Charlie Steele and the Menace In the Mountains
- A Thrilling "Hollywood Knights" Adventure! -
By Nancy Berman with Noah Dudley
Chapter Ten: Don't Look Back
"Hold it right there."
The two pirate guards moved into view, exiting the tree line and brandishing Tommy guns. "What the hell is going on here?"
"Now what do we do, Nathan?" Charlie Steele whispered.
There was no response. She tried to spot her would-be rescuer, the pirate Nathan Zachary, to no avail.
He was gone.
The two pirates moved closer, raising their weapons. Charlie's gaze shot frantically around the area, looking for something, anything, to use as a weapon.
The guards' fingers tensed on the triggers of their .45 caliber machine guns, seconds away from spraying a lethal hail of fire at her
and a figure burst from the shadows, moving quickly up behind the two pirates and slamming into them like a freight train. There was a flurry of punches and then silence.
"You cut that one a little close, didn't you, Zachary?" Charlie quipped.
Zachary dusted himself off, surveying the two unconscious guards. He grabbed one of the Tommy guns and smiled. "Better late than never, Miss Steele."
More shouts rang out from the woods, and Nathan's smile vanished. "Move it, Charlie," he growled. "Get to your plane...and get the hell out of here. And for God's sake, next time stay out of Free Colorado!"
He shoved her towards the landing field and faded back into the darkened woods.
Charlie caught a glimpse of scores of pirates coming out of the woods, and the deadly flicker-flashes of gunfire strobed eerily in the dark. Bullets crashed through the foliage and ricocheted madly around her.
To Charlie, the world seemed to shift into slow motion. She turned and sprinted towards her plane, fully expecting that last, deadly burst of gunfire to slam into her back.
Even though part of her knew that she had reached her plane at a dead run, she felt like she was running in place, like in a bad dream. The sounds of revving engines and propellers ratcheting up their rotation were muffled in the early morning fog, and the shouting was getting louder and more frantic, like a battle scene in a war movie.
Except, of course, she was living the battle, not passively watching it.
She leaped onto the wing of her plane, tears running down her face from the icy morning wind and the fumes from the Ravens' planes.
As she dove into the cockpit, the zing of bullets whizzed above her head, bringing her back with a jolt to reality. As she started up the engine, she struggled to keep focused, to ignore the sounds of approaching guards and gunfire, and concentrate on getting her crate into the air.
Any minute now, the field would be flooded with armed Sky Haveners who would probably be happy to shoot the Ravens dead where they sat. The moment of exhilaration she had felt at being free swiftly turned into frantic terror as she realized that her plane might become her coffin.
She slapped on her leather helmet and jammed the headphones down over her ears as she began flipping switches on the dashboard.
"Charlie! Are you all right?" It was Potter on the radio and Charlie didn't think she had ever been so glad to hear anyone's voice in her life.
"Yes! I'm fine! What the hell is going on?" she shouted.
"The endgame, love. We've got about a minute to get out of here before"
A series of explosions drowned out the rest of Potter's reply. Flames sprouted from the main hangar where Karl Regen's treasured zep was berthed. Charlie realized that this must have been the "diversion" Zachary had mentioned.
But was Easton safe? As grateful as she was for his efforts, she hoped the quiet veteran hadn't pulled some heroic self-sacrificing stunt to save the rest of the squad.
"Potter!" she called into the radio. "Where the hell is Easton?"
More explosions ripped through the hangar, blossoming fire and smoke. Charlie snapped off the radio in disgust; between Easton's pyrotechnics and the commotion she couldn't hear a word of Potter's reply.
Her primary task now was to get herself off the runway and out of Sky Haven, but that was easier said than done. A fierce fire had begun to spread to other buildings, making visibility extremely poor. Oily black smoke roiled up through a huge blasted-out hole in the hangar's roof.
She could see another Raven plane moving to take offis that Norm?and she tried the radio one more time. The static on the channel hampered her ability to hear anyone else in the squad, and the smoke and fog made finding the rest of the Ravens visually a difficult proposition at best.
The hell with it, she thought. She clicked to the squadron frequency and yelled into the radio: "Ravens: we are leaving. Scramble and rendezvous five miles south."
She eased the throttle forward, praying that no one on foot was in her way. The propwash blasted a path through the smoke, and she could see pirates diving for cover. She mashed down the left rudder pedal, sending the Devastator into a slow, counter-clockwise spin. As the prop cleared the fog and haze from her field of view, she could see a handful of jeeps and dozens of pirates moving to block her path to the runway. Already, a number of vehicles were parked on the taxiway, an inelegantbut effectiveblockade.
She grinned fiercely...and squeezed the trigger on her control stick.
The Devastator's four .40-caliber cannons roared, sending streams of magnesium rounds sizzling overhead. The pirates dove for cover as Charlie's fire found a nearby stack of oil drums.
With a jarring crash, the drums exploded, shooting into the air like rockets.
Several of the pirates broke and ran, their resolve forgotten. Charlie could just make out Karl Regen, standing in the back of one of the jeeps, screaming at his men to finish her off.
"Finish this off, Karl," she muttered.
Regen turned and saw Charlie just in the nick of time. He dove from the jeep and ran for cover just as the aviatrix launched a quartet of rockets at the makeshift barricade.
The vehicles detonated spectacularly as the high-explosive rockets blasted them into tinfoil.
More shrapnel rained down, this time clattering across the wings of Charlie's Devastator. A large shard of steel streaked at the plane like an arrow, embedding itself deep in the canopy and creating spidery cracks across Charlie's field of vision. More fiery debris rained down on the Devastator and Charlie could smell smoke.
"Ravens: I've taken some damage to my canopy, and I think I may have taken a hit," she called out on the radio. "Can anybody see how bad I'm hurt?"
"Just get airborne, Charlie! Now!" Potter shouted. "You're fine! Just take off and don't look back! We're out of time!"
Charlie rammed the throttle forward, and was rewarded with the Devastator's characteristic rumbling roar. The plane surged forward, moving quickly through the burning debris field across the taxiway.
As the plane began to roll, she tried to see what happening to her left, but there was too much fog and smoke to get a clear view. She thought she might have seen someoneZachary?facing down an armed pirate, but she couldn't be sure.
There wasn't anything she could do for him now.
Charlie was slammed forward against her harness as the biggest explosion yet ripped through the hangar behind her, pushing the Devastator in front of it. The main hangar was now fully engulfed in flames, sending metal bits flying through the air in all directions. Little rattling noises rapped sharply in her ears as bits of debris peppered the tail of her plane. Pure instinct took over as she finished the take-off maneuver and the plane lifted into the dim morning sky, seeking shelter amongst the clouds. She banked slightly to the right but all she could really see was mass of black smoke and angry red flames.
"Are we all away, then?" Potter initiated the radio check-in.
All the Ravens, including Easton, had escaped the hellish scene on the ground, and were heading for home.
Nathan Zachary watched from the shelter of a dense clump of bushes as the Ravens took off into the clouds. By his feet, one of the Sky Haveners lay in the dirt, out cold from an encounter with Zachary's wicked right cross. No need to kill the kid, he thought, just knock him out long enough to get to safety.
So far, so good. No one had seen him help Charlie; he'd managed to deck everyone he came across in the combat zone. Maybe this dizzy rescue attempt was going to work, after all.
As the first explosions burst from the hangar, he ran in a jagged pattern, ducking and darting, until he reached the far side of the airfield where his own plane was parked.
"Don't move, Zachary," a familiar, feminine voice said, accompanied by the oily, metallic click of a revolver's hammer being cocked.
Damn, he thought. He spun, bringing his own pistol to bear.
Harmony Brown stood, silhouetted by the fire from the hangar, her gun pointed at the pirate. "Why did you do it, Zachary?" she said, her voice laced with anger and pain. "How could you sell us out to the Hollywood militia? To her?"
"I didn't sell you out, Harmony," Zachary replied quietly, his voice even and level, devoid of its typical bombast. "Charlie Steele and her boys made their own way in here. I just helped them find their way back out.
"And as for Charlie Steele," he continued, "Well, I don't think even you wanted to see what Karl would have done to her. I sure as hell didn't."
He lowered his gun. "You don't really want to shoot me, Harmony. I know you better than that."
"So why shouldn't I hand you to Karl?" she demanded. "Maybe I can't shoot you, but he damn well can."
"Because, this fiasco will weaken Karl's hold on Sky Haven. That's a good thing for sure...for everyone, including you. And because you'd have to shoot me before I'd let that happen.
"Can you do it?" he concluded. "Can you shoot me in the back?"
He turned his back on Harmony, and started to walk away.
"Damn you, Zachary!" she yelled. Zachary paused, turning back to face her.
"No, I can't shoot you," she growled, "and I'll keep my mouth shut about this. I owe you that much."
She walked over to Zachary and punched him square in the jaw, sending the pirate straight to the ground.
"But we're through, you bastard. And if Charlie Steele ever shows her face here again, I'm going to blow her right out of the sky."
Nathan rubbed his sore jaw, chuckling ruefully. Not a lot to show for this trip, he thought. I didn't get the girl, I've made a mortal enemy out of Karl Regen if he ever finds out I helped spring Charlie, and Sky Haven is a wreck. His jaw ached like crazy, too; apparently the lovely Miss Brown could throw a punch like Joe Louis.
For now, it was time to head back to the Pandorahis zeppelinand nurse what appeared to be a broken right hand. The temptation to fly west was strong, but that would have to wait for another day.
But he knew that he had to see Charlie Steele again. Zachary had known a lot of beautiful, capable womenHarmony Brown, Lady Kali, even the Black Swanbut Charlie was different.
She was an intriguing combination of brains and beauty, vulnerability and fierce independence, and a smoldering sensuality that he definitely wanted to explore further. Zachary began to hum the tune of a tango to himself as he pointed his plane southward.
Maybe the trip hadn't been a total waste. The world was full of possibilities, after all.
Charlie had taken the hottest, most luxurious bath of her life, followed by a long, deep sleep that was blessedly free of nightmares. Although they had been gone less than a week on the expedition to Sky Haven, she felt like she had been gone a year. Fortunately, her father was still out of town, so she didn't have to answer a lot of questions; Edward Steele would have been very displeased at Charlie's dangerous undertaking. At least Serena appeared to believe her when she said that she'd gone camping as she dumped her filthy clothes into the laundry hamper. Maybe her father would buy the cover story, too.
But probably not, Charlie groused to herself. The man can smell a lie a mile off.
Life, it appeared, was returning to normal. There were the usual parties to attend, flying lessons to take, and meetings to arrange with the Knights, who were finally introduced formally to the "Death Ravens." Thank heaven for Potter's sense of the absurd, as he was able to deflect any resentment from the old squad with his usual antics, and peace was restored.
Once the Knights had a chance to get to know the quartet of veterans, Charlie was sure that they would find their new colleagues to be a valuable resource, which would only make the Knights stronger. To that end, the Ravens had been hired as "consultants" to the Hollywood Knights, where they would continue to act as a covert strike and infiltration squadron. Provided they could keep their names and faces out of the papers, she thought. That'll just kill Hamlet.
She tried to keep herself busy but thoughts about Zachary would creep into her mind at the strangest times. She would sometimes remember how he had looked sprawled in the chair in Regen's office or when he had run down the road towards her the first morning that she was at Sky Haven. She kept hearing his voice, like a whisper just behind her.
Without wanting to appear like a lovesick schoolgirl, she had queried Norm and Potter about Zachary, under the guise of "learning all there was to know about the Nation of Hollywood's enemies." She suspected that both of her comrades saw through the thin charade, but fortunately they were too polite to tease her about it.
There wasn't much to learn: Zachary was mysterious and adept at covering his tracks. She learned a bit from newspaper and newsreel archiveshe was former pilot in the Great War, Rickenbacker's wingman of all things; a former Wall Street tycoon who turned pirate a few months after the Crash of '29; reputed to be a good pilot. Little else was known, but Charlie was sure of one thing:
Nathan Zachary and his pirate gang, the Fortune Hunters, wouldn't stay unknowns for long.
One evening, two weeks after the escape from Sky Haven, Charlie was out for a drive. She found herself in front of Chasen's and realized belatedly that it was actually dinnertime, and that she was fairly hungry.
She pulled her car around to the back of the restaurant and parked. As she walked through the kitchen, she was greeted by the staff who didn't seem to find her presence at all unusual. She wasn't the only celebrity who chose to come in through the back door to avoid the inevitable posse of lurking shutterbugs and reporters.
When Dave Chasen saw her, he hurried over and gave her a warm hug. "Charlie!" he exclaimed, clearly delighted. "I haven't seen you for weeks! Where have you been? Hungry? Let me get you a table."
She didn't really have time to give her host a detailed answer to his questions, which was probably just as wellthe mission had been declared Top Secret by no less than President Dunbar.
Dave Chasen seated her in a quiet corner, right near the door to the private terrace, the site of her first encounter with Nathan Zachary. Her usual drink ordervodka and tonic, very coldarrived.
She ignored the door to the terrace.
She ordered lamb chops and a salad. She sat quietly, pushing the lime in her drink around the glass with the little cocktail sword for a minute or two...and steadfastly vowed to continue ignoring the memories that Chasen's sparked.
A moment later, she sighed, and rose abruptly...and went out onto the terrace.
She felt like a heel, like a silly child with a crush, but she couldn't help herself. There was just something about that pirate...
She stood looking at the little area as memories of the night she met Zachary came flooding back into her mind. She closed her eyes for a moment and thought she could actually hear the strains of the tango that had been playing. As she touched the little Indian braceleta good luck charm that she had procured during the missionshe heard the terrace door open with a soft click and she held her breath in anticipation.
"Your dinner is served, Miss Steele."
The waiter's polite voice broke through the reverie, bringing her back to the present like a splash of cold water.
She turned and walked through the door without looking back.
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