Two days later, the two pliable crime-fighters sat in a conference room in the Memphis Police Department’s headquarters.
“Every document generated during the investigation, twelve boxes full — false leads, lies, even a faked confession. Too bad the one who confessed also pleaded guilty to the deaths of John Kennedy, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon.” Plastic Man gestured to a sheaf of papers in front of him.
“Wait a minute! Nixon isn’t dead, is he?” clarified Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man.
“Yep. Now you see the problem with his confession.” In spite of the seriousness of the case, Plastic Man smiled. “At the time of the confession, Truman and Eisenhower were still alive, too.”
“Well, I’m not seeing anything in here that gives us a starting point in finding the killer. I know it’s a long shot, but what about the crime scene?”
“They turned the hotel room into a memorial, and the area around it has been kept as a gathering place for tourists. I know they’ve tried to keep things as unchanged as possible. Who knows? There could be something there. Let’s go.”
In the dimming light of late afternoon, they inspected the building facing the hotel room where Dr. Martin Luther King was killed in 1968. “The police found that apartment deserted,” stated Plastic Man, indicating a window above them. The building was an apartment house that showed no signs of life. “The place wasn’t rented at the time, and they found that the lock had been picked. No fingerprints, nothing in the apartment.”
“What about the window?”
“No prints. It was open at the time. I can show you the place, if you like. After the murder, they weren’t able to rent any of the places, and the city took the building for back taxes.”
They went up to the third-floor apartment. A bare wooden floor, seventeen years’ accumulation of dust, and cracked plaster walls greeted them. Directly across from the door was the window overlooking the second-floor balcony where King was standing when he was shot. “At the time, the floor was clean. Nothing to hold footprints.”
“Did anyone test the air in here?” asked Ralph.
“The air? Not that I know of. Why?”
“Because if I wanted to keep someone from tracking me via clues in the room, I wouldn’t do my shooting here.” Dibny walked back to the door and stretched his neck until his head was about seven feet up in the air. “Yeah, that’s about right. Come with me.”
Across the hall was a nearly identical apartment. Its door was not directly across from that of the first apartment, but they overlapped. Standing in the center of the second apartment, Dibny again extended his neck until his head was touching the high ceiling. “Ah-ha! Come here, Plas!”
Catching on, Plastic Man came and stood next to his counterpart, then stretched himself up. Looking through the door, he could very clearly see out the window, and he found himself looking directly down at the spot where Dr. King was shot. A silver marker, placed where the bullet had passed through his body and struck the wall, was visible in the waning light.
“I’ll be damned! He was shot from over here! I remember talking to the woman who rented this place; she had a coffee table right about here! Standing on that, they would have had a clear shot!”
The Elongated Man resumed his normal height and started for the door. “I’ll bet the records have the name of the folks who were living here. If not, there should be some record from the previous owners. Let’s get back to headquarters!”
There was a surprise waiting for the two ductile detectives when they arrived. A short, fat man in a loud Hawaiian shirt and a porkpie hat was sitting in the conference room they had appropriated. “Hey, Plas! How are ya, pal?”
“Woozy! What the devil are you doing here?” Plastic Man quickly made introductions. “Woozy, this is Ralph Dibny, the world-famous Elongated Man. Ralph, this here is my longtime associate, Wolfgang Winks, also known as Woozy.”
“Woozy, I’ve heard some things about you and your work with the NBI,” said Ralph, extending an arm across the room to shake Woozy’s hand.
“Aww, don’t believe dem things you hear, E-M. They weren’t all my fault!”
As they talked, Plastic Man formed himself into a ball and started bouncing around the room. “Yahoo, boys, it looks like we’re finally going to nab the no-goodnik who offed the Doc!” He rolled over to the table and morphed into a giant magnifying glass with one big eye forming the lens. “Let’s take a look at these papers and see who was renting that room!”
From his side of the table, the Elongated Man noted his friend’s behavior, and a frown crossed his face as his nose started moving, almost imperceptibly.
That night, in his room at the Peabody Hotel, Ralph Dibny spoke to his wife.
“Yeah, Sue, I think we’ve got a real solid lead. We have a name, and thanks to the NBI, we have a current address. We’re leaving here in the morning to nab the guy.” Sitting on the edge of the bed, Ralph cradled the phone between his neck and shoulder as he flipped through a sheaf of faxes he had gotten from the JLA Satellite. “That might be the easier mystery to solve.”
“What do you mean?” said Sue Dibny from her hotel room in New Orleans. On the bed beside her, Debbie Dibny played with a pair of small stuffed animals.
“I noticed something really strange this afternoon. Plastic Man’s been pretty serious throughout this investigation. All of a sudden, when his buddy shows up, he’s acting totally wacko, really off-the-wall. If you ask me, there’s something screwy, and it’s not just him.”
“That sounds more like the Plastic Man I’ve heard of in the newspapers and on TV.”
“No argument there. Yet when Batman’s talked about him, he always made him sound like a hard luck case, always down on his luck — almost like two different people.”
“It might be relief over solving the case, Ralph. It sounds like he’s felt pretty guilty over King’s death.”
“Could be. But then why didn’t he start getting giddy when we figured it out at the apartment house? Ahhh, I’m probably fretting over nothing.” Ralph changed the subject. “How was the seminar today?”
“Oh, just great, honey! I didn’t realize how many women feel overshadowed by their famous spouses. I was supposed to have a twenty-minute question-and-answer period after my speech, and we were in there for two hours.”
“Well, you’re the expert on having a world-famous hubby, aren’t you? They could all learn from you.”
Sue laughed, catching her daughter’s attention. Debbie sensed who was on the line and started reaching for the phone. As she did, her arm stretched out. “Oh, honey, do you want to talk to Daddy?” Sue gathered the baby up in her arms and held the phone up to her ear. Ralph Dibny spent the next five minutes speaking gibberish to his daughter as he looked through several newspaper accounts of Plastic Man’s exploits over the years, the earliest from his own boyhood collection.
The next day, a private plane lifted off from the airport in Memphis, Tennessee, heading east.
“Next stop, Nashville!” cried a jubilant Plastic Man, taking the shape of a red and yellow guitar with a red cowboy hat perched on its body. “Home of rhinestone suits and the Grand Ole Opry!“
“You know, Plas, usually I’m the nut-ball in a group of heroes. Ever since last night, though, you’ve been clowning like there’s no tomorrow. Are you all right?” Ralph Dibny sat up in his seat within the cabin of the NBI’s plane.
“Huh? I’m feeling fine? Never better! Though, if you know of a cute nurse who you’d like to have examine me, bring her on!” Plastic Man resumed his normal form and plopped into another seat. Next to him, Woozy Winks sat, knitting what appeared to be an infinitely long scarf. “Hey, Wooz, you ever going to finish that thing?”
“Well, I’ve just got one li’l problem, Plas. I don’t know how to finish the ends on this thing. So I just keep goin’,” Winks replied with a sheepish grin on his face.
During the next hour, Ralph patiently showed the bumbling detective wanna-be how to wrap off the ends of his scarf. The lesson and the scarf were both finished just before the plane landed in Nashville.
A car was waiting for them, and Ralph took the wheel for their trip to the home of one James Earl Ray. “Any record on this guy?” he asked as they drove.
Plastic Man rifled through a file in his lap. “Couple of disturbing-the-peace-type charges, associated with the Righteous Wrath Brotherhood. Looks like a kid cousin to the Klan. Nothing else, though.” He warped his shape into that of a frumpy housewife. “‘No, officer, I had no idea I had a killer next door. He always seemed so normal — just the occasional cross-burning in the backyard.'” His voice was a high falsetto as he spoke.
“Plas, knock it off. This is serious!” said Woozy from the back seat.
It only took a few minutes to find Ray’s home. Once there, Plastic Man produced the warrant for the man’s arrest. Faced with two costumed heroes, Ray didn’t put up a fight. Hours later, he was arraigned for the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King and placed in jail without bond to await trial.
As they drove back to the airport, Ralph was just about to bring up the subject of Plastic Man’s bizarre behavior when there was a loud sound like a gunshot. Ralph felt the wheel jerk in his hand, and the car lurched toward the left. Next to them, a van tried to veer away from them, but not quick enough. The rented car struck the van, the front wheel catching on the side of the van and bringing the side of the car up and flipping it over. The car went airborne for seconds before coming down on its roof. Behind them, another car tried to stop, but the brakes weren’t strong enough to prevent an impact on the back of the rented sedan.
Instinctively, both Plastic Man and Elongated Man let their bodies go limp even as they wrapped and twisted their bodies around the shifting contours of their car. Elongated Man snaked his way out through the shattered front windshield, stretching an arm to grab the antenna of the van and pull himself up and out of the car. Plastic Man curled himself into a ball and bounced out as the passenger door flew open. As he landed, he looked back at the wrecked vehicle, and an anguished cry escaped his lips. “Woozy!“
As the vehicles all skidded to a halt on the highway, Plastic Man and Elongated Man both dived for the back doors of their car. Coiling himself into a spring, Plastic Man fitted himself under the overturned vehicle and pushed upward. The side of the car eased up and over, with Elongated Man grabbing tires from the wrecked cars to cushion the fall as the vehicle righted itself. Together, they pulled open the door, both dreading what they would find within.
“Hey, guys! You OK?” said a chipper Woozy Winks, sitting placidly on a bent and broken back seat. “What a ride, huh?”
The two heroes looked at each other, one with a look of relief on his face, the other with a look of total astonishment. They helped the bemused Woozy out of the car and started checking on the other vehicles. Thankfully there were no serious injuries, and the scene was quickly assessed and cleared by the local authorities. The trio decided to stay in Music City overnight.
Over dinner, they discussed possibilities for Woozy’s miraculous survival of the accident. “Well, they are trying all kinds of things to make the passenger compartments safer in cars. Maybe it just worked the way it’s supposed to work,” suggested Ralph.
“Nah, I think it’s somethin’ else,” said a quiet-voiced Woozy. “Tell me, do you think Nature could protect you in an accident like dat?”
“Nature? I don’t get it,” said a puzzled Ralph.
“Plas knows about it. Almost thirty years ago, I saved a drowning wizard while out fishing, and he was so grateful that he cast a spell granting me protection by Nature itself. I was supposed to be protected from harm, or somethin’ like that. (*) I ain’t never really understood it, to tell ya the truth. But nothin’ really bad has ever really happened to me since then. I don’t even feel any older despite bein’ in my sixties now.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Man Who Can’t Be Harmed,” Police Comics #13 (November, 1942).]
Ralph’s nose started its trademark twitching. “Protected from harm. Hmmm, do you suppose that would include protected from unhappiness?“
Both of his companions gave him a puzzled look. “What’s that got to do with today, buddy?” asked Plastic Man.
“If I’m right, it has to do with your behavior, Plas. Remember yesterday, while we were investigating the case, you were all business and wrapped up in your guilty feelings. Then, when we met up with Woozy, you were the wild, crazy clown that I read about in the news stories, from the adventures you two have shared.”
“Huh, was I really all that different?”
“You better believe it! Like night and day. Now, Woozy, what would you think if Plas was unhappy and worried, and feeling like he was responsible for Dr. King’s death?”
“I’d be pretty upset myself, and — heeyy! I think I get it!”
“Woozy, I think that, when he’s around you, Plas’s feelings of guilt were being stifled by your magical protections. Whenever he was around you, this magical protection was altering his personality.”
“So what can we do about it?”
Ralph Dibny considered the situation of Plastic Man and Woozy Winks. Totally without his control or knowledge, Woozy was suppressing Plastic Man’s negative feelings whenever they were together. The happy-go-lucky Plastic Man that Woozy knew didn’t exist when they were apart.
“I have an idea, guys. Plas, your depression was initially caused by your feelings of guilt over Dr. King’s murder. Now that we’ve caught his killer, hopefully those feelings should disappear.”
“How do we know? I’m feeling like my old, wacky self now, but — of course!” Plastic Man looked at his old friend. “Woozy, old buddy, I hate to say this, but we need to take a little time off from each other. I know we’ve hardly spent any time together in the last couple months, but how about you head back to San Francisco, and I’ll go with Ralphie, here, to New Orleans, meet his wife, and see how I do now?”
“Well, sure, Plas, whatever you say. I mean, if it’s bad for you to be around me and all…” The sadness in Woozy’s voice was evident to both men.
“Hey, it’s not as bad as all that, buddy. After all, when we’re together, I’m more like my old self. You’re better than valium!” Plastic Man reached an arm across the table, wrapped it several times around Woozy’s barrel-like body, and stretched a hand up to shove his buddy’s ever-present hand down over his eyes.
The next afternoon found Sue Dibny caught in a web of stretching arms and necks as her daughter, her husband, and her husband’s newest friend all vied for attention as they met at the New Orleans International Airport. As Plastic Man reached to give Sue Dibny a friendly hug, little Debbie reached for her father, and Ralph Dibny tried to give both his wife and daughter a hug at the same time. The result, needless to say, was immensely entertaining for everyone in the terminal.
“Yoiks! You know, I always wondered what it might be like to have a kid of my own. If things get tangled up like this, maybe it’s just as well!” quipped the goggled Plastic Man. He took Debbie into an oversized hand as Ralph embraced his wife. “How are you, you little cutie?”
Debbie responded by reaching up, pulling his goggles away from his face, then letting go. SNAP!
“Why, ya little stinker! You’re the first one that’s ever tried that with me!” said Plastic Man with a big, oversized grin. He looked over at Ralph and Sue. “You better watch this one! She’s got her daddy’s brains, her momma’s pretty face, and her new uncle Plas’ sense of humor!”
“Speaking of which, how do you feel?” asked Ralph. “Any regrets now?“
“Not a bit! Looks like the good old me is the brand spanking new me, and I’ve got you to thank for it!”
“Glad to hear it,” said the Elongated Man, draping a five-foot arm over his friend’s shoulders. “Just don’t go stealing my spot in the Justice League, OK?”
“Ahh, don’t worry about that. The Titans have the better-looking babes, after all!” As they walked out of the airport, Plastic Man morphed his head into that of a cartoonish wolf and let out with a giggling howl.