“I’m in Los Angeles?” Superman asked, looking up at the friends surrounding his bed. Superwoman knelt beside his head, staring into his face with grateful relief. Batman stood beside her, smiling as broadly as the grim Dark Knight ever did. Others were there, many others.
“You landed in the desert not far from here,” Batman said. “This was the closest facility equipped to care for you.”
“I feel pretty awful,” Superman admitted. “Like I went ten rounds with Amazo, Ultraman, and Bizarro, all at once. This is solar energy they’re pumping into me?”
“One-hundred percent yellow solar,” Green Arrow acknowledged. “No additives or preservatives.”
“It’ll do the trick, all right,” Superman nodded. “How long do I have to stay here?”
“Two, maybe three days, Dr. Martin says,” Batman said. “Don’t worry, we’re keeping the place well-guarded.”
“Yeah, you know super-villains,” the Flash said. “They get a sniff of blood, they come running. Like sharks.”
“Sharks don’t run,” Aquaman pointed out.
“Figure of speech,” the Flash said.
“Mixed metaphor, more like,” Aquaman said.
“Anyway,” Hawkman said, a little loudly, “you just relax and let your body soak up the solar energy. Anything we can get for you?”
Superman looked around the room at the faces of his friends. He read the concern and the relief at his recovery in each one.
“No,” he said, smiling. “I’ve got everything I need.”
“Come on,” the gaudily costumed man whispered to his friends. “We can get in this way, make our way to Superman’s room, and then–!” The two men and two women were dressed like animated playing cards as they slunk through the underground passageway.
“How’d you know about this tunnel, King?” the Ten of Spades asked.
“Plans of this building are on file with the city,” King of Spades explained. “Open to the public. STAR Labs and the office building next door were built on the old foundation of one huge building that burned down forty years ago — a boarding school of some kind, I think. I found this underground passageway connecting the two basements. Bricked over years ago, but that shouldn’t be a problem for us.”
“Wish we had our robot Ace along to bust down the wall,” Jack of Spades complained. “If that two-bit turncoat, Terra-Man, hadn’t destroyed it!”
Queen of Spades giggled. “If we did have him down here, he’d be an Ace in a hole!”
“Funny,” Ten said sourly. “Come on, how much farther, King?”
“Not mu–” the King suddenly stiffened, stopping in his tracks.
“King?” Jack asked. “You all right? What’s the matter?”
The King snapped out of his trance. “I’m fine, Jack, I’m fine,” he insisted. His eyes lit on a stone wall opposite them, seeming to focus on something. “Hey, Jack. You see that?” King’s gloved finger pointed at the wall.
“Huh? See what, King?” Jack asked, staring at the spot at which King pointed. All of a sudden, King grabbed the back of Jack’s head and slammed his forehead hard into the stone wall. Jack collapsed like a house of cards.
“That,” King said simply.
“King!” Queen shrieked. “What are you doing?!“
“This,” the King said, whipping a royal scepter from his belt and pointing it at Queen. Gummed silken cords shot from the head of the scepter, ensnaring Queen like a fly in a spider’s web.
“King!” she shrieked, struggling to break the strands. It was useless, of course; they had been tested to hold anyone possessing super-strength up to and including Wonder Woman’s level. Queen was quite helpless.
“King, you’ve flipped your crown!” Ten snarled, drawing a card from a hidden pocket on her garment. The card was a ten of spades, and an energy-bolt shot out from a printed circuit hidden in one of the pips. King nimbly dodged the bolt and countered with a move of his own. He pulled the short sword from his belt and touched the flat of the blade to Ten’s arm. The blade was a miniature taser that delivered an electric shock rendering Ten unconscious. The costumed woman collapsed to the floor.
“King!” Queen cried, struggling in her bonds. “Have you lost your mind? What the hell are you doing?!“
“You’ll be OK by yourself for a while, won’t you, Queenie?” King asked, starting to walk back the way they came. “I have to let some people know you’re down here. Sorry to disappoint you, Queenie. You thought you had a Royal Flush, but it turned out to be aces and eights.”
“Aces and eights?” Queen repeated, watching the King’s back slowly fade into the darkness. She wondered why he had suddenly turned on his teammates and what the cryptic reference to the dead man’s hand could possibly mean. “King! Come back here! King?”
On the roof of the small office building across the street from the STAR facility, a man in a loose-fitting dark blue garment stood, scowling angrily at the building. His hands glowed faintly in the dim light of dusk.
“The fools think to keep me out with a simple magic shield,” Felix Faust grimaced. “Very well, I cannot dematerialize my way in. But I can destroy the building from without, and all inside it!” The evil sorcerer raised his hands and recited a mystic incantation.
“Klarkashton… durleph… luffkrafft… baal–” But before Faust could complete the spell, a sizzling bolt of energy struck the rooftop at his feet, knocking him onto his back.
“Naughty, naughty, Felix!” a youthful voice from above cried. Faust looked up and saw a figure in bright red and yellow swooping down toward him. He ground his teeth in rage.
“Firestorm!” he snarled. “You young snit — you dare to disturb the magical machinations of Felix Faust? For that you shall die!”
“Not likely, Felix ol’ sport,” Firestorm taunted, swooping down closer to the half-prone magician. “Hey, Faust, you ever think of getting together with T.O. Morrow? You two would be Felix and Oscar!”
Ignoring Firestorm’s taunts, Felix Faust shouted another incantation.
“Eom… yrral… yelruc… pmehs!” he cried, and a burst of brilliant green light flashed from his fingertips. When it cleared, a giant monster — apparently all tentacles surrounding a huge fanged mouth — had appeared right in front of the cocksure young super-hero.
“Yikes!” Firestorm cried, trying to swerve in mid-dive. But the conjured creature was too fast for him; one of the tentacles ensnared Firestorm’s ankle, pulling him down. Two more wrapped around his wrists, and the tentacles began to slowly pull Firestorm toward the horrible mouth. The young hero struggled to free himself, but the pull was too strong.
“Ha-ha-ha!” Felix Faust laughed. “Where are your taunts and bravado now, Firestorm? What, no witty repartee? What would Green Arrow say?”
Firestorm struggled desperately. Can’t use my powers on this ugly, he thought. It’s alive, organic! But maybe I can turn the rooftop below it into ice; that might slow it down enough for me to break free! Firestorm launched a matter-transmuting bolt from his right hand at the rooftop below him. One of the monster’s undulating tentacles happened to fall into the path of the beam and, miraculously, turned to ice.
“Well, what do you know?” Firestorm said to himself. “I guess this magical monstrosity isn’t, as we understand the term, organic matter!” Twin bolts from Firestorm’s hands turned the tentacled horror into sand, which spilled onto the roof. Felix Faust gaped in horror and thrust out his hands at Firestorm.
“L’non… makart’ni… h’rr’zonn… mmph!” Before the sinister sorcerer could complete his incantation, a beam from Firestorm’s index fingertip had turned the air around his mouth into steel, forming an unbreakable metal gag.
“You should take your act on the road, Feely ol’ boy,” Firestorm said as he changed Faust’s costume to stone, trapping him like a fly in amber. “I hear Vegas is a Mecca for magicians. Bet you could get three shows a night.”
Faust shouted something into his gag that was, mercifully, inaudible.
“Raise you ten,” Green Arrow said, tossing an aspirin tablet onto the center of the bed. The Elongated Man had started an impromptu poker game, using items like aspirin tablets and breath mints as chips. J’onn J’onzz and Aquaman had folded; it was down to Superman, Green Arrow, and Ralph Dibny himself.
Superman started chuckling. “Ollie, remember that case with Doctor Destiny? The one where the rest of us all dressed up as you?” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Operation: Jail the Justice League,” Justice League of America #61 (March, 1968).]
“Yeah!” Green Arrow laughed. “Even Ray! My God, he looked like my action-figure!” That got a hearty laugh from everyone.
“What do you do, Supes?” Ralph asked.
“Raise you twenty,” Superman said, tossing a peppermint patty into the pot.
“Fold,” Ralph said, laying down his cards.
“Just you and me, big blue,” Green Arrow said. “I’ll see your twenty… and raise you… fifty.”
“Ooh, brave bowman,” Superman said. “I’ll see that and raise another fifty.”
“OK, call,” Green Arrow said, laying down his cards face up. “Read ’em and weep, Supes! Straight flush to the queen, for Mr. Queen!”
Just as Green Arrow reached for the pot, Superman held up a hand. “I’m afraid I’ve got two pair, Ollie.”
Green Arrow looked at his friend quizzically. “Since when do two pair beat a straight flush?”
Superman laid down his cards. “When they’re two pair of kings.”
Green Arrow goggled. “Four kings? That’s all there are!” He grimaced at his longtime friend. “Come clean, Boy Scout. Have you been using your x-ray vision to read the cards?”
Superman feigned shock. “Ollie, you wound me!” he said exaggeratedly.
“Nuts,” Green Arrow said. Everyone shared a laugh.
“I feel like an invalid, sitting here under this sun lamp,” Superman complained after a moment. “I know my enemies are gunning for me, with me stuck in here. I shouldn’t be here! I should be out there, doing–“
“You heard Dr. Martin,” Batman said firmly. “You need to recuperate at least three days. Don’t worry, your friends can handle any threats that arise.”
“Yes, Clark,” Superwoman said more kindly. “Just this once, you’ll have to think of yourself.”
Superman grinned. If a man’s success was measured in the friends he had made, he was a very successful man, indeed.
“Another hand, guys?” the Man of Steel asked, riffling the cards.
“The time is perfect,” the man in the purple and white costume muttered to himself. “If my calculations are correct, and they always are, everyone’s guard is down now! A perfect time for the Calculator to strike!”
As the villain crept across the alleyway between STAR and the neighboring building, the early evening sky suddenly grew several shades darker. The Calculator looked up at the sky, puzzled.
“That’s odd,” he said to himself. “Weather forecast said clear and cool tonight. Clouds came up all of a sudden.”
Before the mathematical maladroit could make another move, a lightning bolt boomed down out of a dark cloud and struck him where he stood. With a little cry of pain, the villain collapsed to the street.
“Heh,” the Calculator muttered to himself, on the verge of unconsciousness. “Struck by lightning… twice! What… are the odds… of that? Lessee… ’bout two quintillion… to one… against…”
The Calculator’s head slumped down onto the pavement as unconsciousness claimed him. In a shadowy doorway across the street, a man in a dark blue cloak and hat, the brim hiding the upper part of his face in shadows, nodded grimly. A moment later, anyone looking would not have seen him there, for he was gone.