TAC Table of Contents
by Stephen L. Blooks
Readers of my earlier stories probably know that one of my favorite one-shot characters in TAOS is Tony, the Italian immigrant restaurateur whose diner neighbors the Daily Planet. A feature of this diner is a rifle, its barrel twisted ostensibly by Superman.
Now, I happen to think Tony is an honest fellow; if he says the rifle was bent by Superman, it was bent by Superman. If he says he’s a personal friend of Superman, then he is a personal friend of Superman. And this is the story of how all that came to happen.
Tony had only opened the diner a month or so before and already it was the most patronized eatery in this section of Metropolis. After all, it was within a few minutes’ walk from the Daily Planet building, which itself leased some of its floors to other businesses. Police headquarters, and several banks and firms whose employees liked to come for a quick, inexpensive, and hearty lunch were all within a few blocks.
But Tony didn’t like the looks of the two men who seemed to have made the place their home away from home. They came at breakfast, nursed cups of coffee until noon, ate lunch, and lingered until well into the afternoon. Part of his dislike for them was because they somehow looked familiar to him.
Tony had grown up in Chicago, the town of Al Capone and so many other crooks of the Twenties and Thirties. And he had grown up in a section which had been the breeding ground for Capone or others like him. He had been born in Italy; his parents brought him over when he was a child. The Italian community in this mid-western city suited them; it had some of the rough and tumble of their hometown back in the Old Country. And rough and tumble it had been for young Tony. He had always been determined to live a good straight life, to make his parents proud. Yet growing up he had more than once fought off toughs and supposed toughs like the two in the corner booth now. In fact, Tony was sure they were two of the very guys who had given him the worse time when they were kids.
Tony had moved to Metropolis after his wife died, bringing his young daughter Elaine with him, but his sister and her family still lived back in Chicago. He hoped one day to buy a big house into which they could all live; after all, wasn’t that the American Dream? Wasn’t that the dream that had brought his parents, God rest them, over to this great country?
A country that Tony saw threatened by the very likes of others who grew up just like him, who had the same opportunities for good or bad; and chose the latter.
It was nearly five; Tony closed up the diner at five, because he served only breakfast and lunch. He had already sent his daughter home. That was because the two men were still there, and he wanted to have a word or two with them. He finished cleaning the counter and, with the cloth still in his hand like a battle standard, he strode over to them.
“I wanna talk to you guys.”
“That’s good, Tony, 'cause we wanna talk to you,” said the taller of the two.
“Yeah; we was wonderin’ when you’d come callin’.” The second was shorter and wide, but not with fat; hard muscle bulged inside the cheap suit.
“Is 'at so?” Tony said. “You were waitin’ for me?”
“Yeah. Doncha remember us?”
Tony nodded. “Yeah, I remember you. That don’t mean I like your business.”
“Then why haven’t ya kicked us out?”
“'Cause I don’ wanna make a scene. Now nobody here but us. And I can tell ya now: Leave, and don’t come back.”
“But Tony, we wanted to talk business with you.”
“I gotta business. I gotta nice diner; I make good money. Lotsa folks like to come here. Guys like you drive good folks away. I’ve let you stay here long enough; now find some other place to eat.”
“Yeah, Tony, we know about the kinda customers you got here. Attorneys, law enforcement officials, local businessmen, and your own favorites, the reporters from The Daily Planet all come here.”
“That’s right. Good people, what you’re not.”
“No, but I’ll bet you can’t help but hear some of what those good people are sayin’,” the taller one said.
“Yeah; but I keep my mouth shut.”
“That’s right; that’s why people trust you, why they feel free to talk around you. They know if you hear something, like maybe a payroll delivery, or some new valuable exhibit at the museum, you’ll keep quiet about it.”
“That’s right; Tony don’t tell nobody,” the owner said. But Tony was beginning to see where this was leading.
“Well, you could tell us.”
“You? Ha! You think I tell you?”
“Sure; if we give you a cut of our take.”
“I make honest money; I don’t need crooked money.”
“Maybe not. Say, you know there are some of the old gang still back in Chi-town. We know a few who are still in the old neighborhood. In fact, we work for a guy you may remember: Vinnie Lorenzo.”
Tony remembered Lorenzo; he had been the worst of them. Mostly because his father was known as the kingpin of organized crime in their neighborhood. But the cops, often because of certain “gifts” Lorenzo gave them, never touched him. Vinnie had evidently taken over the “family business.” If so, this meant trouble. He tried a forced bravado.
"Your sister and her family; they still live there, don't they?"
"Yeah... What about it?" Tony already knew the answer.
“Oh, it’s just that we know some guys who know your family. And we wouldn’t want to see anybody in your family get hurt, would we? Not with you bein’ such good friends with us and all.”
Tony glanced at the phone behind the counter. He knew Inspector Henderson; he could call him. But if he did, these thugs would call their friends in Chicago and his family might be... Tony didn’t want to risk it.
“What chu want me to do?”
* * *
Jimmy had come with Clark and Lois to Tony’s two or three times now. The first time he had sat facing the counter. The next time he chose that seat again. This time Jimmy called it before they’d even come through the door. Clark decided to sit beside his young friend to solve the mystery.
When Clark saw Elaine, Tony’s darkly attractive daughter, making sandwiches and ladling out soup he knew why. With super-speed Clark whisked the red plastic ketchup bottle from its place and set it under the table.
“Oh, looks like we’re out of ketchup,” Clark said innocently. “Jim, would you mind going up to the counter and asking that nice young lady for another bottle?”
Jim’s eyes, already on Elaine, widened. “Golly, Mr. Kent; gee I don’t know.”
“Go ahead, Jim; I’m sure she won’t bite you.”
Lois, puzzled, glanced toward the counter and saw Elaine. Picking up Clark’s cue she added, “Sure, go ahead Jim. She looks nice.”
“Well...” Jim started to get up and his foot slipped on something. “Hey, what’s this?” He reached down and found the “missing” bottle. “Look, Mr. Kent, here it is! Guess it just fell.”
“Yes, I guess it did,” Clark said, matching Lois’ shrug.
Tony saw Jimmy retrieve the ketchup and wipe it with a napkin. It had leaked a small puddle onto the linoleum floor. “Wait! Wait! I’ll get it!” he called, hurrying over with the ever-ready dishcloth he stored over his shoulder. He was on his hands and knees wiping it up before anyone could stop him. As he got up he grinned as he said to Lois, “No good for nice lady reporter to step in spilled ketchup.” He held his hand out to Jimmy. “Tony’ll get you new bottle.” When Jimmy hesitated Tony gestured with pleasant insistence. Jimmy handed it over and Tony called to his daughter. “Elaine! One new, full bottle of ketchup for my Daily Planet friends.” He set it on the counter and shot a “Coming right up!” back to them.
Clark noticed, surely not for the first time, the two swarthy men in the corner. Concentrating his hearing, he overheard part of what they said.
“Yeah; that’s Kent and that Lane dame,” the taller one said. “They’re in here a lot.”
“Yeah. They probably know a lot too.” He signaled to Tony.
The portly restaurateur grabbed the coffee pot and reluctantly came over. “What you want?” he whispered.
“What’s doin’ with your newspaper friends these days?” the tall one asked.
“I dunno; I don’ ask.”
“OK, maybe we’ll give you a pass on them.” He twitched his head to a well-dressed man at another table, eating lunch alone as he studied the stock market in his newspaper. There was a briefcase beside him. “What about him?”
“Mr. Stevens? Oh, he’s a stockbroker; everybody knows that.”
“Yeah? Ask him what he keeps in that satchel of his. He always carries it, ya know.”
Tony frowned as he looked toward Stevens. Finally he said, “OK.”
The conversation between Lois and Jimmy had muffled a little of what Clark said; so did the several other conversations going on in the diner. Sometimes it was a little tricky to focus his Super-Hearing on one particular conversation in a crowded room. He gathered that the two men wanted Tony to talk to Stevens, and decided to shift his hearing to that worthy’s table. Before he could he was interrupted.
When Lois called him that, in that tone, he knew he was in trouble. “I’m sorry; what’s that, Lois?”
“That was the third time I tried to get your attention. Where were you, daydreaming?”
“I guess so. What is it?”
“I was just trying to encourage Jimmy to go talk to Elaine. It’s obvious he’s got a crush on her.”
“Aw, Miss Lane...”
At that moment Elaine came over with a fresh ketchup bottle. She handed it to Jimmy, her bright smile an added bonus. “Here is your ketchup, mister... mister...”
“Ketchup,” Jimmy said. “James Bartholomew Ketchup.”
Clark and Lois tried to restrain from laughing as their friend grew almost as red as the bottled condiment. Elaine didn’t try to hold back, and her soft laugh even nursed an embarrassed grin from Jimmy.
“I’m sorry. It’s Olsen. Jim Olsen,” he said, taking the ketchup.
“Would you like a hamburger with your ketchup, Mr. Olsen?” Elaine asked, getting out her order pad.
“No, I like ketchup on my hamburger. I mean...”
“My nervous friend will have a burger, miss; and so will I.”
“Make it three,” Lois said.
She requested done-ness instructions and said, “I’ll have them for you in a few moments.” Flashing one last smile at Jimmy she returned to the counter.
“She likes you, Jim,” Clark said.
“Aw, gee, Mr. Kent.”
Clark saw Tony headed back to the kitchen and knew he had missed the latter’s conversation with the broker. But as Stevens headed out the reporter probed his briefcase with X-Ray Vision. There were a number of bearer bonds inside; Stevens was probably en route to delivering them. He saw the two men from the corner booth rise a moment later, toss a couple of bills on the table, and follow him.
That didn’t look good; Clark wanted to turn into Superman, and sought an excuse. “I just remembered I was supposed to call Inspector Henderson this morning.” He started to get up but had to side-step as Elaine arrived with their orders.
“Clark,” Lois said, “I’ll bet you Inspector Henderson is doing the same thing right now that we’re about to do: eat lunch.” When Clark hesitated she added, “And these burgers look so good that if you don’t sit down and join us Jimmy and I will split yours when we’re finished ours.”
“Besides, Mr. Kent,” Jimmy said, “didn’t you say it was your turn to treat?”
Clark was torn; but sometimes sneaking away to become Superman just wasn’t that easy. “All right.” He glanced at the door and back to his friends. “I guess Bill can wait.”
He also hoped nothing would happen to Stevens.
* * *
Clark sat at his desk proofing a story he had written when there was a knock on his open door. “Come on in, Jim.”
Jimmy came hesitantly, and his fingers played restlessly on Clark’s desk. “Mr. Kent, can I ask you a question?”
Clark put down the story and gave him full attention. “Sure, Jim.”
“Well, I need your advice. It’s... it’s about Elaine.”
Clark chuckled. “Jim, I’m hardly the one to talk to about romance.”
“Well, you see... Golly. I mean, didn’t you have a girl friend growing up?”
Smiling, Clark recalled: “Well, there was this cute redhead I went through school with, and we dated in high school. Of course, Smallville was just what it sounds like: a small town. Dates were the malt shop, the movies, that kind of thing.”
“That’s just what I’m talking about. I just wanna, you know, take her to the movies some time.”
Clark was both amused and concerned about his friend’s dilemma. “All I can suggest is, just ask her. You’ve dated girls before; I know you have. Think of Elaine as just another girl.”
“Yeah, but she’s not. She’s... well, she’s special.”“You like her, don’t you?”
“Well, Jim, I saw how she smiled at you today. I think she likes you too. Next time you go to Tony’s just ask her to the movies and see what she says.”
Jimmy pondered that a moment as though it were the Wisdom of Solomon. “You know, Mr. Kent, you’re right. That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
Clark’s phone rang. “Kent speaking. Oh, hello Inspector.” He listened for a moment and frowned. “Was he badly hurt? Where is he now? All right, I’ll be right there.”
“Was that Inspector Henderson?”
“Yes, Jim. Remember we saw Mr. Stevens, the stockbroker, at Tony’s? Well he was attacked and robbed not long after he left there. A police surgeon is tending to him, and he’s at headquarters now. Want to tag along?”
“Sure. Gee, that’s too bad. Does he know who did it?”
Clark picked up his hat and started through the office door, Jimmy following. “That’s what we’re going to find out. Come on.”
* * *
Mr. Stevens sat in a chair in Henderson’s office, a bandage taped to his head. Clark and Jimmy came in, and Henderson introduced them.
“Kent? Oh yes, you’re that reporter. I read your paper.”
“Thank you. I’ve heard of you too, sir; you’re well known and respected.” Clark sat on a corner of Henderson’s desk to better face Stevens. “Did you see who attacked you?”
“No; that is, they wore stockings over their faces.”
“You mean like women’s stockings?” Henderson asked.
“Yes, that’s it; like --- I guess they call them pantyhose.”
Henderson nodded. “An easy disguise; it distorts the features, makes it hard for a victim to identify, and even more easily discarded.” He rubbed his jaw a moment and asked, “What did you say you were carrying?”
“Bearer bonds. I was on my way to deliver them. They’re valuable; worth several thousand dollars. And since they’re not assigned to any individual...”
“Anyone can sign and claim them, correct?” Clark finished.
“Yes, Mr. Kent; that’s right.” Stevens held his hand to the bandaged bump on his head. “It’s my fault. It’s my responsibility.”
“Did you tell anyone about them?” Clark asked.
“No; I don’t think so. Oh, I did check over them a moment when I had lunch today. I opened my briefcase just far enough to look in, held one to verify it was in order, and closed the briefcase again, locking it.”
“Would anyone in the diner have been able to see it when you held it up?” Henderson asked.
“No, because you see I only lifted it far enough out for my own eyes. No one could see it; oh, not unless they were looking over my shoulder at the time.” Stevens frowned a moment, gathering faint recollections. “There was the owner of the diner...”
“Tony?” Clark said.
“Yes, Tony. He was refilling my coffee when I was looking at it. But I’m sure he had nothing to do with it.”
“Maybe, but then again maybe not,” Henderson mused.
“Now wait a minute, Bill,” Clark said, “you don’t think Tony could be involved in something like this?”
Jimmy was uncomfortable; Clark knew what his friend was probably thinking.
“I don’t know; but we don’t have any other leads.” He sat at his desk and reached for the intercom switch. “It might be worth talking to Tony to find out.” He requested a car to pull to the front of the building.
“You headed over there right now?” Clark asked.
“Yes; you want to come along?”
“Jimmy,” Clark asked, “how would you like a ride in a squad car?”
“All right.” Henderson called for an officer. “See that Mr. Stevens reaches home safely.” After the stockbroker had left with the officer, “Come on, Kent; we’ll see what your friend Tony has to say.”
* * *
It was almost closing time when the squad car pulled up in front of Tony’s. It was only a few blocks, but Clark understood that Henderson wanted at least one officer with them as backup just in case. As they got out of the car Clark put his hand on Henderson’s shoulder.
“Wait a minute, Bill.” He indicated the front door of Tony’s.
The three watched as the two men Clark and Jimmy had seen came out of Tony’s and started up the street, away from them.
“I think I’ve seen them before,” Henderson said.
“So did we,” Jimmy said. “Mr. Kent, weren’t they in the diner today at lunch?”
“Mmm-hmmm. And they left shortly after Stevens did. I wonder what they’re doing back here?”
“Let’s see if we can find out.” Henderson led the way inside.
“Sorry, diner closes in five minutes,” Tony said. When he recognized Clark he added, “but for Mr. Kent and his friends, Tony give you free coffee, on the house. And for you his young friend, a glass of cold milk.” He started to bustle about to serve them.
“Thanks, but I can do without the coffee right now, Tony,” Henderson said, showing his badge and introducing himself. The officer and Clark both accepted his hospitality, however, as did Jimmy. Tony poured a cup for Henderson anyway. “We have a few questions for you.”
Clark sipped his coffee and noticed that Bill was glancing at his cup, and smiled as he saw his friend savor the aroma a moment before continuing.
“Is Bradford Stevens a frequent customer of yours?”
“Mr. Stevens? Oh yes. Big important man; good tipper, too. Try your coffee, inspector.”
Henderson moved like he was reaching for it but placed his hand on the counter instead. “Not now. Does he ever discuss his business with you?”
“Business, with me? Oh no, Inspector. I run a diner. I don’t know about stocks.” Tony picked up a glass and nervously started polishing it.
“Then you don’t know about the bearer bonds he was carrying today when he was here?”
“Bearer bonds? I don’t know bearer bonds. He always has papers in his briefcase, and sometimes he looks at them over lunch.”
“Was he looking at papers today?”
“Maybe; he does that.”
“What about those two men who just left here? Late customers, were they?”
“Yes. I tell them to go home. They make Tony’s a hangout. I don’t like that.”
“So they’re here often, and stay long? Why?”
“Maybe they like the coffee,” Clark said, taking another sip. “It’s good coffee.”
Henderson’s fingers curled around the cup, though he seemed unaware he was doing it. “No doubt it is. But I bet that’s not it.”
“Yes. They like the coffee. That’s all.” Tony put down the first glass and started on a second. Neither looked like they needed polishing.
“Those two looked familiar to me,” Henderson said, “and my cop’s intuition tells me I’ll find pictures of those two back at headquarters. Come on, Kent, let’s go.” Again apparently unaware of his own actions, Henderson took a long draught of his coffee. He frowned, surprised, and finished it. He studied his empty cup. “Hmmm. Maybe it is the coffee.”
* * *
Henderson was right; he found mugshots of both men in the files. They were out of Chicago; worked as go-betweens, helping some bigger guy plan thefts, hiring extra help if needed. Middle management, gone wrong. He shared that with Clark and both were puzzled why Tony might be involved with men like that.
As for Tony, he was in a quandary. He didn’t dare tell the men about Henderson’s visit; they might take it out on his sister and her family. And he had just heard of the receipt of valuable uncut gems to the jewelry store down the street. He had overheard the store owner and one of his assistants discussing it. If he told the men about it, his family would remain safe; but Henderson might become more suspicious. If he didn’t; well, he didn’t want to consider the consequences. He told them.
A few tables over, Clark Kent was finishing his lunch. And this time his Super Hearing met with no interfering static.
A moment after the two crooks left Clark paid his bill and went out the door.
Tony paused a moment as he saw the reporter leave and made a decision. He hurried out after him.
Tony saw a gray-suited figure who resembled Kent hurry into an alley. Puzzled, Tony hung back, hesitating to follow.
A moment later a muscled figure in red and blue emerged from the alley, glanced about, and leaped into the air.
Tony had just seen Superman!
He didn’t need to find Mr. Kent now. Somehow, he knew Superman was on the job.
* * *
Burton’s fingers were super-sensitive; he had the safe opened in moments. Inside were the freshly-delivered uncut gems. Behind him stood two other rough looking men, each with guns trained on the jeweler and his two assistants. The guns were unnecessary, for they had already tied and gagged their prisoners. But these men were cautious, for they knew their boss was cautious as well. He didn’t like slip-ups, or hired guns who made slip-ups.
“Man, look at them sparklers!” one of the gunsels nearly smacked his lips in appreciation.
“Take a good look, gentlemen, ‘cause that’s all you’ll ever see of them.”
They turned; it was Superman!
The usual futile firing of their guns at Superman followed, as well as the tossing of the gun at Superman, which of course had even less effect.
Of more effect was Superman’s fist, as he hit one just hard enough to fall into another. The safecracker tried to hit him over the head with his toolbox, which only annoyed the Man of Tomorrow. Superman picked him up by his lapels and held him overhead a moment, shoving him against the ceiling, before tossing him on top of the other two.
“If you want to play some more,” he said, “I’m sure you’ll get tired a lot sooner than I will.”
They’d had enough.
* * *
Tony had left Elaine in charge and taken the next train to Chicago as soon as he heard the news of the botched robbery. He had to see that his sister was all right. As he walked to her house a long black limo pulled up and a man got out and stood in his way.
“Excuse me,” Tony said, trying to sidle by.
The man, whose shoulders appeared too wide for the average doorway, barred his path. “Stay put, hash-slinger. An old friend wants to see you.” The man opened the back door and held it for Tony.
Tony was no coward, but he was no fool either. He got in the car. The door slammed shut on him. The windows were darkly tinted, and the interior almost like night. The glow of a lit cigar opposite him was the only illumination. The compartment was filled with it, and Tony coughed. There was a chuckle behind the cigar.
“Too bad you never developed a taste for these, Tony,” a voice said.
“How do you know me?”
“Come now, we’re old friends.” There was a click and the overhead light came on.
Tony blinked as his eyes adjusted. The face on the other seat was familiar; a man about his own age, and if he mentally subtracted the years he recognized him. “Vinnie.”
“That’s right, Vinnie Lorenzo. I’m glad you remember me.”
“I moved away from here to try to forget you. And guys like you.”
“Aw, that hurt, Tony. That hurt a lot.” He drew on the cigar and blew a thick smoke ring. “People don’t like to get hurt. Especially people we care about.”
Tony knew where Vinnie was going with this.
“Your sister, for example. You know, Tony, I used to have a crush on her.”
“Yeah, and our papa kept you from doin’ anything about it.”
Vinnie nodded at the memory. “That’s right; and ya know, I never forgot that. I hear she’s married and has a couple of kids now.”
“What do you want, Vinnie?”
“Oh, I just heard you were making a visit to your sister and thought I’d ask you to give her my regards. Tell her I never forgot about her, you know?”
“You’d better not hurt them, or else...”
“Tch tch, Tony; why would you even think that? Why, if things had gone differently I might have been your brother-in-law.”
Tony’s answer was the anger-reddened face he bore.
“Why Tony, why be angry with an old friend? Speaking of friends, some of mine are keeping an eye on your sister for me. Making sure she’s safe, you know? Like my friends in Metropolis look after you.”
“I got friends in Metropolis too.”
Tony tried a bluff. “Yeah; like Superman.”
“I hear he caught some of my boys who were trying to obtain some valuable gems for me. You didn’t tell Superman on them, did you?”
“What if I did?”
“I wouldn’t advise doing it again. I’m gonna let it pass this time, ‘cause I don’t really think you’re the one who told him. But if Superman hears about one of my --- business dealings --- again...” Vinnie shrugged off responsibility for any consequences. His demeanor became friendly again. “Now you go ahead and have a nice visit. And be sure to tell her that I’m looking out for her while you’re in Metropolis. And you can let her know that I’ve got an eye on you too, for her sake.” Vinnie offered his hand. After Tony refused to accept it, he shrugged his shoulders and pressed the light switch. The compartment plunged once again into darkness. There were two taps, and the door opened.
Tony stepped out. The driver or bodyguard or whatever the fancy-suited gorilla was grinned at him with teeth that seriously needed a dentist’s care and got back into the limo. Tony watched as it pulled away. A chill shook its way through him, but when it had passed he squared his shoulders and continued on his way to his sister’s house.
It was one of a long row of houses, stretched along the entire block, each sharing its walls with the houses on either side; and sometimes allowing the sharing of secrets as well. Maria greeted him with a great hug, this tiny dark woman who so much reminded both of them of their mother. He had arrived just in time for dinner, and she proved that the love and skill of cooking was a family trait.
Later he sat with her in the living room, her son and daughter in the dining room studying, her husband relaxing in his study while they spoke alone.
“Tony, I’ve been frightened,” she confided in him. “I’ve noticed some bad looking men watching us. Like the boys we grew up with. You know the kind.”
“Yes, I do. Have they spoken to you?”
“No, but I see them all the time. I told Lenny [her husband] and he wanted to call the police, but I told him not to.” She took her brother’s hands. “Was I right to tell him that?”
“Yes. There are men in Metropolis, too. Men from the old neighborhood. They want me to do things for them, or else they say they’ll hurt you or the kids.” He didn’t add that they all worked for Vinnie Lorenzo; it was more than she needed to know.
“Tony, what’ll we do?”
Tony thought a moment. “I think I know. I think I gotta friend who’ll help.”
* * *
It was nearly six and Clark put away his typewriter in its desk nook. He neatly stacked the papers on his desk and placed them in a wooden tray. From the time he had worked on his high school paper, reporting the news had been in his blood. Working at the Daily Planet was a perfect source for learning of crime or emergencies, for his role of Superman. But it had become more than that: he loved the job, the tracking down of the facts, interviewing of people, the challenge of crafting a good, truthful, informative, and sometimes moving story with a deadline like a sword of Damocles always threatening to fall before you have it just right. Even taking the occasional tirade from Perry White was something he cherished.
Putting in a good day’s work: something Eban Kent had instilled in him; being among people he cared about; meeting and interacting with the other people of his adopted city. These were human things; these were day-to-day activities which kept him grounded, ever mindful of the vow he had made to citizens of this planet. More than just a disguise for Superman, Clark Kent was the tie that bound him to the humanity who populated this world called earth.
Yet it was the end of the day; and like everyone at the end of a day’s work Clark looked forward to going home, having dinner, cracking open a book or maybe watching Uncle Miltie and his latest antics.
But when Tony hesitatingly knocked on his door, Clark knew he might not get that chance.
“Why, Tony! What brings you here?”
“Excuse me, Mr. Kent. Sorry; the lady at the desk said you still here.”
Clark smiled and motioned him to a chair. “Have a seat. It’s quite a surprise to see you outside of your diner.”
“Thanks.” Tony held a cloth cap in his hand, and kneaded it as he sat.
Clark perched himself on the corner of his desk. “What’s wrong, Tony? You seem nervous.”
“Nervous? Me, Mr. Kent? No...” His bravado withered however in seconds. “Yes; yes, Mr. Kent; I’m nervous. I’m in trouble.”
Clark nodded; he guessed it was the two toughs who had been hanging out in the diner, but it was Tony’s story to tell. “What kind of trouble?”
“Well, Mr. Kent, remember when you and Inspector Henderson asked me about Mr. Stevens?”
“Yes, after he was robbed. Tony, I’m sure you know the inspector was just doing his job. He really doesn’t think you had anything to do with it, and if it makes you feel better, neither do I.”
Tony kneaded his cap as though it were dough he was preparing for a pizza. “That’s just it, Mr. Kent. It’s my fault.”
“Tony, I’m sure it wasn’t...”
“It was. Those men, the ones you and the inspector saw?”
“Yes; he told me later they’re two hoods from Chicago.”
Tony nodded vigorously. “I know them. We grew up together in Chicago.”
Clark nodded, concern knitting his brows. “I see. Tony, are they threatening you?”
“Yes; that is, they threaten my sister. She and her family still live in Chicago. I went to see her, and she said some rough men are watching her and her kids.”
“Do you know any of those men too?”
“I dunno; but I know their boss. I seen him in Chicago when I saw her.”
“What’s his name?”
“Tony, did you tell these men what Mr. Stevens had in his briefcase?”
Tony looked at Clark a long moment before answering with a slow nod. “And I told them about the jewels in the safe.”
“If you didn’t, they might hurt your sister.”
Clark rose and reached for his hat. “Tony, we’ve got to tell Inspector Henderson.”
“No!” Tony leaped to his feet. “No, we can’t! But there’s someone we can tell.”
“I guess you mean Superman,” Clark said. He started to return his hat.
“Mr. Kent, after those men left last time I saw you go down the alley. A moment later, Superman came out.”
Clark froze with the hat mid-air. Taking a deep breath and recovering he returned it to its hook and said, “Just what do you mean, Tony?”
“Well, I’ve heard people say you can contact Superman. Now I know you can.”
Clark studied him. Tony’s everyman features were mild, ingenuous. Did he suspect the truth? Clark decided this wasn’t the time for that conversation. “It’s true, Tony. I have contacted Superman, and I guess you caught me doing just that.”
Tony beamed. “I thought so. Today I heard of furs coming to a warehouse on the docks.”
“Have you told them?”
“The furs come tomorrow, so I tell them then. But Mr. Kent, this has gotta stop. I no crook; I only do this to protect my family.”
Clark put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. “I’m sure Inspector Henderson will understand, especially if you help him put them away.”
“You think Superman will help?”
“If I know Superman,” Clark said, “it will be his pleasure.”
* * *
Tony and Elaine lived in a small, two bedroom apartment on the second floor above the diner. They always ate supper in the diner then went upstairs. Elaine had noticed her father’s anxiety the last week or so, and was glad he seemed at least somewhat relieved of whatever burden had bothered him.
But still, after he had pretended to read the same page of the same magazine for over a half hour, she came over to the sofa where he sat and asked, “Papa, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Papa take care of it all. You see.”
“Is it those men?”
Tony hesitated before nodding.
“Who are they?”
Tony stroked his daughter’s inky dark hair. “Don’t you worry. I gotta friend. He take care of them.”
There was a whoosh and the sound of booted feet landing solidly in the bedroom beyond. Tony and Elaine both stood, looking to the door, as Superman strode into the parlor.
“Superman!” Tony said. “Mr. Kent... well, he said he might call you.”
“Good evening, Tony.” Superman smiled at his daughter. “And you must be Elaine.”
Both were astounded at his appearance.
“Yes, I learned of your trouble from Kent,” Superman answered.
Tony nodded and winked. “He’s good man, Mr. Kent.”
“I’ll tell him you said so,” Superman said. “Tony, may we talk alone?”
“Sure, sure. Elaine, you go on to your room. I have to talk to my friend Superman.”
Elaine couldn’t take her eyes off the Man of Steel. “Good – good night.”
“Good night, Elaine,” Superman said, taking her hand, “and don’t worry; I’ll take good care of your papa.”
She smiled as she went to her bedroom, shutting the door behind her.
“Superman, my daughter and my sister and her family are all I have. You gotta keep ‘em safe for me.”
“I plan to do just that,” Superman said. “I’ve just met with Inspector Henderson and told him what you told me... I mean told Kent. He’s agreed not to charge you, if you testify against these crooks in court.”
“I will; but how’re we gonna get them first?”
“Henderson and I have worked up a plan, which we think will work. He has some friends on the Chicago police force, including the chief. He’s alerted them to have some plainclothesmen watching your sister’s house.”
“But these men might still hurt my sister. Superman, I thought you would be protecting them?”
“I will; but I’ve got to stop this robbery, as well.” He folded his arms across his chest. “And you know, even I can’t be in two places at once.”
“So, what we do?”
Superman leaned toward him to whisper, “Here’s the plan...”
* * *
Clark ate alone again at Tony’s, sitting at the counter this time. From here he had a clear view of the café, via the large mirror on the wall facing him. Clark had to chuckle silently sometimes at his own limitations. His various forms of Super-Vision could see across vast distances, through most objects, and magnify better than any optical microscope. But he didn’t have eyes in back of his head.
The man beside him, a large economy size fellow in a bargain basement suit, was industriously munching on what must have been his third hamburger since Clark had sat down. He seemed to particularly savor the pickles. Between bites he shared with Clark his views on just about every topic known to man. Clark enjoyed meeting new people; it was one of the perks of the job. But he was beginning to wish he hadn’t told the fellow he was a newspaper reporter. The man with the Wimpyesque appetite for burgers apparently fancied himself as the Planet’s next star editorial columnist.
Clark nodded and listened though he was really studying the two hoodlums who were again at their usual table. Tony came back from delivering their order and gave a beckoning nod to him. Clark wiped his mouth with his napkin and followed Tony to the short, narrow hallway beside the kitchen.
“Mr. Kent, I just told them about the furs, like we said.”
Clark feigned puzzlement. “I don’t understand, Tony. Did we have some plan about what to do about these men?”
Tony gave a sly wink. “Me and Superman did. Just wanted to let you know I did my part.”
Clark nodded. “That’s good, Tony. I’ll be sure to tell Superman for you.”
Tony seemed to consider a moment. “OK, Mr. Kent; maybe you see him before I do, huh?” Again he gave a sly wink.
“Tell you what, Tony; if you see him first, you can tell him.”
“I’ll do that.”
Clark returned to his lunch, which was nearly finished. He glanced in the mirror. The men were about halfway through. He ate his last few bites, listening to his new friend state his views on law enforcement, and watched as one of the men got up to use one of the two telephone booths. Clark glanced at his watch, excused himself, and said he had to use the phone.
He sat in the adjoining booth, his Super Hearing amplifying both sides of the conversation.
“I’ve got the low-down, boss. The furs will be delivered tonight at eight.”
“Make sure you’ve got enough men with you,” the voice on the other end said. “Remember, I don’t just want this shipment but whatever else you can haul out of the warehouse. Get enough men and trucks to wipe that place clean, if you can.”
“I’ll do my best, boss. You still got our insurance covered?”
“Yeah; and to be sure, I’m sittin’ in on this one myself. If this turns out to be phony, or Tony’s pulling some other kinda fast one, well he’ll suddenly become an only child.” The boss paused, and Clark could imagine his eyes narrowing and brows lowering. “And this time I’m gonna have a little extra insurance; a whole additional policy.”
“What is it, boss?”
“Let me handle that. In this business sometimes the less you know the healthier it is for ya.”
“That’s right, boss.”
“You guys get outta there and make your plans for tonight.”
The hood hung up and Clark waited just a moment before emerging from the booth. On the face of it, the plan was going just as he had told Tony; except for one thing. What was the “extra insurance?”
* * *
There were about a dozen men altogether; plenty of burly guys to load furs and two men per truck. They had arrived early and already loaded as many of the furs stored in the refrigerated warehouse onto the trucks as they could. The only thing to do now was wait. And waiting was never a strong suit for any of these guys.
Eight o’clock came and went. It was nearly eight-thirty, and the natives were restless. For the tenth time in five minutes the tall crook checked his watch. “If they’re not here by nine I’m calling the boss.”
In Chicago, at Maria’s house, the children had been sent to bed and she and Lenny sat on the sofa. She was fidgety, and he noticed.
“What’s wrong, darling?” he asked.
Maria glanced furtively about, as though prying eyes or ears might be lurking in corners, rose and lowered the volume on the TV. “I got a call from Tony just before supper.”
“Oh; is it what you were telling me the other night?”
“Yes. They’re out there now; I have a feeling it may be most of the gang. Maybe even their boss.”
“Vinnie Lorenzo himself? Did Tony have an idea why?”
“This is the biggest job yet, and Vinnie wants to make sure nothing goes wrong.”
Lennie frowned and muttered something. “He used to like you, didn’t he?”
“Yes, but even then he scared me.” Maria smiled up at her husband. “But you always make me feel protected.”
“And I will.” He held her close, their arms sheltering each other.
Vinnie Lorenzo stood with Big Louie, one of his bodyguards, just outside a corner store opposite Maria’s house. There was a phone booth, and his men were instructed to call that number should anything in Metropolis go wrong. Vinnie drew slowly on his cigarette, his eyes trained on the house and narrowed in thought. Louie stood a little behind him, his arms folded, waiting. Waiting was something Louie did well. Little in the way of thought ever passed through his mind. Vinnie saw that as a strength in Louie. The less Louie thought about things, the less he was distracted, and the more he focused on Vinnie’s orders.
The phone rang. Vinnie threw down his cigarette and said to Louie, “Answer it.” Louie, without being told, would have stood and let it ring. He lifted the receiver, said “Hello?” and listened a moment. He hung up and reported to Vinnie.
“The furs never came.” Louie had no idea what furs the guy on the phone was talking about, and couldn’t care less. He just knew this was the message he’d been told to deliver to his boss.
Vinnie nodded. A slight gesture brought a half dozen thugs from the shadows. He drew his automatic from a shoulder holster. Louie, imitating his boss, drew his .45 as well. The others were armed with Tommy guns. Vinnie was an old fashioned kinda guy; what had been good for Capone was good enough for him. As for the noise, Vinnie owned this neighborhood, and several others for that matter. Sure the cops might come, but he owned some of them too.
“Let’s pay a social call,” he said.
There was a rush of wind from overhead, and a red and blue streak landed suddenly, barring their way to the house. He stood defiantly, his arms akimbo, the night breeze trailing out his cape behind him. Even in the dark, the shield on his chest gleamed bright gold, and the stylized crimson “S” framed upon it was stark and dramatic.
The Man of Tomorrow wondered, once again, why crooks are compelled to state the obvious.
“Let him have it!”
As six Tommy guns opened fire on him, and bullets struck everywhere only to bounce in a spray that drove the gunmen back, Superman waited patiently. Let them have their fun; there was only one way it could end, anyhow.
The gunmen realized they were in more danger of killing themselves than Superman, and threw their guns down. Superman was immediately among them, and again as it had happened many times before, the thugs apparently thought their fists would accomplish what bullets could not. And they were right; but they were the fists of Superman.
All six jumped him at once. As five pummeled him, hurting their hands and not him, the Man of Steel took his time. He grabbed one by the coat and landed a blow on his chin that shut him out for the night. Another received a punch to the stomach followed by a chop to the neck. The third became a club with which he knocked a fourth down and out. Each blow he struck was carefully calculated; practice had taught him that though the punch might look like a killing stroke, it carried just the right amount of power to do what Superman wanted.
The last two stepped back. He faced them, his fists balled at his sides now. They stammered, obviously ready to surrender, but glancing furtively at their boss, who still leveled his .45 at them. Superman decided to end their dilemma. He lifted one in each hand and banged their heads together.
He turned to Vinnie and Louie. The former, like a good general, had stood back and let his army do the hard work. Louie was, as always, waiting for orders before acting.
“Wait, Superman; let me handle him.”
Superman glanced behind him; Lennie, Maria’s husband, was coming, rolling up his sleeves as he came.
Louie apparently didn’t need any instruction this time; he started toward Lennie.
But Superman halted him with a hand against his massive chest. “Why not pick on somebody your own size?” he challenged.
Lennie actually topped the Man of Tomorrow’s height by a couple of inches, and his shoulders were broader. Big Louie grinned. Those other guys just couldn’t take it; wait ‘till he got a hold of this guy. Circus suit or not, he’d cut him down to size. He tossed his gun aside and swung a huge haymaker at Superman’s jaw.
Superman didn’t budge, but Louie’s fist ached like he’d struck the side of a bank vault.
Undaunted (or just too dumb) Louie tried his left. Now he had too sore hands.
Superman decided a show of a different kind was needed. He cocked his forefinger behind his thumb, and flicked it at Louie’s chin; yet that flick carried knockout power. Louie’s eyes glazed, rolled back, and he dropped like a sack of concrete.
Meanwhile, Lennie had attacked Vinnie. He had the mobster’s gun hand in a sure grip, and was striking it against the brick wall. The gun dropped. Lennie was ready with a punch that staggered Vinnie. When the latter tried a dive for the gun, Superman kicked it out of the way. He knew what this meant to Lennie, and wanted to keep it fair. Vinnie tried coming up swinging, and while his first blow struck solid, Lennie ducked the second and came in with a one-two delivery that nearly did the trick. Vinnie suddenly tackled him and they went to the ground. Lennie quickly turned him over and gave one more hard blow that sent Vinnie out. He waited a moment to be sure the man wasn’t feigning it, and got up.
Maria came running from their house, and they clasped each other.
Superman smiled. He heard sirens coming, and watched as several squad cars came round the corner. A big, red-faced man in a captain’s uniform got out of the lead car and came toward them, extending his hand.
“Superman, I’m Capt. Ferguson, Bill Henderson’s friend.”
Superman took his hand. “Glad to meet you, Captain.” He glanced at the men who were emerging from the other vehicles and added quietly, “I’m sure you brought only men you could trust?”
“I’d trust anyone of these boys with me life,” Ferguson replied in a casual brogue. Yet Superman sensed this was a man of strength and courage, and a good reader of men. “I know, Lorenzo boasts he owns half the police force. He just thinks he does. There’s gonna be a house cleaning while the DA prepares this case.”
“Glad to hear it,” Superman said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m not quite finished. There’s more work waiting for me in Metropolis.”
Maria came over to him. “Thank you, Superman; thank you for saving us.” She gave him an impulsive kiss on the cheek. Lennie offered his hand, which Superman took.
“It was a pleasure to meet you both. I’ll be sure to tell Tony that you’re both safe.” He ran a few steps down the dark street and leaped into the night, his silhouette appearing for only an instant across the white disc of moon, then vanishing.
* * *
Slim, the taller of the two diner habitués, was out of patience. The truck was supposed to be there an hour ago. They had all the other furs packed; but the boss liked his orders obeyed to the letter. Slim was already acquainted with Big Louie’s style of punishment; he didn’t want a second lesson. He dropped his third nickel into the pay phone outside the warehouse. Again he waited, the jangle of the bell of the Chicago pay phone fraying his nerves more with each ring. He finally hung up and returned to his waiting crew. “The boss ain’t answering.”
“The boss won’t be answering any phones for quite a while,” an authoritative voice said, “except maybe from prison.”
All turned to see the source of the voice. Superman stood before them.
He didn’t waste time letting them waste bullets; he’d had enough of that for one night. But again these toughs thought they were stronger enough to take him, so he was in for another brawl. He caught the first and tossed him into two more, and the three went down like tenpins. One tried jumping him from behind, getting an arm around his neck. Superman broke the hold and threw him over his shoulder, and the man slammed to the floor. Another, apparently fancying himself a boxer, assumed the classic stance and approached him. Superman purposely dodged the first two swings, letting him become over-confident, before sending his own carefully placed punch, knocking him out. The first three rose, tried to gang up on him, and found themselves knocked down one by one.
Again, as had happened even in Chicago and always happened in Metropolis, Inspector Henderson and several squad cars of men pulled up as soon as he was finished. Superman didn’t mind; actually he felt Bill was probably pretty smart not to risk himself or his men against armed killers, and leave the rough stuff to him.
* * *
In Chicago, Vinnie was allowed his one phone call. It was a local call, a coded message so the cops couldn’t figure it out. But the recipient of that local call, as per earlier orders, placed a long distance call to Metropolis.
* * *
The phone in Tony’s bedroom rang and he answered. ‘Yes? Maria! Elaine! It’s your Aunt Maria! They’re OK! Superman saved them!” He held the phone so they could both hear and talk to her. All three gave thankful prayers for her safety and that of her family.
As Tony hung up the phone there was a rush of wind and Superman came through the window, landing before them.
“Superman! I just got off the phone with my sister. They’re safe, thanks to you.”
“I couldn’t have done it without you, Tony,” Superman said. “The plan worked perfectly. Having the shipment delayed one day gave us a chance to catch the entire gang.”
“And dad made that phone call, just when you said,” Elaine added. “He recognized Big Louie’s voice, and told him the furs hadn’t arrived; just as you asked.”
“You weren’t worried that Big Louie would recognize your voice?” Superman asked.
Tony grinned. “Louie wouldn’t even recognize his own mama.”
They laughed. It was good standing here, the night air cool and soothing as it passed through the window. They were gathered around it, though none of them were concerned about it.
But a man in another window was interested. He saw them clearly, even through the night, silhouetted within the frame of the large French window. He had a good view; and therefore, a good shot. If only Superman would step out of the way.
He wasn’t sure he heard it at first, and Superman shushed his friends while he concentrated his Super Hearing. The sound didn’t repeat, and he knew that meant danger. He turned to the window, and a quick sweep of Telescopic Vision spotted the man in the upper room, just across the street.
“Behind me, quickly!” He didn’t have to say it twice. They huddled behind him as bullets seemed to rocket out of the night itself, striking and bouncing from Superman’s chest. When they stopped he said, “Excuse me.” He leaped out the window, there was the crack of one last gunshot, and Tony and Elaine instinctively dropped to the floor. They laid there a moment, there was the sound of someone struggling, and suddenly Superman was back in the room with a very frightened man in tow. In his other hand the Man of Tomorrow held a rifle.
“Looks like Lorenzo wasn’t quite ready to give up,” Superman said. “He sent this fellow to finish the job.” He threw him down in a chair; the man was beaten, evidently one crook smart enough not to try to punch out Superman. “I’ll take him to headquarters.” Superman turned to Tony, eying the rifle. “Meanwhile, Tony, here’s a souvenir for you.”
He took the rifle barrel in both hands and gave a twist.
* * *
Clark, Lois, and Jimmy were having lunch at Tony’s once again. As soon as he saw them, Tony corralled them and led them to a corner where a ruined rifle was mounted on a dark wood panel and hung on the wall. Jimmy was enthralled; Lois was skeptical.
“Why, I swear it’s true! Mr. Kent, you know I tell truth; don’t you? You know Superman bent the rifle barrel.”
“Tony, there’s only one way I’d know it’s true,” Clark answered.
“And what’s that, Clark?” Lois asked.
“I guess I’d just have to be Superman.”
(Posted by Jim – April 19, 2011)
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