"Mr. Justin?" she repeated. "Representing the Lockheed Corporation?"
Paladin lost his place in the columns and rows. "You said Lockheed?"
A corporation like Lockheed could mean, for once, a fat profit margin. The boost in prestige couldnt hurt Blake Aviation Security, either. It could lead to other corporate clients. Real money. Maybe enough to finally get his company off the ground.
But he was getting ahead of himself. He didnt know what Lockheed wanted. "Send Mr. Justin in."
Paladin quickly slipped on his suspenders, tucked in his shirt, and ran his fingers through his hair. He stood and slammed the ledger shut.
The office door opened. A man paused in the doorway. He was seven feet tall if he was an inch, and he had to turn his wide shoulders just to clear the doorframe. Paladin had never seen a size sixty-four Italian-cut suit beforeenough navy blue wool to make a tent. The color of his gray silk tie matched his pointed beard. Bushy brows arched over his blue eyes.
"Paladin Blake?" There was a richness to his voice, a slight Slavic accent. "I am Peter Justin." He extended a hand that engulfed Paladins as they shook.
"What can Blake Aviation do for you?" He gestured to a padded chair.
Justin gracefully sat. "Lockheed has business for you, Mr. Blake. Security business."
"Good," Paladin said. "Great." He slowly sank into his chair, then added, "But Lockheed has its own security. Why use us?"
"I am well aware of Lockheeds security resources. I am in charge of them." Justin reached into his coat and removed a sterling cigarette case, opened it, and offered one to Paladin.
"No thanks," Paladin said.
Justin took a cigarette for himself. "Lockheed requires an outsider for this particular assignment, an outsider with an impeccable record and a reputation for discretion. In short: we need you, Mr. Blake."
"I see," Paladin said, not really seeing anything, but managing to sound nonchalant. "Tell me about it."
"A simple matter," Justin replied and rolled his unlit cigarette between his fingers. "Two months ago, parts for a new aircraft disappeared from our Pasadena facility. Last week, the blueprints disappeared from our vaultthen reappeared. We are concerned a prototype that has been recently constructed will be next to vanish. So we want you to fly this prototype."
Paladin held up his hand. "Im no test pilot. Im a good combat pilot, but you need"
"There is no testing involved. All we require from you is to deliver the plane to our secure base in the Mojave Desert." He fished into his coat pocket again, this time retrieving a slender notebook and gold fountain pen.
"You see," Justin said, leaning forward, "we cannot afford to trust anyone at Pasadena. The mechanics, engineers, even our test pilots could have been responsible for the previous thefts. This completed prototype will be a tempting target."
"I didnt know Lockheed had an airfield in the Mojave Desert."
"Few do," Justin replied. "Which is another reason to employ someone with your reputation for discretion." He opened his notebook and scrawled on it. He tore off a sheet and pushed it across the desk. "The first half of our payment to Blake Aviation Security."
Paladin scrutinized the note. It was a Lockheed corporate check drawing on assets from the First Bank of Hollywood. There was a line of zeroes neatly arranged after the first number in the amount box.
After a moment, Justin cleared his throat. "Mr. Blake? I trust the amount is adequate?"
Paladins throat was suddenly dry. "Yes. Adequate." He swallowed and got his bearings. "For this kind of money, though, I assume you expect trouble?"
"No. I expect this will buy Lockheed a decided lack of trouble."
Paladin looked again at the number on the check. It was too good to be trueespecially for a quick run over the San Bernardino Mountains. Or maybe there was no catch. Maybe this is exactly what he needed: a juicy contract.
Even if there was a catch, Justin was playing his cards close to his vest. If Blake Aviation Security didnt take the job, Justin could find a dozen other outfits to take his money.
"I assure you, Mr. Justin, Blake Aviation Security can handle any trouble."
"Excellent." Justin stood and smoothed his suit. "I knew we could do business. Meet me at five oclock on the Pasadena airfield."
"My team and I will be there."
Justin crinkled his bushy eyebrows. "You misunderstood me, Mr. Blake." He set his still-unlit cigarette it the ashtray. "Youand you aloneare required. At the last minute, you will replace our test pilot on tomorrows scheduled flight. Additional planes will only draw unwanted attention."
Cloak-and-dagger operations werent exactly Paladins style. He preferred force to stealth. Preferably the force of a heavily armed squadron of his best fighter pilots.
"Okay," Paladin said. "Its your show. Ill be there like you want. Alone."
"I shall make the arrangements." Justin shook Paladins hand again, then turned and closed the door behind him so softly that Paladin didnt hear it click shut.
Paladin's eye fell upon the unlit cigarette Justin had left in the ashtray. It was one of those black European deals, expensive and hard to get.
Big money or not, something didnt sit right. Lockheed wouldnt dole out this kind of cash unless they thought theyd get a good return on their investment. And why, if Justin couldnt trust his people, was he trusting Blake Aviation Security? Paladin knew his outfit was small potatoes.
He picked up the phone and dialed. It rang six times before someone answered.
"Dash? Get out of bed. I know you just got off a deadline. Look, I need a favor, some information. Find Jimmy the Rap and meet me at the Club Gorgeio, say ten oclock? Good."
Paladin hung up then buzzed his secretary. "Dust off my tuxedo. Ive got business tonight."
Out of the corner of his eye, Paladin spied the picture of his father. It looked like the old bootlegger was laughing at him.
The Club Gorgeio was packed with wall-to-wall tuxedoes, slinky sequined evening gowns, and waitresses circulating with trays of cocktails. A haze of smoke gave the air a velvet texture. The band played "Hop Off."
Paladin, Dashiell, and Jimmy the Rap sat at a secluded corner table. Paladin told them about his visit this afternoon.
"I dropped by the First Bank of Hollywood," Paladin said. "Got a friend to run the checks serial numbers. They verified Justins signature. Its legit."
Dashiell tapped out a cigarette and lit up. "I dont like it, Paladin." He puffed once. "It doesnt add up."
Dashiell wore a La Blanca tuxedo, the same label as Paladin, only he managed to make it look like a million bucks. It hadnt a crease or a speck of dust on it. His hair was slicked back, and his pencil thin mustache was perfectly trimmed.
At the opposite end of the fashion spectrum was Jimmy the Rap. Jimmy fidgeted, uncomfortable and out of place in his two-bit tweed suit and crumpled tie. He finished his second drink in a single gulp.
"Doesnt add up how?" Paladin asked.
Two years ago, Dashiell had been a stringer for Air Action Weeklya starving writer working under a pseudonym, in desperate need of money until his "serious" projects started to pay off. Paladin put him to work checking the backgrounds of his clients and the competition, since Dashiell had a flair for research
and a nose for treachery. Later, when he hit it big with book deals and movie screenplays, suddenly everyone was his friend, from mobsters to studio executives to starlets. His good fortune, though, was Paladins. Just as Dashiell had used Paladins real life events for his fiction, Paladin now used Dashiells connections and smarts as a writer to solve real mysteries.
"It doesnt add up," Dashiell said, "because Mr. Peter Justin, a.k.a. Piotr 'Neyasvy' Pushkarev, is an ace pilot."
"I never heard of him," Paladin replied.