"Not the kind of fire power you'd expect with a convoy that large," Carter responded. "Makes me wonder whether the cargo isn't valuable enough or"
"or," Harmony broke in, "whether there's something we're missing out here."
"If these boys are deployed right," said Hale, "we're probably facing six-packs of 'em, which may be just one or two more than we can handle at the moment."
"Good point," Harmony noted. "Dottie, what do you see?" Charlie was flying on Harmony's right while Carter was on the left, and Hale was guarding the rear. She had an idea, but wasn't at all sure whether she could pull the ruse off. What the hell, it's worth a try, she thought. The worst that happens is that I'm wrong and the Kestrels bomb Sky Haven to bits...
"Harmony, I'm not sure, but I think I see something a few miles off, too small to be zeps..."
She didn't want to push her credibility too far. Regen had been initially skeptical about her ability as a pilot, assuming that her eyesight was compromised by the mask, but Potter had assured him that she had sustained no damage in that department. He had started to describe in graphic detail about the other problems resulting from "Dottie's crash," but fortunately he had gauged Regen's reaction correctly when that topic was abruptly dismissed.
Carter picked up on the cue and broke in: "I think Charlie's right. I see something on my side as well. We don't want to lead a bunch of bomb-lobbers back to Sky Haven, do we?"
"Hell, no!" their young leader exclaimed. "I'm going to take a chance that whatever's in those zeps isn't worth the risk and tell Regen we should head back..."
After the small recon group had returned to Sky Haven, Regen ran a quick debriefing over lunch. Then, Zachary and Harmony had gone into a closed-door meeting with the German crime boss.
Dinner was fairly quiet that evening. Karl Regen seemed to be in a foul mood, due no doubt to having lost the opportunity to capture the convoy. Zachary, who usually tried to flirt with "Dottie" during the evening meal, looked somewhat morose as he chased his food around the plate with his fork. Even Harmony seemed less chipper than usual and her eyes were red as if she had been crying.
The sense of menace that had descended on Charlie after the Ravens arrived at Sky Haven deepened. Charlie's sense of foreboding grew as she looked around the dining room and realized that there were fewer people there than the previous few nights, and the ones who were eating with them looked like former football players and ex-fighters. Killers, Charlie thought. Trained killers.
Her appetite fled fairly rapidly and she just kept her eyes focused on her plate, hoping to get out of there as soon as possible. Thankfully, no one seemed to be in the mood to do much socializing after the meal. As the meal came to a close, Regen stood up and addressed the table.
"Regrettably, today's mission did not go as we had planned. While our resources for winter will not be strained by the loss of one convoy, I am not happy with what occurred. Perhaps Sam and Hamlet would do us the courtesy of meeting in my office to review some revisions to our strategy?"
The Ravens looked up in surprise. Regen had not indicated that he held any of them in much regard, and now he wanted to consult with them? It was odd, uncharacteristic behavior, but there wasn't much they could do at this point. It was too dark to fly out of there, and the locals knew the woods better than they did. They would obviously have to go along with the charade and hope that the invitation was a genuine request for advice.
Carter and Hale helped clear the table and made a show of helping in the kitchen, which at least would give them an opportunity to stay in the Lodge if there was trouble. That left Charlie and Easton, who offered to escort her back to the cabin. Zachary rose from his chair and walked over to her.
"Actually, I was hoping to have that pleasure myself," he said.
Charlie's heart sank to her toes. Easton wasn't glib enough to press the issue without making it look like an obvious ploy, so she would have to handle things by herself. If she could get to the cabinand the gun hidden thereshe had a fighting chance, assuming Regen was about to drop the hammer on the Ravens.
They walked back most of the way in silence. Charlie had turned up the collar of her jacket and tugged down on her hat as they left the Lodge, as much for warmth as to protect herself from Zachary's piercing gaze. Without actually shrugging him off, she was careful to keep as far away from him as she could.
It was a beautiful night, with a full moon. That high up in the mountains, there were no city lights to obscure the stars. Under other circumstances, it would have been an astoundingly romantic walk but all Charlie could feel was a mounting terror as she heard her own ragged breathing and the blood pounding in her ears.
For all she knew, he was going to take her out in the woods and...she shuddered and pushed the thought from her mind.
When they reached the cabin, she started up the wooden steps when Zachary grabbed her arm and wheeled her around to face him. He pulled her against him and kissed her hard on the mouth, holding her arms tightly so that she could not raise her hands. Then he pulled back and look at her fiercely. His voice broke the silence with a harsh whisper.
"Did you really think I wouldn't recognize you?"
Her eyes opened wide for a second as she said, "I...I don't know what you mean."
"Yes you do, Miss Steele. You know very well what I mean. And now I'm going to have to do something I really don't want to do."
She tried to appear calm and brave. "Mr. Zachary, I have no idea what you intend to do, but I think you're being a bit dramatic."
His laugh was harsh and bitter. "I'm being dramatic? Oh come now, who flew into Sky Haven and pretended to be a pirate?"
His voice got very serious. "You don't get it, do you? This is a war, and you and your buddies are spies for the other side. Karl Regen takes a very dim view of spies. A very dim view."
She saw the glint of a dull metallic finish on a gun barrel as he drew a pistol out of his pocket.
"I'm afraid, Charlie Steele, that you and your buddies are about to learn the finer points of pirate justice first-hand."