(Copyright 1990 BY Gerald W. Page. From “When the Black Lotus Blooms,” edited by Elizabeth A. Saunders. Reprinted by permission of the author.)


 

West of the river the slums rise high and there are streets no honest foot can safely tread. The gutters of the potholed thoroughfares run as thick with refuse as with rain and the grim, squalid bricks are covered o’er with compositions of chalk and spray paint whose whole objective is an assault upon the aesthesia of the more sensitive mind. Here, the gentleman of erudition and culture may not venture without reminder of the tenuous nature of life and security, of the cloaked horror hidden seemingly behind each door. Here also is located the small but superb ice cream parlour of Elfego Bachrach, rumoured to be the finest in the city. From even the greatest of horrors, irony is seldom absent.

It was while partaking of the butter pecan and caramel parfait of Mr. Bachrach that I noticed a strange man with his slouch hat drawn low so that it shadowed a curiously malformed face. He was standing on the street, peering cautiously through the grease-washed, flyspecked window of the establishment, giving no indication what his business in the vicinity might be. There was about him that which drew me strangely, compelling my curiosity, poorly suppressed at the best of times, to assess him with several sorts of fevered imaginings. He glanced once my way, then his gaze passed on to consider others of Mr. Bachrach’s customers, as if my blatantly inquisitive staring neither bothered him nor mattered. A chill, not altogether born of the cold, delicious ice cream, traveled the distance of my spine.

As I tilted my dessert to allow my spoon to excavate from the dish’s troublesome lowest hollow the last of that concoction which had drawn me to this most unsavory part of town, I saw him turn away and move off down the uninvitingly grimy boulevard. Whether it was the slump of his shoulders or his obvious predilection for the darkest of the street’s vast array of menacing and foreboding shadows, I cannot say; but something made me rise and, putting on my hat and leaving with scarcely a tip of it to the squinty-eyed Mr. Bachrach, I trudged off down the street to follow him.

Now, I hold that the most merciful thing in the whole universe is the inability of the city dweller to know what goes on within the minds and hearts of his fellow megalopolitans. It was the fading dusk of an autumn day and the shadows were lengthened across the narrow, oppressive streets, forming tenuous bridges to join the pools of shadow perpetually lodged within and between the recesses of the tenements themselves. Ordinarily, I would not have permitted myself to be caught in this portion of town so long past the ending of the sun-protected hours of afternoon, but Mr. Bachrach had but recently introduced three new flavours into his bill of fare. Unable to reach a decision, even after hours of contemplation, I had done what I should have done at the outset and ordered all three, raisin-raspberry cream, boysenberry sundae and the aforementioned parfait, and relished each in turn, with no heed to the waning day. Now, my appetite satisfied, my curiosity piqued and my courage bolstered by the sucrose, I threw caution to the wind and pursued the mysterious gentleman of the shadows.

Night falls quickly and dangerously in the slums. I soon found myself pursuing the subject of my strange fascination – all unbeknownst to him – into a neighborhood less reassuring than any I had yet traveled through; and all the while the lowering dusk impeded my visual contact with this compellingly mysterious figure, until that time when he turned the corner some fifty feet ahead of me and I did likewise only to find myself, so well as I could tell in that inky and un-streetlamp lighted precinct, facing an entirely deserted avenue,

So startled was I that it was impossible for me for several unmeasurable moments to consider those options open to me with more than cursory intellectualization. But presently I decided there was nothing for me to do but turn and retrace my steps until I had returned to more civilized environs. But I had no idea from which direction I had come.

There is, I hold, no more frightening thing than for a gentleman of culture and discernment to find himself at large upon a strange and unlighted street in a portion of the city known only for the sinister quality of its denizens. My imagination, at the calmest of times alive with the most outré and elaborate of phantasms, was now churning with the direst and most dreadful of chimera. Each sound – the clatter of a garbage can lid, a slamming door, the distant rumble of the traffic I prayed to see – stirred my mind to incredible images.

So impressionable are my sensibilities that before long I saw in every shadow a lurking robber or worse. Thus, when I perceived behind me the sound of light treading footfalls, I turned and greeted with a small shriek the unexpectedly welcome sight of a cat.

Now I hold that there is no other creature so noble as those of the feline species. This particular individual of the genus was a large and rather scraggly example of the common alley cat, a species one would expect to be found on every step in this quarter of town, though I had seen no cats at all before this veteran Tom. So pleased was I to see this furred creature that I began to call him in a high lilting voice. He watched me with yellow, suspicion-glutted eyes and no intent whatsoever to heed my call; thus frequently do these animals respond to the self-important importuning of their vainglorious cousins of the human genera. Then, it turned and walked off, not with the speed of one in fear, but with that insouciant nonchalance by which one may know the complete and inevitable (to say nothing of proper) sense of superiority with which cats are gifted. But sensing the majesty of this animal despite the sparseness of its pelt, obviously due to the vicissitudes of its surroundings, I followed the creature back the way I had just come and into an alley I would not have normally approached in broad daylight.

Abruptly, I could no longer see the poor animal. Had I lost it as I had earlier lost the human I was following? But no – in the stygian gloom there came to my ear the welcome and familiar sound of purring. Unmindful of the clutter strewn about the dank pavement that floored this alley, I hurried toward the sound.

And then, as abruptly as my visual contact with the creature had escaped me, so did the audible. The purring ceased as I stood not three feet from the place from which it had originated.

It struck me then, in one of those passing moments of mental clarity which can occur to one in the midst of the most foolish and irredeemable of actions, that even a cat may be possessed of motives that run counter to one’s well being. I toyed for the moment with thoughts of fleeing. But it was already too late.

I heard strange laughter. Something rose up in the shadowy space directly in front of me, and in the very spot where moments before the alley cat had lured me with its purring, there stood now the figure of a man. He was taller than I and more gaunt. At the very moment he appeared something of a miracle occurred. The moon came out and in the glow of its light he seemed as pale as death. He smiled. I have never seen such incisors on a human being. Nor eyes that yellow, or ones that glowed quite so brightly. I found myself mesmerized and immobile, and the strange man who faced me reached with his hand for my throat.

Suddenly another sound reached my ears, laughter as before, but of an entirely different nature. The strange person before me started and pulled away his hand before my skin could feel its unwelcome and no doubt clammy touch. And as suddenly as he appeared the man with the yellow eyes vanished.

I was suddenly free of that hypnotic vise which held me. Turning I saw, in the direction from which I came, another figure. Despite the shadows that shrouded it, I recognized at once by the dark shape of the slouch hat pulled low over the protuberance of his face the strange and disconcerting figure I had been compelled to follow from the ice cream parlour. As the beating of my heart sped with fear, this intruder stepped into the moonlight.

At once the question of his strange appearance was answered. In the pallid moonlight I saw at once that the exotic configuration of his face was explainable by the most obvious and prosaic of reasons: it was due to the steel mask made in the likeness of an armoured burrowing mammal which he wore settled over his head and resting on his shoulders in the manner of those goldfish bowls worn by spacefarers on the lurid covers of the interplanetary pulpwood magazines. But, as if to allay my disappointment at the ordinariness of his headpiece, the newcomer laughed. Never before had I heard such laughter! It combined the inspired thespian reaches of a Christopher Lee with the manic cadence of a cartoon woodpecker. Bizarre and fantastical chills ran up and down my spine at that sound as the newcomer leaped the distance between where he and I stood (forcing me to step deftly to one side as he braked himself with the fore piece of his steel mask on the brick edifice behind me).

Foreign as I might be to this distasteful district, I recognized now the identity of my fortuitous benefactor. I stood in the presence – indeed, I trod on the edge of the cape – of that famed enemy of crime, the Armadillo!

How I escaped joining him on the pavement as he jerked that cape from under my shoe, I cannot say, but somehow I maintained my balance so that I was still standing as he hastily joined me in that posture. Then, for the first time I heard the resonant tones of the Armadillo’s voice as he said, “Shouldn’t you answer the phone?”

“Phone?” I echoed. “I hear no phone.”

“Never mind,” the Armadillo said, clutching my arm and looking up and down the alley. “Where is he? Arrggh! Escaped again. Curses!” The beady eye slits of his mask burned at me. “Come with me,” he said. “And be quick about it. Your life isn’t worth a plugged nickel if Harold the Werecat returns.”

“Werecat?” said I, all intrigued, as the Armadillo hastily dragged me to the alley’s mouth. I protested, “But I fail to understand. How could a being the shape of one of the noblest creatures that populate this repulsive globe be a threat to a gentleman of learning and erudition?”

The Armadillo reached the mouth of the alleyway and promptly tripped over the abandoned skateboard of some slum-dwelling waif. As he picked himself up, I asked, “For that matter, what is the most famous steel-masked crime fighter of modern times doing in this forsaken tract of the city?”

“It has to do with wiping out the Black Bart gang, dabnabit.” He started off down the street and waving his hands in wild gesticulation continued his explanation. "Sixty-three members of that gang. And eight months ago the McSneary mob. Forty-three members.”

“I recall those stories in the yellow press,” I replied. “You met the McSneary mob in fierce battle replete with automatic gunfire on the Walabaga River Bridge. And as I recall, the downfall of the Back Bart Gang involved a high-speed automobile chase – also with automatic gunfire – But how could that inconvenience you? As I recall neither gang could boast a survivor afterwards…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. But have you ever figured up the cost of those battles? I used 8,347 rounds in the McSneary battle alone. And ammunition costs, believe you me. Oh, sure, people never think of that. They always tell me, so you use Tommy guns. Big deal, they say. Those things can use .45 calibre slugs. But a box of fifty goes for about $30.00 And I wrecked three of my own limousines in that car chase. Protecting this city is expensive, and I’m a private corporation. I don’t get any grants, I don’t get any tax money, and I don’t have the time or resources to police all that brass and do hand loads to bring down expenses. I can’t even accept rewards. Not if I want my actions to be an inspiration to little kids.”

“But I thought –“

“Yeah, you thought. Everybody thinks! In his civilian identity the Armadillo must be some international playboy, living in a penthouse atop one of the most exclusive buildings in this burg. Well, part of the time I am. But every now and then I have to economize, too. I have to move to the low rent district. I gotta lay off loyal employees and do my own driving and hammer out the dents in my mask myself. But do people appreciate all this? No way. I tell you, buddy, I don’t get no respect –”

The Armadillo’s litany of grievances was suddenly interrupted by a prodigious clatter. From the roof of the slum above there issued such a noise that I nearly jerked my neck out of place so quickly did I respond to it. Something hurtled down at us!

I leaped aside in the nick of time. The Armadillo was not so lucky, perhaps because he was restricted by the ornamental headpiece upon his pate, and did not see the plummeting garbage receptacle until it bounced ringingly from his headgear; so that was what he meant by his reference to hammering out dents in his mask. Into the gutter flew the famous fedora of the crimefighter, while its wearer skidded into and through the plate glass front of a neighborhood liquor store.

I would have immediately rushed to his rescue, but something else was falling from the building. I screamed in terror at the apparent sight of a man. A suicide? Some poor victim hurtled to his death by some unseen murderer?

But no! I knew that man. It was the same creature I had seen in the alleyway when the Armadillo had shown up to affect my deliverance from its hypnotic spell: Harold the Werecat! And though the roof of the building from which it dropped was four storeys above the sidewalk, this supernatural creature landed on its feet, its legs bending like springs to lessen the impact. And without losing its balance in the slightest way, it crouched and turned and came toward me.

“Armadillo!” I cried. “Save me.”

The famous crime fighter was extricating himself from the liquor display. He said, “How?”

“Shoot him! I know you carry weapons in the secret pockets of your cloak! Shoot him with a silver bullet!”

“The cost of bullets what it is and you want I should have them made in silver? Weren’t you even listening to me?”

“Oh my God,” I croaked as the menacing creature moved toward me. “Surely you can do something!”

“Forget his help,” hissed the werecat. “That fool’s been dogging me ever since he moved into the neighborhood twelve weeks ago. He’s yet to prevent me even once from acquiring my chosen victim.”

I could feel volition draining from my muscles and it was with the feeblest of croaks that I managed to say, “I really didn’t have to hear that.”

“Sheesh!” said the Armadillo. “Don’t pay any attention to that crap. It’s just propaganda. The odds are on my side. Sooner or later, I have to win. Look at the Mill Street Decapitator. He claimed sixty-seven victims in a three week period, but I finally got him.”

“On?” said the werecat, with a sneer. “And just how did you do that?”

“Actually he called me on my hotline and confessed.”

The werecat laughed. “Hear that? And do you notice that he doesn’t come any closer to me that he has to? It’s because he’s weaponless. He can’t afford weapons just now. Look at his cloak! It doesn’t billow in the classic style of the Armadillo’s cloak, because its secret pockets are empty of even the famous crime lab. To say nothing of all the various guns, the drums of ammunition and so forth. Ha! It’s enough to make a werecat laugh, to see the famed and fearless Armadillo cowed like this.”

“Yeah, well you just hold on a moment,” the Armadillo said, rummaging in a pocket of his cape. Meanwhile, sweat beaded my poor brow and broke into rivulets and streams that poured into my eyes, threatening to blind me temporarily. But then I only had temporarily.

Harold the Werecat still approached. “You’re mine!” he gloated.

“Ah ha!” screeched the Armadillo simultaneously, and pulled a baseball bat from his cloak.

Harold the Werecat whirled to face him. At that very moment and with a movement so smooth it seemed rehearsed, the Armadillo swung and connected solidly. Had that creature’s head been a baseball, the Armadillo would have scored a home run. As it was, the creature’s head was a creature’s head: the Armadillo’s swing scored a grounder.

The werecat fell back, stretched out upon the slime-covered street and slid clear to the other curb. The Armadillo, swinging his baseball bat like a Red Indian’s war club above his mask, pursued the werecat. The dazed creature staggered to its feet only to be met soundly by a rap alongside its head. It rocked back. The Armadillo swung again, repeating his strike from the other side. He kept this up for several seconds as the werecat rocked prodigiously back and forth and then the Armadillo changed his tactic, raising the bat and bringing it down rapidly toward the creature’s skull.

The creature, however, was stronger than it seemed, and more agile; even the Armadillo, I think, had forgotten it was a cat. It stepped aside, grabbed at the bat, and before we realized what it was about, it snatched the athletic instrument from the Armadillo’s gloved hand. With more speed and force than even the Armadillo had managed, it swung at the crime-fighter’s head.

I have heard clock tower bells that did not ring with such rounded tones as that. Immediately the bat transferred vibration into the steel-headed figure of the crime fighter. But he did not fall.

What did happen was that the bat splintered. And more, the were-creature shook as ferociously as the Armadillo. They both stood vibrating in front of one another like sympathetic tuning forks and the haft of the bat fell from the werecat’s hands. I watched in horrid fascination.

Then, after what seemed like hours, though it could only have been seconds, the Armadillo ceased to vibrate. He shook his famous head as if to clear it, and spied the splintered bat upon the ground. In a sudden inspiration he snatched up the baseball bat’s broken haft and drove it into the creature’s chest in the vicinity of its heart!

Never have I seen such horror! The creature, the stake stabbing clear through so that it was visible both front and rear, rocked back and forth and uttered a fearsome scream. It twisted and writhed and reached out for its tormenter but the Armadillo leaped back to escape those clutching hands. He need not have bothered. With a look of utter agony upon its bestial face, the werecat suddenly vanished in a burst of blue light and was gone.

Sensibility returned to my muscles. I stared at the place where there should have been the body of the monster that had threatened to destroy me, and saw nothing. I did not tear my eyes from that spot until the Armadillo’s hand touched my shoulder and I heard him say, “Let’s go.”

He brought me to the phone booth in this perfectly respectable part of town and bid me call the police and wait for them. It was not yet dawn, but already a traffic of perfectly respectable and well-kept cars and taxis plied the clean-swept thoroughfares. The Armadillo said that he must go.

“And you must be safely away before the rising of the sun?” I asked. “I have often wondered, Armadillo. Could it be? Could it be that you are also a supernatural creature?”

“No, I’m just bushed as hell,” said the Armadillo, and was gone.

I dialed the number he had left me and requested that I be met by detectives for I had an incredible story to tell them. Presently, a recent model automobile parked at the curb and two men got out. So well-dressed were they that save for a slightly batrachian cast to their features, I might have taken them for bankers or minor executives of some up and coming investment firm.

And that, officer, is how I came to be mugged.

End