserted. The night police were napping after their round of door inspections. He crossed a bridge that spanned the Rat Tail river, went past the statue of a union soldier which stood in the center of the intersection of the two highways, and came finally to the hotel, The Summitville House. An electric light gleamed above the clerk’s desk. Wilbur entered the place. Upon the desk under the light was a poorly printed sign which read, “Ring the bell for clerk.” Wilbur pushed the bell vigorously.
While awaiting the appearance of the clerk he read a copy of the Summitville Daily Times. On the front page was an account of the Morley case, the one in which he was interested. It was as follows:
“After thorough investigation, much thought and deliberation, the Morley case has been disposed of. The coroner’s jury came to the conclusion that Eugene Morley was not murdered. It has rendered a verdict of death by suicide. We believe the verdict voices a popular opinion. As most readers of the Times know, the body of the missing cashier of the Citizens’ Trust was found in his cottage on Ramona Lake. Dr. Simpson and Dr. Clyde, two of our leading dentists, made the identification of the body this morning. They readily identified dental work which each of them had done for the late Mr. Morley. The body of the dead cashier was in a bad state of decomposition when found. Mrs. Morley definitely identified the body as that of her husband. Mr. Fellows and Mr. Tully of the Citizens’ Trust also identified it. The dentist’s identifications left no room for doubt. The gun found beside the body was one belonging to the bank which had been in the cashier’s cage for a number of years.
“Pierre LaVell, our genial undertaker and competent coroner, said that the clothes removed from the corpse were those of Morley. There seems nothing to indicate Morley met foul play as was first suspected. The fact that there were two bullet wounds in Morley’s body does not indicate a murder, according to Jud Haynes, Lieutenant detective of police. Detective Haynes says that it is possible for a suicide to shoot himself in the head and then through the heart, and cites a review of the Burton case in Newport, R. I., in 1885 by the late Professor Agnew to prove his point. Professor Agnew demonstrated the fact theoretically: 1st, a bullet may enter the brain and not cause the injured person to lose consciousness; 2nd, it may course the brain and cause no muscular paralysis; 3rd, a man may with his own hand first shoot himself in the head and a minute afterward shoot himself in the heart, and 4th, a suicide may first shoot himself through the heart and immediately afterward shoot himself in the head. Professor Agnew then cited several actualities in support of his theory. As we all know Morley was shot through the head and through the heart. There is only one feature of the suicide unexplained. No one knows what became of the defalcator’s money, if the money was really embezzled by Morley.”
“That’s a hot one,” said Wilbur to himself. “The chap that wrote the article seems to have his doubts that Morley took the money. Maybe he didn’t. And he shot himself in the brain and through the heart! That’s one for the psychopathic ward even if it has been done. I know it has too. But just because Lindbergh hopped to Paris is no reason to believe that a sparrow can leave Sag Harbor and fly to Deauville. Christ walked on the water too, but nobody else has done it. I’m a little like the reporter on the sheet—maybe Morley didn’t embezzle the money.”
The night clerk who received almost all of his nocturnal rest the same as any other right living individual in spite of his occupation, appeared as Wilbur made his appraisal of the article.
“Howdy, stranger!” said he as he loped down the stairs in a pair of slapping sandals, wearing a bathrobe and having disheveled hair. “I’m just a little bit late gittin’ down after yer ringin’. You’ll have to overlook that, stranger.”
“I thought something detained you,” said Wilbur.
“I’ll say there did, brother. But what can I do for you?”
“I’d like a room,” replied Wilbur, and with a wink added, “without—”
“Oh, I get you—you slept in one of those city hotels last night. You don’t need to worry, mister, we ain’t got ’em. If they was one in the house I’d know it too, cause I’m duck soup for the bugs. Sign the register.”
Wilbur dipped a spluttering pen in an ink well and wrote his name upon the hotel register which was offered by the clerk. The clerk turned the register and looked at the name.
“Oh, you’re Lyman K. Wilbur, eh?” said he.
“That’s my name.”
“Well sir, they’s some folks summerin’ out on Ramona Lake asked me to tell you to come out there as soon as you came in.”
“But I don’t know anyone at this place you speak of.”
“Yep. I’ll bet you do. This guy’s name is Jack Haughton. He and his wife’s out there. An’ say! His wife ain’t hard to look at while yer talkin’. She’s got all the females in this town down to bare skin an’ fuzz. She don’t wear any socks an’ ain’t got no hair on her legs. An’ them pins she’s got, mister! The women in Summitville have been tryin’ to imitate her and you and me and God knows that a pair of pinfeathered toothpicks can’t hold a candle to her’n. You know what I mean. She’s built!”
“Yeah!” laughed Wilbur at the description. “That’s her I guess.”
“Well, Haughton heard you was comin’ to these diggin’s and he told me to scoot you out to Ramona Lake no matter what hour you came in.”
“How do you get out there?”
“Listen, brother, I’ll get you out there quicker than it takes to tell. Service is our motto.”
“Go to it.”
The night clerk reached for the telephone, called a number and soon had a sleepy inhabitant of Summitville on the wire.
“Hello, is this you, Joe?” he asked. “Well, this is Si, up at the Summitville House. I’ve got a cash customer wants to go out to Haughton’s cottage on Ramona Lake.” The answer must have been to the clerk’s liking for he hung up the telephone with a bang.
“There’s a taxi man—this Joe. God, he don’t care where he goes at night nor what hour. Keeps his nose clean too. An’ he’s been in some durn dirty scrapes—boozey neckin’ parties that made our paper open up a new sport column. Yep! Joe’s all right. He’ll be right over. Drives a good car, too—got a heater for winter drivin’, and a fan fer summer.”
“Hm! Don’t thank me, stranger. I’ll get a little divvy from Joe. An’ ’fore I forget about it, this Haughton cottage is right next to the one where they found the dead man. That ought to interest you. Haughton was tellin’ me you was quite a detective. Gosh all hemlock, how do you guys look at dead ones all the time?”
“Dead people are harmless, Si.”
“Huh!” Si snickered. “They ain’t around hereabouts.”
“So!” answered Wilbur as he heard the irregular tattoo of a car’s motor outside. “I think your friend Joe has arrived.”
“Yep, that’s him,” answered Si. “I know that motor jest like the prayers my ma taught me. He’s stalled me between here and Ramona Lake with more women than there is blue gills in the durn lake. An’ if you don’t think bein’ stalled with a married woman five miles from town ain’t somepin’ to worry about when she’s got to be back home on time, you ain’t never taken your Ten Commandments seriously.”