The Avenger Chronicles: THE CLOUD OF DOOM
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“So, you think you’re a tough guy, eh?”
The tall, lanky man in the yellow checkered vest and straw boater planted himself in front of the approaching couple, jabbing a finger at the man and blocking their way along the Coney Island’s Boardwalk.
The male half of the duo, dressed in a pearl gray summer weight suit and matching fedora pulled low on his brow, peered up at the taller obstacle, his eyes hidden behind round-framed dark glasses. He was of average size, no more than five feet eight inches tall and one hundred and sixty pounds, but something about the man’s dark stare chilled the humid July air around the suddenly unsmiling Boardwalk barker.
“Excuse me?” the gray man said.
The barker swallowed and stepped back, trying to regain his smile, but fear kept it sliding from his lips.
“The bell,” the barker stammered, no longer shouting for the benefit of the crowd that surged around them. He held up the large wooden mallet that had been dangling at his side. “Ring the bell ... win a Kewpie doll. For, for the little lady.”
The “little lady” in question, a small, delicate young woman in a yellow flower print sun dress and wide brimmed bonnet to shield her porcelain complexion from the rays of the sun, tugged discreetly at the man’s arm. “Yes, Richard, why don’t you win me a Kewpie doll.”
Richard turned the black, endless stare of his sunglasses on her. “I wasn’t aware you needed one,” he said.
“I don’t, but you’ve obviously made this poor man very uncomfortable, so the least you can do is ring his bell,” she said. Then, in a whisper meant only for his ears, “Relax. Remember why you’re here.”
Richard looked at her for several seconds, than reached into his pocket for a quarter, which he flipped to the startled barker, who dropped the mallet to catch the coin. Before the well-worn handle could touch the ground, Richard had it in hand and, as effortlessly as waving farewell, he swung it against the padded wooden lever that sent a hard rubber ball racing up the eleven-foot length of cable, past the crudely painted summations and artistic representations of levels of strength, from “90-lb. Weakling” to “Hercules!!!”, to slam into the waiting bell with a resounding clang that brought an “oooh” and a smattering of applause from onlookers, then gasps as the force of its momentum drove the ball under the copper bell and jammed there.
The barker looked at Richard, his mouth moving but making no sound. In the distance, the sputtering engine of a slow-moving biplane towing an advertising banner through the thick, hot air thumped dully off the water. Closer by, a train of rollercoaster cars thundered by on the Cyclone and from it came a girl’s scream of terrified delight.
“I believe there was mention of a Kewpie doll,” Richard inquired, handing the barker his mallet.
As they walked from the still speechless barker, a cheap little celluloid cherubic Kewpie tucked under her arm, the woman said to Richard, “That was entirely mean. He was just doing his job. Some people have been known to come to Coney Island for fun, you know.”
“I was doing a public service, Nellie,” he said. “One look at that rickety contraption and I could see it was only a few good wallops away from collapsing and injuring someone. I gave him a hundred dollars and made him promise to replace it.”
“Oh,” Nellie said and smiled. “Yes, of course. I should have known.”
Richard didn’t smile back at her. He couldn’t. Beneath the shade of his hat and mask of his glasses, she could see the flesh of his face, so pale as to make her own peaches and cream complexion seem almost ruddy. She had long accepted the dead white immobility of his face, a result of the unimaginable trauma he suffered when his beloved wife Alice and their young daughter Alicia were murdered by gangsters. Nellie and the others who worked for this man’s Justice, Inc. could read his mood by his body language and voice, just one of the many small adjustments they all made when they joined their destinies with the man the newspapers called “The Avenger,” but who they knew as Richard Henry Benson.
His voice when he spoke was warm. “I appreciate your coming along, Nellie. I realize this must be awkward for you.”
“Awkward? Why on earth would you think that”
Richard lifted one shoulder and let it settle back in place, as close a sign of hesitation as he ever made. “We’re business associates. This is a personal matter. I just thought you might be uncomfortable...”
Nellie sighed, “Dear Richard, after how many years together, you still don’t understand, do you?”
But he was no longer listening. His chin had gone up and his gaze had shifted elsewhere. Nellie tried to see what he saw, but all she saw were revelers. Men, women, and children, clustered in all possible combinations and groupings, some in street clothes, many more in bathing suits, all in motion, pausing only long enough to loudly and merrily sample some amusement or Boardwalk delicacy. She couldn’t begin to guess how many were jammed onto the Boardwalk, beach and surrounding streets, but they had to number in the hundreds of thousands. And still more were coming by the minute, spilling out of the subway cars screeching into the elevated Stillwell Avenue station, by car, by bus and by packed trolleys that hissed south along Brooklyn’s major arteries, all culminating here, on a tiny spit of land jutting into the Atlantic Ocean.
It was the Fourth of July, 1941 and, until about thirty seconds ago, Coney Island seemed absolutely the best and most American place in all the world to be celebrating that.
Brightly buzzing neon and countless blinking, flashing light bulbs fought for attention with miles of red, white, and blue bunting flapping atop every arcade, game, attraction, and come-on joint along the Boardwalk. The air was thick with sound and smell, the roar of those countless voices muffled under the ceaseless thunder of the Atlantic surf. Nellie could smell sea and sand, sizzling hot dogs, diesel exhaust, roasting corn, and cotton candy. A pair of biplanes made lazy circles over the beach, one towing a banner extolling beachgoers to drink an ice cold Pepsi-Cola, the other to freshen their breath with new Julep cigarettes.
What she couldn’t see was anything amiss.
“Male Caucasian, blond, in his shirt sleeves, at eleven o’clock,” Benson said.
And then she had him, a tall, muscled man in his late-thirties, wearing a worn, grease-stained blue workman’s shirt with rolled up sleeves, dungarees, and steel-toed boots, striding away from a hot dog vendor, taking a big bite from one with everything.