Justice League of America: The Power Plague, Chapter 1: Metropolis Mystery

by Libbylawrence

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In the honeymoon suite of the luxurious Metropolis Arms Hotel, a pretty woman named Sue Dearborn Dibny shifted slightly and then sat up with a gasp as a ringing telephone rudely interrupted her slumber.

Before the attractive, dark-haired woman could do more than stifle a yawn and reach for the nightstand telephone, the ringing abruptly stopped as her husband answered the source of her annoyance.

“Hello? You’ve reached the room of the world-famous Elongated Man, Ralph Dibny. What can I do for you?” said the amiable-looking blond man as he handed his wife her pink robe. The fact that the robe was halfway across the large suite was of little significance, since Ralph’s remarkable stretching ability made such a distance of no importance. Ever since he first used the power a substance called Gingold had given him to become a mystery-solving super-hero, the Elongated Man regularly made the amazing seem commonplace. The fact that Dibny made no effort to conceal his identity from the world made his fame even greater than it would have been had it merely been based upon his heroic achievements.

He frowned as he listened to the caller, and then he added, “Sure. I understand. I’ll be happy to appear on the show another time. I’m sorry to hear that she’s under the weather. Sometimes my sinuses act up something fierce!”

Sue slipped on her robe and went over to where their small daughter Debbie was watching from a crib.

“Daddy’s got that look again, honey,” whispered Sue as she lifted the girl into her arms.

Ralph nodded resolutely and then said, “I see! No, no. You did the right thing in telling me the truth. I mean, the sickness story will be fine for the general public, but I can be trusted with the real story. I can understand the need for keeping this quiet for now, but as you know, this kind of thing is something of a specialty of mine. I’d be more than happy to look around her place and see what I can find out!” He scribbled down an address on a pad and then put down the phone.

Sue drew closer to him and smiled knowingly. “OK, what is it this time? Aliens at work at the TV studio? You might say little green men in the greenroom?” she said with a laugh.

Ralph nodded as his nose began to twitch in recognition of a mystery. “That was Lola Barnett’s producer,” he began slowly. “They need to cancel the taping I was going to do for her show. At first they just said she was ill, but then he came clean and told me the truth. Apparently, the Big Apricot’s queen of gossip is missing, and they want me to investigate!”

Wiggling several extra long fingers at his daughter, causing Debbie to squeal with pleasure, he said, “Are you going to grow up to be a super-sleuth like your Daddy?” She laughed, and he took her from Sue and said, “I hate to spoil the trip, girls, but if I can be of help…?”

Sue winked at him and leaned in for a kiss as she said, “Hey, you went to all this trouble and even booked the honeymoon suite. The least I can do is be a good sport about it all. I’ll call for room service, and then we’ll get started!”

As Sue rushed into action, Ralph kissed Debbie’s cheek and said, “And that’s one of the many, many reasons I adore your mommy!”

***

Later, Ralph Dibny paced back and forth within a lovely apartment in the nearby Wassona section of Metropolis. Lola Barnett’s home was gorgeously decorated and immaculately maintained, with the exception of a cluttered and obviously heavily used home office section.

Ralph whistled softly as he picked up a Post-It note. “Johnny Nevada’s retiring?” he muttered. “Daphne Pennyworth’s seeing one of the Doodles?” he said as he continued to thumb through the gossip diva’s many scraps of paper. He looked up at a burly, balding man who sighed and waved his arms in an animated manner.

“Mr. Dibny, Lola knows stuff,” said Mort Aldeen, the producer. “She’s been threatened in the past, but nothing like this has ever happened! She didn’t show up for work yesterday, and she hasn’t called in to the studio. There are people with real power in the biz who would like to keep her pretty lips sealed!”

Ralph nodded and said, “Motives are many, but means and opportunities are more telling. The place looks untouched. The doors were locked. The doormen saw nothing out of the ordinary. Lola was last seen two days ago when she came home from work. The outfit she wore that day is hanging here in anticipation of being sent to the cleaners.”

He scooped down by a trashcan near an illuminated makeup table. “The rouge on this tissue has dried. In fact, none of her makeup has been used recently. She came home, took off her outfit from that day’s taping, removed her makeup, and hasn’t put on more since that night. Lola’s vanity is well-known. She wouldn’t have left without fixing herself up unless something went wrong.”

Mort nodded and said, “You’re right. Nobody came to see her. Nobody buzzed on the intercom to be allowed entrance. She wasn’t seen leaving, and as you say, it sure isn’t like Lola to go out without being all dolled up!”

Ralph grinned and said, “My wife is the same way. That’s why I thought of the makeup.” He walked over to the balcony doors and said, “When we dusted for prints, this unlocked sliding door didn’t have any fingerprints on it but Lola’s. She had to have exited from the balcony, since her other door was locked from the inside.”

“We’re several stories in the air!” said Mort. “How could she have departed from way up here?”

“I think we’re about to find out,” said Ralph, gesturing across the street to where a shiny glint of light reflected from a window across from Lola Barnett’s home. He raised one hand and said, “Excuse me for a minute!”

Calmly stretching his upper body until he had elongated, the Elongated Man flattened it into a ribbon-like shape and flung himself across the street to the neighboring apartment building, where he caught the ledge. His stretched body was dangling over the street, since he was still anchored in Lola Barnett’s apartment.

Knocking on the window in question, he smiled winningly up at an elderly woman who sheepishly drew back her curtains and moved a telescope to one side.

“Hi, I’m Ralph Dibny… but you already know that, of course,” he said. “I think we need to talk!”

A few minutes later, after the stretchable sleuth had retracted his legs and stepped inside the neighboring apartment, he listened calmly as the lady answered his questions.

“I guess I get lonely living all alone here,” said the old woman, who had introduced herself as Miss Little. “I watch the neighbors. That Lola Barnett hussy is better than the movies. The comings and goings from her place are really something to see!”

Ralph nodded as he thought, I saw the light shining off her telescope lens and figured, if she watches the neighbors so regularly, she might have seen something the night Lola vanished.

“Being curious about other people is natural,” he said. “I’m that way myself. Sometimes I drive my wife Sue up the wall. She’s shopping now with our girl, but you’d love her. Maybe I can bring her by when I finish this case.”

The old woman nodded and said, “You know, for a super-hero, you’re like regular folks!”

The Elongated Man nodded and said, “Thanks, I think. Please continue your story, Miss Little. What did you actually see two nights ago?”

“Well, I saw Lola Barnett parading around in some frilly negligee when he came swooping down out of sky and landed on her balcony,” said Miss Little. “They talked for a few minutes, and then he just scooped her up, and away they flew!”

Ralph frowned and said, “Wait a second! Who took Lola? Who flew away?”

Miss Little shook her head and said, “Sorry! I’m all mixed up. I thought I told you! Superman took her! It was the Man of Steel himself!”

***

If Miss Little had been excited by her startling visit from Elongated Man, she would have been beside herself had she been able to see the amiable Ralph’s next stop.

The Elongated Man had swiftly used one of the transmatter devices hidden around Metropolis to teleport to the Justice League of America’s satellite headquarters located 22,300 miles above the earth. Once aboard the futuristic product of the sciences of several alien cultures, he greeted five of his friends.

J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, was an impressively muscular green humanoid with a keen intellect and a quiet but commanding presence. He listened intently as Ralph told his story. J’onn was a detective in his own right, and he respected his friend’s deductive powers.

Next to J’onn sat Nubia, the second Wonder Woman. She was somewhat restless because of her more warlike nature, but as a princess of the Amazons of Paradise Island, she had learned patience as well. And in J’onn she had found a lover whose cerebral ways nicely complimented her martial skills.

Steel, alias Hank Heywood III, was one of the younger JLAers, and he combined a mixture of an eagerness to prove himself with a desire to appear professional to his older allies.

Batman, alias Bruce Wayne, was one of Ralph’s oldest friends. While Ralph had been much closer to the late Flash, alias Barry Allen, he had also worked well with the caped crusader on other missions. They shared a mutual respect for one another as two of the world’s greatest sleuths.

“We know this impostor wasn’t Superman,” said Batman. “While the general public doesn’t know it, I happen to know our pal is off in space on a mission of his own. Even if his signal device picks up my summons, it will take him a while to return to Earth. I’m on monitor duty, so I’ll continue to try to contact him.”

J’onn adjusted an odd machine and then announced, “The Thanagarian scanner detects an unseen energy signature at Lola Barnett’s apartment.”

Ralph nodded and said, “I figured between the resources available to us here, we could detect something beyond what the naked eye could see. Now, can we follow the energy trail and identify the person who took Lola away while posing as Superman?”

Green Lantern, alias Hal Jordan, the interstellar lawman for the Guardians of the Universe’s Green Lantern Corps, frowned as he concentrated his willpower and put his remarkable power ring to work. “Ralph, even if we discount a certain amount of distortion due to my power ring’s natural impurity where yellow is concerned, I also pick up a pattern!” he said. “An alien being was there, and he left a trail my ring can follow. As for identifying the alien, I can tell you he was not Kryptonian, but identifying his planet of origin is tricky, because the energy I detected must mean he is not a typical specimen of his race. He is an altered being of some kind, and that makes an immediate identification a bit harder.”

The Elongated Man nodded and said, “There are any number of alien beings who could make themselves look like Superman, but not many could match his level of power. Of course, flight is the only one Miss Little saw the faux Man of Steel use.”

Steel smiled confidently and said, “Don’t worry. We can handle this fraud.”

“I admire your warrior spirit, Hank, but do not fall victim to a Bellerophonian hubris!” said Nubia.

Steel shrugged and said, “I’ll be sure to watch that.”

As the heroes adjusted the teleporter appropriately and departed for the coordinates Green Lantern’s ring had determined, Batman remained on monitor duty.

He frowned as he scanned a computer screen. “That location certainly suggests one possible candidate for our fake Superman,” he mused. “If it is the man I suspect, my friends are in for a fight.”

***

Green Lantern had seen many impressive environments during his justly celebrated career as perhaps the most famed member of the interstellar law enforcement group known as the Green Lantern Corps. He had traveled to other dimensions, different eras, and countless planets, but he still found himself staring in appreciation as he and friends hovered over the near six hundred kilometers of the Southern Alps. The beautiful but stark area was in the West Coast of New Zealand, several miles from the famous South Westland Western Heritage area.

The Elongated Man craned his neck as only he could. “Beautiful!” he said. “That animal preserve to the south is a real sight to see. I can’t understand why our trail led us here, though. I don’t see anything but unspoiled wilderness.”

“I know you well enough to know that you have a point to that observation,” said Green Lantern. “I’d say you’re suggesting what can’t be seen is more important than what can.”

Ralph nodded and said, “It’s not exactly Poe’s Purloined Letter, but I think our quarry is hidden in plain sight, if you get my drift!”

Green Lantern concentrated his willpower and allowed his power ring’s incredible energy to sweep across the seemingly barren plains and bring a remarkable complex into view. “Great Guardians!” he said as he lowered his friend to the ground. “The technology needed to conceal a base this large would have to be alien in nature. I suppose this confirms the extraterrestrial nature of the fake Superman.”

“I cannot detect any thoughts from within that fortress,” said J’onn, “but perhaps more importantly, I do detect the effort being made to shield all minds within the interior.”

Wonder Woman scowled as she looked at the impressive structure. “By Hera, is that base the staging ground for another invasion?” she asked.

Steel said nothing as he craned his neck to take in the view below them. My grandfather never envisioned something this big, and I always thought of him as the guy with the biggest ideas around, he thought.

Green Lantern pointed at the huge fortress that loomed up in front of them as his power ring flashed. “My ring has managed to identify the origin of the alien who posed as Superman,” he began. “He came from a planet that died years ago. The planet was called Valeron. The sole survivor is a man named–”

“Vartox!” interrupted Ralph. “The combination of power and this location make that obvious.”

“Correct! My name is Vartox, and I’m sorry you found me, because I cannot allow you to depart!” declared a rugged-looking man whose slightly balding head was belied by a muscular body that practically shouted vitality. Vartox wore a gold and brown costume, and his intelligent eyes blazed out from a mustachioed countenance. His expression was one of resolute determination mixed with sorrow.

J’onn J’onzz raised one hand to block the charging figure. “Stop! We know you’ve been impersonating Superman. We also know you took Lola Barnett from her home. No doubt pretending to be Superman made her trust you enough to drop everything and leave instantly.”

“Correct,” said Vartox. “I regret the deception. Such deceit is foreign to my nature. I prefer the direct approach!”

A golden glow surrounded his body as he drew closer. “While Valeron, poor lost world of my birth, lacked a Green Lantern,” he said, “I am aware of the impurity in your alien gemstone that makes it vulnerable to all things yellow! You understand what this means, of course?”

“Yes,” Green Lantern said, nodding grimly. “It means this may take me a bit longer than normal.”

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