The morning sun streamed through the metal shutters on the starboard side window. Warm sunlight painted orange rectangles across the coffee cups and half-eaten plates of eggs on the tables. The chatter dulled down as Justine stepped up to the front of the room.
"Welcome aboard the Gorgon!" Her shout was met with hoots and applause. Boots stomped the deck in approval. She stood in front of the group, and basked in their approval. As she inhaled to shout for quiet, another voice broke the cheers.
"Whoa, keep your hair on, Medusas," came the smooth alto of Athena "Harpy" Jackson. She strolled up the center of the gathering toward the front and held her palms out to each side to shush the assembled women pirates. "Let's not forget that we still have matters to discuss." The women calmed down reluctantly, but gave her their attention.
Justine took easy breaths through her nose, her mouth tight with restrained anger as she watched Athena stroll toward her. No matter her shortcomings, Athena was very adept at becoming the focus of the Medusas' attention. Amanda gave her a subtle worried look, but Justine ignored it.
Athena went on. "Okay, now Justine's going to give you the details, and you better listen up, cause this one's going to be the best yet."
At Athena's cue, heads swiveled back to face Justine. With practiced ease carved out of two years in the leader's hotseat, she slipped back into the spotlight. "Athena's right for once," she said with a hint of sarcasm, satisfied with Athena's glare at the jab, "this is a big one. We've got planes and ammo, and now we have a zeppelin, but we can't quit yet." Justine's leg ached again as she recalled her Devil's Contract with Joey "the Scarab" Scapelli.
The Scarab was a man whose name didn't seem to fit him at first. He was thin and sinewylike walking beef jerkywith sunken black eyes and protruding bushy eyebrows. His small mouth made every word a poison dagger that stabbed at you with exacting enunciation. Even Justine couldn't place his accent, and she was usually pretty good at that sort of thing. His fascination with Egypt gave him his name, and he had a way of creeping Justine out with his attention to the mummified husks he kept around his place at Sky Haven. He called them his "collection agents."
He was a freak among freaks in her estimation, but he'd been a good patron to the Medusas on a few occasions. Of course she'd always managed to pay him back those small loans on time, and never really had to contemplate what would happen if she didn't come through with the dough. This last loan was bighuge in factand she shuddered inwardly as the image of Joey's "pals" loomed in her mind.
Justine gathered her thoughts. "We've got to do something big to show the world we're not beat. Something that'll pay us a bundle." The pirates leaned forward in greedy anticipation. "Who's heard of the Hope Diamond?"
Mary "Longshot" Longnecker guffawed in the back. "I hear that diamond is big enough to play baseball on!" she whooped. The rest of the women answered back with whistles and shouts of approval.
"The Hope Diamond" a calm, clear voice said, just a hair above normal speaking volume. The clipped British accent had a crystal clarity that cut through the noise and quieted the room. All eyes turned to Ching Hsiknown to her compatriots as "Wasp"a woman of uncommon aerial agility, with a sting to watch out for. The Chinese woman's diminutive stature and hourglass figure gave her an exotic beauty, but it was her uncommon insights and obvious culture that made her a stand-out among the Medusas. She was also one of the deadliest women in the skies of North America...or for that matter, on the ground.
"The Hope Diamond," she began again once the room was quiet, "is a rare deep-blue diamond, the largest of its kind in the world. It weighs forty-four and one-half carats, and was once owned by Louis the XIV." She paused and noted a few blank stares. "The King of France," she clarified, and heads bobbed in a murmured chorus of "oh-yeah-right."
"It is worth..." Hsi raised one slender eyebrow and smiled avariciously, "quite a packet."
"Yes it is," Justine replied. "And we're going to steal it."
Murmurs washed across the group, but one voice piped up; the gruff growl of Gertie "Two Guns" Puckett. "How you figure we'll get it? A rock that big'll rate a lot of cops and guards. Either that or it'll be a safe or something, right?"
"Not this Saturday it isn't," Athena answered first. She swaggered forward and pulled a paper from her back pocket. She snapped the folded newspaper clipping open by one corner and held it up for all to seea photograph of an attractive young woman wearing a brilliant necklace, with a silver dollar-sized diamond dangling in her cleavage.
Mary Longnecker whistled appreciatively.
"Longshot, the last time you had a necklace on, it was made out of rope," Sheila ducked as Longnecker jumped up and took a half-hearted swing at her. The two bobbed around each other and exchanged jabs at the air while the onlookers hooted.
Justine let them go at it for a few seconds before she called it, "Hey, anybody interested in piracy around here, or would you two ladies rather go someplace more private?"
Mary and Sheila broke it upeach said the other was lucky for the interruptionand took their seats. Athena took a breath to continue, but Justine cut her off, "So, Athena here made some friends in her two years in the poke."
"That's right, I"
"And one of her friends turns out to have a sister," Justine strolled across the front of the room, "who happens to work for," she nonchalantly snatched the picture from Athena's hand and held it up, "Miss Darlene Devoir."
"Dev-what?" called Mary in her thick Texan drawl.
"Dev-WAH," Ching Hsi pronounced carefully. "It's French."
"Like King Lou-ee?"
"Oui," she paused. "Yes."
Mary settled back into her chair with a scowl, "I don't think I care much for them French. I never much cottoned to folks what don't speak English."
"What's the plan, Boss?" the voice came from the front row, out of the tall red-headed stringbean they'd taken to calling "Shrimp." Katie Callahan was the newest member of the Medusas, barely six months into her stint, but she'd passed the initiation with flying colorsby surviving the obligatory mission as Gertie "Two Guns" Puckett's wing pilot.
Gertie was as likely to shoot a friend as a foe if they got between her and a targetshe just liked to shoot, couldn't stop shooting when it came right down to itso the knack for staying out of her way had become the litmus test for new pilots in the group. The trial had a fairly high rate of attrition. Katie had survived by secretly rigging a cutoff switch on Puckett's ammo feed, which she could trigger with a transmitter in her own plane. Puckett had beaten her nearly to death afterward, but the kid still wanted to join up. Katie got into the Medusas.
"Glad you asked," Athena answered. "My friend's sister has arranged for us to have a couple of tickets to the party on Saturday. With those"
"Athena," Justine, regarded her with an icy stare. "Shrimp was talking to The Boss. That'd be me."
Athena placed her hands on her hips. "Old habits die hard, I guess. I was boss of my gang for a long time."
"It's not your gang anymore." Justine tensed and shifted her weight to her back foot. "Sit down."
Athena stood her ground, "You ought to watch what you say, Justine. I started this gang."
Justine didn't budge, "Let me explain something to you. Was means was. You got bagged. I pulled your can out of the ice house. That means you got no gang and you can sit your big...mouth down now."
Their eyes locked and the room grew quiet, as the Medusas watched the silent struggle in front of them. Finally, Athena tugged at the bottom of her leather jacket and straightened it indignantly. "This isn't over, Justine. You need me." Athena turned and walked out of the mess hall. Sheila Carter, Mary Longnecker, and two other women quietly stood and walked after her.
The remaining Medusas looked to Justine, unsure. Justine pursed her lips as she looked at the empty doorway. If Athena stayed, the gang might dissolve in a morass of infighting. If Athena went, too many would go with herthe Medusas would be irreparably fractured. There had to be another option. If Justine couldn't find it, the Medusas would be finished for good.