That Was Then .
by Ed Buckler
Eel O'Brian sat in a small bar in the upper Detroit area, nursing a drink. He stared at his face in the mirror above the bar. He liked the look of the face he now wore. The face he was born with. The face he was meant to have. He'd disguised himself for too long as that stupid Plastic Man character. Now, he was back to being plain old "Eel." He took a final swig of his drink and slammed it down on the table.
"Get me another round here, you guys!" he yelled, causing the barkeep to jump slightly and carry over a new bottle.
"Does your friend here want anything, Mr. O'Brian?" the bartender asked, nodding to the man sitting beside him, who was still staring at his full whiskey glass.
"No I think he'll be fine " Eel muttered, fingering his shot glass. As the bartender turned away, Eel called after him. "Leave the bottle, man." The bartender sheepishly complied and meandered off, frightened.
Eel slapped his companion on the back, causing his to lurch. "What's wrong, Ralph? Can't hold your liquor, bud?"
The lazy eyes of Ralph Dibny gave O'Brian an empty look. "What? No, Eel. I'm fine. It's just that "
"What?!" Eel said, tossing back his beverage. "You still worried about that wife of yours back home?"
"Kinda " Ralph said, his drink in his hand, just sitting there. "I keep thinking about what life would be like without her. This is a pretty dangerous line of work, you know. I'm not sure that I can handle this, Eel "
"Don't be such a wuss, Dibny!" Eel said, nudging the man in the elbow and pouring himself a new glass. "You're cut out for this. You just don't know it yet."
"I dunno, Plas "
"DON'T CALL ME THAT!" Eel said, throwing the bottle of alcohol across the room, crashing it into the wall. "DON'T YOU EVER CALL ME THAT!" Eel ran his hand through his oily, slicked back hair and sat back on his barstool, trying to regain some semblance of composure. He shook his head and tugged on his red, polyester leisure suit jacket.
"You know that that was then," Eel muttered to Dibny in a hushed tone. "This is now. I'm just Eel now. As far as I'm concerned, Plastic Man doesn't even exist "
"Fine by me, Eel," Dibny said, raising his glass to his lips. "So what's the plan?"
DETROIT - FORMER HEADQUARTERS OF THE JLA
The Scarecrow sat behind a large desk at the JLA HQ, his feet propped up on the table before him. How could I have been so stupid ? he thought, leaning back in his chair. All those times that I fought Batman he was only out for the common good. I only thought destruction and wrath. Fate, however, is not without a sense of irony. I now have the opportunity to atone for my evil, to make amends for the sins I committed. Bring in these hooligans consider it done.
He rose from his seat and twirled his scythe around in his spindly fingers. He pressed a small button on his desk, which activated the new JLA communicators. He now had an open channel to every new member. They were all like him - former supervillains with a new purpose a new sense of duty.
"Attention all members of the Justice League of America. This is the Scarecrow. A priority one alert has been issued in seeking out the newly deviated former protectors of this earth. It is now our privilege and our duty to regain our rightful place as protectors to bring in these new threats to global security.
"Anyone who wishes a new assignment can report back immediately. New tasks are being administered as need for them arises. Outbreaks of supervillainous activity have already broken out in the Metropolis and New York areas. Currently sighted criminals at large include the former heroes known as J.J. Thunder, Green Arrow, the Star-Spangled Kid, and S.T.R.I.P.E. The whereabouts of the Batman are currently unknown, but please remain on the look-out. This is Scarecrow, signing out."
Immediately, the gangly man's board lit up with signals coming in from all over. Scarecrow smiled. The new Justice League was now what he had always hoped it would be a group of like-minded heroes who would soon see the end of this band of rebels. They were as committed as he was. The Scarecrow stood fearless as a knock sounded at his door. He sat down at his chair and bade them enter.
DETROIT - OUTSIDE THE BAR
Behind the bar, Eel O'Brian leaned against a graffiti coated brick wall, twisting a toothpick around in his mouth. Next to him, leaning into a dumpster, the former Elongated Man barfed uncontrollably, making loud heaving noises.
"Definitely can't hold his liquor " Eel laughed, flipping a quarter high into the air and putting it back in his pocket. "Are you about done in there, Stretch?" Eel asked, banging on the side of the dumpster.
"Aaah " Ralph moaned, dropping to the ground, holding his head. Dried vomit clung to the sides of his mouth and he wavered in his steps. "Keep the noise down, Eel " he whispered, staggering about.
"Ah, the hangover," Eel said loudly, pacing the alleyway, casting his head from side to side. "The best part of the whole drinking experience! Your head spins, throbs, and then, you feel like passing out! But, alas, it doesn't always happen that way!"
Ralph winced again in pain and motioned for Eel to shut up. However, the former hero just kept on ticking
"And then, when it all is said and done, you just can't seem to get any sicker " Eel laughed and spoke louder. "Anyone up for some COFFEE!?"
Ralph leaned from side to side as he looked to his comrade. "Wh why aren't you affected? You had more than I did "
"Years of practice, kid!" Eel said, roughing up Ralph's hair with his fingers. "That and my completely shifting morphogenic structure."
"When I was doused with the chemicals all those years ago," Eel said, lowering his voice to a whisper level and leaning his head in close to Ralph's. One quick whiff of the man's breath, however, made him seriously rethink that tactic. He went back to his original location, waving his hand in front of his face before he continued.
"When I was doused with those chemicals," he began again, "I was given the ability to form myself into anything that I wanted. Whatever, it be, I can almost completely alter my structure. It's almost as if I never had any organs to begin with. I can change their shape and size at my will. Therefore, I give myself a nervous system that can basically counteract any effects that I might feel from the alcohol intake. Granted, my metabolism isn't anything like Wally's, but I can sure pee it all out pretty fast!" Eel chuckled as he took his friend into a coffee house next door.
"You know, this really is a convenient place to put a coffee place " Eel said, escorting Ralph inside and plopping him down at a table and ordering a triple shot espresso. Eel slid into the chair across from his pliable pal.
"Now, do you have everything straightened out?" Eel asked, boring his eyes into the Elongated Man's soul.
"Yeah " Ralph sipped his coffee and nodded groggily.
"We're all set, then?"
"Trust me, Eel," Ralph said, holding up his hand, "this is gonna be the biggest heist in history! There is no way we can be stopped. No one is gonna get by the unstoppable might of the two of us!"
The two men grasped each other's hands and shook heartily. Eel cocked a goofy grin and Ralph's eyes sagged wearily. "Let's do this " he whispered.
GOTHAM CITY - FORMER HOME OF THE DARK KNIGHT
A figure skulks the skyline of the darkest city in the world. Wild eyes dart to and fro over the bustling city below him. Those same eyes had seen much. They had seen a Crisis unfold and become resolved. They had seen the coming of a Final Night. They had seen an earthquake ravage the very city they now viewed. They had seen the city blocked off by a government that they felt neither needed nor wanted it. Now they saw the rebuilt city, though it was no better.
That was then
This was now
At that time, he had been a protector of this city. He had been feared by all who saw him, hated by all who opposed him, and thanked by those he protected. A few weeks ago, that had all changed. A disease it had changed him. Snapped him. He no longer cared for those people he once protected. As far as he was concerned, they were rubbish.
The blue-green eyes of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne danced across the city skyline once again. Then, they saw something that they had not seen before. A bright light flashing through the sky. He recognized the idea behind it, but not the symbol. However, it did not take the most brilliant criminal mind to deduce it's meaning.
A giant letter "J."
"Joker " he muttered angrily, gritting his teeth. And, with that, the Batman leapt from his perch and disappeared into the shadows below.
TWO AND A HALF HOURS LATER - DOWNTOWN DETROIT - THE FINANCIAL DISTRICT
Two men walked around near the outside of a large building, looming high into the air. There was nothing distinguishing them from any of the other usual riff-raff. Their clothing was tattered, their faces, dirty and their bodies, slim from apparent hunger. They sat with a Styrofoam cup between them and a cardboard sign that read "God Bless You - II Corinthians 9:7".
A man walked by, looked down at them and flipped a nickel and two pennies into the cup. One of the men, dressed in a haggard red T-shirt and red, yellow, and black striped running shorts, looked up and smiled weakly.
"Thank you, sir," he said hoarsely. "May God bless you!"
The man who tossed the coins tipped his fedora and tightened his trenchcoat around his body. "You too, sir," he said. "You too."
With that, the man walked off down the street. The second man raised his blond head to see the man walk off and disappear in the distance. The man in red looked the other way and scratched his scraggly black beard. "All clear," he whispered, nodding to his friend. The other haggard man nodded and rose silently to his feet.
The two men were soon on their feet and were walking to the building's front door. The man in red shook his head and was soon wearing, not the T-shirt and shorts, but a red body suit with a belt of yellow and black. His head was adorned with a black sock cap and his eyes were covered by a pair of dark black sunglasses. He looked to his partner, who removed his ratty flannel garments to reveal a dark purple body suit and a black domino mask.
The elongated arm of Ralph Dibny reached into the Styrofoam cup and pulled out the seven cents that had been placed there. He tossed them to Eel O'Brian, who stood at his side.
"Even if we can't pull this off," Dibny said with a smirk, "we've at least got something to show for it "
"Shut up, Dibny," Eel said, walking to the front door. "We've got work to do " Eel's arm slipped beneath the door of the building, forming completely on the other side. His hands neared a keypad, which he skillfully entered the proper code for. The doors gave a slight buzz and were suddenly unlocked.
"Just like old times " he muttered to himself as he and the Elongated Man stepped into the building.
"This place is owned by Maxwell Lord," Dibny whispered to his partner in crime. "I used to work for the guy. Self-righteous as he may have been, he still gave me the creeps."
"I hear you," Eel whispered as the two men slipped stealthily down the hallway. Eel stopped short and held up his hand. He turned to Dibny and mouthed the word "guard" in the dark. Dibny nodded and got into position.
Peering his head around the corner, Ralph caught sight of a guard, seated at a surveillance desk, looking at various monitors set up to survey the various rooms in the building. Smiling, the Elongated Man popped out his eyeball and sent it slithering close to the set of monitors. Lifting it into the air, Dibny was able to see everything that the guard saw, without being seen by the guard.
"Hmmm " Dibny's mouth muttered softly as Eel O'Brian kept lookout by his body. When Ralph's eyes had taken in all they could, his eye snapped back into his socket and he turned to his partner. "Thirty-five floors up and down a treacherous hallway of traps that any normal man would fall victim to immediately."
"Key word," Eel said, raising his finger, "is 'normal'."
"Precisely," Ralph said, smiling sinisterly. "Shall we take the elevator?" he asked, looking at a set of doors with a sign affixed to them that read "OUT OF ORDER".
"I don't see why not " Eel said, grinning. He and Ralph made their way to the elevator and stood there. Ralph tried pressing the button, but it, too, was apparently broken.
"Allow me," Eel said, putting his hand on his friend's shoulder. In a flash, Eel had transformed his arm into a jack, wedging it in between the narrow crack of the doors. With his other hand, he jerked on the lever, opening the door further with each crank. When the door was open enough for both men to fit in, they looked at the chasm before them. The elevator lay in a broken, metallic heap on the floor.
"Hope no one was on that thing " Dibny said, shuddering.
"What do you care?" Eel said, stretching his arm to the highest point of the building.
"I'm just saying, that's all " Ralph said, following Eel's lead. With that, the two men hoisted themselves up, wrapping their arms around the uppermost pole in the elevator shaft. Within a minute, they were hanging before the door leading to the thirty-sixth floor - the home of the offices of Maxwell Lord himself.
"The kiddy lies just behind those walls," Eel said, grinning. "Man, I've missed this " Eel began to recall the thrills that he had experienced in his days as a petty criminal. But nothing this big. He'd been the best safe cracker in the business. But that was then this was now.
Beside him, Ralph Dibny hung, longing for what was behind those doors. He'd had it all - fortune, fame, a beautiful rich wife, powerful friends, and all the adoration one man could want. But ever since that day in Belle Reeve, something tugged at his soul. A desire for more. A desire of a personal nature. He couldn't explain it, couldn't believe it, and couldn't ignore it. He had had it all. But that was then this was now.
Eel reached out his foot and kicked the small lever that opened the elevator door. As it slid open, a large hallway loomed out before them, seemingly empty. But these two men had seem firsthand that appearances could indeed be deceiving. Ralph reached into his utility belt with his free hand and produced a small aerosol can, tossing it to Eel. The man caught the can and sprayed a fine mist forward. Right outside the elevator door lay a large maze of lasers, zigging and zagging across the corridor. Eel smiled.
"You wanna take this one, or should I?" the former Plastic Man asked.
"I got it," Dibny said, a smirk spreading across his lips. His long arm weaved through the lasers, dodging and avoiding the red beams wherever they lay. He skillfully reached the end of the hallway and turned to his friend, smiling from ear to ear.
"Well done, Dibny," O'Brian said, nodding to his friend. "Now, punch in the access code."
"OK," Dibny said, inhaling a large puff of air. With fingers of courageous determination, he pressed the buttons on the keypad that caused the lasers to dim in their places, fading into nothingness.
"Alright," Eel smiled, looking now at the white and black tiled floor of the corridor. "Now, we need to find some way to avoid the black tiles. Touching them will set off the alarms, seal us in an airtight chamber and fill it with a poisonous gas. Even with our ability to expand our lungs, I doubt we'd be able to last more than a couple of hours holding our breath "
Eel reached his foot down to the end of the hallway, setting it down on a white tile. He motioned for Dibny to do the same. In a short while, both Ralph and Eel stood defiantly on the white tiles at the end of the passageway. Before them stood the last thing between them and their prize the office door of Maxwell Lord.
For days, Eel and Ralph had studied the official plans for this building. No booby traps lay in those doors. Just a lock. And a lock, in the presence of Eel O'Brian, was merely something that needed to be picked.
The man smiled, holding his finger mere millimeters away from the lock. He narrowed his finger down as much as he could, and thrust it into the door. He closed his eyes as his pliable finger expanded, filling the lock space and fitting every groove, nook, and cranny it had. He smiled and turned his hand defiantly to the right. The door jarred loose and the two elastic thieves slipped into the room.
When they stepped inside, their mouths opened in awe. It was more exquisite than either of them had imagined. Paintings, both classic and modern, adorned the walls. Statues of people and animals were scattered about. Ancient artifacts hung from the walls and were used as paperweights across Lord's desk.
But that was not what they had come for
There! On a pedestal in the middle of the room sat a magnificent black diamond. It was said to have been a remnant of the Eclipso crisis, long forgotten by all. How Lord got his grubby hands on it was mystery, but all that these two men knew was that the power that it exuded would soon be theirs.
As they neared the glowing black gem, a sound in the corner caught Dibny's attention.
"What was that?" he whispered, eyes narrowing.
"I didn't hear anything " Eel whispered back, continuing to near the pedestal.
"Wait a sec!" Dibny whispered sharply, putting his hand on Eel's shoulder. Angered, Eel turned to stare Dibny in the face.
"What the heck are you ?" O'Brian's question was stopped short as he looked intently at Dibny's face. "What's wrong with your nose, man?"
"This always happens," Ralph whispered, "when something mysterious is about to happen "
"Aw, geez " Eel sighed, rolling his eyes behind his shades. "No way in heck, man! No freakin' way!" As Eel O'Brian neared the gem, a pillar of putty-like goo caught him in the side of the face, sending his head and neck zooming across the room, plastering them to the wall.
Dibny quickly dropped the ground, rolling over to where his friend was smothered by the clay-like substance. Prying it off Eel's face, Dibny dodged his own head just in time to miss a glob of identical goo. As their eyes adjusted to the dark, the two men were able to clearly identify their on-coming attacker.
A man. Dressed in a trenchcoat and a fedora. He neared the men with a determined look in his eye. As he neared them, Ralph and Eel noticed that his determined look changed to an eerie yellow hue. Eel took a deep, needed breath and confronted the man.
"Who are you and what the heck do you think you're doing here?" he said, taking on a fight position with his elastic body. Dibny did the same, somersaulting onto the ceiling, clinging to the tiles by wrapping his fingertips under them.
"My name is Matthew Hagen the Clayface," the man said as his outer persona melted away. He was, not a man now, but a large, massive pile of sentient goo and clay, oozing and morphing before their very eyes. He was a behemoth, and as he lumbered toward them, Ralph gave an audible gulp. But, Eel stood his ground, even as the fearful menace towered over him.
"So, how'd you find us, then?" Eel spoke up, stretching his neck to look Clayface in the eye. "We kept this thing pretty secret no one even knew we were up here "
Clayface smiled as his voice rumbled. "Check your pocket " he snarled, exuding an aura of resolve. Eel reached into his pocket and pulled out the seven cents that had been given he and Dibny earlier. To their horror, the elastic two watched as the three coins chipped and melted away to form three distinctive lumps of clay.
"You tricked us!" Dibny shrieked from the ceiling. "You friggin' planted us with these coins to track us!"
"I've learned in my career that appearances can be deceiving," Clayface rumbled, absorbing the clay in Eel's hand into his own body. "I'm constantly aware of what's going on around me like your finger nearing the fire alarm, there, Eel "
Hagen's arm shot out to the side, enveloping Eel's hand before it could reach the fire alarm and release the water stored in the above ducts. "You could've killed me, Eel " he said, raising a clay eyebrow. "We can't have that "
Behind him, Dibny lurched out to strike. He landed on Hagen's back, and began pounding the clay behind his head. Dibny knew this wouldn't hurt the man of goo, having fought one before. Logic dictated that this style of fighting would have no effect on the fiendish hero, and, up until a few weeks ago, Ralph usually adhered to logic. But, that was then. This was now. Ralph's hand went completely through the head of the brute and emerged the other side, right between the eyes.
This was enough to buy Eel some time. As the annoyed Clayface swung his arms behind his head to combat the troublesome Dibny, the bouncy bandit broke the now hardened clay that surrounded his hand into thousands of tiny shards. He now had full command of his motor skills. Eel looked at Dibny and Clayface just in time to see Dibny's sprawled form flying toward his head. Eel's neck fell to the ground as Ralph's body collided with the wall. Eel tossed his foot at the Clayface's head, connecting with the area that should have been his nose.
Meanwhile, Eel's hand slipped speedily around the hulk's back, latching onto the pedestal containing the black diamond. Before Eel could do anything else, he suddenly couldn't move.
His elongated leg was now covered with clay, which flowed freely from the head of Clayface. The man's hand was clasped around Eel's extended arm, coating it with mud. Within seconds, Eel was just another statue in the office of Maxwell Lord. He couldn't move, couldn't stretch and couldn't even breathe. Good thing I saw it coming and was able to expand my lungs Eel thought to himself. Who knows how long I'll be able to go without breathing though
In the corner, Ralph Dibny raised his head and looked at the surly figure looming over him. He shook the cobwebs out as Clayface's stern eyes bore into the Elongated Man's soul.
"Why?" came the menacing voice, sending shivers down the new criminal's spine.
"Why what?" Ralph sneered.
"Why turn from the heroic nature that you had?" Clayface elaborated. "You had a legacy, you and him. You were loved, adored, and even revered. But, you traded it all in for the life that I once lived? Why?"
"Why?" Dibny asked, glaring at the new 'cop.' "You were a criminal. There were those who called you insane! Yet, all of a sudden, you turn into one of the good guys, fighting us to the bitter end. You always lost then! What makes you think you'll win now?"
"That was then," Hagen replied as he began to coat Dibny in a layer of rapid-dry clay. "This is now."
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 2001 by Ed Buckler
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