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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 Seven: Sugar and Spice and Everything Vice

Paladin didn't like games—especially when the wager was his life. "Am I a gambling man?" he replied, struggling to meet the steady gaze of the woman in white. "I suppose so."

For more information see:
Paladin Blake

"So your sister has said." She tilted her head and the diamond brooch in her dark hair flashed. She offered her hand.

He was sure he had seen her before—not only on the pale man's zeppelin, but also with Flora. He had an image of the two together—giggling, dressed in uniforms—but when? Paladin took her slender hand and kissed her white glove.

"A gentleman pirate?" she cooed, smiled and dimpled her cheeks. "How novel."

He released her hand and cast a hard gaze at Flora—hoping she understood that one slip of his real name would get him killed.

Flora cleared her throat. "Karina Von Gilder, allow me to introduce" —her mouth quivered with a half-suppressed laugh—"my dear brother, Matthew Blake, distiller of fine sprits and smuggler extraordinaire."

She whispered to the dark-hair woman, "Be careful, Karina...he's a the lady killer." Flora saddled next to Paladin and laced her arm through his. "Matthew: meet Miss Karina Von Gilder, owner of the Kings Cross and practically everything else on this rock." She cupped her hand over her mouth and said, "She'd be quite the catch, too...one of the richest and most beautiful women on two continents."

"Don't embarrass your brother," Karina said coolly. "He's certainly been through enough this evening traveling to our island."

That was an understatement. Paladin had fought his own brother, torched the family moonshine operation, and trod through every seedy bar in New Orleans to get to Le Coeur du Minuit—"Midnight's Heart."

"I'm sure the two of you to are itching to get together—" Flora said, "—and talk business. But give me a few moments with my brother. It's been weeks since I've seen him."

"Of course," Karina said. "I shall await your pleasure, Mister Blake." She glided away with effortless grace. Jacques approached her, wringing his hands and bowing as if she were royalty. He held out the bottle of Black Knight Bourbon for her inspection, but she ignored him.

Flora grabbed Paladin's arm and led him toward the bar, brushing past Tennyson.

"Miss Blake," Tennyson said startled. "How good to see you again."

Paladin shook his head at Tennyson. "Get that limo, Tenny," he murmured, "minus the driver. And be ready for anything." Paladin quickly glanced around the room—all the doors guarded. "Bring the car around back if you can swing it. Get our guns on your way out, too."

"Understood." Tennyson nodded to Flora and left.

Flora watched him go. "Tennyson," she muttered with a scowl, "your 'ever-faithful manservant.' Do you still feed him scraps from the table?" She dragged Paladin to the bar and sat with a flourish of her black satin dress. She spoke French to the barkeep and he returned with two drinks. She slid a highball glass to Paladin. "Drink it," she hissed. "It'll look strange if you don't."

Paladin looked at the drink as if it were poison.

"It's only water," Flora said. "I know better than to try to ply you with liquor."

He took a cautious sip. "What are you doing here Flora?"

Her lips parted in a grin. "I'm having fun. These people have money and power and aren't afraid to use them. They know how to live...unlike some men I know." She swilled the contents in her glass. "What are you doing here?" she whispered. "Do you know how many people on this island would like to see you dead?"

"Probably not as many as would like to kill me." He crossed his arms over his chest. "I came for you, Flora."

"That's sweet of you, brother. But let's try the truth. What Blake Aviation Security scheme are you running today?"

For more information see:
Blake Aviation Security

"Matthew and I are worried about you. Your drinking, this lifestyle, and your new friends...they're more dangerous than you realize. I'm here to take you home."

"I see," she said and stared into her drink. "You think 'poor little Flora' is all sugar and spice and everything vice. I hate to disappoint you, but I'm all grown up—and there's no home for me to go to. You and dad and Matthew have seen to that."

It was true. Neither of them had a real home or family anymore, but that's what Paladin was here to set straight. Now all he had to do was find a way to tell her that without sounding like a sap.

He looked around the casino at Flora's "friends." They wore designer gowns and smart tuxedos and jewels. They spoke in French and German. Opium smugglers? Moonshiners? Who were they really?

His gaze landed on the dark-haired woman, Karina; she was lovely and smart...and deadly. She had engineered the theft of a Lockheed prototype, almost started a war—and was the architect of a scheme that would have killed or injured hundreds of innocent bystanders. She had fooled everyone...including Paladin.

"Who is she?" he asked.

Flora drank deeply from her glass until there was only pink froth at the bottom. "Karina Van Gilder, I already told you." Her eyes narrowed. "You really are interested in her. I wonder why?" She scooted closer to Paladin and set her hand on his arm. He smelled the same overly sweet odor on her breath that filed the room. "We were at Smith together. You met her in '28."

Paladin visited Flora the summer before she dropped out of college. He remembered her very young and awkward girlfriend who had eyes for him. This was the same woman?

"The Von Gilders have real money," Flora said. "They go anywhere and do anything they want. They make things happen."

A gunshot rang out—less than a block away. No one noticed...or if they did, they didn't seem to care. Then again, in a city of pirates and smugglers, murder and mayhem in the street was probably normal. This place, despite its opulence, gave Paladin the creeps.

"Matthew thinks you're in danger," he told her. "If you won't listen to me, then—"

Flora giggled. "Poor Matthew. He must have been convinced I was in peril to even talk to you. Was he even sober when he told you about the King's Cross and Die Spinne social club?"

"He was sober...to start with," Paladin said. "You don't know your friends half as well as you think."

"Really?" Her hand on his arm gripped tighter; her nails—through his tuxedo—dug into his skin. "And what are you going to do about it?" She released him and waved the bartender over, ordering another pink margarita. "You're in way over your head." She closed her eyes and whispered, "Go back to Hollywood, Paladin. I'll send you a postcard...and tell you how much I miss you."

For more information see:
The Nation of Hollywood

She looked up. Paladin searched her eyes and saw the pain in them. She'd been running away from life since their father died, killing herself—slowly and with style, but just as sure as if she'd placed a gun to her head.

"You're cleaning up, Flora. Maybe not today, but I will get you out of here."

She smiled and stood and smoothed out her gown. "I think, you better take care of whatever business you have with Karina, and leave...while you're still alive."

"Flora, I—"

Karina walked across the room, her white dress trailing behind her. "Mr. Blake, shall we talk now or wait until tomorrow? There are other matters I must see to tonight."

Paladin didn't want to stay in this vipers nest a second longer than he had to. "My sister and I are done," he said. "For now."

"I must take your brother," Karina said to Flora. "Forgive me."

Flora leaned into Paladin, kissed his cheek and whispered, "If anyone needs saving it's not me...it'll be you. Be careful."

Karina took Paladin's hand and led him from the bar. "Do you prefer dice, cards, or the wheel, Mr. Blake?"

"I thought we were discussing business, not games."

"Gambling is how we do business with newcomers on Le Coeur du Minuit," Karina said. "They must prove their intellect, their resourcefulness, and their luck. Besides, all of life is a wager, no?" She flashed him a dazzling smile.

"I never to gamble with anything but my heart," Paladin said. "But for you, I'll make an exception. What are we wagering?"

She snapped her fingers. "Jacques."

Jacques obediently stepped forward and tried to take her hand to kiss. She withdrew it. "You have a sample of Mr. Blake's fine liquor?"

"Oui, Madamoiselle," Jacques stammered. He gingerly handed her the square bottle of Black Knight Bourbon. She took it and waved the Frenchman away.

She ran her index finger of the label. "I thought we would wager your cargo. If you win, I shall pay you the cash equivalent—say twenty-five francs a bottle? Then we can move onto more...interesting stakes".

"I see," Paladin said cautiously, unsure of just what her plan was. "Cards then."

Another gunshot sounded—possibly in the street outside the casino. A few heads turned, but in moments the gamblers returned to their games, nonplussed.

Karina approached a Baccarat table and with a nod of her head, the players and dealer got up and left.

Paladin sat down opposite from her.

She set the bottle on the green felt between them. "We have met before, Mr. Blake, but I cannot quite place where and when." Her green eyes squinted slightly as if she were trying to see through him.

"I'm flattered, but I don't think we have."

She had to remember who he was. Paladin's photo had been splashed on every paper and newsreel when he'd brought her brother's zeppelin down practically on top of the Washington Memorial. So why keep up the pretense?

Why did a cat play with the mouse before ripping it apart?

Karina reached under the table and handed Paladin a sealed deck of cards.

He opened it. They didn't look marked. He shuffled, offered her a cut, which she took. "A test of luck?" He dealt two cards face down. "Lady's pick. High card wins."

With her delicately long fingers she flipped over a card: the eight of clubs.

Paladin turned over his: the Jack of Diamonds.

She leaned forward and her brows arched. "Very good, Mr. Blake. I owe you ninety thousand francs. Would you care to wager again?"

"Sure." Paladin tossed the Jack onto the table. "My three hundred cases and the money for information. If I win I want to know more about the Die Spinne social club...and how a guy like me gets to join."

She scooped up their cards and buried them in the deck. "You appear to be a gambling man after all." She shuffled with the speed and precision of a sewing machine, and then threw a card in front of Paladin and dropped one in front of herself.

"I will tell you this," she said, "Die Spinne is more than a social club...as you have obviously gathered. We are an import-export enterprise. Independent operators and several national governments use us to move their products."

She withdrew a business card from her long white glove and flicked it across the table. Embossed upon it was a spider web. "Die Spinne—'the Spider' in German," she explained. "Each strand of our web extends to a different nation, across North America, Europe, and even the Orient. We are everywhere."

Paladin saw the spider-web was bent, the strands kinked halfway from the center.

"We have other, more ambitious plans, of course," she added, "but before I can tell you of our future...the cards."

A gunshot blast echoed in the adjoining room. This time everyone took note. Karina stood. Paladin instinctively reached for his .45s—which weren't there.

The door to the other casino flew inward off its hinges. The Judge stepped in, Tommy gun pointed at the crowd. He glared at Paladin with his good eye. "I knew it was you."

"Judge," Karina said in a deliberately calm tone, "I hope you have an excellent explanation for this interruption or you will walk the short plank."

"I've got reason enough." He pointed with the muzzle of his gun. "That's Paladin Blake."

Karina didn't look surprised. She turned over her card, revealing the Ace of Spades. "It appears, Mr. Blake, that your luck has run out."

 


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