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 werent 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 didnt make sense.
He understood the ambush. Justins airtight security obviously wasnt. Someone at Lockheed had gotten wind of his plan and knew exactly where and when to nab the prototype. But they hadnt even tried to take it intact.
Paladin walked toward the wreckage. His knees wobbled but held.
The flying wingthe twisted bits of black steel that were leftno 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 hadnt jumped when he did, thered 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. Hed get even with those Avengers. But who were they?
They could be the same thieves stealing from Lockheed. Theyd gone to a lot of trouble to get a few parts and the prototypes 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 werent the Lockheed thievesif they were, for instance, Lockheeds corporate competitionthen that would explain the lack of pirate insignia on the Avengers. It wouldnt explain, though, why they hadnt 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, hed have to head for the pass. That was at least a days 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? Lockheeds 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 shouldnt 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 Lockheeds Pasadena airfield and flew Justins 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. Hed 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 Aviations last dollar it didnt belong to Hollywoods militia. He remembered Jimmy the Raps story about how all the aircraft fences in Hollywood were muscled out of town. Who else but another nation could do that?