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EMILE C. TEPPERMAN

CORPSES ON DISPLAY

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A "MASKED MARKSMAN" ADVENTURE



First published in The Spider magazine, January 1942

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version date: 2017-06-24
Produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan

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Cover

The Spider, January 1942, with "Corpses on Display"



To Ed Race, vaudeville's fabulous Masked Marksman, a skeleton in a museum was not startling. But what about the bullet holes in the breast-bone; the blood on the shins—and the remains of a meal which apparently only the skeleton could have eaten? The grisly answers came in sentences punctuated with hot lead!



ON Ed Race's right, a Tartar horseman, attired in kaftan and short leather jacket, and astride a small mountain pony, was riding straight down upon him, with spear poised so that its shimmering point would drive into Ed's stomach.

On his left, a giant Manchu swordsman loomed above him, with huge broadsword raised for the stroke that would cleave Ed in two.

Behind them, yellow warriors in gleaming gold and silver armor stood poised for a swift and vicious attack; while here and there, lean skeletons stared sightlessly out of eyeless sockets, in gaunt disdain of the glittering warriors.

Ed Race stood in the center of the big museum room, with a sour look on his face. There wasn't another living soul in the great exhibition chamber. People don't visit museums at midnight.

The Tartar horseman and the Manchu swordsman kept their poses and all the other warriors and emperors and skeletons remained immovable. But somehow, Ed felt a weird sensation of life somewhere in the place. All these antiquities of a dead and forgotten age seemed to be pulsing with a strange reality.

He fingered the key with which he had let himself in, and frowned. Outside, alongside the doorway, the modest brass plaque had carried the name:


MUSEUM OF ASIATIC ANTIQUITIES


Located on a side street off the beaten track, the museum was privately endowed by the will of the deceased multi-millionaire, Hanson Barrett, who had lived most of his life in the Orient, indulging a taste for Asiatic lore. A year or so ago, Barrett had come home to build this museum. Then, just before he died, he had appointed a girl as curator of his lonely museum!

The girl was Marjorie Lennox, daughter of the late Sam Lennox, vaudeville actor. Marjorie herself had been in vaudeville until, out of a clear sky, Hanson Barrett's will had made her curator of this strange museum at a salary of fifteen thousand dollars a year! The reason? Old Sam Lennox had once saved Hanson Barrett's life. The millionaire had never forgotten it.

So Marjorie Lennox had left the stage. Ed Race had seen her only a couple of times in the last year. Tonight, while Ed Race was at the Clyde Theater doing his Masked Marksman number, she had left the key at the stage door. She had told Toby Craven, the doorman, to give the key to Ed, and to ask him to enter the museum at midnight and wait for her.

"She's in some trouble, I guess," Toby had said. "Looks as if those moth-eaten antiques have got her scared."

Ed Race had never failed to help a fellow actor in trouble. So he entered the museum at the stroke of twelve, to await Marjorie.

Ed looked up at the Tartar horseman, and winked. "Don't go away, old fellow," he said. "I'll be back. I'm just going to take a look around—if you don't mind."

The Tartar offered no objection; neither did the Manchu. But they did not relax their threatening poses.

Ed threaded his way among the gilded oriental lords and the skeletons, toward the rear, where there was a glass-panelled door with the lettering: Curator's Office. There was only a single fluorescent light going, and it cast a queer lambent glow over the entire place. Ed tried the door of Marjorie Lennox's office, but it was locked.

He turned away, and stopped short with a puzzled frown. The thing that made him frown was queer indeed.

In the corner, in front of a tapestried wall, there stood a gaunt and loose-jointed skeleton. It was on a small pedestal, all by itself, and was supported by a metal rod along its spine. From where he stood, Ed could see that there were several cracks in the bones, where they had apparently been broken during the life of the gentleman who had been their corporeal owner. There was one crack in the left forearm, and another in the left leg. Also, there were two holes—bearing a suspiciously close resemblance to bullet holes—in the breast-bone.

But it wasn't the skeleton that was so unusual. It was the bridge table in front of the skeleton.

Upon the table there was a large tray. On the tray was a platter containing the remains of a roast chicken; a dish with a few carrots and peas left in it, and another with the shells of two baked potatoes; a coffee pot and a coffee cup, with the dregs of the coffee still in it; a plate with some crumbs of apple pie; salt, sugar, cream, the butt of a cigar, and the wrapper of a stick of peppermint chewing gum.

Ed Race knew that Marjorie Lennox ate as sparingly as a sparrow. He had often taken her to dinner, in the old days, when they had played the same houses together on the Partages Circuit. This meal had never been eaten by her. And she certainly hadn't smoked the cigar.

And then, when he stepped closer, he got another shock. For the tray was spattered with bright red blood! It was fresh blood, as he ascertained when he touched it.

Ed turned from the tray to the skeleton. A card mounted on the base of the pedestal offered the following information:


The Skeletal Remains of the Chinese Philosopher
LI PU
Died about 900 A.D.
Discovered in secret crypt in the
Mausoleum of the Ages at Cheng-Sha.


"H'm," said Ed. He looked first at the remains of the roast chicken, then at the bare bones of the skeleton. "For a philosopher, you certainly put away a good meal, Mr. Li Pu. Where do you put it?"

The philosopher's bones made no reply.

Ed stepped up on the pedestal, and touched the tip of his forefinger to one of the holes in the breast-bone. There was a black, gritty material around the edges. Ed bent and sniffed at it.

"Cordite!" he muttered. He gazed into the sightless sockets of Li Pu. "If you died about nine hundred A.D., how come you were shot with a forty-five calibre slug at close range? Tell me that."

He glanced down, and his eyes narrowed. He hadn't noticed it before, but there was blood on the back of the pedestal, as well as on the back of the leg and thigh bones.

"You're a remarkable skeleton, Li Pu," Ed said. "You even bleed!"

He stepped down off the pedestal, glanced at the tray on the table, then up at all that galaxy of Asiatic warriors, princes and kings, who filled the museum room in martial array.

"If you gentlemen could only talk!" he said to them. "Maybe you could tell me how Li Pu could eat, and get shot, and bleed, just like a twentieth century American!"

The place began to feel cold and eerie. For comfort, Ed nudged at the two .45 calibre revolvers he carried in his twin shoulder holsters.

"Hell," he said. "You birds have got me talking to myself! I think I better start looking for Marjorie!"

Just then, somebody began to pound at the outside door. A man's muffled voice, sounding quite agitated, called, "Hello in there! Let me in, I say!"

Ed grunted. He threw a last glance at the skeleton of Li Pu, and threaded his way back past the Tartar spearman and the Manchu swordsman. The pounding at the door continued, and the man out there shouted, "Open up! Open up, or I'll call the police!"

Ed reached the door, pulled it open, and was almost carried off his feet by the avalanche that swept in. It consisted of a tall man in a high hat and evening clothes, with a gray moustache and a small gray Vandyke. He had a cane in one hand, and he was brandishing a pistol in the other. He literally thrust the gun in Ed's face, and demanded vociferously, "What have you done with Marjorie Lennox, you rascal? If you've harmed her, I'll have you electrocuted, do you hear me?"

Ed recognized the man as Randolph Condit, the attorney for the estate of Hanson Barrett. Ed had met him once, at the reading of the will, and he never forgot a face. But Mr. Condit's eyesight was apparently not so good. He didn't recognize Ed. He kept the pistol pointed at him.

"I'll give you one minute to produce Marjorie Lennox!" he stormed.

"She's in my pocket, Mr. Condit," Ed said.

The lawyer blinked. "You—you know me?"

"Of course. And you know me, too. I'm Ed Race."

Mr. Condit looked perplexed. "Why—yes. I remember you. A friend of Miss Lennox's, is it not? You are the famous vaudeville actor—the one who juggles the forty-five calibre revolvers on the stage, and shoots the candles. I met you at the reading of the will. Of course!"

He breathed a little sigh, and lowered his pistol. "I'm getting old. My memory for faces is beginning to fail me. I saw your performance, Mr. Race. It was marvelous. Especially that number, where you juggle those six revolvers high in the air, then do a back somersault and catch them as they come down. Then you fire each one in turn as you catch it, at those candles. I was sure you would miss, but you didn't. It was uncanny. I used to be something of a marksman in my youth, but I never saw an exhibition of accurate shooting to equal yours!"

"Thank you," Ed murmured. "But I think we were talking about Marjorie Lennox."

"Good God, yes! It's terrible to grow old, Mr. Race. I can't follow a straight sequence of thought any more." His agitation returned. "I just received a phone call from Marjorie. She said she'd discovered that there is murder being done here in the museum. Murder, mind you! She discovered it, and she feared she would be killed!"

"How long ago did she call you?" Ed demanded.

"Twenty minutes ago. She was using the telephone right here, in the museum. She started to say something else, and then she uttered a gasp, and there was the sound of a scuffle, and the line went dead. So I took my pistol out of the desk, and hurried over."

"Let's break down her office door," said Ed. "It's locked. She may be in there—if they haven't taken her away."

"They?" Condit inquired as he followed Ed back toward the rear. "Who in the world is they?"

"That's what I'm going to find out!" Ed told him. "I'm going to find out how a skeleton comes to eat a square meal, and get shot in the chest, and bleed. And I'm going to find out what's happened to Marjorie!"

"What the devil are you talking about, man?" Condit asked. "What's this about a skeleton—"

Ed laughed harshly. He pointed toward the corner. "Take a look over there, and you'll see what I mean—"

He stopped abruptly, with his mouth open, and an incredulous, baffled look in his eyes.

The skeleton was there, all right. But the bridge table with all the dishes was gone!

"What—what's the trouble?" Condit asked.

Ed didn't answer. He left the lawyer standing there, near the Tartar horseman, and dashed over to the corner.

The skeleton stared emptily into the air, suspended by the rod along its spine. But the two bullet holes in the breast-bone were not there; neither were the breaks in the left arm and the left leg; neither was the blood which had been spattered over the back of the thigh and leg bones and the pedestal.

Ed heard Condit coming up behind him. The old man said, "What is going on here, Race? Why are you studying that skeleton? Are you mad? Have you forgotten that Marjorie is in danger—"

"Wait," said Ed. He bent down and read the plaque on the front of the pedestal. It was the same plaque.

Ed breathed a deep sigh, and turned to face the lawyer. "Maybe I am mad, Mr. Condit. Just before you came in, I was standing right here. There was a finished meal on a bridge table in front of Li Pu, here. There were two bullet holes in his breast-bone, and there was blood on the pedestal. Now it's all gone."

Condit gave him a queer look. "Have you been drinking, Race?"

"Dammit, no! I tell you, I saw all that!"

Condit shook his head. "Even granting that you are not afflicted by hallucinations, it might have been possible to remove the bridge table you say you saw here; but not two bullet holes from the breast-bone." A glint of suspicion came into his eyes, and he slowly raised his pistol again. "Where were you twenty minutes ago—when Marjorie was phoning me?"

"Put the gun down, you old fool," Ed said irritably. "I'm Marjorie's friend—"

"Perhaps, perhaps. But when you give me a wild tale like this—about skeletons who eat full course dinners, with bullet holes in their bones—"

He was interrupted by a gurgling, gagged cry that came from somewhere in the great room.

Ed swung around, trying to trace the cry. But Condit's pistol poked into his side. "Don't move, Race. I don't trust you. That was Marjorie's voice. You've done something to her, and I mean to find out just what!"

"Go to hell!" cried Ed, and started to move away in the direction from which the cry had come. It was not repeated, but he felt sure it had originated from the opposite side of the room, where there were rows of sarcophagi of ancient Manchu emperors.

As he hurried in that direction, he heard the snick of a safety catch behind him, and turned his head. He was just in time to see Condit aiming the pistol at him, holding it out at arm's length, with his finger curling around the trigger.

Now, Ed Race could have drawn one of his own .45's, and fired it with a good chance of beating the old man on the shot. There had been many a time on the stage, when he had exhibited that blinding draw of his. But he had no desire to kill old Mr. Condit. Neither did he wish to be plugged by a bullet from Mr. Condit's pistol.

So he kept going, only swerving a little to the left, and throwing himself into a running forward somersault.

He heard the gun bark behind them, and the slug whistled through the air at the spot where he had been.

Ed completed the somersault without touching his hands to the floor. He was expert at this, because it was another one of the feats he performed as the Masked Marksman. On the stage, when he went into the running forward somersault, he drew his revolvers while in the air, landed on his feet shooting at the target at the other end of the stage.

This time, however, he did not draw his revolvers. He came to his feet just as Condit fired a second time. But the lawyer's aim was still upset by Ed's unconventional action. He wasn't used to shooting at a moving target and anyway, his eyesight wasn't so good.

Ed yelled, "Stop that shooting, Condit—"

But he saw it was useless. The old man had dropped to one knee, and was resting the pistol on his left forearm, taking deliberate aim. He did not mean to miss this time.

Ed spun sideways, skidded around behind a Japanese discus-thrower, and reached over and snatched the discus out of the statue's hand. He saw that Condit was turning to focus his aim once more, and he did not hesitate. He bent low, swung the heavy plate behind him, then swept his arm out in a side hurl that sent the discus skimming low through the air, straight at Condit.

The lawyer saw it coming, and uttered a hoarse cry. He tried to duck, but he was too late. The edge of the discus grazed the top of his scalp, and Condit went over backward. His head struck the armored shin-bone of a Mongol knight, and he collapsed and lay still, the pistol sliding out of his grasp.

Ed Race breathed a sigh of relief. The echoes of the two shots were still reverberating hollowly through the great room, and he wondered if they had been heard outside. He let Condit lie where he had fallen, and resumed his search for Marjorie. The old lawyer's intentions might be of the best, but he had certainly succeeded in making a nuisance of himself.

Ed was listening now, for a repetition of the choked cry he had heard before, but everything was quiet now. He made his way along a line of ornate oriental sarcophagi, where the royal personages of a thousand years ago were supposed to have been interred. A sign along here read:

These crypt-boxes were disinterred
from an ancient burying-ground of
the Siamese emperors, near Bangkok,
at a cost of one million dollars.


Ed made a wry face. There were lids on all the coffins, but each lid was provided with a glass inset which permitted the visitor to look down at the mummified remains of the royal body within. It was at the third coffin that Ed found Marjorie. She was wrapped like a mummy, lying on her back, and staring up at him. Only her eyes were exposed. The rest of her was wrapped so tight that she could barely breathe.

Ed started to grin down at her, and then he realized that the lid of the coffin was shut tight, and that no air was getting in. She must be smothering to death in there.

Frantically, he ripped at the lid, but it was nailed down. He saw the pain and terror in Marjorie's eyes as she lay there, looking up at him. Grimly, he took out his revolver, clubbed it, and tapped at the glass inset. He broke it as gently as he could, for fear that the falling glass would strike her eyes. As soon as it was broken, he saw Marjorie's bosom heaving as she tried to draw the fresh air into her lungs.

He chipped the glass away from the edges, inserted his hand, and yanked at the lid. The nails screamed, and the lid came up. He tore it off, and lifted Marjorie out of the coffin.

Swiftly he cut at the folds which encircled her. In a moment he had her free. He raised her to her feet, and she leaned against him, unable to talk. Her dress was wrinkled and twisted where it had been folded around her, and she tried, with the instinct of a woman, to straighten it out.

"Take it easy, Marjorie," he said. "You're all right now."

"Thank God you didn't come five minutes later," she gasped. "I'd have suffocated in there!" She shuddered with sudden revulsion.

"Who put you in there?"

"I—I don't know. I left the key at the Clyde, and came back here to wait for you. I—I was going to lock myself in the office and wait till you came. But—just as I came in, the lights went out and some one seized me. I—I think there were two of them. They didn't say a word. In the dark, one of them held me, while the other wrapped that dreadful stuff around me. Then they put me in the coffin, and the lights went on again. I never saw them."

"You didn't even get a glimpse of them?"

"Well, there was just one thing I thought I saw—but I must have been mistaken. I thought I saw that Tartar horseman and that Manchu swordsman start to move. But it must have been an hallucination. Right after that the lights went out."

"H'm," said Ed. "Talking about hallucinations—just why did you want me to come here?"

"It—it was on account of the skeleton. The skeleton of Li Pu."

"Ah! What about the skeleton of Li Pu?"

"I had closed up a six o'clock, but when I got home tonight, I found that I'd forgotten to take along a ledger that I had intended to work on, at home. So I came back. And there was a bridge table in front of Li Pu, with dishes on it. Some one had eaten a meal in here. Then I saw the blood on the tray, and on the pedestal. I was frightened, but then I thought perhaps it was a practical joke some one was playing on me. I wanted to call the police, but that would have meant publicity, and the will of Mr. Barrett expressly forbids publicity of any kind. It stays distinctly that if any sensational item about the museum gets in the paper, I'm to lose my job. So I got an extra key and left it for you, and came back here alone."

"And you called Mr. Condit, too?" Ed asked.

Marjorie turned and stared at him. "Mr. Condit? No. I didn't call him—"

"Well," said Ed, in a curiously flat voice. "What a dope I've been!"

He swung around, looking for the lawyer. But Condit was no longer lying where he had fallen. In fact, Condit was not anywhere in sight.


ED stared around at the eerie collection of armored warriors, knights and emperors. In any one of those suits of armor a man could hide. But Condit couldn't have gotten into one of them without some kind of noise.

Marjorie asked, "Why did you mention Mr. Condit, Ed? It's strange you should ask about him, because he was here earlier this evening, when they delivered the bones of Yin Ling."

"The bones of Yin Ling!" Ed exclaimed. "Who's he?"

"Some Manchu war lord. The bones came in a coffin, and they were left in the delivery room. The men haven't unpacked them yet."

"What men?"

"The three men Mr. Condit hired."

"How come Mr. Condit hired them?"

"Mr. Condit does all the hiring. It's in the will. I merely take care of the exhibits."

"And who arranged for these bones of Yin Ling to be brought here?"

"Mr. Condit. He has purchased quite a few Oriental items in the past year."

"These items were all coffin items?"

"Yes. They were mostly the remains of obscure orientals of whom there is no historical record. But Mr. Condit said that they were valuable, and since the cost was reasonable, we bought them."

"Who decides what relics to buy?"

"A board of five men, appointed by Mr. Condit, according to the will. There's a Mr. Lester, a Mr. Purdy, a Mr. Rundell—"

"Are any of these men authorities on oriental history?"

"I don't know. I've never heard of any of them. I've never met them—"

"Well," said Ed, "I begin to see how this thing has been working. It doesn't smell so good."

He had one arm about her waist, supporting her. In his left hand he had the one revolver he had drawn. As they talked he led her back to the corner where the skeleton of Li Pu stood. He stopped with her in front of it, and said, "I will be damned!"

For there was the bridge table with the dishes, and there was the blood on the pedestal, and the bullet holes in the breast-bone, just as he had seen them the first time.

But of Mr. Condit there was no sign whatever.

"See, Ed!" Marjorie whispered excitedly. "That's why I wanted you to come. It—it's uncanny—"

She stopped, and her voice changed to a gasp of utter terror.

Ed saw that she was staring at something behind them. He swung around, pivoting on one foot.

For a moment, he was unable to tell what she was staring at.

"The Tartar!" she screamed, pointing at the horseman.

Ed saw it now. The visor of the Tartar's helmet was raised, and a gun was pointing out of it, at them. Some one was inside that suit of armor, someone who meant to kill!

Almost at the same instant, orange flame spurted from the muzzle of that gun. There was a short, sharp bark, and a bullet whined past Ed's ear, then crashed into the skeleton of Li Pu.

Ed thrust Marjorie to one side, and almost in the same motion he fired his revolver from the hip.

The target was an easy one compared to the flame of a candle. His heavy slug smashed through the opening of the visor, and the Tartar horseman was carried backward off his marble horse. He crashed on the floor with a clanging of metal and lay still. Whoever had been hiding within that suit of armor would never get up again.

That man must have been inside the suit of armor from the time Ed had entered the museum. Ed had stood within a few feet of him, and he had made no attempt to attack. Either he had been unable to move about within the armor to bring his gun to bear, or else he had been waiting for a more suitable opportunity.

Ed was able to understand now, that Condit never intended to allow him or Marjorie to leave this place alive. It was Marjorie's misfortune that she had discovered something she was never supposed to know. Condit had lied about Marjorie's phone call, but he had told the truth about murder being done in the museum. Condit was apparently conducting a murder ring of some kind, and using the museum as a storehouse for the bodies of his victims. What better place could be found for a corpse than a museum that already was full of them!


IT was the matter of the skeleton of Li Pu that bothered him. He couldn't understand how that bridge table, the bullet holes and the blood, had disappeared and then reappeared. And also, he couldn't understand where Condit had gone.

But all this merely passed through his mind as a series of flashing realizations, not as an ordered sequence of thought. He was too busy for that. He was urging Marjorie toward the door of her office, at the same time keeping an eye on the whole great museum room, in an effort to spot the source of the next attack. It might come from anywhere. He couldn't tell where the other killers might be hidden—in the Manchu swordsman, the Mongol warrior, or in one of the Tartar knights.

"Get your office door open, Marjorie!" he ordered. "And go inside!"

She obeyed, her hand trembling just a little as she turned the key and pushed her door open.

"Better come with me, Ed," she said hurriedly. "I'll phone for the police. The shots will never be heard out in the street. This place has been scientifically soundproofed."

Ed laughed harshly. "If Condit is as smart as I think he is, your phone line is cut. But try, anyway. Lock your door on the inside. I'm going to find out where Condit went."

He waited till he heard the door shut behind him, then, with both heavy .45 calibre revolvers in his hands, he moved into the center of the room.

He walked slowly, his ears cocked for the least hint of sound or movement. The Tartar horseman lay very still, a pool of blood spreading around the open helmet. The Manchu swordsman stood poised near by, with the broadsword raised for a death-stroke. All those other ghostly orientals stood, statuesque and unmoving, in attitudes of fierce threat or lordly disdain. At Ed's left, the long row of skeletons stared unseeing and uninterested, while on the right stretched the row of coffins with their cargoes of long-dead kings and princes.

Nothing moved, nothing stirred.

Ed holstered one of his guns, and bent beside the Tartar Horseman. He unscrewed the helmet and slid it off.

The face of the dead man was unfamiliar to him. The bullet hole square in the forehead was silent testimony to the accuracy of Ed Race's shooting.

Suddenly, as he knelt there, Ed became conscious of movement behind him. It was nothing that he heard, for there was no sound. Perhaps it was intuition; perhaps it was that sixth sense which he had developed through his years of familiarity with danger. For Ed Race was no stranger to danger. Though he was a successful vaudeville actor, and though his phenomenal marksmanship on the stage had earned him top billing on the Partages Circuit from coast to coast, he had never been satisfied. His nervous energy craved an outlet in action, and he had long ago chosen a hobby—the science of criminology. That was why Marjorie Lennox had turned to him tonight.

But he could never have survived through the years if he had not possessed something more than the mere ability to shoot it out with killers. He had also that intuitive sense of timing, that instinct for danger, which every fighting man must have. And tonight it clicked for him. He knew there was someone behind him, where there had been no one a moment ago!

He whirled, crouching, and his eyes narrowed.

Here then, was the answer to the peculiar mystery of the skeleton of Li Pu.

The whole section of wall behind Li Pu was turning on a well-greased pivot!

It was not only the wall which was turning. The segment of the floor upon which the pedestal rested was also moving, so that when the wall completed its turn, the skeleton, pedestal and all would disappear from the room, and be on the other side.

But on the back of the turning segment of wall, there was another section of floor, upon which rested an identical pedestal, with another skeleton!

This was how the bridge table had disappeared, how the bullet holes and the blood had been removed from the bones of Li Pu!

The wall was already halfway around, and Ed Race got a glimpse of the room behind it. A secret room with a secret entrance!

He saw Condit there, and a small group of men, all armed with automatics. Behind those men, he caught a swift glimpse of three or four coffins, piled against the far wall.

That was all he had a chance to see, for those men in there began to shoot. Their guns blasted a thunderous threnody of death as they sought to cut Ed down with their first fusillade.

But Ed Race's reaction was as lightning-fast as it always was on the stage. Many a skeptic, watching his performance at the Clyde, had said sneeringly, "That's all well and good. He can do somersaults, and he can shoot like nobody's business—at inanimate objects. I'd like to see how he does if he ever gets up against a real enemy with a gun!"

Those skeptics should have been here now, for their answer.

Ed Race went into a side flip, which carried him over to the left, behind the Manchu swordsman. He needed both hands for that flip, so he skidded his revolver along the floor ahead of him, with just enough force to bring it to the spot where he landed. He had lately perfected that trick for a new routine for the stage, but he hadn't guessed that he would have to use it so soon to save his life.

He picked up that gun as he landed, and at the same time drew his other revolver.

The fusillade from Condit and his gunmen had crashed deafeningly, and the slugs had swept the spot where Ed had been standing a split-second before. Now, they swung their guns to follow him, but Ed was already shooting. Disdaining cover, he had stepped out from behind the Manchu swordsman, and now he stood straddle-legged, the two heavy revolvers bucking in his hands as they beat out a tattoo of mighty defiance to those killers.

He did not fire at random, but carefully, making each shot score, as he did when he put on a performance for an audience. Each shot went unerringly to its mark. Each time he pulled a trigger, he picked off a man. Two, three, four of them went down.

At last, only Condit and one other remained standing. Condit was no longer the old, helpless lawyer whose eyesight and memory were not so good. He was a vicious killer, seeing his whole carefully-planned murder syndicate toppling in blood about him, because of the uncanny marksmanship of one man. He had thought to trap Ed Race and Marjorie to their deaths, to seal their mouths forever. But instead, he was trapped. He was pulling his trigger as fast as he could, but his very frantic desire to cut down Ed Race spoiled his aim.

Ed, on the other hand, lined up his guns carefully, one on Condit, one on the remaining gunman. His fingers began to close smoothly on the triggers.

It was then that the other gunman gave up. He threw down his gun and yelled above the drumming gunfire, "I quit! Don't shoot!"

At the same time, in order to stop the fight, he drove a fist to Condit's temple. The blow staggered the lawyer.

Ed held his fire. He leaped forward, on to the turning platform, and slapped down with the barrel of his revolver at Condit's wrist. The lawyer dropped his automatic, gasping with pain. He raised venomous eyes to Ed, but made no further attempt at resistance.

The other gunman raised his hands high in the air. "Don't forget I helped you!" he whined. "You got to give me a break. I'll turn state's evidence."

Ed looked around the small room. His eyes narrowed as he inspected the equipment built around the three walls. There was a complete embalming table, with all necessary tools of the trade, and there was a bathtub in which smoldered a solution which could be nothing but quicklime.

"We've been bleaching the bodies in here," the gunman explained. "This is our workshop. When we got a body in, we worked all night, till we got it down to a skeleton, so we could set it up before morning. This one here—" he pointed to the one on the back of the swinging section of wall—"turned out to have two bullet holes in it, so we didn't put it on exhibition. We have the duplicate pedestal of Li Pu, in case of emergency. Every new skeleton we make, we hang it here, till we can find a niche for it in the museum. Condit here, announces that he has bought a new skeleton of some Chink or Jap, and we set it up for the public to look at."

Ed was looking a bit bewildered. He stared from the gunman, to Condit. "Now wait a minute," he said slowly. "What's the idea of taking bodies of murdered people and bleaching them into skeletons? Where's the profit?"

The gunman started to speak, but Condit interrupted him viciously. "Shut up, you fool! If you keep quiet, there'll be nothing they can do to you. But if you talk, they'll have you for extortion!"

"Extortion!" Ed exclaimed. A light glinted in his eyes. "I get it now! These are the bodies of murdered men! Victims of killers who are clients of yours, Condit! For a fee, you offer to conceal the bodies so they'll never be found. Without the body of the victim, your client can never be convicted of murder. So you take and bleach them into skeletons, and hide them, by putting them on exhibition here in the museum. In that way, you always have a hold on your client. Anytime he gets tough, or wants to quit paying you, you can produce the body!"

"Oh, hell!" the gunman said disgustedly. "What's the use? You figured it out okay. That's the racket, all right. I'm the embalmer and skeleton bleacher. Every time a new corpse came in, I'd work on it in here and Condit would bring me a meal. Tonight, I ate dinner, and then switched the wall around, so Condit could come in and pick up the tray. But the dame had to come back and notice it. We figured she'd make trouble, and maybe call you, so we had to try to kill you both."

He paused and took a deep breath. "Now you got the whole picture."

Ed nodded. He turned to Marjorie Lennox, who had come out of her private office, and was standing beside him, wide-eyed. "Better go and call some cops, Marjorie," he said drily. "And then get set for the big rush tomorrow."

"Big rush?" she repeated blankly.

He grinned, "You're going to be swamped tomorrow. Wait'll this gets in the papers. You'll be able to charge admission. Nobody cares to come and see skeletons of orientals who lived a thousand years ago. But wait till they hear that there's a museum in town with corpses on display!"


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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