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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 Nine: The Chicago Connection

Paladin had to do the thing he hated most—wait. It would take time for his squadrons and zeppelins from Santa Monica to rendezvous with the Texas Rangers near Corpus Christi. Two days, at least, before all of the pieces fell into place. He wasn't fool enough to return to the Le Coeur du Minuit until everything was ready.

For more information see:
Paladin Blake

He would have to wait to rescue Flora. What would be done with her? She'd cold-cocked the Judge and bought Paladin the seconds he had needed to escape. How far could she stretch her friendship with Karina Von Gilder?

For Paladin, "waiting" didn't mean he'd be sitting on his hands.

From a distance the Chicago skyline was beautiful, spires and canyons of concrete and steel with art deco filigree of gold and silver. The sunrise reflected off the Chicago River and Lake Michigan and made the buildings glow. Despite the warm image, the I.S.A. always seemed hollow and cold and uninviting to Paladin. He banked southwest and landed his newly repainted blue Warhawk—which he had re-christened "Justice" after capturing it from the Judge—onto runway seven at Midway Airfield.

For more information see:
The Industrial States of America; P2 Warhawk

Paladin and Tennyson had made the marathon flight here overnight because there was a connection between Le Coeur du Minuit—the secret pirate city near French Louisiana—and the Industrial States of America. The two cops in Jacques' employ were from Chicago, according to BAS files. Their involvement with Jacques meant they were also part of the crime syndicate, Die Spinne. And there had been no report of the Chicago-based zeppelin, the Commerce, having been stolen, even though it was being unloaded at the pirate aerodrome. There were also all the German-made Hellhounds on Le Coeur du Minuit...and the grapevine in the aviation community was rife with rumors about secret deals between the I.S.A. and Germany.

For more information see:
French Louisiana

Each fact by itself was circumstantial evidence at best, but added up it was glaringly obvious that something fishy was going on. Paladin had a feeling that all the answers to Le Coeur du Minuit and Karina Von Gilder were here in Chicago.

He taxied the Warhawk to the Blake Aviation Security hangar at the end of the runway then cut the engine.

The Chief of Operations of the BAS's Chicago's office, Eliot Ness, ran out to meet him. He wore a gray suit and tie. He was neither tall nor short, and his hair had been neatly combed and parted in the middle. He had the kind of face that blended into a crowd, although his ears stuck out a bit. He was not the kind of man you'd have expected to spearhead the Treasury Department task force to eliminate bootlegging in Chicago.

For more information see:
Blake Aviation Security

When the U.S. collapsed, Eliot stayed in Chicago, working with the local cops to root out corruption, and was one of the first people Blake hired when he set up offices in the I.S.A.

Paladin liked Eliot. The man delivered on his promises, and having him on the payroll gave his business some badly needed prestige with the I.S.A. The mobsters hated him, but he was a bona fide hero to the average citizen.

"Mr. Blake," Eliot said and extended his hand. They shook and then Eliot greeted Tennyson as well. "This is an unexpected visit." Eliot looked up and down the field. "You came alone? I guess that means someone's in trouble."

"Just me," Paladin said. "Let's head into the office and get a cup of coffee. And Tennyson could use a nap."

"A spot of tea will do fine," Tennyson said, yawning.

They walked together on the tarmac. "I'll need some information on a zeppelin." Paladin said to Eliot, "She's called the Commerce."

Eliot opened the door for them, "I know her. Leased by Mercury Shipping Lines, she has six hundred thousand pounds of lift, and is armed with broadside cannons and a fistful of machine gun nests. She'd give your own Aegis a run for her money. One of the I.S.A.'s biggest and best, sir."

Paladin stepped inside the hangar. Inside was a parked squadron of Kestrels, ready and gleaming with spit and polish. One corner of the building had been converted into office space. Unlike Paladin's Santa Monica office, the place was neat as a pin. There were rows of filing cabinets, not a stray paper out of place, maps of Chicago and the I.S.A. on the wall, and a ticker machine in the corner chattering off the headlines.

For more information see:
S2B Kestrel

"I need to know where the Commerce is supposed to be now," Paladin told Eliot. "Any word about her on the news services?"

Eliot wrinkled his brow. "Is there something wrong with the Commerce?"

"That's what I'm trying to figure out," Paladin replied.

Eliot picked up a phone and dialed. "Tower? This is Ness. Yeah. Can you guys, off the record, give me the flight plan filed by the Commerce? I can hold." He pulled a pad and pen from his pocket then jotted down notes. "Thanks—owe you one." He hung up.

"She's on a run for 'Heartland, Inc.' They make farm equipment—tractors, fertilizer spreaders, things like that. They loaded the shipment from hangar 1056, and she's scheduled to deliver it to—" Eliot checked his notes. "—Oklahoma City." She's reported in and supposed to returning with a cargo of corn meal in three days."

"Checked in, huh?" Paladin rubbed his chin, thinking. "When?"

"Noon, yesterday." Eliot stared at his handwriting. "Funny thing is that Heartland doesn't own or lease hangar 1056. That's Anvil Manufacturing. They make guns, including a nice .45 by all accounts."

"And, by all accounts," Paladin muttered, "secretly running guns."

Eliot shrugged. "The bogus manifest adds up. They'd do that to protect themselves. A shipment of guns would be a tempting cargo for pirates to hijack."

It added up all right, Paladin thought. Anvil Manufacturing could have supplied Die Spinne with the arsenal it had protecting Le Coeur du Minuit. But what was Karina Von Gilder planning to do with another zeppelin full of guns? Two years ago, she had attempted to plunge North America into war—her goal to unite the state nations by conquest. Was this a prelude to another war?

"Can you get me an appointment to see someone at Anvil Manufacturing?"

"You bet, Mr. Blake." Eliot picked up the phone. "What do you want me to tell them when they ask why?"

"Tell them I'd like to buy a gun," Paladin said.

Martin Heiselberg looked like a man who had lived the good life too long. By Paladin's reckoning he was nearly as wide as he was tall. He wore a conservative black suit and bow tie and sported a thin gold band on his pinkie (which Paladin suspected might have been his wedding ring). With considerable effort Heiselberg rose from his mahogany desk. He offered his limp, sweaty hand to Paladin.

"Mr. Blake, may I say it is an honor to have you visit Anvil Manufacturing."

"Thanks," Paladin replied.

The view from the nineteenth story office window caught Paladin's eye—a panorama from Lincoln Heights to downtown to the I.S.A. Institute of Technology—a conglomeration of skyscrapers and steaming factories, bridges and swarms of aerotaxis.

"Every time I look at it," Heiselberg said, "I know I'm in the best country in the world. Even more impressive than your Hollywood?" He sat back in his chair.

Paladin cleared his throat. "I try to think of myself as a citizen of the world. Blake Aviation Security can't afford to take political sides or show favoritism to any one country."

Heiselberg nodded appreciatively. "A wise business policy." He gestured for Paladin to sit. "What can Anvil Manufacturing do for you today?" A nervous laugh escaped him. "I trust we're not under investigation?"

"Not at all," Paladin lied. "I only wanted to discuss the possibility of you supplying Blake Aviation with sidearms. Your reputation for quality is known from coast to coast."

Heiselberg brightened. "Anvil Manufacturing can provide anything you require. We might even be able to work out a bulk discount. Let's say—"

The phone rang. Heiselberg frowned and picked it up. "I said no calls." His face went blank. "Oh, yes, I see." He handed the receiver to Paladin. "For you. An emergency."

Right on time, Paladin thought.

He took the receiver. "Yes, Eliot? How many? Well get them to the hospital as quick as you can. I need you to—" He looked up at Heiselberg. "Would it be possible to take this in private?"

"Of course. If you could just step into—"

Paladin shouted into the mouthpiece: "No! I told you three, Eliot. I don't care if it is the Princess of Hawai'i. I want three." He shot Heiselberg a glare. "I appreciate this. It'll only take a few minutes."

Heiselberg sighed. He struggled to stand from his overstuffed chair. "I'll...just be outside then, Mr. Blake. Please, take your time." He flashed a disingenuous smile and left, closing the door quietly behind him.

"Okay, Eliot, it worked. Hang on—and keep talking in case anyone picks up an extension." Paladin set the mouthpiece on the desk, got up and jammed his chair under the door's handle.

He could have tried to dance around the information he wanted from Heiselberg, played a game of verbal cat and mouse, and maybe stumbled upon the information he needed. Paladin knew his limitations, though. Being sneaking and sly were a stretch for him.

He opened the filing cabinet first. Their contents had been sorted by date. Good. There was only one shipment that left the same day as the Commerce. Paladin scanned the manifest: seven thousand repeating .30-caliber rifles, three hundred thousand rounds of ammunition plus reloading machines, five thousand .45-caliber sidearms, pieces to assemble five-inch field artillery, water-cooled .70-caliber antiaircraft guns—and Paladin had to reread the last entry twice—one hundred tanks.

This wouldn't make Le Coeur du Minuit a fortress—it would make it unassailable. But why? They already had the silent approval of the Louisiana government to do business. What was so important about the island that they had to arm themselves to the teeth?

Unless this wasn't for the island. Maybe Le Coeur du Minuit was just a midway point for wherever Karina was really sending these arms.

Paladin shut the cabinet and went to Heiselberg's desk.

Under the gleaming mahogany top there was a large center drawer and three smaller ones stacked vertically. In the larger drawer sat five guns on a velvet pallet. Paladin hefted a .32 automatic. It was a little too light for his tastes—ever since Dashiell had gotten him to carry the .45s. He set it down and tried the small drawers.

The first contained stationary, pens and envelopes. The next drawer was empty save for a small bottle of syrupy brownish liquid that Paladin doubted was bourbon. He smelled it: sickeningly sweet and smoky. It made him gag.

The last drawer was locked. Paladin tried to jimmy it, considered busting the thing open, then thought better of it. Instead, he removed the first two drawers and got a hold of the wood panel beneath with his fingernails. He tugged and pulled and the wood splintered, cracked—then gave.

Inside this last compartment was a dagger; a pearl-handled .38; an envelope stuffed with I.S.A. C-notes; and a man's signet ring, heavy and gold with a green stone set flush in the center. Carved in the stone in relief was an eagle clutching an emblem.

For a split second Paladin thought he recognized it. The pale man had a ring almost exactly like this. Only that one had an eagle grasping a star—a Unionist symbol for their "Brotherhood of America."

But this ring was different. The symbol in the eagle's talons wasn't a star; it was a strange, canted cross.

Maybe Paladin had seen it before, after all.

He retrieved the calling card Karina Von Gilder had given him in her casino, the one with the embossed with a spider-web, its strands kinked halfway from the center. It was a dead ringer for the cross in the ring.

Paladin didn't know what it meant, but staring at it made his stomach turn and the hackles on the back of his neck stand.

This had started as a personal quest to save Flora...but it was turning into much more. He had to put an end to the secret pirate city—and Karina Von Gilder—for good.

He removed the chair blocking the door, then picked up the receiver. "Eliot you still there? Good. I want as many men and planes as you can spare. We're all flying south a special mission. Volunteers only—nobody married—and extra hazard pay.

"Wake up Tennyson, too, and tell him to get ready for a war."

 


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