"What do you see?" Oracle asked in Flamebird's earpiece.
"They have Gypsy," Flamebird whispered in reply. "Doesn't look good."
"Who has her?" Oracle replied. "What's going on, ladies?"
Flamebird's and Lady Blackhawk watched from the shadows while Black Mask's henchmen inched closer to Gypsy's face with a glowing iron mask. The crime boss ordered the punishment for her refusal to cooperate with him. "Some ugly psycho who calls himself the Black Mask."
"Abort! Do not engage!" Oracle shouted. "Help is on the way!"
"No can do, boss lady," Lady Blackhawk replied. "Gypsy's in serious trouble right now! New plan!"
Lady Blackhawk bolted from hiding and tackled the man in the tuxedo wielding the iron mask. He dropped the red-hot mask in the scuffle and fell on it. His screams of agony filled the abandoned zinc refinery.
Black Mask shielded himself from the surprise attack with two Gemini who were close . "Kill both the stupid broads!"
Lady Blackhawk grabbed one Gemini by the arm and threw him to the ground with a judo move. An elbow to the second one's ribs and a punch to the face took him out of the fight. She kicked a third gangster standing close by, an East Side Enigma, in the large purple question mark emblazoned on his bright green leotard.
"Don't just stand there," Black Mask yelled. "Get her!"
The gangs quickly diverged on Lady Blackhawk. She disappeared in a sea of testosterone and spandex.
"Hang on, Zinda! I'm coming!" Flamebird said. "I knew this was going to suck!"
"Flamebird, stop!" Oracle ordered.
"But they're piling on Zinda," Flamebird argued. "I can't just let them beat her to death."
Oracle sighed. "She's creating a diversion for you to get to Gypsy! Move Cindy to safety first and then help Zinda."
Oracle's voice finally broke. "Just do it, damn it and don't question me!"
Flamebird shot out of hiding and bolted toward Gypsy. Black Mask reached for her once again but Flamebird's right fist caught him in the choppers and he stumbled backward on his keister.
Flamebird knelt and tried to lift her fallen partner. " Hold on, Gypsy. We're getting you out of here, I promise."
Gypsy pushed her away. "You shouldn't have come."
"Spare me the heroic melodrama. We're not leaving without you," Flamebird replied.
"You don't understand," a groggy Gypsy answered. "Drugs in me... Don't have long until..."
Before Gypsy could finish her sentence a strong hand grabbed Flamebird by her fiery cape and spun her around. Black Mask knocked her to the ground with a violent backhand. Gypsy crumpled beside her.
Black Mask wiped the blood from his mouth. "Are women and children all Gotham can spare against me now?" He grabbed Flamebird by her golden locks and pulled her up to his face. The odor of his rancid breath filled her nostrils as he shook her. "I don't like women or children! Want to see what I do to them, Goldilocks? Hint - it ain't pretty."
Why did the nut jobs always go on so? You'd think they'd learn they couldn't talk a hero to death, still Flamebird wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. "Here's to arrogance," she whispered under her breath.
"Flamebird, are you ok?" Oracle asked in her earpiece.
"Not a good time," Flamebird replied as she scanned the building for options. She had to get Gypsy out of there quickly. A series of catwalks overhead were their only chance at salvation.
A quick leg sweep caught Black Mask off-guard and gave Flamebird enough time to throw Gypsy over her shoulder. She removed the zip-line from her utility belt and pointed it toward an overhead walk. The line caught the rail.
"Hold on, Gypsy. Next stop, second floor." Flamebird's thumb hit the retract button and the zip-line lifted them to the catwalk. The trip lasted only seconds but seemed to take forever because a group of Tuxedos fired upon them from their trick umbrellas.
Black Mask ordered his henchmen to split up. "Tuxedos, Jesters... stay on the floor! Gemini and Enigmas to the stairs!"
At last they reached their destination and Flamebird tossed Gypsy over the rail and onto the cold, steel catwalk. She wished there was a gentler way but she needed to get her partner to safety. A moment later she too hopped the rail and scooped Gypsy into her arms once more. She had to get her somewhere safe before Black Mask's men got up the stairs.
It didn't work. She was pinned in on both sides of the walk.
"I've reached a dead end," she said to Oracle. "They have me pinned on a catwalk."
"Don't panic," Oracle answered.
Flamebird wondered how Oracle maintained such steely composure at all times.
"In compartment C5 of your utility belt there is a blackout bomb and a pair of infrared goggles," Oracle explained.
Flamebird felt for the goggles and bomb. Which compartment was C5? The new toys in her arsenal were nice, but if she lived through this she would take time to learn the new utility belt Oracle provided. "C5... C5..."
"The fifth compartment on the left. It's the only one large enough on that side to accommodate the goggles," Oracle explained.
The Gemini were already on the catwalk and closing the distance between them.
"I've got Two-Face wannabes coming at me from the left and Riddler clones on the right!" Flamebird shouted as she put on the goggles.
"Run toward whichever is farther from you," said Oracle. "When you fight your way through them you will have a shorter distance to the end of the catwalk and the upstairs wraps around the building. The blackout bomb will also give you cover from the group approaching from behind."
Flamebird looked left and then right. "Enigmas it is!"
She threw Gypsy over her shoulder and headed toward the Enigmas. She removed the blackout bomb from her belt and tossed it on the catwalk between them at the last second. A small explosion was accompanied with a thick, cloud of blackness.
The goggles worked perfectly. Flamebird could see the thermal patterns of each Enigma in the swirling black cloud. They were obviously confused by the sudden turn of events. They instinctively moved toward the safety of the catwalk's center. One man grabbed another and slugged him to the floor below. While the Enigmas fought amongst themselves Flamebird slipped through untouched except for one man who bumped into her while a companion held him tight in a headlock and pounded his head.
A moment later they were through the dark cloud and racing toward the end of the catwalk.
"According to the building's original blueprint there should be a hallway to your right when you come off the catwalk," Oracle instructed. "Along that hallway are some offices. Find a place to get Cindy to safety."
"Roger that," Flamebird replied. The hallway was exactly as Oracle said it would be. Unfortunately, all the doors were locked.
Approaching footsteps meant they didn't have much time. "Damn it! I feel like David in King Saul's armor with this utility belt," Flamebird cursed softly to no one in particular.
"What are you looking for?" Oracle asked.
"Something to pick a lock with," Flamebird replied.
"Compartment L4," said Oracle.
Flamebird fumbled with the belt a few precious moments before she spotted salvation in Gypsy's dark locks of hair - a hairpin.
"Find it?" Oracle asked.
"Of course," Flamebird lied. She propped Gypsy against the wall and picked the lock like a pro. The door swung open and she hauled Gypsy inside. Before closing the door she removed an old-fashioned bakelite stacking chair from the room and broke out a window at the end of the hallway with it. She set it down by the window when she was finished and rushed into the room and closed the door behind her. She locked it and hoped for the best.
The men finally reached the hallway and went door-to-door confirming they were locked.
"Dammit!" One of them yelled. "They busted out through the window!"
Another man didn't sound convinced. "The fall would have killed them. Look out there! No bodies!"
"Who knows with capes?" another interjected. "They can fly, ya know!"
It seemed like forever but finally the men retreated after deciding the women had flown out the window.
"Bette? What's happening?" Oracle asked.
"Got Cindy to safety. Now I have to get Zinda," Flamebird replied.
"Are you crazy?" Oracle asked. "It's you versus how many? A hundred? I don't like those odds."
"Me and Zinda," Flamebird corrected. "That evens the odds to one-in-fifty."
"I feel so much better," said Oracle. "Be careful."
It was easy to quip but Flamebird wished she was as confident as she sounded. She paused for a moment to go through her utility belt and familiarize herself with the location of a few items then moved to the end of the hallway and peeked over the railing to the floor below. She looked for anything she could use to her advantage. Lady Blackhawk was tied to the hood of an old car which was lifted high on a hydraulic jack for repairs. Flamebird secured her zip line around the railing and then aimed for the handle that controlled the jack. She fired and wrapped the line around the handle and pulled. The car began a slow, controlled descent to the floor and forced the gang members to move toward some old wooden crates stacked by the wall.
Flamebird leaped first to the crates and then to the floor. She landed on a combination of surprised Jesters, Enigmas, and Tuxedos. The element of surprise won the battle for he quickly. She had precious few seconds to untie Lady Blackhawk before the masses reached her. She reached for a Batarang and was relieved to find it in the same spot as her old utility belt. She sliced through the ropes with the Batarang and freed Lady Blackhawk. She lowered her partner to the ground and made a stand. She sneered at the approaching gangsters. "You want to dance? Bring it!"
And bring it they did. The gangsters rushed as one. Flamebird got in a few punches, a kick here and there, but the sheer force of numbers were against her.
Someone pulled her ponytail. "What the hell? Where did you learn to fight? The Dr. Sissy School for Henchmen?"
Again she wished her fists could back up her mouth but knew sheer numbers were not on her side. For her part, she put up a fight. She kicked, punches, elbowed, kneed, and even bit anyone who touched her. She knocked a Tuxedo to the ground but he grabbed her right leg. She tried to shake him off but his grip was too firm. She tried to punch a Jester but someone grabbed her right arm as she cocked it and dislocated her shoulder. She screamed in pain but before her voice even faded someone else grabbed her by the left foot and twisted. A kick caught her in the solar plexus and knocked the wind from her. A firm right hand caught her in the jaw so hard it whipped her head around.
Flamebird saw the proverbial stars and fell. The gangsters showed her no mercy. She curled into a ball to protect herself from their vicious kicks and stomps. The worst of the beating lasted only seconds but seemed to drag on forever. And then she heard the cavalry.
"Get them!" someone yelled.
One by one the Black Mask's henchmen left her to join the fight against Oracle's reinforcements. She hoped Batman's family of associates or even the JLA or JSA. Instead she was shocked to find an army of common hoods had invaded the refinery instead and were engaged with the Black Mask's goons.
"Bette, are you ok?" Oracle asked.
"You'd better have a hot tub somewhere in that shiny office building," Flamebird replied as she finally stood to her feet. "What's happening? Who are these people?"
"I .. cut a deal," Oracle explained.
Flamebird ducked a shower of acid from the lapel of one of the Jesters and backhanded him. The garish goon fell to the ground.
"What kind of deal? With who?" Flamebird asked.
"The two of you met earlier," Oracle replied.
"Penguin?" Flamebird asked. "You made a deal with the Penguin? Are you out of your flipping mind?"
"Don't you worry about my mind," Oracle shot back. "The deal between Penguin and I is my business. Get Zinda and Cindy and get out of there!"
"But I could help with..."
"No!" Oracle shouted. "This is not up for discussion, Bette! Get Cindy and Zinda and get them out of there now! They'll probably need medical attention."
Lady Blackhawk was no more than five feet from her but getting to her would prove difficult. A sea of bodies stood between them - arms and legs flailing, men cursing God and one another, some laughing manically, the sound of fists on bone, men falling to the ground in pools of blood. It was chaos.
Flamebird elbowed someone in the back of the head. She wasn't sure if it was friend or foe but she needed space to work and he was standing in her way. The fallen man's backside was an excellent place to stand and regroup.
She leapfrogged an Enigma and one of Penguin's goons who were locked in combat. Penguin's henchman had the upper hand as he lowered a knife toward the terrified Enigma's throat. She wasn't sure how the situation played out but the scream of agony she heard as she cleared them was probably a good indication.
She landed and came face-to-face with a Gemini wielding a crowbar. He swung at her head and barely missed as she sidestepped the blow.
"Whoa!," said Flamebird. "Aren't you supposed to say something about messing up my pretty, little face first? A shame and all that?"
The Gemini regrouped and swung the steel bar once more. This time she ducked and when the bar was past her she dove at his legs and tackled him. She wondered if her form would get her a spot on the Gotham Knights football team.
The Gemini dropped the crowbar when he fell to the ground. Taking advantage of the upper-hand, Flamebird beat him until he stopped struggling.
She nearly reached Lady Blackhawk but was herded away at the last moment by the shifting tide of the battle. She wished she had another blackout bomb.
If there was no way through the swarming mass of bodies then perhaps she could go over it. Flamebird removed her zip line once more and fired toward the catwalk which was now teeming with fighters as well. She hit the trigger and the line caught the support railing underneath. A moment later she was airborne above the crowd. The momentum of the recoiling zip line carried her past Lady Blackhawk on her first arc before dropping beside her. She removed one of her gloves and felt for a pulse on Lady Blackhawk's neck. "Oh thank god!"
Lady Blackhawk jerked awake and caught Flamebird with a haymaker that knocked her to her butt. No doubt about it! Zinda was much more than the team mascot. The woman could pack a wallop up there with the best of them!
"Son of a..." Flamebird shouted. "Go easy, girl! We're on the same side!"
Lady Blackhawk smiled, a hint of blood on her lips. "Sorry, sweetie! My training kicked in."
"You ok?" Flamebird asked.
Lady Blackhawk nodded and looked around at the wild scene. "I will be. What the hell's going on now?"
"Penguin's goons are the cavalry," Flamebird explained. "Oracle said we need to bail."
"What about that bloody bastard in the black mask?" Lady Blackhawk asked.
Flamebird wasn't sure. "Oracle?"
"Long gone," Oracle replied. "Penguin's reinforcements said he got away even before they arrived."
"What now?" Lady Blackhawk asked.
"Get Cindy and get the heck out of Dodge," Oracle answered.
Lady Blackhawk shrugged. "Sure, whatever you say boss."
The battle dynamic shifted and was moving toward the two women once more.
Flamebird placed an arm around Lady Blackhawk's waist and fired her zip line toward the top railing of the catwalk once more. "Hold on tight!"
Lady Blackhawk's grip tightened as the zip line jerked them into the air.
The women reached the catwalk and cleared the rail without incident. Unfortunately they were forced to fight their way through a gauntlet of brutes and martial artists before the reached the upper floor offices. Even then they had to fight their way down the hallway to the room where Gypsy waited.
Or didn't wait.
Gypsy was awake and locked in combat with several of the Black Mask's and Penguin's henchmen. She obviously had no idea Penguin's men were on her side. She fought like a caged animal. A karate chop to the throat of a Tuxedo sent the man to his knees gasping for air. A kick to the back of his head finished him. She ducked a haymaker from one of Penguin's henchmen and delivered an uppercut to his chin. The blow only addled him momentarily but it gave her time enough to gouge her thumbs in his eyes and attack several pressure points before he could recover.
A Jester tried to flee but found himself caught between the team of Flamebird and Lady Blackhawk and an angry Gypsy.
He dropped to his knees. "Please, save me from her! I beg you! She's a maniac!"
The Jester's pleas were for naught. Gypsy grabbed the back of his hair and slammed his face to the ground. He slumped to the floor.
"What in the name of the trishula is going on?" Gypsy demanded.
"The Black Mask..." Flamebird began.
"Explain later," said Oracle. "Get out of there now!"
Flamebird grabbed Lady Blackhawk by the hand and rushed toward Gypsy. She scooped her confused partner's svelte waist into her other arm. "Come on ladies! It's time to blow this joint! Hold on!"
At the end of the hallway, Flamebird leaped toward the window she had broken earlier and carried her partners out with her. The remaining glass shattered on impact. Her partners wrapped their arms around Flamebird's neck and clung tightly to her as the three of them plummeted toward earth. Thankfully all three were experienced enough to not panic and allowed Flamebird to keep her arms free. She grabbed for her zip line once more.
It wasn't there.
"Gravity so sucks!" Flamebird shouted as they fell.
A moment later a flying wedge with a wingspan of about six feet broke their fall.
"It's not quite an F94-Starfire but it'll do in a pinch," said a proud Lady Blackhawk. "Oracle calls it a Personal Hover Platform. I'll say this for her - the girl has style!"
A moment later the women were safe on the ground and running for their vehicle. The factory blew up behind them.
"Oracle?" Flamebird asked.
"Not part of my deal with Penguin," Oracle answered. "This could get ugly but let's worry about that later. I'll see everyone back here in an hour."
The Following Afternoon
Flamebird sat at the same table where she accepted the position on Oracle's team and waited. She was happy to be just Bette for a change - no costume or cape, just a pair of white tennis shorts, a matching top with a Gotham Knights logo and a pair of flip-flops on her feet. Gypsy sat beside her at the table. She too was in her civvies, but Lady Blackhawk sat across from them in full uniform minus her black leather bomber jacket emblazoned with the Blackhawks logo.
At last the meeting room doors opened slowly and Oracle wheeled into the room. She wasted no time in seating herself at the head of the table. "Ladies, allow me to begin by saying what an incredible job you did. Black Mask is locked away in Arkham and most of his cronies are either dead or in jail awaiting sentencing."
"We had nothing to do with their deaths," said Lady Blackhawk.
Oracle nodded. "Agreed, but they are no longer Gotham's problem. May their maker sort them out."
Bette was struck by Oracle's coldness. "Those men may have been criminals but they had family and friends who will miss them."
"My heart is with their families," Oracle replied. "Thiers is to grieve. Ours is to view the larger picture. They made the choices that led to their demise. All we can do at this point is to update Gotham's criminal database with a few less crooks terrorizing the streets."
The reply saddened Bette. Did reducing the men to statistics lessen the impact of their deaths or was it just a convenient coping mechanism?
"In particular I want to thank Bette," Oracle continued. "You were thrown into the fire sooner than I would have liked but you walked through to the other side. That takes fortitude in Gotham."
Bette could feel herself blushing but if felt good to be told she did well for a change. She was used to being placed under a microscope and raked over the coals by the hero community.
"You still need training," said Oracle. "So don't let your head get too big but you made me proud."
"Made us all proud," Gypsy added. "If it weren't for you and Zinda I'd be wearing an iron mask... or dead."
Across the table Lady Blackhawk turned to Bette and offered a friendly salute then winked. "Don't give me too much credit, Cindy. All I did was get the hell beaten out of me. We'd be in the same boat if not for Bette's resourcefulness."
"Ok, ok, cut it out," said Bette. "I get it. I did ok but I can't stop thinking about those who didn't make it out. I wish we could have saved them."
Oracle smiled and reached across the table. She placed a hand on Bette's and squeezed. "Here's to knowing what's really important."