"So who the hell're you supposed to be, anyway?"
"We're...independent flyers-for-hire," Potter responded, somehow managing to convey a certain shiftiness despite the static and whine of the radio. "We're privateers...of a kind."
"We don't recognize your planes, mister, and until we do, you don't land."
"Ah, I see. Well, perhaps if you don't recognize our colors, you'll recognize our name, my friend. We're the Death Ravens."
God, Potter, this isn't a drawing room comedy! Just get us down already! Charlie gripped the controls and scanned the terrain. The cockpit was usually cold, but up here in the mountains, it felt like an icebox. It was growing more difficult to feel her hands, and she periodically had to one-hand the stick as she flexed her numbing, cramped fingers. Fortunately, flat land appeared below them now, or at least flat enough to land.
"Alright, Ravens. Set your birds down easy...and don't pull any stunts. Any funny business, and you're gonna be the first to die, Brit."
The pirate birds had herded the Ravens towards a small airfield, about a mile distant. Charlie could see several planes parked at the field, a garish combination of color schemes and gaudy insignia. Pirates just love to color their crates, Charlie grimly mused. And it looks like they used every color in the rainbow... lotta numbers down there.
The heavy vegetation below had been cleared away and the amenities were surprisingly modern, considering how far up into the mountains they were. She noted that there was a hangar, big enough for a zep, but it looked empty. The various visible structures were built on wide, haphazard gantries and scaffolds. For a moment, Charlie was briefly reminded of a storybook marketplace, all random stalls and strange sights. None of the stories she was reminded of featured flak cannons, anti-aircraft guns and rocket emplacements, though.
She watched as the other Ravens landed, following them in with Hale on her wing. There were people all over the place, many of whom were armed with rifles, pistols and knives. Nice welcoming committee, she thought. She patted her left side under the bulky jacket to make sure that her pistol was there.
She adjusted her mask, then lifted the canopy of the cockpit and stepped out onto the wing. The clean mountain air hit her like a shot of smelling salts and for a moment she was dazed. She heard Hale on the ground below her.
"C'mon, Dottie, you can't hide in there all day. We gotta anchor the zep." With Hale's help she leaped onto the dirt to face a group of armed pirates who didn't look at all happy about having new guests.
Norm had insisted on staying with the planes, and apparently the locals felt that the "old geezer" wouldn't be a threat, so they left a well-armed young woman with him. She introduced herself as Harmony and chatted rather pleasantly, keeping a watchful eye on the airfield all the while. Norm was just as happy to sit outsideit has been a long time since his gold mining days, he explained, and he really missed the mountains. Although his ramblings seemed to satisfy Harmony, he had the sense that she was a lot cagier than she appeared to be.
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew was marched up what passed for the center of town, to the stares and mutterings of the Sky Haven residents they passed on the way, mostly at Charlie, who pulled up the collar of her flight jacket and tried to keep her head tucked down. Potter attempted some conversation with the man leading the little parade, but was unsuccessful. At the end of the main path they came to a largish two-story log building. The interior décor was eclectic, with rough-hewn benches interspersed among an array of somewhat moth-eaten fabric-covered easy chairs. The overall effect was somewhere between pawn shop and military outpost.
Their guide had disappeared behind a large wooden door, and reappeared about ten minutes later, signaling them into an office with a wave of his rifle. They walked through the doorway into a large, immaculate room. A magnificent dark wood desk dominated the center of the room, behind which sat a tall handsome square-jawed man with straight silvery-blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. He did not rise when they entered but leaned back slightly in his chair with his long elegant fingers steepled before him in contemplation of their ragtag state. He tapped his fingers several times against his thin lower lip before he spoke.
"So you're the Death Ravens, eh? How incredibly kind of you to return my stolen property to me, although I can't say that I'm pleased about the changes you made to her. Tell me, is there any reason why I shouldn't have you all shot where you stand?"
Potter spoke for the group. "Well, for one thing, the fact that we were able to steal it and return it tells you something about our abilitiesor a weakness in your ranks that should be corrected, don't you think?"
The man behind the desk narrowed his eyes and clenched his jaw. Apparently Potter's flippant remark had not done much to plead the case for mercy.
"He's got a point there, Regen." The voice came from a man who was lounging in an easy chair behind them in the right-hand corner of the room. The five Ravens looked over their shoulders and Charlie had to stifle a gasp as she shrank against Potter. It was the mysterious dance partner she'd metencountered might be a better termat Chasen's. What the hell was he doing here? she thought.
"I don't like it when people take things that belongs to me. I am Karl Regen and this is my associate, Nathan Zachary."
Potter whistled appreciatively and saluted Zachary. "Well, it is an honor to be in such distinguished company, I must say. We had no idea you were up here."
Regen responded. "Mr. Zachary joined us shortly after your theft of our property. I felt that we needed his expertise to avoid further losses."
"So you're the leader of Sky Haven, then? Well, I guess this is where we turn in our application to join."
At that, Nathan Zachary unfolded himself from the chair and walked over to the group, circling them slowly. When he tried to get a better look at Charlie, she turned her face away from him. Regen asked, "What is wrong with that woman?"
Potter put his arm protectively around Charlie. "Are you referring to this lady? This is Dottie MacLeish, one of our crew and a damn fine pilot...despite appearances."
It was apparent from the look on Regen's face that Charlie's appearance disgusted him as he focused his attention back on Potter, taking pains to avoid having to look at her scarred face.
Zachary covered the awkward moment. "Doesn't like to be stared at, eh? I can understand that. Looks like you had a tough time."
Potter answered for her. "Dottie doesn't like to talk much either. Got caught up in some action over in Africa, and the doctor out in the bush wasn't exactly well-trained in plastic surgery."
"Sorry," Zachary said, turning his attention back to Regen. "Karl, I say check with the Council. In the meantime, we can at least offer them our hospitality. If the Council says yes, then we'll give them our standard initiation test. You pass, you're in; you fail, we won't have to waste our ammo on you. Sound fair?"
Potter laughed, perhaps a little more heartily than he felt. "Very sporting of you, chum. I'm sure we're up to whatever you can throw at us."
Regen was not pleased at Zachary mentioning the Council. Looks like Mr. Regen doesn't want us to know he isn't the one running the whole show, Charlie thought. If Zachary was on their side, the squadron had a chance, but Charlie knew that she would have to stay away from him or blow the whole charade. She whispered something to Potter, who squeezed her shoulder.
"If you gentlemen don't mind, we are rather fatigued and would appreciate it if we could rest for a while. It has been a long day and Dottie isn't used to the altitude."
Zachary walked over the door, and opened it, calling for one of the men in the waiting room who he instructed to take the squad to the "guest quarters," which turned out to be a very cozy if somewhat cramped cabin, where they were joined shortly by Norm.
Potter stretched his legs before a nice crackling fire with a contented sigh. "Just like being at a ski resort," he said, grinning.
"Yeah, except for the guards," retorted Easton as he surveyed the armed men stationed outside.
Norm warmed his hands and drew closer to the fire. "Let's all just cozy on up here and keep our voices low," he warned. They drew together and reviewed the next part of their plan.
The "Council" of pirates that maintained a Sky Haven's nominal government had arrived for an "emergency session." Regen, Zachary and Harmony had all shared their impressions of the Ravens.
"So, what do you think, Karl?" asked Guzman, a Mexican bandit on the run from Texas Rangers.
"I don't like it. I don't like it at all. There's something about them that doesn't ring true, but I can't figure out what it is. We've checked their story and they were indeed credited with the raid out in Hollywood. There's no question that it's our zep, despite the garish paint job."
"We could sure use a couple more good pilots," offered Guttenberg, an older man who had seen a lot of action in the Great War, on behalf of the Kaiser. "If that woman pilot has flown in the African bush, she's probably good."
"Yeah, as long as you don't have to look at her," Zachary quipped.
"Her appearance is rather
unsettling," responded Regen.
"We don't care about how people look, Karl," Lady Kalia dark-haired beauty with arms festooned with flame tattoosreplied. "We care about how they fly and how well they can keep their mouths shut. I say let's give them shelter tonight and spend a little time with them. If we divide them up, we may find a chink in their story.
"And if we discover they're lying," she added, grinning savagely, "then we dump them right off the mountain."
"All right, then," Zachary said. "We need a consensus. Do they stay, or do they disappear?"
Easton saw Zachary walking towards the cabin first. "Heads-up, folks: we've got an incoming pretty-boy."
Charlie ducked into a little alcove so that she could hear the conversation. Hale answered the knock at the door.
"Well, the meeting is over and I'm come to give you the good news. Mind if I come in?"
Hale motioned him in. Zachary looked around and asked, "Where's your bush pilot? Dottie?"
"She's lying down for a bit. So, what's the verdict?" asked Potter.
"You're safe for tonight, at least, but you'll have to stay in the cabin. Just a precaution, you understand. In the morning, we'll want to ask you some questions." Easton looked a little apprehensive, but Zachary laughingly reassured them. "Don't worry, we don't let Karl use any of his torture devices." His comment was met with chuckles of manly relief.
Zachary rose and offered his hand to Potter. "I'm sorry, we haven't really been introduced."
Potter responded, "I'm Hamlet, this is Lightning, Jimbo, Sonny, and Sam. You've met Dottie."
Zachary nodded and said his good-nights. As he walked away from the cabin, he recalled what Regen had said about the disfigured bush flyer and he had to agreethere was something unsettling about her, and it wasn't just her scars...