| THIS ISSUE:
The Case Of The Really Dead Waiter
by Mathew D. Rhys
TEN YEARS AGO
The early autumn air was thick with a crisp vibrance, and a light breeze coaxed the first turned leaves from their summer homes. All Chicago seemed quiet that afternoon as they sat, each looking across the table at the other. Although Ralph and Sue Dibny had been married for some time, they still cherished their time together. They were sitting at an outdoor table at a small restaurant, staving off the brisk air with sweaters and coffee.
"So, do you like being in the Justice League?" she asked as she drank from the complimentary water glass.
"Well, yeah, I guess. I mean, I like working with the League, but I like being with you."
Sue leaned forward and looked her husband in the eye. "Stop being so silly," she whispered as she playfully flicked his nose. Ralph sat upright and rubbed his nose. Then he gave Sue a funny look as he reached for her hand beneath the glass and iron bistro-style table.
And so they sat together sharing the moment in silence-- a silence that was broken by the sound of, "Have you decided what to order?"
Sue turned to the waiter and smiled her courtesy smile as Ralph quietly fumed. "Well, we really haven't taken a look at the menu, but I think I want soup. What kind do you have?"
The tall, dark man didn't hesitate. "Today's soup is--" he began but didn't finish. Without warning, the waiter's body fell limp and dropped like lead to the table, shattering the glass top.
Ralph and Sue jumped silently back as a loud, "Fear not, citizens!" came from above them. They both turned around to see an odd, red lamppost grow arms as it lost height and gained width. In a matter of seconds, a tall, pale man in a gaudy, red circus-acrobat costume and goggles stood before them. "This looks like a job for your friendly neighborhood-- er, um-- visiting from out of town Plastic Man." Then he bent over the man's body, placing his fingers along the waiter's jugular. "Hmm. He's dead. No sign of foul play--"
"Wait! Look at this," Ralph said, pointing to the dead man's temple. Kneeling down, he took the waiter's towel and presses it against the man's sideburn. He pulled it back, displaying a deep red stain. "Doesn't look like any stroke I've ever seen."
Plastic Man stepped up to Ralph and put his finger squarely on his chest. "Look, buddy," Plas nearly spat, "I don't know who you are, but I'm the super hero here, pally!" Plas turned aroung and stretched his neck way down to better view the corpse. "What's your name, anyway?"
"Ralph Dibny?" Plas raised his eyebrows in shock.
"'World-famous-Elongated-Man Ralph Dibny?"
"The 'Ductile Detective'? With the JLA? Married to the bee-yoo-tiful Sue Dibny?"
Ralph rolled his eyes and nodded.
"We-he-ell," Plas said, righting himself and wrapping an affectionate, rubber arm around Ralph's shoulders, "why didn't you say something!"
Plas and Ralph walked back to the body and Sue stepped up beside her husband. "So how do you think he died?" she asked
Ralph began rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "I don't really know," Ralph said as his nose twitched, "but I think we can rule out natural causes."
The hall leading to the City Morgue was dank and dim, making it easy to forget it sat in the twentieth century. The two red-clad, yellow belted men walked through the dark hallway to meet with Assistant Coroner Williams. Plas looked around warily and said, "I think there are rats here."
Ralph was dismissive as he looked at Plastic Man and said, "I seriously doubt they have--" Ralph stopped dead as a faint "skree skreek, skittle scratch" flitted from corner to shadowed corner. His mouth agape, Ralph tried in vain to think of anything to say that might vindicate himself, but the two reached the morgue door before an opportunity presented itself.
As they stepped thorough the doors, they saw Williams. His fondness for doughnuts and beer was obvious, and his weight gave rise to the need for a high grade antiperspirant. Williams sat at his desk surrounded by ragged stacks of paper and a single, battered lamp. The sound of the door swinging shut brought his attention from his triplicate forms and toward the entering men.
"Mr. Will--," Ralph began.
"Look, we haven't had any 'John Does' dressed as clowns!" Williams snapped; and mumbled, "I wish those carnies would find that damn body and get out of my hair," as he returned to his paperwork.
Plastic Man's jaw hit the floor with a wet splat. He attempted to speak with his distended mouth, but all he could utter was a series of gurgling screeches. Williams again raised his head, but his irritable, disdainful look quickly changed to one of mild horror at the sight of Plas' distorted visage. Ralph spoke up.
"Excuse us, sir, we're not with the circus. We're superheroes investigating a murder. The waiter?"
Williams warily looked from Ralph to Plas as Plas, shaking his head like a wet dog, returned to his 'regular' form. After a moment to begin breathing, Williams said, "What-- oh, I- um- got a call that you guys would be by, but I was expecting-- well, urm-- anyway," he sighed, "the body's over here." Williams stood from his desk and walked over to locker 326, and slid it open. The black bodybag lay still and mute. It spoke softly as Williams pulled open the long zipper. "Mr. Mervin Branson," Williams said blandly.
"What the HELL!" Plas yelled as his eyes bugged toward the corpse. "What happened to his head?" He looked Ralph in the eyes. "I swear he was in one piece when the cops took him." In truth, the cadaver's appearance was quite unnerving. The right half of his head had been shaved to the skin and there was a clean cutline around the skull.
"No, Plastic Man, look," Ralph said pointing to a small hole visible on the victim's right temple. "That's where the blood spot was. What is that, a bullet hole?"
"Well," Plas retorted, "if that's a bullet hole, then how is his skull in one piece?"
"Well, this is why," Williams said as he turned around and walked over to a steel and canvas basket labeled 'Outbox'. He reached in, pulled out a manila envelope, and dumped its contents on an exam table with a slight metal-on-metal clink. The two heroes stretch their neck over to see a mushroomed bit of lead lying on the table. "We pulled this from the victim's cranium. It's on its way to ballistics to verify, but the weight matches a .22."
Ralph stretched his arm over and stroked his chin. "Okay, it's a small bullet, but I've seen headshots before. It still seems really-- clean."
"Oh, that's it!" Plas exclaimed, "long shots slow down. A .22 shot from a couple hundred yards can enter the temple and just bounce about the skull. It leaves a minimum amount of bleeding and turns the brain into jello!" Both Williams and Ralph turn to Plastic Man, shocked expressions tenuously holding their faces. "What?" Plas replied to the awkward silence, "Basic NBI marksman training."
"So why didn't you think of that earlier?" Ralph asked in disbelief.
"Well-- um-- I don't know?" Plas replied tenuously.
After thanks and formalities, Ralph and Plas left the morgue and walked the oddly quiet Chicago streets. After a silent, awkward block, Plas said, "Well, we know it's a murder."
"Yeah, but that's all we know. A .22 caliber, wow. That's a pop-gun, man," Ralph said stroking his chin and raising his eyebrow.
"So it had to be a well planned hit. That's something else we know."
"Well-planned or not, we still don't have motive."
Plas raised his arms and shrugged his shoulders. "So where do we go from here?"
The heroes looked at each other and each grew a smile as they shouted "El ristorante!" in unison.
By the time the ductile duo returned, the restaurant was full and the sky grew dark. Inside, the restaurant was bright and warm, and the swollen dinner crowd skirted the edges of noisy. It was a mere shadow of its earlier, placid self. Candles and wineglasses clinked as busboys cleaned the tables and hostesses led new diners to their seats. Plas and Ralph walked through the mild melee, all but unnoticed. Ralph thought he heard a small girl asking about the clowns, but the din was too much to make out from there.
They walked to the back of the restaurant and through a set of doors labeled "Employees Only." A short hall and a staircase later, they stepped into an ornate room filled with muted light and Italian leather. The back wall was lined with old books and in the center of the room sat a large, dark desk centered by a leather and felt blotter and a brass nameplate reading "Francis Whitakker, Proprietor." Behind the desk was a leather and teak chair, and in the chair sat an old man with stark, white hair and a thin, black mustache, bent over a ledger book. The man had once been of average size, but age had added mightily to his girth. Ralph and Plas stood before the man, as he looked up saying, "What are you circus folk doing in my restaurant?"
Plas stepped up to the desk and wagged an enlarged, accusing finger. "Now listen here, pal," he said, "we are not with the circus, we are not with the carnival! We are SUPERHEROES!"
The old man turned his gaze to Ralph and said, "Please tell your brother to calm down or I will have you both removed."
Ralph nodded while Plas muttered, "Well, we're not brothers, stupid," and made a goofy face. Ralph put on a serious visage to stifle a snicker, extended his hand, and said, "Mister Whitakker, Ralph Dibny, world-famous Elongated Man. My associate Plastic Man and I are investigating the death of one Mervin Branson. Mr Branson was an employee of yours until this afternoon."
Whitakker looked down his nose at Ralph's hand, sat back in his chair, and rubbed his over-round chin. "Murder? I thought the police said it looked like a heart attack."
"Oh, it did look like a heart attack. Or a stroke," Ralph said as he pulled his hand back. "But no, it was murder without question. Gunshot wound to the head."
"I really don't see what this has to do with me."
"I didn't say it did." Ralph said, looking straight into the man's eyes. He continued, "Tell me, did you know Mr. Branson very well?"
"Well? No, not really. He had worked here a couple years, but he mostly kept to himself. He was one of our best waiters, though. Never forgot an order.
"Had anything odd happened with him recently? A change in habit or wok quality?" Ralph asked.
"I had just offered him a position as a shift manager last week, but he turned it down. I thought it was odd, but I didn't pry."
Unlike Ralph, Plas had not particularly noticed the nameplate on the desk, but upon mention of the proprietor's name his ears seemed to perk and his left eyebrow raised nearly above his hair. He had listened and watched and before long his visage lightened with epiphany. Once Ralph paused from speech, Plastic Man stepped in front of him and looked firmly at the man behind the desk. "Slim!" he said matter-of-factly. The man raised his eyebrows in shock but did not reply. Undaunted, Plas said, "Slim Whitakker, it is you! My god, the years have not been kind, Slim.
Whitakker shook his head and said, "I-I don't know you."
"Oh, sure you do, Slim. Remember Skizzle Shanks mob?"
"My god! Eel? Eel O'Brien?" Whitakker gasped.
"In the flesh," Plas said, pulling the side of his face like warm taffy and letting it snap back into place. He then turned to Ralph and said, "I think we found our perp, Ralphie!"
Whitakker started to his feet and pounded his desk. "What?! This is outrageous!"
"Oh come on, Slim, I've never seen a guy as mobbed up as you in my life."
"Look, you busted the gang and we all got time. Well, I did my time and got out of the game. I'm straight and clean as a laundered shirt."
"Well we'll see about that, Slim," Plas spat.
"Sure as Hell you will, O'Brien," Whitakker hollared at Plas. "Now take your 'friend' and get the hell out of my restaurant."
Ralph slammed the door as he and Plas entered the hall. "What the hell was all that about!? Do you have any idea how hard this investigation could be without access to the crime scene?"
"Yeah, well what the hell do you know?" Plastic Man formed pockets on his hips, shoved his hands deep into them, and trudged to the stairs.
Ralph cried after him, "Well, I know that we are not police. We have no search warrants and cannot claim 'probable cause'. People do not have to answer our questions, but you just got us banned from the biggest source for clues in the entire case!"
Plas spun around and put his face squarely into Ralph's, and scowling deeply said, "Yeah, I guess I did. I guess getting left for dead by your own crew is a little harder to get over than I thought." Plastic Man turned back around and again began to descend the stairs. "Besides, he's lying about Branson."
"So what's that, a hunch?" Ralph asked sharply.
In answer, Plas reached into his "lapel", and with an odd popping sound, pulled out a framed picture. He handed it to Ralph. Ralph looked over the photograph and his eyebrows raised in shock. It was of four people in "Santa" hats toasting the camera: Branson and Whitakker flanked by a woman and another man respectively. "It's a bit better than a hunch. Take special note of the man arm-in-shoulder with Slim. Looks kinda familiar, don't he?"
"Yeah, he interrupted my lunch by dying. Where did you--?"
"Fingered it from Slim's office while you questioned him. Once a thief and all that." By this time, the duo had left the hurried cacophony of the restaurant, and in the quieter, nightfallen street they walked.
"So you really think he did it?" Ralph asked.
"Look, we were in the same crew. We were pals. Sure it was more than fifty years ago, but some things just never change. And Slim was always the laziest sack of-- well, he was lazy. Mob money is too easy to come by for Slim to really go straight."
"So what are you doing in Chicago anyway, stalking fomer colleagues?"
"No, I was staking out the restaurant, trying to get a lead on my missing pal Woozy Winks. He disappeared a while back when we were working on a mob case for the NBI. I've been looking for him since, the poor shlamazel." Plas' brow furrowed and shoulders sagged, if but slightly. "I got a tip that the joint had mafia ties, but I had no idea Slim was involved."
As the two walked toward Ralph's hotel, they came into a progressively busier street. Passers-by gawked and pointed as discreetly as they could. Ralph looked about awkwardly and then turned back to Plas. "I'm sorry to hear about your friend," he said. "I sure hope you find him."
"I hope so too. It's just so weird. We've been working together for nearly fifty years. It's kinda strange working solo. Well what about you? Don't you normally work cases with your wife?"
Ralph smiled widely and looked at the ground. "Yeah, Sue's the best. To tell you the truth, I think the only real reason she does the whole mystery thing is to be with me. She is one hell of a detective, though."
On they walked, sharing adventures and telling stories; and before long they found themselves in the Dibny's suite. Sue sat on the sofa reading with her legs tucked beneath her. Ralph stretched his neck across the room and gave his wife a soft peck on the cheek. "Hey, Honey."
"Hey, sweetie. How did it go?" Sue said reaching her hand up to touch her husbands face.
"Still going. Any calls for me."
"Just one. A 'Williams' called. He asked you to call as soon as you got in-- something about new developements."
"Well," Ralph said, "I'd best give the man a call." Ralph took one great step and entered the bedroom. Plas and Sue shot each other odd gazes, and Plas shrugged his shoulders. After a few seconds, Ralph stretched his head back into the foreroom. "Oh, Plas, this is my wife Sue Dibny. Sue, Plastic Man. " And with that, Ralph vanished back into the bedroom.
"So, 'Plastic Man,' huh?" Sue said warily.
"That's me," Plas replied as he set the picture on a table in the kitchenette.
"So-- are you the real Plastic Man, or just using his name?"
"Nope, I'm the original, the one and only Eel O'Brien in the flesh, or so to speak," Plas said, bowing low.
"You've been in-- 'the business' for a long time, then? About fifty years."
"You don't look old enough," Sue stated flatly
Stunned by Sue's abruptness, Plas stammered, "Well-- you see-- um-- I don't think I-- age."
Just then, Ralph stretched himself back into the foreroom, Head and shoulders first, followed by torso, hips and legs. "Okay guys, check this out, Williams just told me that Branson's blood contains high, but non-lethal levels of cyanide." Ralph said as his nose began twitching.
"Uh, Ralph, why is your nose twitching?" Plas asked
"He smells a mystery," Sue said glibbly.
"He does what?" Plas spun his head to face Sue.
"He smells a mystery. His nose always twitches when--"
"Enough with my nose!" Ralph yelled, and the other two began laughing. Ralph rolled his eyes back and stared at his eyebrows until Plas and Sue stopped giggling, cleared their throats and righted themselves. "As I was saying..."
"Oh, yes," Plas said with mock sincerity, "cyanide. I see." He paused. "I don't see."
"What?" Ralph said, floored.
"I mean, so he had a lot of cyanide in his blood. The cyanide was non-lethal. You said so yourself. And the cause of death was obviously the gunshot wound."
"True," Ralph said, "but poison and a bullet is a bit extreme, don't you think?"
"Okay, somebody wanted the guy dead really bad. Apart from Whitakker, we still have no suspects."
"What about the wife?" Sue asked as she looked over the picture. Ralph and Plas turned to her with puzzled looks on their faces.
"He had a wife?" Plas asked.
"Yes," Sue said, handing the picture to Plas. "See the woman sitting next to him? They're both wearing wedding bands."
Ralph stretched over to his wife's side and kissed her cheek. "Sue, you are brilliant."
A quick phone book search led the two sleuths to an older, brick, apartment building five minutes south of the restaurant. A sign outside the six story building stated the building had been completed in 1928, but it was obvious that the interior had been recently gutted and remodeled to match the early nineties black and white aesthetic.
Sitcoms and news programs blared through walls as streetlight shadows danced with neither form nor rhythm. At the end of the north hall was a door marked "625"-- the deceased's apartment. Plas drew his arm back to knock, but was stopped as a low, rhythmic groaning noise came from the other side of the door. He extended his ear and listened for a few moments before flashing Ralph a wicked smile. Ralph mouthed "What?" and Plas replied with what would best be described as a crude hand gesture. Ralph raised his right eyebrow and his nose began to twitch. The duo nodded to each other and Plas flung open the door. "ANYBODY HOME?!" he shouted.
White flesh grew red as two naked bodies fumbled from their entwined form and scrambled for cover. The man snatched a pair of pants from the floor and awkwardly held them over his groin as the woman wrapped herself in an afghan throw. Plas looked the two over, angry eyebrows arched above his goggles, while Ralph scanned the apartment. The woman was Branson's wife, and the man was the fourth body from the picture. The lovers stood there, embarrassed and angry and stunned, unable to speak. As the stunned silence began to wear off, the man spoke up.
"Wha-- what-- what do you think you're doing here?" he said.
"Well, nothing special," Plas said. "And what about you?"
"Huh?" the man said.
Plas responded, "You. What were you doing here?"
"Well, I mean-- you know-- we were--"
"Boy, that's some winner we got here," Ralph thought as he looked over the blissful wedding photos on the wall. Photographs of a man now dead and the naked woman sitting balled up on the couch, rocking nervously on her haunches. He turned to Plas and said, "She sure didn't waste much time did she?"
"Nope. Not much time at all," Plas replied, looking in a nearby waste basket.
"You know what we got here?"
"You got it. Motive."
As Ralph and Plas conferred back and forth, the woman began looking nervously between the two men. She blurted out, "What? What are you guys talking about?"
Plas looked right at her, "Don't play dumb with us, lady. There's no way the cops haven't gotten in touch with you yet. It's been four hours, you're the next of kin and from the look of it, you've been here a while."
"Look at this, Plas," Ralph said, pointing to an end table. "The phone's unplugged and the volumes off on the answering machine." Ralph then slid the volume control up and tapped the "replay" button.
The machine popped and crackled through the greeting message and the tone before a dry voice came on the line. "Misses Branson, this is Detective Frank Murdock with the Chicago PD. We-- um-- really need to get in touch with you, ma'am. Please give me a call when you get a chance. Thanks."
"Well, that explains that," Plas muttered under his breath.
"What is this all about?!" she said, growing more irate.
"Your husband's dead," Plas said, "murdered." The woman recoiled at the words, her mouth agape.
The man stepped between the woman and the detectives. "Look here," he said, "you's guys ain't cops so's this is breaking and entering. I say you'd better get gone."
Ralph and Plas looked at each other and responded, "No!" in unison. The man threw his pants to the side, revealing himself armed with a large pocket knife. He lunged toward Plas, who threw out his right hand. Instantly his fingers grew to tendrils which shot out at him. Before he could speak it, the man hung dangling and disarmed above the ground, Plastic Man holding him quartered and head-locked.
"Look," Plas said "We don't what anyone to get hurt here, kid. Let's just take a little walk into the kitchen." he said. Then stretched his neck across the room, faced Misses Branson, and asked the way to the kitchen. Stunned, she pointed down a dark hallway to a backlit door. In three steps, Plas was through the door and trailing the man behind him.
The kitchen was nice and new, with gleaming, white appliances and a checked-tile floor. Between the kitchen and the dining area was a short bar lined by four chromed bar stools. Plas sat the man down on one of the stool and sat down on the next one. Still sitting on the stool, Plas stretched his neck and right hand to the refrigerator and opened it. "Care for a beer?" he called back to the man.
"Um-- sure," the man replied uneasily. "Could I get my pants?"
Without another word, Plas sent his left arm racing for the kitchen door; and head and hands came snapping back at once. Plas tossed the man his pants and, reshaping his left hand, popped open the beers. He then handed one to the man saying, "So, what's your name?"
"Johnny. Johnny Calhoun."
"Well, Johnny, let me ask you a few questions. How well did you know Mervin Branson."
"Well enough. I didn't like the guy too much, but I knew 'im."
"You were popping his wife and you didn't like the guy. You know, in some places that's called motive."
"Look, man, I didn't kill nobody. Sure, I didn't like the guy, but not enough to kill 'im. It's like when you have a beef with a linebacker on the other team. You might try to hit 'im harder, but the worst you do after the game is throw around crusty looks. Besides I couldn't have killed the guy. I've been here all afternoon."
"So, Renee--" Ralph began and was immediately interrupted.
"How do you know my name?" she asked.
"You mounted your marriage license over there," Ralph said, pointing at the wall, "in the same room you mounted what's-his-name."
"Johnny!" Renee snapped.
"Johnny," Ralph said with mock apology lacing his voice.
"And there's no reason to be so condescending. My sexual life is none of your damn business."
"Au contraire, Renee," Ralph said as he sat in an arm chair opposite the couch, where Renee still sat. "Marital infidelity is number two of the top five motives for murder, only beat out by cold, hard cash."
"Merv sure didn't have any of that," Renee muttered under her breath.
"What was that?"
"Nothing," Renee said coldly and she stared into space.
"OO-kay," Ralph said, rolling his eyes. "How long had you and Mervin been married?"
"About three years."
"Did he treat you well?"
"Yeah, I guess," she replied harshly.
"So he was never cruel, never beat you? He was kind and took care of your needs?" Ralph asked.
"Yeah, he was damn saint." The air grew cold with her obvious disdain for the dead man.
Looking intently at the bookcase beside the sofa, Ralph noticed a large photo album. He stretched his arm across the room to the shelf, pulled off a large photo album, and began leafing through the album. It contained pictures of the couple hiking, boating, jogging, and picnicking. There were also pictures and certificates from each of their childhoods. "What's this?" Ralph asked, holding up an embossed award. "First place in quiz bowl to Mervin Benson. There are six consecutive years in this book. So Merv was a pretty brainy guy then?"
"No, he wasn't brainy; he just remembered everything," she spat.
"I'm afraid I don't catch your meaning."
"He had a photographic memory. He never forgot anything."
"That's why he was such a good waiter," Ralph offered.
"Yes, 'that's why he was such a good waiter,'" Renee said with a harsh sigh. "That's all he wanted to be, a good, damn waiter."
"And you didn't approve of that."
"Merv used to say that everyone was good at one thing, and his was waiting tables. Sure, I loved being a waiter's wife. Living on a waiter's wages."
Ralph loked over the living room. "It really doesn't look like you're living in a state of poverty here," he said. Renee sat scowling in silence. "So how long have you been 'involved' with Johnny?
"About a year or so."
"So why Johnny?"
"Well, for one, Johnny has goals. He's already been to the Army and to college. He has a B.S. in business and is set to take over the restaurant after his Godfather steps down next year."
"Yeah, Mr. Whitakker, my husband's boss."
"So that's how you and Johnny became-- acquainted?" Renee nodded stiffly. "So," Ralph continued, "were things between you and John-boy serious, or was it just sex?"
"Not that it's any of your business, but yes, things were serious. I'm not some kind of slut, you know."
"Serious? Hell, no! We both knew it was just sex," Johnny said just a bit too loud. He had put five beers away to Plas' one. Nonetheless, it was obvious that Johnny was an experienced drinker. "I never wanted anything more than that. I mean, she already had a husband, right? What would she need another one for?"
"Did she like Mervin?"
"Yeah sure," Johnny said. "Well-- not really like. She said he was nice to her, but dull-- or sumthin'. I don't really know. She did say that I was a much better *#^%, though."
"So you never intended to break them up?"
"Oh, no! I mean, Merv didn't know or didn't care; and Renee and me were both having fun, so I didn't see any harm in it. It was just for kicks, man."
Plas leaned against the bar and rubbed the back of his head. Even with the beer, Johnny hadn't given him anything useful. Johnny knew Branson from the restaurant, where Johnny was a shift manager. Merv had no enemies. Nobody wanted him dead or even beat up.
Suddenly, the kitchen door flew open with a loud crack. Plas and John started and snapped their heads around as Ralph-- head, shoulders, and torso-- stretched through the doorway and across the kitchen, tossing a photo album to Plas before diving through the open kitchen window and into the alley below.
Pausing from the shock, Plas opened the album to a bookmarked page. Looking the page over, he suppressed his surprise. There was a picture of Mervin and Renee with their arms around a younger man in graduation attire. The younger man held a diploma which read, "Bachelor of Science in the Pharmaceutical Sciences awarded to Marcus Barbos." Plas smiled, and picked up the telephone. He dialed a number and said only the apartment's address before hanging up the phone. He then motioned for Johnny to follow him past Ralph's elongated waist and back in to the living room.
The three of them sat in awkward silence with Ralph's lower half for a full five minutes. Then with out warning, Ralph snapped back. Motioning to Plas, the two streched their necks into the kitchen, and came back after a few moments.
Ralph stood up, and staring at Renee, said, "How could you do it?"
"What are you talking about?"
"He loved you, and you killed him." Renee began to speak but was struck silent as Ralph tossed two items on the coffee table-- an empty medicine bottle and a Starbucks receipt, both partially burned.
"You killed him alright, and here's how it went. You talked to your brother, the pharmacist-- you know, the one Mervin helped to put through college, unless I miss my guess. Anyway, you probably lied to him about some night class you were taking and how you needed some cyanide for the class, so he got you a bottle. Then, about 12:03 PM, you dropped a little in a Starbucks Double Caramel Latté," Ralph says as he waved the receipt in the air. "Cyanide smells of almonds and tastes bitter, so Merv would never notice, right? Just to be on the safe side, though, you only used a little of the poison. You don't want the poisoning to be too obvious, after all. You came home, dumping the bottle and the receipt into the dumpster out back. Then you ran up here to prep yourself for an exciting afternoon with your own personal dream boat, Johnny."
Renee tried in vain to hold her composure before blurting out, "Yes! I killed the worthless waste. I wanted a divorce, and the bastard wouldn't give me one, so I poisoned him." She bent her head into her lap as rivulets poured from her eyes.
"But that wasn't enough, was it?" Ralph continued, his voice raised to an angry accusing pitch. "No, somehow you found out you'd used too little cyanide. Mervin was still alive. So you sent your little army-buddy there to kill him-- to shoot him sniper style, isn't that right?!"
Renee stopped crying suddenly and looked up at Ralph. "What?" she asked, and the confused tone in her voice rang true in Ralph ears.
He replied to her, "You husband died of a gunshot wound to the head."
The woman appeared shaken. She leaned into the couch, pulling the blanket tighter around her, stared blankly at the floor. Ralph was dumbfounded by her actions, especially given her open contempt for the deceased. "I-- I..." she began, but was then silent some minutes. After some time, she continued, "I don't know what to say."
"You mean to say," Plas offered, "you had nothing to do with the shooting?"
"No," she said distantly, "it was supposed to be poison."
"Regardless," Ralph interjected, "you'll both be taken into custody."
"But I didn't kill him," Renee said, still in shock.
"Attempted murder is still attempted murder, Mrs. Branson," Ralph said flatly. He looked over to Johnny, who wore a smug smirk across his face.
Ralph shot him a stern face, to which Johnny said, "Hey, I had nothing to do with it. No motive and the perfect alibi." Ralph mentally conceded Johnny's points, but made no noticeable indication thereof. Johnny paused for a moment before saying, "Not that it matters anyway. Uncle Frankie's lawyer'll have me out inside of thirty minutes."
Ralph scowled and coldly said, "We'll see about that." He added, "the Police are on their way, thanks to Plastic Man. Isn't that right, Plas?" There was no answer. Ralph looked around the living room and then the rest of the apartment. Plastic Man was not there.
"Damn him," Ralph thought as he ran. It had been five minutes before the cops showed up, and another ten explaining everything and filling out the needed affidavits. By then, Plas could have been anywhere, but Ralph was pretty sure he knew where Plas had gone. He just hoped he could get there fast enough. He was nowhere near as fast as his friend Barry, but with covering three blocks in a stride, he could still make great time.
Five miles and ten minutes later, Ralph reached the front doors of Whitakker's restaurant. Stretching limb and torso, he was upstairs in seconds. Behind the office door, Ralph heard Plas yelling. Ralph threw the door open. "Plas! What are you doing!?"
Whitakker and Plastic Man spun their heads around to see Ralph filling the doorway, his face both angry and concerned. Whitakker dryly said, "Oh, my hero come to save me."
Plas turned to Whitakker and snapped, "You shut up, you sack of $#|+!" Then turning back to Ralph, he said, "Come on, Ralph, you're twice the detective I am. You had to put the pieces together. Branson had a photographic memory. He must have seen or heard something-- something that would tie Slim here to the Mob, so Slim had John-boy whack 'im! It's the only thing that makes sense. I mean, we know the dame had nothing to do with the shooting."
"But Plas," Ralph pleaded, "there is no evidence. Johnny didn't tell us anything useful, no murder weapon's been found, and there nothing tying Whitakker to anything worse than lying to us. And that's not even a crime."
"But--" Plas began, but he was interrupted as Whitakker began to speak.
"He's right, Eel. You can't pin nothin' on me, you sanctimonious prick!" Whitakker leaned back in his big chair and chuckled.
Plas snapped around, looking Whitakker in the face. "I know you did it!"
"You know, you know-- big deal. You've got no case, period," Whitakker said, reaching for a cigar box on the desk.
Plas grabbed the old man by his lapels and lifted him from his seat. "I'll get a confession from you if I have to beat it out of you!" Plas screamed, pulling his arm back to strike. Ralph shot his arm across the room, grabbing Plas' wrist with an enormous hand.
"Plas, you can't!" Ralph shouted, but before Plas could respond, the slamming of the front door sounded from below.
"Uncle Frankie, you up there?" The voice belonged to Johnny Calhoun. Not waiting for a response, he continued, "Thanks for sending that shyster Silverburg downtown. He got me out faster than I could blink. Man, those dumb cops ain't never gonna figure this one out. It went just like you said. Bang the broad and give her some nitrous oxide after she passed out. Then I just slipped out, killed Branson, and went back to Renee's for some fun time alibi making. It couldn't've been easier!"
Plastic Man put his mouth next to Whitakker's ear and whispered, "I gotcha, you son of a bitch."
The police had come and gone and taken Whitakker and Calhoun away. The murder weapon was found in Johnny's car. It was just sitting in the back seat in a carrying case. Apparently, Johnny had thought Whitakker's plan so fool-proof that he had felt no need to even hide the rifle. Police also found a secret room behind the oak book case in Whitakker's office. In it were records on almost forty years of criminal activity, tying Whitakker to more than half of it directly and all by proxy.
Both Plas and Ralph agreed to testify, which made the District Attorney's month. Between what they heard from Johnny and the other evidence, all the D.A. would have to do in court was to show up.
They sat in bistro chairs in front of the restaurant as the last squad car pulled away. The motor-hum died down and blended into the quiet noise of late night in the city. Ralph looked over at Plas and said, "Do you feel better?"
"About Slim? Nah-- not really. Part of me really hoped I was wrong." Plas half-chuckled and said, "A very small part of me. So what are you doing from here?"
"Oh, I don't know," Ralph said, shrugging his shoulders. "I gotta stick around till the trial, but maybe me and the wife'll drive on down to Hub City for a day or so. I hear there are more mysteries than not in that town. And you?"
"Oh, I don't know. I'm really getting to like Chicago, I think. I may just stick around town and look for leads on Woozy."
"I sure hope you can find him. It's gotta be hard to work without your partner."
Plas looked at the ground and sighed. "Yeah."
"But, you know," Ralph offered, "I think we made a pretty good team tonight."
Plas turned his head up to look at Ralph and smiled. "Yes. Yes we did." Plas clapped Ralph on the shoulder. "Are you much for drink, Ralph?"
"When the occasion calls for it," Ralph said, smiling widely as they both stood up and began walking.
"Good," Plas beamed, "'cause I know this great joint in Greektown. I first stopped in back in '62...."
The highly odd Mathew D Rhys is an obsessive storyteller and family man whose wife graciously allows him to prattle aimlessly, and gives him no end of joy in life. He hopes to one day write comics his son can read. You can read his original character fiction at dreamerpress.cjb.net.
All characters are © DC Comics
This piece is © 2003 by Mathew D. Rhys
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