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First published in The Spider magazine, March 1943

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version date: 2019-04-21
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The Spider, March 1943, with "Live Targets Shoot Back"

ED RACE closed the backstage corridor door and stepped out onto the fire-escape balcony for a breath of fresh night air. The balcony of the Clyde Theatre was on a side street about a quarter of a block from dimmed-out Broadway. The side street was dark, and the balcony was a black shelf against a blacker building.

It was from this iron balcony that Ed Race first saw the limping man who was looking for a place to die.

There are some people in this world who are allergic to goldenrod; others who are allergic to bananas; some will react to the slightest odor of eggs, others to the mere thought of mushrooms. Now, Ed Race was also allergic—to the faintest scent of adventure. He could smell danger a mile away and his blood tingled at the merest hint of action. So when he saw the limping man pile out of the taxi-cab at the corner, with the girl half helping, half dragging him, Ed felt a strange thrill of excitement race through his veins.

The limping man threw a bill to the cab driver. The girl took the man's arm and they both came down the side street, toward the spot above which Ed Race was standing. To any casual observer, they looked like nothing more than a drunk being shepherded home by his companion; for the man staggered every few steps. But Ed knew better. He had caught the attitude of high tension about those two and he noted how the limping man kept peering back constantly.

Suddenly, Ed saw the man whisper something urgently to the girl. They both looked back, then began to hurry even more swiftly—though the going seemed to be painful for the limping man.

Glancing over toward the corner, Ed saw that the cause of their alarm was a light delivery truck which had pulled up at the corner. Half a dozen small, dark men piled out of that truck and seemed to ooze down the side street in pursuit of the two fugitives. The street was east-bound, and traffic was flowing steadily; which apparently accounted for the fact that the truck had not turned in after the limping man and the girl.

Gazing down into the dark and dimmed-out street, Ed was a witness of the swift drama enacted there. And he knew how it felt to have the roles reversed for once, to be a spectator high in a gallery seat, watching the performers act out their parts on the stage below. The limping man thrust the girl away, apparently urging her to escape, while he himself turned to face the pursuers. The girl seemed to hesitate an instant but the man pushed something into her hand and spoke to her sharply. She turned and ran nimbly down the street.

Those small dark men were still fifty feet away, when the girl started to run. She stumbled and the object which the man had handed her fell to the ground and rolled a couple of feet. From where Ed stood on the balcony, the object looked like a gold compact of some sort. But the girl, recovering her balance, hadn't noticed the loss. She continued to run on into the night.

The limping man, however, saw that glittering object. Ed felt a sudden surge of sympathy for that man, noting how he raised a hand as if to call the girl, then refrained. The man must have known in that moment, that to recall her would mean her death. Instead, he leaped awkwardly to the spot where the object had fallen. He snatched it up, then swung painfully to meet the onslaught of the attackers.

There were half a dozen people passing in the street down there. They stopped, transfixed by the sudden, murderous flurry of action. Dull metal glinted in the hands of the small dark killers. A gun barked, then another. A small pistol in the hand of the limping man answered. One of the attackers fell, but the others closed in. The limping man's gun must have been empty, for he uttered a despairing cry and hurled the weapon into the face of the nearest. Then the others were upon him.

ED RACE had already swung into action. He didn't know the rights and the wrongs of this dark and murderous business; nor had he the faintest idea what he was thrusting his neck into. But he had seen the gesture of that limping man in refraining from recalling the girl. And he saw, too, that here was one man fighting gallantly against odds. That was all Ed Race needed to know.

On the stage inside, his Masked Marksman number would be going on in five minutes. In the twin holsters under his armpits were two of the six heavy, hair-trigger forty-fives with which he performed the amazing acrobatic and gun-juggling act which had made him famous from coast to coast on the far-flung Partages Circuit, as The Masked Marksman—The Man Who Can Make Guns Talk.

And now, while the packed audience inside the Clyde Theatre waited for him to appear, he did his stuff in back here—without benefit of audience and without pay. Both those guns came into his hands with the magical swiftness of light, and they began to roar their thunderous messages of doom from up there on the balcony.

Four times Ed Race fired—two shots from each of the heavy revolvers. Four of the killers went down. The other two, awed by the ferocious onslaught, turned and fled ratlike into the night.

The thunderous, reverberating roar of those two mighty guns rumbled up and down the street. No one would ever have mistaken them for automobiles backfiring. A policeman's whistle blew... a woman screamed... traffic screeched to a stop.

Ed ran to the end of the balcony, where the overhanging fire ladder lay parallel, balanced by weights. He stepped onto the ladder, and it inclined slowly as he raced down it to the sidewalk. The limping man was leaning against the wall, his overcoat wrapped around him, his chin upon his chest.

The crowd which was swiftly gathering kept at a distance from the bodies of the killers. Three small dark men were sprawled grotesquely on the sidewalk and one lay in the gutter. The fifth man, who had been hit by the first and only shot of the fugitive, must only have been wounded; for he had fled with the sixth man.

Ed stepped over to the limping man, who raised his head and glimpsed the two smoking revolvers in Ed's hands. His eyes gleamed, and he smiled painfully.

"Thank you..." he whispered. His face was gaunt and lined with pain. But his eyes were bright beneath the brim of his hat. Suddenly a twinge of agony caught at his lips. His eyes closed and he began to slide down along the wall.

Ed swiftly holstered his revolvers, sprang to support him. He saw that there was blood on the man's left sleeve, from a bullet wound in the biceps.

"Here," Ed said encouragingly. "You'll be all right. They only got you in the arm—"

He stopped speaking, with a strange feeling of uneasiness, as he glanced down and saw that there was a pool of blood at the man's feet—blood that couldn't have come from the arm wound.

The man opened his eyes with an effort, leaning heavily against Ed. "It—it isn't this wound. It's an older one..." With difficulty he pulled his coat open.

Ed uttered a gasp. Underneath the coat, the man was naked from the waist up. About his ribs there was a clotted, bloody bandage.

"It's—just under my heart. I—only have a couple—of minutes to live. Please do me—one more favor..."

Out of the corner of his eye, Ed saw a policeman running toward them from the corner. "Sure," Ed said.

The dying man pressed something into his hand. "Hide it. For the love of everything you hold dear, don't give it to the police. Don't give it to Damon or any of his crew. Keep it for Donna. I know I can—trust you—"

"You can trust me," said Ed hurriedly, watching the approaching cop. "But who are you?"

"My name..."

The man's voice trailed off into a choked rattle; his body stiffened with a spasmodic heave—and then he went limp in Ed's arms.

AS the cop came lumbering up, Ed Race closed his hand around the object the dying man had given him. Without looking at it, Ed knew it was the compact which had fallen to the street, and for which this man had paid with his life. He slipped it into his pocket and eased the dead man down to the sidewalk. Then he stood up and faced the cop. It was Rafferty from the traffic corner.

"Good Lord, Mr. Race!" Rafferty exclaimed. "Did you think you was on the stage of the Clyde?" He glanced around at the bodies of the small dark men on the ground, then at the body of the limping man. "Is this one dead too—"

Someone came pushing through the crowd. "Here, Officer, I'm a doctor!" He was a small, neatly dressed man with a well-trimmed Vandyke and a pair of thick-lensed pince-nez glasses on a black silk cord. He pushed Ed Race unceremoniously aside and knelt beside the body.

Ed started to turn away to talk to two detectives who had just arrived—but his eyes suddenly narrowed as he noticed what the doctor was doing. The doctor was searching for a pulse and also swiftly running one hand over the body, as if seeking some object.

Ed started to say something, when a stentorian shout came from the balcony above. "Eddie! You'll ruin us! Your cue sounded five minutes ago. You're three minutes overdue on the stage! Please—come on!"

It was Harry Somers, the manager of the Clyde. He came racing down the ladder to the sidewalk, and pawed at Ed. "Come on—"

"Take it easy, Harry," said Lou Bates, one of the detectives. "There's been murder—"

"Murder or no murder—" Harry Somers yelped—"the show must go on! For the love of heaven, Lou, let Eddie come in with me and do his number. Right after the act, you can have him all to yourself for as long as you want. You can ask him all the questions you like. But let him go on now. He's the headline act. That audience in there will stage a minor riot if they don't get the Masked Marksman!"

Ed Race patted Somers on the back. "Go back inside, Harry, and make 'em a little speech about War Bonds. Just hold them for five minutes more—and I'll be there!"

He gave Somers a little shove. The manager went reluctantly back to the theater.

Ed turned and gave the detectives a swift resume of what had happened. He told them about the girl who had escaped from the killers, but he deliberately omitted to mention the compact in his pocket. Other police had already arrived, and, while Ed told his story swiftly, they went over the bodies. They came up with the startling information that there was not a paper or a bit of identification on any of the bodies, including that of the limping man.

"Well, I'll be damned!" said Detective Bates. "It's the wackiest thing that ever happened on this corner!"

The delivery truck that had brought the killers was gone. And Ed Race also noted that the trim little doctor with the Vandyke beard had also made his departure. During the few moments when Harry Somers had come shouting down the extension ladder, the doctor had made an unobtrusive departure.

"Better go up and give your show, Ed," said Lou Bates. "Homicide will be here in a few minutes and they'll want to be asking you plenty of questions. By that time, you can be through with your shooting act."

Ed nodded and hurried up the extension ladder, which Rafferty had been holding down for him. As he turned into the wings backstage, he took new cartridges from his pockets and slipped them into the chambers of the two revolvers. He would need full loads for his number.

HARRY SOMERS was just bowing off, after having made an announcement to the effect that War Bonds and stamps could be purchased merely by asking any usher. He saw Ed in the wings and signaled to the orchestra leader, who struck up the William Tell overture... which introduced Ed's Masked Marksman act. The props of the act were already set on the stage. The curtain went up just as Ed walked on, with the little half-mask on his face.

A storm of applause burst from the audience. Ed took his bow. He smiled ruefully. These people were impatiently waiting for him to do an act which would be thrilling enough for them, but which would be only anti-climax for him—after the swift and deadly action out there in the side street.

There were many who sneered at Ed's marksmanship, saying that it was all right for him to shoot with such uncanny accuracy at inanimate targets—but what would he do if he were up against blasting gunfire? Those people were unaware of the fact that blasting guns in enemy hands were no new thing to Ed Race. Long ago, he had found that the plaudits of enthusiastic audiences, plus the huge salary he drew from the Partages Circuit, were not enough to make life interesting to him.

The nervous energy which drove him ever to seek action and danger had impelled him to adopt a hobby—the study of criminology. Ed held licenses to operate as a private detective in a dozen states. And though he never charged a penny for his services, his uncanny ability with those hair-trigger forty-fives of his was always available to anyone who found himself in the bad graces of the underworld...

Ed Race finished his back-flip number amid a tumult of applause. In that number Ed threw all six of his guns spinning high in the air, then went into a back flip. Coming to his feet, he caught the revolvers, two by two as they came down, and fired one shot from each at the row of lighted candles across the stage. Six candles and six shots—never more, never less to put them all out!

He followed that with the half-dollar trick: Then he did the mirror-shooting number. The falling curtain found him bowing to the vociferously enthusiastic audience.

Ed Race always did his act with the lights on throughout the house, and it was due to this fact that he saw the man with the Vandyke beard. Ed spotted him coming down the center aisle, followed by two small, dark men—the counterparts of those who had staged the murderous attack in the side street.

Ed gave no sign that he noticed those three as he backed into the wings. He signaled to Harry Somers that he would not take any encores tonight.

Somers waved to the electrician to dim the lights for the next number, then ran over to Ed. "Inspector Hansen is outside, Eddie. He says for you to come down as soon as you're through."

Ed nodded, hurried to his dressing room. He pushed the door open—and saw the girl sitting at his dressing table.

For a moment he stood there, startled at her slim, fragile beauty. He had only a glimpse of her in the night, as she ran, but it was enough for him to recognize her. Now he saw what the night had denied him—the clear blue of her eyes, the delicate auburn tint of her wind-tossed hair, the slim whiteness of her throat. She sat there tensely waiting for him, her hands clasped tightly in the lap of her blue plaid sport coat.

"Come in, please—quickly!" she said.

Ed stepped into the dressing room, closed the door.

"Lock it, please!"

Ed nodded, turned the catch. He looked at the girl and noted a certain subtle resemblance between her and the limping man. The eyes and mouth were much the same; there was that same bright and vivid look about her as about that gallant man who had died outside.

"You'll be Donna, then?" Ed asked softly.

She stiffened. "Pierre told you—before he died?"

"Only your name. He gave me this for you." Ed took the compact from his pocket. Donna seemed about to leap up and snatch it—but she held herself back. Her eyes were fixed on the compact.

It was the first chance that Ed had had to examine it in the light. He saw at once that it was no ordinary compact. Even an amateur could tell that it was made of pure gold. It gleamed rich and yellow under the electric light. And there did not seem to be any way to open it.

Ed weighed it in his hand, studied the girl. "Pierre—" he asked gently—"was your brother?"

"Yes. My brother. He was the second of my brothers to die for that trinket in your hand!"

SHE rose abruptly from the chair and came to him. Her head barely reached his shoulder. She looked up at him and there was moisture in her eyes. "I—I saw what you did. How you came to Pierre's aid. You would have saved his life—if it had not been already gone. He got that first wound two hours ago, when we landed on Long Island... They were waiting for us—and opened fire. We only got away by the skin of our teeth. Pierre caught that bullet under his heart. I do not know how he managed to stay alive so long. It was his courage alone that carried him so far."

Ed put the compact into her hand. "This is yours. I give it to you freely and ask no questions. But if you care to tell me about it, I shall be glad to listen. Perhaps I can help you."

She took the trinket, smiled wanly. "Damon will surely kill you for this."

"Damon? Is he the chap with the Vandyke beard?"

"Yes. Dimitri Damon. A renegade Greek who has lived in every country of the world, and whose crimes have not yet caught up with him!"

"Why is he after this thing?"

She gave him a queer look. "See for yourself," she said. She held up the compact. Ed saw that around the rim were engraved all the characters of the classic Greek alphabet—alpha, beta, gamma, delta—all the way around to omega.

"Watch carefully," she told him. "I hold it between my thumb and forefinger, with the thumb on beta and the forefinger on pi." She held it up between the two fingers of her right hand, and Ed frowned in perplexity.

"Then," she went on, "I put the thumb and forefinger of my other hand on kappa and upsilon. And then I press lightly with all four fingers."

She pressed upon the rim as she spoke, and there was a click inside the box. Immediately, the top flew open on a concealed hinge. And Ed saw the hooked cross of Nazi Germany. He knew at a glance that the small swastika was worth a fortune, intrinsically. For it was set upon a bed of platinum, and the swastika itself was formed by thirty-two small, graded lapis lazuli stones of the purest ultramarine. The largest stones were set at the center and the smallest at the extremities, so that it gave the impression of the swastika coming to a point at each of the ends.

Ed Race raised his eyes from that sign of dreadful hate and intolerance and bestiality, to the eyes of the gentle and beautiful girl who had shown him the secret.

"Yes!" she breathed. "It's a swastika. There are only five like this in all the world. They were made in a concentration camp in Germany, by the greatest jeweler who ever lived in our times—my father!" Her head went up in pride.

"Your father?"

"Yes. I am Donna Lacleed. My brother and I are Dutch. We were educated in England and France. My father was Loren Lacleed. You've heard the name?"

"Of course!" said Ed. "The House of Lacleed!"

She nodded. "In Amsterdam, the House of Lacleed was famous. Royalty from all over the world sent us their stones to be cut and set. There were six of us—my father, four brothers and I. Then the Germans came. Pierre and Etienne and I escaped to Sweden. Edouard and Jacques were with the Dutch Army but they did not throw down their arms. They made their way to France, and then to England. The Germans got my father. They put him in a concentration camp and they set him to work—to make five tokens such as this, all of lapis lazuli looted from Holland."

"What are they for?" Ed asked.

SHE smiled bitterly. "They were for the top men among the Nazis. They are a sign. He who carries one of these lapis lazuli swastikas in Germany, or anywhere in the lands which have been conquered by Germany, enjoys implicit obedience. It is like the king's signet ring in the old days. It will open all doors in Germany; it will ensure its owner absolute authority over all whom he meets.

"My father fooled his jailers. He made six instead of five; and he smuggled this one out of the concentration camp, by devious routes to Sweden—to Pierre and Etienne and me. But we had left Sweden and came here to Canada. This swastika followed us. It was delivered to us a month ago, in Montreal, by a Jewish refugee."

"But why did you and Pierre come here to New York?"

"Because Dimitri Damon was after us! Somehow, he learned that a sixth lapis swastika existed, consigned to us. Too late, we learned that his agents were on our trail. They were clever, cunning and ruthless. In Montreal, the night after we received it, they launched their devilish scheme against us.

"We were staying in a lodging house. The man who lived next door was found stabbed to death. In his room was a knife belonging to Pierre—and other evidence which seemed to prove that Pierre had done the murder. But Damon didn't want us to be caught. He wanted us to be free—but fugitives. So he was kind enough to warn us. We understood that it would be useless to stay. Pierre would have been convicted and hung. So we packed hurriedly and left."

"This fellow, Damon, is a tricky customer."

She nodded. "Dimitri Damon is the devil incarnate. It was he who sent us out as fugitives, so that his men could have a better chance to attack us. Four times they tried. The third time we got away only because Etienne stayed behind, sacrificing his life so that we could escape.

"We stole across the border into the United States but there was still a price on our heads. If the authorities here catch us, we will be returned to Canada—" she caught herself—"I mean I will be returned. For I'm alone now. Pierre and Etienne are gone."

"But what do you want to do with this swastika?"

There was a bright, hopeful light in her eyes. "Recently, I was in contact with my other two brothers in England—Edouard and Jacques. I hope to get to England and join them. Then, with this swastika, we will somehow get to Germany and rescue our father from that concentration camp!"

"I see," said Ed Race. He put his hand on her arm. "Brave girl!"

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Then it was repeated twice again.

"That must be Hansen," said Ed. "Getting impatient. What'll I do with you?"

"Please—don't tell him who I am. If the police hold me, I may lose all chance of leaving the country. Pierre arranged with the captain of a Mexican ship to meet us here in New York tonight and take us to Buenos Aires. We had Argentine passports and we will have no difficulty in sailing openly from there for England. But if the police arrest me—"

"All right, Donna," Ed said. "I'll tell him you're a girl named Myrtle from Brooklyn." He smiled and hurried to the door, as the knock was again repeated. "Here I come!" he called out. He glanced over his shoulder, saw that Donna had put away the swastika token. Then he unlocked the door. He pulled it open—

The man with the Vandyke beard stepped into the room, followed by the two who had accompanied him into the theatre. All three of them held pistols.

THE bearded Dimitri Damon thrust the muzzle of his pistol against Ed's chest and said softly, "As you know, we have no compunctions about killing. At the first move you make for those revolvers of yours, I shall shoot you!"

The three of them moved into the room, the last one closing the door.

Damon's eyes were glittering with the hard stare of a basilisk. His little, red-pointed tongue showed above his beard as he licked his lips with greedy desire. "The swastika token!" he said. "I want it!"

Donna Lacleed was close to the window. She was staring, with revulsion, at the murderous little renegade Greek. But Ed's heart warmed to her as he saw that there was not the slightest trace of fear in her bearing.

"You treacherous little beast!" she exclaimed. "You murdered Etienne and then Pierre. Now you want to take from me the only chance of saving my father—"

Damon's red lips twisted into a savage smile. He motioned to his two men, and ordered softly, "Felix! Luigi! Search her. She must have the swastika!"

The two men moved toward Donna. But all the time that he spoke to Donna, the little renegade's beady eyes were fixed upon Ed Race. "The swastika token is more important to me than the miserable life of your father. Do you think I shall turn it over to the Nazis? I would be a fool if I did! They know nothing about this sixth swastika. By a special irrevocable decree of Hitler, any man who carries the lapis swastika enjoys immunity forever.

"Hitler has given one of them to Goering and one to Goebbels. One he has kept for himself. The other two, he has given in secret, I do not know to whom. But this I know—that with the lapis swastika, I can travel from one end of Europe to the other, and no one will dare to lay a hand on me. So you see, that swastika means everything to me. I shall have it—by any means known in hell!"

Felix and Luigi were moving over toward Donna, when she suddenly thrust a hand into her bodice and drew out the glittering gold box. Her eyes were flashing defiantly.

"No, Dimitri Damon! You shall not have it." She raised her hand, clutching the box, and held it ready to hurl out through the window. "Tell your men to stop where they are, or I'll throw it out into the street. The police are out there. They will find it—and you'll never get your hands on it!"

Damon smiled wolfishly. "Do not throw it, Donna Lacleed. If you move your arm another fraction of an inch, I shall shoot you before you can throw it!" As he spoke he took a step backward—and swung his pistol to cover her.

Ed Race had been waiting tensely, muscles taut, for just such a chance as this. The moment the muzzle of that pistol veered away from him, he threw himself into a back flip. His body streaked through the air bewilderingly.

Damon uttered a strange and savage oath—swerved his gun, and fired. But the moving body of Ed Race was a confusing target. The bullet sped between Ed's legs, whirling in the air—and struck Felix in the forehead. Felix went down with a choked cry, which was drowned by the bark of Luigi's pistol, as he, too, frantically took a shot at Ed and missed.

But Ed Race was already out of the back flip, at the far end of the room. He was on his feet—and, miraculously, the two heavy, hair-trigger forty-fives were in his hands. He had done this on the stage, only fifteen minutes ago, drawing and shooting at silver dollars whirling in the air. On the stage, there had been only the urge to hit those whirling dollars, in order to satisfy an audience. But here, in the tight and deadly confines of the dressing room, there was the terrible need to shoot to kill against two armed men.

Ed's mouth tightened into a thin, grim line as he swung the two revolvers, one far to the right to get Luigi, the other straight ahead to get Damon. Both guns were roaring even as his feet touched the floor. Neither of those two men had a chance for a second shot, because Ed Race's bullets smashed with grim accuracy into the exact spots he aimed at—between the eyes.

It is doubtful if either Damon or Luigi knew exactly what hit them; because they had seen Ed empty-handed a split-second before. But they were denied the pleasure of applauding that performance, for they were dead before their bodies struck the floor!

The room re-echoed thunderously to the deep-throated detonations of those powerful forty-fives. Ed Race turned to Donna Lacleed. She was still standing there at the window, holding the swastika token above her head, still not able to believe that the need for hurling it out the window had passed.

Ed holstered his revolvers and came over and took her arm. She closed her eyes hard—and when she opened them again, there was a bit of moisture in each.

"You—you've saved the token for me!" she breathed. "I owe you everything!"

There was a lot of shouting in the corridor, and the sound of men's feet approaching heavily. "That'll be Inspector Hansen this time," Ed said. "And no mistake. If he finds you here, it'll be hard to fool him. Better get out the window."

He locked the door to give them another couple of minutes, and yanked one of the drapes off the window. He twisted it down its length, knotting it every couple of feet. "It's only six feet to the ground. From there on, you'll be on your own, Donna."

"I'll be all right now—with Damon dead!" she exclaimed. "I can board the Mexican ship at once and by morning I'll be on my way. If it hadn't been for you—"

Someone began to pound on the door. The familiar voice of Inspector Hansen shouted from outside: "Open up in there!"

Ed patted her on the shoulder, threw one end of the knotted drape out the window, and helped her over the sill. She paused there a moment, her eyes frankly full of tears.

"When we have rescued my father from that concentration camp," she whispered, "my brothers and I will come back and thank you. Till then—" she reached up and touched her lips to his—"Donna Lacleed will pray for you every day!"

Then she let herself down into the night.

The pounding at the door increased in intensity. "Race!" shouted Inspector Hansen. "Are you all right in there? Race—"

"Coming!" called Ed. He waited another minute, to give Donna a good head start, and then he went and opened the door.

Inspector Hansen came lumbering in, with Lou Bates and a couple of other men at his back. He stopped and looked at the litter of dead on the floor, and groaned. "Good Lord! Four outside—and three inside! Have you gone berserk, Race? What the devil have you been up to?"

"Nothing much," Ed said quietly. "Just preparing for a vacancy in a Nazi concentration camp!"

Hansen scowled at him, then looked significantly at Lou Bates. "He's gone completely nuts!" the inspector growled. "It must be his nerves. They're all shot to pieces."

"Shot to pieces—is right, Inspector," said Lou Bates.


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