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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

Last issue, in a desperate gambit to clear his name, Paladin Blake revealed the mastermind behind the Case of the Phantom Prototype. With little more than guesswork, Blake pointed the finger at Peter Justin, the mysterious Lockheed security chief.

But, can an honest pilot collect his pay for a job well done? Not if that pilot is Blake. Before anyone can react, Justin pulls a gun and grabs a hostage. Now Paladin Blake is the only man who can save the day...

—Nero MacLeon

Senior Editor, Air Action Weekly Press


The Case of the Phantom Prototype

- A Paladin Blake Adventure! -

By Eric Nylund


Chapter Eight: One Way Out

Paladin took a step toward Peter Justin. "Don't do it, Justin." His words echoed though the cavernous hangar. "There's nowhere to go."

Tennyson took a step closer, trying to flank the massive Russian. Paladin gave him a short shake of his head, and Tennyson froze in his tracks.

Justin twisted the neck of his captive—the arrogant Lockheed executive that Blake had mentally nicknamed "Mr. Cologne"—then pushed the muzzle of this gun deep into his target's throat. "I disagree," Justin hissed. He backed away—using Mr. Cologne as a shield between himself and the trio of armed guards and detective Slaughouser—moving closer to the prototype. "I will be flying away from this place."

"No way," Slaughouser said. The cop steadied his grip on his .38, trying to aim past the squirming hostage, hoping for a clear shot at Justin.

The older Lockheed official set his hand on the Slaughouser's arm. "No, Detective. Let him go." Slaughouser muttered something Paladin didn't quite catch. He lowered his gun.

How much influence did Lockheed have with the Hollywood police? Paladin thought that Hughes was the big player in Hollywood. But a man like Slaughouser didn't back down in the middle of a standoff—not unless someone was pulling his strings.

For more information see:
Hughes Aviation, Lockheed

Paladin dismissed that thought and focussed his attention on Justin.

"Why'd you do it?" Paladin asked. "Was it the money? How much did the pale man pay you?"

That stopped Justin more effectively than the threat of Slaughouser's gun. He stood straighter, crinkled his bushy eyebrows and looked like Paladin had just slapped him in the face. "I thought a man like you would understand, Blake. This was never about the money."

Justin's eyes were steel hard and stared through Paladin. Blake had seen the look before on the solders and flyers from the Great War—half shell-shocked and full of the reflections of dead friends.

Paladin hazarded a guess: "So that's it: you're a patriot. White Russian to the core, huh? Maybe you don't fly against the Reds anymore, but you're still fighting for czar and country."

Justin relaxed his grip on the young Lockheed official who managed to finally gasp and inhale a full breath.

"Then you do understand," Justin whispered.

"Well I sure as hell don't," Slaughouser muttered.

"Alaska," Tennyson offered and tugged thoughtfully at his white beard. "Our Mr. Justin is from Alaska...and before that from Russia, a soldier of their revolution."

For more information see:
Alaska

"When the White Russians were ousted by the Reds," Paladin continued, "a bunch of them lit out for Alaska."

"Da," Justin growled. He tightened his grip on his captive and took a step back.

"The Reds and Whites are still going at it up there," Paladin said. "The Reds want the last of the aristocrats dead. If half the reports are true, the fighting up North is twice as bloody as the revolution. Innocent civilians are getting planted… all in the name of Mother Russia."

"The 'pale man,' as you called him," Justin replied, "promised me planes, guns, supplies, even a combat zeppelin in exchange for the prototype" —he glanced quickly over his shoulder to the flying wing, then back— "my people need these things or all will be dead within a month."

"There are other ways," the older Lockheed official said. "We can negotiate—"

"We negotiate nothing," Justin said. He dragged his captive backward to the prototype. "Capitalists and police," he sneered. "I trust you less than I trust the Communists." He nodded to Paladin, and added, "I must thank you, Mr. Blake, for returning the prototype. I shall bring it to the 'pale man.' Perhaps it will not be too late for my people."

"Don't do it," Paladin cautioned. "That plane's had it. It's a flying coffin."

Justin smiled. "A few bullet holes will not stop me from flying this plane."

"It's not only the exterior damage," Tennyson told him. "Look for yourself. She's got stress fractures up and down her frame. The block is cracked. And the intakes are—"

Justin ignored Tennyson and sat on the wing's leading edge. He saddled back, pulling the young Lockheed official up on the wing with him as if he weighed no more than a rag-doll. Mr. Cologne let out a strangled squeal. With more dexterity than a man Justin's size should have possessed, he eased into the cockpit, dragging Mr. Cologne with him.

"Stay calm, people. Let them go," the older Lockheed official said, glacially calm. He slicked back his neat white hair, then gestured at the guards to back off.

The three Lockheed guards lowered their weapons.

"No!" Paladin protested.

"There are alternatives to fisticuffs and gunplay, Mr. Blake," the older man admonished, "as our Mr. Justin is about to learn."

Justin closed the canopy. The prototype's engines roared to life and the aircraft eased forward.

Paladin backed away from the plane's twin thirty-caliber machine guns.

The older Lockheed official signaled the guards to open the hangar doors.

For the first time in his life, Paladin almost wished one man could escape the law. Justin was a veteran, a patriot. Maybe he had done the only thing he could have in his desperate situation. Maybe the same thing Blake himself would have done, if the situation had been reversed.

The flying wing rumbled onto the runway.

Paladin and the others ran outside. The sun was high and heat shimmered off the dry lake bed.

The prototype accelerated down the runway, then arced into the air. It banked left, pulled up higher, climbing toward the glaring sun—

—and disintegrated into bits of spinning wing and confetti metal, a spray of fuel and fire and smoke.

Paladin's insides turned cold and hard. That could have been him. Maybe it should have been him, and Justin, one of the last White Russian resistance fighters, should have walked away from this mess alive.

He turned to the older Lockheed official whose gray eyes were squinting at the smoky scar in the sky. "You said there were other alternatives," Paladin growled. "Like what?"

"Such as," the older man whispered, "we can always build another plane."

Paladin clenched his fists and stepped toward the Lockheed rep.

Detective Slaughouser reached into his overcoat's pocket and shook his head.

Paladin stopped dead in his tracks.

The older gentleman ignored Paladin's clenched teeth and hateful stare. He calmly asked, "Dinner, Mr. Blake?"

The Lockheed secret airfield, the wreckage of the phantom prototype, and the sweltering desert sun were a hundred miles away and twelve hours in the past. Still, Paladin hadn't quite washed the sandy grit or the bad taste of the incident from his mouth.

Paladin straightened his tuxedo and sipped ice water. He avoided looking at the prime rib and the martini that had been ordered for him, nor did he look at the swing band or the dancing feather girls on the stage of Oscar's—a ritzy hole in the wall for Hollywood's movie moguls and the power brokers. From the steely-eyed bouncers to the well-bribed maitre d', the message was plain: no party crashers allowed.

For more information see:
Nation of Hollywood

The older Lockheed official sat across the table from him. He wore a light gray tuxedo that matched his eyes and hair. His name was Dunford, James Dunford.

Since they returned, Paladin and James were on a first name basis. He was very grateful for Paladin for wrapping up his problems—the missing prototype and the elusive Peter Justin. He was even more grateful that Blake Aviation Security had a policy about keeping its mouth permanently shut about their clients' cases.

"Unless there's some illegal activity the police should know of," Paladin added.

"I assure you, Paladin," Dunford said with a smile, "Lockheed engages only in legal activities and commerce." Legal activities and commerce might, however, cover a lot of territory if the Hollywood police were looking the other way. Come to think of it, Detective Slaughouser hadn't said a word after the plane crash. Would a report get filed? Of would the incident—and the death of a Lockheed employee—be swept under the rug?

Paladin leaned closer to Dunford, wrinkling the white linen tablecloth. "You knew about the plane? Knew it would fall apart?"

"Of course," Dunford said calmly and cut into his porterhouse steak. "The frame was a special aluminum alloy designed for light weight but with reduced tensile properties. I am amazed it held together for your aerial combats, Mr. Blake." He chewed. "Remarkable."

Paladin had an urge to reach across the table and, if not strangle Dunford, at least blacken his eye. Maybe both, Blake thought. He's just too damn smug for his own good.

Paladin reined in his impulse, though. The theft of the prototype, the Russian connection, and Lockheed's apparent control of the police was all part of a much larger—and more sinister—picture. If he wanted to find out what was really going on, Paladin had to keep his cool and play along. It wasn't easy.

"I assume," Dunford said, "that you found our retainer sufficient?"

"Very," Paladin replied.

"Sufficient" didn't begin to cover it; Lockheed had paid him a considerable sum to retain Blake Aviation Security on semi-permanent basis for what Dunford called "special operations." The kind of money they dished out would keep his offices from here to the Empire State in black ink for the next two years.

Dunford set his fork and knife down and riveted Paladin with his eyes. "How did you know Mr. Justin was our thief?"

Paladin found himself unable to hold Dunford's stare. He looked instead at his martini; it was cool and clear and shimmering silver. It would be easy to sip—to drink the thing down. He inhaled the faint scent of gin…then reluctantly slid the glass into the middle of the table.

"It was the cigarettes," Paladin finally said.

Dunford eased back, raised an eyebrow, and then retrieved his own package of cigarettes. He shook one out for himself, then offered one to Paladin.

"No thanks," Paladin said to the offered smokes. "I found a pack of European cigarettes on the pale man's zep. You know, the kind wrapped with the black papers? They're hard to get in North America these days. Especially in Hollywood."

"True." Dunford examined his plain white Lucky Strikes then lit up. "So I can assume our Mr. Justin smoked the same European brand, yes? That could have been mere coincidence."

"Yes, it could have," Paladin mused. "Hell, it may have even been a coincidence, but who else was in a position to steal the major components for the prototype from the Pasadena plant? Who was the only person to see me off in that mock prototype? Who arranged the flight schedule to ensure that my takeoff didn't lead to any inconvenient witnesses? All the pieces fit."

"That bit about the fingerprints," Dunford chuckled. "It was a dazzling display of deduction, Mr. Blake."

"Thanks," Paladin muttered.

In fact there had been no deduction. Tennyson hadn't really found a single fingerprint on the prototype. He had, however, lifted one of Justin's prints from Paladin's desk in his Santa Monica office. That was the print Paladin has handed Justin, the print Blake had compared to his Lockheed employment record. It had been nothing more than a flimflam.

As far as Paladin was concerned, though, no one at Lockheed ever had to know that little detail of the case.

Dunford wiped his mouth with a napkin and covered his plate with it. "Very good. But now, on to new business, Mr. Blake… or rather, a continuation of our old business. Our retainer is conditional on Blake Aviation Security following through on this case."

"The case?" Paladin asked. "I thought this case was wrapped up. You've got your plane back…most of it, anyway."

"There is no need to feign naivete, Mr. Blake," Dunford said and grinned. "There will be a bonus upon completion of your investigation, of course, but I must insist that you continue. The pale man…he must be found. You must find him."

Dunford paused to sip his martini. "When you locate him—and I do not doubt that you will—there shall be no need to immediately involve the authorities. The pale man's day of reckoning will come in a court of law, but Lockheed would first like to have a word with him."

"I see."

Lockheed's wasn't only buying Blake Aviation Security's service…it was also buying his silence. Why? What did Lockheed want with the pale man? Revenge?

The pale man had promised Justin planes and guns, men, and even a military zep. Where the hell was he getting that equipment? And why was he so willing to give it away? He was risking the wrath of Lockheed, and bringing the entire nation of Hollywood to a boil, not to mention the lives that would be spent in bitter conflict in Alaska. That was a lot of heat for one plane, fancy prototype or not.

"Sure," Paladin said, finally. "I'll find him."

Paladin would find the pale man, all right, but for his own reasons. And one thing is for damn sure, he thought. Before Lockheed or the Hollywood police ever get to talk to this mysterious "pale man," I'm going to have my own question-and-answer session first.

When Paladin learned the truth, nothing—not Lockheed, not the police, not the entire nation of Hollywood—would get in his way of seeing justice done.



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