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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 Eleven: The Last Dance

The two fighters hurtled at each other, moving closer and closer to a mid-air collision and fiery death.

Justine "Battle-axe" Perot's Kestrel was a twin-fuselage aircraft with two engines, both rated at almost 1,200 horsepower. The plane's top speed exceeded 250 miles per hour.

For more information see:
Justine "Battle-Axe" Perot; McDonnell Kestrel

Loyle "Show-stopper" Crawford's Avenger also had two engines—one on each wing. Though it had less total horsepower than the Kestrel, the Avenger was considerably lighter. Its top speed was about the same as the Kestrel's.

For more information see:
Loyle "Show-stopper" Crawford; Grumman Avenger

Both pilots were quick enough with figures to realize that their combined speed in a head on-collision would be over 500 m.p.h. They were also both too stubborn to veer off.

At the last possible moment, Justine rolled right. So did Crawford. They passed canopy to canopy, upended on their wingtips. Justine heard glass shatter behind her and the whistle of wind filled the cockpit. She looked over her shoulder to see a pane broken out of the canopy glass. Shreds of cloth flapped from the jagged edges.

She'd clipped his tail.

The Avenger was a little better at maneuvering than her Kestrel. Justine knew he'd be able to come around more quickly than she could. She had to play to her strengths. Justine banked the Kestrel around to point back toward the Gorgon. The maneuver put Crawford behind her, but he was still turning around, and too far away for a shot.

The Gorgon was pointing up at an angle, climbing for all she was worth. Smoke trailed from the black scar in the airship's belly. Justine cringed to see it; the Medusas were spending zeppelins lately like they grew on trees.

She eased back on the throttle. She needed him to get closer for the maneuver to work. It had to be timed just right.

She looked over her shoulder and saw the Avenger coming up fast behind her. Crawford would have her in range soon. She adjusted her speed and angled the Kestrel to pass right beneath the Gorgon.

Come on, pretty boy. Come and get me.

The zeppelin's shadow fell across her. At the same time, tracers zipped past her from behind. She jinked to throw his aim off. Justine was willing to bet that Crawford was flying a new E1-C version of the Avenger—which meant it carried a pair of .60-caliber cannons, in addition to its six .30-cal guns. Those could do some damage if she let him get a clear shot.

Justine poured on the power and pulled back hard on the stick. The twin engines yanked the Kestrel forward with tremendous force, and carried it effortlessly up and over the body of the Gorgon. She saw Crawford's Avenger pass underneath the zeppelin.

Justine roared down to complete the loop and passed under the Gorgon for a second time, now in the wake of Crawford's path. The Avenger was already turning to get out of her sights, but Justine could tell she'd made it through her loop faster than Crawford expected. Her Kestrel's power far outstripped the Empire State ace's plane. His attempt at a turn only made his profile bigger in her sights.

Pretty boy had made a big mistake.

The Kestrel's enormous engines not only gave it more power and speed, they also gave it a greater carrying capacity. She was packing three .60-caliber cannons, two .40-caliber and two .30-caliber guns. Against an agile plane like the Devastator or the Fury, she might have trouble bringing those weapons to bear, but the Avenger wasn't nearly as nimble as those aircraft. She mashed down the trigger and sent a lethal spray of machinegun fire lancing toward her foe.

Goodbye, Show-stopper.

But as quickly as he'd started his turn, Crawford rolled to show her his wingtips, decreasing his profile to a narrow sliver. Her shots, intended to take of his starboard wing, cut only the air beneath the Avenger. She pulled back on the stick to bring the line of fire up, but Crawford had already maneuvered too far out of her sights. A few of her shots peppered his tail, but Justine didn't see any significant damage.

As Crawford's plane dipped and came around for another pass, Justine took a deep breath.

Steady. Go for his weak spot.

Justine keyed her radio. "Loyle, I didn't have to miss," she lied sweetly. "Please...don't make it be this way."

The radio crackled as Crawford's smooth baritone drawled from the speaker. "Nice try, Battle-axe...but I'm not buying what you're selling."

Justine gritted her teeth. "Your choice, you stone-hearted ape." She sneered furiously, and let a little too much Louisiana seep into her voice. "I'll send water lilies to your funeral."

Justine angled off and gunned the engines to gain some room to turn, before Crawford could bring his nose around. She looked over her shoulder and saw him in her six, still turning. She had to get around quickly to face him, but the Kestrel just couldn't turn on a dime.

Justine wanted to get Crawford in a bad way, though. Just bad enough to try something crazy.

She shoved forward on the stick and jammed her foot down hard on the control for the tail elevators. Justine was slammed forward against her restraining straps as the Kestrel dropped most of its speed and stood up on its nose, pointing straight down. The big blue ocean filled her view.

The Kestrel dropped like an anvil, but Justine kept the stick jammed forward, straining her arms. Her muscles burned, but she refused to let up. She fed the engines all the power they would take. A terrifying groan of stressed metal came through the cockpit as the tail of the fuselage absorbed the tremendous strain. The stick began to vibrate as the aircraft was pushed beyond its limits.

Justine's eyes widened at the sight of the ocean looming up at her. A small dark spot on the water below was the shadow of her plane, and the two were rapidly approaching one another. She had to get enough speed to push the plane under the reverse loop, before she made a hole in the water.

Finally, the Kestrel rolled under and Justine found herself inverted, flying right at Loyle Crawford's unmarked Avenger, which was just struggling out of its own banking turn. She looked at the plane in her sights. Without wanting to, she pictured the way Loyle had grinned at her at Devoir's party. How he had looked at her, over drinks...when he didn't know she was a Medusa.

For more information see:
The Medusas

She was a Medusa, though...and she'd make damn sure that Crawford would never forget it.

She cut the stick to the left and put the Kestrel into a barrel roll. At the same time, she unleashed all her guns in a spiraling trail of tracers directly at Crawford's plane. He dodged, but Justine guided the Kestrel's nose to track him. The explosive rounds tore through the base of the Avenger's starboard wing and across the engine housing. Smoke blossomed from the plane's starboard motor.

Justine started to laugh, but a sharp crack from her port fuselage cut her off. The Kestrel's frame had cracked from the stress of the maneuver. A flash from far off caught her eye and she cringed. A rocket streaked from beneath the Avenger's wing. Normally at this range a hit would be the most remarkable stroke of luck, but the Kestrel was no tap dancer in the first place—and now she was crippled.

The rocket didn't hit dead on, but it was close enough. The blast sent shards through her fuselage, and port engine. It sputtered and started bleeding smoke, but kept running. She managed to get the plane under control and began a lurching aerial dance with her opponent.

Both planes struggled through the air, trying to limp around to face each other again. They criss-crossed the air, neither one able to get a steady shot on the other. The lines of smoke trailing from each aircraft painted a white mosaic of arcs across the deep blue sky.

Justine's radio sparked to life with a new voice. "Attention, pirate aircraft." The voice had a telltale southern drawl that almost made the words a cadence. "This is Captain Hollis Hayworth, Confederate Air Corps 3rd Squadron. We're closing on your position right now, Medusas. Surrender and head for shore immediately."

For more information see:
The Confederate Air Corps

Crawford's voice spat out of the radio like venom. "I'm not a Medusa, Captain Hayseed."

"Really?" Hayworth shot back. "Then who might you be, Yankee?"

The channel crackled for a moment as Crawford held the mike open. After a few seconds, he released the key and the transmission concluded with a burst of static.

Ouch, Major Crawford. Can't very well tell them who you really are, can you?

Justine broke off and headed toward the Gorgon, which was making good enough time to be long gone by the time the Dixie planes arrived. She grinned as she spoke into the radio. "I have a ride to catch, Dear. I suggest you scram. Unless 'Create International Incident' was on your to-do list this morning."

For more information see:
The Confederation of Dixie

Crawford's Avenger veered off and made off to the north, on an evasive course. She could almost see his lopsided grin as he said his goodbye. "Another time, Darling."

Justine sat in her cabin with her feet propped up on the edge of her battered desk. The Gorgon was going full out for Free Colorado, and with luck, they'd be square with Joey "The Scarab" in a couple of days. Good, she thought. The sooner that tick is out from under my skin, the better.

For more information see:
Free Colorado

She regarded the spread in front of her with some satisfaction—more than a dozen piles of cash, stacked neatly in rows according to the shares allotted each member of the gang. Of course, some piles were taller than others. But hey, rank hath its privilege.

Next to the loot, a cigarette released a thin trail of smoke upward through the beam of light from her desk lamp. She scooped it up out of the ceramic flamingo-shaped ashtray and inhaled deeply. Relaxation had been a scarce commodity lately, and she relished the calm moment. She reached for a coffee-stained manila folder on her desk—

There was a knock at the cabin door.

Justine's shoulders tensed. Count-out of shares was always risky for a pirate. No matter how long they'd flown together, the Medusas were solely interested in cash...and weren't particularly finicky about how they acquired it.

Justine drew her pistol. She cocked the hammer and eased the gun back into its holster.

"Come in," Justine said quietly.

The door opened slowly, revealing Athena "Harpy" Jackson. The statuesque woman stood in the doorway for a few seconds. The shadows hid her dark features.

Justine smirked. "You gonna stand there all night?"

Athena stepped inside and closed the door. Her face was somber, but as she spotted the piles of bills on the desk, her eyes sparkled. "Well, well, well...looks like we did alright on this one." She looked up and caught Justine's eye. "Don't forget this was my idea."

"Don't get your britches in a pinch," Justine tapped a tall pile of crisp Hollywood notes. "This is mine."

Athena's eyes narrowed.

"And this is yours." She moved her finger to the stack next to her own, equal in size. Athena smiled avariciously. "I figured you deserved a bonus for setting up the scam in the first place...even if it didn't go like we planned."

Athena reached for her money, but Justine gave her a smack on the wrist. "Eh-eh-eh. You'll get yours when we divvy out shares in the mess hall like usual." Justine held out a pack of General Lee's with her left hand; her right hand still hovered near her pistol.

Athena took a smoke and lit it.

"You didn't come down here just to get a peek at your share," Justine said.

The smoke hung between them, slowly drifting. The hum of the engines thrummed through the deck.

"I started this gang, Justine."

"So you've told me. And told me, and told me—"

"Just shut up and listen." Athena paced to the other side of the cramped space and faced the wall. "I'm no dummy—I've probably read more books than all the pirates on this bag combined, except maybe Amanda, since she got to go to college." She stopped for a nervous drag on her cigarette. "I started this gang, but..." she turned to face Justine. "But...I never could have found my way through the mess that we just plowed through."

Justine stuck her finger in her ear and shook it vigorously. "I think my hearing must be getting bad."

Athena grinned and exhaled. "Because I started this outfit, I want what's best for the gang. Right now that's you. But..." She paused and tapped her cigarette ash in the flamingo. "If you start to slip, or do anything that's gonna get the Medusa's pinched, I'll be right there. And if you screw up, I'll take the reins again...whether you like it or not."

Justine grinned slightly, and nodded. "I'll take good care of the Medusas."

Athena stepped over to the door and opened it.

"Make sure that you do. This isn't the last tough spot we'll be in."

She turned on her heel...then stopped. She looked back over her shoulder and added: "Oh, and you can relax your gun-hand. If I'd wanted to shoot you, you'd be dead by now."

Athena stepped out and closed the door.

Justine sighed and decocked the gun.

She knew in her gut that Athena was right—that the future was still holding her cards close to the vest, and this line of work was getting more deadly all the time. The Medusas would have to stay sharp, and be ready for anything.

Justine took a last drag on her cigarette and snuffed it out. She thought about Loyle, about the party in New York, about his easy laugh. He was a handsome devil, she smiled wickedly. The creep was easy on the eyes, that was a fact. She was glad she'd picked up something to remember him by.

She picked up a dart from the cup on her desk and cocked back her arm to toss it at the target on the back of the door. With a grin, she flung it across the gulf and buried the tip in Major Crawford's chin—a publicity photo she'd cut out of a Manhattan news rag.

"See you around, pretty boy," she chuckled.

She picked the manila folder up from the desk and opened it. Inside was a picture of the German arms dealer, Grünstrasse, and a photo of the Hope Diamond. Snitches and stool pigeons had placed the fat man in Havana; others claimed he was on his way to Alaska.

"Back to work," she murmured. "Time to see a man about a diamond..."

 


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