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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 Six: Making Old Acquaintances

When Charlie stepped out of her plane in Durango, she was pale and unsettled. The encounter with Soloho Salawa during the last leg of the Ravens' run had been bizarre and left her feeling exposed. Even Norm had seem disturbed by their close call. "I'll be damn pleased to be back in Hollywood," he told her.

While the Devastators were being refueled, Terry Potter—the squadron's resident disguise expert—led Charlie away to do perform one of his "patented" make-overs.

For more information see:
Charlie Steele; Soloho Salawa

When she reemerged, the rest of the Ravens were stunned at the change in her appearance. In place of the platinum blonde beauty, they were confronted with a sallow, black-haired woman of indeterminate age who wore a partial mask beneath which a few scars could be seen.

Carter shook his head in amazement. "Hamlet, you are a genius."

Charlie felt terribly self-conscious and glared at her compatriots. "Jeez, guys, it's just makeup. Let's just get this show on the road."

Charlie spread out a small map and went over the route into Sky Haven, deep in Free Colorado. "We'll fly north from here and head into the mountains. Local forecasts are looking good...we shouldn't encounter any weather problems. It won't be easy, though. Mountain flying is difficult under the best circumstances."

For more information see:
Free Colorado

The Ravens all nodded their acknowledgement of Charlie's caution.

"Does everyone have our story straight?" Norm asked.

Potter gave a quick recap. "We're the Ravens, we've brought back their zep as our ticket into the place, and we want a piece of the local action."

Charlie nodded. "We won't discuss the skirmish in Hollywood unless they do. If they bring it up, we'll pass it off as 'no big deal.' Remember that my name is Dotty MacLeish, and I don't want to fly with the pretty girls in the Ninety-Nines for obvious reasons."

For more information see:
The Nation of Hollywood

Norm said, "Sounds like we're set. Once we're inside, it's game faces only no matter what. If something goes wrong, you get your tails right the hell outta there. Understood?"

As the rest of the squad headed for their planes, Norm stopped Charlie. "Are you gonna be okay?"

As she fingered the Indian bracelet, she gave Norm a big grin, which was more confident than she actually felt. "Sure, Norm. I'm fine—just got a little spooked over Navajo turf, that's all. And this damn make-up is itchy."

The old pilot looked her straight in the eyes, knowing that her nonchalance was forced, but going along with it anyhow. "Well, put your game face on, Miss MacLeish...we've got a big job ahead of us." He patted her on the back and watched as she bounded up into her plane.

Not usually a religious man, Norm said a little prayer—Dear God, let this work!—because he sure as hell didn't want to be the one to tell Eddie Steele that Charlie had died on a pirate raid.

The squad began the climb northwest from Durango, alert for the "escorts" they knew could appear at any time to challenge their intrusion into Sky Haven's territory. Charlie quickly forgot about her disguise as she concentrated on navigating the terrain. She had a brief thought that she'd like to come here some day when she had a chance to enjoy the scenery, but today she'd be happy to land safely and get some sleep. Although it was only early afternoon, she felt like she'd been flying for days.

Potter's voice broke across the radio static. "It's showtime!"

Charlie could see a small cadre of planes racing towards them. She crouched forward slightly in her seat, stretching her back as best she could, then straightened up, checked her instruments, and radioed back. "Ready, Raven One."

"You have trespassed in private air space. State your business immediately." The disembodied voice sounded tense and definitely humorless. Charlie crossed her fingers, praying that Potter's fast-talking would at least prevent the Ravens from being shot out of the sky. Below her, the terrain—snowy crags, close—packed pines and massive boulders-definitely did not look like a comfortable place for an emergency landing.

"We ran into a spot of trouble back there, I'm afraid—had to circle the wagons—and we've got a bad engine," Potter replied. "We're just looking for a place to land and make some repairs." Terry had opted for his standard upper-class British voice—his "Terrence Devonshire" persona—because he didn't want to risk bluffing his way through any regional disputes that might prevent the welcome mat from being unfurled. "Besides," he had quipped during one of the group's planning sessions, "sticking with a cover I know like the back of my hand will make it easier to avoid an...embarrassing oversight."

The patrolling planes closed in, close enough to see that the Devastators weren't exactly a pack of Sunday tourists. No response was immediately forthcoming, so the squad kept going, as slowly as possible. After a lingering, tension-filled pause, the radio crackled again:

For more information see:
Devastator

"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 outside—it 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 abilities—or 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 met—encountered might be a better term—at 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 Kali—a dark-haired beauty with arms festooned with flame tattoos—replied. "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 agree—there was something unsettling about her, and it wasn't just her scars...



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