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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 back to "The Case of the Phantom Prototype," a recounting of an early adventure of Paladin Blake. Before he was a captain of industry, the prince of the aviation security business, he was a down-on-his luck pilot, struggling to make ends meet.

That all changed when he was hired by Lockheed to transport a prototype plane to a secret test facility in the Hollywood desert. Instead of a simple delivery run, Blake has tangled with pirates, thieves and traitors.

In the last episode, the mysterious Peter Justin—the shady head of Lockheed security—died, after being exposed as the driving force behind the plot to steal a new, secret plane prototype.

But was Justin acting on his own? Paladin Blake—and Lockheed—believe otherwise. Lockheed has paid Blake Aviation Security a king's ransom to uncover the true mastermind of the plot, a mysterious individual that Blake only knows as "the pale man."

Now, Blake must rely on his wits and cunning to locate a man who is little more than a ghost, a shadow in the skies…

—Nero MacLeon

Senior Editor, Air Action Weekly Press

The Case of the Phantom Prototype

- A Paladin Blake Adventure! -

By Eric Nylund

Chapter Nine: Chasing Shadows

Blake stepped under the police tape sealing the threshold of Peter Justin's apartment. The place was a shambles. The Hollywood cops had given the place a thorough going-over: a sofa was overturned, its stuffing ripped out and strewn about the small living room; yellowed photographs of Russian farmers and the spires of Saint Peter's Cathedral had been pulled off the walls; potted cactuses that had once rested on the window sill had been uprooted and their sandy soil scattered.

For more information see:
The Nation of Hollywood

Fortunately, the police were done with the place. Not that they had found a clue. Paladin had been reluctantly given permission—after a few well-placed phone calls from Lockheed—to look the apartment over.

For more information see:

Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the panes of the window, casting four clean squares of illumination that seemed far too orderly when projected onto the chaos.

"Amateurs," Paladin muttered and gingerly placed the prone cactuses into their pots.

Peter Justin had run a clandestine operation past his own security at Lockheed for weeks, maybe even months. Did Detective Slaughouser and his crew think he'd be stupid enough to hide anything of value here? The cops were looking for obvious signs of criminal activity: stolen goods, wads of cash, incriminating photos, and the like.

The cops were way off target, though. Justin was too subtle—and too smart—to just leave damning evidence lying around his apartment.

Peering out the second story window, Paladin saw La Cienega Boulevard below and the trolley station across the street. The place must get noisy in the morning with all the cars rolling in and out on the track. Justin made a bundle of cash as a Lockheed executive. So why live in this crummy neighborhood?

Paladin stepped into the bedroom, cringing at the pants, shirts and sheets that looked like they had been through a tornado. There were slashes in the mattress and handfuls of wadding had been scattered haphazardly around the room. Part of the wrought iron headboard had been unscrewed.

He spied the gleam of gold in the corner and moved closer. A picture of the Virgin Mary, framed in gold-leafed scrollwork, had been overturned.

Nearby, a dozen jelly jars holding candles were toppled over, too, but were remarkably intact. Their wicks had been recently trimmed and soot marks on the glass had been wiped clean. One of the jars, however, had heavy dribbles of red wax on its side as though it had been tipped over while still lit.

It was nothing; still… it struck Paladin as oddly out of place.

Peter Justin, with his fastidious habits and immaculately tailored suits, would have kept this place as neat as a pin. So what was one candle doing with this dribbling of wax? Maybe because he had done something so fast that he had forgotten—or hadn't had time—to clean up?

Most likely, it was just meaningless wax.

Paladin started back toward the living room, stopped, and on a whim ran his hand over the back panel of the picture. Smooth wood grain. He brushed across the front. It was smooth, too—no, not quite. A tiny scar of slick candle wax marred the otherwise glassy surface, obscured from casual observation by the glitter of gold leaf and lacquer.

He tilted the picture in the light and saw a faint wax imprint: a circle with a stem. The circle had reversed numbers printed on it, L9879. The stem had a jagged side...the outline of a key.

Paladin reached into his pocket. This was a long shot, but he had lifted a signet ring and a key from the pale man's zeppelin. The key he had pilfered from the pirates, while similar in shape, had no numbers.

"If you want to live," a female voice behind Paladin announced, "just keep your hand in your pocket."

Paladin froze when he heard the cold, metallic ratcheting of a pistol's hammer locking in place.

He slowly stood, and turned—keeping his hand in his pocket.

A woman stood in the bedroom doorway. She wore a Colorado Zephyrs baseball cap, a flight jacket zipped to her breastbone, and loose pants that were tucked into a pair of shiny, knee-high boots. Waves of red hair had been tucked into her cap. Her black-gloved hands steadily held a massive .45 revolver.

Her exposed collar bore the swirls and traces of flames…tattooed flames. Paladin knew her face instantly, a face that had been on several wanted posters in Hollywood, Texas and Utah: Lady Kali, cutthroat mercenary in the employ of the pale man. Paladin had last seen her at the pale man's desert base, when she had almost shot him down.

For more information see:
The Republic of Texas, Utah

"You have one hand free," she said. "Use it to open the left side of your coat. No sudden moves, please,"—she smiled—"since it would be a shame to shoot such a handsome specimen." Her smile, however, hardened into a line of clenched teeth and Paladin saw a few of those teeth had been filed to points.

Paladin opened his coat, revealing his holster, the butt of his .38 revolver and his handcuffs.

"Use two fingers," she ordered him, "and place the gun and cuffs on the floor, then kick them here." Her eyes were dark and they didn't waver from his for a second.

Paladin complied.

"Your wallet next. Toss it to me."

Did she recognize him? Then again, why should she? She may have only gotten a glance of his filthy face at the pale man's military outpost. And he had been wearing a dirty coverall then, not his gray Brooks Brothers suit. He fished out his wallet and tossed it to her.

Lady Kali didn't try to catch it. She let it fall at her boots. "Turn around," she said.

Paladin wasn't about to rush a confirmed killer with a gun pointed at his heart...but he wondered if he'd get it in the back and die facing Justin's little shrine to the Madonna.

"Blake?" she said. "Never heard of you. Let me see your face again."

Paladin exhaled and turned around. Every day he wished Blake Aviation Security was big enough to scare pirates out of the skies from here to the Empire State. This once, though, the tiny stature of his company was a blessing.

"You're no cop," she said looking him up and down appraisingly. "No badge. No cheap suit. So what's with the bracelets? And what are you doing here?"

Paladin carefully removed his hand from his pocket. "Mind if I sit?" He nodded to the torn mattress.

"Go ahead," she replied, and she lowered her aim a notch from his heart to his stomach.

What was she doing in here? Could Lady Kali and Justin have been friends? That didn't figure; Justin wouldn't endanger his patriotic operation by fraternizing with the hired help. Nor would the pale man trust a mercenary with sensitive reconnaissance work. That left only one reason for the deadly aviatrix's presence: cash.

"I'm a private investigator," Paladin told her. "Did a little pavement pounding for Justin."

That wasn't too far from the truth. Lady Kali must have sensed that because she lowered her gun, then sighed, and stuck it in her belt. "Did he stiff you, too?" she asked.

"It was all nice and professional for awhile, wasn't it?" Paladin said. "But things apparently went to hell in the desert and everyone disappeared or suddenly developed amnesia...at least as far as my payment is concerned. All I ended up with is a measly retainer and more bills than I can cover."

She chewed on her lower lip, thinking, then said, "Maybe we can help one another." She dug a packet of cigarettes from her leather jacket and offered one to Paladin. He took it and she lit it for him. "You're the detective; where do you figure the pale man is?"

The question threw Paladin for a heartbeat. She didn't know?

"And what do I paid get for my services?" he inquired.

"Why, Blake," she said and batted her eyes, "you get to live." Her pointed smile returned. "And maybe if you tell me something I like, I can sweeten that deal a bit."

Paladin eased back with all the nonchalance he could muster. "It's like this: Justin paid me to follow up on rumors that Lockheed was missing some expensive experimental equipment. After a while I figure he's the one that grabbed the stuff and just wants me to cover his tracks. I have no problem with that. All part of the business—if you get my meaning."

Lady Kali nodded and sat on the mattress, not too close, but not too far away from him either. Apparently she was more at ease with one of her own kind.

Paladin was momentarily distracted by her scent: lilacs mixed with aviation fuel. He shook his head to regain his composure, though he was sure that Lady Kali had seen his momentary lapse...and was amused by it.

"The last thing I heard from Justin was that there was a problem with the prototype. He flew off to Lockheed's base near Palm Springs." Paladin shrugged. "Later, I got word that he bought the farm in some air crash. The police came up here for a visit; the housekeeping is their handiwork, not mine, by the way. After they left, I, er, let myself in to see what they missed. Next thing I know," he added, "a beautiful woman with a gun shows up."

Lady Kali drew on her cigarette and blew a perfect ring. "And?"

"And nothing. I've laid my cards on the table. Now its your turn. Tell me what you know and I might be about to track down the pale man. If he was paying Justin, then maybe we can both collect."

Lady Kali shifted and stared at Paladin. Her jaw clenched, then she relaxed, and draped an arm over the wrought iron headboard. "OK, Blake. I'll take a chance on a pretty face." Her eyes narrowed to smoldering slits. "Cross me, though, and it'll be your last mistake."

"I figured as much." Paladin looked away from her and pretended to examine the burning tip of his untouched cigarette.

"The pale man," she finally whispered. "He had something big planned. Not the Lockheed prototype—that was just one of his small-time operations leading up to something big...really big. This guy has three zeppelins, eight squadrons of planes, mechanics, and enough ammunition to start a small war. Only, he's cagey, walking on eggshells every step of the way. Doesn't make too much sense, does it?"

"Maybe. Maybe not. So what happened to these big plans?"

"What happened?" Her eyebrows shot up. "Someone took off with the prototype, and the pale man started grousing about a rat in his ranks. He ditched us when we touched down in Free Colorado. I barely had enough cash to get back here. It's a good thing Justin's dead or I would have killed him myself."

"I see," Paladin said—not seeing much of the big picture at all.

"Here." Lady Kali flipped open the cylinder of Paladin's revolver and dumped the bullets into her palm. "If we're going to be partners, you might as well have this back." She handed the gun to Paladin.

"Thanks," Paladin said and stuck it in his holster. "The cuffs, too, please?"

She twirled them once around her index finger. "What are you going to use them for?" Her smile—part seductive, part predatory—gave Paladin the chills.

"You'll see." He mirrored her leer and leaned closer—near enough to feel the heat from her face upon his.

"Mm. I can see you're taking this partnership seriously," she murmured, her hands moving towards his face, her eyes closing, her lips parting—

—until Paladin snatched the handcuffs from her.

With a catlike move, he snapped one shackle on her wrist. He slapped the other around the iron post of the bed frame. His free hand grabbed the gun from her belt.

Lady Kali let out a strangled scream and lunged for him. She was fast, with the reflexes of a seasoned combat pilot; Paladin barely avoided the brunt of her attack—but not before she landed a sharp blow on his shoulder.

Paladin aimed her gun at her chest. "I appreciate that a mercenary like you wants to get paid, but I want the pale man for my own reason, Lady Kali. A reason that pirate scum like you will never understand."

"What reason?" she spat, still struggling with her restraints.

Paladin backed into the corner near the Madonna icon. He carefully confirmed the backward number in the wax impression, L9879, then scratched it off.

He kept the gun trained on Lady Kali as he edged out of the bedroom. "Justice," he said. "Get warmed up to the concept. You're going to get a taste of some Hollywood justice after I call the cops."

Paladin left the apartment building, ignoring Lady Kali's screamed obscenities as he crossed La Cienega Boulevard and entered the trolley terminal.

He took out the key he had lifted from the pale man's zeppelin. It looked like it matched the imprint in Justin's picture, though the serial number had since been filed off.

There was, Blake mused, a good reason for Justin to live in this crummy neighborhood after all. It was a perfect transfer point, a place where information could be anonymously exchanged at a moment's notice. No one down here paid any attention to the activities of others. People who noticed too much or were seen talking to the cops tended to meet sudden—and nasty—ends.

Justin could also watch all the comings and goings in the neighborhood—just in case someone tried to engineer a double-cross.

Paladin strolled into the terminal lobby, his shoes clicking across the well-worn terracotta tiles. He took a left, passed the cafeteria, and found a wall of lockers. A dime rented you a breadbox-sized container. It was a nice hiding spot, if, for example, you had something you didn't want the cops to find...or you needed to move secrets between two parties.

He stopped at locker L9879.

Paladin took his pilfered key and smoothly slid it into the lock. It clicked open.

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