The older Lockheed official sat across the table from him. He wore a light gray tuxedo that matched his eyes and hair. His name was Dunford, James Dunford.
Since they returned, Paladin and James were on a first name basis. He was very grateful for Paladin for wrapping up his problemsthe missing prototype and the elusive Peter Justin. He was even more grateful that Blake Aviation Security had a policy about keeping its mouth permanently shut about their clients' cases.
"Unless there's some illegal activity the police should know of," Paladin added.
"I assure you, Paladin," Dunford said with a smile, "Lockheed engages only in legal activities and commerce."
Legal activities and commerce might, however, cover a lot of territory if the Hollywood police were looking the other way. Come to think of it, Detective Slaughouser hadn't said a word after the plane crash. Would a report get filed? Of would the incidentand the death of a Lockheed employeebe swept under the rug?
Paladin leaned closer to Dunford, wrinkling the white linen tablecloth. "You knew about the plane? Knew it would fall apart?"
"Of course," Dunford said calmly and cut into his porterhouse steak. "The frame was a special aluminum alloy designed for light weight but with reduced tensile properties. I am amazed it held together for your aerial combats, Mr. Blake." He chewed. "Remarkable."
Paladin had an urge to reach across the table and, if not strangle Dunford, at least blacken his eye. Maybe both, Blake thought. He's just too damn smug for his own good.
Paladin reined in his impulse, though. The theft of the prototype, the Russian connection, and Lockheed's apparent control of the police was all part of a much largerand more sinisterpicture. If he wanted to find out what was really going on, Paladin had to keep his cool and play along. It wasn't easy.
"I assume," Dunford said, "that you found our retainer sufficient?"
"Very," Paladin replied.
"Sufficient" didn't begin to cover it; Lockheed had paid him a considerable sum to retain Blake Aviation Security on semi-permanent basis for what Dunford called "special operations." The kind of money they dished out would keep his offices from here to the Empire State in black ink for the next two years.
Dunford set his fork and knife down and riveted Paladin with his eyes. "How did you know Mr. Justin was our thief?"
Paladin found himself unable to hold Dunford's stare. He looked instead at his martini; it was cool and clear and shimmering silver. It would be easy to sipto drink the thing down. He inhaled the faint scent of gin
then reluctantly slid the glass into the middle of the table.
"It was the cigarettes," Paladin finally said.
Dunford eased back, raised an eyebrow, and then retrieved his own package of cigarettes. He shook one out for himself, then offered one to Paladin.
"No thanks," Paladin said to the offered smokes. "I found a pack of European cigarettes on the pale man's zep. You know, the kind wrapped with the black papers? They're hard to get in North America these days. Especially in Hollywood."
"True." Dunford examined his plain white Lucky Strikes then lit up. "So I can assume our Mr. Justin smoked the same European brand, yes? That could have been mere coincidence."
"Yes, it could have," Paladin mused. "Hell, it may have even been a coincidence, but who else was in a position to steal the major components for the prototype from the Pasadena plant? Who was the only person to see me off in that mock prototype? Who arranged the flight schedule to ensure that my takeoff didn't lead to any inconvenient witnesses? All the pieces fit."
"That bit about the fingerprints," Dunford chuckled. "It was a dazzling display of deduction, Mr. Blake."
"Thanks," Paladin muttered.
In fact there had been no deduction. Tennyson hadn't really found a single fingerprint on the prototype. He had, however, lifted one of Justin's prints from Paladin's desk in his Santa Monica office. That was the print Paladin has handed Justin, the print Blake had compared to his Lockheed employment record. It had been nothing more than a flimflam.
As far as Paladin was concerned, though, no one at Lockheed ever had to know that little detail of the case.
Dunford wiped his mouth with a napkin and covered his plate with it. "Very good. But now, on to new business, Mr. Blake
or rather, a continuation of our old business. Our retainer is conditional on Blake Aviation Security following through on this case."
"The case?" Paladin asked. "I thought this case was wrapped up. You've got your plane back
most of it, anyway."
"There is no need to feign naivete, Mr. Blake," Dunford said and grinned. "There will be a bonus upon completion of your investigation, of course, but I must insist that you continue. The pale man
he must be found. You must find him."
Dunford paused to sip his martini. "When you locate himand I do not doubt that you willthere shall be no need to immediately involve the authorities. The pale man's day of reckoning will come in a court of law, but Lockheed would first like to have a word with him."
Lockheed's wasn't only buying Blake Aviation Security's service
it was also buying his silence. Why? What did Lockheed want with the pale man? Revenge?
The pale man had promised Justin planes and guns, men, and even a military zep. Where the hell was he getting that equipment? And why was he so willing to give it away? He was risking the wrath of Lockheed, and bringing the entire nation of Hollywood to a boil, not to mention the lives that would be spent in bitter conflict in Alaska. That was a lot of heat for one plane, fancy prototype or not.
"Sure," Paladin said, finally. "I'll find him."
Paladin would find the pale man, all right, but for his own reasons. And one thing is for damn sure, he thought.
Before Lockheed or the Hollywood police ever get to talk to this mysterious "pale man," I'm going to have my own question-and-answer session first.
When Paladin learned the truth, nothingnot Lockheed, not the police, not the entire nation of Hollywoodwould get in his way of seeing justice done.