Villainy on Vacation
Elongated Man vs. The Riddler
Takes One To Know One
Recap: In Opal City to begin his investigation of the Shade's alleged murders, Ralph Dibny, the World Famous Elongated Man, encounters another crime spree. The Riddler, escaped from Arkham, is continuing his motif of leaving clues to each of his next crimes. Elongated Man publicly vows to apprehend the Riddler by that Friday. At lunch, Ralph and his wife Sue encounter Riddler and his four new henchmen: Quentin Marx, J.S. Puzzle, Miss Quiz and Mrs. Query. By late Monday, the Riddler is already committing his third crime: ransacking the home of a young recording artist. At the scene of the robbery, Ralph and the O'Dares run into a new henchman of the Riddler: Clayface.
"Ewwwwww!" Ralph mumbled as he struggled to extract his hand from the chest of Clayface. He pulled and tugged, but his fist was mired in the muck of Clayface's innards. "This is my most disgusting encounter since the payroll theft at the Bavarian nudist chocolate factory!"
"Yuck it up while ya can, stretchpants!" Clayface grunted, chortling while he pulled Elongated Man further into his chest. "Unlike me, you can't just chop off your hand. You're on a one-way trip to my stomach!"
"Uh huh. So which Clayface are you? Nine? Eighty-three?" Ralph inquired as off-handedly as he could.
"The original!" Clayface roared, "morphing" into his clay form and then into that of his true self. "Basil Karlo! I'm the first, the best and the only Clayface!"
"Karlo the Master of Makeup?" Ralph said, quite surprised. "THE Basil Karlo, from Terror of the Desert Sheik and Midnight Monster?"
Clayface was taken aback, and he stopped tugging. "Yeah!"
"I can't believe it! You were a disguise genius. You were in all the monster movie books I read as a kid. What are you doing here? You're a famous star!" Ralph gushed.
"You can't say that!" Clayface moaned, angrily. "You don't know what it was like. Everyone just wanted the monsters. No one wanted ME! No one wanted my face. As a straight actor I was nothin'!"
Ralph released his hold on the Riddler and extended his hand to pat Clayface on the shoulder. "That's a crying shame. So's this." Ralph sprang forward on expanding legs, his fingers winding around the surprised Clayface. The force knocked Clayface backwards and Ralph pushed him through the plate glass window and out into the back yard swimming pool.
Clayface struggled to free himself, but Ralph held him at the bottom of the pool with his trapped hand. In the darkness, it was unclear what was happening. Finally, Clayface poked his head up and croaked out, "I can't hold my self together! I'm getting soft." After a minute, Ralph was able to pull his hand free of the soggy mess. By then, the cops had turned on the yard light to reveal a murky marsh filling the swimming pool.
"I'm sure he'll still be alive once he's recomposited. These Clayfaces are notoriously difficult to finish off in any real sense," Ralph assured them. "Call the D.E.O. and tell them which Clayface we have on hand. They should be able to contain this mess before he manages to re-form. I take it Riddler is long gone?"
Mr. Broderick approached them. "Yeah, they ran off and with my gold record, too!"
Ralph brushed mud off of his costume. "I'm sorry about that, Todd. How expensive is it to replace the award?"
"Dunno," Todd said, crestfallen. "It's just a trophy. I seriously doubt that it's solid gold, or I wouldn't be able to hang it from a nail. But I don't think it's easy to get another."
"Well, cheer up, Todd. All you need is another hit song and you'll have another one!" Ralph said while searching the back yard. "Are the Brodericks the Buscemis your folks, are they all right?"
"Yeah, just a little upset," Todd said.
"That's all that matters, then! Who cares about some gold-plated hunk of metal the music industry gave you just because sales reached a certain number? It's nice, but not as nice as having your parents alive," Ralph assured him. "Hi, Sue!"
"Ralph! You're bleeding!" Sue shouted as she ran up to him with his clothes.
"That?" Ralph said, extending his neck up and around so that he could look at his own throat. "Relax! That's just where I was almost decapitated by a vicious axe." He touched the gash on his shoulder. "Agh! Hurts, but it looks a lot worse than it is."
"You're going to a hospital right away, Ralph!" Sue warned.
"I can't! Not until we find the clue. What if Riddler's left another explosive device?" Ralph said, shrugging her off.
"No clues in here," Matt O'Dare said, leaving the house through the gaping hole in the picture window. "You know, we were looking over his file. He doesn't always leave clues to his next crime at his last crime. He might just mail it in to the Police Commissioner's office tomorrow. Go home, rest."
Ralph slumped and leaned on his wife. "Sounds like a plan. I'm woozier than I thought. Must be all the O Positive I'm leaking."
An hour later, Sue and a patched-up Ralph stumbled towards the revolving door of their hotel.
"Now be careful stretching, honey. You'll easily pop those stitches if you aren't careful," Sue cautioned.
"I should've given him some stretch nylon thread to sew me up with," Ralph said with a faint smile. He waved the messy wad of cloth in his hand. "That reminds me, I guess we can scratch the old purple and white costume. Between the blood and the mud, it's seen better days."
"I'll haul out your dark purple one when we get upstairs," Sue said as she entered the lobby.
She noticed that Ralph wasn't behind her. She turned to find Ralph stuck in three different sections of the revolving door. He looked up at her rather sheepishly. "I'm, uh, still a bit woozy!"
"If you were any more woozy you'd be working with Plastic Man. Let me help you," Sue said, trying to turn the door without hurting him. "Your heel is caught there. Pull it. No, pull it."
Five minutes later, Ralph and Sue passed the desk clerk. Ralph snapped his fingers and turned to the clerk. "Hey, were there any messages while I was gone? Perhaps one delivered by a guy in a green derby?"
"I'll just check," said the nebbishy young man. "What's the name?"
Ralph gave the man a withering glance with as much attitude as he could muster while leaning on his wife. "How many stretching superheroes and their wives do you serve in the average day?"
"Well sor-ry!" the clerk snapped, glancing down at the note rack. He spun it and checked numbers against names. "Um Richards, right?"
"No, Dibny," Ralph said, hanging his head.
"Nah, nuthin' here. Sorry. Are you expecting an urgent message? If so, I can buzz you at night. Otherwise, your message will be here tomorrow morning," the clerk offered.
"Please do call us if we get a call or a visitor. Anytime. Thank you," Sue said, sliding a tip to him.
"You're quite welcome, Ms. Richards," the clerk replied, returning to his important work of playing Minesweeper.
"Bosco? Your big treat for me was Bosco? I thought you were going to give the hardworking hero a backrub!" Ralph objected, sinking into the mountain of tiny decorative pillows on the bed. He cradled the glass of Bosco on his stomach.
"Ralph, you can give yourself a backrub. You don't need me for that. I'm going to run down to the car for a mo'. Oh, and check out Channel 28," Sue said, blowing a kiss to her husband.
"Where's the remote?" Ralph whined.
"A twenty-foot finger and you still want a remote," Sue said, rolling her eyes as she shut the door.
Ralph sucked on the straw as he pressed the on button for the 40" TV. "Dr. Who" was playing on PBS. After thirty seconds of stabbing for the channel, during which he gave The Doctor green skin, squashed the screen and switched the sound to en espanol, he finally extended his eye sockets to get a good look at the buttons. He switched it to channel 28 and then found the remote as his eyeballs made their return journey.
"The Thin Man! Thank you, Sue!" Ralph said to no one in particular. Curling up in bed like an eight-year-old watching his first late movie, Ralph began laughing at dialogue he'd memorized years before.
The phone rang. Groaning at the interruption, Ralph grabbed the receiver. "Hello. Elongated Man."
"You answer your phone 'Elongated Man'? Oh God," The Riddler sneered. "So you survived Clayface. I guess I don't have to offer your wife my condolences."
"Gosh, you really ARE the greatest criminal genius to ever walk the earth!" Ralph said. "Next you'll tell me that you know all the lyrics to 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. How are you, Eddie Baby?" He expanded the size of his ear 200% in hopes of picking up some tell-tale noises over the phone. Unlike the movies, though, there were no distinctive foghorns that are only blown in one part of town.
"Oh, I'm lying in bed thinking up dastardly plans. You?"
"Lying in bed watching 'The Thin Man,'" Ralph replied.
"Channel please," Riddler asked calmly.
"Twenty-eight. It's AMC."
There was the sound of a click over the phone, then the audio for the movie played in the background.
"Love Nick Charles. The mind on that man. Too bad he's a fictional character," Riddler mused.
"I suppose. I just dig the witty repartee. And Myrna Loy, of course," Ralph said.
"Oh, of course. Heh heh heh. 'He didn't come near my tabloids.' Love that line." For a moment the movie played and there was silence. Ralph drained his drink, noisily sucking the dregs up his straw.
"See, now this is cool. I like having an enemy I can enjoy a movie with. So, what did you call about?" Ralph asked.
"Ah, yes. That. I just figured I should give you the next riddle to work on. It's a humdinger. I don't think you'll get this one before Friday."
"Over the phone?" Ralph coughed, hoping he didn't blow Bosco out his nose. "You're literally phoning it in? Doesn't that lack a little something? Shouldn't you, I dunno, leave a robot sphinx on my doorstep, so I need to solve the riddle before it blows up or goes on a rampage or something?"
"Next time, next time. This one's just a simple riddle, all right? 'I decided to quit my job '"
"Can't you give it to me in the morning?" Ralph complained. The walls were starting to blur, and he suspected that Sue had slipped him a sleeping pill. "It's 11:30, and I'm tired and not feeling good. If you give it to me now, then I'll just have to start working on it and I won't get any sleep."
"What? I just GAH! I can't believe you call yourself a detective!" The Riddler ranted, getting quite frustrated. "You never see Batman whining that he needs rest!"
The room was starting to twist and spin. "Oh come on! Even Bruce needs to get some sleep now and then," Ralph mumbled.
"What?" Ralph repeated. "What what? Which what?"
"Who's Bruce?" The Riddler asked.
Ralph sprang back to the real world as though a freight train had run over his foot. "Ah! Um. Uhhhhhhh " Ralph stalled for time. "Bruce Willis, of course. Hardest working man in the movies, Bruce Willis. But even Bruce has to catch some Zs now and then. You don't see Bruce going without sleep while filming 'The Sixth Sense,' do you? I'm in the Bruce Willis fan club so if you hear me say Bruce I'm talking about The Bruce and that's Bruce Willis so I should only have to say Bruce and you know who I mean. Bruce Willis. Hey, I've got to run. You call me with that riddle tomorrow, okay? You're a doll, Rid!"
"But I --"
Ralph slammed down the phone and covered his mouth with two huge hands to stifle his scream at almost blowing the world's most secret identity. When Sue returned, Ralph was zonked out.
"Such a beautiful city. I sure hope we can solve the whole Riddle of the Shade before more murders occur," Sue Dibny commented over her morning omelet. The two of them were having room service on the terrace. Ralph was perusing half a dozen newspapers. "Do you have any clues about that? Maybe I could be doing footwork on that case while you have fun with the Riddler."
"Hmm? Oh, I can work on both at the same time. Not a problem," Ralph said. "I need to spend some time with Ted Knight today, so I'll recap what's happening on that front with him."
"Funny that the Riddler didn't call or leave a message yet," Sue mused. "I've put in a call to the O'Dares to let us know if something arrives at the police station."
"I had a dream that the Riddler called me last night," Ralph said. "Can't remember how it went. Anyway " Ralph went back to reading his paper. "Huh, that didn't take long. Look!" Ralph tossed Sue the Opal newspaper, whose front page covered the Riddler's three Monday robberies. At the bottom was a big article and interview with Todd Broderick. "Gold Record Stolen From 'Local Boy' Artist" read the headline.
"It's curious. Why would the Riddler pull three robberies in one day? Why steal these items? And why hasn't he sent me the next riddle yet?" Ralph asked.
"That's about all I know about the Shade. Regrettably, it's not very much, Elongated Man," Ted Knight said as he continued to tinker in his lab.
"I tend to simply go by Ralph Dibny these days and always, in your case," Ralph said as he jotted down the last few notes. "Unless you want me to start addressing you as Starman."
"It's strange to see you downplaying your superhero name after so many years of trying to make it a household word. I remember when you first came on the scene. A self-promoting mystery man! That was quite different from the days of the Crimson Avenger and the Sandman," Ted said, staring into space for a moment. "Why are you dropping the moniker? Are you embarrassed about being called Elongated Man?"
"Embarrassed? I'm not the one who gains all of his awesome power by clutching a phallic symbol called the cosmic rod!" Ralph joshed. "Anyway, here's what I'm thinking about The Shade. Despite all the evidence that it's him and despite the fact that he is a renowned supervillain with a long record of crimes both brutal and whimsical there's one glaring fact."
"Opal?" Ted guessed.
"Opal. Exactly. Everything you and Jack have learned about him points to a love for this city which has caused him to treat it like a haven. He doesn't commit crimes here. He has even worked on the side of the angels when someone has threatened the city. To commit murders that obviously point to him, and in a city where he's taken great care to not even get a jaywalking ticket it doesn't make sense at all!" Ralph said, outlining his argument in his notebook.
"Have you uncovered anything in your tours of the underworld?" Ted asked.
"That's another thing. I cruised all of those shady joints you told me about, and I didn't turn up anything! Not so much as a con artist or a bookie is operating right now. It's almost as if " Ralph began, before being interrupted by the phone.
"Ted Knight," Ted answered, grabbing the phone off the wall. "It's for you, Ralph. Your wife. She says there's a package for you at police headquarters."
Ralph Dibny arrived at the Police H.Q. and examined the package. It was a black cardboard shoe box.
He opened it up to find a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Every single one of those 1000 pieces was black.
Nine hours later, as Ralph, Sue, Hope, Mason, Matt and every other Opal City cop who was good with puzzles hurriedly finished it, it became obvious that there was no clue to be found on the black cardboard.
"Okay, so we have a black board. What good is it?" Sue asked, gently snapping in the section she had been working on. She put her eye down level with the table. "I can't see any writing on it in any light."
"Reappearing ink, maybe?" Ralph said. "Disappearing ink? Maybe we have to run a lemon across it. Of course, I don't know if that even works on black. Or maybe this isn't a text clue? Perhaps there's a riddle about a blackboard, or it's a joke like it's a painting of black bears eating chocolate at night. Or black light? Could yes!" Ralph said, straightening up. "Does anyone have a black light?"
"We could try to find Phantom Lady. She's in town and she uses that black light ray " Matt said.
"No, I don't think it works that way. I'm talking about one of those purplish lamps that makes glow-in-the-dark paint show up! Everyone had them back in the 70s."
"I know who would have one!" Hope chimed in. "If Jack doesn't have one in his junk shop, I'd be very surprised."
Ten minutes later, Jack's fiancée Sadie arrived with a black light lamp. Ralph reached over to flip off the light switch, then waved the light over the puzzle. Faintly, deep purple letters shone against the black background. "I decided to quit my job, so I turned off the light when I left and 300 people died," it read.
"300 people died because he turned off the light?" Hope asked. "Any idea what it-"
"Does Opal City have a lighthouse down by the harbor?" Ralph interrupted.
"Yes, but it's not been a real lighthouse for decades," Matt answered. "Turned it into a restaurant. The 'Pirates Cove' I think it's called."
"What would The Riddler steal even if it was a lighthouse? The bulb?" Sue asked. "He is still stealing for profit, and there's no money in a lighthouse or a restaurant, is there?"
"Well " Hope said, "I assume the folks who own the lighthouse have money. It's a very pricey restaurant. And the Pirates Cove has this huge yacht that they give cruises on every night, so they must have some big bucks."
"Cruises every single night?" Ralph asked, his nose twitching. "What kind of yacht makes money giving cruises on a Tuesday n-- Oh, let me guess: senior gambling junkets."
Hope nodded. "They take the boat down the river where it runs between states, so it's technically legal. They get a lot of people on them "
"Let's go!" Ralph said, his leg leaving the room already.
"The Pirates Cove Supper Club. Est. 1959. Larry White, Proprietor" read the inscription at the door of the lighthouse. Ralph glanced it over as the O'Dares entered the building first.
"Riddler's not here," Hope said, sticking her head back out of the door. "Let's get down to the pier."
As the five of them sprinted down to the docks, Ralph saw a large historical marker lit by an antique streetlamp. "Pirate's Cove - It was on this spot that buccaneer captain Jon Sable, known throughout the region as the Black Pirate, was hung for the murder of his son " it began. Interesting, thought Ralph, I'll have to come back and read that.
Down at the docks, the deck hand pointed to the yacht in the middle of the bay. "She's supposed to be back in by 8:30, but she's been sitting out there with her engines off for a while now. I haven't been able to raise her on radio."
"Commandeer a boat, you three!" Ralph shouted to the O'Dares. "I'm going out there now."
From the edge of the pier, Ralph stretched his legs until he was hundreds of yards up in the air. Extending one of his legs forward, he curved his foot into a large boat and set it down atop the water. In only a few large steps, he was almost to the yacht. Then, retracting his legs until he was sitting inside his giant boat of a left foot, he extended his hand to snag a railing on the yacht and hauled himself in.
Crouching into a curled ball outside the portside door to the lounge, Ralph peeked around the corner to find the Riddler and his gang nowhere in sight. There were only a few dozen frightened seniors staring at the starboard doors. Hearing a motorboat starting up, Ralph began to stretch through the cabin then, envisioning several dozen heart attacks, thought better of it and extended himself over the entire yacht.
Peering over the side, he tried to find the Riddler's boat but discovered that the unlit motorboat was difficult to find in the misty twilight. Expanding his eyeballs to take in more light, he finally caught sight of the boat hundreds of yards away and increasing speed. Extending his arms, he finally caught the tail end of the motorcraft and was yanked off the deck of the yacht.
Ralph tried to curve his torso to be more aerodynamic, but he found it difficult to think straight with the foul-smelling water forcing its way into his nose. Gasping and snorting, he finally gained the presence of mind to put his head above the water and try to think straight. At last coherent, he puffed out his chest to create a wide stable surface against the water, then stretched out his feet and flattened them against the water. Lifting his torso off the water, he was now safely water-skiing behind the boat.
It was then that Ralph discovered something. Something extraordinary.
Water-skiing in the dark is hard.
As his feet hit waves at odd angles, he'd lose his footing and careen across the water. Yelping and crying out, Ralph rotated his legs in a pinwheel motion like some gooney bird in a vain attempt to stay upright. The Riddler at last turned on the craft's lights, and after his henchmen yanked at his sleeves enough he turned to see the startling form of a man with long flat feet, stilt legs and a thirty foot torso hanging on to the back of the boat for dear life.
Riddler leapt in shock, then frowned and then, with a wicked grin, gave Ralph a tip of his derby. "Hang on, Wile E!" he shouted, and gave a yank to the wheel.
The sudden move caught Ralph by surprise. His arms began to twist over themselves like a licorice whip, and without the steady support he plunged into the murky waters. No longer waterskiing now he was being keelhauled!
In the darkness of the water, Ralph began thinking of his hands gripping the edge of the runabout. How close to the outboard motor they were. How they were in knots and he couldn't use them. How any of the Riddler's henchmen could grab a knife or an axe
Ralph let go. Thrashing about, Ralph realized that he was in deep trouble. His body had increased in length but not mass. Now hundreds of meters in length, his body lacked the buoyancy to counteract the weight of so much water and he slowly sank into the depths of the river, his limbs in knots. In the commotion, he could not tell which way was up indeed, he couldn't even be sure which directions all the parts of his body were facing.
He was almost out of air. The last few puffs of breath were trapped in his cheeks. They gave him an idea.
Bending his neck forward so that he pressed his lips to his chest, he expelled a bubble of air. In the darkness he couldn't see it, but he felt the bubble pressing upward against his body for a moment before rolling to one side and disappearing. The surface was to his back!
Thrusting his head upward, he finally broke the surface of the water and gasped for air. Calming down, Ralph craned his head in all directions but saw no sign of the Riddler, so he turned his attention to his body which was still at the bottom of the river in a heap. Concentrating, trying to use his sixth sense1 to piece together where his body was, Ralph pulled and tugged and tried to untangle the unseen knots. Deciding that it was too difficult to do in the dark, Ralph tried to swim for shore, but couldn't make much headway.
Finally, Ralph changed his plans and began to inhale. After two minutes of inflating, his body rose to the surface. Moments later Ralph had his limbs sorted out and freed.
"Oh, thank goodness!" Ralph said. "Safe at last."
"RARGH!" Killer Croc roared as he broke the surface, dragging Ralph under in a burst of bubbles.
A half hour later, Ralph walked into the lighthouse. His face was scraped. His hair was matted and muddy. Large claw marks ran across his chest, and his costume was shredded. Like a pair of L'eggs with a run in the back, the taut costume had pulled at the shreds and left him almost naked from the waist up. Coughing, Ralph felt like he had a gallon of river water in his stomach.
He glanced around the room and found a great commotion. Panicky senior citizens were giving their statements to a throng of Opal City's Finest. Ralph finally spotted the O'Dares and made his presence known.
"Good to see you alive, Ralph," Matt said, lighting a cigarette. "Hope took your wife back to headquarters to await word. Can I assume you didn't get Riddler yet?"
"No. I mean, yes," Ralph amended. "He got away. But on the positive side, I did just haul in Killer Croc. What did Riddler steal, anyway?"
"Oh, he scarfed up all of the money from their little floating casino, including all of the cash these seniors had," Matt said.
Ralph nodded. "Well, that's not such a terrible thing. Gamblers don't take along more cash than they can stand to lose."
"How sympathetic of you!" said a man who looked like a combination of John Cleese and every French waiter who ever lived. He was tall and thin, with slicked-back hair and a dark smudge on his lip that was probably a mustache. "For your information, we've decided to reimburse these people before they file the inevitable lawsuit for not hiring enough security. Besides, public relations-wise this will cripple us. The experience has disturbed these people greatly and I expect attendance of our tours to be dismal for the rest of the season!"
"Ralph, this is Mr. Larry White, owner of the Pirates Cove supper club and the yacht," Matt said.
"Never worry, Mr. White. I'm on the case, and I've vowed to have this guy caught by Friday. You'll get your money back once he's behind bars," Ralph said.
"I see. For now, I will be satisfied if you'd simply get off of my carpet before you drip more mud and seaweed on it."
That night, Ralph returned to the hotel room and flipped on the TV. 'Dr. Who" was playing again. He watched The Doctor, Romana and K-9 as they tried to help a spaceliner which had fused with another ship while traveling through space. "Nice to see even real geniuses get tough puzzles," Ralph muttered. He yanked off his gloves and boots and hung them over the shower bar.
"Blick!" he said with a grimace as he caught his appearance in the mirror. His meager costume had contracted when he returned to normal size, and almost every weave of stretch nylon had bits of river sediment stuck inside. "I guess we can say goodbye to my favorite costume!" he said. Gripping the neck of his costume with both hands, he pulled it wide and over his shoulders, extracted his arms and then pushed it downward. Since the stretching made zippers, buttons and velcro impossible, he had to wear a solid one-piece body-stocking. It wasn't convenient, that was for sure particularly if he had to answer the call of nature in a hurry. After fussing with the torn fabric which caught here and there on his body, he finally had the disgusting purple mess of and stuck it in a plastic bag.
Stripping off the strech-nylon undergarments, he reached into the shower and turned it to hot. One of the greatest advantages he had over normal humans was the ability to turn on a shower without suffering through the opening burst of chilly water. When steam was rising, he crawled into the shower and luxuriated in the hot clean water.
Ralph did his best thinking in the shower. Unfortunately, most mystery cases did not allow him the opportunity to disappear into the bathroom for an hour, which is why they usually took longer to solve. For a moment he conjured up the mental image of himself on a case in a new costume consisting of tile, plumbing and a shower curtain. A hearty laugh worked its way up from his belly, and he didn't stop laughing until all the excitement, stress and near-death experiences lifted from his shoulders.
Grabbing a handful of shampoo, he began working it into his thick red hair and scrubbed hard to remove the river filth. Massaging his scalp, he began going over the bizarre series of crimes and tried to put them together, looking for a theme or hint of something he may have missed.
Sue walked into the hotel room and heard the shower going. "Ralph? Hope and I just got here."
"Come on in!" Ralph shouted over the roar of the water.
"Who, me or Hope?" Sue kidded.
There was a long silence, then she heard a long, "Aaargh!" emanate from the bathroom. "What's wrong?" Sue called.
Ralph's dripping wet head poked out of the bathroom. "I think I have witty response overload. I couldn't decide which of the many many comebacks racing through my head to use. Especially since I couldn't pick one that wouldn't have at least one of you slapping me."
Sue slapped him.
"Which costume today?" Sue asked the next morning, looking at the soggy lump of Ralph's last costume in the bag. "I think you have a few left. Hard to believe we order these made by the dozen and we still run out. At this rate, we may as well design a new one. Maybe we should try something different. Orange? Hmmm. Leather with spikes. Pink, with a cape and a shoulder bag? Chartreuse? Okay, that's it, Ralph, you're not listening to me."
Ralph continued to lie in bed, staring at the ceiling. "I'm worried that I won't get this by Friday. How embarrassing would that be? I mean, this could put me on the map again."
Sue leapt into the bed next to him, hitting the mattress in such a way that she was already leaning on her elbow and nose-to-nose with her husband. She looked at him quizzically. "And which map would this be?" she asked.
"The superhero map. The giant org chart of the metahuman world. It's weird. I'm famous for being the first active superhero who went by his real name but that's really just trivia. It got me on TV shows and movies and in all the gossip columns but it didn't really make me a great superhero. It's like I'm the Gilbert Godfried of the costume set." Sue looked at him quizzically. "Everyone knows his voice, but if asked to name a great movie star no one thinks to say Gilbert Godfried," Ralph said.
Sue kissed him on the cheek and snuggled up against him. "Isn't being Gilbert Godfried enough? Maybe he doesn't get the Tom Hanks prestige, but better to be Gilbert Godfried than just an ordinary schlub."
"I suppose there's that," Ralph admitted. "I guess I've realized that all my earlier fame was superficial."
"As opposed to the deep meaningful fame?" Sue kidded. "I'll have to write down that pearl of wisdom. Send it in to Ann Landers for her gem of the day. 'Fame is superficial.'"
"There are people who are famous for the works they've done, you know. Neil Armstrong. Frank Rock. Winston Churchill. Most of the Justice Leaguers saved the planet a hundred times over. There's nothing shallow about that kind of fame. I'd like people to think of me as a guy who really did something, not just because I found a way to get my name into the headlines for a few days. Heck, then I'm no better than Darva Conger!"
"Ralph, in all honesty " Sue said, choosing her words carefully, "catching the Riddler won't change anything. It's a big case, but it's one you've orchestrated by glomming on to a press conference. It's just working your name into the headlines because that's the objective. How can that make you a better person?"
Ralph was suitably chastened. There wasn't a thing he could say to counteract her words, because they were true. "The thing is " Ralph finally said, "I don't really care what people think about me anymore. I guess I've grown enough that I see that for the shallow objective it always was. But I care what I think about me. I want to make a bigger contribution to the world than just solving some screwy mysteries, doing talk shows and being a minor player in the JLA."
"So here's what you're going to do, Ralph," Sue said, standing up and grabbing the suitcase. "You're drinking your Gingold, getting into costume and you're going to bring in the Riddler today, two days ahead of schedule." She pulled out his very old purple costume and threw it at him as he got out of bed. "Then tomorrow, we're solving this whole Shade problem!" She walked up to Ralph and wrapped her arms around his bare shoulders. "And Friday, we're going to go out and cure cancer!"
"It arrived by courier just ten minutes ago," Matt said, escorting Ralph to an office at Police Headquarters. "There were instructions that only you should open it."
Ralph tore the paper off of the brown parcel, slightly nervous despite the suspicion that the Riddler wouldn't kill him before delivering a riddle. That would be cheating.
Ralph opened it to find a note and a wooden maze. The note was brief:
Get the ball in the hole to claim your prize.
Ralph examined the maze. It was solid, with clear plastic glued to the wood and then it had been laminated to ensure that there was no tinkering. Ralph put his ear to it and heard a low hum. It was very likely booby-trapped, hence the warning.
The maze was 1.5 feet on each side and had a very little ball bearing running a tight maze. There were holes at nearly every intersection and at the end of every straightaway, so that even if you dodged the hole the ball would be rolling towards a new hole. The "Finish" hole was surrounded by other holes, with only a few pieces of wood allowing the ball bearing a path to it. Ralph hated these toy mazes with a passion, and he suspected that after the day was through he would be pathological in his hatred of them.
"Let's get started, guys," Ralph said. "If we're lucky, we'll have this done in an hour."
At mid-afternoon, Ralph and the O'Dares were still working on the maze. Ralph was on the phone while Mason tried his steady hand at it.
" Ray, I realize that you're probably in classes all day long, but if you get this message please call me back and travel through the phone. I'm hoping that you'd be willing to push a giant ball through a maze for me. Thanks! Sue and I send our love." Ralph hung up the phone and hung his head in his hands.
"I've found something, gang," Sue said from the corner, where her laptop was plugged into the station's T-1 line. "The maze is made by the Scandinavian toy company Guggli and is their second hardest puzzle ever. You have to be a master at these kinds of puzzles to have any hope of completing it."
There was a clatter, and Mason set the puzzle down. "I think I got it," Mason said quietly.
They all gathered around to see what would happen.
There was a whir, and the floor of the maze dropped by an inch. Then, the floor split into slats of wood. The slats had been impossible to see when they were stuck against each other. Ralph whistled at the craftsmanship that had gone into it. Every odd-numbered slat sank lower, and then they all flipped over and the lower ones moved back up. The whirring stopped, and on the back of the maze was a message:
"What the hell?!" Ralph shouted.
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This piece is © 2001 by Michael Hutchison.
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