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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

Welcome to the third act of Spicy Air Tales’ Paladin Blake series, “The Case of the Phantom Prototype!” This new feature—authorized by Blake Aviation Security—explores the dashing and heroic past of Paladin Blake, daredevil adventurer and fearless pilot.

Last episode, Blake began his latest assignment, the covert flight of a Lockheed experimental plane to a secret testing facility.

But no case is as easy as it seems; Paladin Blake is intercepted and attacked by a squadron of mysterious enemy planes! Trapped in his burning aircraft, Blake is plummeting towards the ground at breakneck speed, and Death is his copilot…

—Nero MacLeon

Senior Editor, Air Action Weekly Press

The Case of the Phantom Prototype

- A Paladin Blake Adventure! -

By Eric Nylund

Chapter Three: In The Crosshairs

Paladin was a dead man if he didn’t get out of this flying coffin. His plane spiraled out of control—sky and clouds and yellow earth whirled around the cockpit.

He yanked again on the canopy’s latch but it was wrenched tight. He needed a crowbar, a screwdriver...or a gun. He did have a gun, a Colt .45 automatic he had packed in his bag.

He twisted in the seat, quickly rummaging through the tangles of wire and fuel lines where he had set his bag. It wasn’t there. He searched the floor and spotted the bag. It had fallen through the exposed sections of the unfinished cockpit. The bag’s strap was snared on the strut of his landing gear, three feet beneath him. If he were a contortionist, he might be able to reach through and get it; otherwise, that three feet that might as well be three miles.

There was no choice. He was trapped inside. He had to get the plane running.

He flipped the kill switch for the port engine, reset it, and pushed the starter. The engine coughed smoke and wept oil across the wing. He pushed the starter a second time, a third. Flame shot out of the casing as the motor roared to life.

Paladin laughed—half elated, half panicked.

He pushed the throttle to full and pulled back on the yoke. He had to gain some altitude.

The flying wing groaned and shuddered. Paladin closed his eyes and willed his craft to hold together, willed the plane to climb. He opened his eyes and saw his spiral descent had straightened.

Paladin sighed. That was a lucky break. The port engine, though, wouldn’t run for long. He had to find a—

Bullets riveted across his starboard wing. Magnesium rounds sizzled into the metal too close to the fuel tank for comfort.

His attackers were still on his tail.

Paladin quickly weighed his options. It was five against one. If his attackers didn’t shoot his flying wing into confetti, then his engine would seize up. In either case, with the canopy jammed, he had a one-way express ticket straight down. There had to be a way out of this mess, a way to open the canopy.

There was. Maybe. Paladin stared at the smoldering bullet holes. He’d had some crazy ideas before; this one qualified as downright nuts.

He eased up on the throttle and let the lead Avenger catch up to him. He had to give them a better shot.

For more information see:
Specialty Ammo

Thirty-caliber bullets peppered the fuselage. Paladin jerked left. The line of bullet holes curved right—off the flying wing, completely missing him.

The yoke bucked under his hands, fighting his control. It was nearly impossible to hold the plane steady as shot up as it was, but Paladin had to if he was going to pull this off. He loosened his grip and forced himself to relax, preparing to react to the plane’s erratic pitching and yawing.

He heard another burst from the Avenger’s guns, felt staccato impacts as bullets stitched across the starboard wing. He jinked the plane to the right. Slugs ripped into the fuselage—just where he had hoped—across the canopy.

Shrapnel blasted into the cockpit. Paladin screamed as red-hot metal tore through his shoulder and blood spattered across the clear canopy dome.

He huddled over in pain and slammed the yoke forward. The flying wing dove. The ground was only a thousand feet away.

Paladin made a feeble attempt to pull back—then stopped, startled by what sounded like a locomotive slamming into the plane. The port engine seized. Pistons and rods ripped through the casing, and bolts zinged off the nose. Exploding scrap metal shredded half the wing.

The only flying possible with this plane now was the kind you did with a halo.

He glanced at the canopy latch. Between the Avenger’s thirty-caliber bullets and the engine detonating, it had made Swiss cheese out of the lever and track. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the ground rushing up; maybe six hundred feet left. He unbuckled his seatbelt and pulled on the latch.

It moved, but not enough to open.

He swiveled in his seat, ripping through the tangle of wires and hydraulic lines around his feet. He kicked at the latch—once, twice. The canopy ripped open with a rush of wind. Paladin tumbled out of the cockpit.

There was a blur of blue skies, smears of cirrostratus, a flash of the desert floor rapidly approaching...so close he saw spiny Joshua trees and a jackrabbit bounding for cover.

Paladin wrapped his fingers around the rip cord and pulled—rope and silk unraveled and caught the air. His body snapped like a whip and his harness bit into his hurt shoulder. He hit the ground. His legs crumpled; he rolled, tangling himself in rope and fabric, sticks and sand.

He lay there, dazed and wrapped in blood-flecked white silk. He wondered if he were still alive. There was grit and blood in his mouth. His shoulder felt on fire and twisted out of joint. His bones ached, too. He had to be alive; you couldn’t feel this lousy if you were dead.

Paladin unbuckled his parachute and wriggled out from under the silk. The sun was a handbreadth above the horizon, but the desert was already hot. His head was ringing. Or was that just the crickets buzzing their high-pitched song? A dry wind kicked up and pelted his flight suit with sand.

He smelled smoke, turned and saw the source: a serpentine column of flame and soot emanating from the flying wing’s crash site.

“Sorry Justin. I blew it.”

It wasn’t only Justin he had failed. He’d lose Blake Aviation Security over this fiasco. He should have radioed for help the second he saw those Avengers. He shouldn’t have tried to outmaneuver them, shouldn’t have allowed his plane—correction: Lockheed’s plane—to get shot up. It was his fault.

For more information see:
Grumman E-1c Avenger

Overhead, he heard the unmistakable drone of the Avengers’ Feldman sixteen-valve engines. One of the Avengers trailed smoke. Paladin must have gotten more than a piece of his tail rudder.

They circled like buzzards. One peeled off, his wingmate followed, then another two dove in graceful arcs...that lined them up perfectly for strafing runs.

Paladin half ran, half limped for the nearest twiggy creosote bush. He crouched in the improbable cover of its shadow and watched as the Avengers leveled off at fifty feet and fired.

Bullets carved lines in the sand.

He flinched, fully expecting the rows of magnesium rounds to rip him apart. But they weren’t shooting at him. Instead, they hit the wreckage of the flying wing.

The four Avengers circled, made another run, this time dropping bombs. Metal ignited, sending a shower of silver sparks into the air. They made another low-altitude pass, then climbed, apparently satisfied with their destructive handiwork.

Paladin stood and shook the sand out of his helmet. It didn’t make sense.

He understood the ambush. Justin’s “airtight” security obviously wasn’t. Someone at Lockheed had gotten wind of his plan and knew exactly where and when to nab the prototype. But they hadn’t even tried to take it intact.

Paladin walked toward the wreckage. His knees wobbled but held.

The flying wing—the twisted bits of black steel that were left—no longer resembled a plane. It looked like someone had taken a can opener to it. The stench of melting rubber and burning aviation fuel forced him back. There would be no salvaging the radio or his bag of gear. The cockpit was a charred crater. If he hadn’t jumped when he did, there’d be only pieces of him left for the scorpions.

He examined his shoulder, gingerly peeling back the tattered flight suit. The wound was deep but cleanly cauterized about the edges. Nothing important looked severed, but it still hurt like hell.

Paladin clenched his fists, then uncoiled them and exhaled. He’d get even with those Avengers. But who were they?

They could be the same thieves stealing from Lockheed. They’d gone to a lot of trouble to get a few parts and the prototype’s blueprints; yet, they had wasted a chance to get their hands on the real thing. Did destroying the prototype make their parts more valuable?

If they weren’t the Lockheed thieves—if they were, for instance, Lockheed’s corporate competition—then that would explain the lack of pirate insignia on the Avengers. It wouldn’t explain, though, why they hadn’t been eager to get a look at the flying wing. Destroying it only set Lockheed back a few months while they built a new one.

There were too many missing pieces to this puzzle.

Paladin scanned the skies and spotted the Avengers. They were flyspecks in the distance now, seemingly hovering on the northern horizon, dwindling into the distance.

With them dwindled his chances for filling in those missing pieces.

Paladin turned and walked south. There should be a road along the base of the San Bernardino Mountains. If not, he’d have to head for the pass. That was at least a day’s walk.

He looked back, shielded his eyes. The Avengers were flecks of dust, one trailing a thread of smoke. They were still on northern bearing.

North? What was north? Lockheed’s secret facility was northeast. Palmdale was to the west. Palm Springs was east. Those Avengers should be heading back to civilization, not away from it. They had a range of six hundred miles, so they could be headed anywhere. Not the one Paladin had shot, though. It had a bad rudder and engine problems. He shouldn’t be flying into the middle of the desert.

Paladin looked back at the mountains. That way was Pasadena, and explaining to Justin how he had turned his ultra-secret prototype flying wing into a heap of scrap metal. Lockheed would take over the investigation into the ambush. It would be the end of Blake Aviation Security.

He turned north. That way was wherever those Avengers were headed. It was a walk into the middle of nowhere. It would be a heck of a lot more trouble than it was worth. He might die of thirst, blood loss or a rattlesnake bite. But it could lead to some answers.

Paladin took a deep breath then started marching deeper into the desert.

“I should have listened to Dashiell and gone to Santa Barbara.”

It was almost dawn. A band of navy blue wavered on the horizon. Another half-hour and the sun would turn this ice locker back into an oven.

It had been a day since Paladin had walked onto Lockheed’s Pasadena airfield and flew Justin’s little plane. Twenty-four hours, most of them spent staggering under a sweltering sun, thinking every step of the way about what a long shot he was chasing.

He must have hit his head harder than he realized when he bailed out. No one in their right mind would have gone after those Avengers on foot.

Paladin stopped. He resisted the urge to lick his cracked lips. One day without water was bad enough. He had at least another day going back the way he came.

How far could that shot-up Avenger have gotten? Apparently further than he could on foot. He scanned the sky like he had a thousand times before. He’d seen plenty of ravens and bats but not a single plane. This time was no different.

He turned and started back. He only took three steps before he halted dead in his tracks.

There was a faint drone. It revved up and down; it was an unmistakable noise. It was the sixteen-valve Feldman engine of a Grumman E-1 Avenger.

Paladin spun, trying to zero in on the sound.

There. Just over the rocky hills to the north, the silhouette of a plane dove, soared, circled, then disappeared.

He ran toward the closest slope. The predawn light warmed the ledges and outcroppings, turning them red and amber. As the sun peeked over the horizon, Paladin scrambled to the top and overlooked a canyon full of shadows.

Pale yellow lights traced a runway down the center of this canyon. There were a dozen tents, a fleet of twenty Avengers, an old water tower that had been converted into a radio shack. On the opposite side of the ravine sat a moored zeppelin.

Paladin stared for a full minute. Someone had done a lot of planning and spent a fistful of cash to set this base up. He squinted and saw mechanics and pilots on the runway, moving briskly and only pausing to salute one another.

A military base? Paladin was willing to bet Blake Aviation’s last dollar it didn’t belong to Hollywood’s militia. He remembered Jimmy the Rap’s story about how all the aircraft fences in Hollywood were muscled out of town. Who else but another nation could do that?

For more information see:
Lockheed Corporation

Sunlight illuminated the side of the zeppelin. It was smooth, metallic gray, and bore no insignia. It had gun turrets on each engine nacelle, a rack on the undercarriage for bombs and rockets, and two bays for launching aircraft. This thing was a war machine.

For more information see:
Nation of Hollywood

A crane next to the zeppelin moved; it’s neck extended and cables whined as it pulled something off the ground. A dozen men clustered about the object. Whatever it was, they were aligning it to fit into the port bay.

There were getting ready for action. A firefight? Or were they moving out?

Paladin waited and watched as the shadows evaporated from the canyon. His heart skipped a beat, then pounded in his throat. They weren’t loading just any plane. It was the flying wing.

The same plane Paladin had crash-landed and seen incinerated.

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