"What's the name of this place again?" asked Jill Woodward, looking up at the high canyon walls. "La Casa del el Negro Lobo?"
"LA Negro Lobo," corrected Bonnie Clayton. "La Casa de La Negro Lobo. The House of the Black Wolf."
They took a few steps toward the ruins of a large fortress-like structure standing alone in the middle of the remote canyon. "When I was checking into this place, I got talking to some of the locals. They told me that this place used to be the headquarters for the Mafia's Capo di Tutti Capi -- Boss of Bosses."
Woodward snorted a quick laugh. "Are you kidding? What crime boss would trust their safety to this target? One good air strike and it would be history." She paused. "So is that was happened to it?"
Clayton shook her head. "Un huh. According to the locals, back in the mid-80's one man caused all this."
Woodward gawked at her lieutenant. "One man? Get outta here!"
Clayton laughed. "I don't know. It's probably no more than an urban legend." Her voice quieted. "But then, maybe not."
Woodward shrugged. "Well, now it's just a hole-in-the-wall rendezvous for drug dealers and smugglers."
"I gave Peg and Reba permission to poke around the ruins. Looks like it's been picked clean, so I didn't see any harm in it. I'll give them another half hour, then call them in."
Woodward nodded. "Okay. We all set?"
"As ready as we'll ever be. The choppers are fueled and tuned to perfection." She motioned to the two Chinook CH-46 and two Huey UH-1B helicopters illuminated by a ring of halogen security lights. "The troops are either asleep or winding down. All in all, we're good t'go."
"Good," she replied with a nod. They spotted a familiar figure several yards away, barely visible in the glow of the floodlights. "I think I need to take care of something. I"ll see you in the morning."
"'Night, Jill," she replied, and strolled back in the direction of camp.
Woodward was quiet as she approached the blond-haired girl who seemed to be wandering in a circle among the sagebrush and rocks. Her head was low, as if troubled by something. Still a few yards away, Woodward called her name. "Tracy?"
She turned abruptly at the sound. "Jill?"
"Yeah. You okay?"
She shrugged. "Yeah, I suppose," she muttered as the black woman reached her. "Jill, can I admit something to you?"
Woodward recited in a monotone, "You've never been in actual fighting, and you're scared out of your mind."
Tracy grimaced, "Is it that obvious?"
She waved a hand back at the tents and helicopters. "Look at us, Trace ... we work by night, hit and run. This is the first time most of us have seen combat. I'd be scared if you weren't scared." She put a comforting arm around the younger woman. "You'll do fine. Just keep your head and don't panic."
Tracy nodded. Woodward could see she wasn't fully convinced, but the words of encouragement seemed to help. "Thanks," she said, returning the hug.
"Let's get some sleep. Tomorrow's gonna be a big day for all of us."
They walked back to their camp as the stars twinkled overhead.
Several hours later, just before dawn, the camp was packed up and everything loaded into the two Chinooks. The air was cool in the canyon, and the troops assembled near the helicopters. Many of them came to attention, and all of them were dressed in jungle camo BDU's.
Woodward stood with Clayton at her side, and looked them over. Her outward expression didn't give away the pride she had that moment for these twenty-nine women who were now a team. She stood silent, rigid, while her presence registered in those who stood before her.
Finally she spoke.
"GOOD MORNING, LADIES!" she addressed them, her voice raised to be heard. "Today ... we will finally achieve our goal ... and change the course of Patricia Savage's empire FOREVER!" They were respectfully silent, but their excitement was reflected in their faces. "We are NOT professional soldiers! We are MISFITS! Most of us know we should be home baking cookies!" Her comment and grin was met with scattered giggles. "But we have chosen to be here now. And we will NOT give up until our goal is met." She paused. "Today ... we WILL achieve our goal! Before this day is over, Penelope Savage will be in our hands, and we ... will ... be ... HEARD." The troops were electrified. Woodward's voice lowered slightly. "I know you will not fail me. I know you will make me proud." She paused again. "All right, ladies ... MOVE 'EM OUT!"
The pumped-up crowd erupted in sound, as Woodward stood tall and let Clayton dismiss them to their aircraft.
"Good speech, boss," the tall brunette commented. "That was just what they needed."
Woodward didn't address her comment. "Let's go."
The four helicopters had been code-signed with the name Valkryie, or Val for short. The twin-rotor Chinooks were Val One and Val Two, and they carried the bulk of the cargo and troops. The Hueys were Val Three and Val Four, and each of them would carry four plus pilot and co-pilot. Woodward took a final walk around the area to confirm that everything was secure, then climbed up the rear ramp of Val One and through the body of the helicopter, forward into the cockpit where Bonnie Clayton and Alana Docket were in the middle of their pre-flight checklist. She glanced down at an unused jump seat behind them, but was too excited to sit.
Bonnie had the controls. "Valkryie One to Valkryie Wing," she broadcasted over her radio. "Report."
She received the acknowledgments one by one, relaying them to Woodward. "Okay, then. Here we go, by the numbers."
Woodward was now strapped into the jump seat, waiting expectantly. Moments later, the rotors beating the air, the large Chinook raised a few feet off the ground and hovered. One became four, and soon they were all poised above the canyon floor. Then, with Clayton issuing instructions over the radio, they climbed to a dozen feet, angled forward, and accelerated. They passed the ruins of the old fortress, and climbed above the canyon walls. One adjustment to set them on course, and they bade farewell to La Casa de la Negro Lobo.
"You're not eating your breakfast, Pat. What is the matter?"
Pat picked at her plate. Dressed in jeans and a safari shirt, she tried coming up with a good answer. In the end, she just replied, "I don't know. I just have a bad feeling inside."
"About what? Did you not sleep well?"
"As well as could be expected, I suppose," she replied. "I had a dream last night ... the same one I had experienced during the flight here."
"Do you wish to talk about it?"
She shook her head. "No. No. Let's just change the subject. It seems the little talk you had with your people worked."
"Yes. I was able to persuade them to be patient regarding what the changes in me mean to the Valley. They agreed not to do anything ... rash." She took a bite of food. "My people will accept things. Give them time."
Pat didn't reply. Her eyes were occupied, focusing on the sacrificial altar at the top of the golden pyramid.
The flight of Valkryie Wing had been an uneasy one.
They had started off fine, but then reality started settling in as they flew dangerously close to such political tinder boxes as Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Panama. And, considering they were in unmarked helicopters, dressed in military uniforms sans insignia or identification of nationality, and carrying weapons and explosives and enough fuel to cover quite a range, there was a collective feeling of anxiety aboard. There were a few who did their best to alleviate fears, but everybody knew it would be very unpleasant if they were caught before reaching their destination.
When at last the four helicopters passed into confrontationally-safer territory, there was still the terrain to contend with. High mountains and disturbingly-few lowlands lay ahead, and Bonnie ordered them to climb to their maximum altitude, taking on a single-file formation while in constant radio contact. Very soon, the patches of cloud cover became a blanket of impenetrable white. Doppler radar in the Chinooks' avionics gave them an advantage over the older Hueys, so they took front and back door of the little convoy.
In Val One, Woodward blinked hard through her sunglasses, against the glare of the clouds. Bonnie and Alana were casually radioing the distance of landmarks around them, in calm and steady voices that were a credit to their profession. Speakers in the cabin carried the ongoing talk between the helicopters.
Woodward had just looked away from the glare when the frantic call pierced above the rest.
"VAL THREE TO VAL ONE! MAYDAY, MAYDAY!" cried pilot Rachel Banta, her voice lowering as she identified the problem. "Oh God ... we clipped our tail rotor on a rock spur! WE'RE GOING DOWN!"
Woodward's face broke into an instant sweat, but there was nothing she could do. Helpless, she looked to her pilots, who were trying to talk her through options.
"Rachel, increase your airspeed, and turn in the direction you're going!" barked Bonnie Clayton into her headset microphone. "It's just like hitting a patch of ice! Turn into the skid!"
Rachel yelled over the panicked screams of the other women aboard the small Huey, "IT'S NOT WORKING -- WE'RE TOO CLOSE TO THE -"
Rachel Banta's voice was cut off by a sudden grinding noise.
Then there was silence.
Woodward stopped breathing for a couple of beats, and faced forward with her eyes closed against the tears that were forming. Behind her in the body of the Chinook came the muffled sobs from their passengers. In her mind's eye she saw the faces of the six aboard the Huey, and a lump caught in her throat. "Awww ... Tracy," she whispered with an expletive under her breath.
"JILL!" Woodward's eyes popped open at Clayton's sharp exclamation. "LOOK!"
The clouds had split apart as if cleaved by some celestial axe-blade, and they burst into an egg-shaped valley.
The normally-calm morning in the Valley of the Vanished was broken asunder by the deafening whap-whap-whap of beating wings echoing off the high mountain walls. Natives looked up and pointed in fear at the strange animals, fleeing in terror to the security of their Queen.
Monja and Pat were already outside, standing in the clearing next to the palace, and looking expectantly upward..
At Pat's side, Hal Mason looked through binoculars and reported calmly. "Three helicopters ... two Chinook CH-46's and a Huey UH-1B. They seem to be circling the outer rim of the Valley."
"Is it Doc?" asked Monja, excitedly, to Pat. "Is it?"
"Who else could it be?" she responded absently, turning to Mason. "Troop carriers?"
"Yes, ma'am," answered Mason. "They're capable of hauling troops, arms, and even light vehicles."
Pat looked up and started sweating.
She'd expected her cousin not to come alone -- defying the instructions he'd been given -- but this show of strength was more than she had anticipated. With the Mayan queen on one side, and her guard on the other, she knew she would soon be called upon to give their response.
She cursed her cousin under her breath.
"Wow! Will you look at that pyramid!" commented Alana with awe. "I'll give you 2-to-1 odds it's Mayan."
"And look who's parked next to it," added Clayton.
"Penelope's Osprey," breathed Woodward, now standing behind the two pilots.
The helicopters had maneuvered into a holding pattern while Woodward had assessed the situation with binoculars. She had been amazed at the sheer beauty of the valley, with its lush foliage and clear air, like a modern-day Shangri-La.
But then she saw the Osprey, and was reminded of their reason to be there, the mission that had already claimed six lives. Clenching her teeth at her laziness and selfishness, she concentrated on the mission.
"We've been spotted," observed Alana, noting the natives staring and pointing from the large village central to the valley.
"Yeah," replied Woodward absently, as she surveyed the area and formulated a strategy. Then she saw a familiar figure. "There she is, near that structure!"
"That's the palace," answered Alana confidently, then elaborated. "I took Mayan architecture in college."
"Do you think you can put us down there next to it?"
"I think so," commented Bonnie, and flexed her fingers around the controls.
"Careful," said Alana. "She's not alone. I see gunmen down there -- at least two."
"I see 'em. Thanks."
Woodward nodded and went back to the cargo section of the Chinook. As she passed the women, some still in shock, she offered comforting touches and hugs and encouraging words, trying to redirect their attention towards the fight and victory ahead of them.
She brought up a metal box the size of a cosmetics case and placed it on the floor. She opened the case and removed the cover, revealing a complex remote-control array. She attached a neck strap to either side of the box, which held it steady as she stood. After a quick check of the system, she put on a radio headset and signaled for attention.
"Okay, everybody! This is what we've trained for, so listen closely! Weapons ready, ear protection ready! Val Two, on my mark you will move to the other side of the pyramid and hover above an open area suitable for landing. You'll prep two LAWS rockets for dispatching on my command -- let yourself be seen -- aim for the top half of that pyramid." She saw the flash of concern on her co-pilot's face, and smiled. "Trust me, I know what I'm doing. I'm willing to bet that they'd be willing to do anything to keep their precious pyramid from being damaged."
Alana nodded understandingly.
Woodward continued. "Val Four, you will take a position above the lake. Make sure nobody is under you in the water. Set up a satchel charge, and drop it in the water on my command. Once we've made beachhead, you'll stay aloft and provide air cover if necessary. Acknowledge."
"Val Two, acknowledged and ready."
"Val Four, ready."
"All right, ladies. As of now we are going over to full-ASL mode with maximum ear protection. Good luck!"
Woodward replaced the radio set with a heavy-duty ear protection headset, adjusting it on her head. Bonnie and Alana took turns at the controls while putting their headsets on. Tapping her crew on the shoulders, they acknowledged their readiness with a pair of upraised thumbs.
Turning her attention to the remote control box, she set them to TEST and pushed two buttons. A moment later, green lights acknowledged the visual command. With a nod and a smile, she tapped Bonnie twice on the shoulder, then pressed a button on the control box.
The helicopters moved into position.
"Look, they're moving!" said Monja.
The helicopters smoothly broke formation, the smaller one centering over the lake, and the larger two positioning themselves, one over the pyramid, and the other drifting deliberately over their own heads.
The cyclonic winds caused by the double rotors caused many natives to cower in terror, and Monja yelled for them not to fear, plus something Pat could not understand.
Mason and Balboa had maneuvered into strategic positions, their weapons ready. Her flight crew, not fighters, were safe inside the palace.
But Pat was ready to rumble.
Her long hair tied back against the increasing wind, she stood defiantly out in the open, in the clearing near the palace. Her old familiar six-shooter felt good in her hand, while a more-modern automatic pistol had been tucked into the waistband of her pants, comfortably resting against the small of her back, hidden.
The natives had also quickly prepared for battle, taking up whatever they could to defend their Valley. For what it was worth, they were ready to fight at Monja's command.
After the initial shock at her cousin's show of strength, she'd determined in her heart that -- if this were her last battle -- she would give him a fight he would never forget. It was an odd feeling, hopeless yet exhilarating, facing death once more. Like ... like old times.
Above the roar of the wind that pressed down on them, a high-pitched chirp from a speaker got their attention. A female voice then spoke: "PENELOPE SAVAGE!"
Pat was surprised at the female voice, addressing her by her alter ego's name. For a moment she wondered what Doc was pulling. Then something started to turn in her mind, and she muttered under her breath, "That voice ... I know that voice."
"Who is this 'Penelope' they ask for?" called Monja.
Before Pat could reply, the voice spoke again, "PENELOPE SAVAGE! IF YOU SURRENDER NOW, NO ONE WILL BE HARMED."
Suddenly Pat's jaw went slack, as she remembered the voice. Her eyes narrowed and her teeth clenched as she replied, "Woodward." Then she let out a howl of rage and swung the six-gun upwards in the direction of the helicopter's nose.
Anticipating such a reaction from Miz Savage, Woodward had a finger poised over a primary button. As she saw the pistol swing, she hit the button and yelled, "NO!"
From compact wave speakers mounted below the helicopters, the single word came like a clap of thunder, echoing several seconds afterward.
The response was immediate. Pat's gun stopped in mid-swing, unfired. Everyone was stunned, taken totally by surprise.
Woodward smiled at the reaction, then touched another control.
The Huey's sudden climb was hardly noticed by those on the river's shores. But that changed instantly at the thunderclap of an explosion that preceded a massive geyser of water 40 feet high above the Valley. As if in slow motion, the water curled up and out, and came down on the
shores of the river like a tidal wave. Natives tried to run but didn't get far before the wall of water and displaced sea life overwhelmed them.
Woodward's amplified voice spoke again. "THIS IS JUST ONE EXAMPLE OF WHAT WE CAN DO. OUR NEXT TARGET WILL BE YOUR SACRED PYRAMID ... OBSERVE!"
All eyes on the ground turned towards the helicopter hovering close to the pyramid. The side door had opened, and the vicious-looking muzzle of a rocket launcher was pointing directly at the top of their sacred structure.
"No! Not the temple! Not the temple!" cried Monja, frantically seeking answers from Pat. "Is it Doc? Is it?"
As if in answer to her inquiry, Woodward said, "PENELOPE SAVAGE. DROP YOUR WEAPON AND SURRENDER, OR WE WILL DESTROY THE PYRAMID!"
Pat stood, cursing under her breath. Then she lowered the six-gun and reluctantly lobbed it to one side. Turning to Monja, she said, "I'll pretend to give up, then use the other gun when I'm close enough. My guards are in place; they'll fire on the other helicopters when I do."
Before Monja could object, Pat stepped forward with her hands raised and a scowl on her face. She could see the crew through the windshield -- including that traitor Woodward -- and calculated her shots. She took a couple more steps, then quickly reached behind her back and drew the automatic.
Woodward's eyes had been locked on Penelope's grimacing face, watching closely as the six-gun was tossed aside. "This is way too easy," she mumbled suspiciously, just before Penelope reached for the concealed automatic.
Woodward jammed her fingers onto the control buttons, and the world erupted in sound.
Pat tried to hold onto the automatic, but her fingers had instantly outvoted her in favor of covering her ears against the din. Nothing else mattered at that moment except that she protect her hearing. The sound from the speakers was not a single note, but a cacophony of sounds of ear-piercing decibels, a multitude of noises that spread outward and echoed against the mountains surrounding the Valley. The bass portion among the sounds was overwhelming, vibrating everything and everybody within its range. Under its influence, pottery vessels cracked, and windows throughout the palace split and shattered.
The effect on the people below was just as devastating: all those who heard, throughout the Valley of the Vanished, fell stunned and wounded to the ground.
From Val One, Woodward winced against the concussion of the noise, threatening to shake them from the skies. She counted to five, then gave the command to land and begin the beachhead.
On the ground below, Pat felt the intensity of the wind increase, and a part of her mind told her to move before the helicopter landed on top of her. She scrambled away blindly, eyes pressed closed against the sound that grew closer. She hit a patch of grass and stumbled, landing with an awkward crash, yet unable to feel the pain.
As the wind's force lessened as the helicopter's rotors wound down, Pat turned in its direction and screamed for the sound to stop.
And, amazingly, it did. Woodward had discontinued the sonic attack.
Still stunned and feeling dizzy, her ears still ringing, Pat forced her eyes open.
The helicopters had landed, and ramps lowered from the larger ones. Pat watched helplessly as armed soldiers in paramilitary uniforms rushed down the ramp. She noted that they were all wearing hearing protectors against the effects of the sound. She suddenly heard the cracking of automatic weapons fire, and was surprised that her hearing hadn't been permanently impaired.
The last person down the ramp was dressed in a slightly different uniform. It was a woman. Gritting her teeth, she yelled, "WOODWARD!" accompanied by a string of profanities.
There was no reply. , The black woman silently strode over to her and looked down upon her, like a hunter admiring their latest capture. She held a vaguely-familiar weapon in her hand, while an automatic was holstered at her hip.
Still stunned and hurting, but not willing to give up without a fight, she groped for Woodward's pants-leg. With a laugh, the black woman stepped easily out of her reach. Then there was a stabbing twinge in Pat's hip, and she noticed that Woodward's weapon was now pointing in her direction.,
Like audible taffy, sounds began to stretch and distort, and her vision began to cloud. Her thoughts became slow, like they were packed in cotton. Then the darkness obscured her mind and the sounds went away.