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Chapter One:
Champagne and Bullets

Chapter Two:
A Glass Half-Full

Interlude:
Two to Tango

Chapter Three:
Four Aces and a Queen

Chapter Four:
"X" Marks the Spot

Chapter Five:
Mayhem at Midnight

Interlude:
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 In the Mountains

- A Thrilling "Hollywood Knights" Adventure! -

By Nancy Berman with Noah Dudley


Chapter Two: A Glass Half-Full

Charlie Steele was sitting in front of the mirror at her dressing table when the phone rang, startling her out of her contemplation of the recent dogfight in the skies above Burbank. Her carmine-tipped fingernails tapped against the gilt-and-white instrument as she picked up the receiver.

"Yes?"

"Miss Charlie, your car will be ready in thirty minutes." Her chauffeur's gruff New York-accent brought her back to reality.

"Yes, thank you, Martin. I'll be right down."

"I'll be waitin', Miss Charlie."

Charlie hung up the phone and returned to putting the finishing touches on her make-up. Her gaze fell briefly on the engraved invitation for this evening's party. The Hollywood Knights were being honored at a gala banquet, to celebrate their "thrilling victory" against the pirate forces that had attempted to destroy the new Burbank airfield. Thrilling? Yes, if you called nearly dying a hundred ways 'thrilling.' Victory? Absolutely not.

For more information see:
Charlie Steele

The outcome of the battle had been close to total disaster. The new airfield was a wreck, most of the local militia planes were destroyed or damaged, and virtually every Knight in the sky that day took a lot of fire. Until their planes were repaired, the Knights were grounded.

For more information see:
The Hollywood Knights

When she looked in the mirror, she could see the public's image of the "glamorous Charlotte Steele." Shimmering platinum-blonde hair fell in soft waves around her face. Her violet eyes were large and clear, surrounded by feathery black lashes. Fortunately, she didn't have to use a lot of make-up to augment her naturally smooth complexion, which had just a tinge of color from the recent trip out to Foothill Ranch. A touch of lip rouge and she was finished. Fortunately, it was a beautiful summer evening, so she didn't need to worry about being chilly in her black backless Vionnet gown.

Her shoes tapped softly on the inlaid tile floor as she walked down the corridor from her bedroom and down the main staircase. She loved the beautiful house with its tiled floors, fountains, and alcoves. Certainly not the home one would expect for a tough-minded aviatrix, she thought, as she walked through the lush front garden to the car.

 

Martin Vitale opened the door for her before taking his place in the driver's seat. He had been her father's chauffeur for years. He was a rough-looking man, but absolutely devoted to the Steeles. Originally from New York City, he had come to the West Coast thirty years ago and had absolutely no intention of returning. "I ain't plannin' to shovel snow ever again and I don't envy them dopes what choose to stay there, that's for sure," he stated every winter when the first reports of snow in the East came across the news service.

The telephone in the right-hand sash pocket rang delicately and Charlie smiled as she picked it up.

"So, Your Highness, where d'ya want this pumpkin to take you tonight?"

Charlie laughed as she settled back against the plush cushioned seat. "We're off to Chasen's, I'm afraid."

Martin barked a laugh. "Ah, c'mon, Miss Charlie, don't you like payin' big bucks for a bowl'a chili?" Charlie smiled back at him and rolled her eyes. It wasn't that she didn't like Dave Chasen's restaurant, but the truth was that the chili wasn't as good as the firecracker stuff that Serena made at home. But the menu wasn't the problem; she was definitely not in a party mood tonight. All this hoopla over the Knights had gotten completely out of hand and she knew how close they had come to losing it all during the dogfight in Burbank. The closer Martin got to the corner of Beverly and Doheny, Charlie's unhappiness steadily deepened.

The reporters' cameras flashed like machine-gun fire when Martin pulled the exquisitely-maintained Cadillac up at the front of the restaurant. Even before the Knights had created such a public stir, Charlie had made quite a splash when she attended such gala events; tonight was certainly no exception. She was not only a celebrity for her wealth and beauty, but also for her leadership of the elite Nation of Hollywood air militia squadron.

For more information see:
The Nation of Hollywood

"This way, Miss Steele!..."

"One for the front page, Miss Steele!..."

""Hey, Charlie, lookin' good tonight!..."

Just before she entered the restaurant, she turned and smiled brightly, showing her new dress off to advantage as she stood under the green-and-white striped awning. She waved a black-gloved hand, then slipped inside, grateful to escape the blinding glare from the reporters' flash-bulbs. Dave Chasen himself greeted her with a kiss on the cheek.

"Well, well, Charlie, don't you look lovely tonight! Hollywood's very own goddess of the air." The famous restaurateur offered her his tuxedoed arm and escorted her to the banquet room. A lot of people called out to her and she waved and smiled, feeling tired even before she got to the receiving line.

"Dave, really, I'm just a pilot doing my job. I'm certainly no 'goddess.'"

"Honey, they don't give parties like this for 'just a pilot.'"

Charlie smiled ruefully and nodded. She patted his arm as he released her hand. "You're right, I guess. The place looks beautiful, by the way. Quite a crowd."

The vaudeville performer-turned-host looked around happily. "You bet, although there are days when I miss the old circuit and the barbecue shack. Oh well, that's the price of success, I guess. Keep 'em full 'n happy, that's what I say. You really look great tonight, kid." With that, Dave Chasen went off to greet other guests. Charlie took a deep breath and looked around for some champagne.

Surprisingly, she couldn't seem to flag down a waiter; the only person who caught her gaze was a handsome, deeply-tanned man - one of the guests, she thought - who flashed her a brilliant grin that hinted at mischief, appreciation... and promise. All he needs is a gold earring, she thought, and he'd be the perfect Hollywood picture of a sky pirate. She lost sight of him as the throng of partygoers swarmed around them... and then he was gone.

"Charlie!" The shouts of Steve "Glamour Boy" Gardner and Karl "Wrong-way" Gruner distracted her, and she dismissed the odd encounter. Her fellow pilots, exuberant and boisterous as ever, chattering at her enthusiastically and leading her to the dance floor where the evening's hostess, Mrs. Henry O'Mallory, greeted her effusively. Wife of one of the most successful attorneys in Hollywood, Mrs. O'Mallory loved to throw lavish parties, inviting a diverse group of artists, athletes, businessmen, and of course, the ever-present movie moguls and film stars.

"Miss Steele, what an honor to have you here tonight! Why, you and the Knights are really the only thing standing between us and complete barbarism! Mr. Chandler told us how incredibly brave you all were out there. Oh, I just shudder when I think about those dastardly pirates, don't you, Buffy dear?" As Mrs. O'Mallory paused for a breath, she had turned to a quiet young woman standing next to her. Dorothy Buffum Chandler was Harry Chandler's daughter-in-law and beginning to make a name for herself in local politics.

There was a slight twinkle in her eyes as she answered her hostess. "There, there, Mrs. O'Mallory, I'm sure that Miss Steele and the Knights are quite capable of keeping the pirates out of our bedrooms." Mrs. O'Mallory gasped with terror at the thought of such an intrusion and clasped her be-ringed hand to her ample bosom. Gardner and Gruner almost choked on their champagne as Charlie saw her opportunity to make a graceful escape.

"Lovely evening, Mrs. O'Mallory. Thank you so much for inviting us." She nodded conspiratorially to Buffy Chandler. "Very glad to meet you, Mrs. Chandler."

"Buffy, please... and I look forward to seeing you again, Charlie." The two young women shook hands and Charlie beat a hasty retreat, her two sputtering cohorts in tow.

She managed to get them over near a row of booths along the side of the main room. Gardner was feeling no pain at this point.

"Can you imagine some poor unsuspecting pirate finding himself trapped in Mrs. O's bedroom! He'd probably pay her to let him go," Gardner snickered.

Gruner guffawed loudly, slapping Gardner on the back and sending champagne flying out of their glasses. Charlie managed to dodge the golden dollup of Bollingers' before her dress was damaged. She glared at the two men.

"You two are disgusting! And drunk," she hissed

"But, Charlie, it's a party!"

"Everything is a party with you guys these days, isn't it? Next time, we aren't going to be as lucky as we were in Burbank."

"Spare us that old song-and-dance, at least for tonight, Charlie." The two walked away from her, leaning heavily on each other and laughing as they exchanged their half-full glasses for new flutes of expensive bubbly. She heard a burst of raucous laughter and saw Carmen Flores surrounded by a crowd of admirers vying for her attention. One of them had commandeered a bottle of champagne and another one was holding a tray with a bowl of caviar that he was feeding the beautiful aviatrix with a little mother-of-pearl spoon.

Charlie moved through the crowd in the other direction, catching snatches of conversations as she went:

"...there's no question that they are the modern Knights of the Round Table."

"I'm thinking of casting Brandy Noonan in my next feature film..."

"No, really, there we were - just a few of us and about fifty pirate planes..."

"Say, I can fly as well as they do..."

"...so, how d'ya think they'd do against the Broadway Bombers?"

"...but I'm not sure whether they could defend us against someone really tough like 'Marshal' Redmann..."

Charlie felt a wave of claustrophobia descend upon her, as if the peering eyes and prying questions were physical walls closing in on her. Fumbling through the crowd, she found herself outside Dave Chasen's private office. She knocked, hoping that no one was there and she could grab a few minutes of peace. She wanted to get away from the lights and the chatter and the insufferable egos of her crew members. Just for a few minutes, to regain her composure.

"Come in." Relief flooded her as she heard Dave's voice from behind the door. She opened it and stepped into an oasis of quiet.

"Good evening, Charlotte." She was surprised to see Dave Chasen and Norm Houston sitting across from each other.

"Mind if I hole up here for a while?" she asked. "It's getting a little thick out there."

A lean man in a white tuxedo, seated near the window - partially obscured by his chair back and the pools of shadow that bordered the room - spoke, startling Charlie. A glass of something that looked like whisky straight up sat on the windowsill near him.

"I see that someone else is tiring of this overly-effusive paean to the heroes of the hour," he said.

Charlie flung herself onto the couch near the Houston and Chasen. "God, yes! I don't know what I hate more: the fawning people or my inebriated crew."

She leaned forward, concern marking her beautiful face. "We almost didn't make it out of that scrape over Burbank yesterday. We flew like rookies out there. We should have lost. And they're calling us 'heroes.'"

The man in the shadows responded quietly, "Then do something about it, Charlotte. Do something quickly, before you have to bury more of your friends."

Charlie put her face in her hands for a moment as she thought of Jimmy Vega, then ran her fingers down the side of her cheeks as she raised her head. "I'm so tired of what the Knights have become. I just don't know whether it's even worth keeping the group together any more. I can't go through this every time we fly. I was so worried about everyone that I wasn't paying attention to the enemy and the price for that was almost more than we - than I - could pay."

Norm cleared his throat and brought his chair to the carpet. "Charlie, you've done a great job. You can't blame yourself for this. These are rich kids who aren't used to schedules and discipline. They've done some amazing stuff, but we're going to have to come up with a way to get them to buckle down."

Charlie laughed raggedly. "I don't suppose we could just dock their allowance or lock them in their rooms without dinner?"

The man in the shadows stood, grabbing the whisky glass and draining it in one fluid motion. He smiled thinly at Charlie's attempt at humor. "Unfortunately, even in Hollywood, there are laws about involuntary incarceration, although a few weeks at an isolated boot camp might not be a bad idea. However, we cannot afford the publicity if the entire group disappeared, especially you, Charlotte."

"I know, dammit. It was a lot easier when no one knew who we were. Now they know every time one of us-"

"Charlotte," the man interjected, "there is no point in wasting your energy feeling sorry for yourself. You've made a decision and now you must live with it. What did the police learn about the pirates?"

 

Grateful to have something else to focus on, Charlie pulled herself together. "Not much, I'm afraid. The guy we caught wasn't very talkative, but we do know that the pirates came from Sky Haven in Free Colorado."

For more information see:
Free Colorado

"Ah," he mused. "Sky Haven. The modern Tortuga. The pirates there have access to anything their neighbors have parked on a runway or in a hangar. Beyond that, I'm afraid we know almost nothing about them, other than the fact that they have - had - at least one zeppelin. My sources tell me that it was apparently too damaged to make the trip home and has taken refuge somewhere east of the San Gabriels. With one of their prizes gone missing, I suspect that Sky Haven now represents a direct threat to the Nation of Hollywood."

"They sure do," said Norm. "Charlie and I can figure out something to deal with 'em, I suppose. But it's gonna take more than enforced drills and practice to get the Knights up and running; we'll need to hit 'em where it hurts - in their egos."

Charlie began pacing the richly-carpeted office. "What I wouldn't give to have the squadron back in fighting trim right now. We could fly right into the heart of Sky Haven and give 'em hell!"

The man in the white tuxedo leaned forward intently. "Your enthusiasm is admirable, Charlotte, but this is going to take more than clever aerobatics. We have enough information to know that Sky Haven is an extremely dangerous place, but no one has been able to get close enough to find out the true extent of their power. Norman, it appears that you and Charlotte are going to have to solve this problem, and soon. I'll do what I can to help, but you understand..."

Norm took a slug of whiskey and looked over at the anxious aviatrix. "I dunno if it would help, but I've got a couple of markers that probably could be called in right about now. I might have the answer to the problem, but I need a day or two to arrange a meeting. How about your place, Charlie? I don't think we should get together at the airfield; one of the Knights just might decide to take a practice flight."

Charlie snorted derisively. "Oh, that I'd like to see! You're probably right, Norm. My father is going away to film on location, so we'll have some privacy and we won't attract any attention the way we would if we met somewhere in public. Right now, I've had about as much publicity as I can stand."

 

The man in the white tuxedo set down his empty glass. "Well, it seems that you have much to discuss, but I'm afraid I must be going." He turned towards Charlie, smiling more warmly this time. "Charlotte, the Knights planes will be refitted and ready to fly by the end of the week. Firebrands first, I'm afraid. The Bloodhawks will take a little extra time."

For more information see:
Hughes Bloodhawk
Firebrand

"Thank you Mr. Hughes," she replied.

"It sounds like you are onto something, Norman. Charlotte, I suggest you enjoy the party, since its likely to be the last real relaxation you get for a while. When you are ready to leave, may I suggest that you exit through the kitchen? I have taken the liberty of arranging for Martin to meet you out back."

"You think of everything, Mr. Hughes." She smiled at the Knights' strange benefactor, who nodded slightly, sighed, and quietly moved to the door. As he grasped the handle, he turned to face Charlie, his intense gaze unrelenting.

"You've got a challenging task ahead of you, Charlotte. I'm sure that you and Norman will succeed in your plan." He paused. "I do not think I'm being too dramatic when I say that the fate of the nation rests with you."

Without waiting for a reply, he exited the room.

"I guess that's our cue, boys," Charlie said. "We've got a party to attend."

As she moved back into the turbulent crowd of Hollywood's elite, Charlie did not see the handsome, dark-haired stranger, standing in a corner, watching her intently, a rakish smile on his face...



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