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Chapter One:
Swimming With The Sharks

Chapter Two:
Keep Your Enemies Closer

Chapter Three:
ShowTime

Chapter Four:
A Girl's Best Friend

Chapter Five:
In The Rough

Chapter Six:
Shadow Play

Chapter Seven:
Southern Hospitality

Chapter Eight:
Clear as Crystal

Chapter Nine:
The Home Stretch

Chapter Ten:
The Final Hurdle

Chapter Eleven:
The Last Dance

Chapter Ten: The Final Hurdle

The whole mess had just turned into a blood bath.

The horses crossed the finish line and the crowd exploded in cheers and screams. From three sides, men appeared with guns: I.S.A spies, G-men from the Empire State, and thugs working for the arms dealer, Grünstrasse.

For more information see:
The Industrial States of America; The Empire State

"Heads up, Medusas!" Justine "Battle-axe" Perot yelled. Justine pivoted and dove headlong at Grünstrasse, right past his startled bodyguards. She landed a solid blow to the German's jaw and the corpulent arms dealer tumbled onto the ground.

For more information see:
Justine "Battle-Axe" Perot
The groups scattered and bullets flew. The Medusas scrambled over the fence and onto the track as an enormous shadow fell over the area. Eyes lifted skyward and the joyous shouts of the crowd turned to screams of panic.

For more information see:
The Medusas

The Medusa's zeppelin, the Gorgon, swooped in from over the stands. Her engines roared with a bass thrum that drowned out everything else. Horses reared up in panic, and several jockeys were hurled to the ground as the zep's turrets opened up, firing warning shots. As she moved over the racecourse, the Gorgon dropped rope ladders, which trailed along the ground in the zep's wake.

"Let's move it!" Justine yelled. She took off at a dead run.

The crowd began surging for the exits. Justine saw two people dive over the grandstand's railing to avoid being trampled.

Shots zipped past her ear, but Justine kept going. The panicked horses bolted back up the track, running past the fleeing pirates and making for good cover. Just ahead of her was Amanda Hart, running like gangbusters, briefcase in hand. Just as Amanda was about to grab the nearest ladder, there was a sudden burst of fabric and blood from her shoulder. She went down in a tumble of dust. The ladder moved away quickly.

In a fluid motion, Justine scooped up her wing pilot by her good arm and snatched up the briefcase with her other hand. "Go, go, go!" The lead Medusas were already halfway up the rope ladders. Justine and Amanda huffed as they made their way across the track after the dangling cables.

Near the end of the track was the area set up as the Winner's Circle. If they couldn't catch the ladders by the time the zeppelin reached the end of the track, they were finished. The Gorgon couldn't turn back for them without risking everyone.

They trailed the rear ladder, just barely keeping up with it. It was just out of reach.

"Grab it!" Justine shouted, and shoved Amanda hard. The pilot arced through the air and hooked her good arm in the rungs. A moment later, she pulled her feet up onto the bottom rung.

Justine poured on speed, but the ladder edged away from her.

Is the Gorgon speeding up, or am I slowing down?

Justine looked ahead and saw the problem. The Gorgon's engine's screamed with effort as the stands at the end of the track loomed near. The zeppelin was pulling up. There was only one chance left.

The horses milled about in the winner's circle, next to the three staggered podiums where the jockeys stood, unsure of what to do.

Justine ducked under the barrier ropes and jumped up onto the winner's podium. She shoved the jockey hard enough to send him flying, and sucked a ragged breath as she leapt off the platform. She landed hard on the horse's back. It gave a reflexive whinny and reared on its hind legs.

Justine cursed; all her knowledge of horsemanship had been culled from matinee cowboy serials. She kicked hard, and held on. The winning steed shot forward like a bullet. Just ahead, the rope ladder approached the end of the track. It swayed back and forth as she came up under it fast.

She stood in the stirrups ands strained upward. Her hand reached for the ladder as it swung back toward her in the wind, but it twisted away at the last moment. She tried again but the ladder was just too high, and moving away.

Okay, Justine—do you want to break your neck, or spend the rest of your life in a Dixie prison?

For more information see:
The Confederation of Dixie

She pulled her feet from the stirrups and pushed herself upward in the saddle. With her feet on the saddle, she was perched in a crouch on the horse's back, riding at what felt like breakneck speed. She took a deep breath and intoned to the horse, half praying, "Be a good girl and run straight..."

Justine took a deep breath, timed the swing of the rope toward her, waited for the right moment, and stood up. The wind hit her hard. In a half-second she was teetering. If she missed, she was dead.

"Got it!" Her feet lifted off the saddle and upward. She bid goodbye to the horse. "Thanks, old girl!"

She dangled for a moment and breathed hard.

"Woo-hoo!" screamed a voice from above. She saw Amanda looking down from the belly of the Gorgon.

Justine looked back over the racetrack. Three sets of goons were having it out in a grand gunfight.

Shame we couldn't stick around for the fun, but we've got some shopping to do...and a shark to pay off.

She scanned the figures moving about, but didn't see what she was seeking.

Where's Crawford?

For more information see:
Loyle "Show-stopper" Crawford

As if on cue, the door of one of the stables exploded with machine gun fire and turned to splinters. Over the debris, an unmarked Grumman E1 Avenger rolled out onto the track and gathered speed for takeoff.

For more information see:
Grumman Avenger

Justine started climbing for all she was worth.

It looked like Crawford wasn't going to be such a pushover after all.

She made it up to the hatchway and handed the briefcase to Amanda. "How's your arm?"

"Been better. I can fly."

Justine shook her head. "Fly to the bridge and tell them to get me some altitude. We've got trouble on our tails."

"Crawford?" Amanda scowled. "That guy is like a bad penny. What's he doing here anyway?"

"I called him in. I knew he couldn't resist the chance to be a hero and save his precious Empire State—particularly since it was the Bureau that spearheaded that nonsense with him being a traitor a while back. It's a safe bet he's here on his own dime, though. Nobody back home is going to speak up for him if he gets himself nabbed by the Confederate Air Corps. Which puts us all in the same boat."

For more information see:
The Confederate Air Corps

Justine handed the briefcase to Katie Callahan, who stood for a moment with a sheepish grin.

Justine gave her an irritated glance that did nothing to reduce the girl's sunny countenance. "What're you grinnin' at, Shrimp?"

"I think he was looking at you back there. Y'know, Major Crawford."

Justine smiled wickedly and laughed. "Of course he was looking at me, hon. They all look. But never forget this, Shrimp: the world is full of men. Don't get yourself too attached to just one," her face went dark and cold. "'Cause as soon as you do, sure as anything, you'll have to kill him."

Katie swallowed hard. The smile faded from her face.

"You're my wing pilot, Shrimp. Come on."

Justine turned and hustled toward the hangar bay, with Katie Callahan hot on her heels.

When they arrived, Justine's McDonnell S2B Kestrel was already on the hook, ready to swing over the open drop bay doors. She could see the white sand of Miami Beach below, as the Gorgon ran full out for the ocean.

For more information see:
S2B Kestrel

No time for sightseeing, she reminded herself, and ran across the gangplank to her cockpit. She dropped into the seat and looped her arms back through the parachute harness. She pulled the straps up onto her shoulders and clipped the front buckle across her chest.

The other Medusas were leaping into their cockpits, but as usual, Justine's plane was first in line for the drop. Crawford's plane wasn't far behind them, but he'd give them some room at first. At least until he realized that Justine had been forced to take the ammunition from the Gorgon's mounted guns in order to ensure full loads for all of the gang's fighters. The money she'd borrowed from Joey "The Scarab" Scapelli had only gotten them so far before it ran out.

A dull boom shook the structure of the Gorgon. It sounded like an explosive rocket.

Justine flipped the Kestrel's switches to their start positions and keyed her radio while the plane was pivoted around on its hook. "Gorgon, what the hell was that?"

The voice of "Bold" Amanda Hart answered from the bridge of the zeppelin. "Port engine number four. Direct hit. The creep shoots like a pro, Justine. Watch yourself."

Justine pumped the primer and pressed the ignition switch on her panel. The two Rolls-Royce Merlin II engines belched to life and roared like dragons. She pulled the cockpit canopy closed with a thud, which did nothing to abate the noise of the engines. With her left hand she took out a photograph of her little girl and clipped it onto the dash.

She gritted her teeth. "Crawford's the one who better watch out."

The other planes were warming up and ready to drop right behind her. The odds against Crawford were going to be overwhelming; the Empire State ace was a dead man. Justine grimaced at the thought.

I wish I was better at taking my own advice.

She gave the thumbs up to the crew chief, and then turned her thumb down with a jerk. She tensed her stomach as the release hook snapped open.

The bay shot upward and away as the Kestrel dropped like a rock...right into a hail of machinegun fire! The Grumman E1 Avenger was arcing up from below the Gorgon, flying right at the bay door, guns blazing. For a moment Justine thought she was in trouble, but the Avenger didn't alter course to track her as she fell. Instead he stayed trained on the bay doors, closing the distance until Justine thought he might crash right into the zeppelin's belly.

Too late, she realized what Crawford was doing. A rocket flared from under the Avenger's starboard wing. Justine didn't even have time to shout a warning.

The explosion was terrible. Debris rained from the point of impact. Crawford put the Avenger into a dive as soon as the rocket was away, but he still caught a bit of the blast. Justine watched as one of the bay doors fell past the unmarked plane. Crawford barely managed to bank enough to avoid having his wing sheared off.

Justine's blood boiled. The launch bay was wrecked. There was no way to know if any of the Medusas had been killed, but one thing was obvious: nobody else would be coming to help. She'd have to stop Crawford on her own, and she felt no twinge of regret about it at all.

She pulled back on the stick and scanned the sky for Crawford's plane as she brought the Kestrel around.

"Where are you, you bastard?" she muttered to herself, her eyes scouring the area for a glimpse of the Avenger.

A glint of sunlight off his canopy drew her eye. He was a long way off, but coming around to position himself to engage her. Justine was familiar with the performance of the Avenger—it was her wing pilot's preferred aircraft. Amanda had been trained in the Atlantic Coalition, and like the Empire State they had a strong "Naval Aviator" tradition that favored flying bathtubs like the Avenger.

For more information see:
The Atlantic Coalitiont

She pointed the Kestrel at the target and gunned the engines. Crawford did the same. The Avenger got larger and larger in her gunsights. Both of them held their fire.

Justine clicked on her radio. "Come on, Pretty Boy," she growled, "let's see what you're made of."

The planes converged on one another, dead on. The distance ticked off with frightening speed as the two planes barreled at each another at hundreds of miles per hour. Justine realized that neither of them was willing to veer off. She mentally noted when they crossed the invisible line, when it became physically impossible for either aircraft to turn fast enough to avoid the other.

Justine glanced down at the photo on her dash, and wondered if she was about to be reunited with her little girl.

 


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