Roy Glashan's Library
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EMILE C. TEPPERMAN

PROLOGUE TO DEATH

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First published in The Spider magazine, February 1936

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version date: 2017-12-23
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The Spider, February 1936, with "Prologue to Death"



It gave Ed Race a queasy feeling when his Broadway pals treated him like a leper... And it took a bloody tommy-gun lesson to teach him that one determined enemy, hidden in a host of friends, can put a man on a cold morgue slab.



NEW YORK in January. Men with their overcoat collars turned up, and their hands dug deep in their pockets, plodding through dirty sleet, and shivering in the first blasts of a freezing spell that would turn the sleet to ice by morning; women in swanky fur coats, with their necks exposed, wearing sheer silk stockings and low shoes, and not seeming to mind the weather at all, as long as they could look attractive.

Ed Race, walking down Broadway from the Longmont Hotel, where he had just checked in from a Midwest vaudeville tour, liked it all, in spite of the depressing weather.

The smells and the noise and the crowds of New York were like a revivifying breath in his nostrils after six months in the Hinterland. He was a New Yorker. It was born and bred in him. He knew the Main Stem, knew its frailties, its wickednesses, its joys and its sorrows—He knew everybody, and everybody knew him. Already he had nodded to half a dozen acquaintances. They took his presence on Broadway for granted. No doubt they had already seen the big electric sign on the marquee of the Clyde Theater, two blocks down, announcing his return vaudeville engagement.

Ed could see it from the corner of Forty-sixth, which he had just crossed:


RETURN ENGAGEMENT! BEGINNING TONIGHT!
THE MASKED MARKSMAN
THE MAN WHO CAN MAKE GUNS TALK!


AT the Nedick stand on the south corner, Ed saw Lou Donner, the Daily Express columnist, having a frankfurter and a glass of orangeade. Lou Donner generally looked Ed up whenever the actor returned to town. The genial little columnist always got a few lines for his paper out of Ed, and Ed liked him. He wondered why Lou hadn't been around to the Longmont, and he pushed through the evening theater-going crowd to the Nedick stand, came up behind Donner, and said:

"Hello, Louie. Still eating hot dogs! Why don't you blow yourself to a regular meal one of these days?"

Donner turned around. He wore big shell-rimmed glasses because he was nearsighted, and he blinked at Ed while he swallowed a mouthful of frankfurter and roll. He still had half of it in his hand, uneaten. He exclaimed: "Why, Eddie! Glad to see you, Eddie!" But he didn't offer to shake hands. Instead, he looked around nervously, put down his frankfurter, fished hastily in his pocket for a dime, and slapped it on the counter. "I got to beat it, Eddie. See you soon!" And he was gone through the crowd...

Ed stared after him, astounded. He had expected a different sort of welcome from the little columnist, for whom he had done many a favor in the past. He glanced down, puzzled, at the unfinished hot dog and the almost full glass of orange drink; shrugged and continued down Broadway.

At the next corner, Ed saw Kolman, the bookie. Kolman had his stand at the corner of Forty-fifth and Broadway. It was his unofficial office. If you had won a bet from him that day, you could come to that corner in the evening and collect. He had been paying off at that same spot for ten years now, and he was a Broadway institution.

He saw Ed at the same time that Ed saw him, and the bookie's square, usually expressionless face lighted up in welcome. But as soon as Ed started toward him, the smile fled from Kolman's face, gave place to a look of uneasiness. He took Ed Race's outstretched hand, allowed his own to be shaken.

"I—I heard you was back in town, Ed," he said. "It's sure good to see you again. Well, I got to scram. Can't make no dough here. Ha-ha! Well, so long, Ed!" He practically tore his hand away from Ed's and hastened around the corner...


ED stood there for a second, frowning, being jostled by the crowd. First Donner, then Kolman. It was as if he had the plague. There was something wrong in town—something which Ed Race felt he should know. He had made plenty of enemies in his career; for he wasn't merely a headline vaudeville actor who had pushed through to top rank by virtue of his amazing skill with revolvers on the stage. His nervous energy had demanded greater thrill, greater excitement than the routine of shooting out candles on the stage, of juggling heavy forty-fives and shooting with such amazing precision as to bring down the house at every performance. And that nervous energy had found an adequate outlet in the sideline of crime detection, which Ed Race had pursued for several years now. He held licenses as a private detective in a dozen states; and his ability with six-guns had often served his friends—but it had also made him some deadly foes.

Now he nudged his side with his left arm, so as to bring slightly forward the holster under his left armpit, in which nestled one of the six forty-fives with which he performed on the stage. Under his right armpit there was another holster, in which rested a twin to that gun. The other four would be at the Clyde Theater, carefully wrapped in chamois, ready for the act. They had been shipped through direct, with his other stage properties.

There might and might not be danger, but Ed Race had learned that it is better to be careful than dead. His body tautened slightly, and he started to cross Forty-fifth.

He was in the middle of the crossing, with dozens of other people slushing through the sleet in an effort to get over before the light changed, when the woman screamed.

The woman had been crossing in the opposite direction, coming toward Ed, and her right foot was just off the curb when she uttered the scream. She pointed with a shaking finger at something out in the street on Broadway, above the corner, and turned to push frantically back into the throng behind her. Ed Race swung his head, saw what had made her scream...

It was a beautiful, maroon sedan of streamline design. It was crawling down past the red light, and its right front window was open. Out of that window poked the unmistakable snout of a submachine gun. And that snout was pointed right at the press of the crowd about Ed Race.

Even as Ed looked, the tommy began to chatter and belch lead. The burst sounded high above the noises of Broadway, smashed into the crowd, mowing down half a dozen people at the crossing. Ed could see that the gunner in the car was working the gun around toward where he stood. And Ed's body swung into sudden blinding, synchronized motion.

Into his two hands came the two heavy, hair-trigger forty-fives. While men and women ran, slipping and stumbling madly through the sleet to escape that withering barrage of death, Ed Race stood his ground, spraddle-legged in the middle of the crossing. His two revolvers were talking in deep-throated angry roar almost before the first burst from the tommy had begun to echo. They bucked in his hands as flame spat from their muzzles into the open window of the maroon sedan.

Abruptly, the submachine gun ceased to chatter, its snout dropped, a bloody face appeared in the window, and the gun fell out into the gutter. The motor of the sedan roared as the driver accelerated, and the car sped south against the light. But Ed did not cease firing. Bleak-eyed, tight-lipped, he swung his two guns after the fleeing car, swiveling his body from the hips...


HE just had a glimpse of the driver's head through that open window, past the sagging head of the machine-gunner, which rested against the sill of the window. And that glimpse was enough for Ed. The driver's hands fell from the wheel as a slug smashed into the side of his head. The sedan careened wildly, lurched to the left, and crashed against the concrete island in the middle of Broadway.

It jumped the curb, ended up against the subway kiosk with a rending, crashing sound of twisting metal. Flames leaped from it as it turned over.

Broadway was in pandemonium. People came running from everywhere, while Ed Race put away his guns, glanced down at the bloody shambles at his feet. Six men and women had been caught by that first burst from the tommy gun. They lay in the gutter, spattered with blood and sleet and mud. Four were motionless, dead. Two stirred, twisted and moaned.

Policemen appeared, and an ambulance siren sounded; a radio car squealed to a stop at the corner. Fire engines swung into Broadway from Forty-sixth, and their crews ran to the burning sedan with the chemical extinguishers.

A stocky, heavy-set man came up to Ed Race, put a hand on his shoulder. It was Detective-Sergeant Bland, of Homicide.

Ed said to him: "Hello, Steve. You missed the fun." There was no smile on his lips as he said it, and his eyes were bleak, cold.

Bland, white-lipped, exclaimed: "My God, Race, I saw the whole thing from down the block, but I was too far to shoot. It's wholesale murder! Why the hell did you have to show yourself in the street? Didn't you know something like this would happen?"

Ed looked at him blankly, while internes carried the two still living victims from the street into ambulances, and while the firemen fought the flames in the maroon sedan.

"What do you mean, Steve? Why should I expect something like this to happen?"

Bland threw him a queer glance. "You just got back to New York, didn't you?"

Ed nodded.

"And you don't know what's going on in town?"

"I don't know a damn thing. Except that Partages left a message for me at the Longmont to come to the theater as soon as I checked in—and that none of my old friends on Broadway seemed to want to have any part of me. They all made themselves scarce the minute they saw me."

"Of course they would. They must have thought you knew all about it. And they must have thought you were crazy to come out in the street alone like this."

"I wish you'd tell me what it's about."

"Wait a minute," Bland muttered, starting across the street toward the overturned sedan, from which the white-coated internes were dragging two charred bodies. "I want to see if there's enough left of those bozos to identify them."

Ed accompanied the detective-sergeant across to the shattered car, leaning crazily against the subway kiosk. The fire had been extinguished, permitting the ambulance men to remove the two occupants and lay them on the sidewalk. The face of one of them was blistered to a pulp, unrecognizable; but the other was practically unmarred. There was a bullet wound in the back of the head, where Ed's slug had caught him.

Bland leaned over them, then straightened and turned to Ed. "Just as I thought," he said. "That one is Mickey Tate. You know Mickey Tate?"

Ed nodded. "He's one of French Hugo's mob, if my memory serves me. But"—he looked puzzled—"what would French Hugo have against me? He may have all the rackets in Harlem sewed up, but he's never tangled with me. Why would he send a crew gunning for me the minute I get back to town—and why would everybody know about it but me?"

Bland sighed. "Look, Race," he said, "you work for the Partages Vaudeville Circuit, but you've been out of town for six months, so you're a little dusty on the inside dope. Shortly after you left town, French Hugo moved down to Broadway. He's been collecting from every theater on the Main Stem—except from Mr. Partages' houses. Now he's gone after your boss for fair—and it's almost impossible for the police to give him protection."

"Nice boy, Hugo," Ed said drily. "Why don't you pick him up?"

Bland flushed. "He has been picked up—several times. The orders are out to muss him up, and believe me, he was mussed up. But there's never anything to hold him on." The detective-sergeant swore softly under his breath. "And every time he's released, something new happens at the Clyde or one of the other Partages Theaters. Your boss is almost ready to give in and pay up."

"Not Leon," Ed told him confidently. "I know Leon Partages. But why wasn't I told about this? Here you let me walk right into the heat—"

"It's like this," Bland informed him wearily. "This morning, when that sign went up on the Clyde announcing your return, Partages got a telephone call. The bozo at the other end warned him to cancel your engagement, or else... I guess French Hugo has a healthy respect for you. Before the phone call, I didn't give your coming a thought; but Hugo must have figured that Partages was bringing you back to help fight him. Well, by this afternoon, all Broadway knew Hugo's crowd was going to be gunning for you—which is why your friends shunned you; they didn't want to be around when the shooting started. I called you at the Longmont, but you had already left."

Ed glanced somberly at the wide cleared space about which the reserves had strung a cordon. The area looked like a battlefield, with stretcher bearers and ambulances, with blood in the gutter coloring the sleet a dirty red.

"Where does French Hugo hang out?"

Bland gave him a short laugh. "Don't be a dope, Ed. French Hugo is downtown in headquarters right now. He's got himself a perfect alibi. He came in an hour ago with his attorney to protest against the brutality of the police. We can't even hold him on this shooting; he'd be out on a writ, and laughing at us up his sleeve!"

A headquarters car had pulled up at the curb across the street, in front of the Astor, and out of it stormed a stocky, red-faced man in a blue overcoat and a gray felt hat, who stood for a moment glaring around at the scene of carnage.

Bland exclaimed: "There's the Inspector. He looks like he's all set to raise hell. Let's go over."

They crossed to the police car, and Bland saluted. "It's the worst yet, Inspector. Four people killed, and two badly wounded. Race, here, got the gunner and the driver of the murder car. One of them is Mickey Tate."

Inspector Hansen nodded, looked somberly at Ed. "I never saw anybody like you, Race," he barked testily, "for starting things. I swear, every time I hear you're in town, I get all set for trouble!"

Ed shrugged. He had never been able to get along with the testy old homicide inspector. The two just didn't click. "I apologize, Hansen," he said sourly, "for living. I suppose you'd want me to stay holed up for the rest of my life?"


BLAND interrupted hastily, trying to stave off an explosion from Hansen: "Race didn't know anything about it, Inspector. And if it hadn't been for his fast shooting, a lot more people might have been killed."

Hansen grunted, slightly mollified. "This'll make nice stuff in the headlines."

"Excuse me, Hansen," Ed broke in. "Will you want me here?" He glanced at his wristwatch. "I'm due to go on at the Clyde in half an hour."

The inspector shook his head. "You're not going on tonight, Race. We don't want any more killings in this city. That mob will be after you more than ever now. What chance would you stand, on the stage before two thousand people, if someone lets loose on you?"

"I'll take that chance, Hansen."

"And I say you won't! It's my business to protect you—like it or not."

"That may be so," Ed told him stubbornly, "but my number goes on at the Clyde tonight, Hugo or no Hugo. I've never missed a curtain call in eight years—and I don't intend to begin now."

He started away. "See you both later."

Hansen put a hand on his arm. "Wait a minute, Race!" he snapped. His eyes traveled across to the wrecked car leaning against the subway kiosk. "You shot the two men in that car, didn't you?"

"That's right. Bland saw it. He'll tell you it was self-defense—"

"Maybe, Race, maybe. But I'm holding you on a technical charge of murder. You won't put on any show tonight!"

Ed's face flushed a brick red. "So you're what they call a cop!" he barked. "And all you can do when a thing like this happens is arrest the man who did what your own cops are supposed to do."

Hansen's eyes were blazing, his face was pink, and he was stuttering in apoplectic rage. Steve Bland stepped in between them, put a hand on Ed's shoulder.

"Look, Race," he urged, "the Inspector is only looking out for your own good. It's dollars to doughnuts that someone will be planted in the audience at the Clyde tonight, to finish up what Mickey Tate started here. We can't search everybody buying a ticket to see if they're armed. You could be shot as easy—"

Ed listened to him impatiently, his eyes roving over the crowd at the curb, which was goggling at the scene, and surging against the line of patrolmen holding them back. And he spied the little columnist, Lou Donner, waving to him.

Ed grinned. Donner was anxious to get to him now that the danger seemed over.

Bland was still talking, but Inspector Hansen broke in on him: "Never mind that soft soap, Steve. Race is in custody whether he likes it or not. If he's fool enough not to know he's in a spot—"

Ed Race, still grinning, called out to the patrolman at the point where Lou Donner was standing: "Let that man through."


THE patrolman, seeing Ed apparently in conference with the inspector, thought that the order was official, and stepped aside. Lou Donner rushed through, toward them.

Hansen glanced at the little man waddling swiftly over and glared at Ed. "What's the idea, Race?"

Ed smiled at him sweetly. "I'm going to give Lou Donner an interview, Inspector. In tomorrow morning's Express, you can read all about the snappy cop who locked up the man that saved a lot of people from getting shot. You'll like it!"

Hansen sputtered, and Donner came up to them. "Say, Ed!" the columnist exclaimed. "Make this exclusive for me, will you? Boy, will this be a whale of a—"

Ed was looking at Hansen. He swung around to Donner. "I've got a swell bit for you, Lou. I know the Express likes to slam the police department—"

"Wait!" Hansen interrupted hoarsely. Ed stopped, glancing inquiringly at the inspector. Hansen gulped. There was murder in his eyes. But he said: "All right, Race. You win. You can go. And I hope they get you tonight!"

Ed said quickly: "That's fine, Inspector. I knew you'd see it my way. So long. I'll see you in the morning."

He started away, taking Donner by the arm. "Come on, Lou. I'll give you the story on the way to the Clyde."

"What's that you said about the Express knocking the cops, Ed?" Donner asked. "If you got something, they'll play it up big on the editorial page—"

"Nothing, Lou," Ed said. "Forget it."

"You know, Ed," Donner said hesitantly, "you shouldn't hold it against me that I beat it on you back at the Nedick stand. I know about Hugo gunning for you, and I figured you knew about it, too, and were deliberately showing yourself. After all, you can't blame me for getting out of the way fast. They've got me mixed up in this already, more than I want."

"What do you mean?"

"Partages got a note ordering him to turn over fifty grand, and naming three intermediaries. He's to pick one of them. Well, I'm one of the three intermediaries named, and I don't like it at all." His eyes looked big, and his glasses joggled on his nose as he looked up at Ed. "I've heard of intermediaries learning too much by accident. I'm not so old yet—"

Ed laughed. "Here's the theater, Lou. I'm short of time, so I'll give you the story fast. You can see me later for more details." He swiftly gave the columnist a picture of what had happened, then left him and went in through the stage entrance of the Clyde. There was a good deal of excitement here, for they had already heard about the shooting. All the actors and stagehands gathered about Ed, hungry for more information, but he pushed through them.

"Is Mr. Partages in his office?"

An electrician nodded, and Ed extricated himself from the group of questioners, made his way upstairs.

At the door marked: Leon Partages—Private, Ed rapped hastily and then pushed in without waiting for an invitation.

There were two men in the mahogany-furnished office. Ed's boss sat behind a glass-topped desk, drumming pudgy fingers on the glass. He was frowning worriedly. The other man sat opposite him.

Partages exclaimed: "Eddie! Gosh it's good to see you! My God, that was a narrow escape you had. Those devils—"

He stopped, sighed. "I'm getting too old for this sort of business." He got up from behind the desk, came around and shook hands with Ed, then turned and introduced the other man, who had risen.

"Meet Hugo Larcy, Ed."

Ed started, glanced at the other man. "French Hugo?" he asked.

The other nodded. "That's me." He was as tall as Ed, and heavy, with a square face and a hard-looking jaw. His eyes were wide-spaced, and his black hair was combed straight back from his forehead. It was thinning a bit at the edges.

French Hugo exclaimed: "Look here, Race, I ain't responsible for that shooting outside. I been trying to make the dumb cops believe me, but I know they don't. I came here to convince Mr. Partages."

Ed said coldly: "I suppose you haven't been in back of the racket that's shaking down the Broadway theaters either?"

"Hell!" the big man protested. "You've heard of me, Race. I'm a good businessman, Race, and I'm not sap enough to think I could get away with this."

"Who's doing it, then?" Ed demanded.

Hugo's face was set, hard. "If I ever find out the name of the rat that's laying this at my door, there'll be one rat less in town five minutes later!"

Ed glanced at Partages, who nodded solemnly. "I believe him, Eddie. French Hugo is no fool. He'd be jeopardizing his business uptown—"

"Not only that," Hugo broke in, "but you've been around town a lot, Race, and you ought to know that I never go in for any Valentine's Day stuff. Anybody who does that is loco."

"Well," Ed asked him, "why did you come here?"

Hugo shrugged. "I'm a plain man. I went down to headquarters with my lawyer, and I told them what I just told you. Hansen is a flat-brained bulldog, and he can't see anything but French Hugo. The more I talk, the less they believe me. So I figured I'd try to convince Partages—maybe work with him so's to clear myself. Now that everybody's blaming me, I got an interest in this business."

Ed turned to Partages and Hugo. "My number will be over in twenty minutes—"

Partages shook his head. "No, Eddie boy. If you go on, your number'll be up—not over. Look at this!"

He reached to his desk, picked up a folded slip of paper.

Ed took the sheet, spread it open, and read while both men watched him:


We told you what we wanted—fifty grand on the line. You didn't pay, and you sent for the Masked Marksman. Well, we know who he is. If he ever gets to the Clyde alive, he won't leave it alive. Maybe after we take care of your pet gunman, you'll be ready to talk turkey. If you're ready now, turn out the bulbs in the letter 'C' in the word Clyde on your marquee, as a signal, and send the dough as per the instructions we already gave you.


There was no signature to the note.

"I got another letter," Partages explained, "which I turned over to the police. I'm supposed to pick out one of three names they mention as intermediaries, and turn the money over to the one I select. I was really thinking of paying. I was thinking of calling Lou Donner, because he's the only one of the three that I know pretty well—"

Another knock sounded at the door. "You're on in one minute, Mr. Race!"

Ed started out. "Get Lou on the wire!" he told Partages. "Tell him to be here after the act. Maybe we can figure—"

He had the door open, and French Hugo came after him. "If you don't mind," Hugo said, "I'd like to stay in the wings while you do your stuff. I'll keep my eyes on the audience, and"—he tapped a bulge under his armpit—"I can shoot pretty good myself. That is," he added, "if you trust me."

Ed grinned. "Come on, Hugo. It's okay by me!"

The two men hurried downstairs, leaving Partages at the phone.

The orchestra was already swinging into the rhythm for Ed's act when they got into the wings. The other actors, sensing something in the air, were all crowded around, watching breathlessly. Ed took the little black mask which a property man handed him, donned it, waved to the others, and stepped out on the stage.

The lights were on, and would stay on.

Ed's number was always performed with the house fully illuminated. In the center of the stage was a small table on which rested four forty-five caliber revolvers like the two he carried.


NOW, as Ed crossed to the table to the accompaniment of thunderous applause, he took out his two holstered revolvers, loaded them.

Then he flipped them into the air, picked up the other four guns one after the other, and sent them up after the first two. He now had all six guns juggling at once. It was child's play to him, and he glanced out of the corner of his eye toward the wing. French Hugo was standing there, his head poked out from behind the drape, peering at the audience. His hand was thrust within his coat.

Now, Ed sent the revolvers sailing high in the air—all six of them—and did a quick back-somersault to the accompaniment of a crashing chord from the orchestra. This was a difficult spot in the routine. But he had done this successfully, thousands of times, and had never missed.

His superbly muscled body swung backward in a graceful arc. He landed on his feet, took a step forward with his hands outstretched, and the first two revolvers came down into them in the most gracefully, perfectly timed bit of juggling ever booked on a vaudeville stage. Without effort he sent all six forty-fives up again, smiling to the scattered applause.

And just then he heard Hugo's hoarse shout: "Hey!"

At the same time, from somewhere in the mezzanine, there came a soft pop, and the automatic dropped from Hugo's hand, while the big man seemed to be flung backward against the drop. Blood appeared on his forehead between the eyes.

Ed dived sideways, with two of the guns in his hand, letting the others fall. His eyes caught a flash of flame high up in the rear of the mezzanine, accompanied by another soft pop, and a slug dug into the floor of the stage where Ed had been standing a moment ago.

Ed saw a dark shape moving near where he had spied the flash, and he raised his right-hand revolver, fired six times.

The crash of his guns drowned out the orchestra, and, for the first time, the audience realized that this was not part of the act. Here and there a woman screamed, but for the most part they remained rooted to their seats in terror.

Ed came to his feet lithely. There were no more pops from the mezzanine. He sprinted across the stage, stopping only a moment to look down at the dead body of French Hugo, who had died in defense of what he considered his reputation...


IN the aisle, two of the dozen or so policemen who had been stationed in the theater were racing up the stairs, and Ed followed them. In the mezzanine he saw Leon Partages rushing, white-faced, from the upper lobby, and they all ran toward the rear.

There, just at the head of the center aisle, lay a dark, huddled form, clutching a silenced revolver. Forty or fifty patrons were out of their seats, standing in a wide circle, staring at the dead man.

Ed, with Leon and the cops, pushed through, stood looking down at the body. The dead man was on his face, and one of the officers stooped to turn him over.

"Never mind," Ed said in a queer voice.

He glanced at Leon, who nodded and said very low: "God! Lou Donner!"

"Lou Donner!" exclaimed a voice at the fringe of the crowd. Inspector Hansen pushed through, followed by Steve Bland.

"Yes," Ed said bitterly. "He fooled me perfectly. It was he who hired Mickey Tate and the other gunner. He was the one behind this shakedown. He was smart enough to know that French Hugo would be blamed. And he was on the inside as to what was being done by the police."

Partages exclaimed: "No wonder he had his name in the list of three intermediaries. He knew I wasn't acquainted with the other two, and that I'd turn the money over to him!"

Hansen swore. "And it wasn't French Hugo, after all!"

"If you were a gentleman," Ed told the inspector, "you'd go and apologize."

"Where is he?" Hansen asked.

Ed grinned. "In Hell by now, I guess!"


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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