"Surely You Jest"
By David Marshall
Flamebird circled her opponent slowly and searched for an opening. Patience was never her strongest virtue. What little she possessed she learned in the school of hard knocks and had the bumps and bruises to prove it. Still, she felt confident in her skills.
Her opponent shifted her weight to her back leg and Flamebird pounced. She unleashed a flurry of jabs and thrusts but was surprised when the other woman blocked each one effortlessly. Before she knew it her foe stepped to one side of her punches, caught her arm, and secured it in an arm bar.
A moment later Flamebird was on her back. The other woman held her right arm by the wrist and bent it backwards. To add insult to injury she had to deal with her opponent's bare foot at her throat.
"Didn't see that coming," Flamebird grunted.
Gypsy released Flamebird's arm."You telegraphed your attack."
stood and tightened the belt around the waist of her white karate Gi."How?"
Gypsy grabbed a towel and patted her dark, sweat-soaked frocks."You fight well but have yet to master the most difficult foe of all - yourself."
Flamebird wasn't sure whether to be impressed or insulted. Gypsy wasn't much older than her yet was a veteran Justice Leaguer. True, she was most often associated with the group of misfits in Detroit but that was no reason to underestimate her. J'onn J'onzz handpicked her for his team during the League's international years so she was certainly no lightweight. On the other hand Bette's pride was wounded. She wanted to prove she belonged in the big leagues too.
"I know myself &pretty well," Flamebird replied."I think."
"What were you thinking about while we were sparring?" Gypsy asked.
Flamebird thought hard to remember."I looked for an opening but you didn't give me much to work with. Then you shifted your weight to your back foot so I thought I could overpower you. I don't know. I'm rambling aren't I?"
Gypsy shook her head."Not at all. Do you want to know what I was thinking?"
Flamebird walked across the studio to grab a towel of her own."Rub the amateur's face in the dirt?"
Gypsy shook her head. "I focused on my breathing and found my center. I felt the floor beneath my feet, the shifting of my weight from the balls of my feet to the back heel, keeping my elbows up. The only variable I control in a fight is me."
Flamebird vaguely remembered Nightwing telling her something similar a few years before."Makes sense in a "Zen" sort of way, I guess. Thanks, Gypsy."
When Gypsy smiled her intensity was replaced by a warm, inviting sparkle in her dark eyes."Call me Cindy."
"Bette," Flamebird replied as she extended her hand."It's awesome that you were in the Justice League."
Gypsy smiled and shook Flamebird's hand."I'm still a member but haven't been active for a few years."
The double doors at the front of the studio swung open and Oracle rolled into the mirrored dojo. "Looks like you ladies are getting to know one another."
"Cindy's great!" Flamebird chirped.
Gypsy laughed."So are you, Bette. I'm honored to serve with you."
It was nice to hear but Flamebird knew the compliment was given in politeness. She doubted Gypsy had even heard of her before they met briefly the day before in Oracle's meeting room. Fine, she would have to prove herself - again.
"It's good to see you getting along so well," said Oracle"But the real test of your teamwork is unfolding outside the walls of"Clock Tower Lite" as we speak. A gang dressed as clowns and calling themselves the Jesters attacked Yeardley's Theater in the Entertainment District during a fundraiser."
"Yeardley's?" Flamebird asked."Isn't that where the vaudeville acts performed in the early 20th century?"
Oracle nodded."The one and the same and the Jesters apparently believe the money raised would be better spent on their personal interests rather than saving and renovating the historic building. Any questions?"
Flamebird couldn't wait to get started."Which way to the Bat poles?"
Ten Minutes Later
The office was empty. Flamebird and Gypsy were on their way to the Yeardley via the secret tunnel Bruce Wayne installed in case Batman was needed elsewhere during a Wayne Industries board meeting. It certainly wouldn't do for the media to see the Batmobile exiting the parking garage of Wayne Towers.
Oracle had a call to make before the girls went into action. She brought up a communications program on her desktop. An instant later Black Canary's appeared on the holo-monitor before her.
"So how are the new digs?" Black Canary asked via satellite feed from her hidden location. She was in a recovery room and looked good.
"Cramped," Oracle replied."I miss the Clock Tower. I miss you."
"That's sweet," said Canary as she tugged at the prong of the nasal cannula that delivered oxygen via a silicone tube ."I miss you too. And don't sweat the Clocktower. I'm sure you and Bruce will rebuild it better than ever."
"Have you ever played Zork?" Oracle asked.
Canary blinked."Sounds dirty. What is it?"
"Zork, Oracle replied."It's one of the early text-based computer adventure games."
Canary feigned recognition."Oh, Zork! Why didn't you say so?"
"Ha ha!" Oracle deadpanned."The play was crude. In place of interactive graphics the user read a situation on the screen and input their reactions through basic commands."
"Sounds thrilling," said Canary.
"I'm making a point here," Oracle replied.
Canary giggled."You are?"
"Trying to," Oracle shot back."Anyway, it's a classic. The Clock Tower was my Zork. It can't be replaced by shiny bells and whistles."
Canary nodded."Why are the brilliant ones always so twisted? Who are you working with?"
"Gypsy is leading the team and Zinda handles all the dirty grunt work," Oracle answered. She looked away before adding,"And Flamebird."
Despite her obvious pain Canary sat up and leaned into the monitor."Flamebird? Really? Do you think that's a good idea?"
"Because of her history with Dick?" Oracle replied.
"For starters," said Canary. "Isn't that a little & awkward?"
Oracle shook her head."Why? Because of a schoolgirl crush a few years ago?"
"I was thinking more like a rock groupie," Canary answered."But go on."
"It's all in the past and I have to be professional enough to accept it," Oracle answered.
"What?" Oracle asked."Something else is bothering you."
Canary clenched her blankets."Look at me, Barbara! I've stood toe to toe with some of the nastiest despots in the universe and I'm laying here in a hospital bed because of some computer nerd with a gun. No offense."
Oracle nodded."None taken and every word of that is true, but Bette craves respect and acceptance and recently struck out on her own to find it. I feel better about teaming her with someone like Cindy who can watch her back than have her out there alone."
"You're the boss," Canary replied."But I don't like it."
Oracle sighed."That makes two of us, Dinah. That makes two of us."
The Yeardley, Gotham Entertainment District
Flamebird's flying kick caught a member of the Jesters beneath his pasty white chin and sent him reeling into one of the Yeardley's oversized red stage curtains. The curtain fell trapping him and a few of his cohorts beneath it and its scaffolding. Confident they were out of the picture she made a bee line toward a gunman holding up theater patrons who were herded into the orchestra pit earlier.
Not far away Gypsy had her own hands full. Several Jesters surrounded her and closed in. She managed to kick and punch one or two but was heavily outnumbered. Rather than fight her way out Gypsy simply disappeared.
The Jesters' powdered-white faces and painted, lipstick smiles creased in confusion.
"Where the hell did she go?" one clown demanded.
His cohorts in crime groped haplessly for her and shrugged at one another.
An instant later Gypsy emerged from the purple and black pinstripes on the back of a gangster's zoot suit like a chameleon shifting from one environment to another. Aided by the element of surprise her attack was both swift and effective. She slammed two Jesters' heads together, knocking off their salad green wigs in the process. Another gangster crumpled to the floor in agony after she trapped the outside of his left knee with a well-placed kick. The fourth and fifth attackers she mopped up easily with a swift series of punches.
Flamebird had little time for admiration but wondered if she would ever be that good. She dove into the orchestra pit and tackled the Jester shaking down the theater patrons. The hood's high-pitched cackle chilled her spine as they fell to the floor and struggled for the upper hand in their duel.
The thug's gun fired and hit a chandelier overhead. Flamebird cursed herself for being so careless as glass rained down upon the crowd.
"You call this a rescue? Are you trying to get us killed?" goaded a fat lady in a canary yellow dress and a gaudy hat that would have done Carmen Miranda proud. Superman or Captain Marvel could have brought the building down on top of the ungrateful cow and she would have thanked them but Flamebird had no time to plead her case."Get out of here now!"
The orchestra pit cleared quickly in a mad rush but the exits were blocked by even more Jesters. They were everywhere!
The concern for the civilians was all the opening the Jester in the pit needed. He flipped Flamebird over so that he was on top of her. He got his hands around her neck and choked her. She fought the urge to gulp air and tried to remember her Silat training. On the ceiling above she spotted the chandelier's remaining canopy and focused on that spot like the black dot in her cipta exercises. With her mind locked on that one point she slowed her breathing and fought back panic. She grabbed the Jester's wrists and inched them from her neck until she could breathe freely once more. At last they locked hands and electricity shot up her arms. Stupid Joker buzzer gag! Flamebird gathered her senses and kneed his groin. The gangster rolled off her and curled into a fetal position. With him nursing his injured manhood she was able to finally get a solid punch in and turn out his lights.
"Watch your back!" Gypsy cried but it was too late.
A massive clown plucked Flamebird up by her cape and pulled her into his brawny arms. She felt like an old accordion shoved into a traveling trunk as the breath was crushed from her lungs. Her arms were pinned and the clown was too strong for her to wiggle free. She did the only thing she could think of at the moment: She turned her head and bit his bright red nose. It honked.
The clown screamed and dropped her as he groped for his schnoz. While she was trying to catch her breath another Jester attempted to slap her upside the head with a rubber chicken.
"You've got to be kidding me," Flamebird hissed as she ducked. The chicken hit the other clown still nursing his aching snout. A small explosion on impact threw the brute into the front wall of the stage. Flamebird kicked the clown with the exploding chicken in the gut. When he doubled over she lifted her knee to his chin. He was down.
"How you doing?" Gypsy yelled over the noisy din.
"What?" Flamebird shouted back.
"HOW ARE YOU DOING?" Gypsy shouted louder.
"Peachy," Flamebird lied."And you?"
Gypsy defended herself from the blows and kicks from two attackers simultaneously."We have to end this before someone gets hurt!"
Too late for that, Flamebird thought. She'd been knocked down, nearly had the life crushed out of her, beaten, choked, shocked, and assaulted with an exploding rubber chicken.
Gypsy had yet to break as much as a nail.
"Oracle? You there?" Flamebird shouted.
"You don't have to yell, Bette!" Oracle answered.
"When does the cavalry arrive?" Flamebird asked.
Oracle's answer wasn't what Flamebird wanted to hear."You are the cavalry until Zinda arrives, Bette."
Well that was peachy news! They needed Batman and Nightwing but were getting the team chauffeur!
"Flamebird, can you reach me?" Gypsy asked.
"Only if a couple dozen of our friends in Bozo masks roll out the red carpet," Flamebird replied.
"We need to protect one another's backs," Gypsy instructed.
It sounded like a good plan but the devil was in the details. Besides the small army of cackling clowns standing between them there were hundreds of panicked theater aficionados as well. Their safety was paramount. Flamebird couldn't lose sight of that. She punched and kicked her way past a couple more Jesters and took them out of action.
One thug grabbed a frightened young woman and held a gun to her head. Flamebird ground to a halt."You don't want to do this. Let her go and take me instead."
The Jester cackled."Now what would be the fun in that?"
"You'd get to take down a cape," Flamebird answered.
"You call that tattered thing a cape?" the Jester shot back.
Ok, so she didn't wear a traditional cape. Bette hadn't worn the red miniskirt and green half-cape for years. She liked her new threads, thank you very much. The half-cowl was way better than her old Bat-inspired facemask and the sleek, red spandex was more practical than the mini and much less revealing. She highlighted the spandex with yellow patches of fire on her arms and a v at the neck that broke up the red motif. Her "cape" was meticulously cut to resemble tongues of flame."Ok, you have me there chuckles. It's not quite Golden Age chic but I'm still a superhero. Who would you rather shoot me or her?"
"That's rich!" the Jester laughed while tightening his grip on the now-ashen woman."You have no street cred to bargain with, girlie! It would be different if you were Batman or Robin, but you're a nobody!"
Well that was great for the ego.
The woman's eyes widened as if to yell,"Behind you!"
threw up a forearm and cracked another Jester in the nose."Then I
suppose we'll do this the hard way, huh?"
"I'm doing my best ma'am," Flamebird assured.
The Jester cackled."And it's not enough!" He pulled the trigger and a flag emblazoned with the words"BANG" shot out the barrel of the gun. He shoved the woman into Flamebird.
The woman broke into tears."Oh god! Oh god!"
Flamebird caught the lady in her arms."Are you ok?"
The woman pushed her away."No thanks to you! What if that had been a real gun? Your game of dress-up could get somebody killed!"
Sometimes superheroing was a thankless job. Flamebird somersaulted over the backs of the theater seats and dove onto the fleeing"gunman" and knocked him to the ground.
"Can't you take a joke?" the Jester cackled even as Flambird landed a series of right hooks into his jaw.
"Jokes are funny," Flamebird spat."You're just sick!"
Finally the clown's laughter died as he lost consciousness. Flamebird wanted to take out some more frustration on him but there was still much to do even with the progress they made. They'd gone from a couple of dozen gang members or more to only a few left standing. The crowd had managed to flee the theater through either the main doors or the emergency exits and the last few stragglers were making their way out. Flamebird felt pretty good about the way things were going despite the personal indignities she encountered.
Gypsy was locked in battle with three remaining Jesters - a mere formality of the mop-up work that was left. Then one of them broke free and ran toward the lobby.
"Flamebird! That one has the loot! Grab him!" Gypsy shouted.
The fleeing Jester had a good head start on her and would be hard to catch. Flamebird hopped on the seat backs and ran across them toward the clown holding the bag, so to speak. She fired her zip line into the air and watched as it wrapped around an old oak crossbeam overhead. Confident it was locked into place she jumped into the air and swung over the theater seats. The maneuver closed the gap between them in a hurry. At the crest of her ascent she released the line and landed behind him.
He barged through a set of double doors and into the lobby with Flamebird on his tail.
Flamebird arrived just in time to see him throw his hands up in the air. He and Zinda stood alone in the lobby. She brandished an old-fashioned bazooka.
"Care to see if mine just stays bang?" Lady Blackhawk asked.
"Don't shoot," the Jester stammered."I'm just a normal hood, not one of you super-powered freaks! I wanted no part of this crazy scheme anyway."
"What crazy scheme?" Lady Blackhawk shouted.
The Jester took an attitude."Why should I tell you?"
"Because I'm the tough old broad holding the bazooka," Lady Blackhawk replied.
Maybe there was more to Lady Blackhawk than what meets the eye.
"Flamebird, get the haul," Lady Blackhawk ordered.
Flamebird relieved the Jester of their night's take and handed it to her partner."The theater board of directors will be happy to see this."
Lady Blackhawk nodded."As will the folks in the crowd they picked clean."
Oracle's voice in Flamebird's earpiece interrupted them."While Zinda has a heart-to-heart with Chuckles about their scheme, I need you to check on Gypsy, Bette. She went offline a few seconds ago." .
"I'm sure she's ok," Flamebird replied."She's JLA."
"Just the same, I'd feel better if you'd take a look." Oracle's tone was more demanding.
"Whatever you say, O. You're the boss," Flamebird replied. She returned to the theater. It was empty. She started down the aisles and looked in each row. Even the fallen Jesters were gone."Hello? Gypsy? Are you in here?"
There was no reply. Flamebird's search became more frantic. She rushed to the orchestra pit hoping to find her new partner but knew she wasn't there either."Oracle we have a problem!"
"What kind of problem, Bette?" Oracle asked.
"The theater is empty, no Jesters, no Gypsy, nothing," Flamebird explained."Could she be invisible?"
"Her power doesn't work that way," Oracle explained."At least not that I know of. According to her JLA profile she would revert back to her normal if she were incapacitated. Look around for some clues."
"Sure, let me pop a quick Scooby Snack," said Flamebird. She wasn't even sure what she was looking for exactly. Between the fallen curtains, the seats that had been shot up, the personal items of the theater patrons scattered everywhere, and the blood, the crime scene was large and tainted.
"I've got nothing," said Flamebird."The scene is so chaotic. Batman would have a field day in here. Wait! I see something!"
"What is it?" Oracle asked.
"It could be nothing," Flamebird replied. She approached the object whose gleam caught her eye and bent down to pick it up."Check that. It's one of Gypsy's bangles that she wears on her arms."
But there was more. Not a foot from the gold bracelet lay Cindy's earpiece. Its casing was broken and its electronic guts were mangled."And her earpiece. This doesn't look good, ladies. Gypsy's been taken!"