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EMILE C. TEPPERMAN

PRIVATE PERFORMANCE—FOR DEATH!

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First published in The Spider magazine, July 1942

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version date: 2017-02-21
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Cover

The Spider, July 1942, with "Private Performance—For Death!"



WHEN Ed Race thrilled a vaudeville audience with his multiple revolver wizardry, he was the only man in the act wearing a mask—for he was billed as "The Masked Marksman." But that night behind the flimsy country jail, as the lynchers placed the rope on the neck of an innocent man, Ed Race matched his two .45's against three-score of gunmen, all masked—and all shooting to kill!



THE girl driving the green coupe seemed bent on making time. Ed Race had kept her yellow hair in sight for almost ten miles, his speedometer needle hovering around eighty. She barely slowed down on the curves, and Ed could see that she was sitting hunched forward over the wheel, as if her very life depended on speed.

Ed himself was in no particular rush. It was Saturday night, and he had completed a one-week engagement at the Partages Theatre in Eltonville. He was on his way to Kenville, only fifty miles distant, where he was scheduled to open on Monday. He had all night, and all day Sunday ahead of him, without anything exciting on the calendar. So the girl's frantic haste intrigued him.

But when she hit eighty-five, then ninety, Ed decided there was a limit. There was no sense in risking a wreck, when cars were so difficult to replace. He slowed down, and let the green coupe pull out of sight in the darkness.

He passed by a gas station closed for the night because of the gasoline curfew, and approached a curve in the road.

It was then that he heard the two shots from somewhere up ahead on the road. They had a whining sound, like the shots of a high-powered rifle, and they were immediately followed by the screech of tortured brakes, and a crash.

Ed's eyes glittered as he stepped on the gas. Those sounds were as stimulating to him as the smell of smoke to an old fire horse. They meant that there was danger and excitement around the bend in the road, and danger was what Ed Race lived for.

Fifty-two weeks a year he earned his living—and a good one, at that—by juggling six heavy .45 revolvers on the far-flung stages of the Partages Circuit of theatres, from coast to coast. And throughout the land he was billed as The Masked Marksman—The Man Who Can Make Guns Talk.

But the plaudits of the enthusiastic audiences witnessing his marvelous feats of dexterous marksmanship had never been enough for Ed Race. His nervous energy craved another outlet, and he found that outlet in criminology. He held licenses to operate as a private detective in a dozen states, and the two heavy .45 hair-trigger revolvers which he always carried in his shoulder holsters were ever at the service of those who were in trouble—without charge.

So Ed sent his car careening around the curve, and raced full-tilt into adventure!

The girl's car had crashed, all right. A small truck was parked across the road, leaving barely enough room at the left for the girl's coupe to squeeze through. She had managed to clear the truck—miraculously. Then she had crashed.

The two rifle shots had done that. They had come from the rifles in the hands of the two men climbing down off the truck. They must have hit her rear tire, for the coupe had gone skidding across the road, and had ended up with its nose flattened against a pole. The car was right side up, and the yellow-haired girl was climbing out, unhurt, but the pole would never be the same; it was leaning over at an angle of about forty degrees, supported only by the high-tension wires which connected it with the adjacent poles.

Ed braked to a stop just as the two men with the rifles descended from the truck.

The yellow-haired girl had landed on the concrete road on the run. She kept racing away from the truck and the wrecked car, clutching a paper of some kind in her hand, never even looking back.


THE two men from the truck cursed loud and fluently. They paid no attention to Ed Race. All their interest was concentrated on that girl.

"Don't let her get away, Duke!" one of them yelled.

"Don't worry," Duke growled. "I never missed a shot like this!" He went coolly down on one knee, and raised the rifle to his shoulder. "Watch me, Putzy," he said. "I'll get her in the left leg."

Ed Race was out of his own car, and running toward the two men.

Putzy heard him and swung around, lifting his rifle.

"Here's a kibitzer, Duke," he said, grinning. Then to Ed, "Keep out of this, stupe—"

That was all he had a chance to say, because Ed, disregarding the rifle which Putzy was raising, swung past him and caromed into the kneeling Duke, just as the fellow fired at the girl. Ed's impetus sent Duke sprawling, and the shot went wild.

Duke uttered a string of profanity and started to scramble to his feet. Putzy raised his rifle, finger on trigger, with the muzzle pointed at Ed Race.

"Get that girl, Duke!" he screamed. "I'll take care of this monkey—"

The words were cut off in his throat, drowned out by the deep-toned roar of Ed's .45's. He had drawn both the revolvers in a single, blinding cross-chest motion which had been too fast for the eye to follow. That was the draw which he demonstrated every day, on the stages of the Partages Theatres. It was the first, introductory routine of his number—a sort of introduction to the things that were to follow. Of course, there was never an opponent with a rifle facing him on the stage. And many a cynical observer had commented that it might be a different matter if the Masked Marksman should be faced by an adversary with a loaded weapon.

Well, those cynics should have been present at this moment. Not that they would have seen any more of the details of the Masked Marksman's draw; for, if anything, it was faster than his stage draw. Certainly, neither Duke nor Putzy knew exactly what happened to them—except that heavy slugs smashed into their gun arms at the same instant.

The sledgehammer blows of those bullets spun the two men around like weather-vanes, then hurled them down on the ground, the rifles flying from their nerveless hands.

Putzy lay still. The shock of the wound had rendered him unconscious. But Duke glared up at Ed Race with a pair of venomous eyes that spoke hatred louder than words.

Ed Race slid the revolvers back in their holsters. He stepped over and picked up the two rifles.

"Who the devil are you?" Duke demanded hoarsely, wincing as he tried to raise himself to a sitting position.

"Just a passing motorist," Ed told him. "Pardon me for interfering, but I don't like to see girls picked off like ducks."

"You'll see plenty before we're through with you!" Duke growled.

Ed grinned, but said nothing.

He left the two men lying there, and hurried back to his car, dropped the rifles in the back, and slipped in behind the wheel. He drove the car past the truck, avoided running over Putzy's unconscious figure, and swung out on to the road.


HIS eyes strained through the night in the wake of the headlights, searching for the girl. He rounded a curve and saw her, still running, but not as fast as before.

The moment the beam of the headlights touched her, she turned off the road, leaped a ditch and plunged into the adjoining field which was tall with swaying corn.

Ed sped up abreast of her, braked to a stop, and leaped out.

"Don't run!" he shouted. "I'm a friend!"

She stopped uncertainly, half hidden by the corn, her yellow hair falling disarranged over her shoulders.

"You needn't be afraid of me," Ed called to her. "I took care of your two boy friends. See, here are their rifles!"

He hauled the two rifles out of the car, and held them up for her to see.

Slowly, she turned and came back to him, pushing the tall stalks of corn aside. Her right hand was clenched into a fist, and she was tightly holding the same paper with which she had escaped.

She came up on the road and looked at Ed, still poised as if ready to run at the first sign of treachery. She was tall for a girl—perhaps five-foot-seven. She was slender and lithe, and her eyes were wide-spaced, intelligent. She was wearing a white blouse and a pair of navy-blue slacks, without cuffs.

"Who are you?" she finally demanded.

Ed smiled. "The name is Race. I'm a vaudeville actor. I'm on my way to Kenville. I open there Monday morning, at the Kenville Theatre." He paused. "Do my references satisfy you?"

"I don't know," she said doubtfully. "I know you aren't one of those two who tried to stop me. But you might have been inside the truck—"

"I wasn't," Ed told her. "I was behind you coming out of Somerville, but you went too fast for me. I'm not anxious to ruin my car."

"But I don't understand," she objected. "How did you get past those two—Duke and Putzy? How is it they didn't follow me—and catch up to me?"

"I—er—persuaded them to stay where they were."

"You—persuaded them?"

"With these!" Almost before the words were out of his mouth, the two heavy revolvers were out of his holsters.

She gasped at the speed of that draw. "Then—then the shooting I heard—it wasn't Putzy and Duke shooting at me?"

"No. I hated to spoil their fun, but I didn't think it was sporting."

There was a queer look of relief in the girl's face, as she came closer.

"I wondered—why they didn't hit me," she said. "Duke is supposed to be the best shot in the county!"

Ed stepped back and opened the door of his car. "Can I give you a lift?" he asked, bowing with exaggerated gallantry.

"This—it's too good to be true!" she breathed, stepping into the car.

Ed put the rifles away again, went around to the other side, and got under the wheel. In a moment he had the car started again, rolling toward Kenville.

"I gather you're in a hurry to get wherever you were going," he said, glancing sideways at her. "You were sure burning up the road."

"I want to get to Kenville as fast as I can. I—I'd almost given up hope. At first I thought Duke and Putzy would surely shoot me down as I ran. Then I thought they'd catch up with me and run over me. My only chance was that some motorist would come along, going the other way, and I could beg him to turn around and take me to Kenville. But there wasn't much chance of that, either. This road hasn't been used much, since the County Highway was opened."

"Why did those boys try to stop you?"

"They don't want me to get to Kenville."

"And why do you want to get to Kenville?"

She held up the paper in her hand. It was some sort of legal document, folded twice. "I've got to get this to the Kenville County Prison—before they lynch my brother!"


ED'S eyes narrowed. He refrained from asking questions. But she went on anyway. "I'm Barbara Ramsey. My brother, Ned Ramsey, was framed for murder. Everybody knows he never committed the murder, but Oscar Steuben hates both Ned and me, and Steuben controls the county. So they're holding Ned at the Kenville Prison for indictment. He'll never be indicted, of course. Steuben knows it. So he's arranged to have Ned lynched tonight!"

"Ah!" said Ed. "And what's that paper?"

"It's a writ of habeas corpus. I got Supreme Court Justice Sutherland, in Somerville, to sign it. He assigned a detective to go to Kenville with me, and serve the writ on the warden. It commands them to bring Ned to Somerville Supreme Court at once. It would have prevented the lynching. But Steuben knew I was getting the writ, and his men attacked us just outside of town. The detective who was with me was shot. I got away in the car. I didn't dare waste time, because they're planning to lynch Ned before midnight. I was going to serve this writ myself!"

"Spunky kid," he said. "You can serve it yourself. But I'll go along with you—just to see that there's no protest!"

She turned and looked up at him, and her eyes were shining.

"If I try to thank you," she whispered, "I'll cry."

"Don't bother, Barbara," Ed said with a smile. "It's I who ought to do the thanking. I was beginning to think it would be a dull week-end! But now—hold tight!"

He pressed down on the accelerator, and the powerful car leaped ahead like a live thing. The needle moved up around its arc, and Barbara Ramsey's eyes widened as she saw the real meaning of speed.

Twenty minutes later, the lights of Kenville swung into sight, in the heart of a little valley straight ahead. Ed slowed down as they entered town, and Barbara gave him directions for reaching the County Prison. It was quite late, and most of the stores were closed, but here and there they flashed past an open restaurant or delicatessen. They passed the Kenville Theatre, where Ed was scheduled to appear next week. The marquee lights were out, and the theatre was dark, but the lettering was visible on the side of the marquee:


OPENING MONDAY
THE MASKED MARKSMAN
THE MAN WHO CAN MAKE
GUNS TALK!


It was ten years now since Ed Race had become a vaudeville headliner. But he never failed to get a thrill out of seeing his name up there. Another man might have been satisfied with the money he earned, and with the plaudits of a thousand audiences. But not Ed. He had to seek the additional thrill of an exciting night like this...

"Turn left at the next corner," Barbara directed.

She was sitting tensely now, every nerve and fibre of her body strained. Her yellow hair flowed out behind her, and her face was white and set.

Ed swung around the corner into State Street, and she pointed out a low, squat structure at the right.

"That's the jail. There'll be trouble here. I've got to warn you, Ed. Steuben isn't an easy man to beat. He's tricky and clever. We may be walking into a trap."

Ed pulled up in front of the jail. He got out, and hunched his shoulders forward a bit, so that the butts of his heavy revolvers would be easier to reach.

"Let's go!" he said grimly.

Barbara reached into the rear of the car and picked up one of the rifles. There was a bright gleam in her eyes, as she swung it under her arm.

"You're not going to do all the fighting, Ed!" she whispered.


THEY went up to the jail entrance. It was so quiet that they could hear the echo of their own footsteps on the street. No one seemed to be around. "Maybe we're too late!" Barbara whispered. "Maybe—they've already gotten him!"

A guard arose to stop them. He had a holstered revolver at his side, and he barred the way.

"No visitors," he said. "Visitin' hours are only in the afternoon."

"We want to see the warden," Barbara told him. She showed him the paper in her hand. "This is a habeas corpus order for Ned Ramsey!"

The guard gave them a queer look. "Go ahead in. Warden Groner said you might be comin' along." He glanced at the rifle under Barbara's arm, but made no objection to her taking it inside.

Two men were sitting in the warden's office. One was behind the desk, the other was standing at the window, smoking a long, fat cigar.

Barbara Ramsey gasped when she saw the man at the window. "Steuben!" she exclaimed. Oscar Steuben took the cigar out of his mouth. "Good evening, Miss Ramsey!" he said. His voice was so slimy that it almost oozed out of him. "I just happened to be paying a social call on Warden Groner." He glanced at Ed Race, and his eyes became small and shrewd. "I see you've got yourself an escort."

"Don't mind me," Ed said. "I'm just along for the ride."

Steuben chuckled. "I've heard about you, my friend. Just a passing motorist, eh?"

"Ah!" said Ed. "So Putzy and Duke got to a phone!"

Steuben nodded. His small eyes never left Ed's face. "I'm going to remember you, my friend. And please don't try to use those guns of yours in here. It might not be as healthy as it was on the road!" He jerked his head sideways toward an open door at the right, and Ed, following his glance, stiffened.

The adjoining room was dark, but he was able to distinguish the figure of a man in there. At a word from Steuben, the man stepped through the doorway. He was a small fellow, but he was holding a sub-machine gun. He was pointing it at Ed.

"You see," Steuben explained, "I don't believe in taking any chances."

Barbara Ramsey stepped up to the warden's desk, disregarding the man with the sub-machine gun. She placed the paper on the desk.

"That's a writ ordering you to transfer my brother to the Somerville County Prison at once. I demand that you comply with it immediately!"

Warden Groner was a stout man, with a bald head and a double chin. He did not touch the paper. His thick lips wreathed in a smile, and he spread his hands.

"My dear Miss Ramsey!" he said. "I'm sorry to hear that you don't trust your brother to us in our modern jail. But I can't comply with the writ."

"You can't comply with it!" Barbara exclaimed. "What do you mean?"

"Well, you see," Groner said slyly, "we were worried about your brother. There's so much feeling against him in the town—"

"Feeling!" Barbara exclaimed scornfully. "You know that the only feeling is on your part. You want to see him dead!"

Groner continued as if she hadn't interrupted. "There's so much feeling against him, that we thought it would be safer if we took him out of Kenville. So we transferred him to another jail."

"You mean you transferred him to a jail where it would be easy for Steuben's paid killers to break in and lynch him!" Barbara cried.

Groner looked hurt. "How can you think such a thing—"

Ed Race interrupted him. "What jail did you send him to, Groner?" he asked softly.

Groner veiled his eyes. "That, my dear sir, is a piece of information which we are not disclosing till the morning."

"Ned will be dead by morning!" Barbara said. "They may be lynching him right now!"

Steuben had been watching her with vicious amusement. "That is something to think about, Miss Ramsey!"

Barbara took a step toward Steuben, with the rifle still under her arm. But the man with the submachine gun shifted it meaningfully, and Barbara stopped. Her eyes flashed at Steuben.

"If Ned dies tonight, I'll never stop till I've seen you punished for this. You control the law in this town, but there's a greater law than you. I'll hold you responsible—"

Steuben smiled twistedly. "Really, Miss Ramsey, you are ungrateful. Groner has done everything in his power to protect your brother. If your brother should be lynched tonight, it will not be Groner's fault."

Ed Race stirred impatiently. "We're wasting time," he said, in a mild, inoffensive voice. "There's only one thing we want to know—where did you send Ned Ramsey?"

He paused a moment. Neither Groner nor Steuben answered him. But Steuben looked at the little fellow with the machine gun.

"Arnie," he said, "it seems that this gentleman may attempt violence. You know what to do in that case?"

Arnie grinned. "Sure." He raised the snout of the sub-machine gun a trifle, so that it centered on Ed's stomach, "Sure I know. I just put a burst in his guts!"

"That's fine, Arnie!" said Steuben. He looked at Ed, then at Barbara. "So, good evening, Miss Ramsey. I'm sorry there's nothing more we can do for you."

Ed raised a hand. He spoke again, still in that mild tone. He was looking straight at the fellow with the machine gun.

"Have you ever used a sub-machine gun before, Arnie?"

"What's it to you, chum?"

"I was just curious. I wonder if you know that a sub-machine gun jumps when you pull the trip. It always shoots high. So if you want to hit me in the stomach, you'll have to aim low. Did you know that?"

"Listen, chum," Arnie grated, "I know all about this here gadget. I used it plenty."

"For instance," Ed said, softly, "on the man whom Ned Ramsey is supposed to have murdered?"

"Naw. I didn't use no machine gun on him—"

"Shut up, you fool!" Steuben bellowed. "You damned nitwit, didn't I tell you to keep your mouth shut—"

That was the diversion Ed Race had worked for. In the split-second of time that Arnie's eyes flickered over toward Steuben, Ed went into a back flip.

He did that back flip every day on the stage, but under even more difficult conditions. On the stage, he juggled six of the heavy .45's, sending them high in the air; then, when they were all spinning above him, he went into the back somersault, doing a complete hand spin, and as he came back on his feet he caught the revolvers, two at a time, and fired each of them once at a row of candles, thirty feet across the stage. In ten years he had never missed one of those candles. That was the closing number of his Masked Marksman act, and it never failed to bring down the house.

This act, which he performed for the benefit of Arnie, Steuben, Groner and Barbara, was a sort of private performance for death, and it didn't fail to bring down the house either—in its own peculiar way.

Arnie saw him going into the back flip, uttered an oath, and swung the muzzle of the machine gun to follow his flashing figure. But by the time he got centered on Ed, Ed was back on his feet, and the two guns in his hands were bucking in a simultaneous roar of thunder and destruction. The echoing reverberations of those two heavy explosions filled the warden's office and rolled back from all four walls like the drums of doom.

Arnie took a slug high in the chest, and it sent him crashing back into the wall as if a mighty tornado had hurled him there. The machine gun slid from his grip, and he screamed shrilly, with blood frothing at his lips.

The second slug was for Steuben. He had yanked a gun out of his coat pocket, and Ed hadn't taken any chances, but had put a bullet right through his elbow. Steuben's face was white. His arm hung limp and useless, and his lips were twisted with pain and shock.

Warden Groner sat still, with his hands on the desk, not raising a finger to interfere. Barbara's rifle was covering him.


WHEN the thunder of the gunfire had died away, they could hear excited shouts at the door. Ed sprang over to it and twisted the catch, locking it.

Groner said, "I'm on your side, Miss Ramsey. Whatever I did was at Steuben's orders, and believe me, I couldn't do otherwise."

Ed Race grunted. He knelt at the side of Arnie.

Arnie's eyes flickered. "You win, chum," he said. "I never seen shootin' like that."

"You're dying," Ed said brutally.

Arnie gasped. "Gawd! I don't wanna die—"

"Neither did the people you've killed at Steuben's orders! Remember that!"

"Gawd, get me a doctor—"

"Did you kill the man whom Ned Ramsey is accused of murdering?"

"Yes, yes. I shot him in the back with a automatic. I'll tell you everything I done at Steuben's orders. I'll turn state's evidence. But get a doctor. I—"

A long sigh escaped from him, and his head lolled back. He was dead.

Ed stood up. He looked at Groner. "You heard his dying confession?"

Groner nodded. "I heard it."

Steuben, who was writhing on the floor with the agony of his broken elbow, looked up, with sweat on his face. "It's a lie—"

Groner laughed hollowly. "It's no lie, Steuben. There are a hundred men in this county who'll testify against you—once your power is broken. You're through, Steuben!"

Oscar Steuben groaned. He tried to speak again. But his strength was going. He fell back against the wall, and the only live thing in him was his eyes, which lanced hatred at Ed Race.

Ed sprang to Groner's desk. "What about Ned Ramsey? Where is he?"

Groner gasped. "I'd forgotten about him. Lord, you'll have to move fast!" He pointed to the electric clock, which showed seven minutes of twelve. "They're going to lynch him at midnight. He was sent to a little jail in the town of Barden. It's four miles from here. The jail is just a ramshackle place, and easy to crack. Steuben's killers are going there masked, posing as angry townsmen. They'll take Ned Ramsey out and hang him at midnight!"

Ed sprang to the door, unlocked the catch, and yanked it open. Three or four of the guards, who had been clamoring to get in, entered with a rush, but stopped at sight of Ed's .45's.

Groner said to them, "It's all right, boys. Steuben is through. We're on our own again. Arnie confessed. From now—" But Ed didn't wait for him to finish. He seized Barbara by the arm, and fairly rushed her out to the street, and into his car. In a moment, he had it going, and Barbara was shouting directions in his ear.

He had often had the big Buick up to a hundred and ten, but this time he made the needle push over the limit on the clock—a hundred and twenty-five. He knew he'd never be able to replace the wear he was putting into his tires, but it would be equally impossible to put life back into Ned Ramsey. There was so little time!

They hit the town of Barden like a comet, and screeched into the courtyard of the little jail, sounding like an air-raid siren.

The scene was illuminated by the headlights of several parked automobiles, and Barbara uttered a cry of terror as its full import was revealed to her.

They were hanging Ned Ramsey!

They had him on a soap-box, with the noose around his neck, and his hands tied behind him. The rope was suspended from an old oak tree in the courtyard, and there were half a dozen masked men around him, all with guns in their hands.

Apparently, the jailers had put up a fight, for two of them were lying on the ground, dead. But the masked men were ready for the last act.

They must have sensed that the speeding car was bringing help for their victim, and they wanted to get it over with, quickly.

As Ed sprang out of the car, they opened fire on him, while at the same time, one of their number, a thin fellow with stooped shoulders, kicked the soap-box out from under Ned Ramsey's feet.

Ned's body dropped like a plummet. At the end of that drop, his neck would be broken, and nothing would bring him back to life.


ED saw all that in a flash, even as the bullets from the guns of the masked men singed around him. It would be all right to shoot down as many of these as he could. But it wouldn't bring Barbara's brother back to her.

Ed's eyes narrowed. His left-hand gun was belching and thundering at the masked killers, but his right-hand was reserved for only one purpose—the most ticklish shot he had ever attempted.

As Ned's body plummeted down, Ed Race snapped one single shot at the tautening rope, up near the top. He did it while he responded to the fire of the killers with his other gun. He had only one chance at that rope, for if he missed, Ned Ramsey would be dead.

His heart was in his mouth as he fired, and though he never, as a rule, looked to see where he had hit—because he always hit exactly where he aimed—he did look this time. And he breathed a sigh of relief.

For the rope didn't tauten. His heavy slug had cut it clean, like a knife. Ned Ramsey's body wasn't yanked by the throat. Instead, he landed on his feet on the ground—robbing the hangman!

In that swift instant of kaleidoscopic action, Ed Race had expected that some of the killers' bullets would surely get him. And he was surprised that he wasn't hit—until he realized that he was receiving support from a source he had forgotten.

Behind him, from the car, Barbara Ramsey's rifle was cracking with swift regularity, and masked men were going down before her shots, as well as before Ed's. Now, however, Ed Race was able to bring both his revolvers to bear on the enemy, and in a moment, only one man of the group was left standing on his feet. That one surrendered.

"Don't shoot!" he screamed.

Barbara was already out of the car, frantically working at the bonds which tied her brother's wrists.

"Sis," said Ned Ramsey, "you're a wonder!"

She laughed, and brought him to Ed.

"Thank Ed Race," she told her brother. "It took some shooting to get you out of that noose!"

Ramsey extended his hand impulsively. "Of course, I can never thank you properly, Mr. Race—"

"You don't have to," Ed said, smiling.

"But to risk your life like this, without expecting to get anything out of it—"

"You'd be surprised at what I'm getting out of it!" Ed told them. "I got a new idea for my vaudeville act. I'm going to have a hanging act—"

"Can I be the hanging girl?" Barbara asked impulsively, putting a hand on his arm.

Ed looked down at her. "Won't you be scared that I'll miss the rope?"

"Scared?" she repeated. "Why, after seeing you shoot tonight, I'd be willing to hang for you, every day of the week!"


THE END


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