"This way, Miss Steele!..."
"One for the front page, Miss Steele!..."
""Hey, Charlie, lookin' good tonight!..."
Just before she entered the restaurant, she turned and smiled brightly, showing her new dress off to advantage as she stood under the green-and-white striped awning. She waved a black-gloved hand, then slipped inside, grateful to escape the blinding glare from the reporters' flash-bulbs. Dave Chasen himself greeted her with a kiss on the cheek.
"Well, well, Charlie, don't you look lovely tonight! Hollywood's very own goddess of the air." The famous restaurateur offered her his tuxedoed arm and escorted her to the banquet room. A lot of people called out to her and she waved and smiled, feeling tired even before she got to the receiving line.
"Dave, really, I'm just a pilot doing my job. I'm certainly no 'goddess.'"
"Honey, they don't give parties like this for 'just a pilot.'"
Charlie smiled ruefully and nodded. She patted his arm as he released her hand. "You're right, I guess. The place looks beautiful, by the way. Quite a crowd."
The vaudeville performer-turned-host looked around happily. "You bet, although there are days when I miss the old circuit and the barbecue shack. Oh well, that's the price of success, I guess. Keep 'em full 'n happy, that's what I say. You really look great tonight, kid." With that, Dave Chasen went off to greet other guests. Charlie took a deep breath and looked around for some champagne.
Surprisingly, she couldn't seem to flag down a waiter; the only person who caught her gaze was a handsome, deeply-tanned man - one of the guests, she thought - who flashed her a brilliant grin that hinted at mischief, appreciation... and promise. All he needs is a gold earring, she thought, and he'd be the perfect Hollywood picture of a sky pirate. She lost sight of him as the throng of partygoers swarmed around them... and then he was gone.
"Charlie!" The shouts of Steve "Glamour Boy" Gardner and Karl "Wrong-way" Gruner distracted her, and she dismissed the odd encounter. Her fellow pilots, exuberant and boisterous as ever, chattering at her enthusiastically and leading her to the dance floor where the evening's hostess, Mrs. Henry O'Mallory, greeted her effusively. Wife of one of the most successful attorneys in Hollywood, Mrs. O'Mallory loved to throw lavish parties, inviting a diverse group of artists, athletes, businessmen, and of course, the ever-present movie moguls and film stars.
"Miss Steele, what an honor to have you here tonight! Why, you and the Knights are really the only thing standing between us and complete barbarism! Mr. Chandler told us how incredibly brave you all were out there. Oh, I just shudder when I think about those dastardly pirates, don't you, Buffy dear?" As Mrs. O'Mallory paused for a breath, she had turned to a quiet young woman standing next to her. Dorothy Buffum Chandler was Harry Chandler's daughter-in-law and beginning to make a name for herself in local politics.
There was a slight twinkle in her eyes as she answered her hostess. "There, there, Mrs. O'Mallory, I'm sure that Miss Steele and the Knights are quite capable of keeping the pirates out of our bedrooms." Mrs. O'Mallory gasped with terror at the thought of such an intrusion and clasped her be-ringed hand to her ample bosom. Gardner and Gruner almost choked on their champagne as Charlie saw her opportunity to make a graceful escape.
"Lovely evening, Mrs. O'Mallory. Thank you so much for inviting us." She nodded conspiratorially to Buffy Chandler. "Very glad to meet you, Mrs. Chandler."
"Buffy, please... and I look forward to seeing you again, Charlie." The two young women shook hands and Charlie beat a hasty retreat, her two sputtering cohorts in tow.
She managed to get them over near a row of booths along the side of the main room. Gardner was feeling no pain at this point.
"Can you imagine some poor unsuspecting pirate finding himself trapped in Mrs. O's bedroom! He'd probably pay her to let him go," Gardner snickered.
Gruner guffawed loudly, slapping Gardner on the back and sending champagne flying out of their glasses. Charlie managed to dodge the golden dollup of Bollingers' before her dress was damaged. She glared at the two men.
"You two are disgusting! And drunk," she hissed
"But, Charlie, it's a party!"
"Everything is a party with you guys these days, isn't it? Next time, we aren't going to be as lucky as we were in Burbank."
"Spare us that old song-and-dance, at least for tonight, Charlie." The two walked away from her, leaning heavily on each other and laughing as they exchanged their half-full glasses for new flutes of expensive bubbly. She heard a burst of raucous laughter and saw Carmen Flores surrounded by a crowd of admirers vying for her attention. One of them had commandeered a bottle of champagne and another one was holding a tray with a bowl of caviar that he was feeding the beautiful aviatrix with a little mother-of-pearl spoon.
Charlie moved through the crowd in the other direction, catching snatches of conversations as she went:
"...there's no question that they are the modern Knights of the Round Table."
"I'm thinking of casting Brandy Noonan in my next feature film..."
"No, really, there we were - just a few of us and about fifty pirate planes..."
"Say, I can fly as well as they do..."
"...so, how d'ya think they'd do against the Broadway Bombers?"
"...but I'm not sure whether they could defend us against someone really tough like 'Marshal' Redmann..."
Charlie felt a wave of claustrophobia descend upon her, as if the peering eyes and prying questions were physical walls closing in on her. Fumbling through the crowd, she found herself outside Dave Chasen's private office. She knocked, hoping that no one was there and she could grab a few minutes of peace. She wanted to get away from the lights and the chatter and the insufferable egos of her crew members. Just for a few minutes, to regain her composure.
"Come in." Relief flooded her as she heard Dave's voice from behind the door. She opened it and stepped into an oasis of quiet.
"Good evening, Charlotte." She was surprised to see Dave Chasen and Norm Houston sitting across from each other.
"Mind if I hole up here for a while?" she asked. "It's getting a little thick out there."
A lean man in a white tuxedo, seated near the window - partially obscured by his chair back and the pools of shadow that bordered the room - spoke, startling Charlie. A glass of something that looked like whisky straight up sat on the windowsill near him.
"I see that someone else is tiring of this overly-effusive paean to the heroes of the hour," he said.
Charlie flung herself onto the couch near the Houston and Chasen. "God, yes! I don't know what I hate more: the fawning people or my inebriated crew."
She leaned forward, concern marking her beautiful face. "We almost didn't make it out of that scrape over Burbank yesterday. We flew like rookies out there. We should have lost. And they're calling us 'heroes.'"
The man in the shadows responded quietly, "Then do something about it, Charlotte. Do something quickly, before you have to bury more of your friends."
Charlie put her face in her hands for a moment as she thought of Jimmy Vega, then ran her fingers down the side of her cheeks as she raised her head. "I'm so tired of what the Knights have become. I just don't know whether it's even worth keeping the group together any more. I can't go through this every time we fly. I was so worried about everyone that I wasn't paying attention to the enemy and the price for that was almost more than we - than I - could pay."
Norm cleared his throat and brought his chair to the carpet. "Charlie, you've done a great job. You can't blame yourself for this. These are rich kids who aren't used to schedules and discipline. They've done some amazing stuff, but we're going to have to come up with a way to get them to buckle down."
Charlie laughed raggedly. "I don't suppose we could just dock their allowance or lock them in their rooms without dinner?"
The man in the shadows stood, grabbing the whisky glass and draining it in one fluid motion. He smiled thinly at Charlie's attempt at humor. "Unfortunately, even in Hollywood, there are laws about involuntary incarceration, although a few weeks at an isolated boot camp might not be a bad idea. However, we cannot afford the publicity if the entire group disappeared, especially you, Charlotte."
"I know, dammit. It was a lot easier when no one knew who we were. Now they know every time one of us-"
"Charlotte," the man interjected, "there is no point in wasting your energy feeling sorry for yourself. You've made a decision and now you must live with it. What did the police learn about the pirates?"