Charlie Steele and the Menace In the Mountains
- A Thrilling "Hollywood Knights" Adventure! -
By Nancy Berman with Noah Dudley
Chapter Four: "X" Marks the Spot
"Chief Merrill, Miss Steele is here to see you."
Hollywood Police Chief Archibald Merrill's habitual scowl deepened.
"Perfect. Just perfect," Merrill grunted. "First pirates, now a dame who fancies herself an 'air ace.' This week is just getting better and better.
"Well," Merrill sighed, not bothering to hide his distaste. "Better show the little princess in, Patrolman."
Charlie Steele struggled to hide her own discomfort as she cast her gaze around Merrill's office. The room felt more like a lair than an office to Charlie; crumpled papers, half-empty coffee cups and cigar butts covered every available surface. Somewhere beneath the overpowering odor of cigar smoke that permeated the room, she could swear she smelled dirty socks. At her side, Terry Potter grimaced.
"Ah, Hollywood's finest," he whispered to her.
"Good morning, Chief Merrill," she said with a lot more warmth than she felt. Archie Merrill's opinionsparticularly about "lazy, overpaid, overprivileged militia flyers"were well-documented in a weekly column in Hollywood Today, the nation's largest regular newspaper.
His familyas he grandly announced to anyone who would listenhad come from the old Midwest and he was proud of what he called his "hard-working pioneer values." (The fact that these "values" included fat, foul-smelling cigars, a lot of bootleg gin, and women of questionable virtue didn't seem to bother Merrill.) To be fair, he was hard on criminals, so most of the voters overlooked his personal foibles.
"To what do we owe the honor of your visit this morning, Miss Steele?" Merrill lingered over the "Miss" just long enough to infuse it with sarcasm.
"We'd like to talk to a prisoner, Chief," she replied. "The pirate I downed in the raid on Champion Field."
Merrill blurted out a mirthless laugh. "Oh, you would, would you? Look, sweetie: this is a police station and we've got work to do. You hotshot pilots may think you own the skies, but down here on the ground, well, you're in my jurisdiction. Keep your head in the clouds, lady. We'll handle the real work." His comment was punctuated by another puff of evil-smelling cigar smoke.
Charlie smiled icily at the porcine Chief and responded without raising her voice. "According to militia observers, your interrogation has so far been unproductive." She paused. "Mr. Hughes and President Dunbar asked me to express their thanks for your cooperation in this matter, which they have assured me you will provide. If you'd prefer, I'll take the matter up with them."
She studiously ignored the dark look of rage that clouded his already-unpleasant features. "What's the harm, Chief?" she asked, softening her arch tone. "If we get something out of him, you'll be a hero. If we get nothing, well, you'll have more material for your newspaper column. You win either way."
"Okay, Miss Steele," he said gruffly. "But if you step one inch out of line, I'll slam you both into a cell with him."
The prisoner was seated dejectedly in a small, windowless holding room. The interrogation chamber was starkly lit by a single naked bulb dangling overhead. The room was dank, humid and uncomfortably hot, and the fetid aroma of mildew, sweat and panic assaulted her as Charlie entered.
The captured pilot was older than she expected, maybe in his mid-40s, medium height and build. He was unshaven, scruffy and unpleasant. His face was puffy and bruised where Merrill's interrogators had clearly plied their trade with enthusiasm. He cast his hollow, tired gaze on her, then returned to staring at the floor.
"Thank you, Officer, I'll be fine," she said as she waved off a sergeant, who took up his post just outside the door. She took a seat across from the grizzled pirate.
"I need to ask you a few questions," she said, smiling.
The man's answer was stony silence.
"It must be pretty awful for you in here," she continued, unperturbed by his refusal to speak. "I'm sure its quite a change from what you're used to. And that god-awful cigar smoke! I don't know which is worse: Merrill or his stogies. I know I'd give anything for a breath of mountain air after that." She was chattering away as if they were at a cocktail party, instead of sitting in a dreary holding cell.
"Look, lady: save the patter. I ain't got nothin' to say to you," the pirate growled.
"That's a pity. It's understandable though. I've heard stories about 'pirate honor' for years. I particularly enjoy the bits about how you consider yourselves members of a brotherhood, 'silent unto the grave,' and all that jazz.
"Kind of hard to understand, really," she continued, smiling. "If my squadronmates left me to cool my heels in your custody, I'd feel no great loyalty to them."
The pirate glared angrily as Charlie's words found their mark.
"Now, I'm not here to hurt you. This doesn't have to be unpleasant. I just want to find out where your gang is holed up, and how to get into Sky Haven."
The pirate sneered. "Fat chance, sister."
"You know," she said casually, standing and looking around the cell. "I've heard some other stories, too. For example, I've heard dozens of stories about police beating guys like you to death during interrogations.
"Of course, those are just rumors, right? I'm sure there's no truth to them," she continued sunnily. "Just like those rumors that Dunbar is the President of Hollywood in name only, and that he's really a just puppet of the studios. Or Hughes Aviation, depending on who you talk to.
"My favorite rumor, though, is that Hughes Aviation is actually 'above the law,' and that they employ teams of interrogators and 'pain specialists' to loosen the tongues of enemies of the state.
She spun to face the pirate, boldly meeting his gaze with all pretense at friendliness abandoned.
"Enemies of the state just like you."
She turned to door, and said, "Please send in Mr. Smith, Officer."
The heavy steel door creaked open, and a tall man in a dark grey suit and fedora stepped in.
"I can assure you, my pirate friend," she continued, turning back to the prisoner, "that there is no truth to those rumors. And the rumors that will doubtless spread about what's going to happen to you?
"Those won't be true either."
Mr. Smithhis face a dispassionate, expressionless maskreached into his pocket, withdrawing a vial of clear liquid.
And a syringe.
Charlie was laughing as she left the station house. "You were brilliant, Terry! Absolutely brilliant!"
"I must admit, our pirate friend turned a lovely shade of white when I pulled out the syringe, Charlie," Terry replied, grinning widely, shedding his sinister "interrogator" persona. "I thought we'd have to sedate him to get him to stop talking."
"Now comes the hard part, though," Charlie said. "Getting to the pirate zep. And then, into Sky Haven.
"But first," she sighed, "we better get the team prepared for tomorrow's raid."
All she could see were clouds. She started into the maneuver as if a chandelle without road reference was the most natural thing in the world. As she eased the nose of her Bloodhawk over, she began to pick up speed. At 120 mph, she banked about 30 degrees and centered the plane, then increased the bank again, applying power smoothly as the nose continued to rise. Funnyno torque seemed normal too. When she reached the 90-degree point of turn, she gradually rolled out until the wings were level and her airspeed was just above a stall. She held it for about 15 seconds and then gradually lowered the nose back to normal.
"Muy bonita, mi hermana!" She heard Jimmy Vega's deep voice fill the cockpit.
"Nice flyin', Charlie."
"Thanks, but you know it isn't the same without you."
"Hey, you've still got the Knights and I'm flyin' with a great bunch up here. We're keepin' our eye on you, mi amiga. Vaya con dios!"
His voice seemed to fade away with the clouds and when Charlie woke up she realized that her cheeks were wet with tears.
Later that afternoon, Charlotte "Charlie" Steele still couldn't shake the eerie feeling that her dream had brought on. Hearing Jimmy's voice had made her feel both wonderful and terribly sad. She had so many great memories of the days surrounding the creation of the Hollywood Knights. She didn't want to lose the amazing feeling she had experienced flying so high in the clouds. It seemed like she and the plane were one with every motion coming naturally.
Shaking off her mounting sadness, Charlie drove out to meet with her new squad. They had finally decided on a name for their "pirate group"the Death Ravens. (Norm Houston later told her that the debate had proven to be quite spirited, as the group of pilots struggled to choose a suitably sinister name. "We were almost the 'Blood Ravens,' the 'Knight Stalkers,' and the 'Death Shadows,'" Norm chuckled.)
When she entered the secluded hanger squadron, she saw that the rest of the team had already assembled. Terry Potter made an elaborate display of checking his watch as she entered.
"Well, Miss Steele, it's after four o'clock, so you're almost too late for the first pot, but I think we can squeeze out one last cup for you. Sadly, the crumpets are gone."
Charlie grinned at the Englishman as he handed her a steaming cup of tea. "My, aren't we civilized? Hmm, Earl Grey, hotjust the way I like it. Sorry I'm late, guys."
Carrying her steaming cup of tea, she walked to the large table map, where Norm Houston, and the three other Raven pilotsHoward "Sonny" Easton, Colin "Lightning" Carter, James Ethan "Jimbo" Halewere standing.
Hale looked across the table at Potter and said, without preamble. "Y'know, we gotta get you a new moniker, Mr. Terrence Devonshire-Potter 'n God knows what else."
The normally laconic Easton chipped in, "How about 'Hamlet?'"
"Hamlet, eh? I trust that is a commendation for my thespian abilities?" Potter quipped.
"'Hambone' might be more appropriate though," Hale chided.
Charlie and Norm called the group to attention, ending the jocularity.
"With the help of 'Hamlet,' here," Charlie said, "we were able to pin down not only the route into Sky Haven but also the location of the damaged pirate zeppelin. According to our talkative pirate friend, the raiders had a planned emergency landing area near Mount Wilson."
Norm unrolled a map of the region, and pointed to a canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains. "The pirate indicated that his mates planned to use this area as a refuel and resupply base, and, in an emergency, use it to hole up until the heat dies down.
"The terrain is sandy and rocky," he continued, "but the winds aren't so bad that they can't launch once the zep is repaired. We need to go in and get that zep."
"What's the plan?" Easton asked.
"Simple. We drive in, take out the sentries on the ground as quick as we can, disable any scout planes, then board the zeppelin. Questions?"
Carter asked, "I assume we have a cover story, just in case? You know, the old 'prospector and his daughter in the hills' or"
Norm cut him off. "If we do this right, we don't need a cover story. If we do it wrong, no story is going to save us. It's dangerous, but I think that we can pull it off if we move in quickly
Potter got out his theatrical make-up kit and motioned to Charlie.
"Sit down here, luv, and we'll smudge you up a bit. And get a bandanna over your hair; otherwise, it'll shine like a beacon for miles." Charlie did as instructed and was amazed at Potter's artistry. He used some makeup and shading techniques to darken her complexion, added a rather unsightly mole above her lip and gave her some small foam inserts to put in her mouth (giving the impression of a wider face). She couldn't eat or drink with them in place, but speech should be no problem. In short, her transformation from a society belle to a rather drab-looking young woman was nothing short of stunning.
The rest of the team was also dressing for the occasion. Everyone wore dull khaki and gray clothing, which would blend well with the terrain in the canyon. Norm stood in the doorway, back-lit by the setting sun. "I've loaded everything into Ol' Lizzie, except for you slouchers. Charlie, you ride shotgun with me."
Charlie nodded and followed the rest of the Ravens outside, where Norm's ancient Ford truck was waiting. The light was beginning to fade, promising a beautiful sunset over the rugged terrain. The men climbed in the back of the truck and settled themselves amidst the tarps and blankets covering the gear. Charlie got in beside Norm, who started up the old truck.
After nearly a half-hour of traveling along bumpy dirt roads, Norm glanced over at Charlie.
"You're mighty quiet, today, missy."
"Just thinking, Norm."
"C'mon, Charlie, this is me. What's bothering you?"
Charlie sighed and told Norm about her dream. She was surprised that Norm didn't laugh at her.
"Honey, I've heard more than one story about guys in the Great War, lost over the dark forests in Germany or flying back through the fog to London. Stories about how they were led home by a friendly who looked like a pilot in another squadron. One guy I know checked out the name of the pilot who had helped him; turns out the guy had been shot down three months before. I dunno if it's true, but I'm not gonna count out any possibilities. Who knows?" he added, pointing towards the sky and smiling. "Maybe that's where Jimmy is."
Charlie shivered in the dusk, wishing that maybe Norm was right, that she really had talked with Jimmy. She continued to stare at the horizon until the Ford came to a stop by a clump of scrub. Norm motioned everyone out of the truck and signaled to them to follow him quietly to a rise where they all dropped down and crawled to the edge. From this elevated vantage point, they could look down into the dead-end canyon where the pirates had made their camp.
"There she is," Norm muttered, pointing at the oblong airship moored below, guarded by four men.
"Only four?" whispered Hale.
"That we can see," replied Norm. "You better believe there are more of them inside the zep."
"Even so," said Hale confidently, "we can take 'em!"
"Calm down, lad! I don't want to be lugging your dead carcass back to town," Potter hissed.
Norm motioned them back down near the truck. They squatted down while Norm scratched the plan of attack in the sand. He closed the impromptu briefing with a simple warning: "Don't waste bullets."
The pirate guards had been on duty all afternoon, and the combination of tension, long hours, desert heat, and boredom had lulled them into complacency. They figured that if the "pretty-boy Hollywood militia" knew where they were, they would have arrived in force by now. The pirates had long since relaxed their vigilance and were well into exchanging numerous obscene jokes and exaggerated accounts of their romantic prowess.
As a result, they were more curious than alarmed when they heard the sound of an old truck laboriously making its way through the canyon. Two of the pirates reluctantly took cover behind some of the crates they had offloaded from the zep, while two of their compatriots went to check out the noise. When they saw the truck come around the curve, the pirate guards relaxed a little. It was only two men in an ancient black Ford truck, and the driver seemed pretty harmless. A bit of a hayseed, but no trouble.
"Afternoon, fellas. Y'all havin' some trouble with your balloon?" said Terrence, in an almost flawless Southern accent. Colin, sitting next to him, muttered, "Easy on the grits, Hamlet."
The two guards walked closer to the truck; one was waving a Tommy gun menacingly, while the other brandished an old U.S. Army-issue .45 automatic. "Okay, you two. Get this heap turned around and-"
A sudden bang erupted from the hillside overlooking the camp and the young pirate with the machine gun convulsed and crumpled to the ground. The pistol-waving pirate, who had reached the passenger side of the truck, "whoofed" and dropped to the dirt as the truck door swung open and slammed him in his gut. Colin immediately jumped on the fallen pirate and knocked him unconscious with a sharp, precise blow to the jaw.
The guards behind the crates were caught completely by surprise by the speedy attack. Startled by the suddenness of the assault, they didn't see Charlie and Jimbo Hale leap out of the back of the truck and take aim. One of the pirateswith the instincts of a criminalswung around and yelled a warning to his comrade, firing wildly at Charlie and Hale.
"Damn!" said Norm, who was perched next to Sonny Easton back on the hillside. "So much for a quiet entrance."
The two remaining pirates, who apparently had no intention of coming out from behind their cover, began to pop up and fire at the oncoming intruders. Terrence, Colin, Charlie and Jimbo quickly retreated behind the Ford.
"It's okay," said Charlie, as she hunkered down, wincing as a ricochet whined overhead. "We'll just wait until Norm and Sonny can work their way around and take them out."
"Sorry," said Terrence, who was peeking out from behind the now-flat rear tire of the truck. "I'm afraid time is a luxury we now no longer have. Look!" Terrence pointed towards the zep. The sleek silver craft had begun to rev its engines and was slowly straining against its lines. The pirates on board were apparently more interested in getting their prize out of the canyon than rescuing their brethren under fire.
The remaining pirate guards saw this too. As the last line gave way, they broke from behind the crates and ran towards the slowly rising zeppelin, firing as they went. They were obviously hoping to catch the trailing lines and climb up into the safety of the zep cabin. The Ravens opened fire and one of the guards, who was slightly ahead, stumbled and fell lifeless to the ground. The other, aware that he was outgunned and about to be abandoned, stopped and threw up his arms in surrender.
Charlie jumped up from behind the truck. "Hamlet, you keep an eye on that one. Jimbo, Colin, follow me!"
"Where the hell are you going?" protested Terrence, yelling over the noise of the backwash from the zep's mighty propellers.
"I'm gonna join the pirates, of course!"
Initially, the zep had been struggling to gain height but now it was almost thirty feet up and the ends of the remaining lines were just brushing the ground. Charlie and Jimbo each jumped for the rapidly rising ends of a rope and managed to catch on, but Carter missed his jump and was left behind as the zeppelin took to the air.
With the ground rapidly falling away below them, Charlie and Jimbo slowly climbed hand-over-hand up the wildly swinging ropes, sometimes blown almost horizontal by the wind and the movement of the accelerating zeppelin.
Charlie, fighting against the wind, heard a noise above her. Looking up, she saw that a black-bearded ruffian had come out onto the catwalk that she was struggling to reach. The pirate spotted Charlie, grinned, then slowly drew a large Bowie-style knife. He began to saw at the heavy rope that Charlie was clinging to.
Charlie searched frantically for a new handhold, to no avail. Was this going to be it? There was no way she was going to get to the top of the rope before it was cut. Casting her gaze at the desert floor hundreds of feet below her, she realized that she didn't stand a chance if she fell.
The pirate laughed savagely as the rope began to part under his knife. Charlie saw the exultation in his eyes
until he dropped the knife and clutched his arm, blood blossoming beneath the fabric.
Staggering to his feet, he suddenly jerked as if hit by an unseen fist. He staggered back and flipped backwards over the rail. Charlie heard the man scream as he plummeted past her to his death.
Happy landings, you bastard.
Looking around wildly, Charlie saw Jimbo, hanging one-armed onto an anchor rope at the rear end of the zep. He grinned, holstered his sidearm and shimmied up the rope. Charlie followed suit.
When she reached the catwalk, Charlie saw the knife the pirate had dropped. She impulsively picked it up and slid it in her belt, then ran towards the ladder that connected the catwalks with the main cabin. As she ran, she saw Jimbo heading back towards the engine room.
When she reached the main deck, she crept on all fours, keeping below the wide windows which afforded the pilot a panoramic view of the sky around him. Cautiously, Charlie peeked into the bridge. One pirate was standing at the helm, steering the craft. Another, with headphones on, sat on the far side of the cabin at a radio console.
She quietly stood up and drew her pistol, brandishing the knife in her other hand. She kicked the door open, yelling: "Sorry, gentlemen, the ride is over. Put up your hands."
The helmsmen whipped his head around, startled into immobility. The radio operator turned to face her as well, a large revolver in his hand.
Reacting instinctivelyNorm'll be pleased that I haven't forgotten the pistol training he gave me!Charlie fired first. He screamed, clutching his wounded arm and dropping his gun.
"Don't make me repeat myself, gentlemen," she commanded. "This ride is over."
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