During the whole of a dull, dark and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, the Armadillo passed in his limousine through a singularly dreary tract of suburb; and at length found himself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Beacon. And with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded his spirit, a feeling unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. Looking upon the scene before him-- the mere house and the simple landscape features of the doman-- upon the bleak walls-- upon the vacant eye-like windows-- upon the dozen gaudy pink lawn flamingos-- with an utter depression of soul which he could compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the leaping crimefighter pulled groundward by the weight of his steel mask-- the bitter lapse into everyday life-- the hideous dropping off of the veil of romantic dullardry. As he stepped from the car and instructed his chauffeur Lefty to await his return, the Armadillo shuddered with a nameless anticipation.
The sigh which he heaved as he gazed upon the house echoed forlornly in the confines of his mask. Although few knew that the Armadillo was in reality the well-known wastrel and playboy, Ronald Faldaytonworthington, considered among the most worthless of parasites by thinking citizens everywhere, he knew; and it weighed heavily upon his soul. Was he not happiest as the Armadillo, that steel-masked, black-cloaked, beady eyed threat-at-every-turn to malefactors the world around? He sighed again and his keen-edged detective senses revealed to him that the house was abandoned and untenanted.
That was when the door opened and a gaunt figure, wearing ancient but well-cared-for mourning clothes, said, "Ah-h-h! And who are you?"
In grave tones, the steel-masked crimefighter told him.
"Inde-e-ed? And you have identification, I suppose?"
He handed over his driver's license and moved inside the house, finding himself in a large, cheerless room decorated with more cobwebs than furniture. A grand staircase curved to the landing of the second floor. Roderick Beacon, for in fact it was he who answered the door, maneuvered the Armadillo into a patch of sunlight seeping through a patinated skylight, so that he might compare the mask with the picture on the license. "Everything se-e-ems all right," he said, finally, yet with an air of overall suspicion. He cleared his throat, pointedly. "I'm not the one who asked you here, you know. Nevertheless, may I hang your mask?"
"What? Oh, no thanks. There's a draft." The Armadillo looked around. "The note asking me here was signed by one Madeline Beacon."
"Ye-es, my sister. May I offer you some refreshment? Just because you're a complete idiot, you needn't fear I won't show proper hospitality. By the way, Madeline isn't here. She had an appointment with her podiatrist and won't be back until Thursday. Perhaps--"
"Podiatrist?" Beneath the mask a brow lifted with the unmistakable scratch of bristles on steel. "Her note mentioned foul and unlikely goings-on. In my experience, people don't usually see a podiatrist in those circumstances."
"Seems perfectly reasonable to me."
"Hmmmm. Well, I don't know--"
"He lies!" The voice that shouted those words was several octaves more feminine than that of Roderick Beacon. The Armadillo whirled and saw upon the landing the figure of a woman, clad in a flowing gown of white. She leaned against the rail, her long dark hair in disarray, her large dark eyes smouldering with emotion. Beneath the flimsy fabric of her gown, the Armadillo's unerring senses noted the heave of a copious and gothick bosom.
"Oh," said Roderick. "Back already, are yo-ou? I trust the corn on your great-toe--" With a toss of her night-hued mane, she started down the stairs. "There has never been a corn on my great-toe, you repulsive ninny. Or any other toe of mine. Armadillo! How glad I am to see you. I'd feared you hadn't received my message."
"Wind permitting, sky-writing seldome fails," said he, with a shrug.
As she reached the turn of the stairs and came toward him, he noticed for the first time the white streaks on either side of her thick, wild hair. She crossed the room and threw her arms about his neck. That gothic bosom ballooned against his chest. "How I prayed that you would come. Who else might save me from the horror that's gripped this house? No one, I tell you, but we must hurry. First, though, would you care for a casual roll in the hay?"
"If you'll excu-u-s-se me," said Roderick, "why don't I go select a suitable wine? Does an '87 Hemlock sound palatable?"
Seizing the Armadillo's arm, Madeline dragged him toward a door. "Roderick has no couth," she said, opening it and propelling the crimefighter and herself into a closet. When she shut the door it was completely dark. Fiercely she kissed his snout. "God, men in masks turn me on. What color socks are you wearing."
"Uh, this problem. It centers on your brother, doesn't it?"
"He's trying to kill me."
"Ah ha! The scoundrel. I'll--"
"Don't concern yourself. I can handle him. He's so incompetent. It's the monster I'm worried about."
"My second guess."
"A family curse. Oh, Armadillo! I've read of your exploits for years. I've dreamed of a man such as you to come here and release me from this horror and tear my clothes off me. You will do that, don't you?" She nuzzled him.
He jumped as if shot. "Maybe you shouldn't, heh, heh, touch the crimefighter just there," he chided her. "What curse?"
"I suppose there are people who'd call the thing a ghost. This house is haunted, you know. That's why I called you."
"Er, you're sure of this?"
"As sure as I am of my own sanity."
"It's really helpful to be so reassured. When does this ghost show up?"
"As soon as the sun goes down. I don't know how to deal with it."
"Ah, I've spotted a clue already," the Armadillo said, grabbing her arm. "What if we left just before it got dark?"
Kicking open the closet door, he pulled her into the living room.
"How deliciously simple," she said. "I could never have devised a plan at once so brilliant and direct. The only problem is, the sun went down five minutes ago."
Before he could explain to her why that did not matter, he heard someone say, "Ahem."
A figure dressed in black silk designer sheets stood before them. His head was held in the crook of his left arm. His right arm was busy with an ax.
There was a brief moment when the Armadillo was almost fooled. Then he sneered; every day he faced more dreadful weapons and less transparent foes. "Madeline," he said, "this is a trick. There's no ghost. It's your brother Roderick, obviously dressing up so he can scare you and get the family inheritance."
"Well, I thought about that," Madeline said, putting a hand to her face. "But I don't get any inheritance. Everything in this house already belongs to him. Besides, isn't that my brother standing in the dining room door over there?"
Just as the ghost swung the ax, Roderick said, "Refreshments are se-r-rved." The Armadillo ducked quickly. The ax skimmed the crown of his slouch hat. Madeline said, "Could you use a diversion dear?" To provide one, she screamed.
The ghost was preparing to squash the crimefighter with a downward stroke, but at the scream it jumped half a yard. This gave the Armadillo the opportunity to twist to one side, drop to the floor, roll twelve feet to the left, four feet seven inches up the room's east wall and fall back down again, landing neatly on his mask. Cartwheeling to a standing position, he, in practically the same flowing motion, reached into the hidden recesses of his cloak and pulled forth one of his famous machine guns.
With an air of utter assurance and a practiced move, his feet slid into the classic stance of the machine gunner, entangling themselves in the room's lone small throwrug in the process. The gun fired. A few hundred slugs rapidly burst forth toward the hapless spook, for the machine gun was one of those models equipped with a hair trigger, just in case. The barrel turned red and dropped into a warmish liquid puddle on the floor, leaving the rest of his mechanism flying through the air as the Armadillo's classic machine gun firer's stance reacted to the entanglement of the throwrug and sent him face first onto the wooden floor.
"Oh, do be careful of that ax," Madeline warned him.
Unerring senses assured him it was but nanoseconds before the ghost would bring that instrument down on the back of his head. Time to roll away-- there were still three walls he had not yet fallen from. That was when he found he'd driven the snout of his mask into the floor.
And however furiously he struggled, it seemed determined not to come loose. His mask was trapped but his senses still functioned. He smelled the hot stench of burning wood. He realized at once what was happening. The melted barrel of his gun was burning through the floor. Of course! How silly of him not to realize it would happen. He exerted all his strength and felt the burned wood give way around his snout. He rolled in the nick of time. The ax came down where his head had been and where now was a gaping hole showing the basement of the dreaded House of Beacon. The crimefighter leaped to his feet and the ghost recited a litany of curses.
Still, the Armadillo was not exactly out of the wood. A two-foot roughly square section of plank was spiked to the
"Just checking you're all right," he said, letting her go and charging toward the only direction the ghost could possibly be in. He struck resoundingly and realized he now had only two walls left to fall from.
He leaped to his feet, searching for the specter. A clue came to him almost as once, in the form of Madeline saying, "Help! Save me!
Surmising at once that the ghost was absconding with her, he leaped to her rescue. Something crashed. Pitching forward, he wondered dazedly why there was grass growing in the Beacon's living room. Almost simultaneously, he realized most of the wood blocking his vision was reduced to splinters and no longer clung to his mask.
Bracing himself on a convenient lawn flamingo, he climbed back through the window. Roderick Beacon lay unconscious on the floor. There was no sign of Madeline. The Armadillo snarled, a sound that would have sent most malefactors quivering in their boots. He wasn't sure it worked all that well on ghosts, but he felt it worth the effort to give it a try. Beacon moaned. The Armadillo shook him by the shoulders, heedless of the unpleasant knocking sound his head made bouncing up and down on what remained of the floor. "Where did it take her?" he asked.
"To Grandpa's room!"
"Just who is this ghost, anyway?"
"Our distant cousin, Salvador Beacon. The notorious sorcerer. He was hanged years ago but swore he'd come back and, through human sacrifice, return himself to life." Roderick scowled. "You know, I th-I-nk he said he'd use whichever woman happened to be in this house at this paricular day and hour."
The Armadillo hopped up and down. "Then why didn't you arrange for her to be somewhere else tonight?"
"A hotel or something."
"Gad, the best plans always are the simple ones, aren't they?" Beacon scrambled to his feet. "You know, I had my doubts, but my sister was right. You are a crime-fighting genius. There's a motel just down the road that's running a weeknight special. Just two bucks for a room." He nodded. "Yes-ss. It could have worked. I'm sure of it. And at two bucks less whatever's left till dawn, it would even have been affordable."
"Quick," snapped the Armadillo. "Where's Grandpa's room?"
"We kept him chained in the attic."
"At the top of the house. Where else would you keep an attic?"
"No, I mean how do I get there?"
"O-oh-h," said Beacon. "I see what you mean. Up those stairs, the door at the top of the landing."
With a snarl, the Armadillo charged up the stairs and through the door without opening it, then up more stairs to the attic.
A bulb hung from the ceiling on a flyspecked corde. It was the room's only light. At one end, the attic was filled with trunks and boxes and the accumulated bric-a-brac of a family's living, including an altar at the other end.
Madeline was already fastened to it. As she struggled against her bonds, the Armadillo renewed his notice of her gown's neckline and the gothick sumptuousness of her construction. But enough of esthetics-- The ghost, whose head was on the altar next to Madeline, was checking by feel, an assortment of sacrificial knives across the room. The head spotted the Armadillo at once.
It was one of those magic moments that falls periodically into the day-to-day career of the professional hero. There was the damsel, helplessly distressed. There was the ogre, not quite ready to perform the dirtywork. And here was the Armadillo, fresh from participation in a fight, falling down several walls and through a window, running up two flights of stairs in two seconds flat, all the time wearing the famous metal mask and the cloak in which his small arsenal was secreted. At such a moment there was only one thing he could do, and he did it.
He collapsed on the floor in exhaustion.
On the altar the decapitated head giggled.
Madeline craned her neck and said, "Darling, do please get this dead thing away from me before I puke."
The head continued giggling as its body selected an appropriate knife and started toward the helpless woman. The Armadillo breathed in rasping gasps.
The now worried Madeline looked at the approaching corpse, then at the corpses head, then back to it's decapitated body. She said, "I thought you were hanged, not decapitated."
"It's embarassing," said the ghost. "Don't bring it up again."
"You mean you--"
"I was practicing, all right?" barked the ghost. "I don't sacrifice beautiful women every day, you know. Dates are hard enough to come by in my predicament."
"You mean you cut your own fool head off?"
"It was an accident, all right? But don't expect it to happen again. Now hold still."
Exhausted as he was, the Armadillo still ran the options through his mind. The easiest-- and in most ways the most practical-- plan would be to merely let the ghost carry out his scheme and then, once the fool was mortal again, kill him like any ordinary crook. But that could inconvenience Madeline.
So there was nothing else to do but make the effort.
The decapitated head, still on the altar, said, "You know, speaking of dates, what are you doing after the sacrifice, dollface? I mean, the only reason I haven't asked you before is that we're a bit incompatible now, but, well, once you're dead-- only come to think of it, I won't be dead anymore then. I guess we'll still be incompatable.
"You disgusting moron," Madeline said. "I wouldn't date you anyway. We're related. What if we had children? They'd probably turn out like their father. Or their uncle."
The Armadillo struggled to his feet and said, "You! Horseless head thing! Release that woman right now."
The head, on the far side of the altar from where the Armadillo was, peered over Madeline's bosom and said, "Don't you ever quit?" His body, stone sacrificial knife in hand, stopped walking toward the altar and turned toward the intrepid hero.
At which point, Roderick Beacon fell up the stairs onto the attic floor and said, "My go-d-d-d-d, I'm going to have a heart attack!"
A glance told the Armadillo that her brother was in little shape to assist in freeing Madeline. So he thoughtfully leaped over and gave the fellow a good solid kick to send him hurtling back down the stairs. "When you reach the bottom," he advised loudly after the toppling Beacon, "it might be a good idea to crawl outside."
The sound of the ghost snarling at the altar assured the Armadillo the creature wasn't close by. But when the ghost's hand closed on his shoulder, he was reminded that its head wasn't always with the more active parts. The ghost slashed with the stone knife.
The crimefighter ducked. The knife struck the forehead of the steel mask and shattered into pebbles. The head shouted, "Drat!" and reached for the mask. The Armadillo slipped under his arm and darted for the altar.
"I'm ready to be saved now," Madeline said. "I really am."
"Just be patient," he said, grasping Salvador's head by the hair. The ghost yelped. The Armadillo tossed. The head caromed off a wall, past its own body, and down the stairs with an appropriate array of vocalizations.
At this, the body of the ghost began stumbling about and flailing its arms. "Oh, isn't that clever?" Madeline said, as the Armadillo loosened her bonds. "I mean, it can't see, can it?"
"It can't?" he said. "Er, I mean it can't. That's right. It can't see. Yes. Good plan? Yes, isn't it."
"Oooooh! Here it comes anyway."
The headless sorcerer stumbled toward them, blocking their escape.
Reaching into the first pocket he could find in his cloak, the Armadillo fished around for something he could use. The pocket was empty! But no-- his hand closed on something. He pulled it out. A cigarette lighter--
"That's disgusting," said Madeline. "You're the Armadillo. Heroes don't smoke."
"Especially inside steel masks," he said. Then he added the polite instruction, "So just shut up. Monsters are afraid of fire, see?"
"Of course I can see," she said sweetly. "It's the one that can't see. Or smell."
"Oh," he said.
And sure enough, the monster came on, despite the lighter. Its arms churned the air. It had somehow managed to locate the store of weapons and now brandished a machete in each hand.
"I think I was happier tied to the altar," said Madeline.
"Not now, Madeline," said the Armadillo. "We don't have the time."
But before he could leap clear, the monster bumped into him. A corner of the designer sheets brushed the lighter flame.
"They told me those were flame retardant!" Madeline cried.
"So sue," snarled the Armadillo, grabbing her arm and pulling her after him as he ducked under the ghost's blazing sleeve. He darted toward the stairs.
Behind them the straw-dry monster crackled into an inferno. They darted down the stairs to the living room and toward the open door, passing the feebly crawling Roderick at the midway point. But outside Madeline said, "Oh, what the hey," and ran back to fetch him.
As the house leaped into flames, Roderick lifted his head to watch. He said, "I never said you could burn the house down."
"It was the house or me," his sister said. Breathing heavily she clung to the Armadillo. "You saved my life," she said, kissing him ardently on the snout. "God, you have no idea what steel does to me. What color socks did you say go with that uniform of yours?"
The Armadillo began extracting himself from her embrace.
"Gray wool," he said. Then added: "Do not think of this as rejection Madam, but rather as necessity."
"What kind of remark is that?"
"A mere statement of--"
"What a pile of crap! You think I don't know rejection when I hear it?"
And with surprising expertise she kneed him in the groin then stomped away.
On the ground, when he was finally in shape to discover things, he found that he was looking directly into the face of Roderick Beacon, who had eyes very much like a basset hound. Beacon said, "Ev-verything I owned was in that house."
The Armadillo gingerly forced his legs out of the protective position they had assumed just a smidgeon too late and said, "Don't be such a wimp. You still have the finest collection of lawn flamingos in the state."
With sudden fury, Roderick Beacon threw a scissors-lock around the Armadillo's head and pummeled him severely about the mask and shoulders.
Through the clanging on his steel mask, he could hear Madeline's voice as she called out to her brother. "Don't be so petty, Roderick! I'll give you one of my damned flamingos."