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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

Spicy Air Tales is proud to present the fifth installment of our continuing 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.

Blake—hired to deliver a prototype aircraft to a Lockheed testing facility—has been wounded and left for dead in the desert. Tracking the raiders to their hidden lair, Blake discovered a slick, military-style operation. In order to save his beleaguered company—and salvage his honor—Blake infiltrated the mysterious base.

Trapped aboard the raiders' zeppelin, Blake evaded capture long enough to steal a finished version of the destroyed Lockheed prototype. Now, under the guns of his enemies, Blake must turn the tables on his foes...

—Nero MacLeon

Senior Editor, Air Action Weekly Press


The Case of the Phantom Prototype

- A Paladin Blake Adventure! -

By Eric Nylund


Chapter Five: No Graceful Exit

Paladin felt the acceleration in his gut—like he was moving up on an express elevator. He got to his feet and lurched to the window. The zeppelin had cleared the canyon walls; its shadow rippled along the desert crags below.

He gripped the steel shutters and rattled them. No luck. They were welded to the frame. Even if he found something to pry them off, he was already a hundred feet off the ground and climbing.

Unless he sprouted wings, he was stuck on this airbag.

And with his luck, the guard he had knocked out before sneaking aboard would be found soon. There'd be a quick radio call to the zeppelin, a search, and when they found Paladin, they'd shove him out the nearest exit. He'd take the longest step of his life.

He couldn't sit around and wait to be discovered. He had to find a place to hide.

Paladin left the parlor and locked the door behind him. Retracing his steps, he went back to the shooting gallery. The drone of the engines reverberated through the open windows. The dozen fifty-caliber guns were loaded and ready for action. The men standing next to them looked just as ready, scanning the skies for trouble. No one noticed him.

Paladin swayed and steadied himself against an aluminum brace. Squares of light and shadow stretched and angled across the long room as the zeppelin turned north.

There was a door or two in the corridor between here and the bridge. Paladin tried to look casual as he strode to the opposite side of the gallery. There had to be was a place where he could—

Halfway across the room, he stopped dead.

The pale, authoritative man and his stunning escort stepped onto the gallery. The gunners stood and saluted.

The pale man brushed the lapel of his linen suit and casually looked over the room. He wandered to the nearest window, ran his white-gloved fingers over the frame and inspected their cleanliness. Satisfied, he removed his monocle and admired the expansive view of desert and cloudless horizons.

His female companion leaned over a machine gun, brushed the fall of dark hair from her face, and examined its ammunition belt. She straightened her pillbox hat then spoke to the soldier manning the weapon. He nodded and quickly left. She turned and scrutinized each gun along the left-hand side of the room, idly twirling her closed lace parasol...until she noticed Paladin. Her eyes locked with his and she froze.

There was something familiar about the slight upturn of her nose, and eyes that could have been chiseled from icebergs. Sure, Paladin had just seen her on the runway, but he now realized that they had crossed paths somewhere else. He couldn't quite put his finger on when.

Her eyes widened and her mouth formed a tiny "o".

While Paladin hadn't figured out where he knew her from, she had apparently figured out where she had seen him before. He dropped his eyes to the deck, did an about-face, and headed back the way he came, trying to appear as nonchalant as possible.

It took all his nerve not to look back or break into a run. Paladin was sure every guard on the zeppelin was after him. He'd never hear them coming over the roar of the engines.

He stopped at the door to the parlor and risked a quick glance over his shoulder. The pale man and woman were still there, but neither one was looking his way. Paladin exhaled and regained his composure.

One thing was for sure: he couldn't go back. The woman had either recognized him and not said anything, or she had written off his familiar resemblance as a coincidence. Paladin wished he remembered how he knew her, and if she might help out of this jam. That was a long shot, though. She seemed awfully close to the pale man in charge.

He continued down the hall past a bunkroom full of men engrossed in a game of poker—past a kitchen with glistening copper pots and the aroma of roasting turkey-past a storage closet crammed with crates—but nothing that looked like a good hiding place.

Paladin looked back down the hallway and spotted the pale man and woman walking toward their room. When they saw their opened steamer truck and ransacked rolltop desk, they'd quickly realize who was responsible.

He figured he had thirty seconds.

The hall ended in a double set of swing doors. Paladin pushed through.

He found himself in the launch bay, a cavernous room with the skeleton of the zeppelin's beam-and-girder superstructure exposed. Paladin saw a control room perched thirty feet overhead.

There was a fleet of Grumman Avengers, hanging like Christmas ornaments on tracks. At first glance, it looked like a standard launch bay in a military zep. When the zeppelin was high enough those planes could roll off their tracks, through the open bay doors in the floor, and the zeppelin would have an instant squadron to defend against pirates, or in this case, Hollywood's militia.

This launch system, though, was different than any Paladin had seen. The planes rotated on a universal joint. They pointed toward bays where mechanics checked engines and hydraulics, loaded rockets and belts of ammunition—all made easier because they could be worked on from any angle. It was a brainy set up.

Paladin stopped admiring the engineering and did a double take. The Lockheed prototype dangled directly over his head.

For more information see:
Grumman E-1C Avenger

He stepped around it to get a better look. This close, he saw it was very different from the plane he had crashed yesterday. This one had a mirror polish on its steel skin; the engines were larger and smoothly melded into the frame; the bubble canopy was a recessed cycloptic eye. The plane looked slick and seamless, a far cry from the half-finished, temperamental craft that he had flown out of Pasadena.

"So where the hell did this one come from?" he muttered to himself. No time to figure it out. Paladin was beginning to attract curious looks from the guards and mechanics here.

He glanced to the prototype, to the three guards starting toward him, then took a gamble—maybe his only way to make a not-so-graceful exit.

Paladin steeled his nerve and took a deep breath. "Hey!" he yelled across the hangar to the guards. "We got a problem."

For once, his bad luck was a blessing. Alarm bells jangled throughout the hangar. The guards broke into a run, reaching for their pistols. The mechanics followed, brandishing wrenches, crowbars, and other makeshift weapons.

"Quick," Paladin said. "They need help on the bridge. Hurry!"

The men pushed their way through the double doors. No one looked twice at Paladin.

He spied a wrench on the floor, grabbed it, and jammed it through the door handles. That bought him maybe another fifteen seconds. He rolled a wheeled ladder under the flying wing.

A man in the control room banged on the window. He waved his arms to get Paladin's attention. When Paladin ignored him, the man got on the radio.

No turning back now, Paladin thought. Everybody on this zep is gonna know I'm here.

Paladin scrambled up the ladder and climbed into the prototype's cockpit. This definitely wasn't the same plane he'd flown. The seat was soft padded leather, almost obscenely comfortable in comparison to the rather spartan interior of "his" prototype. The instrument panel was burnished brass and teak with a Rolls Royce precision floating horizon, a Swiss Gersbeck altimeter, and a Rothschild Blackhawk RPM gauge/speedometer. There were also a few dials and switches that Paladin didn't recognize.

He found the manual docking release and pulled. There was a click and the plane slowly began to roll forward on its track, toward the hole in the zeppelin's belly.

The prototype jerked to a halt. Paladin cracked his head on the instrument panel. The flying wing swung back and forth.

The guy in the control room had his hand on a lever and a smug look on his face.

Paladin could have killed that creep—if he had had the spare time. He squinted and found the cause of his problems: a spring-loaded clamp three feet from the rail's end. There was no way the flying wing could roll off. No way for him to escape.

He heard banging and voices. Paladin turned and saw the double doors jostle and the jammed wrench begin to shake loose.

He drew the nickel-plated .38 pistol he had swiped from the steamer trunk...then recalled he had more firepower. He pulled out the grenade he had found with the gun.

But one grenade wouldn't stop the army on the other side of those doors, unless—Paladin tuned and examined the rail—he found a better use for the thing.

He set down his gun and pocketed the grenade. He clambered out of the cockpit and balanced on the teetering wing.

Paladin grasped the rail overhead. His wounded shoulder blossomed with fire and something inside tore. He gritted his teeth, and pulled himself, hand over hand, to the locking clamp. Hanging by his right arm, he retrieved the grenade, pulled the pin with his teeth, then jammed it into the clamp.

He swung himself once, twice, dropped back onto the wing, and rolled into the cockpit—covering his head and bracing for the blast.

It sounded like a cannon going off in his ears. Shrapnel zinged off the canopy and the steel skin of the flying wing. He shook his head to clear his ringing ears and risked a glance at the damage. The spring-loaded clamp and rail had blown clean off.

Paladin's streak of bad luck still held, however. The clamp was gone, but the track had a twisted into a slight upturn. The plane wouldn't roll off...not unless someone got out and gave it one heck of a push.

The double doors burst open. The three guards he had sent on a wild goose chase rushed in with their sidearms drawn. They weren't alone, either—the poker players in the bunkroom were on their heels, as were a half dozen gunners from the gallery. Even the pale man was there, monocle gleaming and a Thompson submachine gun in hand.

And they were all looking for him.

Paladin crouched lower in the cockpit. His dogfighting instincts made him want to reach for the yoke and pull it back—dodge, try an Immelman, and somehow shake these jokers off his six. But this was no dogfight.

Paladin glanced at the pistol in his hand, and briefly considered a frontal assault. Maybe the element of surprise would buy him enough time to get clear, get out of the hangar, maybe find a parachute—

That would be crazy.

His eyes fell to the rubberized grip and trigger on the yoke, the glimmerings of a plan forming.

No. Crazy was trying to hold off an army with a peashooter, especially when you were sitting on two thirty-caliber cannons. He could use the plane's guns. But he'd have to turn the thing around first.

He pressed the port and starboard starters. The engines turned over and roared to life, growling like metallic tigers. Paladin inched the port throttle forward. The differential in power to the engines started to spin the flying wing on the universal joint, rotating to face the guards.

They raised their weapons; Paladin saw the blur of whirling props reflected in their wide eyes.

One of them fired. A bullet pinged off propeller blades.

Paladin squeezed the trigger. The plane's nose was pointed too high for him to hit anyone, but that didn't stop him from unloading a few hundred rounds over their heads.

The men scattered like rats, hitting the deck and crawling for cover.

It wasn't the smartest thing he'd ever done. As the plane turned, Paladin spotted barrels of aviation fuel and racks of high-explosive rockets. If he kept shooting, they'd all go out in a blaze of glory.

The pale man set down his Tommy gun and stood. He held up his white-gloved hands and shouted at Paladin.

A truce? Paladin couldn't hear what he was trying to say over the drone of his engines. He eased the port throttle back a bit to kill his spin. The flying wing rolled to a low spot on the track as the engines slowed.

In his peripheral vision he saw some of the guards flanking him.

"Want to play hard ball, huh?" he said. "Well, I can play that game, too."

He gripped the trigger and readied himself. The slight rocking of the flying wing was going to make this a tricky shot.

Paladin froze. The plane was rocking like someone had given it a good push...and wasn't that exactly what he had said he needed? A good push to get out of this jam?

He revved the starboard engine, turning the plane back to its original facing.

He narrowed his eyes and pulled the trigger. The twin thirty-caliber machine guns stitched the deck, sent a flurry of sparks flying, and riddled aviation fuel barrels with holes. Amber liquid gushed and ignited into a river of fire.

The pale man dove into the hallway.

Paladin let the flying wing turn until its nose pointed toward the open bay doors in the zeppelin's undercarriage.

He pushed both throttles full open. The plane accelerated, gained momentum, up the track, then off the twisted upturned end with a wrenching squeal.

An explosion surrounded the cockpit with flame and smoke and thunder—and the flying wing plunged through the launch bay door, hurtling towards the earth.



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For more information see:
Lockheed Corporation