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Chapter One:
Champagne and Bullets

Chapter Two:
A Glass Half-Full

Two to Tango

Chapter Three:
Four Aces and a Queen

Chapter Four:
"X" Marks the Spot

Chapter Five:
Mayhem at Midnight

Morning in the Mountains

Chapter Six:
Making Old Acquaintances

Chapter Seven:
The Grand Tour

Chapter Eight:
The Loyalty Test

Chapter Nine:
Walking the Plank

Chapter Ten:
Don't Look Back

Charlie Steele and the Menace From The Mountains

- A Thrilling "Hollywood Knights" Adventure! -

By Nancy Berman with Noah Dudley

Chapter One: Champagne and Bullets

Damn Loyle Crawford!

Charlie Steele sped along the highway, gripping the steering wheel so tightly her hands stung. She slammed the heel of her right hand against the dashboard. Normally, she would be enjoying her early morning drive, admiring the beauty of the sunrise and the splendid natural surroundings. Instead, her classic features were twisted into a fierce scowl.

Charlie Steele was a very angry woman.

The source of her discontent lay on the expensive leather upholstery beside her: the latest issue of Air Action Weekly. The feature article - "Should Knights Call It A Day?"- had hit her like a blast of acrid exhaust.

Some idiot AAW reporter had interviewed "Show Stopper" Crawford - That obnoxious bastard! she thought. The reporter - researching a story about Charlie's squadron - had asked about the Hollywood Knights. "Oh, I don't think we have to worry about those kids," Crawford had replied. "Flying is just a phase for them, really - today it's planes, tomorrow it'll be polo ponies. They showed some promise at first but they've gone kinda soft. 'Charlie' Steele makes an attractive figurehead, but she certainly hasn't built a winning team."

For more information see:
Charlie Steele
Loyle Crawford

What really made Charlie angry was that she couldn't very well argue with the article, Crawford's arrogant posturing aside. The Knights had flown fewer and fewer combat missions over the last six months and kill ratios were way down. Stringers staking out the Knights' airfields had managed to generate statistics - and even some photos - for every sloppy mistake her team made during their increasingly infrequent training sessions. As the Knights' performance worsened, their public visibility was through the roof; her team was constantly gracing newspaper and magazine covers, pitching everything from aircraft fuel to expensive cologne.

We've become the current Hollywood novelty act, she thought. Her crack squad of top-notch pilots had lost their edge inside bottles of vintage champagne. Things would have to change, fast.

Foothill Ranch, nestled at the base of south-facing San Gabriel Mountains, wasn't quite as elegant as Palm Springs, but still catered to an upscale crowd. On the map, the place was called Rancho Cucamonga, but the resort designers had opted for a name that sounded a bit less like a Jack Benny routine.

The admiring gate guard motioned her elaborately towards a hangar behind the main hacienda-style building. She pulled her silver Duesie J Derham Tourster alongside Norm's rusty old Model T Ford. She was glad she'd let Coop talk her into buying the sleek car. It wasn't quite the same as flying, but damn close. She always wondered why Norm still drove that old closed-cab truck. He could certainly afford something better. "As long as she keeps on turnin' over every morning and doesn't collapse under me, I'll keep on drivin' her," he'd say.

Inside the large hangar, Karl "Wrong-Way" Gruner was asleep on a couch with his white silk scarf draped across his eyes. Carmen "Killer" Flores looked anything but, as she slept with her head on the table. A bleary-eyed Irving "Greasepaint" Jolson grimly contemplated the glass of tomato juice in front of him, confirming Charlie's worst suspicions.

She leaned over the dozing Gruner, whisked the scarf off his face and shouted "Good morning!" She deftly jumped back in time to avoid getting smacked in the face as he flailed his way off the couch.

"Jeez, Charlie! What was that for?"

"To see how alert you are this morning. Very impressive. " She whirled on the others who were all more or less awake now. "What is it with you people? I know this isn't some heroic mission to save Hollywood, but the maneuvers we're doing today are tough. The fact that I can startle you all so easily just proves that none of you are one-hundred percent."

For more information see:
The Hollywood Knights

"C'mon, Charlie," said Steve "Glamour Boy" Gardner, flashing her a big grin, "you know we fly better than anyone out there, even when we're half-asleep."

"Or half-drunk?" Charlie retorted. "You've got 15 minutes to pull yourselves together. Think you can manage to look like real heroes instead of day-players?"

She turned on her heel and walked back outside. Norm was waiting for her beside her customized Hughes Bloodhawk.

For more information see:
The Nation of Hollywood

"Think they can do it?" he asked quietly.

She looked at him with a grim set to her beautiful jaw. "They'd better."

As the squadron readied for take-off, Charlie was still thinking about the infuriating AAW article. This show called for some pretty fancy maneuvers and Charlie was worried; it had been like pulling teeth to get the Knights to show up for flight drills. What if one of her pilots choked during a critical maneuver? What if someone didn't remember to fly throttle down in the tight formation? What if someone misread the tricky desert winds?

Charlie touched the little medal hanging to the side of her instrument panel, struggling to relax. She never took off without a silent prayer to Jimmy Vega, asking him to watch over her and the rest of Knights. She remembered Jimmy's plane as it went up in flames, riddled with bullets from the Sky Slaver attack. And she remembered what he used to say about his fellow pilots: "These are good guys, mi amiga… they just need to learn how to get their hands dirty." "By God," she vowed, "I'll put them in grease up to their necks if I have to."

When everyone was in place and ready, Charlie gave the order. "Ok, let's show 'em our stuff!" With that, she led them in a blessedly flawless take-off, easing her Bloodhawk up into the shimmering desert air. They had some beautiful aircraft up there today, she thought: two Bloodhawks, two Firebrands, and two Furies. With her right hand resting on the stick, she felt like she was riding a mustang that she had tamed herself. She knew the plane's price tag meant that only people with money or Howard Hughes as a sponsor could afford one. She had both.

For more information see:
Hughes Bloodhawk

She looked to her left to check on Gardner, her wingman, in the other Bloodhawk. He gave her a big thumb's-up and flashed his leading-man grin. Despite the grim mood that had plagued her all morning, she couldn't help but chuckle. Gardner was like a big Golden Retriever; no matter how mad you got at him, you had to love him when he wagged his tail. She signaled for the first maneuver.

The Firebrands were up first. Lacking a tail assembly, they looked like strange birds with immense wingspans. Their ability to peel off and head straight up enabled them to attain a high altitude with surprising speed.

Charlie was dismayed to see Jolson's Firebrand slip slightly out of formation. She knew that at this low altitude, a bail-out was nearly impossible. As quickly as he fell out, Jolson managed bring his plane back into line.

"Greasepaint! Are you alright? Acknowledge."

"Uh, yeah. I'm fine, Charlie. I dunno what happened - must've hit a thermal, but I'm ok." Charlie made a mental vow that the squadron would practice low-altitude flying so that wouldn't happen again.

Now the Fury was center-stage. This plane had the purest pedigree, descended directly from the original Wright Flyer. Although it was gradually disappearing from first-string service, it was fast and agile. The cockpit sat at the base of its T-shaped tail, presenting the ultimate challenge to a bailing pilot. More than one daring flyer had stared Death in the face while hanging down and aiming for that narrow safety gap between the tail and the wing.

Gruner pulled up into his maneuver - a steep dive - and Charlie held her breath, hoping he didn't suffer the curse of the Fury, stalling during acceleration. To her relief, though, everything looked fine.

As the Knights moved into the crescendo of their performance, Charlie's radio squawked and Norm's voice filled her cockpit: "Break off, Charlie, break off! Burbank is under attack! Proceed west immediately!"

Galvanized by the urgency in Norm's usually-calm voice, the squadron altered course, banking to the west.

As the Knights screamed through the pass into the San Fernando Valley, they saw several Warhawks and Peacemakers strafing the newly-completed Hollywood militia air base, Champion Field. The twisted, blackened hulks of militia planes burned in neat rows on the field, shattered before they had a chance to get off the ground. With the planes neutralized, the pirates targeted the base's anti-aircraft guns, control tower, runways, hangars¼and pilot barracks.

For more information see:
Hughes Firebrand

No reinforcements from the locals, Charlie thought, bitterly. Just perfect. Fortunately, Norm had roused the rest of her squadron, so the Knights were there in full force, assembled into their standard two-group elements.

"All right, folks! Listen up!" Charlie barked. "On my signal: Group one, take out the Warhawks before they hit the barracks; Group two, follow me. We're gonna chew up some Peacemakers. "

For once, the Knights actually outnumbered their attackers. What the Peacemaker lacked in finesse it made up for with brute firepower, but the Bloodhawk's Mustang 30-caliber machine gun was still fairly effective close in. Adding the power of the Firebrand's 50-caliber cannon, a pirate craft in its sights wouldn't have a chance. Charlie was feeling pretty optimistic.

"It's a trap!" Jolson broke in. "Twelve o'clock! Zeppelin incoming¼ and she's got her boyfriends with her!"

For more information see:
P2 Warhawk
Colt Peacemaker

Charlie realized with horror that they'd fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the book. By underestimating the enemy's strength and numbers, she had failed to order some of her planes to remain above the formation as spotters.

Now she could see the military zeppelin escorted by a squadron of deadly Devastators dropping from above like black dragons. The few remaining Burbank fighters went up in flames from pinpoint rocket fire.

Charlie's stomach churned, but she had no choice:

"Move in, Knights!" she ordered. "Take 'em out hard and fast!"

She had sent the Knights into pitched battle before, but for the first time, she wasn't sure that they would win - or even survive.

The zeppelin's turret guns started chattering, smashing at the ground emplacements. While the zeppelin pounded the base, the escort fighters engaged the Knights. The Devastator pilots were good at their trade; cannon fire slammed into the Knight's line with precision. In seconds, at least two of the Knights' planes were billowing greasy smoke.

There wasn't time to call for a flanking maneuver. At the rate the Knights were taking damage, there weren't enough planes to make the maneuver effective anyhow.

With the new pirates, the odds had changed dramatically - the Knights were outnumbered three to one, and the enemy pilots clearly knew what they were doing.

Desperate to turn the tide of the battle, Charlie thumbed her cannons' trigger, sending magnesium rounds sizzling into the nearest pirate. The target plane, engine spitting gouts of flame, dropped its landing gear - the signal for surrender. Charlie kept her eye on the enemy plane long enough to be sure he couldn't try a zig-zag re-entry into the fray, then she radioed Gardner.

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"Steve, let's let some air out of that zep!"

"Roger that, Charlie! I'm with you!"

Together, the two Bloodhawks banked hard, turning to attack the silver juggernaut. Charlie knew the longer they waited, the more time the zep had to compensate for their maneuvers and bring her broadside guns into play, finishing off the pilot barracks. She was glad their planes - notoriously under-armed - had been specially modified with newer, more-powerful cannons.

Charlie signaled to Gardner that they would make a close pass alongside the zeppelin, spraying slugs into her starboard flank. With the possibility of catching turbulence from the zep's massive engines, it was a risky plan. The trick was to inflict enough damage while dodging incoming fire. The noise of battle added to the tension - the squad's static-laced voices, the shriek of twisting metal, the staccato rattle of machine guns, and the thrumming and whining of so many planes.

Charlie and Gardner bore down on the zep and skimmed along its side. This close, Charlie could hear the zing of her bullets as they pitted the zep's sleek metal skin. The smell of exhaust and smoke burned in her nose. Fueled by determination and adrenaline, Charlie worked the rudder pedals and the stick furiously, guiding a deadly stream of armor-piercing and magnesium rounds into the zeppelin's engine nacelles.

The engines exploded, sparking like fireworks as her bullets found their mark, and shrapnel and flame splashed across her canopy. She banked sharply, cutting across the zep's nose and guided her plane smoothly into a pushover roll as she prepared to come around for another pass.

"You still with me, Steve?" she shouted.

"Right behind you, Charlie. I think we rattled their cage that time!"

With the zep seriously damaged, Charlie figured that another pass would probably bring her down. As they came in for the second attack, the zep began to turn, breaking off from combat. The pirate fighters broke off as well, taking up escort positions while the thunderous reports of the zeppelin's guns discouraged pursuit.

Gardner let out a piercing whoop of victory that made Charlie's ears ring. "We got 'em on the run!" Charlie was relieved to have survived the fight, but angry that they hadn't been able to finish off the zep.

Charlie radioed the Knights, ordering them into formation. "Let's go home, gang!" Only three of the planes appeared to be relatively undamaged; the rest - including hers - sputtered, smoked, pitched and yawed, as the pilots fought to keep their shot-up fighters aloft. Charlie and Gardner nosed down for a landing. In the distance, she saw the flashing lights of local law enforcement and realized that someone - Norm? - must have called for ground-based back-up. She wanted really wanted to "chat" with the downed pirate pilot, but first she had to see to her squadron.

Charlie threw open the cockpit canopy and practically leapt from her plane. Mechanics - soot-streaked and haggard - sprayed fire extinguishers at her portside engine. The once-pristine paint job was now marred with bullet holes, fire damage and streaks of grease and oil.

"Damn," she whispered.

A sorry sight greeted her on the Burbank landing strip. Most of the militia planes were in flames. Black smoke filled the sky and the air reeked with the acrid smell of burning aviation fuel and melting rubber. One of the hangers was ablaze and a few of the men were trying to put it out before it spread; the planes inside were a total loss. The control tower was pitted from cannon fire, and it looked like a large bomb had made a total wreck out of the machine shop. Surveying the devastation, Charlie braced herself for the possibility of casualties.

Norm had gathered the Knights into a small office. They were a pretty bedraggled lot, but amazingly, no one had been killed. In fact, they were positively buoyant. Once Charlie assured herself that everyone was unhurt, her anger took over.

"Well, I'm glad that none of you jerks died out there."

Gruner piped up, "Thanks for the sentiment, Charlie."

"Look, you idiots! You're damn lucky you didn't die up there! They took us apart like amateurs! When you signed on, you were full of determination, you had a goal, and you worked hard. A couple of victories and a lot of champagne later, what have you become? Better pilots?" She slammed her fist into the wall in frustration, making everyone present jump. "No. You've fallen for all the Tinseltown hype. You all think you're in some Errol Flynn movie! Well, you're not! This is the real thing. If you get shot down, you're down for good."

"Charlie," Jolson said, "we're all pretty tired of you treating us like Boy Scouts on a wilderness survival march. We know the risks and just because we have a taste for life's finer things doesn't mean that we aren't as devoted to the 'cause' as you are. So let up on the throttle already. We're fine, we're safe, the pirates are gone, and we've even gotten ourselves a prize." The squad members all grinned at her expectantly.

Charlie clenched her fists tightly at her sides, fighting back the anger that threatened to consume her. Sure, they had a downed pirate, but at what cost? The militia forces were a wreck, as was the new landing field. Virtually every Knight plane was in need of repair, and they had barely escaped death. Silently, she spun on her heel and walked away, shaking her head in disgust.

She'd be damned if she'd let Loyle Crawford - or anyone else - call the Hollywood Knights "has-beens."

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