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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 fourth chapter of Spicy Air Tales’ Paladin Blake series, “The Case of the Phantom Prototype!” Produced with the official sanction of Blake Aviation Security, this series explores the action-packed history of one of today’s most-respected captains of industry.

Last issue, Paladin Blake—piloting a top-secret Lockheed prototype aircraft—was shot down and left for dead. Wounded, stranded in the desert and facing the demise of Blake Aviation Security, Paladin tracked his mysterious attackers to their hidden lair, deep in the Mojave desert.

Instead of a rag-tag pirate base, Blake found a sprawling operation, complete with a military zeppelin, a large contingent of alert guards and an exact duplicate of the Lockheed prototype...

—Nero MacLeon

Senior Editor, Air Action Weekly Press


The Case of the Phantom Prototype

- A Paladin Blake Adventure! -

By Eric Nylund


Chapter Four: Ghosts In The Sand

“What the hell is going on here?” Paladin Blake muttered.

Blake watched the crane lift the aircraft. The little flying wing had the same oversized engines, the same bubble canopy, and the same smooth rudderless design. To his eye it was identical to the plane he flew from the Lockheed facility in Pasadena…the same plane that had been shot out from under him in a sneak attack.

Maybe the Lockheed thieves had built their own plane from stolen parts. No, that didn't figure. Jimmy the Rap said they had taken some big-ticket items—but nothing near enough to construct an entire aircraft.

The sun broke free of the horizon. Paladin’s shadow was a hundred feet long and spilled over the edge of the canyon.

He was being a dope. If he could see the mechanics and pilots on the airstrip, then they’d be able to see his silhouette up on the ridge.

He dropped, crawled to the edge, and peered over. No one seemed to have noticed. In fact, they looked too busy down there to notice anyone up here. Men dug up runway lights. Mechanics in coveralls worked on the engines of the Avengers. A dozen people loaded crates into the zeppelin’s gondola.

They were breaking camp.

It was a stroke of luck for Paladin—rotten luck. He silently cursed himself for not thinking ahead. Sure, he’d found the thugs that had shot him down...only he hadn’t figured out what to do when he caught up with them. If he left now to get help, there wouldn’t even be footprints left in the sand when he returned.

Whatever he was going to do, he had to do it soon. He had to do it alone.

He needed an inconspicuous way to get a closer look. The canyon walls, however, were vertical. Quickly surveying the scene, he spotted a branching ravine with slopes that a determined person could slide down. Better yet, this side passage twisted out of the sight from the main camp.

There was just one problem, though: the ravine wasn’t empty. One man marched into the gully, while another wandered out and waved a greeting to his buddy.

If Paladin’s luck changed, he might time it just right so no one saw him crashing their party. He moved along the ridge of the canyon, half-crouching, until he came to the edge of the branching channel. He then understood what the attraction was in the ravine: in the shadow of a rocky ledge sat an outhouse.

Through the crescent-moon slit Paladin spied someone moving. He’d have to move before they finished.

Paladin stepped off the edge and slid down the gravel slope. A cloud of dust trailed behind him. He ran to the outhouse.

The man inside must have heard him. “Cool yer heels, buddy,” he yelled through the door. “Wait yer turn!”

Paladin thought of himself as a fair person. If he knocked someone down, he waited for them to get to their feet before taking another swing. Not this time. He’d left all pretenses of chivalry a day’s walk away—when five planes had shot him out of the sky.

He flung open the door and caught the mechanic with his pants down. Paladin threw a left hook and a right uppercut.

The mechanic grunted in pain and collapsed against the wall, unconscious.

Paladin cast a glance up the ravine. No one there. He dragged the unconscious mechanic from the outhouse, far enough out of sight in case anyone came looking.

He took the man's coveralls and cap, hog-tied him with his belt, then gagged him with his own dirty socks. Those restraints wouldn’t hold forever. Paladin hoped that would hold long enough for him to find out what was going on here.

The mechanic’s greasy blue coveralls were two sizes too big. Paladin stuffed it with his flight jacket then tucked his hair under the cap. If anyone got too close to this lousy disguise, they’d see through it in a heartbeat.

He took a deep breath, steeled his nerve, and walked out of the ravine.

Men scurried about the airstrip—all of them moving faster than Paladin had seen ten minutes ago. They struck tents and lowered radio gear from the water tower. Two mechanics worked on each of the Avengers. Ground crews loaded belts of ammunition and slung rockets on hardpoints under the fighters’ wings.

The Avenger pilots were clustered by the edge of the runway, chewing on cigars, and shuffling nervously. They kept glancing at the sky like someone was about to drop a bomb on them.

Paladin tried to look like he had someplace important to get to, then marched across the field, passing as close as he dared to the pilots. He recognized the Neanderthal eyebrows of “Dogface” Dougan, the vivid flame tattoos covering the arms of Lady Kali, and the thick glasses of “Crosseye” Malone—notorious mercenaries who would shoot down anything or anyone as long as there was enough money in it for them.

He averted his gaze before they saw him. These weren’t the kind of people you stared at unless you wanted to start a fight. These also weren’t the kind of people especially noted for their brains.

So who was pulling the strings around here?

Paladin continued his trajectory past the pilots, then paused and knelt, pretending to tie his shoelace. He needed time to think. Maybe time to figure out a way to steal one of those Avengers. If he could get to Lockheed’s base before these goons disappeared, he might be able to return with—

A shadow fell across his face.

“You!”

Paladin got to his feet and slowly turned...ready to go down swinging if he’d been found out.

A middle-aged man in a linen suit and Panama straw hat regarded Paladin with mild disgust. His skin was as pallid as his white jacket. He wore kid gloves and sported a monocle that magnified his right eye so it looked like it bulged out of its socket. There wasn’t a grain of sand on him.

Standing next to the pale man was a woman. She wore a smart black-and-white stripped skirt, black vest, and matching pillbox hat. She shaded herself with a lace parasol. Paladin had to force himself not to stare at her fall of black silken hair or into her deep blue eyes. She was movie-star material.

“Take this” —the pale man gestured to a steamer truck sitting next to a flattened tent— “to my stateroom. Immediately. And take care not to jostle it.”

Paladin followed the man’s gaze to the zeppelin. “Sure.”

The pale man narrowed his eyes to slits. “What did you say?”

If this was a military operation, then Paladin had just given the wrong reply. He quickly corrected himself. “I mean, yes sir.” He saluted. “Right away, sir!”

The pale man turned and strode toward the pilots. The woman examined Paladin a moment, then she too left.

If he were going to remain inconspicuous, he’d have to follow that order. At least he had a gotten a clue what the guy in charge looked like.

The steamer truck was made of soft leather, with brass-reinforced corners and three silver stars embossed on the lid. Paladin picked it up and balanced it on his good shoulder. He glanced back. The pale man seemed to be giving instruction to the pilots. They nodded and laughed.

Paladin trudged toward the war zeppelin. He fought the urge to duck as he neared the gun turrets mounted on the engine nacelles. Facing that much firepower was bad enough inside a cockpit, racing by at two hundred miles an hour...but to stare it down face-to-face gave him the creeps.

For more information see:
Grumman E-1C Avenger

He climbed the stairs to the gondola and got a glance at the bridge—dials, gauges, and a table overflowing with navigation charts he would have loved to look at. The bridge was also full of armed guards.

He continued down a hallway into what might have once been the dining section. Fifty-caliber machine guns were mounted where the best window tables would have been on a passenger liner. Crates of ammunition were neatly stacked alongside the guns. Paladin kept his head low and walked past crews cleaning and oiling the weapons. He entered another passage at the end of the gallery.

There were bunkrooms and a storage room full of boxes and sacks. One door had a placard with three silver stars hung on the handle. Paladin knocked, waited, then eased it open.

He slipped inside. No one was here. He dropped the trunk, then closed and locked the door behind him.

The room had a picture window with bulletproof steel shutters. There was a rolltop desk bolted to the floor, and two chaise lounges upholstered with silver silk. Gilt-framed landscapes and portraits adored the walls; they seemed vaguely familiar, like Paladin had seen them before in a museum. There was a case full of books: Nietzsche, nineteenth-century history texts, and the latest scientific journals.

Paladin had almost overlooked the most important feature of this parlor, a fully stocked wet bar. He rummaged through the bottles and found a seltzer dispenser. He filled three glasses and quaffed the fizzling liquid. He ate an entire can of Spanish peanuts, then a jar of maraschino cherries, drank the rest of the seltzer, and caught his breath.

He almost felt human again. He tried to stretch his wounded shoulder, but it was too swollen and stiff. He touched it and winced. Not a good sign.

He’d been running on adrenaline ever since his crash. Now that he finally had a chance to slow down, he was struck with a sense of just how much danger he was in. If they found him, there’d be a little impromptu firing squad organized for his benefit. He had to get off his zeppelin and as far away from here as he could.

On the other hand, if he wanted to find out who was behind the Lockheed thefts, this might be his only opportunity.

Five minutes. He’d give himself that long to find something, then he’d scram and take his chances in the desert.

Paladin jimmied the lock on the steamer truck. The scent of expensive perfume wafted from inside. There were skirts and blouses with French labels and a dozen pairs of high heels. Paladin was no fashion expert, but the stuff looked like it had cost a bundle. He dug deeper and found a hatbox. Inside was a nickel-plated .38 pistol...and a grenade.

He couldn’t picture either the pale man or his lady friend packing this kind of heat. They both looked so genteel. Still, nothing about this case had been as simple as it appeared on the surface. Why should this be any different?

Paladin slipped the pistol and grenade in his pocket.

Next, he forced the rolltop cover of the desk. There was the usual stuff: stationary, envelopes, a gold fountain pen, and a pack of unopened cigarettes. There was also a key.

He took the key—it might come in handy if he found a locked door on his way out. He grabbed the smokes, too.

He started to roll down the desk top when a flash caught his attention. Sitting in a velvet box was a signet ring with a jade stone. Carved in relief was an eagle with talons extended around a star. He pocketed the ring, too.

Sure, it was stealing. Blake Aviation had always gone out of its way to conduct business on the up-and-up, but this was different. There was more at stake than his reputation or playing it fair...even more at stake, he realized, than Lockheed’s prototype.

Another nation was conducting secret military operations in Hollywood. That was an act of war.

For more information see:
Zeppelins

Paladin suddenly didn’t want to be here, clues or not. He moved toward the door, but his knees buckled and his stomach sank. He caught himself, sitting on one of the lounges.

Outside he heard thunder...only this thunder didn’t fade. It was the roar of the zeppelin’s engines. And it wasn’t his legs that had given out; the zeppelin had suddenly lurched.

They were taking off.



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For more information see:
Nation of Hollywood