In an alleyway behind the city’s most exclusive jewelry store, two figures moved stealthily until the first stopped and turned to his fellow. “Gesundheit!” he said.
“What?” asked the second skulker.
“Gesundheit. A German term meaning health and traditionally spoken from politeness when one’s companion sneezes.”
“But I didn’t.”
“Didn’t? Didn’t what?”
“Of course you did. I heard you. How could I be mistaken about a sneeze with such a distinctive hollow, tinny sound. It was as if you’d stuck your head into a garbage can and –”
“I never stick my head into garbage cans. And my sneezes don’t have a tinny sound. I take a great deal of pride in how manly my sneezes sound.”
It was midnight. There was no moon. Heavy rain clouds shrouded the stars, though in truth few stars were ever visible in this narrow alley.
“Albert,” said the first man. “I distinctly heard a sneeze.”
“I never said you didn’t. The fact is, I heard it also. I’m only saying it wasn’t mine.”
“Well, if it wasn’t yours and it wasn’t mine …”
A single thought then came to the minds of both men. The first one said, “Oh, God.”
And Albert, dropping a bag of stolen jewelry, added, “Oh, no!”
And together they said: “The Armadillo!”
A figure detached itself from the shadows at the mouth of the alley and stood silhouetted against the light from the street. It was shaped like a man and wore a billowing cloak and a slouch hat. But its head was the shape of something other than a man. The shape of an animal. It was the head of an Armadillo.
Both thieves gasped. Then they made, in that dank back alley, what would be the last mistake of their lives. They reached for guns.
Their weapons erupted in flame and noise. The explosions of their shots roared against the close-set brick walls of the alley, sending back echoes. Lead pinged against steel. But above all the other sounds was laughter, the wild laugh of the Armadillo.
The edges of the Armadillo’s cloak snapped aside and his hands appeared holding heavy automatics. Two shots punctuated his laughter and the thieves fell to the slime of the alley pavement.
Contemptuous eyes glared through the opening in the Armadillo-shaped steel mask as the famed crimefighter thrust his automatics back into his hip-slung holsters.
Two athletic strides carried the Armadillo to where the first criminal lay. Strong hands grasped the felon’s lapels and lifted him until his nose was mere centimeters from the glinting steel snout of the Armadillo’s mask. There was a neat bullet hole in the center of the felon’s forehead.
“Bah!” said the Armadillo, dropping the fellow like an empty sack. “Dead again!” He stepped across the corpse to see about the other one and found him as definitely plugged as the first one was. The Armadillo cursed his steady eye and unerring aim. Old habits die a lot harder than thieves do.
Muttering in tones so low the words were concealed in the echoing fastness of the steel mask, the Armadillo scooped up the sacks of loot and absently tossed them back through the open door of the jewelry store. Then he stomped angrily from the alley.
A few paces from the alley, a long black limousine sat parked inconspicuously at the curb. The Armadillo climbed into the back seat, settling back against the luxuriant crushed velvet upholstery and let his flared nostrils fill with the pungent smell of cordite. There was something about the construction of the steel mask that trapped the odor, holding it for long minutes after it would dissipate from other surroundings.
The driver turned slightly and said, “Everything go all right, boss?”
“It went as usual, Lefty. I fear we didn’t get what we were after.”
“Too bad, boss. Where to, then?”
“Drive. Just drive around while I sort this out.”
The powerful limousine came instantly to life, its great engine making no more sound than does a cat when it purrs. It moved at a leisurely pace along the rain slick street.
“All criminals are fools,” the Armadillo said. “These two were no smarter than the others I’ve faced.” A sigh echoed inside the mask. “When they realized who they were up against, they should have surrendered. Or at least turned and ran. But they were too stupid, Lefty, and it cost them their lives.”
“Yeah, boss. Crooks is pretty stupid.”
Another metallic sigh. “It’s always the same. They draw their guns and engage in battle. They never learn, the fools. They always do the same thing, always aim at my steel mask, at that distinctive shape that draws the criminal aim as a magnet draws steel filings. And the bullets, of course, bounce off.”
“That reminds me, boss. I’ve been wondering about that. Seems to me a thing like that would affect your h- ”
“What? Speak up.”
“Uh, never mind, boss. It’s not important. What do we do now? About finding out who they work for, I mean.”
“If one of them had lived just a few seconds longer,” said the Armadillo, “I’d have wrested the secret from him.”
“You can always pick up the latest rumors at the Club Iguana,” said Lefty.
“No,” said the Armadillo. “Time’s running out and we can’t afford to waste it on dead ends. I’ve a better idea. The best place to pick up some word, some rumor of who this criminal mastermind might be is the Club Iguana. Get us there as quickly as possible, Lefty. Run red lights if you have to.”
“No need,” said Lefty. “That’s it just across the street.”
The Armadillo gave no answer. He was busy throwing off his slouch hat and cape, even his mask. Where moments ago the world’s most mysterious crime fighter sat, there now reposed that notorious playboy Ronald Faldaytonworthington, in full evening attire. “I don’t suppose it would do for the Armadillo to saunter up to the bar,” he said grimly.
Lefty laughed, pulling the limousine into a couple of convenient parking places.
“Sure wouldn’t, boss. Say, you better take off that gun belt, too. No worthless parasite like Ronald Faldaytonworthington ever wears twin forty-fives.”
“Good point,” said Faldaytonworthington, unbuckling the belt and slipping it into a concealed pocket of his cloak. Most of his weapons and equipment were hidden in such pockets, accounting for the cloak’s tendency to appear billowing on even the most windless of nights.
The Club Iguana was the most notorious and fashionable watering hole of the city. Here was a crossroads where the underworld and the elements of respectability met – municipal constituents not quite as removed from one another as one might think, if the truth be known. In its main room, the Club Iguana catered to the prominent and wealthy with the best of food and drink. In upstairs rooms, less reputable entertainments were furnished.
As that worthless parasite-about-town, Ronald Faldaytonworthington, it would have been out of character not to frequent such a place. But the clues one acquired here regarding the activities of the city’s scum were invaluable to a dedicated crimefighter. And as he moved toward the bar, Faldaytonworthington saw that he was not the only dedicated crimefighter seeking information tonight. Across the room, the police commissioner himself sat at the same table with the city’s most notorious gambler. Nearby the mayor was dining with one of the most brutal labor racketeers in the country; and from the thickness of the envelope the mayor surreptitiously slipped into his coat pocket, Faldaytonworthington guessed that he had talked that criminal leader into a very complete confession.
At the bar, Faldaytonworthington seated himself next to Lisa Long, beautiful star reporter for the city’s biggest daily, and ordered his favorite cordial from the bartender. Lisa poured over shorthand notes written in a reporter’s notebook open on the bar in front of her.
Sipping the liqueur, Faldaytonworthington turned to the reporter and said, “Lisa, my dear. Fancy meeting you here!”
She looked up from her notes. “Not too strange, Ronald. We had a date, remember? But it’s okay. I’m using the time I spent waiting for you by going over the notes of my next story.”
“And are those the notes to your next story? I say, your handwriting does become worse and worse as you get older. I can hardly make those out. What’s the latest rumor about crime in this town, anyway?”
“It’s written in shorthand.”
“You don’t say,” Faldaytonworthington said. “Never thought about him but there is a certain sinister logic to it, isn’t there? By Jingo, there is!” He brought his fist down hard on the bar. The next instant his hand dipped into his pocket and he tossed a handful of coins on the bar. “Barkeep! Drinks for Miss Long as long as this holds out.”
“Thanks, Ronald,” she said. “Another root beer, Henry.”
Ronald Faldaytonworthington sprinted across the room as the bartender put the glass in front of Lisa and said, “You’re forty cents short, Miss Long.”
In his limousine, Faldaytonworthington lost no time in getting into the Armadillo’s costume, barking an address to Lefty as he dressed. “But boss, that’s the address of Brittany Courtland, the city’s leading anonymous philanthropist. You don’t think any skunk would be low enough to rob a guy as swell as him, do you?”
“It’s worse than that,” Faldaytonworthington said, fitting the mask in place. “Don’t you see? Courtland’s our crook. He’s been running the gang that’s been robbing the city blind.”
“That doesn’t make any sense, boss. Courtland’s the guy who gave this berg the money to put up all them museums and libraries. Why’d a guy steal and then give it all away?”
“You’ve hit the nail right on the head, Lefty. It came to me back at the Iguana Club that the amount he donated to the city is just about equal to what the goods he's stolen would bring after being fenced.”
“Gee, boss, I still don’t get it.”
“And there isn’t time to explain. Lisa Long is about to figure it all out for herself. I saw her notes.”
“Boy, that Miss Long. She’s always on top of things. And all that running around after leads and stuff explains how she stays so slender, too, I’ll bet.”
“That and what the daily paper pays its star reporters,” said the Armadillo.
By the time they reached Courtland’s estate, the clouds had parted, allowing star glow to fall with a pale glory on the broad grounds.
High steel fences surrounded the well-trimmed lawn. The house itself was dark, a vast and sprawling structure from whose windows no light escaped. The only sounds were of nocturnal insects and, muffled and distant, traffic from the highway far below. The Armadillo climbed a tree near the high fence and surveyed the land carefully.
The tree was temptingly close to the wall. A man might drop from the limbs of this tree into the fence itself – and be electrocuted while he also set off loud alarms. Furthermore, ferocious hounds roamed the grounds. The Armadillo had no intention of falling into either trap. He was too wise for that. Surprise was always his trump card.
From one of the secret pockets in his cloak, he took a section cut from an automobile tire and lowered it from the tree to the top strand of the electrified fence. Lowering himself to the tire, he balanced a moment like a tightrope walker, then jumped to a clear spot of ground, landing like a skillful acrobat on the face of his steel mask. Springing to his feet, he darted several yards across the ground toward the house, then stopped abruptly.
A dark form loped toward him; one of the dogs. As suddenly as he, it stopped and waited, too.
The strange actions of the beast puzzled the Armadillo only for a moment. Then he realized the dog was trained to come no further than it had, and the reason was obviously to prevent it from setting off an alarm. The Armadillo’s keen eyes quickly ferreted them out. A ring of electric eyes circled the house. The average burglar, of course, would be too busy watching the dog to notice them and could be expected to trip them for that reason. The Armadillo gave a lower version of his famous laugh and ten feet away the Doberman pinscher shivered in superstitious dread.
But it was game, that dog, and would not retreat. The Armadillo expected no less. It was child’s play to step over the electric eyes, and just as easy to fish through the pockets of his cloak until he found several pork chops which he tossed to the various guard dogs. With them thus occupied, the Armadillo sped to the house.
It was necessary to avoid one more ring of electric eyes that marked a perimeter of about ten feet from the building. The steps were also wired to set off alarms at the weight of any intruder, but the Armadillo vaulted to the porch without the use of the steps. The door was locked. His low, maniacal laugh darted into the night and he broke the door with an axe.
Inside the house, an alarm went off.
Should have thought of that one, the Armadillo chided himself as the lights came on.
The living room was richly furnished. On a landing above it, in pajamas and robe stood Brittany Courtland. “Armadillo!” he cried. “What are you doing here at this hour?”
“Your hour is up,” the crimefighter snapped. “I arrest you as the leader of the gang of thieves that’s been robbing the richest art and jewelry collection in the city.”
“You idiot. I can’t be a criminal, I’m a philanthropist.”
“Indeed you are. And when I first heard the rumors linking you to crimes, I dismissed it as improbable. But –“
“Rumors?” shouted Courtland. “There can’t be any such rumors. I’ve been too careful.”
“I know. I heard them all,” replied the Armadillo in triumph, running toward the stairs.
Courtland muttered fierce imprecations and yanked on a cord at his left. As the Armadillo reached the stairs, a dozen doors opened and two dozen men, still in their underwear but wearing shoulder holsters, ran into the room.
“Kill him,” yelled Courtland. “He knows everything!”
The Armadillo laughed and continued up the stairs as two dozen lugers leaped into two dozen hands and fired as one. Twenty-four bullets bounced with but a single clang from the Armadillo’s steel mask and the Armadillo’s laugh became an octave madder.
“You nincompoops!” Courtland shouted. “Don’t aim at the damn mask!”
It was already too late. From the folds of his cape, the Armadillo drew not his two automatics, but a machine gun. Leaping from the stairs to the chandelier, the Armadillo swung with one hand and fired a deadly stream of lead with the other. The room filled with the crack of criminal automatics and the rat-tat-tat of the Armadillo’s machine gun, with cries and curses and maniacal giggling overhead. When the smoke cleared, Courtland looked around to see his henchmen lying dead and the figure of the Armadillo standing next to him.
“You can’t arrest me,” Courtland said pathetically. “I’m a famous philanthropist.”
“A clever ploy, that, but the jig is up. Only when I realized that the amount you’ve given up corresponds to what’s been stolen, did I understand the full brilliance of your crime.”
“Curse you, Armadillo,” Courtland said, falling to his knees. “It was a perfect plan. Not even you should have been able to see through it.” Tears streamed down his cheek.
“Of course you gave away the money you stole – it’s deductible on your income tax, and the perfect way to launder stolen money. Who’d dare to question the tax deductions of a famous philanthropist?”