Some women are born with bodies men talk about; others with the sort men only expect to see in their dreams. Lila had the second sort. And the face and voice to match it.
It was only her eyes that were haunted.
She was singing a torch song to a passed-out drunk, the only customer this early in the afternoon, when Baumgartner walked in and moved his broken-down crime lord frame across the dim-lit room to the corner and what had once been his private table. It was funny, seeing him here all by himself. He had to pull out his own chair, stand up and slap the waiter himself when the poor guy made the mistake of asking for the order while Lila was still singing. Prison changed a man, she realized.
The drunk she was singing to burped, which she took for early applause. She finished the song and returned to the stage. Sure enough, he burped again.
Baumgartner didn’t burp. He just sat there, hunched forward, elbows on the table, and watched her with hard, glaring little eyes that burned in a narrow, parchment-fleshed face. Lila thanked them both, told them they were a good audience, shoved the microphone back in its holder and sighed.
She saw Baumgartner kick the waiter who was now lying under the table. “Get her,” he said.
She knew this would happen, and hadn’t even started for her dressing room. She stood there, watching the waiter crawl toward the stage. He reached the edge of the floor, pulled himself up on a chair and opened his mouth: several bits of tooth fell out. “His nickname’s ‘Brass Knucks’ Baumgartner,” she said.
“I bless youse for sharing that with me,” the waiter mumbled.
She moved her sultry, dancers’ body toward the corner table with a languid, hip-thrusting grace. Baumgartner watched her appreciatively. She pulled the other chair out and sat down across from him. He said, “Nothing walks like that in prison, Lila. Well, there was that guy in cell block J. But he sure didn’t have any dresses like the one you’re wearing.”
“What are you doing here?”
“What do you think, babe?”
“What I thought was you were in jail. Three concurrent life sentences.”
He nodded. “A third of a cat. It was hell, too. They made me serve twenty-two months. Two weeks of that was in a maximum security facility.”
“Good thing your sentences weren’t consecutive. You might have spent three whole years in jail.”
“I thought you’d be more glad to see me than this, babe.”
“But I’m not the one you’re here for, am I?”
For a moment his hard, bright eyes regarded her as if she were week-old oatmeal, then the other look returned. She thought the oatmeal one was friendlier.
“You’re a smart cookie, Lila. Real smart. I hear he still comes around sometimes. The runt, I mean.”
“The world’s full of runts.”
He slammed his hand down hard on the table and when he spoke, his voice was angry. “You know which one I mean. The one in the steel mask. The one that sent me up and cost me everything I spent my whole life killing and stealing to have.”
“Oh,” she said. “That runt.”
“He still comes around here or not?”
“You got it wrong about him. He isn’t what you think he is, at all.”
“If I’m wrong, it’s my problem. Just answer my question.”
“Sometimes he does,” she said. She started to get up. “If that’s all –”
He grabbed her wrist and forced her back into the chair. “What’s the matter, Lila? Got an appointment to make a phone call?”
“What if I have? You got no claim on me, Brass-Knucks.”
He tightened his grip and looked at her. There was hate in his beady eyes. Then he looked away and let go of her. “I was a long time up the river, doll.”
“Breaks of the game.” She stood up and started away.
She heard him say softly, “The game’s got more breaks than that, sweetheart.”
Brandishing his automatic, the thief leaped from the doorway of the Charity Mission. The pregnant lady, who hadn’t seen him, yelped as his free hand inadvertently slapped her behind. “How dare you!” she hollered, grabbing the strap of her purse with both hands and flailing the air just above his ducking head. She fell, bouncing against the baby buggy, the contents of which began crying in a voice that suggested this was not her first pregnancy. The Armadillo leaped into the path of the runaway buggy and said, “I’ll save your baby, Madam.”
The mother, now also rolling down the sidewalk’s steep incline, said something like, “Thank you sir!” or maybe something else entirely, and sped from the curb in a tangle of feet, hands, parcels and bloated midsection.
The Armadillo, famed crimefighter feared by evil doers everywhere, braced himself in the vehicle’s path and lowered his steel-masked head to its level.
The baby buggy caromed from his skull toward a pile of mattresses that promised a safe cushion against which it might stop, inside a nearby store. So confident was he of his plan’s success he did not even look back to see if the buggy did indeed strike its target; the sound of the store’s display window shattering was assurance enough of that.
Now that the baby was safe, it was important that the felon who so viciously attacked both mother and child should not escape. The Armadillo leaned forward and, throwing both elbows back ran like a charging beetle toward the crook.
Ping! Ker-rash! Bong! Splat!
The robber’s efforts to stop the Armadillo with mere gunfire failed as his bullets bounced harmlessly from the crime fighter’s mask. Proof of this the Armadillo saw when the gentleman in the clergyman’s garb, rifled through the pages of his Bible to satisfy his curiosity as to how deeply a shell had buried itself.
The Armadillo narrowed the distance between himself and his quarry. Near the top of the hill he gave a mighty leap that brought him to the ground directly behind the felon. A small annoyance like a flattened mask nose could not stop him. He reached for the fugitive’s ankles, snatched instead his shoelace. He held it tightly and the thief fell forward, then pinwheeled down the other side of the hill.
The Armadillo was instantly to his feet and after the scoundrel. At the bottom of the hill the crook plowed into a refuse heap and, as the crimefighter caught up with him, lay there in a tangle of coffee grounds and banana peels.
The Armadillo grabbed him by the collar and pounded him three or four dozen times, until he felt he could trust the man to wait unconscious for his return while he went to find a cop.
He paid small heed to the crowd of passers-by running up and down the street, gathering the bills that had been scattered from the torn moneybags during the robber’s roll downhill. After all, these people were citizens. He felt sure they would carefully gather the money and return it to the institution from which it was purloined. The speed with which they were working only verified their diligence.
Ronald Faldaytonworthington, noted layabout, handed over his coat to the C-Note’s hatcheck girl and observed that the usual early-evening crowd of social misfits was gathering. His deceptively shrewd-looking eyes took in a dozen politicians and a pair of talk-show hosts. Hardly the romantic atmosphere he had hoped for. But he would reveal his secret identity to Lila despite that.
“Gee, what’s a wealthy, big-time playboy like you doing here without a date?” the hatcheck girl asked, popping her gum with natural skill to the cadence of her words. “If you’re all by your lonesome, maybe I could, you know, quit my job or something and help you out. You are rich, aren’t you?”
To hand him his claim check she leaned across the counter despite the obvious danger of her cleavage becoming part of the floorshow.
Faldaytonworthington noted this with solemn approval. “I’d leave you a tip,” he said, “but I notice your only pocket is at risk.”
Moving to his usual table near the stage, he signaled the waiter and said, “A bottle of your best, garçon.”
“Mais qui, monsieur! Youse won’t be disappointed.” His diction was surprisingly good for one who appeared to have had recent dental work at the hands of a hobbyist.
For the first time Faldaytonworthington realized Lila was nowhere about. How odd. A furrow dug between his eyes; an eyebrow rose in telling perplexity. “Oh, garçon, I don’t see Miss Lila, your ravishing chanteuse.”
A quizzical look upon his sloping brow, the waiter glanced around the room. “By golly, I think you’re right. Oops! Almost forgot something. She gave me this note for youse.”
“This note is addressed ‘To Whom It May Concern.’”
“Gee, that’s funny. She described youse to a tee. I’ll be right back with the wine.”
As the waiter went off, Faldaytonworthington read the note. After the rather impersonal salutation it became rather more intimate. He had not quite finished wiping his aroused brow when the waiter returned with the wine, but he stuffed his handkerchief into his pocket and grabbed up the bottle anyway. “She awaits youse yonder,” the waiter said, pointing to a door leading to the dressing rooms. Faldaytonworthington, with a debonair smile, moved off.
As he made his way to her door, he was wondering how she had penetrated his disguise. Always before, his dates with her were kept in his steel mask; she was not yet privy to the secret that he was also the feared crimefighter, the Armadillo. That was what he had come undisguised to tell her tonight. He smiled. She had fathomed a secret that had baffled master criminals for decades. It was surely a sign of love. As the door opened, he smiled his most lecherous smile.
“What’s this?” she said. “An encyclopedia salesman with a bottle of wine?”
“’Tis I! To Whom It May Concern!”
“What? Oh! Oh, yes. Yes.” She grabbed his collar and dragged him into the room, kicking the door shut as she whirled him around. “I know you now. You’re – oh, you know. Can we get married tonight?”
“We’ll have to hurry. I have a date at midnight.”
“You reckless playboy.” She tossed her breasts. He caught them deftly, dropping the wine bottle on his right great toe. “Hold me! Kiss me! Swallow my soul entirely with your being,” she said, among other equally preposterous suggestions.
“Perhaps I should make notes ?”
“Notes? Forget about your notes. You’ll never play the violin again!”
Some time later he thought perhaps that was so.
He lay sprawled across the couch in her dressing room, watching his great toe swell up, while she rearranged her hair into a more disheveled style. He said, “Perhaps I should introduce myself. The name’s Faldaytonworthington. Ronald Faldaytonworthington.”
“You won’t believe how overwhelmed I am, I’m sure. Do you think I should smear my make-up? Once we got going you weren't much more ferocious than my regular boy friend.”
“Ha, ha, ha!” he laughed. “You little minx. Enough of this joke. Don’t you think I can see through your little jape?”
“I thought you tore that off me,” she said.
It was at that moment that the door fell down. Brass Knucks Baumgartner stomped across it, waving a pistol.
“Oh,” said Lila. “I don’t think you two have met. This is –”
“Never mind that,” snarled Baumgartner. “Say, this ain't the Armadillo. Not that it makes any difference because he’s still a runt and I’m still gonna kill him.”
Faldaytonworthington glanced at his watch. “Oops! Look at the time,” he said, pulling his pants up over his shorts, which were decorated with cheerful pink and white bunny rabbits. “I must be running.”
Brass Knucks Baumgartner pointed the gun at him and pulled the trigger.
It is an axiom of crime fighting that in battle one must rely on one’s most finely honed instincts. Outside of battle it is one of the dumber rules.
Accustomed as he was to facing armed assassins while wearing the bulletproof steel mask of the Armadillo, Faldaytonworthington reflexively moved his forehead to intercept the slug.
Fortunately he was also used to the weight of the mask and misjudged the movement, banging his head ringingly into a nearby radiator, instead.
Unfortunately his dazed state gave Baumgartner time to shoot again.
Fortunately Baumgartner was a lousy shot.
The bullet panged against the radiator a fraction of an inch from the dazed pate of Ronald Faldaytonworthington. But the sound it made was so like the ricochet of a bit of lead death from his beloved steel mask that he responded to it immediately. The cobwebs cleared, as if by magic from the adamantine-walled attic between his ears and he leaped to his feet, his eyes cleared, his reflexes alert, his muscles poised, but his brain as usual. He was Ronald Faldaytonworthington, but within him, guiding his every action was the Armadillo.
Baumgartner jumped and looked around. “That noise! Who made that noise?”
Faldaytonworthington jumped in front of him, assuming a ferocious bow-legged crimefighter stance.
Baumgartner looked at him with uncomprehending eyes. “You? You, the Armadillo?”
Faldaytonworthington lifted his fists and made ready to pummel the miscreant fiercely about the head and shoulders. Baumgartner said, “No, you can’t be,” and fired his gun again.
Twenty-two months on the prison mahjong team had not helped his marksmanship, but it did seriously reduce the size of Lila’s collection of commemorative china plates featuring scenes from the films of Regis Philbin.
Faldaytonworthington, sportsman that he was, had waited politely for Baumgartner to use up all his ammunition. Now that the proper moment had come, he hit the retired gangster on the point of his chin. Baumgartner rolled across the floor and groaned softly, but did not get up.
Night spilled darkness across the sprawling city and decent folk fled to the safety of their homes and the warmth of their dinners and TV sets. Traffic thinned on the city streets. The eyes of patrolling policemen narrowed and became alert. The eyes of other men became alert also, but in a desperate way. The nightly war between good and evil was starting up again.
Shadows crowded into the close-walled alley behind the C-Note and you would have sworn no living thing dwelled there until one of the shadows detached itself and, wraith-silent, slid through the service entrance to the club. As quietly, it moved down a short hallway and opened the door to Lila’s dressing room. There she was at her dresser, applying make-up. The figure watched a moment, and then turned to leave. Only the sound of the glass-filled table it knocked over caused her to look up.
“Army!” she said, leaping to her feet.
She wore a thin dressing gown that hugged her figure the way a run-over possum hugs asphalt. Her haunted eyes widened as she saw his hand upon the doorknob.
“You came in by the door, Army?” she said, her voice trembling with fear. “Something’s wrong, isn’t it?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, looking away from her. “Somebody piled broken furniture up by your window.”
She moved closer to him. The top of her gown slid into a deeper vee. “No, something’s wrong. I can tell.”
His hand tightened on the doorknob. He wanted to leave, knew he had to, then and there or his resolve would melt. All she did was stand there, eyes and neckline wide.
After a moment she said his name and moved toward him.
Her pounding breasts washed against him like high tide and her full, soft lips crawled like famished supplicants across his own. Lemming-like, he responded.
A long time afterwards she said, “You never take off your mask, Army.”
He said, “Last night Baumgartner was here.”
“I know. He came to kill you.”
“You didn’t call me, Lila.”
“I know, Army. It’s just that he had a gun and everything. I tricked him, though.”
“I found this worthless playboy just about your build and lured him into my dressing room so that Brass Knucks would think it was you. But it didn’t work. No one’s dumb enough to think Ronald Faldaytonworthington can be the Armadillo.”
“Even so –”
“But it worked out just the same. Faldaytonworthington knocked him out. It was a lucky punch. The police came and took Brass Knucks back to jail. We got nothing to worry about now, Army. He violated parole and tried to kill a guy. He’ll be there at least another month.”
“That’s not the point. You should have called me. We’re through, Lila.”
“Army, no! I didn’t want you hurt.”
He gathered up his clothes and began dressing. “I’m a crimefighter, Lila. Getting hurt is my job.”
For a long moment she just stared at him, her eyes big and more haunted than ever.
Then she laughed.
He had seen it before. A person’s whole life, her most cherished dreams, dashed. Hysteria. He said, “I’m truly sorry, but it has to be like this.”
“No,” she said.
“No, no, no,” she managed. “That’s not why I’m laughing.”
“You’re really a crimefighter? You really are?” She was rolling on the floor now. “All this time – in that outfit – all this time I thought you delivered singing telegrams.”