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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 Seven: The Grand Tour

"Will you please hold still?" Potter said, as he struggled to apply the last of the cosmetic scars to Charlie's face. "The last thing we need is for one of these scars to smudge or fall off."

"I can't help it! It itches!" Charlie moaned. "I swear I will never, ever wear a mask at Hallowe'en again."

"Oh, do butch up there, dear, it's all in a good cause." Potter said, his patronizing tone sending Charlie perilously close to punching him right in his handsome kisser.

Despite the jocularity in his banter, Charlie saw that Potter was actually worried. The mission was a difficult one, to be sure—posing as pirates, Charlie and her fellow "Death Ravens"—had infiltrated Sky Haven. The pirate port, nestled on top of Mt. Wausa, in Free Colorado's Rockies, was a hotbed of criminal activity.

For more information see:
Free Colorado; Charlie Steele

The Hollywood government—and the Hollywood Knights' benefactor, Howard Hughes—had sent Charlie and the Ravens in to this lion's den. Even with Hughes' funding and resources, it was still incredibly dangerous. Her orders were pretty cut and dried, at least as presented by Johnny Johnson—the number-two man at Hughes Aviation. "Eliminate targets of opportunity, where you can, of course. But the more important goal is to determine the nature and extent of Sky Haven's defenses...and survive to report them to us. None of your characteristic heroics, Miss Steele."

For more information see:
The Nation of Hollywood; The Hollywood Knights

There was a knock at the cabin door. Quickly, Sonny Easton and Jimbo Hale moved into defensive positions, ready to jump the newcomer at the first sign of trouble. Norm moved to the door, glancing back to make sure that everyone was ready for trouble—

—as Harmony Brown's lilting voice rang out from the stoop: "Room service!"

Without waiting to be invited, Harmony breezed into the cabin, brushing past Norm with a brief smile. She set her burden—an aluminum coffeepot and a heavy picnic basket—down on the room's table. "There you go! Fresh coffee and a bite to eat."

As the rest of the Ravens clustered around Harmony, Potter slipped out from the alcove, yawning and stretching as if he had recently awakened. He sauntered over and poked about in the basket until he found a muffin he liked. Popping a bit into his mouth, he said, "I say, Miss Harmony, I could get used to this rather quickly!"

Harmony blushed and smiled at the handsome Englishman. "Well, I could get used to listening to you talk pretty quickly myself." The Ravens made good-natured jeering sounds at Potter.

Hale laughed. "I'll tell you, Miss Brown, after a while, you'd get tired of it. We all have!"

Harmony looked around the room and asked, "Where's Dottie?"

Potter jerked his head towards the alcove. "She's over there. I let the poor thing sleep in a bit. Yesterday was rough on her."

Harmony looked sympathetic. "I understand." She paused for a moment before getting down to business. "Well, here's the plan for the day. We're going to split you up and show you around a bit."

"Ah, divide and conquer, eh?" asked Potter, half-jokingly.

She looked directly at him and winked. "Something like that."

"Do I get the pleasure of your company, Miss Brown, so that you can torture me mercilessly?" Potter asked.

"No, sir, I'm afraid not. You have been assigned to another cruise director." Harmony could obviously give as good as she got, and it was clear to the rest of the group that there were some definite sparks flying between their disguise expert and the lady pirate.

"Well, if we're going to have a walk-about, we need to finish our morning routine." Potter began ushering Harmony out of the room as if he were the host rather than a captive. "Give us about a half-hour more and we'll be willing little tourists."

"All right, but don't dawdle. Karl hates dawdlers."

Potter snapped a salute. "Aye, aye, me pirate queen."

Harmony was laughing as she left the cabin.

Carter fell back on one of the easy chairs groaning. "God, Hamlet, you're laying it on a little thick, aren't you? I thought this was supposed to be a no-nonsense mission."

"A man's gotta have a little fun, doesn't he?"

Before anyone could respond, Charlie came out of the alcove. In addition to the bandanna around her hair and the half-mask, she had a grey turtle-necked sweater with the cowl pulled up. She poured herself a cup of coffee and cradled it in her hands. Norm walked over and put his hand on her shoulder.

"You still okay with this?" He was careful not to use her real name in case someone was listening at the door.

"Sure," she said, "but let's try to get out of here as soon as we can, all right?" She found herself touching the Indian bracelet—a gift from a friend of Carter's that had already gotten them past the Wind Warriors—as if it were a talisman.

"I'm with her," Easton said. "The longer we stay, the more likely it is that someone'll twig to who we are."

Charlie felt the chill of premonition at his words.

Thirty minutes later, the Ravens assembled outside the cabin, bundled up and ready for a brisk walk in the mountains. Potter had been careful to carry the small make-up kit in his jacket because they were all pretty sure that someone would search the cabin while they were on their "tour." Other than the theatrical cosmetics, there was nothing in the cabin that would reveal their true identities.

Several of the Sky Haven people, led by Harmony, came up the path to meet them. A tall young man named Ned took off Carter, Easton, and Hale, while Norm and Potter were under the watchful eye of a middle-aged woman, Gail. Harmony instructed them to meet back at the lodge in about an hour, then walked over to Charlie. None of the Ravens were very happy about this whole tour business but there wasn't much they could do about it. They were unarmed...and at the mercy of their "hosts."

"I'm going to show you around myself, Dottie, kinda give you a personal tour." Charlie nodded and muttered her thanks. Harmony and Charlie headed down the main road when they heard the sound of footsteps behind them. Nathan Zachary was heading in their direction at a dead run.

"Harmony," he said, slightly out of breath, "I was hoping to show Miss MacLeish around myself."

"Well, Nathan, I think that Dottie would rather be with someone who isn't going to gawk and stare at her, so why don't you run along and catch up with Ned. Maybe you can help out with his group."

With that, Harmony tucked her arm through Charlie's and almost pulled her down the road, leaving the somewhat disgruntled pirate standing in the middle of the street.

Charlie was grateful to her guide; she was afraid that if she spent any time in Zachary's company, he'd figure out who she was.

And if that happened, they were dead.

She quickly pulled herself together as Harmony nattered on about the mountains, the encampment, the settlers—at first, it sounded more like a history lesson about the pioneers than about one of the most successful band of pirates and mercenaries in the northern hemisphere.

After a while, Harmony casually asked: "So, that Hamlet's really a funny guy, isn't he?"

"He can be," said Charlie.

"What I guess I'm asking is, is there anything going on between the two of you? I mean, I hope you don't mind me being so blunt, but it's a family trait."

Charlie gave the girl a lopsided grin and laughed. "No, there's nothing going on. He's been a really good friend. They all have."

Harmony heaved a dramatic sigh of relief. "Well, that's good to know. Now I can make a complete fool of myself without having to worry about you blasting me out of the clouds for moving in on your fella."

Charlie felt another chill. I still might, she thought. Charlie wished she could reassure Harmony that she'd never do that, but it likely that she would soon face Harmony in a battle.

"So, Sky Haven started as a bootleggers camp, eh?" Potter asked.

Nathan Zachary smiled and nodded agreement; he had joined Norm and Terry on their "tour" of Sky Haven and was filling them in on some of the pirate base's history.

This was exactly the kind of information the Ravens needed to know, so Potter nonchalantly kept the conversation going, asking a question here or there. So far, he'd learned that between the people who wanted to make money off of smuggling and the people who would support Sky Haven to strike back at organized government, the enclave was building a network of support that reached far beyond the mountain stronghold.

During their "tour," there was something of a verbal dance between the two clever men, both accustomed to talking fast and sizing up the opponent as they went. Norm found himself liking Zachary.

He wondered what Charlie thought about Zachary and then was surprised at his almost paternal feelings for her. It was too bad things couldn't work out differently, but they had a war to wage and that didn't leave a lot of time for sentimentality, as Norm remembered all too well.

Norm and Potter had done quite a bit of camouflage work in their military careers, so they could appreciate the high quality of the work that had been done at the mountain stronghold. The pirates had taken full advantage of the mountainous terrain with its shifting patches of browns and greens to hide heavy weapons emplacements and even some defensive turrets that looked like normal caves at first glance. The patchwork nature of the structures looked at first almost like a junkyard but after studying the placement and the traffic patterns for a while, a cohesive layout revealed itself. A broken chunk of airplane fuselage provided a secure storage area, while the dense cover of thatch and pine needles kept it hidden from immediate sight and silent when heavy rain fell on it.

There was plenty of fresh water and game on the mountain, and the people of Sky Haven took the lessons of the Native American people very seriously. There was enough food stored away for those infrequent spells between raided convoys and if need be, the people could withstand a truly horrendous winter or a long siege.

Most surprising was the scope of the site. What was once a small collection of ramshackle lean-tos and sheds had grown into a literal city in the clouds, complete with bars, brothels and even a diner. According to Zachary, the sprawling, curved platforms that supported many of the larger structures were fairly new—but were still impressive. Repair hangars, zeppelin docks, and other larger structures ringed the western face of the mountain, connected by scaffolds, rope bridges, ladders...even a fire pole.

But all this "progress" wasn't in the name of law and order, that was for sure. "Regen talks a good game," Zachary said, "but there really is no leader up here." The various pirates that staged from Sky Haven had long since carved out their own turf, but the boundaries of their "territory" changed frequently, as new elements moved in. Such disputes were routinely handled in duels, since everyone generally agreed that personal grudge matches could lead to widespread chaos—and loss of profit.

Charlie sensed that there was something more to Sky Haven than just pirate gangs in an excellent location. She could feel the sense of pride that Harmony and others seemed to have about their independence. These were not villains or desperadoes or evil people; rather, it was almost as if they were some fiercely independent band of political rebels who had walked away from the rampant confusion that resulted from the dissolution of the United States and had returned to an earlier and simpler time, preferring to take their chances in the wilderness where they could be free. Except for Karl, Charlie found the people she encountered very likable. Karl Regen was another story altogether, the kind of person Charlie had met throughout her life—power-hungry, fiercely controlling, and in the end, usually blinded by their own ambition.

Which is his Achilles heel, Charlie thought. Now all I need to do is figure out how to exploit it.

After the requisite hour was up, the three groups re-assembled at the main building, the "lodge." The smell of hot coffee wafted out onto the porch, a welcome respite from the chilly mountain air of early fall. As they were standing around, a bit awkwardly, Norm said that he'd like to check the planes.

"What's the matter, Sam, don't trust us?" asked Zachary.

"It's not that, young fella, it's just that I've been checking on my mount every morning of my life, whether it was my horse or my plane, so it's a habit I'm too old to break. I just don't feel like the morning's complete without it."

"I understand," replied the pirate. "I picked up that very habit in the Great War."

"You were over there too?" Norm asked, genuinely surprised. Zachary didn't look a day over twenty-five.

Zachary chuckled. "94th Pursuit Squadron. And yes, before you ask, I'm older than I look."

The 94th...Rickenbacker's boys, Norm thought. If he flew with Eddie Rickenbacker, he's no slouch behind the stick.

"Ned will take you over to check out your crates." Zachary jerked his head toward the earnest young man who has served as a tour guide, who shouldered his rifle once again and held the door for Norm.

The wail of an air-raid siren pierced the mountain tranquillity like a knife.

"Incoming!" Harmony shouted as everyone scrambled to their feet. Zachary motioned to the Ravens. "C'mon!"

They ran out onto the porch to see a flurry of activity across the road as people ran to their various stations. Regen burst from his office at a dead run, strapping on a pistol as he went. Several Jeeps squealed to a halt outside the lodge and Regen leaped into the passenger seat of the lead vehicle. "Get in, all of you!" He settled down and turned to the driver. "What've we got?"

"It looks like a convoy, sir, a nice fat unsuspecting caravan heading West."

When they arrived at the airfield, he motioned for the Ravens and Zachary to gather around. "A convoy is crossing our airspace, and I'm sure we can make far better use of their cargo here at Sky Haven than they can at their intended destination. Harmony, you take Dottie and these two for a recce," pointing to Easton and Hale, "and I'll take the rest."

Potter grinned at Regen. "A little action sounds great! We were beginning to think we were at summer camp."

Regen ignored the jibe and barked his instruction. "Just follow my lead and don't try anything fancy. Do you understand?"

Potter saluted insolently, a mocking grin on his face. "Aye, aye, sir."

For a brief moment as their eyes locked, but there wasn't time for a full dressing-down and both men knew it. Regen returned Potter's grin. "Later, 'old chap.'"

Charlie wanted to get out of there before the smoldering dislike between the two men erupted into full-fledged violence. She leapt into her plane, strapped herself in and pulled the canopy down in a series of fluid, well-practiced motions.

As the Devastators taxied down the short runway, she lifted up her mask, grateful to be seeing clearly out of both eyes and happy to be up in the air, even if it meant playing pirates for a little while longer.

For more information see:
Devastator

Playing pirates, she thought. Good God. We're about to become real pirates.

Very soon, under the watchful eyes of every pirate at Sky Haven, she was going to have to prove that she was one of them—by firing on a civilian zeppelin convoy. And if she refused?

She'd better have a damn good reason why, or she—and the rest of her squadron—would be as good as dead...



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