DISCLAIMERS: All this silliness is mine except for the title. (Thank you, Oz, for that by the way.)
Nothing and nobody were hurt during the making of this story. Oh, and there's a hair of bad language, but only a hair. Now on with the show....
On Raven's Wing
The sharply dressed man stepped out of his BMW and straightened his tie a little. “Jingle Bell Rock” drifted softly on the air as his shoes crunched on the frozen, dead grass. He took a deep breath and let it out, trying to forget about his long work day. He rang his neighbor's doorbell.
A petite redhead with a friendly Southern drawl opened the door. “Well hello, Leroy! Come on in!”
“Sorry I'm late, Jane. I was crunching numbers. Figures on the one night I have a social event to attend, nothing would balance,” Leroy said in his usual calm manner. He didn't like parties much, but he enjoyed Jane's company. They'd been neighbors since high school.
“What's there to be late about? Just go grab yourself a drink and some snacks.”
A few other neighbors and some of Jane's friends lounged around her great room that looked like the lobby of a ski resort with its huge brick fireplace in the center of the room. All around the circular room, guests sat in overstuffed leather chairs, on couches, or stood holding their drinks and balancing their small plates while they chatted and laughed. Some waved and tossed a cheery “Hi, Leroy” in his general direction. He encouraged himself to smile a little and wave back, although all he really wanted was to make a beeline for the champagne. He snagged a glass, took a sip, and almost audibly sighed in relief. Then he spotted the side door that led to the formal dining room. He poked his head in and found it deserted. The heavy oak table held the plastic plates, paper napkins, and a variety of good fruits and vegetables, dips, top quality cheeses, smoked meats, and other delicacies. All the usual holiday fare was there except Leroy's favorite...fruitcake. I thought for sure she'd have some fruit... and that's as far as he got with that thought when he spotted an old antique sideboard. A festive red poinsettia guarded each end of a beautiful polished silver tray and matching knife. Leroy moved closer. Whoever used the knife had carved off an even slice, laid it aside with care, and sliced two more servings, each half stacked neatly on each other. Leroy wondered why it wasn't on the other table with the rest of the food, but didn't pursue the thought because he was so hungry for a good fruitcake.
He grabbed a plate and a slice of fruitcake and took a big bite. Leroy cringed at the fruitcake's staleness yet at the same time, he marveled at the heavy alcohol content in the fruitcake. He decided he'd had better ones in the past. He'd finished half of it by the time Jane came in. Her smile instantly fell off her face and worry lines wrinkled her forehead. “ Oh, dear! ”
“Leroy, honey, you weren't supposed to eat that! That fruitcake's so old that it's practically a family heirloom.” Leroy's stomach suddenly felt like a brick was in it when he heard that. Jane continued, “It's a funny story, really. It was Christmas 1955 and Grandma must've been on the verge of her...” Jane quickly counted on her fingers, “...third marriage by that time. You see, she was real sweet on a feller back in Tennessee. She wanted him to propose to her so her plan was to bake a fruitcake that was so full of alcohol that it practically dripped rum. She'd get him good and soused and somehow steer him into asking her. Wouldn't have been hard, either, since he was a real lightweight.” She made an imaginary bottle out of her hand and pretended to drink.
In spite of himself, Leroy cracked a smile. “ There would've been one big problem, though. Alcohol cooks out. ”
“Yeah, but it sure preserved that fruitcake, huh?”
Jane continued, “ Well, it turns out she didn't need to go to all that trouble. Just as she finished slicing the cake, that feller got his nerve, dropped onto one knee, and proposed right there and then. As you might imagine, dessert was forgotten that night. Ever since then, the family has always set out the fruitcake as a combo Christmas decoration/good luck for the new year kinda thing. ”
She looked at Leroy. “ Are you all right, hon? You're starting to look a little pale. Do you wanna go home and lay down? ”
“I think I will, yes.”
“If you get to feeling really bad, call me and I can get you a doctor.”
“Thanks, but I think I'll be fine.”
* * *
But he wasn't. Leroy thanked whatever God there was that it was Friday night so his illness wouldn't prevent him from working, although he was nearly certain he wouldn't live through the weekend. After several long-lasting trips to the Temple of the Porcelain God as he liked to phrase it, he realized he was weaker and wasn't going to be able to stay off the pot for long. He dragged a chair within a few feet of the bathroom door and fetched a bottle of Gatorade in the slim hope he'd be able to keep anything down later. It, his cell phone, a book, and an old empty plastic whipped cream container all lay on a lightweight table nearby. His sick kit waited for him.
His phone rang and the dozing Leroy blinked sleepily. His clock read noon. He rasped, “Hello?”
Jane's cheery voice came over the line. “Hi, Leroy. How're you doing?”
“What day is it?”
Her tone changed quickly. “Sunday afternoon. Are you okay, Leroy?”
“I was sick for a little while,” he admitted, “but I'm fine now.”
“You always were a terrible liar. Do you want me to come over? Or call a doctor for you?”
“Can you call in sick to work tomorrow?”
“Then do so. I'll call you later to check in on you.”
“Okay.” They hung up. Leroy wasn't inclined to argue with Jane when she gave a strict order.
He screwed off the Gatorade cap and slowly drank a quarter of it. He waited a few minutes to see if it'd make him sick again and when it didn't, he set it aside and dozed off again.
“What in the world?” he asked when he woke up again. He heaved himself out of his chair and staggered to the full-length mirror. He shook and pinched himself. “Not a dream.” He gaped at the red body suit, the blue mask and underwear outside the body suit, and especially the heavy cape that looked like it was made from fruitcake. On his chest, a blue silhouette of a fruitcake loaf appeared and a blue CF. “CF?” Writing appeared on his stomach: CAPTAIN FRUITCAKE. It disappeared like the lines on a shaken Etch-A -Sketch. He peeled off his mask, but another magically popped into place. “Hello?” he called throughout his house. No answer. “Seriously, this isn't funny,” he called again.
He got an idea and hit the speed dial on his phone. When the person on the other line picked up, he said, “This isn't a good joke to play on a sick man.”
“What're you talking about?” Jane asked.
“Are you feelin' okay?”
“I was feeling better and had a good nap....” He spoke slowly. “Maybe you better get over here and see this.”
“Be over in a flash,” Jane said as she was already half out her door.
She knocked on his door and waited for him to answer it. Hesitantly, Leroy swung it open, but stayed out of sight behind it until Jane was in and the door was fully closed again.
Jane's eyes went wide. “Leroy! What in the world are you doin' in that getup, hon?”
“That's just it. I don't know. I'd finally started feeling better, had a drink, and got a good four hours of sleep. I woke up and this thing was on me.”
Jane pulled at the cape, got it off, but another one appeared. She peeled off his mask, which did the same thing. She rapidly ripped off several masks. As soon as she got one off, another one came back. “Dontcha think you should go see a doctor?”
“And tell him what, exactly?” Leroy asked in a reasonable tone.
“I don't know. But you can't stay like this.”
“I might have to.”
Jane couldn't believe her ears. “Why? Why do you say that?! What're you supposed to do now?”
Magic writing again appeared across Leroy's stomach: SUPERHERO STUFF. It disappeared.
“ Who asked you?!” Jane spoke to the writing. Then, she stopped. “Who or what are you?” No answer was forthcoming. She turned her attention back to Leroy. “So what are you going to do now?” she asked softly.
“Superhero stuff, I guess. But starting tomorrow.” He yawned. He and Jane were silent until Jane got her nerve to speak.
“I...I don't suppose you're gonna need a sidekick. Are you?”
“What would Marv say?” Leroy asked, referring to Jane's husband.
She sighed. “He's hardly ever home anymore. Cares too much about making money. And the little time that he does spend at home, he never notices anything.”
Leroy didn't like the way the conversation was going. He didn't know things were so bad in Jane's marriage and he certainly didn't want to pry into other people's personal business, even if it was Jane's.
“Frankly, Leroy, there are only so many Tupperware parties, bridge afternoons, and afternoon teas I can go to. Hell, I'm way too young for half that crap! And I can't spend all day in the gym. Those Johnny-live-forevers really annoy me.”
Finally, Leroy agreed. “How bad can it be having a bored housewife as one's sidekick?” Jane backhanded him in his cape-covered shoulder, but he didn't flinch. She, on the other hand, shook her hand in pain as he put a condition on their partnership. “But NOBODY can know who we are.”
Jane looked at herself in the mirror and raised her long red hair on top of her head. “And I'm going to need to get a costume to hide my hair.”
* * *
The next day, Jane came over later in the morning. She was in her new costume.
Leroy was a little dismayed. He took a quick glance from head-to-toe. “Don't you think that costume might send the wrong message.”
Jane rolled her eyes. “Nooooo,” she said, a little annoyed. “Going as a porn star would send the wrong message! I swear, this is the only thing they had left in my size. Just my luck that the opera would hold a benefit masquerade ball in the middle of summer!”
Leroy managed a small smile as he surveyed the costume in a little more detail. The comic ten gallon pirate's hat with the skull and crossbones pinned to Jane's head definitely covered her hair. She had a black mask she'd made for herself, a white shirt, black vest, black pants and boots. Leroy was glad a peg leg wasn't part of the deal, but even he had to roll his eyes when he saw a rubber sword strapped to her side with a red sash and worst of all, a stuffed parrot doll sewn to Jane's shoulder.
“Okay, what're we going to call you?”
Jane smiled and named a famous female pirate from history. “Anne Bonny.”
“Captain Bonny it is!”
“She wasn't a captain, though I think she should've been. Just 'Anne' will do. Anyway, first things first.” She pointed to the driveway and Leroy looked through his window. He saw a pretty dime-a-dozen white delivery van. “I got it off a guy for $900. It works, but I'm still afraid to ask why I got it so cheap.” She smiled. “We can hide you in the back for now.”
“And what about you? It's not like you won't stick out in a crowd.”
“Yeah, but I'll look more like one of those opera folks, at least for the time being.”
Jane exited the house, slid back the van's side door, and looked to see if there was anyone coming. She gave the all clear and whispered as loudly as she could, “Come on! We're going on a field trip.”
“Where?” Leroy stashed himself in the back where the van had no windows.
* * *
After nearly two hours of driving and a quick lunch, Leroy found himself in a large clearing surrounded by trees.
“It's pretty obvious that I don't have superpowers, but we have to see what you have. So I'm here to put you through a little testing.” Jane slid off her duffel bag. “First test, flight.”
“How am I supposed to know how to fly.”
“Jump or something.”
Leroy raised an eyebrow though he jumped without saying anything. He didn't fly and couldn't jump as high as usual with his fruitcake cape holding him down.
“Again,” Jane insisted. “But this time fling your arms out in front of you like Superman.”
Again, nothing happened.
“One last time. Maybe if you got a bit of a running start?”
Leroy stood at one edge of the clearing and started. He was almost at the other edge of the clearing before he knew it and hurriedly pushed off so he'd have room if he flew. The only thing that flew was his feet out from under him and he landed face first in a cow patty.
Too astonished at Leroy's speed to laugh at his landing, Jane just handed him a tea towel from her duffel bag. Leroy ripped away his dirty mask, a new one popped into place, and he cleaned the area that the mask didn't protect.
“Wow, Leroy! You can't fly, but you can run. I mean, it's not like Superman or Flash kinda fast, but that's at least three times your normal speed.”
He wiped his hands on a clean part of the towel and wrinkled his nose at the smell. “I can't fly because this cape weighs a ton,” Leroy reasoned. “I'd probably run like Flash if I didn't have it on.” He pulled the cape off, but as predicted, one replaced it.
“That's still amazin'. Guess we got the speed thing checked. Next, strength. See that big guy there?” Jane pointed to a thick-trunked evergreen. “See if you can uproot it.”
Leroy tried. The tree didn't even budge.
“Okay. No super strength. How hard can you punch?”
Jane tied a foamy cushion shoulder high on a tree trunk. Leroy stood in front of it and made tight fists. He focused and hit as hard as he could. “Okay, a little power behind it. Nothing incredibly unusual.”
Leroy flung open his fist and a fruitcake dropped out. Jane stared. Leroy made a fist and flung his hand open again, this time palm up, and another fruitcake appeared. He did it several times in rapid succession and had a small pile of fruitcake at his feet before long.
Jane dug out a small pocketknife, grabbed a fruitcake from Leroy's hand, and sniffed it. “Smells exactly like fruitcake.” She gingerly prodded it with the knife blade. The blade snapped in half. “Strong stuff.” She poked at it and then poked at Leroy's cape. “Could be the same material.” She smiled. “There's one more test, Leroy. I need you to stand next to that tree and hold the cape away from you. Like this.” She flung her arm out to the side and pretended to hold a matador cape. “Just hold still.” Leroy did as he was told until he saw her mark off 30 paces and bring out an air powered BB rifle.
“Baaaaaaaaad idea. Very bad, bad idea!” He curled himself into his cape.
“We have to do this. Need to know if you're bulletproof.”
Leroy knew shooting at gun ranges was one of Jane's hobbies and knew she could shoot well, so he uncurled himself and held out his cape again. Jane shot and the BB bounced off the cape. “Okay. No marks there. How 'bout something bigger?” She pulled out a .44 magnum. “Don't try this at home, kids,” she quipped as she carefully aimed.
“Jane,” Leroy called out. “This better not be the LAST test, if you know what I mean!”
“Just hold still, you big baby!” Jane squeezed the trigger. She prayed the ricochet, like last time, would be harmless.
She got out of the firing position and saw Leroy shaking a little. “Yep, looks like you're bulletproof,” she called cheerily. “I always thought fruitcake was virtually indestructible!”
“Looks like I'm ready to go fight crime and stand for truth, justice--”
“Yadda, yadda, yadda. Let's just go!”
* * *
In the city's center, they came upon a little girl standing in front of a tree, crying. Jane glided the van to a stop on the other side of the street. Leroy slid the door back and walked across to the girl.
“What's the matter?”
She pointed up the tree. “Mr. Whiskers is stuck.”
“Did you call the Fire Department?”
“Mommy did. They said they couldn't come out. They couldn't use their sourc-- saurs on a cat.” She cried harder.
“It's okay. I'll try to get him down.” Leroy started climbing the tree. The cape kept him from being able to shimmy up the trunk, so he closed his fist, opened it quickly, and had a fruitcake ready. “Stand waaaaaaay back, honey.” He shooed the girl a good distance away and then lobbed the fruitcake underhanded. He missed badly. Then, he moved himself to a better position, made a fist, opened his hand, and had another fruitcake ready.
From the van, Jane caught his eyes and shook her head vigorously. She stopped and mouthed, “Not a good idea,” but Leroy ignored her. He aimed carefully then sent a fruitcake flying. It hit Mr. Whiskers squarely on the back of his head/back. He yowled, landed safely on the sidewalk, and ran away.
“MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!!!!!!!!” the kid wailed.
Before Leroy could explain himself, a huge human-sized raven swooped down on him and pecked at his cape. “GET OFF!!!!!!!!” He yelled. Jane ran to his side, unsheathed the rubber sword that flopped everywhere, and somehow managed to fight the beast off. “We'd better get out of here,” she hissed at him, and they made a beeline for the van. Jane flung herself into the driver's seat and took off like she was driving a getaway car.
“I guess our first adventure wasn't exactly a glorious triumph,” Jane said with a little mockery in her voice.
Leroy made a face. “I didn't have a ladder. I couldn't climb the tree with this damn cape on. What else was I supposed to do?”
“Think! Superheroes are supposed to be smarter than us mere mortals. But never mind. We'll try again next time.”
* * *
Captain Fruitcake and Pirate Girl's (as the media named her) adventures did go a little smoother over time. They caught some would-be burglars and muggers and generally did everything they could without getting in the police's way. Through it all, the gigantic raven hounded Leroy and mercilessly pecked at his cape. Jane and her floppy faux sword fought epic battles with the bird while Leroy finished whatever job he was doing at the moment.
One evening, Jane had the bird at bay after Captain Fruitcake scared away a mugger who'd gotten away because of the raven's interference. Leroy glared at the bird. “I've had just about enough of you, Mister!”
The bird turned its head and blinked a beady eye.
“Why are you eating me alive and who are you anyway?”
The raven let out a huge squawk. “I'm from a book of forgotten lore.”
Leroy began, “'Quoth the raven –-'”
“Nevermore!!!!!!!” the bird squawked.
Leroy tried again. “'Quoth the raven --'”
One more time just to be sure, “'Quoth the raven --'”
Jane laughed. “Oh, man! I bet Poe's turning in his grave right now!”
The raven took off north when a siren in the near distance startled him.
“Jane, don't you think it's strange how that raven is always around when we're at crime scenes?”
“Hon, the only thing strange is how he never seems to break that beak of his on your cape. Frankly, I think he's just stalkin' you because of your tasty cape.”
“Well, I don't really wanna end my superhero career on Raven's wing.” Leroy studied the sky. “Come on. I'd like to see where he's going.”
They followed the raven north a little way, then turned west for a few miles until they came to a small town in the middle of a very dry forest. The bird led them through Main Street and then to a long, winding private driveway. A few cars were parked in a small clearing obviously intended for a guest parking lot and music came from the backyard. Leroy could smell hamburgers and hotdogs cooking on a charcoal grill. The raven ducked behind the house and the guests' laughter turned into screams. Leroy heard a man shouting. “Get the hoses!!!!!!!!!! Don't, you damned bird!!!!!”
As soon as Leroy heard that, he saw the raven fly over the house with a flaming branch and dropped it on the house, which immediately caught fire. Jane quickly called the Fire Department. She hung up when the operator asked her if she saw who started it.
“That's it, Bird! Your goose is cooked!!!!!!!!!!” she yelled out the window. She pulled a fast, tight circle in the van and had it speeding after the bird. “I've heard that ravens are supposed to be smart birds, but this is insane! I mean, one who actually committed arson? Why?”
Leroy braced himself and held on tightly to anything he could grab. “Maybe he's tired of hunting. Maybe he wants me, his prey, to chase him.”
“I'm not sure I buy that, hon. It's kinda crazy.”
“No crazier than the bird.”
The raven led them back through the city and a few miles into the country. They followed on an old road and stopped when they came to an area that looked like it had rocks piled up to form a hill. The raven ducked into a hole in the rocks. Leroy shone his portable hand-held spotlight at the hole, but nothing moved. “I think he's settled in for the night.”
Jane checked her watch. “Marv'll actually be home tonight. He's leavin' early in the mornin' for Portugal. What'll we do about the bird in the meantime?”
“Nothing. Tomorrow, however, is a different story. My garage door will be open at 10.” They'd developed a system where Leroy would open his garage door and Jane would take a quick ride around a block or two before coming back and pulling into his garage. Leroy would then close the door with the remote and he could slip into the van without being seen. It worked well for them.
“It might have to be a li'l closer to 10:30.”
She drove them home.
* * *
“What can I do for you, Captain Fruitcake,” the man in the small wildlife refuge office asked with a straight face. The teenage girl at the receptionist's desk sniggered. Jane frowned at her and the laugh disappeared.
What are you laughing at? You're the ones dressed like Steve Irwin complete with a corny pith helmet, Leroy thought. Instead, he only voiced, “We're having a little bird problem.”
Leroy caught the man looking at the stuffed parrot on Jane's shoulder. “No, not that one. A raven. A really BIG raven. Do you have like a 9x9 foot cage? That might be small for the long term, but for a trap, it'd be okay.”
The man gasped. “I've never heard of a raven that big! Where'd it come from?”
“I'm not exactly sure. Maybe once you have him here, you can study him and figure that out. Whatever you do, though, NEVER release him and keep him separate from the other animals. Maybe even build him his own enclosed aviary. You could say he's kind of a criminal.”
The man smiled. “Yes, they love shiny objects and will steal them all the time.”
“This isn't a case of simple thievery, but I won't get into it now. Do you think you can help us? Do you have a few good strong men too?”
“Yeah. Let me round up the boys and we'll go.”
* * *
Leroy directed the boys where to set up the big cage and with the help of heavy machinery, they put big boulders and brush all around it to make it look somewhat like the raven's own cave. They added one nook where Leroy could hide and make it sound like his voice was coming from the hidden cage.
“Ready,” Jane called through her walkie talkie as Leroy finished lining the cage with fruitcake. Jane had kept an eye on the raven's cave to make sure the beast didn't stir and disrupt the plans.
“Give the guys 15 more minutes to clear out and I'll be set.”
Leroy stashed himself in the nook. When everyone was hidden, he called, “'Quoth the raven'!”
“Nevermore!” the raven squawked from his cave. He poked his head out and blinked against the bright sun.
“'Quoth the raven'!”
The bird's head perked up and he tilted his head to try to pinpoint it. “Nevermore!”
“'Quoth the raven'!” Leroy yelled a little louder and clearer. The raven looked right in his direction.
“Nevermore!” The raven flew the quarter mile toward the faux cave, landed short, and hopped a few more feet.
“That's right. We're on your territory now. And I have a cave full of fresh fruitcake for you. MMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmm.... All you can eat, too.”
The bird hopped closer to the cage. He could see the virtual treasure trove of fruitcake in there. Leroy used a long pole to poke at some of the fruitcake to make it seem like he was hiding in the corner. “See? Here I am. Come get me!”
Finally, the raven couldn't stand the temptation. It flew into the cave. Leroy popped out of his nook, scrambled up the fake hill of rocks, and sprung the trap. The bars slid shut with a clang that echoed through the countryside.
The men and Jane came pouring out from their hiding places. “Gotcha, ya li'l bastard!” she yelled cheerfully.
The man with the pith helmet took it off and scratched his bald head. “Well now, you weren't exaggerating about that bird! I've never seen or heard such an extraordinary raven!”
Jane laid a hand on the man's shoulder. “Which is why this is the perfect opportunity for you to take him and study him. Let us know what he's all about.”
“Will do,” the man promised. He got his crew digging out the cage from the rocks and loading the bird onto the truck.
Jane turned to Leroy. “What now?”
Leroy looked over Jane's head to the northwest. “I have a feeling that fire did some damage. Let's go back and see if we can help those people.” He made a fist and opened it quickly. A fruitcake popped into it.
Jane looked at it. “That can be temporary building material?”
“Something like that.” Leroy smiled a little.
They headed back toward their van. The last thing the crew heard Pirate Girl saying to Captain Fruitcake made them grin.
“ Wanna try my mama's oatmeal for mortar? ”