That hot day he first saw the diner, it was almost completely covered with dust. So was he. The bus driver tossed him off a mile and a half back and he'd been hoofing it since. His slouch hat was shabby and dirt-streaked. His single suitcase, in which most of his worldly belongings were stuffed, was an old brown cardboard affair with worn-away patches of a lighter brown here and there. The hem of his cloak was frayed. And his steel mask -- even his mask -- was streaked with grime and in need of a good sandblast job.
The Armadillo hefted the suitcase in his right hand, passed it to his left and walked up to the porch of the house behind the diner. It was still early in the morning and the diner wasn't open yet. He rapped the door with his knuckles and looked around as he waited. Sometimes these rural places had chickens and cats and things, but he couldn't even find a dog. After a moment the door opened and a woman leaned herself against the frame without bothering to open the screen. All she wore was a slip.
She was built like a brick convenience. She had the bold, careless look of a young woman married to a man much older. Her tousled blonde hair was done up on top of her head the same way. It was suddenly very hot inside that steel Armadillo mask.
But he remembered enough of his manners to snatch his hat off. He jabbed his thumb back toward the diner. "You got a sign up in the window. Says you need a dishwasher."
"You looking for work? Is that it?"
She leaned forward to open the screen door and he liked the way her body moved under the thin material of her slip. "Come on in. You got a name, stranger?"
"Yeah. It's Armadillo. The Armadillo."
"Well, is it now?" She looked him up and down with those puppy-dog-in-heat eyes of hers, regarding him appraisingly, the way a butcher checks out a lamb chop. Or like a hungry person does. "I guess that kind of explains the get-up, huh?"
He walked in. The room was small and after the morning daylight it was dark. The furniture was nice but a few years old, nothing to write home about. "I'm just passing through. Ran out of cash a few days ago. I need a job kind of bad."
"You look like you can handle yourself."
"Pretty much. I'm a big-time crimefighter back east."
She moved closer. "That's interesting. Chasing somebody?"
"No. Just out to see what the country's like, that's all."
"The country's dusty and hot." She began to unbutton his shirt. "You must be broiling with that cloak on and all."
"Well, yeah, I guess I am."
He felt her teeth nibbling at his chest. "My name's Myrna. Myrna Brewster. My husband owns the diner. He's in town now and won't be back for an hour or so." She nibbled an especially sensitive spot and he jumped, involuntarily giggling. "When he gets back, he won't come up here. It'll be time to open the diner and he'll go straight there. He'll fix himself black coffee and seven doughnuts for breakfast, then he'll open up. He'll work through the lunch hour then clean up and fix himself lunch. It'll be a plate of spaghetti, two salads, a side of hash browns, half a pot of coffee, three rolls, two pork chops, a dish of stewed tomatoes, and a slice of apple pie with cheese on it. After that, he'll close up until five o'clock when he opens up for the dinner crowd. You got all that sweetie?"
"What's it mean?"
"It means we'll be alone until two, maybe two thirty." Her hands started fiddling with his belt.
"That's when he'll interview me for the job?"
"No. No, he won't interview you. I will. You want to take that mask off?"
"I really can't."
"That's okay. Masks turn me on, anyway. What kind of socks are you wearing?"
"That's a funny question."
"You mean for a job interview, don't you?"
"Then why don't you ask me some questions?"
"What sort of man's your husband?"
"He's got a weight problem. He's twenty years older than I am. He's impotent."
"Well, yeah, but is he an okay guy?"
"He's a sweetheart. Really. Only thing is, Philo's got that weight problem and the twenty years' age difference. I'm a young woman. I look okay. I got a nice figure." She began nibbling again. "I really shouldn't be saddled with a man like him. Don't you agree?"
"Will he pay a good salary?"
"You can sleep in the house."
"I mean -- "
"I know what you mean. Tell me, Armadillo, have you ever killed a man?"
"Do you ever read the papers?"
"Well, I'm very famous for wiping out entire gangs of criminals. That's why I wear this cloak. In its pockets --"
"I think it would be nice if you killed my husband."
"Is he a gangster?"
"Of course not."
"Does he knock you around?"
"I said he was an okay guy and I meant it."
"Because I'm bored. Because --"
"It sounds wrong to me, Myrna. It sounds real wrong."
"Because I want you, not him."
"Of course, moral arguments are always subtle and not infrequently turn out to be different from what they first look like on the surface."
"Surface? You ask about surface?" Her hands became frenetic, her lips feral. Her whole body quivered. So did the Armadillo's. "To hell with surface . . ."
Later, all he would remember saying was, "I'll think about it."
"Hey, Armadillo, how you comin' with that coffee cup? I got a customer back here." Philo Brewster laughed to show it was his idea of a joke. The Armadillo soaped down the coffee cup, rinsed it off in hot water and handed it over.
"What about a saucer? Can't serve coffee in a cup's got no saucer. What's he gonna drink the coffee from?"
Laughing, Philo placed the saucer and cup in front of a travelling salesman type and poured coffee from a glass pot. The customer smiled, possibly at something in the funny pages of the paper he was reading, added cream and sugar to the java, and Philo took the pot back to the hotplate.
The Armadillo was almost through with the dishes. Philo waddled over. "You do real good work, you know? I mean I'm asking myself, what's a guy like you, educated and all, doing washing dishes in a diner out in the middle of nowhere?"
Philo laughed. He picked up a towel and began drying dishes. "Hey, I like a long story. Tell me it."
The kitchen was hot. The Armadillo wiped sweat off his mask. "I don't usually do this for a living."
"Maybe I know this story."
"I don't. Back east I fight crime."
"We all do what we can."
"No, I mean it. I slink around backstreets and across the rooftops and spy into warehouses and backrooms and alleys where crooks are active. Some places the name 'Armadillo' can strike terror into the heart of an evil doer faster than the IRS."
"Not here. Not here, Armadillo." Philo chuckled, then got serious. "But really, no big-time eastern corridor crimefighter's gonna be out here in the desert, washing up no dishes in no small-time diner."
"Don't think like that, Philo." He handed over the last late for drying. "You ever read about King Arthur? How he went travelling around his kingdom to find out how the common man really felt about stuff?"
"He wear a funny mask, too?"
"Well, I don't think you can fight crime effectively unless you find out what the little guy thinks and feels. So I lock up my penthouse and leave my checkbook and wallet back home and take off to find out. I don't think you can be an effective in my line unless you think about the victims."
"Hey, I like you a lot, Armadillo. You're pouring crap out your ears, but I like you." Philo finished drying off the last plate. "Now, suppose you run up to the house for me. Tell Myrna I'm going to be late. I gotta work over the books tonight."
"Sure thing, boss."
"Ha, ha, ha. Big time crimefighter. Really, Armadillo, it's pouring out your ears."
Dusk was already falling as the Armadillo made his way up the hill from the diner to the house. He knocked on the door and heard Myrna's voice from inside. "Come on in, Honey, I got someone I want you to meet."
She stood in the middle of the room dressed for company; she wore high heels in addition to her slip. With a paper fan from a funeral home she cooled herself off the best way she could as she introduced the man who sat on the couch. "This is Mr. Culpepper, the insurance man. Mr. Culpepper, this is the Armadillo. He works for my husband."
Culpepper set his cigar in the ashtray and got up to shake the Armadillo's hand. He looked like a frog, a plump cigar-smoking frog with beady, suspicious eyes. "Say, I think I've heard of you. You operate back east, don't you?"
"Yeah. I mean, usually."
"Well, then, there must be some kind of big crime ring operating around here. Say, this isn't something I ought to know anything about, is it?"
"Actually, I'm sort of here till I make enough money to move on."
"That a fact? Well, what do you know about that?"
Myrna casually groped the snout of the steel mask. "He sort of washes dishes at our diner."
"Whataya know about that? Well, that's certainly unusual. I mean, you being a big time crimefighter and all."
Myrna was impressed. "You mean he really is a big time crimefighter?"
"I'll say he is. Why, he just cost my company close to three million dollars rounding up the Cremona gang." Culpepper fished his cigar out of the ashtray and energetically puffed on it. "It was something, they tell me. Wrecked cars and smashed walls all over half that part of town. By the time he was through it cost close to a quarter of a million just in wood putty for patching up the bullet holes." He punched a finger at the Armadillo and looked straight at Myrna. "This man's a legend in my line of work."
"You really mean that?"
"Oh, I get it." Philo took his cigar out of his mouth and gestured with it as he spoke. "I bet you didn't believe him when he said that about being a big time crimefighter. I bet you thought he was just blowing smoke."
She shrugged the best part of her by no means inferior body. "It seemed unlikely at the time."
Culpepper gave his amphibian smile. "Well, it's the truth." He put the cigar back into his mouth.
The Armadillo remembered his message. "Oh, Myrna. Philo sent me to tell you he's going over the books tonight. No telling when he'll be in." He glanced at Culpepper. "You and Philo thinking about more insurance?"
Culpepper laughed. "Well, that was actually my idea. I talked her into taking a special policy out on the old man. His age and all, you can't have too much insurance on him. What about you, Armadillo? You do pretty dangerous work. You insured with anybody?"
"Can't find a company willing to take me."
"That a fact? Can't say I blame them. I heard about you and you're a walking disaster area." He shook the Armadillo's hand. "Well, I'd better be running along." He winked a beady eye. "You two have fun, won't you?"
As soon as he was gone, Myrna kicked off her shoes and pressed herself against the Armadillo. "Hold me, you steel-masked crimefighter, you. Hold me tight."
"Culpepper seemed like a nice man."
"You mean for an insurance salesman?"
"No. Most insurance men seem like night guys. I just wondered if he might actually be that way."
"Yeah. You know, I've never nibbled your ears. Do you ever take that mask off?"
"Sure. Otherwise my ears would be too dirty to nibble. But I have to get back to the diner --"
"Don't worry about the diner. When Philo works on those books he forgets about time. Stay with me, masked man. Stay with me for a while."
"Don't you want me, Armadillo? Don't you find yourself hungering for my perfect body? Lusting for the taste f my lips?"
"It's really, really hard to taste anyone's lips through this mask I wear."
"Then take that damned mask off and give me a proper kiss. We're meant for each other, I tell you."
Before he could stop her, she grabbed his mask by the snout and yanked it off. He fell back, Myrna on top of him. She flung the mask away and he heard it clatter across the floor. "Kiss me, Armadillo. Kiss me like the man you are!" He felt her lips on his. Kissing, they rolled across the floor in roughly the same direction as the mask. When they stopped against the wall she shuddered with desire and spoke in a small, whispery voice. "It would be so easy. It could look like an accident. You know how careless Philo is with the French fries."
"But it's wrong, Myrna."
"No it isn't. It's right. Right for us, right for our happiness. Armadillo, we have the right to be hapy, don't we? It can't be wrong for us to be happy. Oh look. You have one of those pencil-thin mustaches."
"But I've saved up enough for bus fare back home. In another couple of weeks I'll be headed back to resume my real job. That's important. I've been gone too long, Myrna. They need me. I'm a dedicated man. There's no telling how rotten things have gotten without me around to clean them up."
"But with Philo gone, I'd be able to go back with you." She rolled off him and sat against the wall, her arms around her curled up knees. "We'd be so good together, Army. We'd be damned good together."
The Armadillo stood facing her. "I know we would." He gulped. "But it's not that easy, Myrna. I just have this problem reconciling my reputation as a big-time crimefighter with actually bumping a guy off for profit. I mean, if Philo were a crook or something --"
She threw her arms around his knees. "You mean! Damn you men and your meanings. Everything's an abstraction to you."
"Killing's not that abstract, Myrna."
"Neither's happiness, Army." She started to cry.
After a while he jammed his mask back on and went down to the diner.
He found the door open. There was a light on in back, in the cubbyhole Philo called his office, where he kept the small table and adding machine on which he did his accounts. The Armadillo peered through the open door. "Boss?" There was no answer. "I got to talk with you, boss. I need to settle up. I think maybe it's time I moved on."
When there was still no answer, he went into the diner.
He started back toward the office. He was halfway there when he saw Philo over by the stove. The fat man's bald head was stuck in the deep fryer. He could hear the bubbling of the hot grease. "Hey, boss, this is no time to go bobbing for French fries --" Then he remembered what Myrna had said: Philo's always so careless with the French fries.
He rushed to Philo's aid, knowing it was already to late. He was right. Philo's face, when he got it out of the fryer was as pink as a lobster.
"Well, who would of believed it of the Armadillo."
Culpepper, hands jammed into his pants pockets, stood by the door. He shook his head back and forth as he walked over to take a better look at the dead man. "Guess you couldn't wait, huh?"
"Wait for what?"
Culpepper puffed on his cigar. His smile was greasier than Philo's hamburgers. "Why to do the old man in and clear the way for you and his missus. That was your motive, wasn't it?"
"I didn't kill him."
Culpepper took the cigar out of his mouth. "He sure looks dead to me, Mr. Big-Time Crimefighter." He bent down for a closer look. "He looks kind of peaceful for a man who's been french-fried to death, doesn't he?"
"Don't be a fool, Culpepper. While you're standing here beating your gums, the real killer's getting away."
"Is he?" Culpepper jammed the cigar back between his teeth and walked over to the pay phone near the door. He started fishing in his pockets for change. "You got a quarter, Armadillo? Oh, wait. Never mind." He laughed and gave the Armadillo an evil smile. "You know, it won't take the cops long to get here. I can't wait to see their faces when they realize just who it is they're hauling in. And when I tell the company men back east --"
The answer always came in a mysterious way to the Armadillo. Well, most times someone would confess. But occasionally it would just come in a flash of understanding. When he spoke he said the words slowly. "And as soon as you tell the company guys back east, why, you'll be in line for a big promotion, won't you?"
"You bet I will."
"And maybe more. Maybe a big bonus. I mean, look how much I cost your company just last year alone."
"Yeah, you're a menace, Armadillo. Especially to people in my line of work."
"Better put down the phone, Culpepper."
Culpepper slid the quarter into the slot. "You got your nerve. But I'm not afraid of you, understand? You're finished."
"I'm warning you, Armadillo. Stand back. I'm not like the old man. I'm not afraid of you. I'll give you a fight."
"Funny thing you should hang around such a long time. Minutes ago you were up there at the house talking with Myrna and me. You leave. I talk with her a while before coming dwn here. Only you walk in after I do. Just what were you up to all that time?"
"What do you mean, what was I doing? I was smoking a cigar."
The Armadillo did little furious hops. "You were killing Philo, that's what you were doing."
Culpepper waved his cigar under the Armadillo's snout. "Oh yeah, wise guy? Why'd I do a thing like that?"
"For the promotion. For the bonus. They'll probably give you all the money they'll estimate they'll save in wood putty next year. You'll be a big guy in the insurance racket."
"You'll never prove it."
"Won't I? What about fingerprints? You had to hold Philo's head under. Look at that scalp of his. It's the classic surface for fingerprints. Smiith, glasslike, hard."
"Ah, your mother wears Armadillo boots. Those prints'll be smeared They won't be able to tell mine from yours."
"I always wear gloves. Maybe they won't be able to identify you from those prints, but they'll know Philo was dunked by someone with a bare hand. And you'll sure look like the most likely suspect."
"Well, yeah, maybe so. If the cops think of it. But it looks to me like the Armadillo's going to be too shot up trying to escape to give them any ideas like that."
Culpepper's hand slithered under his coat.
The Armadillo gave his famous war cry -- he laughed like Daffy Duck -- and leaped into the air with enthusiasm. Culpepper's gun came out, firing like crazy.
The first bullet took out the breast pocket of Culpepper's coat and the window at the far end of the diner. The next three struck a stack of glasses along the back of the counter area and ricocheted shatteringly among them. Number five clipped the heel of the leaping crime fighter's shoe. Before he could fire a sixth time, the Armadillos foot lashed out and walloped him in the nose.
The Armadillo amazed himself by coming down on both feet. Culpepper, however, did a backward summersault through the plate glass door and onto the gravel walk outside. The Armadillo did a little hop of excitement. "Gee, that's what I usually do."
Shaking his head to clear it, Culpepper scrambled to his feet. "You ain't through with me that easy!" He ran headfirst into the crimefighter's stomach.
They fell back against the stove. Philo, whose head had fallen back into the French fry basket, rocked back and forth with the motion of the stove.
Culpepper had a furious hold on the Armadillo's snout. "I got you now, Armadillo. I got you now and you won't escape this time!"
The Armadillo slipped his head out of the mask and stepped back. Culpepper continued struggling with the snout. "I got you. I can feel you giving way, Armadillo! I --"
The Armadillo picked Culpepper up bodily and turned him head down, thrusting him to his chin into the empty end of the fry basket. The insurance man said something that was probably insulting, lost in the sputter and sizzle of the basket. Moments later, he stopped trying to talk or do much of anything.
The Armadillo recovered his mask.
When he walked back up to the house, Myrna was standing on the porch. It was dark. There was a wind from the desert, not cool, molding her slip to her sweaty, desirable body. She leaned against the post, arms folded under alpine breasts, eyes staring off toward where the wind came from. When the Armadillo climbed the steps she came to him and put her arms around him and cried a little.
The Armadillo patted the back of her head, gently. "There now. Don't cry."
"Then get off my foot."
She stopped crying. There was a moon and in its light she looked lovelier than ever. The Armadillo had to tell her. "You won't be bothered by that Culpepper guy anymore. And -- oh yes -- Philo's dead."
"Dead? Philo? Oh, Army. You didn't --"
"No, not me. It was that insurance creep. The cops'll find both of them in with the French fires."
"Poor Philo! He he was always careless with the french fries."
She put her hand to her forehead and the words rushed out so fast he thought they'd crash against each other. "Philo dead. I can't believe it. I don't even own a black slip." She looked up at the Armadillo. "Do you know what that means?"
"You'll have to re-marry in white?"
She pressed her cheek against the Armadillo's chest. "It means we can be together now. There's nothing in the way."
He took her by the shoulders and held her at arm's length. "Sure there is, Myrna. I'm taking off. My work here is done. I've got bus fare and the bus is coming. I got a career back east as a crimefighter."
"But Army, you can fight crime here."
"Here? In the desert? Don't be silly. What sort of crime do you have out here? Foxes in hen houses? Cactus rustling?"
"Well, I got this old map shows where Jimmy Hoffa's supposed to be buried."
"There aren't even any alleys. The roofs aren't high enough to jump from."
"I bought it off an old prospector. He says it was given to him by an old timer that got it from a Spanish mob person --"
"You shoot a machine gun out here, the bullets just go on and on. They don't have any walls to bounce off of. Myrna, you don't know what it's like to fire a couple hundred rounds a minute and have them ricocheting around you like a swarm of hornets."
"Jimmy Hoffa's just up that arroyo over there, next to Judge Crater."
"And catching bullets with your mask. You ever do that, Myrna? There's something very special about catching bullets with your mask I just can't describe."
" And the top of that mesa. And over across the highway in that landfill. And --"
"It'll never work out, Myrna."
Her eyes were large and sorrowful and brimming with tears. "You're trying to tell me it won't work out, aren't you?"
"Yeah. Angel, I gotta go back. I just gotta."
"Armie -- I -- I'll miss you."
"It's not like I'll ever forget you." He hugged her tightly. "I won't. I'll send you a slip from Frederick's of Teaneck."
She said his name. She said it with a sob. He left go of her and turned and walked away, stopping only once to look back at her.
Then he made his way down to the highway to wait for the bus. Just as he boarded it, he heard the police sirens.
There was still crime in the city when he got back. His first night back there was a shootout with a new mob and he blew up a bridge and three small warehouses. It was like old times again.
It was two days after that he saw the headlines.
Who ever would have thought a woman could get that big a reward just for finding Jimmy Hoffa's nose?