Paladin followed the route. It ended in the middle of nowhere. "And Lockheeds secure facility is here?"
"Yes. You will receive the balance of you fee upon landing. Is this acceptable?"
"Sure." Paladin frowned. "No, not quite acceptable. Can I ask you as personal question, Mr. Justin?"
Justin glanced at his watch. "A quick one."
"Ive always made it a point to know my clients, I mean, know who they really are. Your real name, for example, is Piotr Pushkarev. You fought in the Russian Revolution on the side of the Whites and earned the nickname Neyasvy, which, I believe means invincible. When the battle spilled into Alaska, you were there, too. Youre an ace pilot. A hero."
Justin locked eyes with Paladin. He didnt smile to hide his unease, nor was there even a raised eyebrow betraying his shock. "And your question?"
"Why the fake identity? You have every reason not to trust anyone with your prototype. But why am I flying it? Why arent you?"
"Your information is impressive, Mr. Blake, but you are incorrect on one point. My name is Peter Justin. I have had it legally changed. As for not trusting anyone else, I do not. I am forced by circumstances to trust you. You see, my skills" his gaze dropped to the ground "It is not an easy when one reaches a certain age. My reflexes, my eyesight...they are not what they once were. I am still a patriot, and I still serve in my own way, but I cannot risk that which I have been hired to protect to prove that I am something I am not."
It took a big man to admit that. Would Paladin be as smart when he started to lose his edge? He hoped so. There were no old fighter pilots.
"Im sorry, I asked," Paladin said.
"No. If you knew my reputation and walked into this blindly, it would mean you are a fool. I am glad to see you are not." Justin glanced again at his watch. "Now, if there are no further questions, we must get you into the air."
Paladin climbed into the cockpit. The seat was rock hard and his long legs didnt fit. He managed to adjust it until he was merely uncomfortable.
He fired up the engines. They coughed and sputtered and caught. Despite Justins assurances about the planes condition, they sounded out of tune.
Justin circled behind the plane, climbed the wing, and leaned into the cockpit. "You have already been cleared with the tower. The runway is yours, Mr. Blake. Good flying." He gave Paladin a thumbs-up, then slid the canopy over his head. It closed with a solid click.
Paladin returned the thumbs-up and waited for Justin to climb off before easing the plane out onto the tarmac. Blue lights winked down the runway. The fog was still thick, restricting visibility to two hundred feet
not the best take-off conditions.
Paladin clicked on the transceiver and called in a radio check. The tower confirmed and told him he had the runway to himself.
He eased the throttle forward. The flying wing accelerated quickly. Paladin let her build speed a moment, then pulled back. The plane soared into the airteetered and almost flipped into a roll.
Justin wasnt kidding when he said the controls were sensitive. Hed have to be more careful.
Paladin held his angle and climbed. The altimeter said four hundred feet. He glanced down at the grid of Pasadena streets, the orange groves, and the foothills ahead. He judged his altitude to be over two thousand. The oil pressure gauge pulsed up and down. His RPM read zero.
"Certain amenities have been overlooked, huh?" Paladin muttered. He tapped the fuel gauge. It read full but he wasnt sure if he believed it.
This wasnt going to work. No instruments he could trust and a plane only half-assembled? How was he going to spend Lockheeds money if he crashed? He should turn back now while he had the chance.
Paladin pushed the left rudder petal. The plane banked so sharply that the hull groaned and his harness cut into his shoulders.
This plane moved like nothing he had ever flown. He wasnt sure how it was maneuvering, but it was as agile as a dragonfly. He continued the turn then rolled the flying wing, the maneuver crushing him into his seat.
That was almost fun. Maybe he could fly this thing, after all.
Paladin pushed the throttle to three-quarters power. The wing jumped forward. He nosed her over the San Bernardino Mountains, admired the snow on Mount Baldy, then dropped altitude and skimmed over the tree tops
This little flying wing was growing on him. The controls were twitchy, though; every nudge jinked the plane.
He crossed the summit and the Mojave Desert stretched out beneath him, flat and gray painted with yellow duststorm streaks far in the distance. He aimed for the Saddleback Buttes. From there, according to Justins flight plan, hed head due east into the middle of nowhere.
So far, smooth sailing.
Paladin reached back for the lunch pailand spotted planes on his six. A pack of Grumman Avengers.