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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


Interlude: Morning in the Mountains

As the sun rose on a sparkling mountain morning, Nathan Zachary wrapped his cold hands around a hot cup of joe and watched the rising steam. Despite the beauty of his surroundings, his mind was a thousand miles away, in a noisy kitchen in Hollywood where a pair of emerald eyes had knocked him off his feet. Dangerous eyes. He could hear his old gypsy nana waving her bony finger at him and warning, "You watch out for evil eyes. A girl's eyes, they break your heart someday." His heart wasn't broken, but it sure was intrigued.

For more information see:
The Nation of Hollywood

The snapping of twigs behind him brought him out of his reverie. A gloved hand ruffled his dark hair, as Harmony Brown sat down next to him. "Damn, Zachary! It's cold out here, y'know! There's a nice fire back at the cabin."

A nice fire and a warm bed, Zachary thought to himself, grinning. Harmony was good company, a laughing, friendly girl who reminded him of hot apple cider and cinnamon rolls. If he were going to settle in the mountains permanently—an unlikely proposition—Harmony would be the perfect companion. She was without pretension, a girl who didn't worry about trivialities like broken fingernails, dirt on her face, or the style of her clothing.

She came from a famous Colorado family, but she also had an enduring positive attitude—which earned her the nickname "Unsinkable." She was quite unlike the rich society girls in Manhattan or Hollywood.

Which brought him back to Charlie Steele.

For more information see:
Charlie Steele

Harmony pressed her cold nose against his ear and whispered, "Never mind the fire, Nathan. 'His Eminence' wants to see you, pronto."

Zachary turned his head and grabbed a quick kiss, then rose to his feet. "Well then, " he quipped, a sardonic grin etched on his handsome features. "I'd better hurry. It wouldn't do to keep such an important person waiting, would it?"

Harmony laughed as she stood up, tossing a mock-stern glare at the handsome gypsy pilot. "Oh my, no! We must be punctual." She snapped to attention with a salute.

Zachary threw his arm around her shoulders and they walked back to the heart of Sky Haven together.

Sky Haven was a pirate's paradise. There was no law or government, save perhaps the law of the jungle. Only the strong called the shots.

Sky Haven was a almost literally a city in the clouds. The town was surprisingly large, occupying a large portion of mountainside. It was a collection of ramshackle, makeshift buildings, some large, some small. Prefabricated huts and shacks, buildings constructed from tin and discarded aircraft fuselages, and simple log cabins and lean-tos all competed for space on the massive girder-elevated platforms that had been erected on the side of Mt. Wausa, in the heart of the Free Colorado Rockies.

For more information see:
Free Colorado

Most of the summer tents had been taken down as the weather turned cold, but a few lean-to's were still up, used as impromptu trading areas for tools, fuel, clothing, and weapons. Although it was early in the day, a fair number of people walked through the main area of the camp, dressed in the Sky Haven "uniform": boots, pants, flannel shirts, and a variety of flight or field jackets.

Zachary ambled into Karl Regen's "office." As expected, the self-appointed head of Sky Haven was already at his desk, deep in work. The desk itself looked like a pretty pricey antique. Despite the amount of paper on its polished surface, everything was in neat piles. If Zachary had to pick one word to describe Karl Regen, it would be "meticulous."

Without looking up from his work, Regen gestured imperiously to the empty chair facing the desk. "Be with you in a moment, Zachary. Sit."

Zachary sat, careful not to spill what was left of his coffee. Aside from the muffled noise of people outside in the common area, the only sound in the room was the scratching of Regen's pen across the paper. Zachary thought briefly about putting his feet up on the desk as a way to get Regen's attention, but he couldn't bring himself to damage the exquisite piece of furniture with his muddy boots.

"Nice desk, Karl," he said.

Regen stopped writing and put down the pen. He ran his long-fingered hand across the surface as if he were caressing a lover. "It's an antique."

Zachary yawned elaborately. "I know, Karl. Late Regency I'd say, around 1835 or so. Maybe a bit later, from Surrey, perhaps?"

Regen raised one eyebrow slightly, but refused to be impressed. "Ah, yes, I had forgotten. Cambridge, wasn't it?"

"Oxford, actually. But I don't think you summoned me here to talk about antiques."

"Quite right." Regen rose from the desk and turned his back on Zachary as he reached to pull down a map of the Rockies and the West Coast, with notations on various points along Hollywood's southeastern border. Zachary put the coffee mug down on the floor and walked around the desk. Regen held a short pointer in his hand and indicated spots on the map as he spoke.

"One of my zeppelins has been detained over the border. The first reports indicated that it was taken out by Charlie Steele and the Metro Marauders. This may be an error, however. If the papers are to be believed, it looks like a new player has entered the arena—some group calling themselves the 'Death Ravens.'"

For more information see:
Hollywood Knights

Zachary grimaced. "Melodramatic bunch, aren't they?"

"Hardly relevant, Zachary," Regen snapped. "The fact remains: I want that zeppelin back. You are the best man to lead the rescue mission. I trust you appreciate this opportunity to prove your loyalty to Sky Haven."

"Let's get something straight, Karl," Zachary replied, his pretense at amiability abandoned." I have nothing to prove to you or to anyone else. My loyalty is to my crew, not to you. You and I both know that your so-called 'leadership' of Sky Haven is a sham. The only thing that rules this place is greed."

"So, you're refusing to assist?" Regen replied, struggling to maintain his composure.

"I'll help you get your zeppelin back, Karl," Zachary said, smiling broadly. "But it'll cost you."

The morning after the raid, Charlie and the "Ravens" quietly celebrated while they read the headlines. The Hollywood papers—and even some news rags from Utah and Texas—described the attack of the "mysterious new pirate group." It was evident that Charlie's mission to establish the Death Ravens as a viable pirate group had succeeded; the Ravens were now regarded as the newest desperado squad in the West Coast skies.

For more information see:
Utah; Republic of Texas

"Now comes the fun part," Charlie said to her crew. "We're going to take our prize right into the heart of Sky Haven and bust the place wide open."

She unrolled a map on the war room table that pinpointed the location of the pirate base: Mt. Wausa, Free Colorado.

Carter leaned over the map for a few seconds, then said, "Charlie, getting there isn't going to be a picnic." He traced his finger along their proposed route, frowning. "We have to fly across Arixo...and then Utah. Or worse, Navajo territory. Either side is plenty skittish."

For more information see:
Arixo; Navajo Nation

Norm broke in. "Carter is right. We'll all have to be extremely careful. I'm not too worried about Utah's forces—they're good, but they don't cross the border. Its Salawa and his crew of Wind Warriors I'm worried about. They ain't likely to respect the border if they think we're pirates."

For more information see:
Soloho Salawa; Wind Warriors

The Navajo Nation's premier "headhunter" squadron, the Wind Warriors, were legendary fighter pilots, known for striking without warning before disappearing like ghosts.

"And he's not the worst we have to worry about out there," Norm continued. "Within the Navajo Nation, there're a couple of militant groups that don't tolerate incursions across their air space."

"Well, why don't we just cut up through Utah?" Hale asked.

"We've been asked not to," Charlie replied, quietly. "Our...benefactor has indicated that there are some political considerations to consider. If we're caught in Utah, we'll be something of an embarrassment to Mr. Hughes, and to Hollywood."

The room grew very quiet. Potter broke the silence with a customary quip.

"Well, then, mates, the Navajo Territory it is," he said calmly. "Now, enough of this coffee nonsense. Tea anyone?"

The Ravens left just before sunrise, heading northeast over the Mojave, before beginning their run across the lower tip of the Disputed Western Territories and the northwest corner of Arixo. After Arixo, their flight plan was to skim the border between the Navaho Nation and Utah. If we make it that far, Charlie mused, all we have to contend with is Sky Haven.

They planned to refuel twice, once just before entering Navajo territory and again in Durango before heading up into the mountains. They weren't worried about the second refueling, but the first one was going to be tricky. For once, Norm's connections failed them.

"Well, I have an old war buddy who retired out that way back in '30," Carter said. "He lives in some godforsaken outpost on the border, and he owes me a favor. He also knows every Navajo trader along the border, so he's our best source of local news."

Potter and Norm were assigned to the zeppelin, The Cobra. Charlie flew with Hale as her wingman, while Carter and Easton flew as the other team. The squad had debated whether a zeppelin escorted by only two planes would look ridiculous, but adding another team to the squad would have involved taking some of the Marauders or the Knights into their confidence, and possibly blowing their cover. Their Devastators looked amazingly deadly, painted a matte black. The lurid nose art, depicting a red-eyed raven, outlined in silver with bloody talons, added to the menacing appearance.

For more information see:
Devastator

Carter guided them down to a dusty little landing strip where they were able to set the Devastators down without any problem. Once the zep was secure, the six "Ravens" were greeted by a piercing wolf whistle as a short, red-haired man came towards them.

"Carter, you reprobate! Where'd you steal that beauty?" It wasn't immediately evident whether the newcomer was referring to the plane or Charlie. Carter and his buddy hugged each other without embarrassment, then the pilot turned to introduce his friend.

"This poor excuse for a soldier is my old buddy Rusty Lawson," Carter said. "We saw some action in Europe, but now he's doing his best imitation of a miner. Rusty, I'd like you to meet the team: Norm, Lightning, Hamlet, Jimbo, and Charlie." They all shook hands, but when Rusty got to Charlie, he whistled again.

"Pretty fancy company you're keeping, Carter. Bet you'd like a hot cup of java, wouldn't you, Miss Charlie?" Before she could respond, Rusty had gallantly folded her hand over his arm and was leading her towards a little tin hut at the end of the path. Carter laughed as they walked ahead of the others.

"Who knew Rusty had real manners?" he asked.

"Charlie can have that effect on a fella," responded a grinning Norm.

After they stretched their legs and refilled the thermoses, they were ready to take off again. Rusty seemed reluctant to let them go, but as expected, he asked no questions. Just before he helped Charlie onto the wing of her plane, he took her hand and put something in it.

"What's this?" she asked.

"Consider it a good luck token. I don't know where you all are headed, but I've got a pretty good idea that you might need a little special Navajo magic. Indulge an old soldier."

Charlie put the little beaded bracelet on and impulsively leaned over to kiss Rusty's cheek. "Thank you," she said. With that, she hopped up onto the wing and into her plane. He was still standing on the strip waving, as they became airborne once again.

Norm's voice came across the radio. "Alright, we'll be entering the Navajo Nation shortly. Stay in formation, and remember: don't fire unless fired upon. Ready, Lightning?"

"Affirmative. Here we go. "With that, the squadron crossed the border and continued flying east. It was as uneventful as the earlier part of the trip, although Charlie couldn't shake off a sense that she was being watched. She wanted to ask if anyone else felt it, but they had agreed that they would keep radio chatter to a minimum. She realized that she had been holding her breath and made a conscious effort to relax.

As she exhaled loudly and loosened her grip on the controls, she caught the flash of metal out of the corner of her eye. She glanced quickly over her left shoulder and realized that they had company.

A lot of company.

Screaming out of the sun, a squadron of planes fell into position behind the Ravens, led by a Ravenscroft Coyote.

"Charlie, we've got Wind Warriors on our backs," Hale called out. "At least one Coyote and some Brigands and Vampires."

For more information see:
Coyote; Brigand; Vampire

"Quite a lot of firepower, my friends," Potter added.

Over the open channel, Charlie heard the sound of a man's slightly accented voice filling the cockpit.

"Unidentified air group: this is the Wind Warriors. State your intentions."

There was a brief hesitation before Carter sent back his answer. "We are traveling to the mountains to return stolen property. We are carrying no alcohol, nor are we hostile."

"That may be," came the reply. "But your presence taints the air and the land beneath it."

"We're not looking for a fight, Wind Warriors," Carter said, nervous.

"That doesn't matter, intruders. If we wished, we would have blown you out of the sky already. Today we choose not to do that. Tomorrow we may not be so forgiving."

The relief in Carter's voice was palpable. "My thanks, Wind Warriors."

"Save them, pirate," the Navajo pirate replied. "We have been...informed of your mission and it suits my plans. So, it is not your time to die. Now leave as quickly as you can and do not come back this way."

Carter had the good sense not to ask how the man knew about their plans. He accelerated and the others followed suit, with the Wind Warriors behind, as if they were sweeping the Ravens out the door. As they got closer to the border, their escort seemed to drop back further and further, until they were out of sight. Charlie was about to radio Norm when she heard the Navajo pilot's voice one last time.

"Thank your friend for the bracelet, Miss Steele. Salawa out."



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