He stepped gingerly down onto the zep's gondola roof, and made his way to the nearby hatch. The steel plates under his feet shook with the din of rocket and cannon fire, and the occasional metal fragment whizzed by, stray debris from the battle raging all around him. He took a deep breathwincing as his tortured ribs protested the abuseand opened the hatch, quickly climbing down...
...straight into Hell itself.
The fore end of the gallery was engulfed in flame. Oily, choking smoke obscured Paladin's view, but he could see that the damage was extensive. Where there had once been a fifty-caliber machine gun nest, there was now a gaping, ugly hole, its razor-sharp edges blackened with soot. Smoldering metal twisted and blossomed inward, and burn scars and blood streaked the walls and floor.
Ammunition beltsspilled from a nearby ammo crate during the breachwere strewn across the deck, and the fire hungrily fed on them. Machinegun rounds popped like firecrackers, sending slugs whistling past Paladin's head. Ricochets buzzed through the companionway like angry hornets. Five crews manned the remaining machine guns, grimly concentrating on defending the zep from the swarm of planes outside.
No one spared him a glance.
Paladin covered his headmore to keep from choking on the stench of smoke and cordite than to disguise himselfand ran aft. He moved quickly through the corridor, pushing past men clambering to assist the gun crews. Once clear, he made his way toward the passenger section...and the pale man's cabin.
The door to the cabin was locked. He drew his pistol and put his shoulder against the door. He shoved and cracked the frame. Paladin quickly entered, his gun sweeping the room, ready to shoot at the first sign of trouble.
The room was a mess: bookcases were overturned, every drawer in the rolltop desk had been opened and dumped, and the impressionist landscape had been torn off the wall. The safe the painting had once concealed now stood open...and empty.
"So the rat's getting off this sinking ship," Paladin muttered. He started toward the doorand stopped when he heard a low moan from under the upended bookcases.
He carefully aimed his gun at the source of the sound, thumbed back the hammer and kicked over the case.
A womanthe pale man's companionlay there. She sat up unsteadily and rubbed her head, tousling her thick, lustrous black hair
Paladin lowered his gun and knelt next to her. "You all right?"
"I was next to the bookcase," she said, still dazed. "There was an explosion." She pursed her lips and her eyes came back into focus. "I always thought that 'seeing stars' was a euphemism."
"It's not." Paladin helped her stand.
She teetered a moment, straightened her skirt, and smoothed out her wool blazer. Her gaze darted over his face and she arched an eyebrow. "Ah, the intellectual pirate." She smiled and winced, gently touching the lump on her head. "I remember you."
He would have given anything to question her. She probably knew plenty about the pale manbut there was no time for that.
Paladin's father had been many thingsa moonshiner, a bootlegger, and a con artistbut he had also been a country gentleman, and he had taught his sons how to treat ladies, even ladies who were accomplices to a crime. He'd have to get her off this floating deathtrap...he could hand her over to the cops later.
"I don't know how you're involved in this mess," he said, "but I've got a feeling you're just in the wrong place at the wrong time. At least, that's what I'm hoping. Don't prove me wrong."
He unbuckled his parachute harness and wriggled free. "This zep is going down. Your boss' plan has backfired. I want you to take this and get out of here."
She looked into Paladin's eyes. and Paladin didn't like what he saw in themhard reflections, like faceted onyx, cold and calculating and unyielding.
"You know how to use one of these?" he asked, trying to ignore the disquiet her penetrating stare provoked.
"Yes." She took the chute, slipped into the harness and secured the buckle. "But what about you?"
"I've got another way off this gasbag," he said.
Paladin rolled up the parlor's steel shutters and opened the large window. "Here."
He held out his hand and helped her sit on the edge of the sill. He reached down and pulled off her high heels. "You'll never make a landing on those," he told her. "Pull the cord only after you've cleared the zeppelin. Count to seven. Don't hold your breath."
The women looked down and then back at Paladin, crinkling her brow with worry. "I don't"
"No time for discussion, sister. Go!" He shoved her.
She gave a startled yelp and tumbled out.
Paladin watched as she plummeted, nervous and anxious until he saw the white bloom of hand-stitched silk pop into view.
"My good deed for the day," he muttered.
He holstered his gun and left the parlor. He made his way down the corridor, past a dozen pilots and mercenaries bustling by. Steeling himself, he pushed open the double doors of the zeppelin's launch bay.
The cavernous room was nearly empty. A single Grumman Avenger remained in the bay, ready for launch, perched over the opening in the floor.
The pale man stood next to the plane, surrounded by three men in green uniforms. He wore his usual linen suit, but now instead of its typical immaculate cleanliness, it was streaked and sweat-stained. He held a briefcase in his right hand, and Paladin noticed it was handcuffed to his wrist. He also wore a leather cap, goggles, and a parachute.
It looked like he was taking the last plane off the George Washington. Maybe Paladin could hitch a ride.
Paladin started toward them.
"You!" the pale man shouted. "Help the others put out the fire on the gunnery deck. Move it!"
Paladin shrugged and waved, pretending he couldn't hear the pale man's orders. Paladin moved closer.
When he was four steps away, the pale man opened his mouth as if he were going to say something. He paused, and looked back up at the Grumman Avenger, then back at Paladin. "You..." he hissed.
Damn. The pale man had recognized him. This was where he and Paladin had crossed paths before, when Paladin had stolen back the prototype flying wing. Only that time, Paladin had been sitting in the flying wing's cockpit behind the relative safety of twin thirty-caliber cannons.
"Shoot him!" the pale man screamed, pointing at Paladin.
The pale man's guards reached for their guns.
Paladin had hoped for a ride in that Avenger, but it looked like there was only one way he was getting off the dying zeppelin in one piece. He lunged for the pale man, tackled him
and together, they tumbled through the open launch bay doors.
The wind tore at Paladin and made his eyes blur. The pale man squirmed in his grasp, cursing and struggling to break Blake's grip. Paladin held on to him for all he was worth, one hand clutched the lapel of his suit, the other clamped onto his enemy's right wrist.
Spinning together, the pale man kicked at Paladin. The hastily aimed blows rained across Paladin's midsection: his leg, his hip, his stomach. Then a well-polished wingtip connected with Paladin's busted ribs.
He gasped, unable to inhale, as bands of red-hot pain clamped across his chest like a devilish vice.
Paladin lost his grip and flailed helplessly in freefall.
He caught a glimpse of the ground, the sinuous glimmering Potomac River, and the ivory sliver of the Washington Monument in the distance.
He spun dizzily, trying to slow his fall, the first hot spike of panic knifing through him like a bayonet. A scream welled up in his throat
until his fingertips brushed the handle of the pale man's briefcase.
Fighting back his mounting fear, he grabbed on tight, the length of his body snapping like the end of a whip.
The pale man yelled in pain as the briefcasestill handcuffed to his wristbrutally jerked his arm, nearly dislocating it.
Paladin pinwheeled around his nemesis, the sky and ground spinning in his peripheral vision.
Paladin's panic began to subside, replaced by cold rage. With a growl, he reached for the pale man with his free hand. The pale man retaliated, hammering Blake with kicks and punches, trying to dislodge his attacker.
They were getting too close to the ground. Paladin spotted waves in the Potomac, and saw tiny cars inching along the roads. Images of slamming into the unforgiving earth, of his body shattered on the unyielding stone and dirt below filled Paladin's mind.
No. He had to focus on the pale man, forget the ground and his pain.
The pale man reached inside his jacket.
Paladin fumbled for his own holstered gun.
The ground rushed closer.
The pale man's gun cleared its holster first, the silvery muzzle swinging toward Paladin's head. There was a burst of smoke and fire as the pale man pulled the trigger, though the report was eerily muffled, drowned out by the rush of air.
The bullet whistled past Blake's head, missing him by a fraction of an inch.
For a moment, Blake was sure he was dead, that the pale man couldn't miss at such close range.
Lucky. He was damn lucky.
Blake's own gun was out. He fired, and the pale man jerked, blood exploding from the pale man's thigh.
Paladin shot the pale man again, this bullet taking him in his shoulder. The pale man went limp, the gun tumbling from his grasp.
Paladin climbed hand over hand, toward his unconscious foe. He looped his hand through the parachute harness.
He pulled the rip cord.
Silk ruffled and unfurled above him, crackling in the wind. Paladin saw the lines above him threaten to tangle.
Too low, Paladin thought. The chute isn't going to open.
Paladin's head snapped back as the lines yanked taut and the chute above him opened.
Seconds later, they bounced off the ground, locked together. Paladin let go, twisting to let the pale man take the brunt of the impact. The pale man's limp, unconscious form crashed to the earth with a bone-jarring impact.
Blake tumbled through blackberry brambles and over rocks before he skidded to a halt on the muddy banks of the Potomac.
Overhead, the George Washington was in flames. Planes buzzed around the dying airship. Rockets left smoky lace trails in the air, and tracer fire etched ghostly lines of light across the sky.
The zeppelin drifted over the mall, yawed slightly...and collided with the Washington Monument. The zep's steel frame sagged and crumpled to the ground with a terrible screech.
Paladin dragged himself to his feet, clutching his wounded ribs. He limped to the pale man, who was shrouded in white silk that was dotted with his own blood. Paladin felt for a pulseand was almost disappointed when he felt a strong regular rhythm.
"Gotcha," he whispered, before collapsing to the ground, unconscious.
Light and fresh air streamed through Paladin's office window. The sunrise reflected off the distant water and sent waves of light dancing across his ceiling. He lowered the blinds.
"A job well done, Mr. Blake," Mr. Dunford remarked.
The Lockheed official straightened his white silk tie and adjusted the shoulders of his gray suit. He placed several manila folders on Paladin's desk, raising tiny clouds of dustleft over from Dashiell's fingerprinting of the room.
"Here we have a signed confession from Mr. von Gilder, or as you called him, the 'pale man,'" Dunford continued. He set down another envelope. "Copies of his battle plans for Columbia, Manhattan, and Dallas...for your personal files.