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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 Six: Deadly Reunion

Three Furies rose in a V-formation behind Paladin's autogyro. His first instinct was to dive—but he checked his hand on the stick. He wasn't outmaneuvering anything with a Hoplite loaded to the gills with bourbon—and a single round from one of those Furies would turn him into a fireball.

For more information see:
Curtiss-Wright J2 Fury; Paladin Blake

"Allow me to handle this," Jacques said. He adjusted the radio frequency and spoke into the microphone in rapid-fire Creole. He smiled and nervously glanced over his shoulder.

After a pause, a voice bristling with static gave a terse reply in French.

"They are allowing us to land." Jacques sighed and slumped into his seat. "See, Monsieur? Nothing to worry about."

"Sure," Paladin muttered. There were several more planes in the air now, squadrons of Devastators and Brigands circling the island like vultures. "Nothing at all."

For more information see:
Hughes Devastator; Fairchild Brigand

The Furies pulled ahead, banked, and descended toward the island: "Le Coeur du Minuit"—"Midnight's Heart" Jacques had called it. Paladin was no stranger to trouble—but infiltrating this secret pirate city this was more than just trouble; he was stepping into a pit of vipers.

"I hope you know what you're doing, Jacques." Paladin noted the radio frequency he had used, then spun the dial back to Tennyson's channel. "Follow me in, Tennessee." He set down the microphone and said to himself, "I hope I know what I'm doing."

Paladin banked his Hoplite and trailed behind their escorts, skimming over the waves breaking on the beach below.

The island was a square-mile of worn hills, swampy farms, and mudflat shores. The place looked bigger, though, because of the piers that stretched into Gulf of Mexico. There were roads switchbacking up the slopes, and a host of four-story Spanish haciendas. Most of the buildings were decorated with flashing signs—diamonds, spades, hourglass-shaped feminine figures. "CASINO," and "FREE BEER," and "GIRLS" blinked and sparked across trashy neon advertisements as far as the eye could see.

Hardly a "secret" pirate city. Then again, with the swarms of planes patrolling the place and those anti-aircraft guns on the hilltops, maybe they weren't afraid of being conspicuous.

Paladin's escorts dipped and buzzed an airport runway—his cue to land.

He touched down and noted the aerodromes silhouetted against the dusk...as well as the outlines of a dozen tethered zeppelins.

One of the zeps had a distinctive pointed nose; Paladin recognized her: the Commerce from the I.S.A. Like his own zeppelin, the Aegis, she was armed to the teeth and had a reputation for blasting any unfriendlies that came too near her.

For more information see:
The Industrial States of America

The Commerce's presence came as a jolt to Paladin; it would take a very tough pirate gang to swipe such a dreanought. Funny he hadn't heard about it , though he had been out of touch for the last week. The states could have reunited and he would have missed it.

Paladin spied something else out of the ordinary: a squadron of German-made Hellhounds sat parked in neat rows alongside the zeppelin. What were the German planes doing so far from home? The plane had only debuted a couple of years ago, and was a rare sight in North America. They were expensive to import, and even more expensive to maintain without parts being regularly shipped from Stuttgart.

"Over there." Jacques indicated a hanger. "We can secure our cargo."

Paladin noted that his bourbon had suddenly become "ours." He taxied through the open hangar doors and killed the Hoplite's engine.

There were three beat-up Devastators and a Warhawk parked there as well. The Warhawk bristled with rockets—all her hardpoints were laden with high explosives and beeper-seekers, with two more racks welded on the top of her wings, too.

For more information see:
Hughes Devastator; P2 Warhawk; Beeper Rockets

Paladin knew this plane without having to look at the name stenciled across her nose.

Tennyson climbed out of his Hoplite—stopped short when he spotted the plane, then briskly walked to Paladin, concern wrinkling his brow. "Isn't that 'Cold Justice?'" he quietly asked. "I thought you shot it down six months ago."

"So did I," Paladin whispered back. "I never saw it crash, though."

"We will pay a call on our new friends," Jacques said as he climbed out of the autogyro. "We're just leaving my bourbon here?"

"Of course, Monsieur. It is under Die Spinnes' protection. No one will dare touch it."

No one but Die Spinne, Paladin thought. What was going to stop them from taking it? "This island is theirs?" he asked Jacques.

"In a matter of speaking." Jacques smoothed out his recently waxed moustache. "It is...on loan from the Louisiana government." He looked about, and spotted a call box in the corner of the hanger. "Pardon me, I will call a taxi."

For more information see:
French Louisiana

Tennyson whispered, "These pirates must pay a pretty penny for this place."

Paladin nodded. "Worth it, though, if the French foreign legions garrisoned in New Orleans keep Dixie and Texas away...and it makes sense for the French Louisiana government to keep the pirate's happy. It'll keep them from signing on as privateers for Dixie or Texas. It's a smart set up."

For more information see:
Confederation of Dixie; Republic of Texas

Jacques returned and fished three bottles of bourbon from the autogyro's hold. "They are sending a car from the tower. It will only be a moment."

A tall man sauntered into the hanger. He wore greasy coveralls and a gun-belt with two ivory-handled Colt revolvers. Scars raked down the left side of his face where he was missing an eye. He removed his smoldering cigarette from his leathery lips and did a double take at Paladin and Tennyson.

Paladin knew him—Cold Justice's pilot, "the Judge." He'd taken the law into his own hands and killed a dozen men and woman during the Texas-Oklahoma riots...most of them innocents who had simply gotten in the Judge's way. Paladin tried to act nonchalant, even though his heart raced and his hand now rested on his .45.

The Judge's eye darted between Paladin and Tennyson, then briefly to Jacques. He then tossed his cigarette butt to the ground, crushed it under his boot's heel, and continued walking toward his plane.

A silver limo rolled to a stop in front of the hangar. "Our ride," Jacques said. "As you can see our new friends have impeccable taste."

"Great," Paladin muttered, not taking his gaze off of the Judge. He eased into the back of the limousine after Tennyson and Jacques.

"The King's Cross," Jacques told the driver.

As they drove away, the Judge walked to the hangar doorway and watched them go.

The hair on the back of Paladin's neck prickled. He didn't like this...one word from the Judge and every cutthroat on this island would be tearing the place apart looking to kill Paladin Blake.

The car sped away from the airport, the acceleration cushioned by the crushed leather upholstery. Inside, the car had polished silver trim and a stocked bar complete with crystal decanters and gold-tipped cigarettes. Outside, however, there were barbed wire fences and tin-roofed huts amid fields of sugar cane and tobacco and red peppers.

"This island used to be farmland," Jacques explained. "I believe they made hot sauce here. Well," he chuckled, "they still do under a new label. Those that fall into the debt of Die Spinne are put to work, a form of indentured servitude."

"More like slavery," Tennyson whispered. "Barbaric."

"Considering the alternative," Jacques replied as he poured himself a martini and eased into the seat, "they are getting off easy, non?"

They wound up the hills then down again. The shacks gave way to white adobe buildings with red Spanish tiled roofs; starlight faded under the glare of flashing neon signs. A strange mix of people moved briskly on the streets—men in suits, with gowned women on their arms alongside well-armed pilots in bomber jackets and scarves.

The limousine rolled to a stop on the cobblestone entryway of a Colonial mansion with Greek columns and a wide porch. A red neon cursive "X" strobed from the second-floor balcony.

A doorman dressed in a Napoleonic army costume—but with a modern Winchester rifle—opened the door for them. As Paladin stepped from the car, he noted machine gun nests on the roof.

"Come, gentlemen." Jacques strolled thorough the entrance; Paladin and Tennyson followed.

The foyer had black marble floors, and overhead a crystal chandelier bathed the room in warm lighting. To the right was a ballroom crowded with men and women, clustered around tables covered with cards and chips and red franc notes. A roulette wheel spun; there were roars of delight.

Jacques led them left to the cloakroom. A girl in a French maid costume stood on the other side of a counter; beyond were racks of camel hair overcoats and sable furs and locked strongboxes. Jacques whispered to her in Creole then handed her a wad of francs. She curtsied, led them in back and pointed to a rack of suits.

Jacques looked Tennyson up and down. "A forty-eight regular will do for you, Monsieur Tennessee." He sorted through the tuxedos on the rack then handed one to Tennyson. Jacques then picked out a coat for Paladin. "Forty-four tall for you."

Paladin looked at the proffered coat like it was a coiled cobra. "I don't wear monkey suits."

"Very well, Monsieur," Jacques said, "then you will have to allow me to negotiate on your behalf. You cannot enter the casino in such attire—even if you had the moon to offer." Jacques' eyebrow shot up. "There are standards, after all."

Paladin grabbed the suit. He slipped into the tailed coat. It fit. Jacques handed him a bow-tie and Paladin awkwardly knotted it. It felt good to dress up, Paladin thought. He'd been living like a pirate for a week.

He glanced in the mirror and smoothed back his hair. From the waist up he almost looked respectable. That was the problem; Matthew Blake wasn't supposed to look respectable. He didn't dare clean up anymore.

As the Frenchman sorted through pants on the rack, Paladin growled, "This'll do, Jacques."

"Very well, Monsieur." Jacques looked them over with a pained expression. "I had hoped you could be more...presentable. C'est-la vie." He led them back through the crowds in the casino to double doors in the back. He whispered to the two guards there, and they let them pass.

The next room housed another casino, but for a different class of customer. There was no poker or craps here. There were padded stools and girls circulating with trays of drinks between the baccarat and blackjack tables. Gold coins and private notes of credit littered the green felt. The gamblers wore tuxedos and sported monocles. Their diamond cufflinks gleamed.

Jacques cut through the room to another door, guarded by a single man in colonial costume. He frisked Jacques, and removed his small .38-caliber pistol. Paladin reluctantly handed over his .45s. Tennyson, to Paladin's surprise, removed a sawed-off shotgun from his coat and surrendered the weapon. The guard then frisked them thoroughly, apologized, and unlocked the door.

Beyond was a parlor with gilt wallpaper and floors covered in thick oriental rugs. The far wall was all windows that overlooked the harbor. The air inside the room was thick with smoke. Paladin smelled something sweet and rich in it—he couldn't place the scent, but it tickled his nose, enticed and repelled him at the same time. It felt like he was drowning in honey.

Flora was here.

Paladin's heart fluttered. She stood in the corner, by the windows, the glittering lights in the harbor and the moonlight on the Gulf of Mexico creating a halo around her. Men and women swarmed around Flora, fixed on her every word. She wore a clinging black satin dress that flowed over her body as if it were liquid. Her red hair was piled high on her head and tiny curled wisps fell about her cheeks. Emeralds adorned her delicate neck and brought out the color of her eyes—eyes that suddenly fixed upon Paladin.

Flora smiled at him, but it immediately faded, and she bit her lower lip and her brow crinkled. She looked around the room, then back to Paladin. Her smile returned, but it was somehow colder.

He took a step toward her. Finally. He had to quietly and quickly escort his sister out of here, get back to the airport and—

Flora turned and whispered to the woman next to her.

Paladin stopped dead in his tracks.

The woman next to Flora wore a gown of white silk that flared about her feet. She wore diamonds in her black lustrous hair. Her deep blue eyes flickered casually from Flora to Paladin, then back to Flora.

Paladin remembered this woman's features: the wide expressive eyes, the full lips, and tiny dimple in her chin. When he had last seen her, he was strapping her into a parachute and practically throwing her from a doomed zeppelin.

She was the pale man's companion, the secret mastermind behind a Unionist plot to bomb Washington, a plot he had foiled two years ago.

The women left their admirers and walked arm-in-arm to Paladin.

"Good evening, Mister Blake," the woman in white said. "I see you're a gambling man."

 


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