Had one of those been Matthew's plane? A sickening heaviness settled in his gut. Paladin pulled back on the stick and banked for another pass.
His radio crackled. "Shooting men on the ground, huh?" It was Matthew's voice. "So the great Paladin Blake isn't the hero the papers say he is. I knew you'd show your true colors."
Paladin didn't bother replying; it had been four-against-one with him on the short end of that deal. He didn't gamble with odds like that...especially when the bet was his life.
He made another pass over Durango Field. He spied the glint of reflected moonlight off the wings of the two remaining Corsairsnow aloft and behind him. Paladin had survived two-on-one dogfights before...but not flying against Matthew.
He pushed the throttle to full, started to bank right, hoping the pirates would follow. Paladin quickly reversed and pulled hard to the left.
Corsairs were notorious for their high engine torquewhich made starboard turns easier, but port turns more difficult. Paladin had, hopefully, bought himself a little maneuvering room.
He glanced back. One of the pirates had fallen for the feint; the enemy pilot broke right and was trying to recover and find Paladin. The other Corsair was still on his tail. That had to be Matt.
Mattwho learned to fly in the Great Warwould never be eloquent with words, or successful with the ladies, but he was a brilliant pilot. He'd shot down five Germans in Europeall of them acesand never had the favor returned. Paladin knew he was outclassed.
"Give it up, brother," Matt said. "Land and I'll let you walk out of herethat's the best offer you'll get from me."
That was a lie. No one crossed Matthew Blake and lived to tell about it.
Paladin dove, weaving back and forth, skimming over the tree line.
Matt was right on his tall.
A burst of .50-caliber fire peppered his Devastator's wing. Paladin pulled up.
The Corsair followedless than a hundred feet behind him and closing.
He was toying with Paladin. Matthew couldn't miss at this range. One machine gun burst or rocket would shred his plane to confetti.
Rocket? Paladin thought, struck with sudden inspiration. He risked a glance at his port wing. It was still there: the tail of Tennyson's aft-facing rocket.
Matthew couldn't miss at this range...but neither could Paladin. He squeezed the trigger, twice fast.
The number one rocket launched forward as expected. The second rocket's control flashed brightly, forcing Paladin to look away. A few seconds later, Paladin saw the blue-white starburst of the rocket's detonation.
Bits of metal pinged off his canopy as Paladin pulled into a step climb. His Devastator shuddered; the tip of his port wing was gone, still smoldering where the rocket had ripped away the hardpoint.
He inverted and looked for his brother. Matthew's plane was far below...trailing smoke and fire, but still aloft.
The Corsair banked, slowly climbed, and headed southwest.
Paladin began to dive towards his brother. His Devastator's canopystarred by bullet holesexploded inward, and bits of glass slashed his cheek. Paladin looked about wildly and saw tracers spitting from the other Corsair at nine o'clock.
He ignored Matthew, righted the Devastator, and headed toward the immediate threat.
The Corsair turned to face him. A head-to-head attack? Paladin's Devastator was outgunned against the Corsair's .50-calibers. He couldn't out-shoot him; he'd have to out-fly him.
Paladin cut the throttle to half and let the Corsair close. A half-mile out, it opened fire.
Stupid. Matthew was a pilot of unparalleled cunning, but he apparently hadn't passed any of that skill on to his wingmen.
Paladin pulled back, started to climb, then cut the throttle. He stalled and dropped like a rockhe fought the stick to keep the nose pointed straight up. The Corsair rushed over him. Paladin rammed the throttle to full power; the engine roared to life, and slowed his fall.
He fired rocket number three. A trail of smoke connected the two planesfollowed by a brilliant flash as the rocket impacted on the Corsair's undercarriage. The Corsair's port wingsevered at the fuselagefluttered away in freefall. What was left of the Corsair plummeted to the ground.
Paladin quickly shoved the stick forward, sending his plane into a shallow dive before leveling offanother few seconds and his unconventional maneuver would have been unrecoverable.
He exhaled, trying to relax. The fight wasn't over. He still had to deal with Matthew.
He nosed his plane south, and followed the stream of black smoke from his brother's plane.
The remaining Corsair attempted to evade as best as it could, trying not to let Paladin's line up on his six. Matthew wasn't going anywhere, though. A smear of oil fanned out from his plane's nose and along the wing.
Paladin cut his throttle back to a quarter power and easily caught up.
Matt's voice crackled over the radio. "Nice trick with the rocket, little brother," he chuckled and coughed. "You did it. You got me." There was a burst of static, then, "Now you're going have to finish me, too. You're not taking me in alive."
Paladin clicked off his radio, and then dropped behind the Corsair.
He had to take him out. If he didn't, Matthew would keep bootlegging...and worse, he would keep killing. He was just another pirate that had to be shot down, or every death Matthew caused from now on would be on Paladin's conscience, too.
Paladin's squinted, lining up his shot.
His finger tightened on the trigger
then, reluctantly, relaxed.
What was the matter with him? Was it because he had used Tennyson trick rocket to take Matthew out? No. Fairness in dogfights was a luxury Paladin could rarely afford.
Matthew would have shot Paladin down if their positions were switched. Paladin couldn't bring himself to shoot, though. Maybe that was the biggest difference between them. And Matt, like it or not, was his brother. Like Flora, Matthew was a part of himno matter what kind of man he was.
Paladin flicked on the radio. "Get out of here," he said. "I'll get back to you soon enough." He broke off, opened the throttle to three quarters, and banked east, towards New Orleans. "I've got better things to do right now. Like save our little sister."
Paladin cradled his coffee and stared at his black reflection at the bottom of the cup. He had gotten nowhere fast. It had been twenty-four hours since he landed at Pontchartrain Aerodrome. Since landing, he had canvassed the city searching for Floraand her new smuggler friends.
He had rented a room, cleaned up and bought a suit, and then hit the high-class joints: Four Aces, Bourbon Beach, and King's Retreat. His questions about importers only got him leads on a legitimate French textile manufacturer and an invitation to the Banker's Cotillion.
His luck changed as he worked his way down the lists of reputable bars and jazz clubs to places like Furious Fists, The One-Legged Dog, and Le Petit Scandal, establishments where the bouncers frisked everyone as they entered and handed out receipts for confiscated sidearms.
Paladin got plenty of leads on importers, illegal and otherwise, especially since he was buying drinks for those talking...until he mentioned the name Matt gave him, "Derspins." When Paladin dropped the name, the flow of information vanished like water into sand.
Whoever this guy is, Paladin thought, he values his privacy.
He had stopped on his way back to the hotel for coffee at a tiny bar called Officer's Roost located atop a three-story colonel on Cataouatche Avenue. The interior was decorated with polished copper and brass ship fixtures and had open balconies overlooking the Mississippi with a view beyond of the brightly canopied storefronts and gas lanterns of Jefferson Heights. An occasional barge drifted by on the river, almost serene if you ignored the anti-aircraft guns mounted on their prows.
"More coffee?" The bartender refilled Paladin's cup before he could reply. He was in his in mid-sixties, had a slight Creole accent, and a slick of long black hair streaked gray. He jerked his head to the back of the bar, "Or would monsieur prefer something stronger?"
"No, I don't" Among the rainbow colors of aperitifs, brandy, and bourbon decanters behind the bar, Paladin spotted two bottles of Dark Knight whiskey. That threw him for a moment, remembering Matthew and his sister and how much trouble they were. "No," he said. "Thanks all the same."
The bartender followed Paladin's gaze. "You have a taste for the best." He retrieved the square-bottomed bottle. "This is my personal favorite as well, particularly the rather elegant smoky aftertaste. But almost to expensive to keep in stock, non?"
"I don't see why." Paladin said and took a sip of his coffee. "That quart cost thirty cents to make. Even if it got marked up for a tidy profit you still shouldn't pay more than two or three dollars for it."
"Mon Dieu!" The bartender leaned closer. "If you can get a bottle for that price, I would very much be interested."
A new angle to the search for Flora dawned on Paladin. He had been looking for these smuggler friends of hers by asking questions, by playing at being a cop. That wasn't working...so maybe he could make them come to him. Or at least meet him half way.
And the best way to make a smuggler come to you was with a high profit margin.
Paladin asked, "What do you pay?"
"Twenty-five francs, gold standard, when such a bottle can be found. It is very popular." The bartender then leaned even further across the bar top and whispered conspiratorially, "You said you could find such a fine whiskey for three dollars a bottle?"
"I should say so." Paladin smiled. "I make the stuff."
The bartender raised one eyebrow and examined label on the bottle. Matthew's name was there, listed as chief refiner and president of the "company."
"Monsieur Blake? Matthew Blake?"
There was an element of risk to this. Anyone who knew Matt would not only see that Paladin was an imposter, but they might see enough family resemblance to figure out who he really was.
On the other hand, if Black Knight whiskey was so rare in New Orleans, it was unlikely Matthew was bootlegging here. Anyone running booze from Free Colorado would have to circumnavigate Texas and the Rangers...something even Matthew would think twice about doing.