A dozen men ran out from the control tower: mechanics, gentlemen in dark suits, and even the Hollywood police in their pressed blue uniforms.
Paladin climbed out of the cockpit and slid off the wing. "Hello, boys." He waved at them. "No need to roll out the red carpet. Just doing my job."
The men exchanged confused looks, then one of the cops reached for Paladin's hand.
Paladin mirrored the gesture, thinking they'd shake.
Handcuffs snapped around his wrist.
"Mr. Blake," the officer said. "You're under arrest."
"We checked out your story, Mr. Blake." The young Lockheed official sat on the edge of the table and leaned closer to Paladin.
He was near enough for Paladin to get an eyeful of the large dimple in his prominent chin. The reek of expensive cologne was overpowering.
"And your story doesn't check out."
Paladin sat with his hands still cuffed and resting on the tabletop. He would have punched this joker's lights out if he thought he could get away with it. But he couldn't. They had locked him in a room with Mr. Expensive Cologne and an older gentleman, neither identifying themselves, but both radiating authority. For the last two hours Mr. Cologne had asked the same questions about what had happened, and Paladin had told him the same story.
The older man wore a tweed suit with leather elbow patches. He nodded as Paladin explained about the pale man and the second prototype, but otherwise kept quiet and watched the show.
This room was on the second floor of the control tower. There was one window covered by thick curtains. The cinder block walls dampened the sound so much that Paladin thought his ears would bleed from the silence between their questions and his answers.
As far as he knew, they could be the only people still at this facility. He hadn't heard or seen anyone since the Hollywood police escorted him inside
"What do you mean my story doesn't check out?" Paladin demanded. "There was an air base. And there had to be something left of that Avenger that crashed between here and there."
"No." Mr. Cologne got up, grabbed a pitcher of water and poured himself a tall glass. He drank it without offering Paladin a drop. "You want to know what I think, though?"
How could a search team have missed that Avenger? Sure the desert was a big place, but from the air, the smoldering wreckage should be obvious. Even to a clown like Mr. Cologne.
"I don't care what you think," Paladin replied.
"I think," Mr. Cologne continued as if he hadn't heard Paladin, "that you flew our plane to Hughes' Burbank airfield. They took photographs and had their people go over our new engines, then you concocted this fantastic cover story and flew the plane here. How much did they pay you, Mr. Blake?"
"You think I faked this hole in my shoulder?" Paladin's face flushed. He rose of his chair. "Or the sand in the cockpit? You think I faked the shrapnel scars across the plane's wings?"
"Yes, Mr. Blake, I think you would endure almost anything for the right amount of money." Mr. Cologne raised his eyebrows in obvious disgust. "We have a complete file on you."
Paladin wondered how much they really knew. If they had all the dirt on him, why did Justin hire him?
"What about the second prototype? Peter Justin sent me out in one plane and I came back in another. How do you explain that?"
"Mr. Justin is presently on his way here to verify that the plane you brought is indeed not the one you were given," the older man said. "We will pick up that line of investigation when he arrives."
Paladin eased back into his seat. At least Justin could back up part of his story.
He was about to tell them how much better the pale man's prototype flew, but decided to keep his mouth shut. So far, telling the entire truth had gotten him nowhere fast.
And where exactly was this question-and-answer party going? Lockheed was a big corporation. They apparently had the Hollywood police in their pocket (at least the cops that weren't in the pocket of Hughes Aviation), too, since they were here, and looking the other way while Mr. Cologne conducted his interrogation.
There had been no mention about criminal charges and due process appeared to be right out the window. If things didn't go right, Paladin might just disappear. If the desert was big enough to hide a busted-up Avenger, how hard would it be to hide one inconvenient pilot?
The older man cleared his throat. "Please," he said to his companion, "give Mr. Blake a glass of water."
Mr. Cologne sighed, shook his head, but nonetheless poured a glass and set it down on the table.
Paladin grabbed it with both hands and quaffed it down.
"Do you smoke?" the older gentleman inquired.
Paladin's eyes fell to the items they had removed from his pockets and scattered on the table. There were the items he had "liberated" from the zeppelin: a brass key, a signet ring with a jade stone, and a pack of cigarettes he swiped from the pale man's parlor. Paladin licked his lips. It had been years since he'd had a smoke, but this might be as good a time as any to start again.
"Yeah," he whispered. "A smoke would be great."
Mr. Cologne tore the cellophane off the cigarettes. He tapped one out, handed it to Paladin, then flipped his lighter open.
The cigarette was wrapped in black paperone of those expensive European jobs that had been impossible to get in North America since the market had crashed.
Paladin brought the cigarette close to the flame. He stared at it as it smoldered, and his mind raced as he struggled to come to grips with recent events.
Something sparked, a brief flicker of intuition. He rapidly pieced together the clues: the battle zeppelin, the unmarked Avengers, the pale man, and these cigarettes...
There were a few blank spots to fill in, but the entire two-day ordeal now made sense in a twisted sort of way.
Paladin looked up. "Give me twenty-four hours and two phone calls," he said, "and I guarantee I can answer all your questions."
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