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EMILE C. TEPPERMAN

DEATH'S UNDERSTUDY

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First published in The Spider magazine, December 1935

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version date: 2017-12-19
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Cover

The Spider, December 1935, with "Death's Understudy"



Ed Race couldn't say, "No!" when a friend bid for his aid—even when it meant chancing a suit of hot tar and feathers... and a grim threat of more, and deadlier, hell to come!



THE frantic telegram Ed Race, the Masked Marksman, received from Art Jennings was typical of the ex-bootleg baron:


ED RACE,
C/O PARTAGES VAUDEVILLE CIRCUIT,
NEW YORK, N.Y.

REMEMBER ART JENNINGS DID A BIG FAVOR FOR YOU IN TULSA, OKLAHOMA QUESTION MARK YOU SAID YOU WOULD DO THE SAME FOR ME SOMETIME STOP WELL THE TIME HAS COME STOP YOU ARE THE FAIR-HAIRED BOY TO DRAG ME OUT OF A TOUGH JAM STOP I AM ON THE UP AND UP IN HARMONVILLE BUT IF YOU DO NOT FRONT FOR ME I WILL BE DEAD BY MONDAY NIGHT STOP I SEE BY PAPERS YOU PLAY HARMONVILLE STARTING MONDAY STOP WELL IF YOU WANT TO SEE ART JENNINGS ALIVE AND KICKING YOU BETTER COME RIGHT OUT TO SEE ME WHEN YOU HIT TOWN STOP MY ADDRESS IS FIVE-TWO-FOUR PERRY STREET STOP SO LONG SEE YOU SOON.

ART JENNINGS


Ed Race had the telegram in his pocket when he got off the train at Harmonville Monday afternoon. He saw that his baggage was unloaded and properly marked for delivery to the Harmonville Theater. The only piece of luggage that he took with him was the small black bag that contained the four heavy forty-five caliber revolvers, similar to the two which hung in the twin holsters under his armpits.

These were the guns that he used in his juggling-and-target act, and he always carried them with him. He didn't look upon them as ordinary revolvers; he had used them every day now, for eight years, and in addition to being the means by which he made his living on the stage, they had often brought him safely out of many tight spots where the unerring response of those perfectly calibrated guns to the pressure of his trigger fingers had meant the difference between life and death.

Ed Race was the "Masked Marksman" of vaudeville fame; the man who was billed throughout the country on the Partages and affiliated circuits as: "The Man Who Can Make Guns Talk." But besides that, his insatiable craving for excitement and danger had led him into the hobby of crime detection—he held licenses to operate as a private detective in a dozen states—and many people had availed themselves of his services in the past, always without charge, just as Art Jennings was doing now.

Ed Race felt a pleasurable tingle as he strode through the station to the street. The prospect of action always raised his spirits. At the Union News Stand he bought a copy of the Harmonville Evening Star and glanced at the headlines. He had learned that the quickest way to acquaint oneself with conditions in a new town was to consult the local papers. This one certainly gave him an eyeful. The headline was smeared black across the page:


VIGILANTES STRIKE AGAIN!


The four-column spread at the left threw further light on the telegram in Ed's pocket:


Glenn Bowen, General Manager of Jennings
Gas Stations is Shot in Broad Daylight
by Black-Hooded Leader of Vigilantes!

The mysterious body of men who call themselves "The Vigilantes" are continuing their reign of terror by adding murder to their previous atrocities. The Jennings chain of gas stations seems to have become the butt of their hatred. After bombing one gas station yesterday...


ED RACE ceased reading, folded the paper and made his way out of the station. He had read enough to realize how badly Art Jennings needed him.

He got into a sedan that stood at the curb with a "For Hire" sign on the windshield and asked the driver: "How far out is 524 Perry Street?"

"About a mile and a half," the surly driver shot back. "Just outside the town."

"Let's go," Ed said. He looked out the cab window at the busy town as the driver tooled the car out of the traffic around the station, swung left into a side street. They were proceeding north, but Ed noted that they were apparently avoiding the main streets. He swung his gaze forward, past the driver's shoulder, and his eyes narrowed.

Something had seemed to be lacking, and he discovered suddenly what it was. Every public motor vehicle, he knew, was required by law to carry liability insurance, and to paste a sticker in the windshield as evidence that the insurance had been paid for the current month. There was no such sticker in the windshield of this car; moreover, Ed noted that the driver had removed the "For Hire" sign.

Ed said nothing, but he watched carefully the direction in which they were going. He saw that they were proceeding along a back street that ran parallel to the main thoroughfare of the town. By glancing down the side streets that they passed, he could catch an occasional glimpse of the traffic on the main street, only a block away.

Looking down one of these side streets, he caught sight of a large theater structure, saw the big sign which announced:


HARMONVILLE THEATER
Beginning Today—
THE MASKED MARKSMAN


A FEW blocks further on, he saw that the driver was watching him in the rear-vision mirror, and he sat back in his seat, feigning weariness by half closing his eyes. The driver stepped on the accelerator, and the car spurted forward, slowed down again once it had passed the next intersection. Ed Race's mouth tightened in a grim line. He guessed why the driver had sped past that particular corner; for his keen eyes had caught what the driver had apparently wanted him to miss—the signpost of the intersection. The name of the cross street they had just left behind was Perry Street. Ed was not being taken to the address he had given.

Soon the buildings began to thin out, until they were in a semi-country section. The streets were not graded here, and there were only one or two houses on a block.

They passed a gas station with a sign reading:


JENNINGS SERVICE STATION
Tank Up With
GOOD GAS!


THE street they were traveling along merged with another, became a paved road. Here there was another gas station, with the same sign. Ed recalled what he had heard about Art Jennings—that the retired bootlegger had moved out here, invested his money in a chain of gas stations, and that he was doing as well legitimately as he had done during prohibition.

Suddenly the driver slowed up, swung off the concrete into a dirt road, and ground along in second up a short hill. He pulled up before a frame building that was almost surrounded by tall, majestic evergreen trees. The house gave evidence of having once been the home of a wealthy person, but it was now in disrepair. The paint was gone in many spots, the walls and gable roof were weather-worn, and the grounds in front were overgrown with weeds. There was no sign of life...

Ed had moved forward in the car to one of the collapsible seats, and had put the black bag on the floor beside him. He was close to the driver's compartment now, and he said, "This isn't Perry Street, is it?"

The driver turned slowly. He was grinning and licking a small split in his lower lip.

"Maybe this ain't Perry Street, guy," he announced. "But it's where you're going—like it or not!"

At the same time, his hand came up over the partition, into view. It held a blunt-nosed automatic that was pointing at Ed. "See what I mean, guy?"


ED NODDED. "I get you." He lowered his eyes so that the other should not see his purpose. And he moved so swiftly that it was impossible to tell which of the several things he did occurred first. Daily practice on the stage—with sensitive, hair-triggered revolvers, where the deviation of a sixteenth of an inch in aim or movement might mean the failure of his act—had developed in Ed Race a supreme coordination of mind and muscle and eye which resulted in lightning-quick action.

It is certain that the driver did not see Ed's left hand sweep up until it had struck the wrist that held the automatic; nor could he possibly have followed with his eyes the blinding swiftness with which Ed's right hand traveled to and from his left armpit holster to emerge with the big forty-five that descended in a short, vicious arc to crack against the luckless driver's forehead.

The automatic exploded once harmlessly into the cushioned seat of the car, as the driver's hand tightened on it convulsively. Then he dropped it from nerveless fingers, sagged across the seat, unconscious. A thin rivulet of blood trickled from his forehead under the peaked cap, where Ed had hit him with the barrel of the revolver.

Ed's eyes were bleak, cold. He glanced swiftly toward the house, to see if anyone had taken notice of the single shot. No one appeared. He left the driver lying inert across the front seat, got out of the car and approached the house, revolver still in his hand. He didn't draw the one in the other holster because he was carrying the black bag in his left hand. The afternoon was dying, and there were shadows around the front door of the house.

Anyone but Ed Race would have gone away from there as quickly as possible. But not Ed. He had to find out what made things tick—why the driver had brought him here; what, if anything, was inside that house.

Suddenly he stopped short, tensed. A wisp of smoke was coming from the stone chimney at the north end of the house. Someone was in there, making a fire in the fireplace.

Almost at the same instant, the front door slid open a couple of inches, and the short, ugly barrel of a sawed-off shotgun yawned out at him. Ed was less than thirty feet from the doorway, and he knew what a sawed-off shotgun could do to you at that distance.

A hard voice from inside called out sharply, "You're covered, Race. Drop that gun and come inside. Don't start anything, and you won't be killed."

Ed stood taut for a moment, trying to gauge the location of the voice. If it were directly behind the door, a slug from his forty-five might reach the owner...

He gave up the idea as he saw a shadow moving behind the open window to the right of the door.

The same voice from the doorway hurried on, as if hoping to sell him an idea: "There's three of us here, Race. We're sure to get you, if you start shooting."

Ed said, "All right, you win." He bent slowly, placed the revolver on the ground. "It has a hair trigger," he explained. "If I drop it it'll go off."

The voice said, with a note of relief: "Okay, okay! Snap it up!"

Ed stood erect once more, having left the revolver at his feet. He was still holding the black bag. In the act of bending, the fingers of his left hand had worked swiftly with the catch, and now the bag was unlocked, ready to sag open the moment he released his hold on it.

He advanced slowly toward the house, noting that a second shotgun had appeared at the open window. They weren't taking any chances on him.

The door opened, revealing a darkened hallway. A grayish figure stood, half-screened by the door, holding the shotgun. Beyond, a dull glow came from a room at the left.

Ed stepped in, and the door was immediately slammed shut. A flashlight glared in his face, and the same voice directed him: "Go down the hall, and into that room, Race." The edge of nervousness was gone now; the speaker probably felt that he and his men had the upper hand.

Ed said nothing, turned and obeyed. He heard the footsteps of the one man behind him, heard him joined in a moment by another—probably the one who had been at the window.


HE reached the room from which the glow was coming, stepped inside, and stared. A man in a black hood and a flowing white garment of some sort of cloth was kneeling before the fireplace, stirring a black, thick liquid in an ordinary scrubbing pail. The pail was resting on a couple of logs that had just begun to burn.

The man in the black hood glanced up from his task, and Ed saw that the hood was slitted for eyes and mouth. The gown had a large red letter "V" embroidered in the center, over the man's chest.

Ed smiled grimly and said, "So you're the Vigilantes, eh?"

The man at the fireplace didn't answer. He turned back silently to his task of stirring the black liquid. Ed glanced across the room, saw what made his blood boil: a newspaper was spread upon the floor, and on it was a pile of chicken feathers.

The two men with the shotguns had come in, leaving the door open, and they were staring at him, not saying anything, letting the situation sink in. Ed noted that their hoods, unlike that of the man at the fireplace, were white instead of black. Finally, the one who had done the talking before said, "You get the idea, Race?"

Ed's right fist clenched at his side. He glared into the two masked faces, from which two pair of eyes peered at him through narrow, slitted holes.

"Yes," he said hotly. "I get the idea. You're three yellow-bellies that haven't got the courage to stand up and face a man—so you cover yourselves up and hide behind masks. I bet the three of you haven't got a nickel's worth of guts between you!"

For a moment, he thought that those two shotguns were going to spit death at him. The hands of the two men clenched on the stocks of the guns, and the nearest took an involuntary step forward. But the one behind him exclaimed: "Take it easy, brother. We'll have him talkin' a different tune before we're through with him. Let's tell him the story, an' then go to work."

The other nodded his hooded head. "Race," he said, "we brought you out here just to give you a little talking to, a kind of warning to leave town. But after what you did to our man outside, we're going to tar and feather you and ride you out of town. But just in case that don't teach you a lesson, I'm telling you that if you come back here, we'll kill you. Understand—we'll kill you!"

Ed bit back his anger. He wanted to find out what he could from these men. He wanted to keep them talking as long as possible, so he could observe them, notice any little things about them that would enable him to identify them later. For instance, he saw that the spokesman, the one nearest him, had a hangnail on the third finger of his right hand. If he didn't bite or cut it off, Ed would remember it when he saw him again.

He kept his eyes on them, studying their build, the way they stood, the size of their shoes. While he studied them he said, "Do you mind telling me what you have against me? To my knowledge, I don't know a soul in this town. Why—?"

"You lie!" the man with the hangnail snarled. "You're a friend of Art Jennings. He sent you a telegram to come here. Well, we don't want men like Art Jennings in this town. We've given him forty-eight hours' notice to sell out and get out, and believe me, if he isn't out by midnight, he won't get off as easy as you!"

"I see," Ed said softly, fingering the bag.

"And what's more," the other went on, "you should be thankful that we're only giving you a dose of tar and feathers instead of a dose of lead!" He turned his head slightly toward the black-hooded man at the fireplace, said almost deferentially, "What do you say, chief? Can we get started?"

The man at the fireplace looked at the pitch, got to his feet and lifted up the pail from the fireplace with a piece of cloth which he wrapped around the handle. He still said nothing—Ed thought bitterly that he was smarter than the others, for no one would be able to identify his voice later—but he nodded as if in a signal to the man with the hangnail, who jerked his gun at Ed, demanded: "Will you take your clothes off yourself, or will we do it for you?"

Ed said meekly, "Wait a minute, will you?" He transferred the black bag from his left hand to his right, under the watchful eyes of both white-hooded Vigilantes. The man with the black hood had carried the pail to the other side of the room, near the window, and was spreading the feathers out flat on the newspaper.

Suddenly, as if by accident, Ed's black bag came open, and the chamois-covered revolvers tumbled out to the floor. The eyes of both Vigilantes followed the contents automatically; and in that second, Ed's left hand flashed in and out of his right armpit holster. He pivoted so that he was sideways to them, and the heavy forty-five filled the room with the thunderous reverberation of its roar.

The two Vigilantes were hurled backward against the door as if a typhoon had struck them. They never had a chance to fire their shotguns. Ed fired twice, for the heart each time, and he never even bothered to watch for the effects of his shots. He knew those two men would be dead before they hit the floor.

He pivoted to the left on the heel of his left foot and the toe of his right, so that his gun swung in line with the third man at the other side of the room. But the third man didn't like the idea apparently, for he thrust his hands in the air and stood still, not saying a word.

Ed said, "All right, brother, take that hood off and let's see your face."

Brother started to obey reluctantly, but before he had got the string untied that held the hood in place, there came the sound of the front door banging open, and of footsteps rushing down the hall.

Ed glanced toward the doorway, saw the driver of the car—the one he had hit—appear there, flushed, bloody-faced, holding the big revolver that Ed had left on the ground outside. He was snarling, as his glance traveled from the two dead bodies on the floor in hood and gown to the tall, poised figure of Ed Race.

He swung up the big forty-five, fired at the same moment that Ed did. But the driver was not accustomed to the hair-trigger on that gun. His finger tautened on it a split second too soon, and the revolver exploded before it was quite in line with Ed's chest; the slug tore into the fireplace at Ed's left, without touching him.

Ed Race's bullet caught the driver between the eyes. His body went hurtling back into the hallway, crashed to the floor there, to the accompaniment of the thunderous echoes of the shots.

The little room was filled with smoke and noise and the stench of pitch and powder as Ed swung toward the man in the black hood. That gentleman had decided that this was no place for him. He had been standing close to the window, and now Ed caught a blur of motion, heard a smashing of glass—the hooded man had leaped head first through the closed window.

Ed saw his feet go sailing out, got a flash of brown shoes disappearing, but held his fire. He could easily have hit him, but he couldn't bring himself to shoot at an unarmed, fleeing man—even though that man had planned to tar-and-feather him.

The man had kicked over the pail of pitch in his haste, and it was oozing out over the floor. Ed ran around it, peered out into the dusk. The hooded man disappeared around the corner of the house just as Ed stuck his head out of the window. In a moment, there came the sound of a starting motor from the rear, and a car flashed out along the gravel path, careened crazily past the sedan out front, and skidded into the road, shrieking down the hill and out of sight.

Ed watched it go, smiling grimly. He could have stopped that car with a single well-placed shot at the rear tire. But he let it go. Three men dead was enough of a day's work, considering that he had been in town for less than half an hour. And he could get this one whenever he wanted to; for he had noticed something that would inevitably identify the fugitive—the hooded man had stepped in and spilled pitch as he leaped for the window, and there, plainly outlined, was the mark of a rubber heel. And there were seven little round marks in a semicircle in that heel print—the marks made by the seven small suction cups.

Ed let the car go and stooped closer to examine the print. He noted that the mark left by the third suction cup from the right was not as distinct as the others; it must have been clogged with mud or dirt. He picked up a sheet of newspaper and laid it over the print, so that it would not be disturbed by anyone who might enter; then he stepped gingerly among the bodies of the three Vigilantes, recovering his revolvers.

He put the four chamois-covered ones back in the black bag, reloaded his other two, and replaced them in their holsters. He left the bodies just as they were and went out of the house; got into the sedan and turned on the ignition key, which the driver had left there.

Slowly he drove back in the direction of the town...


NUMBER five-twenty-four Perry Street was a two-story frame, typical of a town like Harmonville. At one time, not so long ago, it had probably been surrounded by half a dozen acres of cultivated ground from which the owner had managed to raise a living. Now, however, the town had grown up around it, the business section had encroached further and further north, until the cultivated land had given way to graded streets and rows of stores.

Five-twenty-four sat about twenty feet back from the street, with another twenty feet of lawn on either side of it and a garage in the rear. Along the street on both sides were rows of stores, and cars were parked vertically at the curb. It was right around the corner from Main Street, and two blocks down was the Harmonville Theater, where Ed was booked to open that evening.

As he parked the borrowed sedan in front of Art Jennings' house, it occurred to Ed that he hadn't even notified the manager of the theater of his arrival. That would have to wait, however, until he saw Jennings.

At Ed's ring the door was not answered at once, but a small wicket which must have been especially built into the door slid open, and a face appeared—one that Ed knew. It was Lee Krane, one of the special bodyguards that Art Jennings used to take around with him wherever he went, in the old days.

Ed said, "Hello, Lee. How've you been these five years? Never mind the passwords; just let me in quick."

Lee Krane grinned through the wicket, even as he unlatched the door. "The boss will sure be glad to see you, Race. He was beginning to think you was giving him the go-by, like all the other mugs that used to 'hello' him when he was a big shot."

"I wish I had," Ed said ruefully, as he stepped in and followed Krane upstairs. "Jennings seems to be in plenty of hot water in this town."

Krane put away the heavy automatic he had been holding and clumped up the stairs. "Okay, Jake," he called up. "Tell the boss it's Mr. Race."

The room they entered fronted on the street and was equipped as an office. Near the window, Art Jennings sat at a desk littered with papers. He was about forty, bald, short and stocky. He had grown much stouter since Ed had seen him last, and he was no longer the domineering, tough genius who had built up a million-dollar-a-year bootleg organization during prohibition. Rather, he was the epitome of the small-town businessman.

Ed could hardly restrain a grin at seeing him there. He nodded to Jake, another bodyguard, who was leaning against the wall, blowing smoke rings, then he stepped over and shook hands with Jennings.

Jennings seemed nervous, fidgety. He said, "You're a white guy, Ed, to come to the front for me. Not many would do it."

Lee Krane sauntered over to the desk, chewing on a toothpick. "Well, boss," he said, "if Mr. Race don't pull us out of this jam, we might as well pack up and scram."

Jennings frowned. "Scram nothing! I never ran from anybody yet, and I ain't running from a pack of yellow Vigilantes." He got up and came around the desk. "You ought to meet these guys, Ed. They're—"

"I've met them already, thanks," Ed told him dryly. "Four of them, in an old house just outside the town. I got into a taxi at the station that must have been planted there for me, and the driver took me out there."

"Hell," exclaimed Krane. "That's why I missed you at the station. I just come back from there, thinkin' you hadn't got in yet. That's why the boss was feelin' so bad."

Jennings broke in impatiently: "What happened, Ed? How'd you get away from them?"

"I didn't. They got away from me—that is, one of them did. The other three won't ever try to tar-and-feather anybody again."

"You mean you croaked them?"

Ed nodded.

Jake, the other bodyguard, threw away his cigarette and came over. "No kidding, Mr. Race—did you smoke three of them guys just now?"

"No kidding," Ed told him. "At least, I don't think they were kidding. They looked pretty dead to me."

Lee Krane groaned. "Boy, those birds won't wait any twenty-four hours anymore. They'll gang up on us now. We're as good as cooked!"


JENNINGS glared at Krane, said to Ed, "A fine bunch of rods I got here. Since we went legitimate, they've got soft. They get the heebie-jeebies if anybody gives them a dirty look!"

Krane shuffled, lowered his eyes, and looked at the floor. "Aw, Gee, boss, we can't fight the whole town—"

"Listen," Ed broke in, "I'm in a hurry. I haven't reported at the theater yet. There are three dead men out at that house, and I'll have plenty of explaining to do when the cops find them. They'll probably turn out to be prominent citizens of the town. So suppose you give me the lowdown on what's been happening here, and why they suddenly decided they didn't want you after you've been here three years."

Art Jennings was standing close to Ed, and he had to look up to talk to him. He said savagely, "I'll tell you why they don't want me. I'm a legitimate guy, Ed. I wasn't a dope. When prohibition went by the board, I quit, paid my income tax to the government, and came out here. I had a half a million bucks cold cash, and I invested it right in this neighborhood. I built gas stations. I've got fifteen of them in a radius of thirty miles, and each one cost twenty grand to build. Everything is on the up and up. My nose is clean with the government, see? I just take these two palookas"—he gestured toward Jake and Lee—"along with me for old times' sake.

"Well, what happens?" He poked his finger in Ed's face. "I ask you—what happens?"

"I give up," Ed said. "What happens?"

"Some wise guys start eyeing my string of gas stations and try to figure a way to take 'em away from me. They form these Vigilantes and suddenly decide I ain't a model citizen. They send me this!"

He snatched up a pencil-scrawled slip of paper from his desk, thrust it at Ed. "Read it! Imagine trying to scare me—Art Jennings—with stuff like that!"

Ed took the note, scanned it:


Jennings:

This is a clean town. We don't want carrion like you. We don't want you living in this town, or doing business in this town. You have twenty-four hours to sell out and get out. A word to the wise is sufficient!

The Vigilantes.


ED finished reading, looked at Jennings and grinned. "So they couldn't scare you, Art? Only you sent me a telegram that sounded like you were green in the gills!"

Jennings shook his head. "It wasn't the note that scared me, Ed. I took the note to Captain Smiley at headquarters. He said he'd investigate, but it would be pretty hopeless to find out who the Vigilantes were. All right. I sat tight. So yesterday they bombed one of my stations, and they knocked off Bowen. Bowen was my best man—worth both of these. I would almost have stacked him up against you. Well, they knocked him off."

Jake spat and said, "The dirty so-and-so's! They shot him in the back!"

Jennings went on. "Well, it began to look like we didn't have a chance. How could we protect fifteen gas stations? So I went down to old man Drayton at the bank and asked him could he get me a buyer. Sure, he could get me a buyer—" Jennings spat out the words—"fifty grand he could get me, for a chain of stations that cost close to half a million! Do you get the idea, Ed? They're riding me!"

Ed's eyes wore a faraway expression. "Did you say the name of the man at the bank was Drayton? What's his first name?"

"John Drayton," Jennings told him. "His son—say!" He snapped his fingers suddenly. "I never thought of that—his son is Paul Drayton, the manager of the Harmonville Theater!"

"And did Drayton tell you the name of the customer he could get who was willing to pay you the fifty thousand?"

"No. But he said he had a letter from a lawyer in New York, authorizing him to offer that amount." Jennings' eyes were shining eagerly. "You see, Ed, it all looks like a plan to freeze me out of here."

Lee Krane broke in, saying, "Listen, boss, what're we going to do now? Those vigilante birds will be out to get square for the three guys Mr. Race bumped off—"

Ed stopped him impatiently. "Quit the croaking, Lee. The worst that can happen to you is to get killed." He went on, addressing Jennings. "I still don't see why you had to get panicky and wire me. The police ought to be able to give you plenty of protection." He sighed wearily. "But now I'm in it. I suppose the Vigilantes won't give me any peace, either." He picked up his black bag, started for the door.

"Where you going?" Jennings asked anxiously.

"Over to the theater," Ed told him. "I'll report to Drayton and see what I can find out from him about his old man. You stick close to the house here, and don't let anyone in."

Jennings came after him, held on to his sleeve. "Look, Ed, I'm worried about you. You're lightning with guns, but you can't stop a bullet in the back. Let me send one of these palookas with you. They're not much good, but they'll do in a pinch."

Ed hesitated, studied Jake and Lee somberly. "All right," he said suddenly. "I'll take Lee Krane, and leave Jake with you. I might need somebody to back up my play."

Lee Krane said, "If you think I'm yellow, Mr. Race, you just wait and see. I'll blast the guts outta them Vigilantes!"

They left Jennings and Jake upstairs, made their way outside to the street.

Ed said, "We'll walk to the theater. The police may have the number of that sedan."

Ed kept his eyes peeled on the way down Main Street. Krane walked beside him with his hand in his jacket pocket all the time. But no one molested them.

At the theater, Krane glanced up at the electric light sign in the marquee which read:


TONIGHT—THE MASKED MARKSMAN
SPECIAL ENGAGEMENT FOR ONE WEEK


HE said, admiringly, "You got what it takes, Mr. Race. There ain't anybody I know could shoot out them candles on the stage the way you do. How's it feel to be a vaudeville star?"

Ed grunted. "Damned inconvenient—when your friends keep getting you in trouble." He led the way around the corner to the stage entrance, nodded to the doorman.

"I'm Ed Race," he said, showing his identification card for the Partages Circuit.

The doorman glanced at the card, looked queerly at Ed. "Mr. Drayton didn't think you'd show up," he told Ed. "You better go right up to the office and see him. I think he wants to talk to you."

Ed shrugged and went through, with Krane at his heels. He crossed backstage, nodding to several actors whom he knew, who were already there for rehearsal. Many of these people he hadn't seen for years. The Harmonville Theater was part of a second-class chain, and Ed had never played here before. He had been switched to this booking because the business of the theater had fallen off considerably in the last few months, and the canny Leon Partages had thought that a star act like Ed's might revive it.

The manager's office was upstairs on the balcony floor. Ed gave the black bag to Lee Krane and said, "Wait for me out here. I want to talk to Drayton in private." He knocked at the door and entered without waiting.

Drayton was a small man, with spare, mouselike hair and weak blue eyes. He was in the act of getting up from his desk when Ed stepped in and said, "I'm Race. You wanted to see me?"

Drayton stared at him, blinking for a moment, then said haltingly, "Glad to know you, Mr. Race. I've heard a lot about you."

Ed waited, silent, studying him.

Drayton fidgeted, picked up a paper from the desk. "About your billing here, Mr. Race—I—er—" He hesitated, then rushed on: "I'm having your engagement canceled. You can't appear!"

Ed frowned, came closer to the desk. "Why not?" he rapped.

For answer, Drayton gave him the paper he had taken from the desk. "I—I got this a little while ago. It was left at the box office by a messenger boy."


ED took the paper, stared at it. It was written in the same kind of pencil scrawl as the note that Jennings had:


Paul Drayton:

We don't like to hurt you because you've lived in this town a long time. But you better do what we tell you. Ed Race, the one who does the Masked Marksman act, is billed to appear this week. Well, we don't want him. You cancel his act and send him back where he came from. If you don't you'll have plenty of trouble—Race won't live till morning, and you won't have any theater left to run.

The Vigilantes.


ED gave the letter back to Drayton. "Who are the Vigilantes?" he drawled.

Drayton looked scared. "I swear I don't know, Race. Their leader never says a word—he lets the others do the talking. He wears a black hood instead of a white one like the others. He fired the shot that killed Bowen. Nobody knows whether his neighbor is a Vigilante or not."

Ed looked thoughtful. "I think," he said slowly, "that I'll be able to lay my hands on that black-hooded leader. He got away from me once, but he left something behind."

Drayton asked eagerly, "What—" He stopped as a knock sounded.

Ed swung around, facing the door, his right hand caressing the knot of his tie, where it was not far from his shoulder holster. "Come in," he called.

The door opened, and a stocky man in a dark blue suit entered. He stared sharply at Ed from under his bushy gray brows, then demanded of Drayton: "Who's this?"

Drayton gulped, said, "Captain Smiley—this is Ed Race."

Ed looked past the accompanying detective sergeant, saw Lee Krane outside the open door, peering in. He called out, "Come on in, Lee. I might be a while—it looks like a conference."

The detective sergeant barred the doorway, glanced for instruction to Captain Smiley. The captain frowned, but nodded, and the sergeant stood aside for Krane to enter, then closed the door behind him and stationed himself with his back to it.

Lee Krane shuffled from one foot to the other in the presence of the police captain, and glanced suspiciously at Drayton.

Captain Smiley turned to Ed. "You killed three men a little while ago."

Drayton uttered a startled gasp, swung wide-eyed to look at Ed. "My God, Race! You shot the Vigilantes?"

Ed paid no attention to him, but asked Smiley, "How did you hear so quick?"

"Somebody phoned headquarters and reported it. I've just come from there."

Ed said coldly, "They were Vigilantes. They kidnapped me, had tar and feathers ready. They were all armed. The police department of Harmonville wasn't doing me any good, so I had to defend—"

Smiley raised his hand. "Just a minute, Race—don't get the wrong idea. I'm not arresting you, or asking for an explanation. You see, we've checked the fingerprints of those three men, and it looks as if the federal government owes you a vote of thanks—as well as a little reward. Those three yeggs belonged to the Costello gang, which the police of a dozen states have been hunting—the ones that kidnapped August Lemmerer in nineteen-thirty-three!"

Drayton exclaimed: "Then—then they're not—Harmonville men? They—"

"They weren't real Vigilantes," Ed told him. "They were imported gunmen, who were brought here for the sole purpose of driving Art Jennings to sell his gas-station holdings."

Smiley nodded in agreement. "That's how we figure it. But we don't know who their leader is—the one who wears the black hood. He's the boy that we'd like to lay our hands on. With him still at large, Art Jennings will never be safe. It's easy to get more gunmen—"

"How about working from the New York end?" Ed asked him. "The lawyer who made the offer to Drayton's father at the bank—"

"We've already asked New York to check on that. It's a blank wall. The lawyer refuses to talk; he says his client's name is confidential. But we've got something else to work on."

Drayton took an involuntary step forward as Smiley went on: "The leader of these so-called Vigilantes checked his hood and gown in a parcel in one of the automatic lockers at the railroad station. But he was careless. He must have slammed the door of the locker and gone away without making sure it was locked. The station attendant noticed it, and took the parcel out. We have a standing rule here that whenever a locker is opened the contents must be examined by the police. Sometimes stolen goods are left in them."

Ed exclaimed, "And that parcel contained the hood and cloak?"

Smiley nodded. "If we should get our hands on the leader, the thing that would convict him would be the key to that locker. He'd probably have it still."

"Another thing that will convict him," Ed said, "is his heel mark. He left the mark of his heel in the pitch out there, in that house where they took me. He got away while I was shooting it out with the others. It was probably he that phoned you, thinking I'd be held for a while."

"I saw that," Smiley said, "and had it photographed. It might have been yours."

"All right," Ed told him. "Take a look." He half-turned, raised first one heel, then the other."

"That settles it," Captain Smiley said.

"Now," Ed went on, "I suggest you take a look at the heels of everybody that might have an interest in buying out Art Jennings. You might start with us."

Drayton flushed. "Just because my dad had that offer from the lawyer—"

"If you're not the man we want," Ed said coldly, "you won't mind showing us."

"All right," Drayton yielded. "If it'll give you any satisfaction—" He turned and lifted his feet as Ed had done a moment ago. His heels did not have suction caps. They were flat, worn down.

Ed said, "I didn't expect that your heels would match that print. Your shoes are black; the hooded man's were brown."

"He might have changed his shoes," Captain Smiley said doubtfully.

"I didn't!" Drayton protested. "And if you want to search me for that locker key, you can do that, too!"

Ed put a hand on his shoulder. "It's all right, Drayton. I'm sure you're not the man. The leader of those Vigilantes is someone who has New York connections, who could recruit gunmen."

His eyes rested speculatively on Lee Krane. "How about you, Lee? You know a lot of rodmen. You might have been the one to plan a thing like this."

Lee Krane grinned. "You can take a look at my shoes any time, Mr. Race." He turned around, raised his heel slowly. But he did not complete the movement. Suddenly he seemed to stumble, recovered his balance, and came erect facing them, snarling viciously, with the blunt-nosed automatic in his hand.

Drayton uttered a gasp of dismay, cowered back from the murderous gleam in Krane's eyes. Captain Smiley and the sergeant were caught cold.

Ed Race, however, had plunged into action almost at the moment that Krane swung around. He plunged to the floor on his hands and knees, then sank prone, rolled over once and struck Krane's legs.

Krane, who had not entirely recovered his balance after swinging around, went staggering backward against the wall. He lowered the muzzle of his automatic to fire into Ed Race's body on the floor at his feet. But Ed's revolver was already out of its holster, and its deep-toned roar filled the room, echoing outside through the theater. The shot traveled upward, tore through the top of Krane's head.

Ed rolled free of Krane's falling body, got to his feet and stared at the others.

Smiley exclaimed: "God! That was quick. I've never seen a man move so fast in my life!"

Ed said, "If you had to practice twice a day on the stage, you'd be fast, too." He pointed down at the twisted, gory body of Krane. "There's your Vigilante leader. Look at his shoes. No wonder he didn't want to show them!"

Smiley knelt and examined the heels. "You're right, Race! There's the suction cups, and there's the one that's caked with mud. This is the heel that left the impression in that pitch!"

Ed nodded and said bitterly, "Yes. Art Jennings' own bodyguard. Krane had the connection in New York, and he got those gangsters to come here and pose as Vigilantes. He probably got some shyster lawyer in New York to make that offer of fifty thousand. He was using the money that he had made from Art Jennings to buy out his boss!"

"It looks," Captain Smiley said slowly, "as if this is the end of the Vigilante scare in Harmonville. I guess Jennings will be happy to hear it when you tell him."

"You can go and tell him, Cap," Ed said. "I've got to rehearse for tonight's show." He added: "And listen—try to keep my name out of the paper, will you? If Mr. Partages hears that I've been giving some more free shooting exhibitions, he'll fire me off the circuit!"


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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