The Crimson Avenger did a small double-take. “You caused your brother’s death?”
“I didn’t intentionally kill him,” Wayne Trigger said. “But I as good as did! Had it not been for me, my brother would have lived, might even be alive today! But he’s been dead in his grave these fifty years, while I go on, and on.” The grief cracking the old man’s voice was enough to move the coldest heart to tears.
“How did it happen?” the Crimson Avenger asked.
Trigger hesitated, then sighed. “I never wrote it in my book. I was too ashamed. You read how my brother impersonated me and helped me out of jams too big for me to handle, right?” The Avenger nodded. “Well, that went on for ten years. We got quite a reputation out there in the Arizona Territory, or, rather, I did. I took all the credit, while Walt did at least as much actual fighting as I did, probably more. By 1889 I was the most famous lawman west of the Rockies. Well, it was a toss-up between me and Johnny Thunder, over in Mesa City. Anyway, back in ’89, three former crooks that Walt and I had put out of business combined resources to hire a killer to bring me down. We hadn’t left ’em with much, but what they had they put together, and hired the best gun they could afford between ’em — a killer name of Gold-Fang Gibson. They called him that on account of this huge gold tooth he had, right in the front of his mouth where everybody could see it. He was one of the most feared guns in the territory. He sent word ahead of him that he’d be in town in three days, and he was callin’ me out.”
“What happened then?” asked the Avenger, enthralled.
“Walt tried to talk me out of meetin’ him,” Trigger said. “Said Gibson’d kill me stone dead for sure. I knew he was right, but I also knew that I couldn’t back down from the challenge; I’d be called a coward, and my reputation — and the peace it brought to Rocky City — would be lost. Walt tried to talk me into lettin’ him take my place, but my stubborn pride wouldn’t let me. I had to meet Gibson myself.”
“And did you?”
“No,” Trigger said. “The day Gibson arrived, Walt slugged me from behind, left me in the back room of his store, and took my place. He met Gold-Fang Gibson in the center of town, pretendin’ to be me.”
“And Gibson killed him,” the Avenger said.
“Hell, no!” Trigger snapped. “That owlhoot was no match for Walt Trigger! They shot it out man to man, and Walt shot the gun clean out of his hand! Disarmed him quicker’n a howdy-do!” Trigger shook his head ruefully. “But the crooks that’d hired him left nothin’ to chance. They also hired snipers to set up in the clock tower and gun my brother — that is, me, they thought — down, if’n Gold-Fang failed. Which they did. Shot him right through the heart, the skulkin’ killers did.”
“And you blame yourself for this?” the Crimson Avenger asked.
“Danged right!” Trigger spat. “If I hadn’t been so hardheaded, if I’d’ve let Walt talk me into takin’ my place, I’d’ve been watchin’ his back, and I’d’ve got those sneak-killers afore they got him! As it was, I was sleepin’ off a lump on the head while my brother died in the dust!”
“What happened then?” the Avenger asked.
“Nothin’ much,” Trigger said. “The townsfolk cornered the snipers in the clock tower; they told who had hired ’em, and the lot of ’em hung. ‘Ceptin’ Gibson; he sneaked away in the confusion. I looked for him for a few years; never did find him. Wouldn’t’ve brought Walt back, anyhow.”
“And you think your brother’s spirit haunts the production of the film?” the Avenger asked. “Why?”
“Because I’ve seen him, that’s why!” Trigger exploded. “He comes to me in the night, starin’ at me with those accusin’ eyes of his! Never says a word, mind; just stares at me. Waitin’ for me to join him on the other side, so he can have his revenge!”
“You’ve actually seen his ghost?” the Avenger said. “Mr. Trigger, don’t you think–?”
“Look!” Trigger shrieked, pointing with a trembling finger. “It’s him!”
The Avenger turned his head and gasped. There, standing in the middle of the room, was a red-haired young man in a buckskin outfit and sheriff’s badge, staring straight ahead with a malevolent expression on his face.
The ghost of Walt Trigger.
The Crimson Avenger stared at the apparition in shock for a split-second. Then he charged into action, drawing his gun and firing. The elderly Trigger shrieked in surprise and terror, but with a sound of shattering glass, the ghostly figure faded away.
“W-what did you do?” Trigger stammered. “You can’t — I mean, a ghost — you can’t possibly–”
“Can’t kill a ghost with a bullet?” the Crimson Avenger asked grimly. “No, you can’t. But you can shoot out a film projector.”
“A what?!” Trigger demanded, all fear gone from his voice, replaced with cold rage.
The Crimson Avenger strode swiftly across the room, took down the framed painting his bullet had destroyed, revealing the shattered lens of a film projector behind it. “No ghost, Mr. Trigger,” he said. “Just a human mind trying to make you think there was a ghost.”
“Blazes!” Trigger swore, throwing off the bedcovers. “Get me my guns! Help me find this owlhoot who’s profaning my brother’s memory in this way! I’ll string him up like a deer! I’ll–”
“Take it easy, sir,” the Crimson Avenger said. “I’ll find this man. Don’t overexert yourself.”
“You’re not my nursemaid, Avenger!” Trigger spat. “Anyway, I can walk; that wheelchair over there is just for conserving my energy. Just you give me a few minutes–”
“We may not have that,” the Avenger said, striding to the window. The projector was operated by a control wire; it couldn’t be very long, so the operator had to be close by, probably in the next room. The Avenger hadn’t heard anybody in the hallway, so he went to the window. Sure enough, he saw a dark, shadowy form hurrying down the fire escape.
“Hold it!” the Crimson Avenger cried, aiming his gun. “Stop right there!”
The dark form hesitated for a moment, then drew his own gun. The Avenger fired first; the dark figure was hurled backward into the guard rail of the fire escape, then slumped down onto the metal steps.
“It’s over, Mr. Trigger,” the Crimson Avenger said, walking over to the bed. Wayne Trigger now stood beside the bed, a bathrobe hastily pulled over his pajamas. “I got him.”
“Let me see,” Trigger said, walking shakily to the window. “Let me see the ranny who tried to make me think my brother had come back from the grave to get me! I want to see his body!”
“Right out there on the fire escape,” the Avenger said, pointing. Trigger hobbled over to the window to look. “I don’t know who it is yet, but that will–”
“Where?” Trigger asked, peering out the window. “I don’t see any body!”
“He’s right down–” The Avenger looked out the window and gasped in disbelief.
There was no body on the fire escape. The man was gone.
“Maybe there’s a ghost in this thing after all,” Trigger said mirthlessly.
“I still don’t know how I let you talk me into this,” the Crimson Avenger said in a hushed whisper as he pushed Wayne Trigger’s wheelchair down the darkened halls of Pyramid Studios.
“Don’t give me any sass, youngster,” Trigger hissed back. “I was runnin’ down killers an’ crooks like this ‘n when your grandpa was rollin’ hoops! You need my help, an’ you know it!”
The Crimson Avenger allowed himself a slight little smile. Perhaps the old man’s knowledge of the case and its genesis, as well as his experience, could be useful.
“Hold it!” Trigger hissed, holding up a hand. The Avenger halted. “There’s someone in that room,” Trigger said, pointing.
The Crimson Avenger listened intently, then nodded. He, too, heard someone moving around behind the closed door. He held a finger up to his lips for silence; Trigger nodded, acknowledging the command. Silently, the Avenger crept up to the door, wrapped his fingers around the knob, and suddenly jerked the door open, thrusting his gun into the room.
“Yaaa-aah!” A scream came from inside the room. The Crimson Avenger involuntarily flinched, then relaxed.
“Bedford!” the Avenger snapped. “What are you doing here at this hour?”
“W-who are you?” the terrified director asked. “That mask — that gun! Y-you’re the one who’s been–”
“Don’t be a consarned fool, Bedford!” Trigger snapped. “He’s the Crimson Avenger!”
“Mr. Trigger!” Bedford gasped, not having seen the old man before. “The Crimson Avenger? The masked vigilante from New York? What’s he — what are you doing here?”
“I’m trying to help Mr. Trigger find the man who’s trying to sabotage your movie, and trying to drive Mr. Trigger insane,” the Avenger said.
“Insane?” Bedford asked. “What are you talking about?”
“Some ranny’s been usin’ movie trickery to make me think my brother’s ghost has been hauntin’ me!” Trigger snapped. “The same sidewinder who’s tryin’ to wreck the movie, we think.”
“Incredible!” Bedford gasped. “But what are you doing here?”
“The most likely place the phantom got the equipment to create the phoney ghost would be here,” the Avenger explained. “We thought examining the equipment might offer up a clue as to who has been using it.”
“Good idea!” Bedford said. “All the stuff someone would need is in that room I just came out of. Can I help you?”
“Well, we don’t really know what we’re looking for,” the Crimson Avenger said. “We’ll know it when we find it. But another pair of eyes couldn’t hurt.” The Avenger holstered his gun and pushed the wheelchair into the room, as Bedford held the door. The small room was filled with motion picture equipment; the Avenger’s eyes scanned the room quickly, taking it all in.
Suddenly, he stiffened, his muscles tense. “Say, Bedford,” he said, “you never told us what you’re doing h–”
The Avenger heard the click of a door closing. He turned to see the white-haired director grinning maliciously, rows of perfect white teeth glinting in the light of the single bare bulb of the equipment room, a revolver aimed right at the Crimson Avenger’s heart.
“The newspapers call you a brilliant man, a genius working outside the law,” Bedford taunted. “I’ll have to see that the stories are amended.”
The Crimson Avenger said nothing, standing there with fists clenched, face burning with rage. He had walked into a trap like a rank amateur. Well, he had only been a professional crime-fighter for three months. Now he wondered if he would make it to four.
“You!” Trigger snapped. “You’re the one! You’ve been sabotagin’ the movie, an’ made that phoney ghost! It’s been you all along!”
“Guilty as charged, Sheriff,” Bedford taunted. “You going to take me in?”
“It was you on the fire escape?” the Avenger asked. When Bedford silently nodded, he went on. “I shot you; I know I did. I saw you go down. How did you survive that shot?”
“One more thing I owe you for, Avenger,” Bedford said, reaching into his vest pocket with his free hand. “Your bullet ruined a perfectly good pocket watch. I’ve had it for a long, long time.” The old man withdrew a huge iron watch, the size of a turnip, trailing a long, silver chain. The watch had been ruined by a bullet striking it. The Avenger and Trigger gasped when the end of the chain popped out of Bedford’s pocket; dangling from its end was a single gold tooth, shining in the light of the naked bulb.
“You — you–!” Trigger stammered, unable to form the words.
Bedford grinned and tapped his perfect teeth with a fingernail. “False teeth,” he explained. “A concession to Father Time. Had them about twelve years now.”
“You’re Gold-Fang Gibson!” the Crimson Avenger spat. “The man who was hired to kill Walt Trigger!”
“My only failure,” Bedford/Gibson sighed. “When the snipers killed him — I hadn’t known about them; believe me, I wouldn’t have allowed such unprofessionalism on one of my jobs — I ran like hell, because I knew the townspeople would be after me. And the real Sheriff Wayne, once I learned the truth. I kept running until I met a traveling theatre troupe in Dodge City. They were short a stagehand, someone to build and set up scenery and suchlike, so they took me on. I stayed with them for a few years, learning the theatre craft. Turned out I had an affinity for it, a natural talent. I changed my name and became a well-respected stage director. When movies got started, I was in on the ground floor. When Barlowe asked me to direct the Trigger picture, I couldn’t think of a way to refuse without throwing suspicion on myself. But I knew that, sooner or later, the old fool would recognize me, unless I kept his mind busy with other things.”
“So now what?” Trigger demanded. “You yellow-bellied, dust-eatin’, cowardly fool, now what?”
“Now, this,” Bedford/Gibson said casually, and pulled the trigger. In the small, enclosed room, the gunshot sounded like a thunderclap. Trigger clutched his chest with his age-gnarled fingers.
“Trigger!” the Avenger cried, and made to lunge at the gunman. He halted in mid-stride, Bedford/Gibson’s gun aimed right at his head.
“I can’t thank you enough for meddling in this business, Avenger,” the evil director grinned.
“Thank me?” the Crimson Avenger demanded through clenched teeth.
“Oh, yes,” the killer explained. “I had no ending prepared for this scene. But now, it practically writes itself. You were the saboteur all along, and you killed the old man. I happened upon the scene of the crime, while working late trying to salvage the ruined film, and I shot you. Perfect ending, no?”
“Why would I want to wreck the movie and kill the old man?” the Avenger demanded. “What’s my motivation?”
“How should I know?” Bedford/Gibson shrugged. “I’ll leave it to the police to figure that out. I’m sure they’ll come up with something, when they’re presented with a handy suspect, and the sabotage stops.” The killer drew back the hammer on his revolver. “And now, Mr. Crimson Avenger… goodbye.”
“Gibson!” A sepulchral voice intoned; actually two voices speaking simultaneously. The gunman whirled around and shrieked in abject terror.
A ghostly apparition, just like the one in Wayne Trigger’s hotel room, confronted the killer. Only it was two ghostly figures, both Trigger Twins, staring at the killer with undisguised malice.
“No!” Bedford/Gibson cried out. “No, stay away! Y-you can’t!” In terror, the killer fired his gun at one of the ghostly Trigger Twins. His bullet passed right through the spectral figure and struck a fire extinguisher hanging on the wall beside the closed door. The cylinder exploded, hurling Bedford/Gibson backward. The Crimson Avenger was ready; he followed through with a smashing right cross to the killer’s jaw, which spun him around on his feet, then dropped him to the floor like a stone.
“Great work, Mr. Trigger!” the Avenger cried out, watching the killer fall. “I guess you found one of his projectors, used his own trick on him! But we’d better get you to the hospital before that… wound…”
The Crimson Avenger turned to stare at Wayne Trigger. He lay motionless in his wheelchair, his head rolled back on his neck, a bright blossom of blood staining his chest. He was not breathing.
The Avenger whirled around again. The ghostly figures of the Trigger Twins still stood there. But now they were not staring with cold malice. They were smiling slight, satisfied smiles. And then, slowly, they faded away, leaving the Crimson Avenger alone in the equipment room with his unconscious prisoner.
“Welcome back, boss!” Wing How said as Lee Travis got into the back of the limousine at LaGuardia Airport. “How was sunny California?”
“Wing…” Travis began. “I… don’t think I want to talk about it.”
“Suit yourself, boss,” Wing said, shrugging, as the car pulled away from the airport.