Read an Excerpt
A Wing and a Prayer
The sun wasn ’t up yet.Paladin fumbled in the dark until his hands found his bag and parachute in the aerotaxi ’s trunk .
The driver craned his head out the window.“You need a hand,buddy?”
“Got it,” Paladin said..He slung his chute over his shoulder and paid the driver.
“Lots of flyboys showing up here lately,”the driver said.“They all bring their chutes.Don ’t Lockheed have the bucks to spring for you guys?”
“Sure they do,”Paladin said.“But when there ’s nothing between you and the ground except a mile of air,would you trust someone else to pack your silk?”
“Point taken,” the driver said..He started to roll up his window.
“Wait.” Paladin passed the driver a dollar tip..“When did a lot of pilots show up here?”
“A week ago.”The taxi driver pocketed the dollar.“Maybe a dozen.All flyboys ...either that or parachute salesmen.”
“Thanks,” Paladin replied..He marched to the security shack at the eastern gate.
Pilots with their own chutes meant independent operators.Why was Justin hiring more outsiders? Was he rotating his test pilots regularly because he didn ’t trust anyone?Paladin filed that under “miscellaneous curiosities.” He ’d ask later.
The guard inside the shack tracked Paladin ’s approach with an unwavering glare.
“John Smith to see Mr.Justin,”Blake said,using the phony name Justin had insisted on.He felt like a heel,just saying the name.John Smith —real original.
“You ’re expected.”The guard made a check on his clipboard.He lifted the barricade and waved Paladin through.The guard then handed him a brass key.“Pilots ’lockers are there.”He pointed to the nearest hangar.
Paladin stole a glance at the clipboard.The only thing written on the page was his phony name.
“Got it,” Paladin said,,and started toward the hangar.
Through the slowly dissipating fog,Paladin saw a dozen other hangars,and in the distance,the gray outlines of two zeppelin aerodromes.A hundred planes were precisely parked on the tarmac: every make of bomber and fighter,even a fleet of autogyros.There were no people,though.Sure,it was five o ’clock in the morning,but there should be mechanics or guards ...someone .The place was a ghost town.
Paladin entered the hangar.On the other side of a row of gleaming P2 Warhawks was a building, presumably the pilots ’ locker room..
Only an echo answered.
It wasn ’t too late to accept Dashiell ’s offer:a weekend of starlets and sailing in Santa Barbara.But that wouldn ’t bring in the cash he needed to save Blake Aviation Security.
No.This setup may be getting weirder by the second,but Paladin couldn ’t afford to lose the job.He chalked up his growing unease to preflight jitters.
Paladin walked into the changing room.There were showers and rows of large lockers with benches.He examined the brass key the guard had given him.Stamped on it was A303.He found locker A303 and opened it.Inside hung a flight suit and a fur-lined jacket;there were gloves,leather helmet, goggles,a steel lunch box,and a new parachute.The flight suit had a Lockheed logo embroidered on the back,and the name JOHNNY stitched on the right front pocket.
Paladin slipped into the suit,jacket,and gloves.They were a perfect fit.
Peter Justin stood in the doorway —or rather,his body filled the doorway.He wore a gray suit,green tie,and he looked crisp and fresh.“If you could don the helmet,as well — in case anyone spots us??”
Paladin put on the helmet and goggles.
“Our time is limited,” Justin said,,“so please follow me.” He turned and strode away..
Paladin picked up his bag,the lunch pail,and his own parachute,kicked the locker shut,then trotted after the big Russian.
He caught up to Justin on the tarmac.“I admire your thoroughness,”Paladin said.“No one here but the one guard at the gate.The prearranged equipment.Like clockwork.If I didn ’t know better,I ’d say you had the fix in on the fog,too,just to keep everything under wraps.”
“I also took the liberty of packing you a lunch,”Justin said,without pause in his gigantic stride.“A thermos of coffee and two sandwiches,one jelly and peanut butter,and one liverwurst.I was unsure which you preferred.” He pointed into the fog..“There she is.”
Paladin squinted,and saw a plane ’s silhouette ...at least the wing of a plane.
No.It was all wing.It reminded Paladin of the Ravenscroft Coyote —the mainstay of the Navajo and Lakota air militias.Unlike the Coyote,which sported a single “pusher ”prop,this bird had engines mounted on the leading edge.The cockpit was a bubble in the center of the craft,and twin .30-caliber guns were mounted underneath.There were control flaps along the wing,but it lacked anything that resembled a rudder.
“You can ’t be serious,” Paladin said..“It ’ll spin out of control.”
“No,Mr.Blake,it will not.The controls are sensitive,but they function quite well.Rolls-Royce developed the concept,but they never pursued the design.We recently purchased their patent.”
Paladin walked around the plane.Something else was wrong.He stepped back and figured it out. The proportions were out of kilter.The plane had huge engines,a tiny fuselage,and limited control surfaces.It was all power.Maneuvering wouldn ’t be difficult;it would be impossible.
“Has this thing even been flown before?”
Justin laughed.“Many times.It is safe.”He crinkled his bushy brows together.“Assuming the pilot is sufficiently skilled.You are not having second thoughts,are you?”
Paladin had been having third,fourth,and fifth thoughts about this job since he met Peter Justin.
“No,” he said..“No second thoughts.”
“My ground crew inspected her last night.I have personally double-checked their assessment.”
Paladin climbed onto the wing and slid back the canopy.Inside,wires spilled out of empty sockets where some of the gauges had been ripped out.Sections of the floor were exposed,revealing the guns and the landing gear struts.
“Someone hasn ’t finished putting this thing together.”
“It is a working prototype,Mr.Blake,not a finished product.Certain amenities have been overlooked. The plane,however,is eminently airworthy.Now —”He removed a map from his pocket.“—if you could give me your attention.”
Paladin stowed his gear in the cockpit and climbed down.
Justin unfolded a map of southern Hollywood.“I have traced your route.You will cross the mountains here.”He smoothed his thumb over a red line on the paper.“If you experience problems, you are to immediately land at the Palmdale airstrip,or at Palm Springs,should you end up farther east.As a last resort there is the dry lake bed.”He circled a large region outlined in yellow.“If you experience any difficulties,call for help on the channel marked B .We will abandon the secrecy of this mission and send a squadron to retrieve you.”
Paladin followed the route.It ended in the middle of nowhere.“And Lockheed ’s secure facility is here?”
“Yes.You will receive the balance of your fee upon landing.Is this acceptable?”
“Sure.” Paladin frowned.“No,not quite acceptable.Can I ask you a personal question,Mr.Justin?”
Justin glanced at his watch.“A quick one.”
“I ’ve always made it a point to know my clients.I mean,know who they really are.Your real name isn ’t Peter Justin —it ’s Piotr Pushkarev.You fought in the Russian Revolution on the side of the Whites and earned the nickname Neyasvy,which,I ’m told,means ‘invincible.’When the battle spilled into Alaska,you fought there,too.You ’re an ace pilot.A hero.”
Justin locked eyes with Paladin.He didn ’t smile to hide his unease,nor was there even a raised eyebrow betraying shock.“And your question?”
“Why the fake identity?You have every reason not to trust anyone with your prototype.But why am I flying it?Why aren ’t you?”
“Your information-gathering skills are indeed impressive,Mr.Blake,but you are incorrect on one point.My name is Peter Justin.I have had it legally changed.As for not trusting anyone else —you are correct.I do not.
“I am forced by circumstances to trust you.You see,my skills —”His gaze dropped to the ground. “It is not easy,when one reaches a certain age.My reflexes,my eyesight ...they are not what they once were.I am still a patriot,and I still serve in my own way,but I cannot risk that which I have been hired to protect to prove that I am something I am not.”
It took a big man to admit that.Would Paladin be as smart when he started to lose his edge?He hoped so.There were no old fighter pilots.
“I ’m sorry,” Paladin said..“I had to ask.”
“If you knew my reputation and walked into this blindly,it would mean you are a fool.I am glad to see you are not.”Justin glanced again at his watch.“Now,if there are no further questions,we must get you into the air.”
Paladin climbed into the cockpit.The seat was rock hard,and his long legs didn ’t fit.He managed to adjust it until he was merely uncomfortable.
He fired up the engines.They coughed and sputtered and caught.Despite Justin ’s assurances about the plane ’s condition,they sounded out of tune.
Justin circled behind the plane,climbed the wing,and leaned into the cockpit.“You have already been cleared with the tower.The runway is yours,Mr.Blake.Good flying.”He gave Paladin a thumbs-up,then slid the canopy over his head.It closed with a solid click.
Paladin returned the thumbs-up and waited for Justin to climb off before easing the plane out onto the tarmac.Blue lights winked down the runway.The fog was still thick,restricting visibility to two hundred feet ...not the best takeoff conditions.
Paladin clicked on the transceiver and called in a radio check.The tower confirmed and told him he had the runway to himself.
He eased the throttle forward.The flying wing accelerated quickly.Paladin let her build speed for a moment,then pulled back.The plane soared into the air —teetered and almost flipped into a roll.
Justin wasn ’t kidding when he said the controls were sensitive.He ’d have to be more careful.
Paladin held his angle and climbed.The altimeter said four hundred feet.He glanced down at the grid of Pasadena streets,the orange groves,and the foothills ahead.He judged his altitude to be over two thousand.The oil pressure gauge pulsed up and down.His rpm indicator read zero.
“‘Certain amenities have been overlooked,’huh?”Paladin muttered.He tapped the fuel gauge.It read full,but he wasn ’t sure if he believed it.
This wasn ’t going to work.No instruments he could trust and a plane only half-assembled?How was he going to spend Lockheed ’s money if he crashed?He should turn back now while he had the chance.
Paladin pushed the left rudder petal.The plane banked so sharply that the hull groaned and his harness cut into his shoulders.
This plane moved like nothing he had ever flown.He wasn ’t sure how it was maneuvering,but it was as agile as a dragonfly.He continued the turn,then rolled the flying wing,the maneuver crushing him into his seat.
That was almost fun.Maybe he could fly this thing,after all.
Paladin pushed the throttle to three-quarters power.The wing jumped forward.He nosed her over the San Bernardino Mountains,admired the snow on Mount Baldy,then dropped altitude,and skimmed over the treetops.
This little flying wing was growing on him.The controls were twitchy,though;every nudge jinked the plane.
He crossed the summit,and the Mojave Desert stretched out beneath him,flat and gray,painted with yellow dust-storm streaks far in the distance.He aimed for the Saddleback Buttes.From there, according to Justin ’s flight plan,he ’d head due east into the middle of nowhere.
So far,smooth sailing.
Paladin reached back for the lunch pail —and spotted planes on his six.A pack of Grumman Avengers.
He ’d been an idiot.He ’d been busy enjoying the ride,and had forgotten that this wasn ’t a ride.It was a job.A job he might have just botched.
He squinted.Five of them.No registration numbers.That meant pirates.But there were also no symbols,crests,or markings of any kind.He ’d never seen a pirate not decorate his plane.So who were they?
He waggled the flying wing to indicate he was friendly.
They fired.Bullet holes stitched his port wing.
“So much for trying to be neighborly,” Blake growled,,nosing his plane into a dive.
Paladin skimmed along the slope of the mountain,then pulled up hard.He pushed the throttle to maximum,looped the plane,and then pushed her into a dive —emerging behind his attackers.
Before they could scatter,he lined up a shot and fired the prototype ’s guns.
Fire belched from his .30-caliber cannons.He peppered the tail of one of the Avengers,
destroying the rudder.
Paladin whooped,pleased with his marksmanship.
Both his guns jammed.
“What the —?” He squeezed the trigger again..Nothing.
The loss of his plane ’s guns made the firefight far too one-sided for Paladin ’s liking.He grabbed the radio:“Mayday,Mayday.Lockheed special flight encountering pirates.Mayday,Mayday.”
There was no response.Not even static.
All right ,he thought.I can ’t fight or get help.Maybe I can outrun them .
Paladin peeled off and headed straight into the sun.
“Come on,” he whispered to the plane..“Faster!”
The Avengers turned to match his new heading,but he was putting some distance between his bird and the attackers.Good.He had a chance.
Bullets riddled the back of the flying wing.A rocket whistled past him;a second impacted near the port engine.There was a shower of sparks and shrapnel.The motor sputtered and stalled.
Paladin knew when he was beat.He checked his parachute to make sure it was strapped on tight.
“I ’m sorry,Justin,” he murmured,,“but it looks like I ’ve just lost your plane.”
Another volley of bullets tattooed the flying wing.
Paladin pulled on the canopy ’s release.With luck,he wouldn ’t be shot on the way down.
The canopy didn ’t budge.He pulled harder,with all his strength.No dice.
He was stuck inside.