"I'll need you to fly my people here. I also need the personnel files of your security people at the Pasadena airfield."
The older man told his associate, "Ship the files Mr. Blake requires on the next flight out."
"I could also use a little lunch," Paladin said scratching the stubble on his chin. "Maybe a shower, too, and a razor so I can clean up."
Or, Paladin thought, so I can cut my throat if this daffy scheme doesn't work.
The transport plane landed at half past one that afternoon. There were no windows in the passenger's section of the fuselage. Lockheed wasn't taking any chances concealing the location of their secret testing facility.
Tennyson sauntered off the plane first, lightly stepping down the stairway as if he were the Duke of Kent in tails and black tie at the Queen's Reception. He was, in fact, wearing a set of freshly pressed white coveralls, a Hollywood Stars baseball cap, mirrored aviator glasses, and lugging a tool chest in each hand.
When Tennyson saw Paladin, he set his tools down, clasped Paladin's hand, and patted him on the back. "So good to see you, my friend." A smile split his white beard, then disappeared. "We had been told there was an accident, and that you were injured."
"That's the least of my problems," Paladin muttered and absentmindedly massaged his wounded shoulder.
Jimmy the Rap got off the plane next. His crumpled suit looked like it had been slept in, and he winced when he got a dose of desert sun.
Following Jimmy was a pudgy man in a navy blue suit and worn fedora that had "cop" written all over it. That had to be Detective Slaughouser.
Last to deplane was a giant of a man, the Russian fighter ace who had gotten Paladin into this mess: Peter Justin, chief of security for Lockheed.
"Where's Dashiell?" Paladin asked.
"He did not come," Tennyson replied. "He said the only desert he would be going to would be Palm Springs. All the others were too dry, he told me. And I do not believe he was referring to the climate."
Paladin gritted his teeth. "That's it? He didn't say anything else?"
"He told me to give you this." Tennyson reached into the vest pocket of his coveralls, removed an envelope, and then handed it to Paladin. "He said 'your long shot paid off,' and that you owe him a bottle of champagne."
Paladin cracked it open and frowned at its contents. "Hmph. It isn't as clear as I'd hoped," he whispered. "Still, we're lucky we got anything at all. It'll have to do."
"What will have to do?" Tennyson asked.
"A miracle...if I can pull it off," Paladin said. He stuffed the envelope into his pocket.
"Mr. Blake?" asked a voice embellished with a Slavic accent.
Paladin turned. Peter Justinall seven feet and three hundred pounds of himhad somehow crept up behind him. Justin's pointed beard had been immaculately trimmed since Paladin had seen him last. He wore a light gray silk suit and a Panama hat to shade his face. "It is most distressing news about the prototype," he said. "I very much would like to see the wreckage." He shot a suspicious glance at Tennyson then looked back down at Paladin. "If there is anything I could do to help, please tell me."
Paladin took a step back. "Did you bring those Lockheed employment records?"
"Of course." Justin hefted an alligator skin briefcase.
"Good." Paladin nodded toward the hangar. He raised his voice so everyone on the field heard him: "Then let's take a look at the plane."
He marched to the hangar. Across the dry lakebed shimmering heat rose in waves so it looked like a lake in the distance. A mirage...a reminder that maybe it wasn't the truth he was chasing, just smoke and mirrors.
No. His hunch had to be right.
Paladin stepped through the human-sized door adjacent the gigantic hangar bay entrance. The temperature inside was twenty degrees cooler, and Paladin's sweat immediately chilled his skin to gooseflesh.
A trio of armed guards scrutinized him and reached for their sidearms. They relaxed, though, when they saw the older Lockheed official and Mr. Cologne.
The prototype flying wing was the only plane in the cavernous building. She was parked in the center, and a spotlight painted her steel with reflections and glare. Paladin could still see the scrapes and scorch marks from their close calls and felt sorry that he'd banged up the beautiful craft.
"First thing," Paladin said trying to sound like he knew what he was doing, "I'll need my chief mechanic to look over the plane."
"Absolutely not," Mr. Cologne said, stepping between Paladin and the plane, and raising his neatly manicured hands. "You've done enough damage. For all we know you're trying to steal more technical data and sell it to our competitors."
"If you think I already stole the prototype," Paladin replied, lowing his tone and meeting Mr. Cologne's stare, "and if I already had it to examine for an entire day, what could it possibly hurt for me to take one more look?"
Mr. Cologne considered, cupping his dimpled chin, then he said, "Very well, but I insist one of our mechanics watch you."
"Good," Tennyson remarked. He started to lug his tools to the plane. "We could always use a little help."
Detective Slaughouser cleared his throat. "Is this something the Hollywood police needs to look at? I was told a plane here was stolen."
"Stolen and recovered," Mr. Cologne said. "We already have the thief. All that we require of you is to take him into custody."
Paladin crossed his arms so he'd be less likely to take a poke at Mr. Cologne, who was really starting to get under his skin. "There'll be a charge of espionage to add...maybe even a count of treason or two."
Detective Slaughouser's raised his eyebrows and tipped up his fedora. "That so?"
"The suit here has it wrong, though; I'm not the thief," Paladin said. He turned to Mr. Cologne, "and what he thinks was stolen wasn't."
Jimmy the Rap looked nervously about, as if he was suddenly claustrophobic in the immense empty hangar. "Don't no one go pointing a finger at me." He backed away from Paladin. "I was in lockup for the last two days. I didn't take nothing."
"Shut yer trap," Detective Slaughouser said. He scratched his head, then asked, "So what's going on, Blake? I know you're on the up and up. Spell it out for me. But in English, huh?"
"I will. I'll even gift-wrap the thief for you, complete with the details on how they did it, and their motive. But I'll need to ask everyone a few questions first." Paladin glanced from Justin to the older Lockheed official to Detective Slaughouser to Jimmy the Rap. "Then I'll reveal which one of us is the crook."
"This is outrageous," Mr. Cologne said.
"I must agree," Justin murmured.
"I ain't done nothing," Jimmy said and edged toward the door.
Detective Slaughouser grabbed Jimmy by his wrinkled collar and marched him back.
"But one of us did steal the prototype," Paladin told them. "...in a way."
"Mr. Justin," Paladin said, "take a careful look at this plane. Is it the one you sent me out in two days ago?"
Justin removed a set of spectacles from his coat pocket. He circled the sleek craft. "It is a close approximation of our prototype, but"his forehead crinkled as he searched for the right word"more refined, as if a movie studio reproduced it from a picture perhaps."
"Not quite," Paladin said.
"The real prototype?" Justin inquired. "I have been told it was crashed."
"I was shot down. It's completely destroyed."
"A pity all that is left is this forgery," Justin said.
"Is it?" Paladin asked. "Jimmy, two nights ago, you told me about some parts that left the Lockheed facility in Pasadena? Parts belonging to a prototype?"
"How would I know about that stuff?" Jimmy squeaked.
Detective Slaughouser slapped Jimmy on the back of his head. "Because you're a fence for every jewel thief, burglar, and high roller in Los Angles. Answer the man's question."
"Okay, some stuff walked out of Lockheed, sure. You hear things on the street. That ain't against the law. These were big-ticket items, too. A pair of engines, a fuselage, and some newfangled air brake."
"Impossible," Justin said. "Those items would have been missed."
Paladin asked detective Slaughouser, "Do you think it's possible?"
"Naw, couldn't be done," Slaughouser replied. "Not the way Lockheed's got the airfield locked up. And not with the Hollywood police on the job. Besides, why risk moving the parts if it was a spy job? Why not just scram with the blueprints?"
Paladin turned to Mr. Cologne. "Can you think of a reason, other than espionage, that your prototype might be stolen?"
"Sabotage, for starters. That plane represents a year and a half of development and investments. It will cost a fortune to replace, if we can replace it at all."
Tennyson slammed the engine compartment shut then returned, wiping the grease from his hands with a rag. "The plane is a jigsaw of sorts, Paladin. The fuselage, engines and other components are missing any manufacturer's serial number. The remainder of the plane appears to be off-the-shelf materials: a Hydrodyne water pump, Delco lighting, Top-Flite tires."
"Good," Paladin said. "Very good."
"One more thing," Tennyson said in a low whisper so only Paladin could hear. "I don't know what the old girl has been through, but I wouldn't take her up in the air. She's got stress fractures up and down her frame. An engine block is cracked. It's a wonder you made it back to the ground in one piece, old boy."
"Excuse me," Mr. Cologne demanded. "What does this prove?
Paladin ignored him. "One last question. Can I see those files you brought, Mr. Justin?"
Justin opened his briefcase and handed over a stack of manila file folders.
Paladin flipped through the paperwork until he found the one he wanted. He checked the fingerprint on record.
"Ah, there we are," he said with a smile. "You wanted answers? Well I've got some.
"Let's start with this prototype"Paladin pointed to the plane in the center of the hangar"the real Lockheed prototype. The one that was stolen piece by piece from Pasadena, and then reassembled. Its fuselage, the engines, and air brake system all match the list of stolen goods our friend Jimmy provided. The parts that weren't swiped from Lockheed were replaced by the best fitting parts available."
"But that doesn't add up, Blake," Detective Slaughouser said. "If this thief could have gotten big items like the fuselage, they should have been able to grab 'em all."
"No," Paladin answered. "Our thief needed an alibi. They used the remaining parts to build a mock prototype. One that would have never passed the close scrutiny it would have received had she ever reached this test facility...but it was good enough to shoot down. And good enough to send me up in to play the patsy."
Justin reached into his coat.
"Not so fast," Detective Slaughouser said and drew his pistol.
Justin slowly removed a silver case, opened it, and took out a black cigarette.
Detective Slaughouser relaxed and lowered his gun.
"It saddens me to hear this from you, Mr. Blake," Justin nonchalantly replied as he lit his cigarette. "I would have
thought that a professional with your reputation would have taken responsibility for your mistakes, rather than try and shift the blame with some implausible story."
"I have proof." Paladin removed the envelope from his pocket. He withdrew the card inside and showed everyone the half-smeared fingerprint. "I think you'll find this print, which we lifted off the plane, matches the print on Mr. Justin's personnel record."
He handed the card and Justin's file to the older Lockheed official. "I took the liberty of borrowing a friend's fingerprint kit and had Tennyson dust the plane."
Paladin held his breath, hoping that his bluff sounded only half as phony as he thought.
Justin shrugged. "If this plane has stolen Lockheed parts, then my fingerprints should be on it. I supervised every phase of the production of the prototype parts."
"True enough. However, your prints are on the other parts, too," Paladin said. "On parts that you should have never touched."
Justin examined the glowing tip of his cigarette. He straightened his arm. There was a click and a slim silver .38 popped from the sleeve of his silk suit and into his massive hand.
Moving with deceptive agility for such a large man, Peter Justin stepped behind Mr. Cologne, locked him in a stranglehold, and pointed his gun at the Lockheed executive's neck.
"Drop your weapons," Justin growled. "Back away, or this man dies."