Clown of Doom

by John L. Benton

 

Ed Rice Masquerades as a Corpse to Nab a Killer!

I'M TRAVELING with the Slocum-Lansing Carnival when murder breaks loose on the lot. Ed Rice is my name, and if I do say it myself with unbecoming modesty, I've got the gift of gab. I do the ballyhoo for one of the shows on the Midway, and my spiel sure drags in the cash customers.

I've worked carnies since before I was old enough to know better. But don't get me wrong. I am just kidding by that crack. I've known lots of swell folks in the carnival game, and been with some grand outfits, but the Slocum-Lansing set-up is something else again.

“There's one thing I want understood from the start, Mr. Rice,” says Colonel Rumsey Slocum, who owns the show—except when there is trouble with the Law, and then John Lansing becomes the boss. “We are not in business for our health, so any ideas that might occur to you that will bring in an honest dollar will be most cordially welcomed.”

“I get you, Colonel,” I say. “I'll tell you if I get any bright ideas.”

It isn't until I'd been with the show for a week or so that I get the irony of that crack about an honest dollar. There is no such thing on the lot. If there ever was a carny rigged to trim the suckers it is the Slocum-Lansing outfit. Every concession from the games to the Ten-in-One show is crooked. There's a gaff on everything.

The carnival is small and mostly plays the tank towns. When we set up on the lot there is the Ten-in-One, which is the freak show, two girl-shows, a pit-show, which consists of a few small animals, and a “walkthrough” which don't mean much.

I am the spieler for the freak show. In it we have Madame Zonga, who does a mind-reading act, Queen Tillie, the fat lady, Semba, the strong man, a thin man, an alligator-skin boy, a midget, the half-man-and-half-woman, a snake charmer, a giant and a sword-swallower. Ten different acts, which is why it is called the Ten-in-One.

From the day I start on the job, Semba, the strong man, seems to take a dislike to me. Just why, I don't know then. It can't be because I get in his hair, for he is as bald as an Easter egg. He is supposed to be the strongest man in the world—a savage found in the wilds of Borneo before the war.

“You're supposed to play me up big,” he tells me when I meet him for the first time. “I'm the star act in this show. The last man who had your job as 'opener' didn't agree on that—so he got fired.”

“Don't let him kid you, Ed,” says the fat lady, who is listening as are the others in the show. “Semba just thinks he's important around here. If you ask me, he's the weakest strong man I ever worked with in any show.”

“Be quiet, Queen.” Semba glares at her.

“You talk too much.”

RIGHT then I decide that Semba, whose real name is Joe Carson, would make a dangerous and vicious enemy. He is big, with bulging muscles, and he wears tan make-up all over his body, and a leopard skin when he is doing his act. He sure features the wild, strong man from Borneo.

From the way they act, I can see the rest of the performers in the Ten-in-One don't like Semba, and I gradually find out why. The strong man has a cruel sense of humor. He thinks it is fun to get Zolinda's snakes excited just before a show so that she has a hard time handling them. He is always picking on Tiny Tad, the midget.

All in all I find Semba isn't a gorilla I could learn to like. I'm too fond of animals. But he don't bother me much the first few weeks I am with the show. And I find that when you work for the colonel you labor, and I don't mean maybe.

There is a girl in the Posing Show that I think is really something. Her name is Sue Deming, and she is a slender brunette with all the curves in the right places. A pretty kid, not more than twenty— and if you ask me, she don't belong with that carny crowd.

Old Jed Weston, who does a clown bicycle act with the show, is always watching Sue, and protecting her when there is any trouble. I wonder about this until I learn that Jed is the girl's uncle. Semba is always trying to make dates with Sue and getting turned down. He don't like that at all.

About the third week I am on the job I have a run-in with Colonel Slocum about my salary. Every week when my pay is due he gives me the sob story about the show having had a bad week, expenses are high, and so he can pay me only half of my wages. After the third week of that routine it gets monotonous.

“Quit stalling and hand over what's due me, Colonel,” I tell him one Saturday night. “You owe me forty bucks and I can use that dough.”

“Now, now, Ed,” says Slocum in a fatherly tone, as he tugs at his white goatee. “Be reasonable. I like you, my boy, and want to do all I can for you, and I'll prove it.”

He reaches into his left hand trouser pocket and pulls out a thin roll of bills, peels off a sawbuck and hands it to me. He makes it look like a grand gesture. It might impress me if I didn't happen to know he carries enough money in a roll in his right-hand pocket to choke a horse.

“You still owe me thirty,” I say, as I take the ten-spot. “Come on—give.” Then I get smart and make the crack that nearly costs me my life. “I mean it, Colonel. You see, I happen to know where the body is buried.”

For a moment Slocum just sits there glaring at me. Up to then I'm thinking he is just a crooked old bluff, but it dawns on me that the colonel might be really dangerous.

“I wonder if you do know something, Ed,” he says, half-talking to himself. “Or are you just babbling.”

“Babbling, my eye,” I say, hoping to bluff him into handing over the rest of my pay. “I know plenty.” Then I think of something that has been worrying me ever since I'd started working for the carny. “Where's John Lansing?”

I have never seen Lansing around, and when I ask any of the rest of the carnival bunch about him, they either change the subject in a hurry or just shut up. Sue and I have become good friends, but every time I ask her about Lansing she just looks scared and won't talk.

A week ago we had played a town where some of the local citizens hadn't liked the way no one but our shills won on the games. Unfortunately the colonel had picked a town where everybody knows everyone else, so they spot the shills and raise a howl. Slocum blames it all on Lansing when the local Law comes around. According to the colonel, Lansing is the sole owner of the show, but he is away.

We get out of there fast—before they close us up.

Now I find that with my crack about knowing where the body is buried I have stepped into something.

“Lansing is around,” the colonel says slowly.

“But perhaps you had better forget the whole thing, Ed.” He counts the thin roll of bills he is still holding in his hand. “Here's the rest of your salary money—thirty dollars still due, wasn't it?”

“That's right.” I count the money, then stick it in my pocket. There is something about the way the colonel is watching me that makes me feel creepy. “Thanks, colonel.”

“You're welcome.” His tone is dry.

I leave him then and head for the trailer where I sleep. It belongs to a couple of other spielers on the lot—Fred Lester and Bill McKee. But when I reach the trailer Bill and Fred are not there. Then I remember they said they were going into town after we closed for the night. We are playing the week in the outskirts of a fair-sized city.

FOR a time I sit outside the trailer smoking. It is a hot night—sticky, and with not the slightest hint of a breeze stirring. I haven't been there long when Sue appears. She lives in another trailer with a couple of the other girls in the Posing Show.

“All alone, Ed?” she asks as she seats herself beside me. “It sure is hot tonight.”

She is wearing a thin summer dress, and she sure looks lovely in the moonlight. Funny, I have been seeing her every day in the scanty, one-piece bathing suit she wears in the show, but she never has looked as pretty as she does now.

We talk for a while, just casual chatter that don't mean much. The door of the trailer is open, and we are sitting on the doorstep. I put my arm around her and she don't try to draw away.

“I made a mistake tonight,” I say casually, and she leans her head against my shoulder. “I told the Colonel I knew where the body is buried.”

Sue sighs. “You're smart, Ed,” she says. “We've all been sure that John Lansing was murdered—but no one can prove it.”

“Murdered!” I exclaim. “So that's it! Have you any idea why he might have been killed?”

“No,” Sue says slowly. “We've all been afraid to talk. Anyone on the lot might be the murderer. None of us want to be the next victim. Just tonight Uncle Jed told me that he has proof that Lansing was murdered—but he is not going to say anything until he has a chance to talk to the police in town tomorrow.”

Just then I hear a slight sound on the other side of the trailer. It sounds like a twig breaking as someone steps on it. Sue draws away from me, a look of fear on her face. Her blue eyes gleam in the pale light.

“I heard someone,” she whispers.

We listen. There is the sound of footsteps— someone moving away swiftly. I get to my feet and go around the trailer. I catch a glimpse of a big shadow form disappearing in some trees at the edge of the lot.

“See anyone?” Sue asks, as she joins me.

“Somebody ducked in among those trees,” I say. “Couldn't be sure who it was though.”

“Semba?” she asks. “He's always following me.”

“Might have been. A big man anyway. It could have been Harry the giant. I—”

From the trees there comes the cry of someone in pain. I stop speaking abruptly as I heard it. Sue catches me by the arm, her fingers digging into the flesh through my shirt sleeve.

“I'm going to see what's happened,” I say.

“You'd better stay here, Sue.”

“All right, if you say so, Ed.” She releases my arm. “But be careful.”

I run toward the trees, and when I get near them I slow down to a walk. I don't know what might be waiting back there in the shadows, for the thick branches cut off the light from the moon. I step forward, moving into the shadows.

At any moment I expect somebody to pounce on me, but nothing moves. I step into a clearing beyond the trees. There I see a still form lying on the grass, the white face staring up at the sky. There is no one else around.

I go closer to that motionless figure—there's something familiar about it. When I get a good look at the face I see it is Jed Weston. He is wearing ordinary clothes—not the usual clown suit and make-up he wears while the show is going on.

For a moment I stand there, listening, trying to assure myself the murderer is not lurking close by. I hear nothing, so I lean down and examine the old man. Jed is dead all right. Somebody has broken his neck.

“Semba?” I mutter. “I wonder?”

I am sure the killer is gone, but I'm dreading the task I have now. It won't be easy to tell Sue her uncle is dead—murdered.

I whirl as I hear a noise behind me. Sue is standing there. She moves forward slowly.

“It—it's Uncle Jed,” she says, her voice trembling. “And they killed him!”

“That's right, Sue. I'm sorry. But there is something your uncle would want you to do for
him—and that's help me find the murderer.”

“Of course.” Sue nods. “But how, Ed?”

“We've got to make the killer think your uncle isn't dead,” I say. “And then perhaps the murderer will come out into the open and try again.”

She turns away, so she can no longer see the corpse. I talk fast and finally she nods again.

“I guess it is the only way,” she says, when I finish. “I hope it works.”

“You go back to your trailer, honey,” I say.

“I'll take care of everything. But remember the clown costume.”

I wait until she is gone, then go back to the trailer and get a blanket. I wrap the dead man in this and carry the body to a sort of gully where I hide it. I'm going to leave it there only until sometime tomorrow, but I try to arrange things so Jed Weston's body won't be found easily. Then I go back to the trailer.

AT NOON the next day I have apparently disappeared. The colonel gives Bill McKee the job of spieler for the Ten-in-One. I am hiding on the lot, and now I am dressed in the clown outfit that Jed Weston had worn. My face is painted white, and I wear a bald wig which is also covered with clown-white. I have a painted, red putty nose and must look exactly like the dead man in costume.

I wait until the afternoon show starts. McKee is out in front of the tent giving the spiel. Some of the freaks are standing on the platform in front of the tent for the ballyhoo. I see that Semba is up there.

Sue and some of the other girls in the Posing Show are standing out front of their tent, dressed in bathing suits. I notice that the “Sampson” is close to the tent. That is the thing where you hit a trigger with a big wooden mallet, and a sort of thermometer registers your strength. If you're good, a bell rings and you get a cigar. But it is phony-rigged like everything else and only the shills ever ring the bell. They know the gaff on the joint.

I step out near the front of the Ten-in-One. Semba sees me and goes wild. He grabs a knife out of the sword-swallower's hand, leaps down off the platform, and comes running toward me with the weapon in his hand.

“I'll kill you!” Semba shouts.

I aim a right at his jaw, but I might just as well be trying to break a cement wall with my fist. He grabs me by the throat with his left hand and thrusts me backward, raising the knife to plunge it into my heart.

But Sue has leaped down off the platform of the other tent, and she grabs up the wooden mallet that belongs to the Sampson as she races toward us. She raises the mallet with both hands and brings it down on Semba's head just as the point of the knife cuts the flesh of my chest. Semba drops—knocked cold by the blow.

“What's going on here?” demands Colonel Slocum as he comes rushing up, his familiar heavy cane in his right hand. “Why did Semba try to kill you, Ed?”

“Ed?” I say. “So you know that I'm not Weston, do you, Colonel? Then you must have been sure you murdered Jed last night. Broke his neck by hitting him in just the right spot with that cane of yours. I guess he must have discovered that you did murder John Lansing, and get rid of the body somewhere.”

“He lied to me!” says Semba, as he opens his eyes and staggers to his feet. He sure is hard- headed. “Told me you had killed Jed, and were going to blame me for the crime. That you were going to pretend you were Weston in the clown outfit. So when I saw you I tried to kill you.”

“I misjudged you last night, Colonel,” I say.

“You did stick around and must have heard everything Sue and I said. So you talked Semba into making an attempt to kill me today.”

“Nonsense, my boy,” says the colonel, trying to assume his fatherly air. “You imagined the whole thing. Why should I murder my partner?”

“Because Lansing had all his money in the show!” shouts Semba. “And you wanted that dough! I've kept quiet long enough. I saw you kill Lansing—and I'm willing to talk to the police.” He smiles at me. “That's why I didn't like you when you joined the show, Ed. I thought you might be a detective.”

“He was, in a way,” says Sue, looking at me proudly. “At least he found the real killer.” She raises the mallet in her hands, “Keep still, Colonel, or I'll win a cigar by hitting you over the head with this.”

“My gal,” I say, with a grin, as the local police who are on the lot come toward us. “Ain't she something!”