She switched back to Gardner. "Knight Leader: what's the situation?"
"Don't worry, Charlie," responded the always-confident "Glamour Boy." "By the time we're done with this little tango, there won't be a pirate in the sky."
She answered quickly. "Negative, Steve! Do not, repeat, do not engage unless fired upon. We need to get our hands on a live pirate...and preferably that zep!"
She could almost see his look of frustration. "You're kidding, right?"
"I mean it! Let's wait a few more minutes." She realized that she couldn't push this too long before her squad got suspicious about her uncharacteristically passive attitude about the invaders.
"Affirmative," came the grudging reply.
She radioed Norm. "How're we doing, Norm? I can't hold Gardner back much longer."
"Hale is in position now, Charlie. Potter's scheduled to go...now."
Charlie adjusted the radio yet again, ignoring the tension and ache in her fingers.
"Knight Leader: I'm getting an incoming message from our guests. Piping it through to you now..."
Potter's voicelayered with a thick Slavic accenthissed from the speakers.
"ttention Hollywood militia forces: pull back now, or ze Death Ravens vill begin bombing civilian targets. Zis is your only varning."
Charlie held her breath, hoping that Gardner would take the challenge seriously. She quickly dialed in Potter's frequency:
"Hamlet, let Jimbo start his run, and tell him to try not to hit me," Charlie called, before switching back to the Knights' channel.
"on't even think about hitting a civilian target, pirate," Gardner growledexactly as Charlie had expected. "Back off now before we pop that oversize balloon and you with it."
Perfect. Gardner was seconds away from disregarding his orders and attacking the pirates.
She flipped over to Hale: "Hit it, Jimbo!"
"Affirmative," Hale said, cool as ice.
His Devastator screamed out of the sky, leveling off and rocketing above the tarmac. His guns roared, strafing parked planes. He pulled up at the end of his run, releasing a bomb.
The bomb arced towards a collection of fuel tanks that Charlie had made sure were strategically positioned along Hale's projected line of approach.
The explosion was spectacular, as fuel drums burst and rocketed skyward on columns of flame.
"Nice work, Jimbo," Charlie said. "Watch your back, though; they're gonna come after you."
"I'm ready," he replied.
She quickly switched back to the Knights' frequency. "lie! Charlie! Are you alright down there?" Gardner sounded like he was about to have a heart attack.
She coughed a little for effect. "Yeah, I'm fine. The fire doesn't look too bad, so just let him go for now and keep your eye on the zep."
"Forget it," Gardner snapped. "We've got enough guns up here to babysit the zep and nail that pirate's coffin shut."
Gardner immediately began issuing commands to the squadron. "All right, Knights: we're gonna show our new friends who really owns the skies of Hollywood. Jolson and Noonan, form on me! We're going after that bomber!"
Flores and Gruner held back to keep an eye on the zep and the Death Ravens' Devastators, while the Firebrands fell into formation behind Gardner.
Charlie could see that Hale was pretty far out of range at this point, but she knew that once Gardner started tracking his prey, it would be damn hard to talk him down.
Switching back to the Raven's frequency, she radioed: "Jimbo, be careful! Gardner's heading in your direction and he's out for blood. Watch it!"
"Roger, Charlie. I'll make sure none of that blood is mine."
Charlie switched frequencies again. "Gardner's moving in as planned, Norm. Are you ready?"
"Affirmative, Charlie. One 'wounded bird' ready to go."
"Be careful, Norm," she muttered. Here's where it all comes together...or goes down in flames.
Flores and Gruner circled the zeppelin and her "pirate escorts." Norm Houston's plane, a Fury, moved into position with them. "Thought y'all could use a hand," he drawled.
Without warning, the two Death Raven Devastators fell away from the zeppelin, moving south. "Norm, you keep an eye on the zep. We're goin' huntin'," Flores radioed.
"Flores, our orders are to stay on the zep," Norm replied.
"Negative, Norm. You can handle it, right?"
Charlie smiled. "Killer, you are just so predictable," she said to herself. She switched to Norm's private frequency and said: "Okay, Norm...here we go."
After a long chase, Steve Gardner finally caught up with the Devastator.
The rest of the squad was behind him, but now he could see the Death Raven dead ahead. The enemy pilot was good, but there was no way he was going to escape from a Bloodhawk piloted by "Glamour Boy" Gardner. No way. As the Devastator banked and rolled, Glamour Boy lined him up in his sights and began to squeeze the trigger.
Suddenly the cockpit was filled with Norm Houston's voice, yelling: "I've got two Devastators coming in fast! I need help back at the zep! Where the hell is everybody?"
Steve cursed as he swung away from his target. "We're on our way, Norm. Just sit tight."
Carmen chimed in, "Where the hell could they have come from? We were only gone for a minute"
As the two groups of Hollywood Knights screamed back towards the zep's position, they searched the sky for any sign of the airship, her escort fighters or Norm's Fury.
They were gone.
"I've been hit! Mayday! Mayday!" Norm Houston's normally calm, laconic voice had been replaced by urgency and near-panic. With sinking hearts, the Knights watched Norm's plane trailing smoke and hurtling towards the earth. The plane slammed into the ground, sending smoke, fire and metal debris raining across the area. A moment later, the engine exploded in a brilliant ball of flame.
"Did he get clear? Where is he?" Gardner yelled.
In the darkness and the smoke, it was impossible to tell whether Norm had managed to get clear of the plane in time. In the stunned silence, Steve said, "Okay, folks. Show's over up here. Let's go home."
By the time the Marauders were on the ground, the police had arrived, lights flashing, andas expecteda reporter was pressing Charlie for information.
"So what happened, Miss Steele?" The reporter was frantically scribbling in a small notebook, hanging on her every word.
Charlie wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. "I'm not sure. We were having a private party when the attack came. These 'Death Ravens' hit us very hard."
"Death Ravens, huh?" The reporter chewed his pencil thoughtfully. "Never heard of 'em, but they must have had some serious firepower to down a Hollywood Knight. Is Mr. Houston hurt?"
"Yeah, how is he, Charlie?" Brandy Noonan asked as she and the other members of the squadronminus Normjoined them, haggard, sweaty and dispirited.
"He's fine," said Charlie, and there was a collective sigh of relief from the team. "Norm bailed out in time. He's going to be all right."
Gardner ushered the reporter away, his normally carefree demeanor forgotten. He turned to Charlie, stricken. "I'm sorry, Charlie. We were lucky. We performed like amateurs out there.
"I'm going home," he concluded. "I'll be here tomorrow, Charlie, early. I think we've got a lot of work to do." The others murmured in agreement, and walked off, their heads hanging.
Charlie ached for them, but she knew in her heart that this was what they needed, and that they would be a much stronger unit after tonight. They needed the discipline and focus that loss broughtlike Jimmy Vega's death had brought her. This way, at least, nobody actually died.
She headed off to her car, struggling to conceal her mounting elation. By morning, the papers would establish the Ravens as a pirate crew to be reckoned with and the Knights would be back on track.
"Next stop," she murmured, "Sky Haven."