As Ace Morgan — a tough man with a military demeanor and the piloting skills of a legend — guided their plane across the county, the others occupied themselves as best they could.
Prof Haley read from a small book of local history. “Jefferson himself might have frequented the Stoney Battery community,” he announced. “After all, his summer retreat of Poplar Forest is not that far away from our destination.”
“Actually, his place predates that founding of Stoney Battery,” said Rocky Davis. “It was just a bunch of remote cabins up and down the James River back then.”
Prof lowered his book in surprise, and Rocky shrugged in indignation and said, “What? A guy can read, can’t he? I got a library card, you know!”
Corinna Stark yawned as she reclined in her chair and said, “Red, don’t you have some little morality tale to share with me? Hmmm?”
Red Ryan put down a small electrical device he had been tinkering with and said, “Yeah. I guess jazzing up Tino’s cassette recorder can wait while I give you a little personal history all my own.”
Corinna smiled winningly and said, “Your brother’s loss is my gain.”
“I wasn’t just a circus acrobat before I became a Challenger,” Red began. “I climbed mountains and acted as a guide for a while. I also became something of an electronics whiz. That led me to combine the two interests, in a way. You see, a wealthy guy named Domingo approached me and asked me to create a radio transmitter for Mount Blanco down in South America. He said it would help educate the locals, and he’d spring for the cost. I was thrilled. I mean, seeing my designs come to living color was better than doing a triple somersault without a net. I agreed to the deal, and eventually my baby was ready to do its thing. That’s when I got the real story from a village kid.”
“The hand of fate embodied in a mere youth,” commented Corinna.
“You might say that,” replied Red. “All I know is the kid tipped me off to the real purpose Domingo had for my transmitter. He wanted to use it to broadcast propaganda to the locals on behalf on a guerrilla leader. I blew up at the kid. You know, kick the messenger, right?”
“You didn’t realize what was going to happen,” said Prof. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
Red nodded and said, “I tossed the kid out of my tent, and he was gunned down. That woke me up big time. I took down an assassin and exposed Domingo for the creep he was. The legitimate government honored me as a hero and a freedom fighter, and I was invited to the television gig. If I had listened to the boy, he might still be alive.”
Corinna leaned over and placed both hands on his arm. “Red, you have a noble heart, but you could not have looked into the future that night,” she said. “Do not forget that you’ve saved many lives since that dark night.”
Rocky scowled as the lovely woman offered Red comfort, none too happy to see her showering Red with so much attention.
“I know we’ve done some good since we hooked up as the Challengers,” said Red, “but my kid brother once got sucked into a plot where a space monster was invading his dreams. The BEM was a kind of nightmare-maker. Well, we took care of that space invader and freed a lot of folks from their bad dreams, but I still see the village boy’s face in my own nightmares to this day. I don’t need some E.T. to whip up nightmares for me.”
“We’ll be landing soon,” said Ace Morgan from the pilot’s seat. “Roanoke Regional has cleared us for the landing.”
They prepared to land as Corinna gazed out the window in silent thought. I do get the point of their stories, she thought. They are all heroes who have overcome past selfishness that they now regret. I have been entirely too self-absorbed. I know being alone all those years with only my own thoughts to occupy me when I was not studying the dark arts has made me a bit too self-centered and distant from others. Maybe I can change that.
Soon, after a smooth landing and an easy transfer to their Land Rover, they were headed for the sleepy community of Stoney Battery and its historic inn.
“Rocky, did your Granny say what we were to do at the inn, or would that have been entirely too direct?” asked Ace.
Rocky smiled and said, “I know. She’s vague. She just said we were needed at the inn. For all I know, we may end up doing yard work.”
They parked and admired the long driveway and the huge plantation before them. “Man, I half-expect Scarlet O’Hara to come out to greet us!” said Rocky.
One sultry Southern belle is enough, thought Red. He shook his head and tried to put things into perspective. He and Corinna had shared a kiss once, but he still found her infuriating. He knew she really was not someone to distrust in spite of her sometimes demanding and imperious ways. A space being had made contact with her mind and had declared her to be good. He accepted the judgment, but he wondered why he had such mixed feelings about her red-headed beauty.
When we met Corinna at the spooky castle her old man had built in the Ozarks, her crazy father Algernon tried to kill us, he mused. He was going to shoot her when Prof dived in front of her. He took the bullet meant for her, and she responded by saving his life by putting him in some crazy cryogenics chamber. That was good, but what she did next really pushed my buttons. She said she would replace Prof until he healed, and then she calmly handed out new uniforms to us there on the spot. There was no way the wacky doll could have had suits like those with our logo and our exact measurements on hand unless she somehow knew we were going to end up there, and that she was going to join us. I guess she had one of her psychic visions or something. Maybe she saw it in a crystal ball. The whole thing still gives me the creeps!
As they entered the historic inn, they were greeted by a very pretty blonde woman wearing a costly outfit. “Hello!” she chirped in the very crisp accent of a Bostonian. “Welcome to Stoney Battery. I’m the owner, Eden Copenhaver. My husband Rodney is upstairs, but let me sign you all in, and our handyman Gabe will see to your luggage.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Copenhaver,” said Ace. “We are not certain how long we’ll be staying. I hope that won’t pose a problem.”
She bit her lip in thought for a second and then said, “No, of course not. We won’t get full occupancy until the end of the month when the holidays attract so many visitors.”
Gabe, an old man with a rather sour expression, drew closer and started to lift a bag when the men stepped over to get their own bags.
“No need to trouble yourself, sir,” said Prof. “We can handle our own luggage and the lady’s. We’re rather experienced travelers.”
Gabe nodded and said, “I think that’s an understatement. You Challengers have been to places others only dream about!”
“A fan, huh?” said Rocky. “We can getcha autographs, if you like!”
Gabe maintained a sour look as he said, “Most kind of you.”
As Ace turned back to step outside for the rest of their bags, a scraping sound caught his attention, and he looked upward in time to see a cornice stone hurtling down from above. He hurled himself across the yard as the heavy stonework shattered inches from his previous position.
A blond man in a turtleneck and blazer leaned out an open window and said, “Are you hurt? I knew the masonry fixtures were in need of repair, but I certainly didn’t know they would break like that.”
“I’m fine,” said Ace. “What exactly were you doing up there?”
“I’m the owner,” explained the man. “I was just doing a bit of cleaning. I’m afraid I’m not as skilled as old Gabe is.”
As the other Challengers rushed out to investigate the sound of the crashing stone, Ace waved them back and said, “I’m fine. It was just an accident.” The Challengers returned inside and made their way to their rooms as Gabe led the way.
“Was this inn originally a private residence?” asked Prof.
“It was built around 1835 by Thomas Randolph,” said Gabe. “He was a wealthy farmer, and this was the family estate. I believe the family fell on hard times after the Civil War, and the property passed from owner to owner. Old Randolph had no children.”
Rocky glanced down one hallway toward a wing where many windows let in illumination, offering the tourists a good view of rows of paintings. “These are pretty good,” he said. “They all seem to be by the same artist. Who painted them?”
“They have been here for generations,” said Gabe. “As you can see, some restoration work has been done, but to this day we don’t know the name of the artist. They are unsigned.”
Red whistled softly as he admired an elegant blonde beauty whose face and figure adorned several of the canvases. “She was a real looker! I guess she was a Randolph.”
Gabe shrugged wearily and said, “I could not say, sir. We do not know her identity or the name of the artist who immortalized her.”
Corinna stared up at the paintings and said, “I love her gowns. It would have been so romantic to have been alive back then. As a girl, I devoured historical romances. My father felt they were a proper form of recreation.”
“In truth, the mortality rate was appalling,” said Prof. “Due to lack of proper sanitation, among other related medical problems…”
“We get the picture,” interrupted Red. “No need for a germ-by-germ account.”
Rocky placed one hand on Corinna’s back and said, “You’d look like a real peach in one of them dresses! Rhett Butler wouldn’t have given Scarlett a second glance if you’d been around, baby!”
Corinna smiled and said, “You do say the sweetest things!”
“He’s a regular Emily Post,” quipped Red. “Gabe, thanks for your help. We’ll be busy for a while, but we’ll be down later.” Gabe nodded and walked away, leaving the heroes alone.
“What’s the deal?” Red asked Ace. “That stone almost pulped you. No accident, right? I mean, these things never are, in our experience.”
Ace nodded and said, “The stone? It was worn down by exposure to the elements, but I think its premature descent was aimed at eliminating me. Someone doesn’t want us poking around here. If Gabe recognized us, then the others could have as well. If something sinister is going on here that needs our attention, then the folks behind it certainly can’t welcome visitors with international reputations for being curious.”
“What do you think it is this time?” asked Rocky. “Could it be a gang of old Nazi rats hiding out in the heart of Dixie? Alien shape-shifters? Pod people?”
“Pod people are unlikely,” said Prof. “We haven’t had one of those in years.”
Red shrugged and said, “I always like the good old monster motif.”
“Yes, or super-villains on vacation,” added Ace. “No matter. Whatever is behind the trouble here, we’ll find it and settle it.”