Villainy on Vacation
Takes One To Know One
Elongated Man vs. The Riddler (part one)
by Michael Hutchison
NOTE: This story takes place just before "Grand Guignol", the current storyline in Starman.
"Sure, fifteen years o' gymnastics competitions, an' I never once seen a fellow move like that. Not even Mason!" Hope O'Dare's Irish lilt tended to show itself more when she was excited, and now was definitely one of those times.
"Which one you talkin' about? Blake or the Digby guy?" Matt O'Dare asked, calmly lighting a cigarette with one hand while steering the police car around a corner in downtown Opal City at 40 mph.
"Blake, of course. Granted, no one moves like that Elongated Man fellow, but he's got superpowers so that goes without saying. S'like being in awe of Starman flying, y'know. So I'm talkin' 'bout the Catman, of course!"
"Hey, blame me for askin'. The Cat-guy's got that magic cape, too, so both have superpowers and I'm not going to assume," Matt muttered, the cigarette bobbling up and down as he spoke.
"So," Hope continued, trying to ignore her brother's habit of derailing a conversation, "Mason and I are chasing this Blake fellow across the rooftops while the rest of the squad is trying to secure the streets.1 Every time they get the building surrounded, Catman jumps or swings over to a new buildin' an' they have to start over. Blake's carrying all that booty from the party and he's still doing these flips and jumps that make Mason look bad. And we're trying to catch him but he takes all these awful bloody risks. One point he ran to the edge of the Roquefort building and jumped without ever looking down for purchase! Mason and I both look over and find this Catman climbing down an eight storey drainpipe after bouncing off a rooftop garden. I know you think Mason and I take risks, but you'd have to be insane to just hurl yourself off the side of a building like that."
"It's that cape, Hope," Matt said, "it's supposed to give him nine lives or somethin'. His dossier says he's survived some pretty lethal stuff. Guessin' something like that would make a bloke pretty sure of himself."
"Well, the boyos on the ground are taking potshots at him, so he gets off on the fourth floor and makes a run for it. Cops are chasing him on the ground, Mason and I taking the rooftop express. We finally catch up at the edge of 14th Street, and he's making yet another running jump to a building that has to be thirty feet away.when all sudden-like, this giant hand swats him back onto the roof!"
"The Digby guy shows up just like that?"
"Dibny! It's Ralph Dibny, Matt, not Digby," Hope chided.
"No it's not, it's Ralph Digby. Ted Knight, Jack, even the Shade.they all call him Digby. If the Shade says it, it's so, Hope!"
"Shade's immortal, not all-knowing!" Hope spat, hating to even mention the murdering wretch who had become good friends with her brother, much to her disgust. "And like everyone else, he reads the papers. Elongated Man told me that when he first made his real name public, the news wires got his name wrong all over the East Coast.2 It was such front page news.him marryin' a rich debutante on the same day he took off his mask, and Flash being at the wedding an' all.that his name quickly became a household word. Even though it was the wrong name that was printed all over Turk County. You can print all the retractions you want, and it won't change a million people who learned it wrong."3
"I s'ppose," Matt said with a shrug. The police car was now bouncing as they drove down a short brick pedestrian mall, which was thankfully almost empty on this rainy day.
Hope realized that was the only concession she'd get from him, and continued. "So.where was I?" she began, "Oh! Dibny appears over the side of the building, and I could tell Catman was a bit freaked out by that. I mean, a human body stretching looks bad enough in the daylight. In the twilight, it's downright scary! I was shiverin' a bit meself."
"Oh, please, what's the big deal?" Matt said as he brought the car to a stop in front of the jeweler's. Another black-and-white was already parked outside. "We see guys with superpowers all the time, and stretching barely qualifies as a power! And doesn't Catman fight Batman, who's supposed to be so terrifying that most of his enemies need a change of shorts after meeting him? Great detective he may be, but Elongated Man is mainly a joke in tights."
Hope undid her seat belt and turned to Matt. "What would you think, Matt, if you're running along a rooftop at 8:00PM, all your nerves on end and out of breath, when you suddenly see looming over you a warped watermelon of a head, with messed-up hair as red as mine, swaying atop a fifteen foot neck that's swiveling on a contorted thirty foot torso, and rushing at you is a hand bigger than your whole body that's trying to grab you? You telling me ya wouldn't be just a mite scared, not to mention sick to your stomach?"
"No, I wouldn't. Why would I be?"
"Because the human body isn't supposed to move like that, Matt. And when we see something like that, it's revolting."
"No it isn't," Matt said, opening his door and getting out. Hope did the same.
"Oh, really?" Hope said, shutting her door and leaning on the rooftop across to him. Putting her right hand up sideways, she grabbed her fingertips with her left hand and began pulling them backwards.
"UGH! Stop that! Don't do that!" Matt said, wincing and trying to look away. "Ah! Don't!"
Hope had her fingertips just inches from the back of her hand by the time she relented. "Now, just imagine a whole human body like that and ya get the picture!"
"Lousy contortionists," Matt muttered as he followed her into the jewelers. "So, who finally caught Blake the Catman?"
"Not sure. There were about five minutes of everybody jumping and leaping, bouncing and punching, kicking and flailing. Elongated Man had such a hard time corralling Blake that he finally just turned flat and covered us all like a big tarp. By the time I got out, Blake was unconscious. Not sure who landed the punch. But he's on his way back to Gotham City this morning, and we all have fresh bruises for our troubles, even Dibny."
"How the hell do you get bruises on a rubber body?" Matt asked as they entered the jewelry shop and headed towards the other officers. "Well, I'm glad you ran into him and not me. I'm still sore from my wrestle with Killer Croc last week."
"Twas nowhere near as bad as fighting an entire hostile greenhouse full 'a Poison Ivy's subjects."
"Hell, what is going on lately? For weeks the local underworld's quiet as a mouse, then suddenly there are name brand criminals all over the place.and all imported from Gotham City!" Matt said. "Mad Hatter, Solomon Grundy and Dr. Phosphorous weren't bad enough? Now we have to cope with the whole laundry list?"
Flashbulbs were going off as one of the officers took evidence shots, jockeying for space with a newspaper photographer. Finally they parted, and Matt and Hope could see the display case in question. Instead of being smashed, as any normal crook was wont to do, the glass had been cut away. The hole was shaped ever so precisely like a large question mark, with another hole as the dot under it. Inside the case, resting on the black velvet, was a green box in the shape of a question mark.
Hope sighed. "It certainly looks like it."
The reporters in front of City Hall barked questions as police spokesman Lenny Thurman tried to call for quiet. "Yes, it certainly looks like the work of the Riddler. No, we have not ruled out a copycat crime."
"What does the riddle say, Mr. Thurman?" a reporter in the back shouted.
"We don't have a riddle yet, that's why we're not certain. All we have is this closed box. It could be the riddle is inside, or the riddle is coming later, or the box itself is a clue. We won't know more until our detectives look into it. The case, I mean, not the box," Thurman amended hastily.
"Why haven't you opened the box? Are you fearing a bomb?"
" The reason that we haven't opened the box is.well.so far, we haven't figured out how."
"Will this case be top priority for the Opal City PD?"
"No, we've still got Two-Face and Killer Croc on the loose in Opal, and they're far more dangerous to the Opal citizenry. Two-Face has committed a crime every other day, and Croc has been a priority since his run-in with police last week. We believe Croc sustained injuries in his fight with our officers and 'Bobo' Benetti, and he may be nursing his wounds. We're hoping that our detectives can get a start on this new case while our personnel are busy apprehending Croc and Two-Face."
"The Riddler won't settle for second class treatment, Mr. Thurman," said a new voice from somewhere to the reporters' right. They turned and saw a lanky, red-headed man dressed in a suit and tie, on the arm of a stunning brunette. "If you don't mind my saying so."
"Ahem. This is, of course, Mr. Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, who helped our officers in apprehending the notorious burglar known as 'Catman' last night," Thurman said, although the introduction did not disguise his annoyance at being upstaged at his own press conference. "I understand your concerns, Mr. Dibny, and I should state for the record that I never meant to imply that this theft wouldn't receive the necessary attention from our officers that it deserves."
"That may be, Mr. Thurman, but Riddler doesn't want your attention, he wants the public's. Your two options are to ignore him totally or make him public enemy number one, at least in the eyes of the media, for the duration. Now, you ignore him and he may either leave in frustration or he may step up the level of his crimes until someone dies; there's no telling which may happen, since he's done both in the past. However." Ralph Dibny paused just long enough for emphasis, then continued, ".however.if you give him the news attention and notoriety that he craves, he will probably continue his crime spree in Opal City at the current level of intensity. "
"Mr. Dibny, with all due respect," Thurman said with the patience of the parent of a two-year-old, "why would we want to see the Riddler continuing his crimes?"
"There will be a few more thefts, but without any loss of life or destruction of property. But he will leave more clues at the site of each crime, and if he does," Dibny said, putting on his most fiendish Dick Van Dyke grin, "I will personally see to it that he's in jail by Friday."
The uproar amongst the assembled reporters was instantaneous. The crowd of TV camera jockeys, microphone-waving news hunks and mini-cassette-brandishing newspaper reporters suddenly bolted from their positions in front of Thurman and rushed to get the best spot by Ralph Dibny, the World-Famous Elongated Man.
"Mr. Dibny, sir," a finely-coifed correspondent asked, "are you saying the Riddler won't be much of a challenge?"
"Oh, he'll be a terrific opponent. I've never met him before, but I've read the details of every crime he's pulled off up in Gotham. The Riddler isn't like all these other deformed, maniacal half-wits that got out of Arkham. He's a better class of criminal, with panache, charisma, loads of creativity, and a tremendous IQ. The only reason he's even sometimes confined to Arkham is because of a mental block that compels him to leave clues at the scene of every crime.although that may be more grandstanding than mental block.4 In any case, he is a most formidable villain," Elongated Man finished, as a barrage of flash bulbs bleached his face white.
"If he's that good, how can you be sure you'll catch him so fast?" the reporter asked.
"Because Opal City already has a publicity-seeking charismatic genius, and there just isn't room for two of us!" Elongated Man said with as much obvious humor as possible. The reporters howled at the joke. "Leave the puzzle-solving to me and I should have him behind bars before the Friday fish fries start. For now, I'd recommend giving ol' Edward Nygma the media attention he wants."
"MIST-er Dibny!" Lenny Thurman huffed, trying to regain the reporters' attentions, "Opal City is not about to begin catering to the whims of a mentally ill, self-serving egomaniac!"
There was silence, as Ralph Dibny seemed slightly perplexed. When the pause made it apparent that Thurman wasn't going to add to that statement, Ralph finally asked, "You mean me or the Riddler?"
The Riddler reclined in his velvet chair, the only fine piece of furniture in an otherwise dumpy hideout, watching the scene play out on the live newsbreak. The public official who had advocated ignoring him.and who was probably going to be the victim of one of his next crimes, as soon as he could think of a good play on the word "Thurman".was now berating Elongated Man and advising Dibny to keep his long nose out of the city police business. Riddler tuned out the man's ravings and waited for Dibny to speak again.
It certainly was a bizarre twist."bizarre twist" was a good phrase to use in a battle with Elongated Man, actually, so he'd file it for later.yes, a bizarre twist to have an enemy who welcomed a good mental duel. Batman was always fun to toy with because the Dark Knight Detective had the skills to engage in a battle of wits with the Riddler but was so humorless that the crimes were always an annoyance. Here was an opponent who seemed to appreciate the challenge and respect his foe.
Edward Nygma suddenly jerked upright and bit his gums. He'd almost fallen for it. "Mr. Puzzle, please bring me a martini," he snapped, as nonchalantly as he could while still mad at himself. Grabbing the remote control, he turned the volume up even more and began staring daggers at his new enemy.
On the TV set, the reporter had turned back to Elongated Man and was asking, "Isn't it true that you've retired from mystery-solving full-time out of concern for your wife's safety?" Edward Nygma idly mused that this reporter had really boned up on his Elongated Man research as soon as the stretchable sleuth hit town. Or more likely he'd gotten that info fed to him over an earpiece, modern reporters being as vacuous as they were.
Elongated Man glanced at his wife and then stared back into the camera, "I've retired from the more high-profile super-heroics, yes, as I wasn't comfortable with the situations they put Sue in.5 But I can never resist a good mystery. I'm actually in town on other business, but I'm sure I can squeeze this little case in."
"'Little case!' 'Little case!' You see what he's doing, Mr. Puzzle?" the Riddler asked his assistant, who had arrived with his drink. "He knows I'm watching! He knows I can't resist watching the coverage of my crimes, and he takes this opportunity to egg me on while stroking my ego. He thinks he can insult me and then I'll just play right into his hands." Riddler swallowed the martini in a gulp and then shouted at the television, "What would you do if I didn't commit any crimes again before Friday, huh, Mr. Oh-So-Smart-Detective? Huh?! Maybe I'll just take this week off and make you look like a fool!"
"So we won't be pulling any more cases this week, Mr. Nygma?" asked Mr. Puzzle.
"Are you kidding? Of course we will. I'm not going to win by not playing the game. I can run riddle-rings around this mid-western hick. Have you read his wife's book of the mysteries he's solved? A purple pony? A theater with an invisible audience? What poppycock! If that's the kind of mystery he's used to, he's in for a shock."
On the television, Elongated Man was just finishing another answer. Cursing himself for talking during this analysis of his opponent, Riddler tried to get the gist of the last question. Apparently, it was something about kidnapping. ".still gets kidnapped now and again, but Sue can handle herself pretty well," he was saying. No doubt, the topic was his wife's penchant for getting captured and used as bait.
"But if you're tackling the Riddler, surely you must fear for her safety!" a blonde reporter was asking. A female reporter asking her first question and it's about a woman being placed in jeopardy, he observed. It was always enlightening to people-watch.
Ralph Dibny smiled at his wife reassuringly and said, "Not if you know the Riddler. To defeat me by threatening Sue would reduce him to a common thug.and worse, it would be as good as admitting that he cannot defeat me in a test of mental skills."
"There! He's doing it again!" Riddler shouted excitedly. "He's actually trying to push my buttons so that I don't take his wife captive. You see that, don't you Mr. Puzzle?"
"I do. So, do we do the opposite and take her hostage?" Mr. Puzzle asked.
"Besides, unlike his usual opponents up in Gotham," Elongated Man continued onscreen, "I have absolutely no qualms about shipping him back to Gotham City in several body bags if he were to hurt my wife."
"Hm. I'm leaning towards 'no', Mr. Puzzle," Riddler said, a little subdued. "I mean.as he said, I need to defeat him in a test of mental skills. Right?" Mr. Puzzle agreed politely and left. Riddler silently seethed at Elongated Man for making him lose face in front of a subordinate like that.
"I apologize for getting you stuck on this duty. I don't need police chaperones, I really don't, but I know it's not your fault," Ralph said to Matt O'Dare as they walked around the jewelry store. "I just hope this doesn't take away from some other cases you're working on."
"Don't worry about it," Matt said. "Frankly, I don't care what that bureaucrat says, I'm grateful for the help when it comes to these carpet-bagging loonies. Get 'em out of Opal and let us get back to the real problems, that's my feelings on the matter."
"So what about this box. Have you had it checked out by the bomb squad?" Elongated Man asked, looking at it still in the display case. "Can we handle it?"
"Well, there's no guarantee. The bomb-sniffing dogs thought it was okay, and there aren't any obvious wires." Matt said.
"More to the point, what does he gain by blowing up the first person to investigate this one clue? If it is the Riddler, it's 99% odds it's not a bomb. But there's only one way to be sure. Duck," Elongated Man said, extending his arm to the case. Matt O'Dare and the other cops dove for cover. Elongated Man almost had his hand on the box, then thought better of it and joined Matt on the floor. Matt could see that only Ralph's little finger was stretching over the display cases. "If I'm wrong, hopefully I'll only lose one knuckle off my pinkie!" Ralph said. A second later, they heard only a rattle. Peeking over, they saw Ralph's stretched-out pinkie lifting the box and shaking it. "Okay, coast's clear!" Ralph announced.
Matt and Ralph examined the green, question mark-shaped box. It was made of a lightweight wood, and something was definitely rattling around inside. However, there wasn't an obvious lid.
"It's a puzzle box, appropriately enough," Elongated Man said. Noting the blank look on Matt's face, he added, "You know, like that one George Sanders puts the candy in in the original version of 'Village of the Damned'?" Matt shook his head and shrugged. "Sheesh, don't tell me you missed that one. It's a classic. Don't you ever wander past the 'New Releases' section at Blockbuster?"
"Hey, no need to get arrogant just cause I haven't seen one particular movie. We can't all be film buffs!" Matt said defensively.
"Sorry," Ralph said, turning the box over and looking at every side. "My wife said something to me earlier about how Riddler and I both have a bit of the condescending geek in us. You know, like I'm going to be able to get into his head and see how he thinks better than most detectives might."
"Condescending geek? The kind of kid who gets beat up a lot in school, ya mean?" Matt asked.
Ralph finally found the right panel amongst all the tiny seams and slide it upward. "Uh, yeah. I can almost see how Riddler became the guy who he is. Spend a childhood reading books and absorbing tons of impractical information.maybe memorize some texts by heart, and make it most of the way through your parents' bound set of dictionaries.avoid sports and parties.then be surprised when your schoolmates never invite you to anything and the girls aren't interested in you." Ralph finished looking at the seams and doors in the opened space. Now he grabbed another section of the wood and pushed it upwards, covering the first and revealing a new section of the puzzle box.
"So Riddler might have turned out normal if he'd just gotten laid every so often?" Matt asked.
"That's.that's a very crude way to put it, Matt. Sex doesn't solve everything, especially in adolescence. But yes, in a broader sense the praise and appreciation of his peers, including women, would probably have made all the difference in his worldview," Elongated Man said. He continued to work on the box as he talked. "Here you are, knowing you're so smart and knowing it doesn't make a damn bit of difference in the real world. All the dumb wife-beating jocks and drugged-out teen actors get the attention and their pick of the women and the glamour and the money. It's supposed to be the prime candidates of the species who reproduce and the losers who are culled from the herd. What does it mean to our evolution as a species that genius means nothing and the morons rule? So you get mad, and you look for a way to change it. And it has to be a way that proves to everyone else how important brains are. So Riddler finds his way: wear a costume, pull off amazing crimes, confound the authorities, get his name in the papers as much as possible and do it all because he memorized a stanza of Byron or knew an obscure homonym that they didn't. That's the way he does it."
"Uh huh," Matt said, watching Ralph pulling more sliding doors from the box. "And your way was.?"
"My way was to give myself stretching powers, get rich and famous, find one of those rare women who will marry a brainy scrawny guy and get my name in the papers as much as possible," Elongated Man said wryly, moving a small piece sideways in order to give the door above it room to move.
There was a small click from inside the box. Both men froze.then, when nothing happened, they leaned closer to the box. Elongated Man slowly gripped the piece of protruding wood by the edges and pulled it out as far as it would go. There was writing on one side of the piece of wood. The wood was painted white, with an elegant border and a small message in elegant script.
The message read: "Not even close!"
Groaning in frustration, Ralph gripped the box in his fingers like a python and said, "I am this close to just breaking the damn thing open!" He set the box down on the counter and sighed.
"Screw it. Why don't we just do that?" Matt said.
"No, no, no." Elongated Man said, "If we don't play the game on his terms, he may up the stakes on his next job. Besides, for all we know the box will be an important part of the clue." Elongated Man rested his head in his hand and drummed his fingers on his forehead. "But we could try cheating in a way that doesn't harm the box. I could find a seam large enough that I could poke my head in. Or I could call the Atom and have him shrink inside it. Heck, maybe Superman could fly over and have a peek. Although I hate calling in outside help so soon. Oh, I suppose that if I just fiddle with it for another hour or so I should."
There was a crunching sound. Ralph swiveled his head on his neck and found Matt O'Dare holding the pieces of the box. "Sorry, it started to fall and I tried to catch it but it smashed against that marble counter on the other side of the room."
"That was very reckless! What if the box is important?!" Ralph yelled.
"Why don't you read the clue and tell me if it is?" Matt said impudently, offering the folded piece of paper that had been rattling around inside the box.
Ralph read the letter aloud:
the tea tastes rather plain,
my eyes don't have tails either,
but I'm not the type to complain."
Matt raised an eyebrow. "Geez, I thought his riddles were more like, 'What kind of diamond is impossible to steal?' and then he's committing a crime at a baseball diamond. This is more like something the Gollum would pose to Bilbo Baggins. Do you have any idea what the answer is?"
Ralph Dibny grinned and looked at the door. "I do, but let's check my answer against my wife's first."
Sue Dibny and Hope O'Dare walked in the door of the jewelry store. Hope looked exhausted, while Sue looked hidden.by a pile of white boxes.
"Hey Hope, how goes the bodyguarding?" Matt asked.
"I'm beat! I had no idea it was possible to shop at so many stores in forty-five minutes!" Hope exclaimed, sitting down at a chair. "Next time I'm just stashing her in a safe house with a deck of cards and a dozen Enemy Aceã frozen pizzas."6
Ralph chuckled as his wife spent the next minute putting down her shopping bags and boxes. "I should have warned you that my wife shops for her country at the Olympics. My buddy Flash even invented a special heat shield to keep her credit cards from melting."
"Sorry, Ralph, but I thought at least one of us should accomplish something before lunch time," Sue replied, kissing Ralph's outstretched cheek. "So, did you make any progress on the box?"
"What do you think of this, hon?" Ralph asked, showing her the slip of paper.
"Hmm." Sue mused, glancing it over twice, "zeds without feet, zed being the Queen's English pronunciation of the letter Z, the letter I without a tail, the letter T being rather plain, and a reference to type or typeface.it's obviously referring to some kind of sans-serif font like Arial."
Elongated Man smiled proudly at his girl Friday, while the O'Dares traded looks.
Ralph looked at the O'Dares and explained, "Serifs are those little curly marks on certain printing fonts that make the letters look like they have feet and tails. Sans-serif fonts are straight and blocky, without serifs."
Hope O'Dare asked. "So, does this mean you start going through a list of sans-serif fonts and seeing if any have names of businesses in Opal City where he'll strike next?"
Matt brightened at the suggestion. "There is an Arial's Liquor over on Twenty-Second Street. And the local Disney Store has a huge statue of the Little Mermaid."
Ralph rubbed his chin and frowned at the suggestions. "It's certainly a possibility. You can have your people start going through a list of fonts and cross-reference it with your Yellow Pages. I hate to leave a stone unturned. But I'm thinking that Riddler would have left a hint if he was going to be more specific. The key is probably 'sans-serif'. What could that mean?"
Sue's eyes went wide. "The Global Guardians! Seraph isn't currently a member of the team, so they're 'sans-Seraph' right now!" she blurted out.
"Nice brainstorming, Sue. I don't think the Global Guardians are anywhere near Opal, but I think you've hit on the angle, here. Serif.seraph. 'Seraph' means angel, so Riddler is going to steal an angel as his next crime! I'd take it to mean he's going to kidnap my angel, Sue, but he planted this clue before I was on the case," Ralph kissed Sue on the forehead. "So I need your help here. I don't know Opal too well. Where would you go to steal an angel?"
"Any number of churches around here," Hope answered. "St. Jude's, St. Michael's, St. Christopher's, St. Thomas', St. Mary's.that's just the Catholic churches to start."
Sue pulled a PDA out of her purse and logged onto the Internet. "I'll access the Opal City Chamber of Commerce web site and see if it has any info on angels. Maybe there's a noteworthy angel that's on the tourism listing."
"I don't get why he'd steal an angel, unless it's got rubies for eyes or gold wings or something," Matt spoke up. "I mean, doesn't he steal for profit? I don't think the Riddler would filch something useless just to fit his crime. After all, he stole something here, right?"
Elongated Man gritted his teeth. "Maybe there is an angel statue or painting or sculpture that's worth some money. It could be in an art museum, or a Catholic Church or.or.I'm missing something." The others looked at him. Ralph thought for a moment, then grimaced. "Matt! I've been so obsessed with the box that I didn't even consider the actual theft until you mentioned it! No one's told me what he stole here!"
"Thank you!" came a shout from behind them. They turned to see the proprietor of the jewelry store at a nearby counter, obviously listening in. "All this talk about the Riddler and no one's even mentioned whether they'll recover the broach!"
"I apologize, Mr. .?" Elongated Man said, extending his hand.
"Tarantino. Like the movie guy. Eduardo Tarantino. This is my place," Tarantino said, shaking Ralph Dibny's hand. "I'm glad you're working to solve this case, Mr. Elongated Man. I hope you can get the broach back. It had fourteen diamonds on the outside and a mix of gemstones in the shape of a rose. It's a Christophe Schemcke original."
"Christophe Schemcke!" Sue Dibny perked up. "Ralph, if this was a Christophe Schemcke creation it would be worth at least twenty times the value of the stones themselves."
"Ah!" the proprietor spoke up, delighted to meet a connoisseur. "You know his work! Wonderful. We were so honored to have it on display in our store for a limited time, and then this happens. Please, if you don't get it back, my little store will be bankrupted. We could barely afford the additional security as it was, and this was only the start of a ten-week run which was to attract enough customers to pay for it. Even with the insurance policies, I will be ruined!"
"Mr. Tarantino, was this the only showpiece you had?" Elongated Man asked, his nose starting to twitch ever so slightly.
Tarantino gestured to the cabinet which had held the box. "One piece is hardly enough to warrant the security or draw enough interested parties. This entire case is a special display. Two Gielgud rings, this elegant floating pendant by Gilberre, that necklace is from the House of Pinter, the."
"Yet he only stole the broach!" Ralph interrupted. "A fortune all waiting in this display case which he'd opened. Nothing to stop his taking the lot and leaving the box, but he only took the one. A Christophe Schemcke broach! Christophe. As in St. Christopher's."
Matt grabbed his cell phone and was about to press his autodial for the station when he glanced back at Ralph. "You sure?"
"Riddler wouldn't single out the one item to steal unless the object itself was a clue. Unless there's a Schemcke Cathedral on Broach Street, I'm betting my hunch is correct," Ralph said, a smug smile playing about his face.
Matt made the call as the four of them dashed out to the police car, Sue hastily asking Tarantino to hold her packages for her.
"By the way, Matt, nice Lord of the Rings citation back there," Ralph said as they got into the car. "That makes up for not seeing 'Village of the Damned'!"
"Actually, 'The Hobbit' isn't considered part of Lord of the Rings, it's a prequel," Matt said, lighting a cigarette and rolling down his window.
"Oh, my, we'll make a geek out of you yet!" Ralph chortled as the car sped off.
Ten minutes later, they arrived at St. Christopher's Cathedral, one of the more opulent churches that reminded visitors of just how much money the Catholic Church had back in Rome. Built in the early 20th Century, after the cowboy days were fading away and Opal was on its way to being a proper metropolitan area, Christopher's was several stories high and covered in ornate metalwork, stained glass and stone carvings.
"Starman and Hawkman once fought the Gentleman Ghost and the Prairie Witch in here," Hope O'Dare said as they entered. "Dad often told us about that case, 'cause you could see the lights from the confrontation all over the city that night. Old Gentleman Jim was stripping the place of every valuable item, and then the fight destroyed a lot of the décor. I believe most of it was rebuilt from '51-'55, after a lot of fundraising and private donations, so this stuff looks old but isn't very."
"Yes, that's true," said a voice from the chapel. A man in a fine tweed suit walked up, accompanied by Mason O'Dare who'd arrived ahead of them. "I'm Father Cabot. I received your officer's call a few minutes ago, but if the Riddler is planning to steal an angel, he hasn't struck yet. Everything looks intact. May I show you around?"
Over the next twenty minutes, Father Cabot took them all around the church, explaining the various items of value that the Riddler might be interested in. The O'Dares conferred with headquarters, arranging for guards to be posted overnight. Elongated Man only frowned and whispered his doubts to his wife.
"So, are you thinking that maybe you've got it wrong?" Sue asked, as they sat in the main sanctuary. The word "wrong" reverberated around the room, and Elongated Man was embarrassed to see that the O'Dares were turning to look at him.
"I don't know, Sue. Maybe I misinterpreted the significance of the stolen item, or maybe I've got the 'sans-serif' thing all wrong. Until the crime occurs, I won't know if I'm completely off-base here. Is he clueing us in on his next crime before it happens or simply guiding us to the scene of another place he's already struck? Maybe he'd planned to pull off a robbery here once the authorities were on guard and prepared, just to show them up, but won't go through with it now that I'm on the case. So many variables." Ralph sulked, leaning back in the pew.
"Father!" Ralph suddenly exclaimed, surprising the nearby priest. "What do you think he'd steal in the way of an angel? You know this place better than us."
"Oh, um.I don't know. How expensive does it have to be for him to steal it? I mean, any statue or painting is worth some money, but we don't exactly have any solid gold angels hanging in the rafters!" Father Cabot answered.
"Let's think like the Riddler here. He wants something that's notable as well as valuable. Stealing twenty million dollars from some miser's mattress isn't as attractive as taking a ten thousand dollar baseball card that's in the center of a store's display case. So which angel would be noticed?" Ralph asked.
"That one," Cabot said, casually pointing straight up with his finger. They all looked up to see a figure of a robed angel blowing a long horn suspended on cables hundreds of feet above them. "That hollow metal figurine was molded by Carl Stoddard in the late 1940s, and it's based on the angel in a painting by Raspigni. Stoddard crafted the horn to actually function when installed, and we sound it on Christmas and Easter. You can hear it all over Opal. I have no clue what its blue book value is, but it's unique and irreplaceable."
Ralph Dibny took off his suit coat and shirt to reveal his stretch-nylon Elongated Man uniform. Stretching his torso and neck, and bracing himself against the vaulted ceiling as he rose, he soon began examining the angel closely.
"Isn't that a hazard, having a heavy metal figure hanging above the congregation?" Sue asked as her husband went to work. She could see him peering down the horn intently, but then he continued to check the rest of the angel.
"I have noticed that those pews under it are the last to fill up on Sunday," Father Cabot agreed. "However, those cables are checked often. You're more likely to die from a falling ceiling fan in your own home. Besides, the angel isn't that heavy, since it's hollow."
"Hey, maybe it's stuffed with candy, like a piñata!" Ralph called from the ceiling. "Why don't I just check?" With that he got underneath it and, raising his arm like a stiff stick, prepared to give it a good whack.
"Ralph, no!" Sue shouted. "What are you--"
But Ralph struck the angel firmly along the torso, and the two halves swung away on their cables. Bits of white flew down from the ceiling.
"It's styrofoam, Sue! Riddler made the switch before he even planted the box this morning. Maybe hours, maybe days before. From way down there no one would know," Ralph shouted as he examined the pieces.
Father Cabot's face fell as he realized that the angel was gone. "Mr. Dibny.this.this is." he stammered, before he sat down on the nearby organ bench and composed himself.
"Don't worry, Father. My husband's on the Riddler's trail and will find out what happened to the angel," Sue said, glancing up at Ralph. Elongated Man had finished checking out one half of the angel's interior and had flipped over to the other section.
"Maybe not, Sue!" Ralph called. "There's a problem." Carefully contracting his muscles back to normal, he joined his wife. "I had my hand stretched out to catch any goodies, but there weren't any. And there's nothing in the angel."
"You mean.no riddle?" Sue asked, a bit worried.
"No riddle," Ralph confirmed, and he could not hide his agitation.
Ralph and Sue drove their package-laden convertible up to the supper club. Sue was at the wheel, while Ralph slumped in the passenger seat, gazing at the passing trees.
Sue finally tried to break the silence. "You'll feel better with a good lunch in you, Ralph. I booked us a table yesterday when I found out about the place. Very fine, but they serve actual food, not 'cuisine'. They have hand-tossed pizzas, chili so spicy you'd think Ollie7 made it, and they'll throw as much spaghetti at you as you can handle! Of course, with your expanding stomach, I wouldn't hold them to the letter of that offer."
"'m not hungry," Ralph mumbled, still sulking. "You know food gives me a problem when I'm on a case. Nothing like trying to fit through a keyhole and getting stuck because I didn't chew a burger enough. Maybe I should go back and look over the sanctuary again. Maybe the riddle's there and it's just hidden, or it's something he did that I'm not seeing."
"Look! If you're going to get moody just because Riddler's a bit smarter than the average lowlife you tackle, then you shouldn't have offered to take him on, honey!" Sue prodded, hoping to get some life back into her husband. "So.so.don't worry about the riddles. Why not track him via regular ol' detective work? You know.finding the fenced goods, interrogating squealers, tracing a bit of dirt in a footprint to the only part of town where a certain kind of mud is found.the standard stuff. Why solve it only on the Riddler's terms?"
"Sue, you're a genius!" Ralph said, brightening. "Get in the left lane. I think you're allowed there if there are two or more geniuses in the car!"
Sue giggled and softly punched her hubby, happy to see him in a mystery-solving mood again.
"Mr. and Mrs. Dibny! I am so sorry to hear you've been kept waiting. When the waiter told me who I had sitting in the bar, I just had to come out and greet you. I am Robert Patrillo, owner and manager of Patrillo's. I hope you haven't been waiting long," the little man said, fairly hopping with excitement.
Ralph shook his hand, always glad to meet a fan. "Not too long, no. Will the table be ready soon? I wouldn't make a bother, but I am on a case--"
"Yes! Yes, the Riddler case! I saw it this morning. Are you working on it now? He's not going to strike here, is he?" Patrillo asked, nervously glancing around.
"No, no, we're just taking a break for lunch!" Sue quickly assured him.
"Then I will make sure it is a quick break. We had a large brunch conference this morning and we're rearranging all our tables and chairs, and I just rented out the only private room. Had I known the famous Elongated Man and his lovely wife were coming here I would've had something prepared. I'm so sorry!" Patrillo said, while the Dibnys both tried to assure him that it wasn't a big deal. "I tell you what. If you would care to pick out your lunch now, I will make it myself and have it waiting by the time the table is ready!"
"Well, I think we're both in the mood for pizza, right, Sue?" Ralph asked. "We'll have a medium pan pizza with green olives, onions, Canadian bacon."
"And anchovies!" Sue added.
"Oh, not anchovies!" Ralph whined. "You know anchovies give me nightmares!"8
"Fine, just give me anchovies on one half and Canadian bacon on Ralph's half," Sue said.
Patrillo rushed off to make the order, and Ralph nipped off to use the men's room. Sue sat at the small bar table sipping her margarita. Pulling her compact out of her purse, she used the mirror to scan the room. She was pleased to see a number of men scattered about the bar glancing in her direction. Sue smiled to herself and idly crossed her bare legs..and tried not to snicker when she heard a glass drop somewhere off to the left. Not that she'd ever cheat on Ralph, but it was nice to know she could still get a reaction after a decade of married life.
"Ahem," came a male voice behind her. Sue chastised herself for being a flirt. It was always a bit uncomfortable refusing a free drink or a dinner invitation when some poor guy got up the nerve to ask. She made sure to flash her wedding ring as much as possible as she spun on the stool. Then she gasped.
Behind her were two of the most handsome men she'd ever seen. Both of them were tall, rugged, and dressed in the latest men's suits. Perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect hands, perfect muscles.and standing with poses so practiced that she immediately made a bet with herself that they were male models. At a second glance, she was almost sure of it; they had that indefinable "totally macho but possibly gay" quality that male models have. The one on the right, with brown hair, she may possibly have seen bearing a tennis racket in an action pose in a catalog last month. The blonde on the left might have been last seen laughing it up with his golf buddies in an issue of GQ.
As casually as she could, Sue covered her wedding ring with her right hand and hoped Ralph wouldn't be too fast in getting back. No harm in some pleasant conversation, after all.
"Ms. Dibny, ma'am," the blonde said.she decided to name him Rick and hope that she was right."we'd be obliged if you would remain calm and keep your voice down."
It struck her as a very odd and probably not often successful opening line.
In unison, the two men opened their jackets to quickly flash gun holsters.
"Oh, for God's sake!" Sue said in a furious whisper. "You have GOT to be #*$%ing kidding me! I'm not off Ralph's arm ten seconds and already I'm being kidnapped?"
The blonde man lay a perfectly manicured fingertip across his lips while the other looked around to see if anyone else had heard that. "I think you've misunderstood, Ms. Dibny. We're here to extend an invitation to you and your husband, but we wanted to make the seriousness of the situation clear. You're in no immediate danger. I'm sorry if we frightened you."
"Oh. Oh, sorry. I'm so embarrassed. So, are you with the Opal City Police, or the C.B.I. or something?" Sue said, blushing at her mistake.
Hopefully-named-Rick answered, "No. Allow me to make introductions. My name is Quentin Marx, and my associate here is J.S. Puzzle. We are employees of Mr. Edward Nygma."
Sue was torn.shocked that they were the Riddler's gunmen and disappointed that Rick was really named Quentin. Finally she found her voice and asked, "What will you do if I just scream bloody murder right now. Will you really open fire right here?"
"Not at all, Mrs. Dibny. We'll just explain that we were admirers and you panicked when you saw our guns. So far we have not done anything illegal. This is a concealed-carry state, and we have licenses," Quentin said with a slight smile. "If extending a lunch invitation to a woman in a bar is now a jail-able offense in this country, I may have to write a strongly-worded letter to my congressman."
Sue didn't know what to say to that. Fortunately, Ralph stretched up to her side to fill the void in the conversation. "I'm gone two minutes and you're already entertaining suitors, Sue? I thought Odysseus had it rough!"
"Ralph," Sue said calmly, "these men have brought guns."
"All right, but next time just have guns on your half and Canadian bacon on mine," Ralph said, the picture of calm. "What can we do for you?"
"Good day, Mr. Dibny. As we were explaining to your lovely wife, we are associates of Mr. Edward Nygma and we would like you to accompany us to a private meeting. You have Mr. Nygma's assurances that this is not a trap and you will both be released free of harm at the end of the discussion. There will not be an altercation unless you start one," Quentin finished.
"So.you fine-dressed chaps are the Riddler's gunsels?" Elongated Man asked. "I guess a better class of villain would have a better class of goons."
Mr. Puzzle finally spoke. "We see no need for insults, Mr. Dibny. We are not goons. We are felonious escapade facilitators."
Ralph rolled his eyes. "I see. Well, could we wait for the horizontal Italian cheese-conveying baked good to arrive before we go?" The two men frowned at that. Ralph turned to Sue and asked, "Well, my matrimonially obligated mystery participant, shall we take the furious ice capade escalators up on their offer?"
Sue offered her elbow and smiled, "Why not, my egotistically-hindered walking target, since their concealed projectile accelerators leave us with little choice. Besides, this may be enlightening. I say we let the fibrous escapee irritators take us wherever they like!"
Mr. Puzzle and Mr. Marx led them to the restaurant's private dining room, where the Riddler was sitting at a fine dinner table. He was wearing his green question mark-covered suit with matching tie, cane and bowler hat. On both sides of him stood two stunning women in clothes that could be best described as the kind of business suit that Cindy Crawford might wear. Each was perfectly poised and silent.
Riddler had the handle of his cane up to his ear as the four of them entered, and he pressed a button on the handle and brought it down when he saw them. Ralph had spotted the earpieces and collar microphones that each of the "facilitators" were wearing and guessed that Riddler was listening in and directing them.
The Riddler did not get up, or even straighten up in his chair as the Dibnys were ushered to two chairs at the table. The goons split up to stand beside the goonettes. "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Dibny. I'm The Riddler, as you may have guessed.and yes, I know that's an obvious statement, so you can skip the smart-ass comment," he said as way of introduction. He seemed infinitely pleased that he had surmised what his opponent was going to say. "I thought we should meet in person before we commenced with the battle of wits. I have faced a number of challengers in the last few months, and none of them seemed as cock-sure of themselves as you are. Do you truly think you can have me behind bars by Friday?"
Dibny answered. "Four hired goons are hardly a challenge for me, as you have probably guessed. So why don't I just take you into custody right now?"
As soon as he said it, the four goons drew pistols and prepped them in rapid succession. It must have been a choreographed move, Ralph figured, because they drew them in order from left to right, with a half second between each one. Riddler just grinned as the sound cascaded around the room. Ka-chick! Ka-chick! Ka-chick! Ka-chick! Ka-chick!
Riddler's face fell as he realized there were five 'Ka-chick' sounds.
Sue Dibny was casually sitting in her chair, her hand hidden by the tabletop. Her purse lay on her lap. Sue smiled and said, "As Quentin observed a moment ago, this is a concealed carry state. And I decided to stop being Sue Dibny, Girl Victim a long time ago. I can only shoot one of you, of course, but I think this shot I have lined up will guarantee there are no Eddie Nygma Juniors born after today."9
"Ahem. Why don't we all relax, now. My people won't cause a fuss if you won't," Riddler said, motioning for them to put their guns down. The two ladies backed away from the Riddler's chair, and the two men stationed themselves in opposite corners behind the Dibnys. Smart. They were obviously hoping that Ralph couldn't see in all four directions if he tried something violent.
Riddler continued. "You aren't going to take me into custody right now for one simple reason: You publicly agreed to play the game. What would you tell the press? 'I solved this diabolical case when he invited me to dinner and I smashed him in the jaw'?"
Ralph was surprised by the obvious way he'd hamstrung himself.
"First order of business, Mr. Dibny. Now that you've discovered the stolen seraph, I would like my puzzle box back. It was made in the 1800s by a Swiss craftsman and there are only three in existence, so I hope you have it with you," Riddler said.
Elongated Man winced slightly before he said, "Let's just say that as of 11:00 this morning, the value of the remaining two jumped considerably. I can get you the pieces back if you like."
Riddler's face paled. "You destroyed it! You cretin! You.you bumbling hick! That's your answer to a bit of a challenge? Just smash it apart?! What, did you get tired of playing with it after thirty seconds because it was time for Teletubbies? You're the genius who's going to put me in jail by Friday?!"
Elongated Man just smiled smugly, happy to see he'd flustered his opponent. He may as well keep Matt O'Dare's guilt out of it, since it was worth it to raise Riddler's hackles. "What can I say, Rid. You shouldn't have left your toys lying around."
The Riddler fumed, slumped into his chair and composed himself. "You astounded me, Mr. Dibny, when you made that arrogant boast on TV earlier. Batman is low profile and doesn't make public claims, of course. And none of the other heroes I've dealt with had such self-confidence. In fact, none of them ever brought me to justice. The Martian Manhunter came the closest, and even he took eight days to catch up with me. Blue Beetle was surprisingly cunning, and almost had me in three days, but then he was completely bamboozled by my last clue and staked out the wrong spot. I've spent a week on Zatanna, a week and a half on Red Tornado, four entertaining days opposite Changeling, and an embarrassing twenty-seven days outwitting Green Lantern before I just gave up and moved on. None of them are exactly pikers.well, with possibly one exception.and yet here comes the Elongated Man bragging that you'll not only have me apprehended but that you'll do it by Friday. Why Friday?"
"I don't want to miss 'Frasier' on Thursday night, so I figured I'd give myself an extra day," Elongated Man said deviously.10 The furrowed brow on Riddler's face told him he'd hit a nerve.
"That certain, eh?" Riddler asked after composing himself. "Would you care to make it interesting?"
"Hey, I win, you go to jail. I lose, I'm humiliated by the press. Isn't that interesting enough? Besides, I couldn't accept your money, since it's stolen," Ralph said.
"Not a financial wager. A personal wager. If you fail, you must make a public admission in front of all the media that I am one of the greatest criminal geniuses of the age and that you were resoundingly beaten by a master," Riddler said.
"Fine. I'll accept the wager, but I'd like to lay down one ground rule," Ralph said, then dropped all pretense of geniality. "No taking my wife prisoner or hostage, or pointing a gun to her head or even threatening to harm her. As I said before, it's beneath you. More to the point, I care more for her than for life itself.and while this would seem to make her an ideal bargaining chip, it also means I won't hesitate to inflict so much bodily injury on you that a brain in a jar would think it got off easy. Understand?" Elongated Man fixed a gaze on Riddler that was so steely it could be nominated for membership in the Metal Men. He was satisfied when Riddler gulped silently, nodded and grabbed his glass of water.
"Very well, Mr. Dibny, and what is your demand if you should be successful?" Riddler asked.
Ralph told him.
"All right, I guess I can agree to that. After all, you won't succeed!" Riddler declared with a grin. "This is going to be a pleasure. I am going to humiliate you! You'll regret your arrogance in thinking I was so weak that you could catch me by the end of the week."
Ralph arched an eyebrow in surprise. "I think you've completely misinterpreted that. I was paying you a great compliment."
"Oh?" Riddler asked. It was his turn to be surprised.
"Are you kidding? I solve most of my mysteries within a couple hours. But you're a devious criminal mastermind, so I figured you may actually take several days. There aren't many villains I'd give the full week that I gave you. If you were Professor Moriarty himself, I'd have said six days at the most!" Ralph said, as heartfelt as he could.
"And this is in comparison to your usual mysteries that you solve in an idle afternoon?" Riddler scoffed. "'The Case of the Barn Door Bandit?', 'The Puzzle of the Purple Pony', the mystery where a guy comes home and his house has been mysteriously repainted with polka dots, that kind of thing? I realize that 'The Mystery of the Guy Who Stole Expensive Items And Sold Them At A Tremendous Profit' doesn't exactly sing as titles go, but I think you'll find this case much more challenging than the kind you're used to. And now I'll take my leave of you."
"Wait!" Ralph shouted, as the Riddler got up from his chair, "You didn't leave a riddle in the stolen seraphim. Have you changed your modus operandi?"
"Of course not. I just wanted to make sure we met in person, so I had Miss Quiz and Mrs. Query retrieve the clue after you announced you were on the case. Here it is," Riddler replied, drawing a Rubik's Cube® from his pocket. "I'm sure you remember these from your youth. To solve it, you have to get all six faces colored correctly. But this one's a bit different. When you solve it, it will split open and give you the clue. Also, if you don't solve it in exactly a half hour," he said, pressing the red center button, "it will explode, leaving you clueless and probably lifeless."
Riddler tossed it to the center of the table. "Don't bother following me; you've got a bomb to disarm," he added, getting up to leave. "Oh, and I wouldn't break this one apart if I were you."
"Now just wait a sec-" Elongated Man began.
At a nod from the Riddler, all four of his assistants pressed the gas capsules they held in their left hands and snapped on the gas masks in their right. Ralph and Sue were almost immediately covered in the cloud of green smoke that obscured the fleeing villains. "Sue!" Ralph gasped, choking. "Can you--" he began, but his words were lost as he tried to breathe. Finally collecting his wits, Elongated Man stretched his lips down to the carpet and siphoned off some oxygen from below the smoke. Stretching out his arms, he opened the doors and windows and began fanning the smoke away with a giant hand. Finally realizing that the smoke was too thick to clear, he grabbed Sue by the waist and carried her out into the hall.
Glancing down at Sue, he saw that she was wearing a gas mask. "Sue, where did you get that?" he asked.
Sue smiled and said, "From my purse. I have all my survival items in the outer pocket. A girl's gotta be prepared for every situation."
"Okay, then tell me," Ralph began, stretching his arm back into the room, "does your purse contain a book on how to solve a Rubik's Cube®? Because I've always been lousy at them. How about you?"
"I can get three sides, maybe. Even that would take more than a half hour," Sue admitted.
"HEY!" Ralph shouted to the small crowd in the bar, "Anyone here know how to solve a Rubik's Cube® in under a half hour?"
"I do!" a man replied. "Take off all the stickers and rearrange them!"11
"That's stupid!" yelled another. "Just whack it on a corner and break it into pieces, then put them back in the right place."12
"Does anyone here know how to solve it without cheating?" Ralph asked, exasperated.
There was a chorus of negatives from all around the room. Ralph began working on the Rubik's Cube® as best as he could, muttering under his breath.
Sue ran up to him, her PCS phone in one hand and a steaming slice of pizza in the other. "I've got Hope on the line. She's got an officer checking the Internet for solution instructions, but I can't believe we'll be able to learn this and solve it in time."
"Why don't you log on the Internet yourself? Maybe you can find something--" Ralph began, then stopped when he saw his hand. "Hey, I got a side!"
"You can't see the pictures on a little PDA. And my laptop's back at the hotel. Damn it!" Sue said, taking the cube from Ralph and trying to solve it.
"Well, Sue, you can't write this case up. Twelve-year-olds everywhere will be laughing at us," Ralph lamented while his wife grimaced from concentration. "Hey, give it back. You wrecked the one side I had done!" Ralph glanced at his pocket watch and then went back to work on the cube.
"What's that, Hope?" Sue asked into her phone, covering her other ear with a finger to block out her husband's loud muttering.
Ralph finished three sides, then turned it around and noticed there was no way to continue without messing up the finished sides. "Grrrrrah! I don't believe this! Stupid damn Commie Hungarian junk toy! Curse you, Enro Rubik!" Ralph shouted.13
"Ralph! Ralph!" Sue yelled, shaking him. "Mason can do it! Mason was really good at them. But they can't get out here in time. Can you meet them somewhere downtown?"
"Tell them I'll be at the Town Square in three minutes!" Ralph said, yanking his clothes off to reveal his stretch nylon costume.
"Three minutes! Ralph, we're a dozen miles out of town!" Sue protested.but he was already literally halfway out the door. Soon, only a purple boot remained in front of her. A second later, that too vanished with the snapping sound of a rubber band.
Four miles a minute is nothing, of course, to a man with 600-yard long legs. Ralph was catching his breath on a statue when Matt and Mason O'Dare screeched around a corner in their squad car. Matt was at the wheel, and the car made a beeline straight for Ralph. Siren blaring, horn honking, it drove over the curb, past the scattering pedestrians and across the beautiful park grass until the car came to a stop almost on Ralph's foot. Mason leapt from the car and grasped the Rubik's Cube® which Ralph had ready for him.
For a minute, there was only the clicking of the puzzle as Mason assembled cross patterns and spun the corner blocks. Matt clearly wanted to ask questions, but he took his cue from Ralph and gave Mason the silence he needed to concentrate. After standing nervously for a few moments, Matt looked around and realized the bystanders needed to be cleared in case Mason failed. Waving his badge, he began ordering them to run for cover.
Ralph watched Mason work, amazed at how fast he was spinning the little squares. Mason was clearly getting back into the groove of doing this. Ralph just hoped he was fast enough. Unfortunately, his pocket watch was back in his pants at the restaurant, nor did he know the precise time that Riddler pressed the button. This was one time bomb that wouldn't be defused when the clock said 00:00:01.which was just as well. Ralph liked drama, but there was no sense in including such a trite scene in his next casebook.
"Mason, how long does it take to solve one of these?" Matt asked, clearly hoping the question wouldn't disturb Mason's concentration.
Matt and Ralph were both surprised to see that Mason didn't even lose speed while he worked. "Dunno. Minimum moves are 50, I think. Record time is like 20 seconds, but I'm not ranked," Mason said. And that was that. Ralph observed that when Mason was done speaking, you just knew he was done.
Matt whispered to Ralph, "Barry and Mason were really good at these things once."
Ralph whispered back, "That's a coincidence. My friend Barry was also a whiz at them. Of course, he could just try all the combinations at light speed." Ralph then added, "Sorry. He was the Flash." Matt nodded.
By now, Mason had gotten most of the faces to be the right color, and he was chasing down the last few rogue squares. A few more clicks, and Mason exclaimed, "Done!" He showed the finished puzzle to Matt and Ralph.
The Rubik's Cube® suddenly emitted a high-pitched whistle that then began to climb in pitch. Mason's face fell, and he looked to Ralph for an answer.
"You think Riddler lied?" Matt asked.
Mason set the Rubik's Cube® on the base of the statue and the three of them ran for cover. Elongated Man quickly outdistanced the two cops. Two rubbery arms shot back around their waists and dragged them through the air. Dodging behind a large boulder, the three of them waited.
The Cube split open, to reveal a small flagpole rising from the center. A little tune played as a flag rose from the cube and unfurled.
"That lunatic has seen too many cartoons,"14 Matt sighed as they rose and walked back.
Ralph read the flag:
Marion, Archie and Jean met Nicholas on the road to the stars.
"Huh," Ralph said, and showed it to Matt.
"Huh," agreed Matt, passing it to Mason.
Mason didn't say anything, but passed it back to Matt.
"This guy's definitely a few bullets short of a cartridge!" Matt finally said, mulling over the note.
Ralph chewed on his bottom lip before saying, "Yeah, I can't believe how easy these are!"
The two Opal City police officers looked at him in amazement.
"Batman must just be playing this guy out for fun if they're always this effortless. I wonder if Riddler really thinks this is a hard one? Maybe the others will be tougher." Ralph mused.
"Are you pulling my $#%@ing leg? You've solved this mess?" Matt asked, waving the paper.
"Sure! Look at it. Clearly Nick is meeting the same people at the beginning and the end, but the names are different. Marion, Archie and Norma are the same as John, Cary and Marilyn. And they're heading for the stars, but on a road, not through space. What other kinds of stars are there, Matt? Mason?" Ralph asked. "Hollywood stars! Movie stars! As in Marion Morrison, Archie Leach and Norma Jean Baker, better known."
".as John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe." Matt picked up, ".and who's the other one?"
"Cary Grant, my personal favorite!" Ralph concluded. "The three of them changed their names in order to achieve stardom. That was their path. But Nicholas or Nick takes a different path to stardom. Of course, this is obviously about Nicholas Cage, since the word 'cage' is rather awkwardly fit into this little story. Nicholas Cage is actually Nicholas Coppola, nephew of movie director Francis Ford Coppola, but he changed it so that he wouldn't become a star just because of his famous last name."
"What's the point of all this? Aside from being 'Jeopardy' answers, what good does this do? So far as I know, Nicholas Cage isn't in town, and the others are dead. I don't know of any memorabilia exhibits he might be ripping off, either," Matt said.
Ralph replied, "That's the tough part, I imagine. The clue isn't pointing to anything obvious. I'm going to head back to my hotel, get Sue to join me there with our lunch, hit the books on Opal City and see what I can turn up. Why don't you join me, Matt? I'll bet between my detective skills and your knowledge of this city, we can crack this one in a half hour!"
"I give up!" Ralph cried, kicking over the barstool as he stormed away from the mini-bar. "I may as well just pre-record my disgrace message and blow out of town before Friday."
The Dibnys' hotel suite was strewn with books on Opal City that Ralph had purchased the previous week. The mini-bar was covered with notepads, newspapers, newspaper clippings, files on The Riddler, an empty pizza box and a very worn Opal City phone directory. Matt was on the phone with the detectives downtown while Sue Dibny was performing some searches on her laptop computer.
It was 6:30 PM, and they had not found one lead in Opal City.
Ralph shook himself to loosen up, calmed down and returned to his notes.
"We've checked all the jewelers, banks and credit unions.none of them have been related to any movie stars in any way. We've checked for Cage, Coppola, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Archibald Leach, Marion Morrison and Norma Jean Baker, and we can't find any ties by family or name to anything in Opal City. Ditto a search for John Cleese, just because he played a character named Archie Leach. We've even looked into cheeses just because the original family name of John Cleese was Cheese! Right now, my brain feels like it's ready to claw its way out an ear and escape to freedom," Ralph moaned. "You guys ready for a break?"
"Whenever you are, chief!" Matt O'Dare said, hanging up the phone. "I got the Opal detectives looking to see what they can find. Me, I'm not cut out for this kind of action. Give me a firefight over a brain-teaser any day. I'm out of my league here."
"Well, detective work is supposed to be exactly 'my league' and my noggin's in knots, so don't feel so bad. Jeez, I can't tell you how many different JLA cases I was on where I felt out of my element and prayed for a good old mystery to solve. Usually I love doing this kind of stuff," Ralph said, moving his torso over to a couch while his arm snagged the lemonade off the counter.
"You didn't like being in the JLA?" Matt asked, pulling out his cigarettes and then remembering that the Dibnys had a non-smoking room.
"Oh, I loved it, but from the very start I felt like I had to qualify for membership on every case. Like, the JLA was trying me out before inducting me, all right? So they invite me to a party they're throwing. All the JLA members, the Justice Society, a number of their costumed buddies like me and Zatanna, we're all at their secret sanctuary celebrating. I'm surrounded by enough power to remodel the surface of the planet, you know? Two Flashes, two Green Lanterns, Superman, Martian Manhunter, Dr. Fate, Johnny Thunder, Starman.these guys can move mountains and I can't even fly! Barry told me I was being evaluated, so I'm on my best behavior. No boasting, no showboating, no talking about being on 'Oprah' the week before.just good ol' competent superhero Elongated Man. Suddenly all the alarms go off.and we learn that the entire planet is being held by a huge energy hand that's slowly clamping down!"15
"I remember that," Matt interrrupted.
"You do? Did Starman tell you about this case?" Ralph asked, surprised.
"No, I just happened to look up at the sky that week! You don't mind me saying so, you miss a lot of obvious stuff for a world-class detective!" Matt said casually. "People all over the world were panicking, looting, running amok. You wouldn't believe the number of women who wanted to have one last fling before the world ended. This is before alien invasions and disappearing suns started to happen every few months or so. Nowadays some planet-conquering energy creature swallows a continent and people just take polls on how well the President's handling the crisis. 16 It's more or less expected that Superman and the JLA will handle it."
Ralph resumed, "Well, then you understand the pressure of actually being a member of that group! The whole world's expectations and hopes are riding on you. Worse, the times when a power like mine comes in handy are rather limited. So anyway, we find out that the Seven Soldiers of Victory had once built a weapon that could destroy an energy creature like this, but they were all thrown into different times. We split into teams. The Atom, Dr. Fate and I went back to find the Crimson Avenger in the land of the ancient Aztecs. Quite a match-up: a rubber guy, a man who can shrink to microscopic size.and a dude with cosmic magic powers. I've never felt so useless!"
"So you didn't come in handy?" Matt asked.
"Well.when we were captured, I was easily able to get out of my shackles.but so were The Atom and Fate, so that's no big deal. I did manage to sniff out the fact that Crimson Avenger was being affected by a red glowing meteorite, but I'm sure Atom and Dr. Fate could have solved that without me," Ralph said.
"You're too hard on yourself," Matt said.
"Well, I tackled enough of the Aztecs to give the others time to destroy the meteorite. That's my forte, you know.tackling groups of people. It still doesn't compare to firing magical blasts. You know who was the real hero? Or 'heroine', I should say?" Ralph said, pointing to his wife.
"Sue was time-traveling with you?" Matt asked, a bit surprised.
"No, she was left behind at the Secret Sanctuary.and was taken hostage by The Iron Hand, the villain who was behind the whole thing. When we all returned, he threatened to kill her unless we stopped our plans to destroy the hand. Before anyone else could risk her life, Sue used her self-defense moves to flip him over and rip off his artificial hand!" Ralph said, beaming with pride.17
Matt clapped mildly. "Good going!"
Sue looked up from her laptop and spun around on her bar stool. "Yeah. Ralph conveniently leaves off how I'd destroyed the controls in the glove and started the fingers to close on the Earth, dooming every living thing on Earth. It's kind of a downer end to the story."
"Well, in the end it all turns out okay. Red Tornado sacrificed his life by using the cosmic device to destroy the hand.and then Reddy was salvaged and reactivated by T.O. Morrow before we could even arrange a proper ceremony. So.so I didn't think I had to mention that part," Ralph said. He looked at Matt and decided to change the subject. "I suppose this all seems really hard to fathom. Time travel, cosmic energy fingers, mind-controlling meteorites and all."
"Not really. I'm the reincarnation of Scalphunter," Matt said, not batting an eye.
"Oh. Well, then." Ralph said. He walked out to the terrace and tried to clear his head.
After a minute, Matt joined him. Pulling out a cigarette and lighting it, he took a long drag and blew the smoke away from Ralph. "You don't mind, do you?" he asked, in that casual way that smokers do after it's too late.
"Nah. You got a spare one?" Ralph asked.
"I didn't know you smoked," Matt said, offering his pack.
Ralph took a cigarette and lit it, saying, "I don't. That's the problem. First time I went undercover posing as a gangster, I tried to smoke as part of the character and turned blue. Ever since then I've made it a habit to smoke about once a month. Besides, I've had to study tobaccos just like everything else. When you're a detective, you have to identify various kinds of alcohol, drugs, tobacco products. It's funny.I've never smoked a joint in my life, but I can identify all the different varieties better than the average dealer. I probably know cigars better than David Letterman. You'd never know liquor's my only vice."18
"Hey.speaking of undercover. Ya think we could find out anything if you changed your face and made inquiries in a few dives? I could give you some addresses to check," Matt offered.
"Nah, Riddler's an out-of-towner. I don't think he's had any need to hire local help. And he's smart enough to not employ local thugs who then hang around in bars and spill the beans. Of course, he needs a place to hole up.there's a chance some landlord might have some info," Ralph said, trailing off. He stubbed out his cigarette and dropped it in the trash. "Tell you what. Barring some epiphany, I think we're stumped on this one. I'm taking Sue out for supper. Can you beep us if anything turns up? I imagine it will all make sense when we find out the name of the next robbery victim."
"You're giving up?" Matt asked. He flicked the cigarette butt away.
"Hey!" Ralph shouted, shooting out his arm to catch the falling cig, "Our planet is not your ashtray! And no, I'm not giving up. But I've solved two and half riddles already, and that's a lot of work for a Monday. He may not strike until tomorrow. In any case, we have until Friday, and I already scheduled a date with my wife for tonight."
"Ralph, stop squirming!" Sue hissed. "You're ruining this for me!"
"Sorry, honey, I guess I wasn't ready for a performance tonight. The Riddler case is still on my mind," Ralph said, embarrassed.
"Could you forget mysteries long enough to consider my enjoyment?" Sue pouted.
"I said I'm sorry!" Ralph whispered.
"Shhh!" said a patron behind them.
Ralph apologized and tried to focus on the musicians onstage. The Dibnys were at a cozy café, enjoying an Irish band called Blondesmoore Fun. Ralph was listening to their umpteenth Clannad rip-off and knew that if he didn't get up to stretch his legs the Uilleann pipes were going to put him to sleep. Ralph walked to the bar to get a soda.
The bartender noticed Ralph's bleary look. "What'samatter? Don't like the music?" he asked.
"Oh, I'm just not in the mood. I mean, they're quite talented, I'm sure, I just can't get into it. Do they perform here every night?" Ralph asked.
"You kidding? They're big time now. Their last album had three hits. One of them is now the theme song for that show on Fox about the good-looking teenagers. Know which one I mean?" Ralph shook his head, but the bartender didn't elaborate. "You really haven't heard of Blondesmoore Fun?" the bartender asked.
"No. If they're so 'big time', why are they playing here? No offense."
"None taken. I get what you're saying. Nah, see the lead singer? Local boy, born and raised. We gave him his first break four years ago, and then he put that band together from some college friends. Now he always graces us with a performance or two when they're in the area."
Ralph looked at the brunette with the shaggy locks, and his nose started to waver. "What's his name?" When no answer came, he turned to find the bartender had moved away to help another customer. Ralph was about to interrupt when he saw the fliers on the wall. Ralph walked over (since unexpectedly stretching while in normal clothes often caused someone to scream or faint) and saw the name at the bottom: "Lead Singer: Todd Broderick" Ralph was pretty sure the lightbulb above his head was blinding the other patrons, so he quietly went back to Sue's table and sat.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen," Todd said. "We're going to take a ten minute break and we'll be back for the next set!"
Ralph stood up as the band began to disperse. "Excuse me. Todd? I'm Ralph Dibny, the World Famous Elongated Man. I just need to ask you about your last name. Are you by any chance related to --"
"No!" Todd snapped, rolling his eyes, "I'm not related to the Ferris Beuller guy! I've never even met him! I'm not related to Juanita Broaderick, either, while we're at it! There are millions of people named Broderick, okay? Okay?"
"Sorry. I didn't know you get asked that a lot. It's just that you had the same last name as someone famous and --"
"Oh, for God's sake! It's not even my real name! It's just a stage name, y'know. A last name that people can remember and spell right, okay," Todd said, heading for the bar.
"Wait! What's your real name?" Ralph asked. Todd stopped and looked at him, quite exasperated by now. Ralph saw the hesitation on his face. "No, really, I need to know. It's for a case I'm working on."
Todd admitted, "It's Todd Buscemi, all right? I'm like a fourth cousin to that creepy guy in all the movies. Y'know, Armageddon, Con Air and all them. He's always playing a sleazebag?" Ralph nodded. "Well, I changed it on our first tour after about 400 instances of people going, 'Hey, you were the funny looking guy in Fargo!' Unfortunately, I'd never heard of this Matthew Broderick. I don't go to movies! Movies are for potatoes who don't plan to ever do anything themselves!"
Ralph felt a hunch tickling the back of his brain. "Why didn't you just keep the name 'Buscemi' and ride on Steve's coattails?" he asked.
Todd scowled at him, angered at the very idea. "Hey, I didn't study classical guitar for eleven years for all the record execs to know me as the creepy guy's relative."
"So.so you changed your name to avoid being linked with someone famous!" Ralph said, excitedly waving Sue over. "You're the guy! Quick.I have reason to believe that The Riddler may have targeted you for a theft in his crime spree. Do you have anything of value that he could steal? Here in Opal City, I mean."
Todd's attitude changed, and he was suddenly very nervous. "Well, yeah. I've got a really nice Porsche, brand new, fully loaded," he said. Noting Ralph's dismissal of that idea, he continued, "Look, I don't live around here. I've got a lot of goodies back in Malibu. Umm.the only stuff here is at my parents' house, but they don't have much." Todd trailed off.
"What? What is it, Todd?" Ralph asked.
"My gold record! My first gold record. I gave it to my folks to hang up, because they never thought anything would come of being a musician!" Todd said. He was now quite agitated and grabbed Ralph's arm. "Look, you gotta get some people to guard my parents! They're at 2952 34th Street. I'll cancel this gig and drive you over there!"
Matt, Mason and Hope O'Dare pulled up to the house at the same time that Todd and the Dibnys arrived. Leaping from the car, the O'Dares ran up to Ralph.
"You sure about this? This is the third crime today. Maybe he's robbing it tomorrow?" Matt asked.
"No, the place is dark. My parents are supposed to be home!" Todd shouted.
"Fine, with your permission we'll enter and check things out. You stay in that car until we say it's clear!" Matt said, sternly. "Mason, Hope, you take the back. I'll take that porch over there. Ralph, can you handle the front?"
"On it!" Ralph said, sliding up to the door. He handed the last of his regular garments to Sue and took off his wedding band. Trying the doorknob, he found it locked. On Matt's signal, the officers entered the back and side doors, while Ralph wriggled under the front door.
Ralph's head finally reached the other side of the door and popped back to its normal shape. He looked around, letting his eyes get used to the darkness, while he pulled the rest of his torso through the tight space under the door. Glancing to one side, he saw a pair of shoes almost even with his nose. There were feet in the shoes.
Peering up, he saw a large battle ax falling rapidly towards his ample neck.
"Yipe!" Ralph yelled, sliding his neck towards the assailant's feet and out of the target zone. Yanking the rest of his body through the door, he slammed an elbow upwards six feet and felt it connect nicely with a nose. As the man staggered back, Ralph used several fingers to firmly encircle the handle and yank it out of the attacker's hands. Throwing several wide punches, Ralph had the man lying unconscious within seconds.
Quickly, he spun to see if anyone else was attacking him. Ralph didn't see any other movement in the room. Feeling something sticky on his neck, Ralph realized he'd been grazed by the ax. Glancing down at the felled attacker, he saw that it was Mr. Puzzle.
Realizing that the other henchmen would be dealing with the O'Dares, he ran down a hallway into the kitchen. There, he found Quiz and Query standing over the prone bodies of Mason and Hope. Angered, and fearing that they'd been killed, Ralph grabbed each woman in a giant hand and conked their heads together. They slumped to the floor. He stepped over them and checked to see that the officers were only unconscious.
Then he heard the gunshots.
Racing back down the hall, he found Matt O'Dare firing potshots at The Riddler, Quentin Marx and another henchman while hiding behind a piano. The Riddler was holding the gold record and hunkering behind a couch. Quentin Marx was returning fire. The other henchman was standing up, unafraid of the bullets flying around. In the back of the room, a middle-aged couple hid behind a mini-bar while bottles of liquor shattered and split.
The unnamed henchman suddenly charged at Matt and knocked him unconscious. Ralph didn't see how Matt could have missed him with the gun, but he decided to worry about that later.
Stretching both of his arms, he seized Marx's pistol while knocking him unconscious with one large fist. The Riddler turned and saw Ralph for the first time. "Ah, Mr. Dibny! I must admit I'm impressed you deciphered this one."
"It wasn't that hard," Ralph lied. He lassoed Riddler with his left hand and the other henchman in his right hand. "And now I get to spend the rest of the week watching soaps!"
Riddler crooked one finger and then pointed it at the other henchman. "May I introduce the newest member of my team? "
Ralph saw his looped fingers disappearing within the torso of the other henchmen.
As he tried to pull his fingers back, the soft body of Clayface began tugging on his hand. Soon, his arm was drawn up to the elbow into Clayface's torso. Still in nondescript human form, Clayface smiled and began to "reel in" the rest of Elongated Man.
"Oh poopie!" Ralph muttered.
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This piece is © 2000 by Michael Hutchison.
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