Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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Those Jordane killers set out to ruin Blountsville's first citizen, and kill his only son, to boot, but overlooked one little detail. Ed Race, the Masked Marksman, was performing hair-trigger tricks at the local theater—and was more than willing to give those thugs a command performance!
ED RACE stopped stock-still, every nerve taut, every muscle alert. The kid—he was hardly more than nineteen at the outside —had slipped out of the shadows of the alley between two dark warehouses, and the gun he pointed at Ed seemed to be doing a parabola in the air.
"Lift up your hands," the kid ordered. "I want your money!"
Ed was poised on the balls of his feet, hands half-raised, on a level with the two .45 caliber revolvers that nestled in his own shoulder-clips—.45's that could do him no good now, for the kid's gun muzzle was less than six inches from his chest. And, though the kid's hand was shaking as with the ague, there wasn't a chance in ten million that he could miss if he fired.
"You're pretty young," Ed said mildly, "to be pulling stuff like this. You could get thirty years—"
"Never mind!" the kid snarled. He poked the gun closer. "Stand still. I'd just as soon plug you as not. They want me for murder already. They can't hang me twice!"
The young fellow had no jacket, and no necktie. His once white shirt was filthy, and a downy stubble of blond beard showed on his chin. His hair was matted, and there was a deep, open gash in his right cheek, from which fresh blood was still trickling.
Ed's eyes narrowed. He watched the kid's eyes. They were desperate. This youngster would surely shoot. Yet Ed Race couldn't afford to allow himself to be held up this way. It would ruin him, make him the laughingstock of the vaudeville circuits and of the wiseacre columnists back in New York.
Ed Race was the masked marksman of vaudeville fame. Throughout the country he was billed wherever he appeared, as "The Man Who Can Make Guns Talk!" His vaudeville number consisted of an acrobatic juggling act in which he used six hair-trigger .45 caliber revolvers instead of the usual dumb-bells. His feats of marksmanship with them generally left the audience goggling with admiration. Two of those hair-trigger revolvers were in his shoulder-clips now. He could imagine how they would laugh along the Main Stem, when the news got out that Ed Race had been held up by a kid with a gun!
And if the kid should take his two revolvers in addition to his wallet, that would be the crowning indignity—because Ed needed those two guns to go on with his performance at the Blountsville Theater tomorrow.
The kid's finger was curled about the trigger of the gun, and the gun was still wavering in the air, close to Ed's chest. With his left hand the kid reached toward Ed's breast pocket.
"Is this where you keep your money?" he demanded. "Better hand—"
"Wait a minute!" Ed broke in. The light from the single street lamp down at the corner had just given him a deep glimpse into the young fellow's eyes, and he had seen there only innocence and wild desperation. They were clear blue, not vicious, not scheming or shrewd.
"Did you say you're wanted for murder?"
The boy's lips pouted, and he momentarily lowered his eyes. "Yes," he whispered. "And I'll kill again if I have to."
Ed smiled suddenly. He knew human nature all too well. The kid was lying. "I'm not giving you my wallet!" he said deliberately. "Now let's see what kind of cold-blooded murderer you are. Pull that trigger!"
ED was taut, cold with suspense. He was gambling his life on his judgment. These were the things that made life worth while to Ed Race—excitement, peril, high risk. His vaudeville contract brought him enough money so that he did not have to worry for the rest of his life. But that restless something that has made adventurers of men in all the ages of the world, would not let him be content. Ed needed danger and thrill as other men need food. In search of that element of risk, Ed Race had found himself an avocation—that of criminology. He was licensed in a dozen states as a private detective, and he had often used those licenses in sharp encounters with crime. If his experience qualified him as a judge of criminals then he was ready to stake his life that this lad was no murderer.
The boy hesitated for the fraction of a second. His finger tightened on the trigger of the gun that was pointed at Ed's chest. Ed could almost feel the white-hot streak of the slug that would tear through him if the kid's finger tightened a sixteenth of an inch.
But it didn't tighten.
Abruptly, the boy uttered a choked groan that was more like a muted sob of hopelessness. His finger uncurled from the trigger, and he lowered the gun.
"I—I can't!" he sobbed. "I—can't!"
He flung the gun from him, and covered his face with his hands. The gun clattered on the cold concrete, making a terrifically loud noise in the stillness of the deserted street. And just then the sound of screeching tires came from around the corner.
The lad looked up in alarm, tears streaking his cheeks. He glanced at Ed. "It's a police car! For God's sake, mister, don't let them get me. They won't give me a chance—"
He stopped, his eyes widening, as an open car swung into the riverfront street. The car's spotlight bathed both Ed and the boy in its merciless glare. A voice shouted, "There's the Blount kid! Shoot him down!"
The two occupants of the patrol car were not in uniform, but the street lamp showed the glitter of their police badges, pinned to the outside of their coats. Ed had gathered from the lad's incoherent remarks that he was being hunted. Perhaps he had escaped from custody.
It was the driver who had shouted the order to shoot the boy down. The second man in the car held a sub-machine gun, and he raised the weapon to obey the command.
Ed's lips tightened in a grim line. Those officers could plainly see that the boy was unarmed. Yet they were ready to cut him down without giving him a chance to surrender. Also, in the process, they would shoot down Ed Race. Manifestly, they preferred to bring this boy in dead rather than alive.
The car had come to a stop within twenty feet of them, and the sub-machine gun was raised halfway to the officer's shoulder. Ed Race could see the man's cold, ruthless eyes over the sights.
The boy screamed, "Don't shoot! I—"
Ed didn't wait for the lad to make his plea. He knew that no plea would help. He could read the deadly determination in the officers' faces.
On the stage, when performing with his heavy .45's, the Masked Marksman always astounded his audiences with the swift, symphonic sureness of his movements. Now he swung into action with that same lightning swiftness. The motion of his two hands was so fast that no human eyes could have followed them. But suddenly, miraculously, the two .45's leaped from their shoulder-clips as if released by springs.
The left hand gun remained upright in the air, while the right hand one leveled, and roared once. The big gun bucked in Ed's hand as flame spat from its muzzle. A slug whined, and the officer with the sub-machine gun seemed to have been slapped backward by a mighty tornado of wind.
The reverberation of the shot echoed back along the riverfront, drowning the officer's scream. The sub-machine gun dropped from numbed fingers, and the man clapped a hand to his shoulder, his face gone suddenly white with pain. Ed had shot him just where he wanted to—high in the shoulder.
The man at the wheel was struggling to get his own gun, and Ed called to him coldly, "Don't try it, mister!"
The fellow dropped his hand.
THE boy was sweating profusely, staring with wide, almost unbelieving eyes at the little trickle of smoke from Ed's revolver muzzle. "You shot him!" he kept saying. "You shot—" His voice was shaky.
Ed nodded grimly. "It was either that, or get shot, myself. There's something wrong with this set-up, kid. I've never seen police officers so quick to shoot down an unarmed man. Let's look them over quick—before more of them come."
He stepped swiftly toward the car, keeping the driver covered. The wounded man was groaning, pressing a handkerchief against his bloody shoulder.
"Don't worry," Ed Race told him. "You won't die of that."
The driver of the car snarled at him; "Mister, you walked into something. Your life won't be worth two cents in Blountsville after this!"
Ed grinned at him. "Thanks for the warning. Now let's take a look at that badge!"
He reached across the wounded man, unpinned the driver's badge, and held it up where the light shone on it. He nodded grimly.
"Just as I thought. I knew you weren't police officers!"
The badge read, Jordane Detective Agency, Blountsville, Operator 17.
"You see, kid," he said to the lad, who was peering over his shoulder, "they're just rats. No decent policeman would shoot down a man without a gun."
The kid gasped, "I knew it, I knew it! King Jordane wants to wipe out our whole family!"
"What's your name, kid?" Ed demanded.
"Okay, Freddie. I think you need a friend. Here"—he holstered one of his guns, and reached into his pocket, pulled out a wad of bills—"here's the money you wanted. Did you have a particular place to go to?"
Freddie Blount took the money with a shaking hand. "Y-yes. I was going to—"
"Don't say it in front of these eggs!" Ed snapped. He backed away, out of earshot, still keeping the driver of the car covered, while the wounded man continued to groan.
"Now, tell me."
"My father owns a small hotel about four miles out on the state highway. I could get in the back way, and hide in the cellar—"
"What's the name of this hotel?"
"All right. Can you drive?"
Ed nodded. "Fine." He waved his gun at the car. "Will you gentlemen kindly get out of there?"
The driver hesitated, and Ed said coldly; "The two of you are a couple of rats, and I'd enjoy putting a nice slug in you, to match the one in your pal's shoulder. Now, move fast!"
THEY believed him. The driver helped his companion out to the sidewalk, and Ed motioned the boy into the car, then got in beside him, being careful not to touch the spots where blood from the wounded man's shoulder had dripped on the seat. He reached out, thrust his hand under the driver's coat, and took out the man's gun. "All right, Freddie," he said. "Let's go!"
Freddie shot the gear into first, pulled the car away. The street was still deserted. No one had come at the sound of Ed's shot. If anyone had heard it, it had probably been mistaken for the backfire of an automobile.
"Drop me off at the next corner," Ed ordered. "Go to that hotel, and stay there till you hear from me. I'm going to find out what's at the bottom of all this."
The boy's hands tightened on the wheel. "Y-you're going to help me?"
"B-but you don't even know me. And I'm wanted for murder. You're in trouble already. Jordane is powerful in Blountsville. He'll scour the city for you. And if you help me, you'll be an accessory after the fact—to murder!"
"Tell me one thing, kid," Ed asked quietly. "Are you guilty of murder?"
"God," Freddie Blount gulped. "I—don't know!"
They were at the edge of town now, and heading for the open road. "Drive on," Ed told him. "I'll take the car back from the hotel, so they won't trace you."
Sirens were screaming in the town behind them. Soon the manhunt would be on in earnest.
"Now talk fast," Ed said to the boy. "Tell me the whole thing from the beginning."
"All right." Freddie kept his hands tight on the wheel, his eyes on the road ahead. Ed might have taken the wheel, but he thought that the effort of driving would serve to steady the lad's nerves. "Go ahead with the story," he encouraged him.
"Well, my father once owned all of Blountsville, practically. He's Harold Blount, you know."
Ed Race drew in a sharp breath. He might have guessed it when he first heard Freddie's name. He, himself, the Masked Marksman, was scheduled to appear at the Blount Theater tomorrow. He had met Harold Blount earlier in the day, as well as Blount's pretty young daughter, Mary. Both of them had appeared overwrought, in the grip of some deep emotion. But Ed had not tried, then, to pry into their trouble. It was this business of Freddie's that must have been preying on their minds.
FREDDIE BLOUNT was going on with the story. "Dad lost almost everything in the crash, and a syndicate from New York bought him up. All he had left was the Blount Theater, and the hotel out here. King Jordane moved into town shortly after that, and he's been running Blountsville to suit himself. He hates Dad, because Dad has been fighting him for years; and he's trying hard to break Dad, to take the theater from him."
"Snap it up!" Ed commanded. "Get down to cases. What about this murder charge?"
Freddie shuddered. "I was an awful fool!" he groaned. "I've been playing the dice table at Larkey's Place, on Maxwell Street. Jordane owns it, and I should have known better. That's one of the reasons why Dad's been fighting Jordane. Well, I got into an argument with the houseman at the table, and I knocked him down. He got up, going for his gun, and some one pushed a revolver into my hand. I didn't want to shoot, but the fellow who handed me the revolver squeezed my hand, and the gun went off. The houseman doubled up, and dropped to the floor, and then the lights went out. Some one hustled me out of the place, and I found myself in the street. I was dazed, and I didn't know what to do first, so I went home. When I got there, they were waiting for me. They took me to jail, charged with murder."
"I see," Ed said thoughtfully. "And you broke out?"
"Yes. I was arrested yesterday. This evening I learned that the body of the houseman who was killed, had disappeared. They're looking for his body all over the city; but I understand they wouldn't even need the body to try me for murder. There are plenty of witnesses who saw the houseman drop, and my lawyer tells me that would constitute a corpus delicti. Besides, Jordane owns the town, and he could pack a jury. I'd be sure to hang. So tonight, when I found my cell door had been left open by accident, I stole out. They had me in a separate wing, and the guard must have gone out for a minute. Nobody stopped me. I found a gun lying on the table in the office, so I took it. You know what happened after that."
Ed Race was frowning. "The body disappeared, eh? And they opened the door for you, so you could escape? You know, Freddie, they wanted you to escape—so they could shoot you down when they found you!"
Freddie Blount gasped. "I never thought of that!"
The bright headlights of the car picked up the outline of a white-painted, Colonial building, some two hundred feet back from the road.
"That's the hotel," Freddie said. "It's closed now, but I can get in."
"All right. Pull up here, and get out. How will I be able to reach you?"
"The place is closed up, but there's a public telephone in the lobby. Information will give you the number."
"Okay. Stick close to that phone."
Freddie Blount delayed getting out of the car. "Y-you've been pretty good to me—considering that you're a stranger. And I don't even know your name—"
"We're not exactly strangers, Freddie," Ed said softly. "You see, I know your old man. He used to have a small circuit of vaudeville theaters, years ago, and it was he who gave me my first start in the show business. I'm Ed Race."
Freddie Blount's eyes opened wide. "Why, sure! I've heard Dad mention your name many times. The Masked Marksman! That explains how you beat that tommy-gun!"
Ed pushed him gently out of the car. "Scram, kid. I've got work to do tonight. There's one thing more I'd like to know. What was the name of this houseman at Larkey's that you are supposed to have shot?"
"I don't know his last name. But they called him Pinky."
"Pinky? Was he a stocky chap, black pompadour, pink cheeks, bad teeth?"
"That's him, Mr. Race!"
Ed nodded. "Pinky Snell—one of the crookedest rats in the gambling racket. Larkey is a New York crook, too. Looks like your friend, Jordane, has brought in a bunch of big-timers to take Blountsville over!"
"Y-you think you can do something, Mr. Race?"
"I hope so. I'm going to stop at the theater and tell your Dad that you're still okay. And I want some information from him. Stick close to the phone in there!"
Ed turned the car around in the road, and headed back toward town.
BLOUNTSVILLE was a town of about eighteen thousand population, and its single main thoroughfare ran east and west, at right angles to the highway, which bisected the town. The Blount family had owned most of the town from its early days, when Abner Blount had opened the first general store to take care of the trade that came down the river from St. Louis. Later, the railroad, coming in, had given the town a second lease on life, and many manufacturing establishments had opened up here.
Ordinarily, Ed Race did not play a location as small as this, but the Partages Vaudeville Circuit, for which he worked, had found it necessary to fill in with a week or two in second-rate spots rather than bring Ed back to New York.
Now, Ed could see the Blount Theater, at the corner of Maxwell and Post. It was past midnight, and most of the lights were out along the street. The Blount ran a Sunday motion-picture show, because vaudeville was forbidden on Sunday by local ordinance. The last of the patrons were filing out, and the porter was up on a ladder alongside the marquee, setting up the signs for next week's show.
As Ed parked, he could read the words the man had already set up —
THE MASKED MARKSMAN
"THE MAN WHO CAN MAKE GUNS TALK"
THEY were billing him as the star attraction for the week. But there was a far greater attraction going on under the very noses of Blountsville—the drama of a young man being railroaded for murder, and of an old man being shoved out of the last of his family possessions by a ruthless crowd from the big city, led by a man with no mercy—King Jordane.
Ed Race had never met King Jordane personally, but he had heard many stories about the man. His lips pursed tightly. Jordane had the reputation of being dangerous and brave—and without conscience. He seemed to be riding in the saddle here in Blountsville. Ed wondered whether he, himself, was not setting out to buck a combination that might be just a little too big to handle.
He left the car, and entered the darkened theater, taking the stairs to the balcony floor, where he knew the office was located.
The place was dark, gloomy. The cleaning women had not come yet, and the last of the patrons had departed. The motion-picture operator had closed his booth and left. A streak of light came from under the office door, which was almost directly beneath the booth.
The sounds of low-voiced conversation came to Ed through the door. He raised a hand and knocked, and the voices ceased. There was a moment of silence, then a man called out, "Come!"
Ed frowned. That was not the voice of Harold Blount. Also, there was an edge to that voice which he did not like. He put a hand on the knob, turned it and thrust, at the same time raising his right hand so that his fingers touched the butt of the revolver under his left armpit.
He pushed the door open, himself remaining on the outside. The door swung away from him, revealing three persons in the office within. One was young Mary Blount, sitting behind the desk in the corner, with her white hands flat on the glass top. Her face was flushed, her breasts rising and falling swiftly with the strain of great emotion.
Ed spared her only a glance. His eyes focused on the two masked men, with drawn guns, who were facing the doorway. One of them was squat, heavily built; the other was tall, lithe. They both wore slouch hats, with masks that covered their faces from hat-brim to chin. The squat one held a leather satchel under one arm, while his gun pointed unwaveringly at Ed Race. The taller one kept Mary Blount covered.
The squat man said sneeringly: "Hell, it's Ed Race in person! Glad I got the drop on you this time. Come on in, and be sociable."
Ed did not move his hand from its position touching the butt of his gun. Slowly, his eyes bleak, he entered the room.
THE tall man grunted, walked around in back of the squat one, and kicked the door shut. The squat man spoke again. "We was just leaving, Race. Be good now, an' don't pull that gun of yours. No matter how fast you are, I could put a slug in your heart before you got it out!"
Ed's eyes burned into the mask. "I know you," he said deliberately. "You're—"
The taller man swiveled toward him, thrust out his gun. "You say that name, and I'll kill you!"
Ed shrugged. "I don't have to say it. I know it. And I see you're up to a little stick-up business." His eyes flicked to the leather wallet under the arm of the squat man, whose name he had been about to mention. "What's in there—the day's proceeds of the Blount Theater?"
"Yeah," said the squat man. "And it's too bad that you had to poke your nose in this. You say you know me. Well, take a tip, Race, and keep it to yourself. Forget you thought you knew me, see? You'll live longer!"
Throughout all this, Mary Blount had sat quietly, her eyes fixed on Ed Race. Her lips were trembling, as if she wanted to tell him something, but did not dare.
"Just a minute, my friends," Ed said mildly. "Don't go yet. I'm sorry, but I can't let you leave with that money. It's my guess that Miss Blount here was going to use the money to hire lawyers and so forth, for the defense of her brother. She needs the money, and it's going to stay here. You boys know me. I'm the Masked Marksman. If you've ever seen me on the stage, you know that I can draw a gun pretty fast."
Both men hesitated. Every word that Ed Race had said was true. They had only to pull the triggers of their guns to drill Ed Race. But they had both seen the Masked Marksman on the stage. They had both heard of the exploits of Ed Race off the stage. And they knew that he would surely get one of them.
The squat man's eyes plainly showed his fear.
The taller man reached a decision first. He glanced at Mary Blount. "Miss Blount," he said, "tell this fool not to interfere!"
Ed did not see Mary's face, but he heard her swallow audibly. After a second's hesitation, her voice came huskily.
"It—it's all right, Mr. Race. P-please let them go."
"Let them go!" Ed exclaimed incredulously. "With the money? Oh, no. That money belongs to the theater. Where's your father?"
"He—he's home sick. He—he had a stroke tonight. And it's all right about the money. I—I gave it to them!"
"I—gave them the satchel of money. And now, please let them go."
Ed's mind worked swiftly, puzzledly. She was lying, of course. These men had robbed her of the day's proceeds. They were masked. And the squat man...
Suddenly, Ed smiled. "Okay, Miss Blount, if you say so. It's your money." He shrugged, let his hand drop.
An audible sigh of relief came from under the mask of the squat fellow.
"An' now, Race, if you wanna be smart, forget what you said about knowin' me. You was mistaken, see?"
The taller one got the door open, and they backed out.
Ed swung on Mary Blount. "Why did you say that you had given them the money?" he demanded.
She was sobbing out loud now. "I—I had to. That tall man was King Jordane, himself. He told me my brother, Freddie, escaped from jail. And Jordane's operatives have been deputized by the sheriff. They have orders to shoot Freddie on sight. Jordane promised to countermand the order, if I didn't raise any trouble about the money—"
"Your brother is safe!" Ed broke in harshly.
He swung to the door, tore it open. The balcony was in darkness. He could hear the heavy tread of the two fleeing men as they sped down the stairs.
ED LEAPED after them. He rounded the first bend in the stairs, saw them both below, making for the side door.
They raised their guns, and flame spurted from both muzzles. Ed was moving fast, and the slugs whistled past him, whining in his ears. His own two guns came out even as he ran, and he fired from the hip, once with each gun.
Almost in unison, both men were hurled backward against the paneling of the fire-door. Their guns dropped, their hands waved wildly, and they collapsed. He reached the orchestra floor, ran toward the two inert bodies, with the thunderous reverberations of the shooting still ringing in his ears.
A police whistle was shrilling outside, as he knelt beside them.
Mary Blount came running down the stairs, stood beside him.
"Y-you've killed them both! But now Freddie—they'll shoot Freddie on sight—"
She was interrupted by the arrival of the patrolman on the beat, who came barging in, still red in the face from blowing his whistle. He saw the bodies.
"Robbers, huh?" he commented. "Who shot them?"
"I did," Ed said.
The patrolman glanced up at him, then knelt and removed the masks. He whistled. "Holy mackerel! This is King Jordane, himself!"
"And the other," Ed told him slowly, "is really a chap who died twice. Take his mask off."
The patrolman frowned, pulled the mask off the squat man. The officer shook his head. "Don't recognize him."
Ed grinned thinly. "That's the corpse that disappeared—Pinky Snell, in person. That's the man whom Freddie Blount is accused of murdering!"
The officer got to his feet, a dazed look in his face. "Then Freddie Blount didn't kill no one?"
"That's the idea, officer. They were keeping Pinky Snell out of the way, till they could catch Freddie and shoot him. Their idea was to kill him while he was still a fugitive from justice. That would make his killing legal. Afterward, it wouldn't matter if Pinky Snell returned to the land of the living; Freddie Blount would be dead! They planned it all."
Mary Blount, behind Ed, uttered a gasp. "T-then it was all framed up—the fight in Larkey's and the shooting?"
"Of course. They wanted a legal excuse for killing Freddie. And by relieving you of the day's proceeds here, they knew they'd put you in a hole, so you'd have to borrow money. They could take the theater away from your father, and King Jordane would own the whole town!"
"Glory be!" exclaimed the cop. "I don't know your name, mister, but every honest cop in Blountsville will be thankin' ye!"
"The name," Ed said with a smile, "is the Masked Marksman. Come and see the show tomorrow night—with the compliments of the house!"