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Chapter One:
Thicker than Water...

Chapter Two:
White Knight / Black Knight...

Chapter Three:
In the Shadow of the Black

Chapter Four:
Fire in the Hole

Chapter Five:
Midnight's Heart

Chapter Six:
Deadly Reunion

Chapter Seven:
Sugar and Spice and Everything Vice

Chapter Eight:
Cold Justice

Chapter Nine:
The Chicago Connection

Chapter Ten:
The Battle of Midnight's Heart

Chapter Eleven:
The Sky Dreadnought


Paladin Blake

And the Secret City

—From the files of Blake Aviation Security—

By Eric Nylund


Chapter One: Thicker than Water...

Paladin Blake had never had it so good—and had never felt so lousy about it, either.

For more information see:
Paladin Blake

Gray light diffused through his office window; outside was the Santa Monica pier and the roiling Pacific. In another hour the sun would be up, and the citizens of Hollywood would start their day, take the trolleys to work, build planes, and pretend the world had a happy ending like every motion picture churned out by the studios.

For more information see:
The Nation of Hollywood

He flipped on the intercom. "Tennyson, you there?"

"Yes," replied a voice with a British accent, "working up a bit of a surprise on one of our Devastators."

For more information see:
Hughes Devastator

"Surprise? Is there a problem?"

"Everything is under control, my boy. Business as usual, smooth sailing and all that."

"Good." Paladin snapped off the intercom.

Smooth sailing and success were dreams easily bought into. Blake Aviation Security had been out of the red ink for a solid year. Barely. There had been a string of headline-smashing cases—The Phantom Prototype, the Klondike Caper, and the Destruction Island Incident—but good business was the problem.

For more information see:
Blake Aviation Security

He picked up a handful of telegrams from his in-box. There were urgent requests from Empire State bureaucrats and Dixie dignitaries, mission requests from Boeing and Hughes, and three checks wired as payment for his services.

For more information see:
The Empire State; Confederation of Dixie; Hughes Aviation

Paladin glanced at the map of North America covering the west wall of his office. Pushpins and lines of string traced the air lanes protected by Blake Aviation; they crossed and crisscrossed from Seattle to Baja, Cuba to the Maritime Provinces. His business was making sure passengers and airfreight got delivered safely along those lines...and making sure that every pirate got what was coming to them.

For more information see:
The Maritime Provinces

Each line on the map was there because the state militias looked the other way when pirates attacked their competitors, and because there were behind-the-scenes cold wars raging between the tiny empires.

Blake Aviation Security prospered because of it. Paladin would have felt a lot better if there was no need for his protection—indeed, if there was no need for Blake Aviation, at all. The world was falling apart and he was profiting from it. That made him sick to his stomach.

Paladin flipped to the next telegram—and froze as he spotted the sender's address: Matthew Blake, Sky Haven, Free Colorado.

For more information see:
Free Colorado

Paladin dropped the telegram like it was on fire.

Matthew Blake. Paladin thought of his brother as a dead man, and had for the last eight years. Paladin knew Matthew was really alive; it was just easier to pretend he wasn't.

Paladin opened his lower desk drawer and retrieved his bottle of fourteen-year old bourbon. He also pulled out the yellowed photograph of his father sitting on the wing of his plane, pistol in one hand, and in the other, a bottle identical to the one on Paladin's desk.

The picture was snapped on Thanksgiving 1927, when there had still been a Blake family: his father; his brother, Matthew, his sister, Flora; and, of course, Paladin.

The next day pirates shot his father down as the wily old bootlegger flew moonshine across the Colorado-Texas state line—pirates that Paladin had sworn he'd pay back. Every last one of them.

For more information see:
The Republic of Texas

Matthew had his revenge on pirates, too. He took their money and planes, and whenever he could, their lives. He had become a pirate preying upon pirates, until eventually, he took anything from anyone that crossed his path. Now, Matthew was the thing he most hated.

Paladin uncorked the bottle of bourbon and poured a shot. He cradled the glass, warming the liquor until he smelled its smoky aroma.

His mouth watered. It brought back those days when he and Dad and Matthew had flown and fought and drank together. Like it was yesterday. Like it was a million years ago...and when Paladin had been a very different man.

Paladin poured the bourbon back into the bottle, replaced the cork, and then stowed it back in its drawer. Drying out was one of the hardest things Paladin had ever done. He should have poured the last of this booze into the ocean once and for all.

Ironically, his family crest appeared not only on the Blake Aviation Security masthead, but also on the labels of the most infamous brand of bourbon in speakeasies from Hawai'i to Iceland—Matthew still carried on the family tradition of moonshining and bootlegging. Anger burned in Paladin's gut every time he saw the rampant black knight.

"Okay, Matthew," he whispered. "Let's see what you want."

Paladin tore the telegram open and shook out a slip of paper. It read:

DON'T KNOW IF YOU CARE IF I LIVE OR DIE STOP. CORRECTION STOP. SURE YOU PREFER ME DEAD STOP.
SENDING THIS FOR FLORA STOP. OUR SISTER IS NO STRANGER TO TROUBLE STOP. BUT THIS TIME SHE HAS BITTEN OFF MORE THAN SHE CAN CHEW STOP.
MEET ME ALONE STOP. DUSK SATURDAY DURANGO FIELD FREE COLORADO STOP. OR NEVER SEE FLORA AGAIN STOP.
MATT

Flora? What did Matthew mean by "she had bitten off more than she could chew?" Or that he'd never see her again? "So help me," Paladin said through clenched teeth, "if you're using her to get to me—"

—No. Not even Matthew would use Flora. Everyone loved Flora...that was her biggest problem.

Paladin had last heard from her a year ago. She was in Paris, hob-knobbing with the social elite and indulging in equally elite vices; her lifestyle made Dashiell's wild partying seem like a church bake sale in comparison. She had asked Paladin for money. He had wired her five hundred dollars along with a suggestion that she clean up. While he had hoped for the best, he knew the odds were long.

He re-examined the telegram. Today was Saturday—which figured. Leave it to Matthew to cut things close.

Paladin drew his .45 from its hiding place under his desktop, holstered it, then strapped it on. He flicked on the intercom. "Tennyson, get me a plane ready. Pronto."

"Of course," came the reply. "Can I inquire...why the rush?"

"I'm coming over to show you what the rush is."

Paladin hung a "Be Right Back" sign on his office door, and stepped down the zigzag of stairs to the pier. He hurried past the bait stores and the ice cream parlor and the penny arcade to the old cannery warehouse. He unlocked the door and stepped inside.

The interior looked more like the inside of a combat zeppelin than a cannery. The machinery had been removed and a dozen planes hung on hooks from beams over the open water. Crates of bullets and rockets were stacked in a corner. Half a dozen engines on blocks were in various stages of assembly and disassembly.

Paladin's nose wrinkled involuntarily; the place always seemed to reek of tuna.

Blake Aviation Security had leased this building because the rent at the Burbank Airport went up every time Paladin made the headlines. The press and other unsavory types were always watching Paladin and his planes. There had been a few instances of sabotage, too; one such "accident" had nearly ended his career for good.

The cannery had been the perfect solution. Tennyson had seen to the architectural modifications, and designed a floatation chaise for their planes. These pontoons could be released in flight if needed, or left on for a water landing. Their planes were safer here and Blake Aviation could scramble flights at the drop of a hat.

Tennyson set down his wrench and ducked from under the engine compartment of a Devastator. He carefully wiped the grease from his hands on a clean towel. Somehow, Paladin mused as his loyal friend strode to greet him, Tenny never seemed to smudge his coveralls.

"What's the emergency this time, my friend?" he asked Paladin.

Paladin handed him the telegram.

Tennyson stroked his white beard as he read and then re-read the message. "It's a trap, of course," he murmured. "Matthew knows you are a man of character. A man who would not hesitate to charge to Flora's rescue."

"You're right," Paladin said. "But...she's my sister, Tennyson. What would you do? Ignore it?"

"What would I do?" Tennyson pondered this, frowned, and then declared, "Why I would come with you, naturally. Obviously, you'll require a wingman."

Paladin set a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Can't let you do that. Half the people in Colorado wouldn't mind seeing me dead. The other half wouldn't mind killing me."

Tennyson's hands clenched and then relaxed. "Our friend, Dashiell, has started a rather morbid pool wagering when your final mission will occur. I can see he is not too far from the truth." He exhaled. "But if you are determined to meet Matthew's deadline, you must take my Devastator. I have fine-tuned her motor to perfection. She is the fastest plane here—" he arched a bushy white eyebrow "—she has to be, to survive the modifications I have made."

Paladin eyed the plane curiously. "Show me."

Tennyson turned on his heels and marched toward the suspended Devastator. He stood under the aircraft with his arms akimbo. "Tell me what is different."

"I don't have time for a quiz—" But Paladin saw it immediately: all eight of the Devastator's hardpoints were loaded. Two pairs of rockets, however, pointed backwards.

"Ah, you've spotted them," Tennyson said. "The outer set are flash rockets. The inner two are high explosives. Both have a customized fuse that detonates a quarter of a second after launch."

Paladin shook his head with disbelief. "That'll blow off the tail."

"Correct," Tennyson replied. He mounted the ladder next to the Devastator and gestured inside the cockpit. "With one caveat, however."

Paladin climbed after Tennyson saw he pointed at a hand-painted line on the airspeed gauge.

"If you're flying faster than this," Tennyson explained, "there is a very good chance you will outrun the explosion—at least, that's what my calculations indicate. They should make for a nasty surprise to an opponent on your six, don't you think?" Before Paladin could reply, Tennyson continued: "I was going to test the modifications tomorrow, with a flash rocket loaded with a charge of paint."

"Great." Paladin climbed past Tennyson and maneuvered into the cockpit. As he strapped himself in, he said, "I'll let you know how these contraptions work."

"Wait," Tennyson said. He climbed down and trotted to his locker. He returned with his lunch pail. "You need to eat. There is a thermos of English Breakfast tea as well."

"Thanks, old man."

"Just come back in one piece."

"I always try." Paladin fired up the engine and waved to Tennyson as he pulled away the ladder. He closed the canopy then flipped the release—a second of freefall—and the Devastator splashed into the ocean.

"I try," Paladin said to himself, "but it just never works out that way."

Paladin eased the throttle to one-half, and rode over gentle waves until he was a hundred yards from the pier, then he opened her up all the way. The Devastator nosed up and broke free of the ocean. Paladin pulled a lever and dropped the pontoons.

He shot into the sky, pointing the Devastator toward the rising sun.

Flora wasn't the only reason Paladin was going to meet Matthew. Paladin had promised his dead father that he'd get every last pirate in the sky...no matter what it took.

Even if that meant shooting down his own brother.

 


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