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Chapter One:
Bourbon and Red Ink

Chapter Two:
A Wing and A Prayer

Chapter Three:
In The Crosshairs

Chapter Four:
Ghosts In The Sand

Chapter Five:
No Graceful Exit

Chapter Six:
The Big Fall

Chapter Seven:
Pointing the Finger

Chapter Eight:
One Way Out

Chapter Nine:
Chasing Shadows

Chapter Ten:
Pirate Try Outs

Chapter Eleven:
Under a Banner of War

Chapter Twelve:
One-Man Invasion

Chapter Thirteen:
The Lady And The Tiger

A Word From The Editor

The convoluted "Case of the Phantom Prototype" has led Paladin Blake into several deadly situations: dogfights, fistfights, hostage situations…even a tense encounter with Lady Kali, a fearsome air mercenary.

Following a hunch, Blake uncovered clues that may point the way to the shadowy "pale man"—the nameless architect of the plot to steal a Lockheed flying wing.

But is the flying wing merely the tip of the iceberg? Is there an even deadlier scheme in the works? And will Paladin survive as he falls deeper into the pale man's web of intrigue?

—Nero MacLeon

Senior Editor, Air Action Weekly Press

The Case of the Phantom Prototype

- A Paladin Blake Adventure! -

By Eric Nylund

Chapter Ten: Pirate Try Outs

"So what does it mean?" Paladin asked Dashiell. He leaned forward on the edge of the chaise lounge, trying to not ruffle the silk fabric.

When Paladin had seen the contents of Justin's locker, he brought it all up to Dashiell's Hollywood Hills bungalow. It was private up here. Neither Lockheed, the police, nor anyone else would be getting through the gated community unannounced. Until Paladin knew more about what he had found, he wasn't taking any chances with anyone—not even the people who were supposed to be on his side.

For more information see:
The Nation of Hollywood

"It means trouble," Dashiell said with an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. He was rapt with concentration, poring over the architectural diagrams that had been laid across his Persian rug.

The blueprints had been in the locker, along with a manila envelope containing three thousand dollars, and a note scrolled with neat cursive that stated:

Need a dozen pilots. Must have their own aircraft. Must not be afraid to fight. Money, as usual, not an issue. Dalewick Airfield. Dusk. July 7.

July 7 was today.

"What kind of trouble?" Paladin asked and crossed his arms.

Dashiell stood, straightened his navy blue satin lounging robe, finally lit his cigarette and took a long draw. "For a man who has been to so many exotic places, Paladin"—he exhaled silver smoke—"I'm shocked you do not recognize it. The long rectangular wings and the enormous central round gallery? The marble cornices and colonnades?"

Paladin stared at the building's cross-section but saw only white lines and blue smudges.

"It's the old Capital building," Dashiell told him. "In what used to be Washington D.C."

"Sure," he muttered. "I see it now."

It was more than just the white marbled Rotunda Paladin was seeing. He saw the vague outlines of what Lady Kali had called the pale man's "big" plans. He wasn't sure what those plans were exactly, only that he was liking them less and less.

"The note," Dashiell said, "appears to be written by a woman of distinction and breeding. And from what you have told me, I can only surmise these 'pilots' she refers to are replacements for Lady Kali and her cohorts."

Paladin got up and paced. "Okay. That takes care of the contents of the late Peter Justin's locker, and the key and the black cigarettes I found on the pale man's zeppelin. But there's one last piece of the puzzle to fit. This." Paladin handed Dashiell the gold signet ring with a cabochon of jade had had "borrowed" from the pale man's desk. Carved in relief on the stone was an eagle with talons extended around a star.

Dashiell raised an eyebrow.

"You recognize it?"

"Yes," Dashiell remarked as he tried the ring on for size. It was too big. "I'd say getting caught with this number would buy you a rubber hose massage from the Hollywood police and three years hard labor." He returned it to Paladin. "We used a similar prop in a recent film. Had to cut that scene, though. The censors didn't very much—"

"The note said dusk," Paladin reminded him. "I've got three hours, maybe, to make it to that airfield and stop what's going on. Just tell me what the ring is."

Dashiell sighed. "Unionists, my dear Paladin. The rampant eagle clutching a star was the symbol of one of the splinter factions. The 'Brotherhood of America,' I believe they called themselves. As far as I know, it's members had all either been caught or killed. Perhaps those reports were in error."

Paladin whispered, "Unionists never had anything like battle zeppelins, squadrons of planes or buckets of cash to throw around. And why a blueprint of the old capital building? You'd think they'd revere it as the center of their America." He stared into thin air, trying to see the connection.

Dashiell got up, frowning, and ground his cigarette in a crystal ashtray. "I know that look. It's your 'nothing-is-going-to-stop-me-until-I-solve-this-even-if-it-kills-me' look. So let's pretend this time that I've tried and talk you out of it, and then you ignored me. That way you can get to the airfield before the sun sets. Just do me a favor"—Dashiell dug into the magazine rack next to the chaise lounge and withdrew a holstered .44- "and take this. Since you lost your .45, you'll need a replacement for that sissy .38 you insist on carrying. A gun like that could get you killed."

Despite his recent mishaps in the air, Paladin felt the weight of this case lift from his chest the moment the wheels of his plane parted from the runway.

"Lightning Girl," a modified Curtiss-Wright P2 Warhawk, was Paladin's current favorite. Tennyson had tinkered with the three stock Wright, R-1350 engines and coaxed out a quarter more horsepower than they had been rated for. She burned quarts of oil and guzzled more fuel than a bonfire, but she was faster than anyone suspected a Warhawk could be...a surprise that had saved his skin on more than one occasion.

For more information see:
P2 Warhawk

But speed wasn't why Paladin had named her "Lightning Girl."

Her standard guns had been replaced with four .60-caliber Smith and Wesson "Scorpion" cannons. Tennyson had engineered a double set of triggers on the stick, one over the other, for each pair of guns. Using two fingers, squeezing both triggers at the same time, all four guns could be simultaneously fired.

The blazing lead, streaks of tracers, and sheer mayhem that "Lightning Girl" could deliver was an awesome sight. So far, no one had seen her spit fire...and lived to tell her secret.

Paladin nosed his plane up, banked east, and headed toward Riverside, and Dalewick Airfield.

A layer of nimbus clouds had settled around four thousand feet, a white and gray inverted landscape that glowed gold and orange as the sun set. Below, large boulders dotted the landscape; white and yellow washes of soil made meandering patterns broken by an occasional emerald patch of avocado grove. To the south were rolling hills, and farther, the San Bernardino Mountains rose, the highest peaks still capped with snow. Nice country.

Dalewick Airfield serviced the region's handful of seasonal crop dusters. Paladin had stopped over before. It was a smooth patch of dirt runway and a radio shack, as close to civilization as the middle of nowhere could be.

A speck hovered in the distance, then another, then three more. Hard to tell—but there must have been twenty aircraft circling like buzzards over Dalewick. And they weren't crop dusters. As Paladin got closer he saw these planes were painted in gaudy colors and sported a variety of emblems: fiery horses, crossed rifles, and falcon silhouettes.

There were six Grumman Avengers, a Ravenscroft Coyote, a pair of new M210 Ravens, and a few PR-1 Defenders.

For more information see:
Avenger; Coyote; Raven; Defender

Paladin flipped on his radio and tuned in the airfield's frequency.

"Dalewick come in. This is 3-Delta-475 requesting permission to land."

There was a hiss of static, then: "Denied 3-Delta-475. This is an invitation-only party. Better scram while you can, buster."

That definitely was no Hollywood-certified flight radio operator.

"Dalewick, this is 3-Delta-475. I was invited. Justin sent me...before his last flight. I've already been paid to show up. You want me to leave? I'll just pocket the money. Its all the same to me."

The radio crackled with silence for three heartbeats. "Okay, 3-Delta-475, join in. We were odd anyway."

Odd? Did he hear that right? Paladin didn't want to blow his cover, so he just kept his mouth shut.

"3-Delta-475, your partner is Foxtrot 41-niner. That's the red J2 Fury."

For more information see:

"Roger that, Dalewick."

Paladin would play along. "Partner" probably meant he had been assigned a wingman. Maybe for a test of skill?

Planes buzzed around, under, and over "Lightning Girl" as they all continued to circle the airfield. He spotted the red J2 Fury, which also bore a silver snake emblem coiled on either wing. Nice and subtle.

The Fury was circling directly across from "Lightning Girl." Paladin eased back on the throttle so they could catch up.

The little red plane slowed, too, however, matching his speed and keeping a fixed position across from him.

"Helluva lousy wingman," Paladin muttered.

The radio crackled, "Okay, ladies and gentlemen. The show's on. Let's see what you're made of."

Gunfire erupted and every plane veered from the circling formation. The red J2 banked and dove toward the underside of Paladin's bird.

A Defender on his wingtip shattered as a rocket exploded over the cockpit—Paladin reflexively banked hard to starboard.

So this recruitment of Justin's was apparently only open to a select few. That's what the ground controller meant by "partner." Not wingman. The J2 Fury was Paladin's target...and "Lightning Girl" was the Fury's.

Paladin rolled "Lightning Girl" upside-down to get a better look. The nimble J2 Fury was attempting come up under him, to align its deadly .70-caliber canon and make short work of him.

"Nice try," Paladin growled.

The Fury was lighter and faster than his Warhawk, even with Tennyson's modifications. But the Fury was nose heavy and could stall even at a moderate angle of attack unless the pilot knew exactly what he was doing.

Still inverted, Paladin pushed the stick forward and poured on the speed, climbing in an inverted loop. The Fury followed him-almost straight up.

He leveled out at three thousand feet; he had to. Ribbons of smoke poured from his port engine. "Lightning Girl" couldn't take much more.

Beneath him, however, the Fury sputtered black smoke, and her nose dipped. The pilot quickly recovered from the stall and leveled out. That was all the invitation Paladin needed.

The Fury's pilot must have realized his mistake. He dove.

Now it was Paladin's turn to pursue. He opened up the throttle, and the full weight of his Warhawk gave him a crucial speed advantage. "Lightning Girl" fell toward her prey like a meteor.

The Fury rolled to port, a mistake at stall speed. If he had continued a full power dive, he might have gotten close to the ground and pulled out at the last moment. A Warhawk wouldn't be able to match such a maneuver.

Paladin didn't hesitate to exploit his enemy's error. The instant the Fury lined up in his sights, he opened fire with the outer pair of .60-caliber guns. Bullets streaked past the Fury's wingtip.

He let all four guns blaze. The noise was defending—louder than the trio of engines at full speed. The Warhawk's frame shuddered, but Paladin held her steady in the dive, ruddered over, and let the torrent of bullets spray across the Fury. A moment later, amid a fountain of red paint chips, the Fury fell—her snake decorations obliterated by the dark, smoking pockmarks of bullet impacts, both wings chewed off.

Paladin rolled and pulled back on the stick, easing out of the dive. He cast a glance over his shoulder and glimpsed what was left of the Fury's fuselage spiraling toward the airfield.

He looked away. He wasn't squeamish by any means, but there were dogfights in every direction, whirling pieces of metal, clouds of smoke and tracers whistling past his cockpit—he had to get out of here.

Paladin spied a clear piece of sky and nosed "Lightning Girl" in that direction. He sailed over Dalewick Airfield, not more than a hundred feet off the ground. The radio shack was on fire.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the radio announced. "Cease fire. That was an excellent demonstration of skill and daring. We regret that we only have a limited amount of berths for your fighters, and that we had to resort to such a drastic selection method. But as they say: to the victors go the spoils."

Overhead, a shadow darkened the clouds, which parted as a massive zeppelin began its descent. Mounted within the observation deck were a dozen machine gun nests and the gleaming noses of a hundred rockets.

"3-Delta-475, please climb to one thousand feet and proceed to dock. Welcome aboard the George Washington."

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