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Chapter One:
Thicker than Water...

Chapter Two:
White Knight / Black Knight...

Chapter Three:
In the Shadow of the Black Knight

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 Four: Fire in the Hole

Paladin Blake fired the twin sixty-calibers; the jarring kickback nearly rattled the teeth out of his head. He swiveled the guns to track the incoming Devastator as it strafed the Aegis. The nimble plane twisted and turned and tried to shake him.

For more information see:
Paladin Blake; Hughes Devastator

"Not today," Paladin said through gritted teeth. He tore into the Devastator's black wings and shredded the bat-winged Jolly Roger insignia.

From the machinegun nest he watched the flaming wreckage plummet to the mountains below. He turned and looked up and down and then side to side. No point in listening for incoming planes—the drone of the 600 horsepower Aereodyne engine he was practically standing on drowned out everything.

The skies looked all clear. They'd been lucky. The Blood-drinker gang had caught them by surprise, dropped out of the clouds and had them surrounded before Paladin could launch a single plane from the Aegis. Good thing she was no ordinary zeppelin. The Aegis carried enough armor plate for a battleship, had twin sixties protecting each engine nacelle, and well-armored rocket launchers (a trick he had learned from a Unionist group during the "Phantom Prototype" case) sat next to her seven-inch broadside cannons.

He should have stayed at the helm of the zeppelin when the Blood-drinkers ambushed them—instead he had climbed out here, asking to catch a bullet. But he was leading his men and women into the heart of lawless Free Colorado territory, getting them to fight a battle that should have been a family matter. Risking life and limb was the least he owed them.

For more information see:
Free Colorado

Paladin turned toward the hatch, but had to pause to admire the view. Hanging off a zep at five thousand feet, skimming the edge of snow-covered mountains wasn't something he did every day.

Along the spine of the Rockies, clouds had caught on the peaks. The icecaps thickened in spots, and compressed into glacier flows. To the east were the rolling green hills of Texas, and to the west, mesas and desert that stretched all the way to the Pacific and his Santa Monica office.

For more information see:
The Republic of Texas

He'd flown straight back there from New Orleans, ordered Tennyson to prep the Aegis and removed all BAS insignia from her, and then assembled an all-volunteer crew.

For more information see:
Blake Aviation Security

Paladin unclipped his safety harness, opened the hatch, and climbed back inside—down the ladder, then across the catwalk. Inside the cavernous belly of the zeppelin, his crew prepared the squadron of Furys and the tiny Ford Hoplite Autogyros.

For more information see:
Curtiss-Wright Fury

Tennyson caught up with him in the corridor to this cabin. His bushy white eyebrows furrowed over his eyes. "I wish you would let me launch a fighter escort," he whispered. "We should at least scout the area."

"Not this time, Tenny." Paladin entered his cabin; he held the door open for his old friend, then closed it behind them.

The room was spartan: a bunk bed, the lower half full of radio equipment; a sturdy desk bolted to the floor; one wall covered with a map of North America and shelves of rolled up aerial charts.

Paladin keyed the intercom to the bridge. "Reduce speed to one-quarter. Move in nice and easy."

"Aye Aye, Mister Blake."

Paladin turned to Tennyson. "I agree the Aegis is vulnerable. We should send out scouts...but we're near the distillery. The less noise we make from here on, the better."

Tennyson leaned against the bunk and crossed his arms. "That is not what I meant. The Aegis can take care of herself. It is you I am worried about. You have a crew of twenty-seven. You, personally, should not be taking all the risks."

"This time I have to," Paladin replied "None of you should even be here, let alone sticking your necks out."

Tennyson leaned forward, setting his hand on the desk. "We trust you. We want to help. You wouldn't place any of us in danger unless there was good cause."

Paladin wondered how good this cause was. Rescuing his sister, despite the fact that she didn't want to be rescued, was a worthy thing...it was just the way he had to do it that bothered him. Dealing with Matthew—and a host of bootleggers, pirates, thieves, and smugglers—was bad enough; posing as one of their ilk was a bitter pill to swallow. He would have preferred a stand up fight.

Paladin retrieved a map from the shelf and spread it out. It was hand-drawn, with yellowed edges, and was covered with the secret symbol language of the Rocky Mountain moonshiners. Cryptic code names dotted the map, places with names like "Fire-water Glacier" and "Poison Tasters Hot Springs" and "Ghost Whispering Canyon."

"The distillery is here." Paladin indicated a blank spot on the map near a place named Knifeback Ridge. "We'll get the Aegis close to this peak, and I'll chute down. If the weather holds, I'll take an hour to cross the glacier on foot. Get the autogyros ready. When I need them I'll fire the flare gun—then give me five minutes before you charge in guns blazing."

"It has been more than a decade since you were there." Tennyson stroked his white beard as he considered the location of the distillery. "Matthew could have moved your family's operation."

Paladin inwardly winced at the Tennyson's choice of words: "Family operation." The distillery had been there as long as anyone could remember. It had supplied hooch to Confederate troops in the Civil War; Paladin's Father won the place in a poker game and Matthew had inherited it when he died...and now Paladin was going to take it away from him.

"It's there," Paladin said. "They use the runoff water from the glacier; nothing tastes quite like it."

"And Matthew?"

"When I catch up with him—" Paladin opened his desk drawer, and removed his pair of .45s. "—I'll make sure he gets what he deserves."

Paladin trudged over the rock-strewn icy summit. The snow pack was neither too slushy nor too hard—he still half skied, half slipped down the mountainside on his descent.

The wind whipped around his parka as he crawled to the edge of the cliff and gazed through his binoculars. He spotted saw a thin wisp of steam rising from the face. He couldn't see it, but he knew hidden in the shadows was the cavern entrance. He squinted and saw something new: a wooden platform, cobbled onto the rock face, just large enough for a single autogyro.

There was no autogyro there, but there was a man sitting on a stool, reading a book, a rifle in his lap.

Paladin thumbed the focus back and forth to get a better look. The man had leathery skin, stringy gray hair and a long handlebar mustache. Jeremiah Grimson. He'd been up here when Paladin had first come to this place with his Dad, fifteen years ago.

Paladin couldn't shoot at him. First, he didn't fire on unsuspecting old men, though he had few illusions that Grimson would return that favor. Second, at this range he'd likely miss; the sound would certainly bring everyone out of that hole—which Paladin wanted to avoid...for the moment, at least.

There had to be another way. Paladin donned his goggles and picked his way down the rough trail that led to the platform. He affected a limp, then waved his hands and called, "Hey, Grim!"

The old man was so started he nearly fell off the stool. He shielded his eyes to see through the glare reflecting off the snow, and then he raised his rifle.

"Come on," Paladin said like he was an old friend. "Help a feller out."

Grim started forward. He stopped a dozen paces away for Paladin, still squinting and looking unsure. "Hold it right there, partner."

"I twisted this knee real good, Grim. I could use a hand."

Concern creased the old timer's brow. He slung the rifle and ambled over to Paladin.

Paladin stood up straight. "Remember me?"

The old man's eyes widened in surprise. "Youngun' Blake." He smiled but it quickly evaporated. "Matthew's madder than a stepped-on rattlesnake over what you did." He brought up his gun.

Paladin's uppercut caught Grimson under his chin, lifted him off the ground and sent him skidding along the trail. "Sorry, old timer. No time for tearful reunions." He dragged the old man up the path, and out of sight.

Paladin raised the flare gun and fired it. There was a dull "whoomp" and a star rose into the air, arced, and burned out. Five minutes until the cavalry rode in.

He trotted to the cavern entrance. A set of rickety wooden stairs spiraled into the darkness. He started down them. There was a strong breeze flowing out, carrying with it smells of Aspen smoke and sweet fermenting corn mash—so pungent it made his eyes water.

The stairs ended and Paladin hunkered down under them, letting his vision adjust to the dim light of flickering lanterns.

He was in a dome-shaped chamber three hundred feet across; stalactite and stalagmite teeth punctuated the ceiling and floor. A fire pit blazed in the center with dozens of closed copper kettles, each bigger than a bathtub, bubbling away. Rail tracks ran to and from the room. There were bunks for ten men. Shadowy figures stirred the pots, pushed squeaky carts, and talked in hushed whispers.

Paladin remembered the place, but didn't recall it being such a big operation. In his prime, his father only had four small stills.

He crouched against the wall and eased through the shadows to the back of the chamber, through a long tunnel, and emerged in a second vaulted chamber. No one here. There were, however, a hundred oak barrels stacked atop one another. This is where the bourbon aged, three years at least—but for special releases there were barrels in the back that hadn't been tapped since the turn of the century.

Paladin moved on, his .45s drawn. The tunnel twisted; he paused and listened, but heard nothing save the dripping of water. He rounded the corner and stopped short. The tunnel he remembered had been excavated since he was last here. The tunnel had, long ago, tapered into a rathole; now, it stretched two stories high, and ran a hundred feet to a dead end. Along both walls, stacked and packed all the way to the ceiling, were crates stamped with the Black Knight logo....not the three hundred crates he had hoped would be here—but closer to three thousand.

Matthew had been busy. And, Paladin thought with a suppressed grin, Matt had been stupid to retain so much stock. It was ironic that Paladin had been the one to find a solution to his distribution problem...and doubly ironic that Matthew had been so close to discovering that his contacts in New Orleans could have been his ticket to the big time.

But that was about to end for good.

Paladin glanced at his watch. Time was up. He walked back to the main room, crouched in the shadows, and waited.

The sound of autogyros started as a distant buzz, then became a purr that filed the cavern, echoed and reverberated off the walls. The shadowy figures working on the "production floor" stopped, then ran toward the cavern's entrance.

Paladin walked through the chamber, making sure everyone had left, then followed them up the stairs.

Six men stood at the mouth of the tunnel. "That's not Matt's bird," one of them said. "Who are they?"

"Shoot 'em when they land and we'll sort it out later," another bootlegger replied "Where'd that old buzzard Grim get to, anyway?"

"Hold it!" Paladin yelled. "One move and I'll drop all of you."

The pirates, startled by the shout from behind them, whirled around and leveled their guns at him. When they saw Paladin, alone and armed only with pistols, they relaxed. The group's leader smiled with false cheerfulness. "You better go on and drop those pistols, son. You're outgunned."

Paladin put two fingers to his lips and whistled loudly. In response, a dozen of Paladin's men, led by Tennyson, rushed into the tunnel's entrance, shotguns, pistols and Tommy guns at the ready.

"Not the way I count it," Paladin said.

Paladin took three hundred cases of Black Knight Bourbon and loaded them onto the Aegis. Not a drop more.

The moonshiners had told him that Matthew was in Aspen, getting a busted leg fixed. If Matt had been here, Paladin was sure only one of the Blake brothers would have walked away alive.

He ordered his crew back to the Aegis. Only Tennyson remained in "Bumblebee," his customized Hoplite, perched on the landing platform.

Paladin opened the autogyro's door, and Tennyson handed him the fire axe he had requested.

"I would ask if you are sure about this," Tennyson said, "but you are always sure, aren't you?"

Paladin took the axe and hefted it.

"A man cannot escape his past," Tennyson told him.

"Maybe not...but a man can make a few good dents in it." Paladin gave his friend a wry smile. "Get the 'Bee running. We'll need to take off pretty quick."

Tennyson nodded and started the Hoplite's engine.

Paladin descended the stairs, past the boiler room, through the barrel chamber, and halted in the tunnel lined with cases of Black Knight Bourbon.

He swung the axe, cracked a case and let the liquor and broken glass spill on to the floor. He swung again, busted open another, then another, and he didn't stop until his shoulders were stiff, the walls of crates lay in ruin, and he stood ankle deep in liquor. The smell was overpowering. Paladin was drenched in sweat and alcohol. He tasted bourbon and salt on his lips.

Paladin sloshed into the barrel chamber, toppled them all and sent waves of bourbon splashing onto the floor.

Paladin took a long look at the place. He remembered when he—along with his father and his brother—had ground corn here, simmered the stuff, and gotten drunk. But the booze had killed his father. It had turned Matthew into a monster. And maybe it had turned Paladin into what he was, too.

He backed into the boiler room and retrieved a lantern from the wall. He threw the lantern against the far wall; it shattered and burning oil seeped over the rock...toward the lake of bourbon in the tunnel.

Paladin ran. He took the stairs four at a time, bounded onto the platform and into the cockpit with Tennyson.

"Go!" he shouted.

Bumblebee lifted, turned once, and rose into the air.

Flames mushroomed from the mouth of the cavern. Paladin felt the dull thumping explosions within the mountain. Dribbles appeared from the cracks and faults in the cliff face; the liquor ignited and sent plumes of smoke skyward. Bourbon gushed from the rock, as thirty years of stock drained from the caverns—cascading down the mountainside in waterfalls of fire.

They watched it burn for several minutes, then Tennyson asked, "What now?"

"New Orleans," Paladin said. "We've got our calling card. We meet this die Spinne gang...and then we get Flora."

 


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