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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 In the Mountains

- A Thrilling "Hollywood Knights" Adventure! -

By Nancy Berman with Noah Dudley

Chapter Three: Four Aces and a Queen

Norm Houston pointed to the "Private Driveway" sign. "Turn in here," he told the driver. The stunned silence in the car was testament to the reaction of the passengers.

As the car drove slowly down the winding drive to the house, one of the men in the back seat whistled appreciatively. "My, my, the little princess certainly lives in a nice castle."

Norm chuckled. "Nothing but the best for the Steele family." The car came to a stop in front of a large Spanish-style front door and five men, including Norm Houston, got out. As he shut the door of the late model sedan, he added "But I wouldn't advise calling Charlie Steele 'a little princess' to her face."

Charlie checked the arrangements one more time. She planned to entertain Norm and his guests on the terrace overlooking the Olympic-sized pool, since it was a beautiful early fall day.

Despite the beauty of the day, she was still struggling to calm her unease. She had to get things straightened out with the Knights. They had become sloppy and lazy, preferring to bask in the limelight of stardom eagerly provided by reporters, fawning hostesses, and a growing fandom that worshipped them for their glamour rather than their flying ability. They were going to get a dose of reality and if all went as planned, they would come to their senses and return to the serious business of defending the Nation of Hollywood.

For more information see:
Charlie Steele

The doorbell chimed, announcing the arrival of her guests. She reached the top of the landing as Serena ushered Norm and four young men into the foyer.

"Hiya, Charlie. I'd like you to meet a coupl'a my old buddies," Norm drawled. "I thought we could all just spend the afternoon talkin' about flyin' n' stuff." Norm grinned at Charlie, who took his hint to stay relaxed and let him ease into the business at hand.

"Gentlemen, welcome. It's always a pleasure to meet Norm's friends. Shall we adjourn to the terrace?"

She gestured back towards the terrace and led them through the spacious living room and out through a pair of leaded glass French doors. One of the visitors, a stocky older man, whistled in appreciation as he looked out over the gardens.

"That's quite a garden, Miss Steele. It rather reminds me a bit of home." It was clear from his accent that "home" was somewhere in Britain.

"Thank you. The landscaper is particularly fond of maze gardens and couldn't resist. And it's Charlie." She held out her hand in greeting.

"Oh lord, where are my manners? Must be livin' out here on the frontier that's done away with all the social niceties," Norm chimed in, his accent thickening noticeably. Everyone laughed and Norm did the introductions.

"Gentlemen, this is Charlie Steele, as you know. Charlie, this misbegotten lot are some of the best in the business and I'm honored to count them as friends and colleagues." Norm had dropped the hayseed accent and Charlie could tell that she was in for an afternoon of serious business. They poured themselves drinks from the cart and settled down comfortably.

"Howard Easton here—we call him 'Sonny'—fought in the Great War. Started out as a kid flying a crop-duster and got pretty good at handling his machine at really low altitudes and through tight spaces. He's one of the best marksmen I've ever seen. I don't think there's a gun he can't shoot."

During the introduction, Charlie watched the expression on the face of the tall rangy Midwesterner. He seemed to have a permanent scowl etched across his features and she wondered if he was uncomfortable. When she looked into his slate-gray eyes, she realized that she had only seen such grim determination in the eyes of other returning veterans, men who would never be able to escape the horrors they had witnessed on the killing fields of France and Germany.

Howard Easton extended a slender, work-hardened hand. In a soft-spoken voice, he said, "Pleased to meet you, Charlie." The handshake was strong, brief, and business-like. She sensed that this was a man who preferred to let his actions speak for him.

Without waiting for Norm, the next man jumped into the conversation.

"I'm James Hale, ma'am. Call me Jimbo." Charlie heard a trace of New England in his accent. She was a little surprised that she liked him right away—not in a romantic way, but rather like a rakish younger brother who is always getting himself into scrapes and fast-talking his way out. Hale had a twinkle in his blue eyes as they shook hands.

Norm grinned at Hale. "Jimbo here can fix just about any engine. He also developed quite a taste for blowing up bridges and bunkers overseas, but he hasn't been able to find a big need for that back home."

"These two here," Norm continued, gesturing at the remaining two men, "are our imports from across the Pond. This bouncy guy is Colin Carter. We call him 'Lightning.' He's got the fastest hands I've ever seen. Definitely the guy you want with you in a dark alley."

Carter blushed slightly under his freckled complexion and brushed his unruly red hair off his forehead. Green eyes appraised Charlie with a direct gaze. "Just so you know right up front, Miss Steele, I don't have a problem with taking orders unless they're stupid. If they're stupid, I'll be telling you so in no uncertain terms."

She took a sip of her iced tea, continuing to look hold Carter's gaze. "Fortunately, Mr. Carter, I never give stupid orders."

Carter threw back his head and laughed with delight. "I think we'll get on just fine, Charlie."

The fourth man had been sitting back in his chair, watching the interaction. He possessed striking, classical good looks: straight dark hair, warm brown eyes, a slightly aquiline nose, and a cleft in his chin. Charlie pictured him in a maroon smoking jacket with a pipe and a glass of brandy. And probably a hound asleep at his feet, she thought. She was not surprised to hear the voice of a British aristocrat as he rose from the chair and walked over to her, kissing the hand that she extended in greeting.

"Terrence Devonshire, Miss Steele. It is indeed a pleasure to make your acquaintance." What she did not expect was the rapid shift in accent as he continued to talk. "Ow, ya fell for that one right enough, lass. Terry Potter is me name, just a bloke from the docks. None'a that posh stuff's fer real." He grinned at her as he settled back into the chair.

"Well, Mr. Terrence Devonshire-Potter, welcome to Hollywood. Something tells me you'll fit in just fine in this town."

"Merci, Mademoiselle Steele, c'est un vrai plaisir pour moi." Devonshire-Potter began rambling in a perfect Parisian accent as Norm broke in on the antics.

"Charlie, Terry here has got a hundred voices and disguises, some of which he perfected while enjoying the hospitality of the Kaiser. Lucky for him no one could tell that he wasn't born in Vienna, or things mighta' gotten ugly. Now, if he could just stay away from the baccarat tables and the beautiful dames, he'd be a lot better off."

"Well, old bean, I'd certainly be a lot richer, but I'm afraid I just cannot resist a sure thing." Devonshire looked at Charlie with open admiration and more than a hint of interest. She arched an eyebrow and cocked her head slightly, as if questioning his intentions.

"Well, Charlie," Norm interjected, "I've filled the boys in a bit on our plan, but I think we'd all like to hear the rest from you." Now's my chance, she thought to herself. If I'm going to save the Knights, it starts here.

"Gentlemen, if you'll follow me." Charlie rose and beckoned the five men to accompany her. Drinks in hand, they crossed the spacious living room and the foyer to another wing of the house.

When Charlie first conceived of the Hollywood Knights, she turned one of the guest rooms into a combination office and war room, filling it with maps, charts, file cabinets, a large desk, and an immense table that dominated the center. She could tell that the flyers were impressed with the amount of data, and she sensed that they were beginning to realize that she was more than a pretty little rich girl who was flying around for thrills.

For more information see:
Hollywood Knights

"Norm's told you how the Knights got started. Basically, they are a great group of talented pilots, but I'm afraid that the publicity has gotten to them and our true purpose has been lost in a whirl of parties and celebrity. The situation is now untenable, and not just because we need to protect the Nation of Hollywood from local marauders like Los Lobos Negros. We are now faced with a newer—and larger—threat."

She had been pacing during her speech and when she paused, she caught Norm's eye. He nodded slightly, urging her to continue.

"You all probably heard about the raid on the Burbank airfield last week," she said.

"Champion Field?" Devonshire asked. "I understand those chaps on the ground took quite a pasting, though the papers say that it was a small matter."

"The papers are dead wrong. A pirate battle zep with escorts decided to pay us a little visit from Sky Haven. What the papers neglected to mention was that we got our tails kicked and we almost lost the fight. We weren't outnumbered—at least not at first—and we weren't outgunned. But we were damn sure out-flown.

"I chalk that up to laziness on our part," Charlie continued. "Although the Knights were originally 'rich kids' and actors, they have talent and they used to have the discipline and drive to go with it. Until that raid last week, things around here have been pretty quiet and I think that's part of the problem.

"We managed to shoot up the zep pretty badly. We're not sure where it ended up, though the police believe it is holed up here"—she gestured to a grid on the map—"somewhere along the San Gabriel mountains. And yes, there's a lot of territory to lose a zep in out there." Her guests' nonchalant, playful demeanor was gone, replaced instead with professional concentration.

"Unfortunately, we don't have a specific location for the enemy," she continued. "The first part of my plan involves bracing our pirate friend who is currently cooling his heels in a cell downtown.

"Leaving that aside for the moment, we've got two goals here, which fortunately complement each other," Charlie said. "Sky Haven doesn't let anyone in who isn't a pirate, so I need a 'pirate squad' with a bad rep… but also one that I can trust. I don't want the Knights to go looking for trouble until they're back in shape. I can't get them to practice regularly because they aren't children and they aren't soldiers, but they do have egos so that's where I'm going to aim my firepower. You gentlemen are my guns."

"My plan is challenging, I'll admit. Under my leadership, you'll form a secret new squadron. Don't worry about aircraft; that's already been arranged. First, we'll nab the zep from under the pirates' noses and take it to a private installation where we can give it a facelift and get it ready for its flight to Sky Haven."

For more information see:
Free Colorado

Carter frowned. "You're planning to return the zep to the pirates?"

Charlie's smiled archly. "Not exactly, Mr. Carter. Eventually, we're going to return with the zep, or perhaps I should say in the zep. But that's Part Three of my plan. Before we get to that, I'm going to continue pounding on the Knights. Hopefully, they'll come to their senses, but as an added incentive, a new group of 'very dangerous pirates' is going to launch a daring surprise attack on the unsuspecting Hollywood Knights."

She pointed to a spot on the map. "Kind of like an unannounced 'drill.' Norm and I will coordinate the maneuvers so that no one gets hurt, and if it looks like the mission is going South, I'll put a stop to it and our covers be damned. But this is the only way that I can be sure that the Knights are ready to return to serious action. And as an added benefit, this new band of pirates will earn themselves a ticket into Sky Haven."

Carter looked up from the map. "Now hang on, missy. That's a pretty tall order."

"I know it is, but from what Norm has told me, you all can handle it. Listen, I'm not going to bat my eyes at you or beg. Let's be clear from the start that this is a business proposition. You will be well-compensated for your participation."

Devonshire (or Potter; Charlie stifled a grin when she realized that she still wasn't sure what the charming rogue's name actually was) rested both hand on the map table and gazed boldly at Charlie. "How well?"

She drew back from the table and began to pace, as if ignoring his challenging question. "Well enough, Mr. Potter, to get a rather forceful loan shark off your six once and for all." The Brit looked away sheepishly. "And for the rest of you, enough to make your stay here in Hollywood quite comfortable, with a tidy sum left over. The pirates undoubtedly have captured loot; there will be finders' fees for its safe return. In short, gentlemen," Charlie said, "there's a lot of potential profit to be made here."

She looked at each of the men, gauging their response to the plan. Devonshire was the first to respond.

"Count me in, Miss Steele. I hate sharks."

Carter and Hale voiced their assent, and Easton nodded. She grinned at Norm and walked over to the wet bar. She pulled a bottle of champagne out of the ice and popped the cork expertly. Although Sonny Easton flinched slightly at the sound, he managed as close as he ever got to a grin. Charlie poured for each, then raised her crystal flute in a toast.

"Welcome aboard, gentlemen."

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