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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 Three: ShowTime

The band started up with the smooth beat of Tommy Dorsey's Satan Takes a Holiday. Justine listened to the first few bars and tried to hide a grin—how appropriate, she thought. She let the melody's slow beat flow over her and tapped her foot beneath the cover of her floor-length black dress. The high heels weren't very comfortable, but they were a necessary evil—a lady just didn't wear boots and jodhpurs to a swank shindig atop a Manhattan skyscraper.

Justine caught her own reflection in the glass of the balcony doors and grimaced inwardly. She had her reasons for avoiding such things. When she was just fifteen, her mother had helped her pick a dress to impress the man who would be her husband.

Five years later, Justine killed him. She'd vowed never to let a man control her again, and she'd done a pretty good job of staying that course. Her bed was rarely cold, but now she was the one dictating the terms. She was no Lana Cooper in the looks department, but Justine had finally learned what men really wanted—anything they couldn't have.

On that scale, Justine figured she had most women in North America beat, and it gave her the upper hand.

Her dress had long, tapered sleeves, but dipped scandalously low in the back, plunging to her waist, with a criss-cross of petite silk laces to hold the thing together. The figure-hugging fabric accentuated her curves and gave her pushes in, and up, in all the right places. Justine glanced to her right at her wing pilot.

Amanda Hart was no stranger to this sort of party, and it showed in the easy way she floated through the crowd. Formerly an officer in the Atlantic Coalition Air Militia, she had refused the attentions of a senior officer and suddenly found her career at a dead end. Flying with the Medusas made her a hunted woman, but it also meant men had to respect her—or find out why they should have.

They'd spent most of the day in a 5th Avenue salon, getting styled and painted. Justine had most of her hair piled on top of her head in what felt like a ridiculous confabulation of twirls, but now seemed to be growing on her; not that she'd ever be able to duplicate it.

Justine took a sip from her long-stemmed champagne glass, which naturally contained only fruit juice—the very best imported juice from Kingdom of Hawai'i, no less, but fruit juice all the same. The Empire State was dry, unless you had connections and a load of political cronies to smooth over any trouble.

For more information see:
The Kingdom of Hawai'i; The Empire State

Amanda sighed and looked at her watch. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Justine replied quietly, "but I could use a real drink. You'd think a rich broad like this could afford to give her guests a little hair of the dog."

"You know how it goes. The good stuff is only for big shots." She took Justine's glass. "I'll see what I can scare up."

Amanda effortlessly entered the swirl of the crowd, while Justine took a quick measure of the situation. Athena's in with the maid was no baloney; the invitations had greased them right in. Devoir had been there shaking hands and did a good job of pretending to recall them from someplace. Justine had managed to avoid gawking at the diamond, but it wasn't easy—the thing was huge; so was the penthouse.

The main room was expansive—as big as a nightclub—and tall, with a staircase than curved up one side of the room to the rest of what must be a very big place. The décor was Romanesque, with marble and columns and curtains of white silk.

Justine had also realized what a good thing it was to have an inside for this job. Manhattan was serious about its air security. Spotlights on the street were for more than just Broadway shows; so were the anti-aircraft guns on the skyscraper rooftops. Manhattanites like Devoir took pride in having their own spotlights and AA guns on their rooftop gardens and balconies. Bringing an unauthorized autogyro, blimp, or zeppelin anywhere close to this building would be suicidal.

The party was in full swing. Her eyes played over the crowd, searching for Devoir. The socialite was conversing with a sharp-looking man with a neat golden-blonde mustache. They seemed to be talking quietly, Justine noticed, and both appeared to be agitated by her conversation with "Golden" boy—most unusual attitudes for such a ritzy gathering.

Devoir seemed perturbed, and absently ran a finger around the edge of the Hope diamond as she listened; round and round. Justine watched intently, measuring Devoir's reactions to each change of Mr. Golden's expression. Her eyes kept moving whenever he wasn't paying attention. Justine followed her gaze into the crowd.

A pair of men stood conversing at the edge of the party; a brown-haired man with a dark complexion and long sinister-looking beak of a nose, and a younger clean-cut Joe wearing round spectacles. She couldn't quite decide who Devoir was looking at.

"Excuse me?"

A man's voice tore her out of her contemplation, and she turned with no small degree of irritation to face the interruption. His face was chiseled, with a cleft chin, lips that broke into an easy lopsided grin, and a neatly-trimmed mustache, but his eyes drew her in; deep brown, sparkling with a sort of mischievous energy.

He blinked and cocked his head charmingly, "Have we met someplace before? You look awfully familiar."

Justine nearly bit her tongue, and she was instantly glad she didn't have a drink, or she might have spat it out. A hundred things ran through her mind: did he know who she was? What was he doing here? How the hell had she let Athena talk her into this? She didn't know what might have flashed across her face in that moment, but that moment was all it took for her to get her feet back under her.

She flashed a brilliant smile and held out her hand demurely to Major Loyle "Show-stopper" Crawford, of the Empire State's famous Broadway Bombers. "I'm sure I'd recall," she said sweetly. "You're famous, Major Crawford."

For more information see:
Loyle "Show-stopper" Crawford; The Broadway Bombers

He cradled her hand, and grinned back. "Well, 'infamous' might be more appropriate. Call me Loyle. And you are...?"

"Peregrine. Julie to...infamous men." He brushed her hand with a kiss, never taking his liquid brown eyes from her face. Her breath quickened against her will and she shoved her heart down with an internal curse.

As he leaned over, she saw Amanda Hart approaching over his shoulder with a pair of tall glasses. She stepped around the man without pausing. The place was full of hand-kissing Joes in tuxedoes.

"Struck out. Just soda water and lime," she said as she held out one glass to Justine, but a larger hand wrapped around the stem and lifted it away.

"Let me have that," said Crawford. "That stuff'll kill you." The color drained out of Amanda's face as he took the glass from her fingers and turned to one side to summon a waiter with a snap.

Amanda mouthed silently, "That's—"

"I know!" Justine responded with her own soundless pantomime.

They both smiled and laughed noncommittally as he turned back to them. Minutes later they were trapped at a table, with Crawford's waiter bringing them gin.

If anyone had told Justine she'd ever spend an evening at a swank party in a Manhattan penthouse listening to Loyle Crawford tell dogfight stories and liquor her up, she would have laughed out loud. If anyone ever said she'd enjoy it, they'd be looking for a new set of teeth; but here she was. In spite of herself, she was—Lord help her—actually enjoying it.

She pursed her lips, and tuned his voice out while she looked him over. He was a handsome devil, there was no doubt of that—he wore a tuxedo like he was born to it—but Justine had shot good-looking men before.

It wasn't just his looks, though. His manner screamed that he was "in command," but not "commanding." His advances were flattering, but not forward. Damn him, she thought, the lug has manners!

"—not like Nathan Zachary." Crawford finished, and Justine snapped back to the conversation like a bucket of cold water had been thrown in her face.

"What about Zachary?" she said—too angrily. She immediately realized her error.

Crawford looked at her, puzzled at the reaction. He considered her for a moment, then shrugged. "I just can't stand his way of making piracy look like some sort of weekend game. Zachary is a thief and a killer, and when I get him in front of my guns," Crawford squinted as he took an imaginary bead on his target and pointed his fingers forward at Justine, "Blam!" He grinned as his hand became an airplane and augured into the table with a crashing noise. He took a drink. "So ends Nathan Zachary's 'illustrious career'."

Justine's blood boiled at the very thought that a high hat like Crawford could just waltz in and blow away the man who'd shot her down without breaking a sweat. Her mouth pursed in thought as she formulated her insults. "You think that—"

"Oops!" Gin and tonic sloshed across the table from Amanda's place and ran off the edge into Crawford's lap. He jumped up, avoiding most of the spill. "I'm so sorry, Loyle!" Amanda dabbed ineffectually at him with a napkin as Crawford pushed her hands away politely.

"It's all right," he said as he struggled to hide the look of annoyance that flashed across his handsome features. A moment later, he sighed and gave them a grin. "I'll just go get cleaned up."

He walked quickly away, but spared a glance over his shoulder that said too much about what he was thinking. Justine took a deep breath.

"Thanks," she said quietly through clenched teeth.

"Don't mention it," replied Amanda. She faked a smile at him as she watched him retreat. "I enjoyed it. His head is so big it probably needs its own hangar."

Justine pursed her lips and scanned the room for the target. She grinned when she spotted Devoir; the socialite was ascending the stairs. She was accompanied by another man—the younger, clean-cut one Justine had picked out earlier.

"It's show time," Justine said with a smirk. Her voice was an uncanny imitation of Crawford.

Justine moved forward, and like a wing pilot, Amanda fell in easily next to her. They strolled across the room as quickly as they could. The constantly shifting sea of tuxedoes and gowns took effort to navigate. At the base of the stairs they paused.

"Go make sure everything is set," Justine whispered. "Otherwise, this whole thing will get messy."

"Check. Be right there." Amanda broke off and moved away through the crowd. Justine stepped quickly up the stairs, as if she was supposed to be there.

She reached the top of the stairs, turned, and crept down the hallway. The sound of the party drifted away to a dull murmur. She quietly turned a corner and saw a door cracked open. Flickering firelight spilled into the hall. Justine crept to the door, and peered through the inch-wide opening into a lavishly appointed study. Obviously Devoir and her companion had wanted to be alone.

Devoir was a remarkably beautiful woman—and the firelight enhanced her beauty. Justine figured Devoir's dress probably cost as much as the Medusas made in a good size heist. Above all, the Hope Diamond hung on the socialite's neck, a symbol of salvation for the Medusas. Justine couldn't help feeling nervous, though. She lifted the hem of her dress and retrieved the Belgian-made .32 automatic from the inside of her left thigh.

The spectacled young man was facing Devoir.

"Sebastian," she said soothingly, "After tonight it'll be over anyway. Everything will be different tomorrow." The woman's reassuring words probably sounded genuine to the guy, but Justine's ear picked up a trace of nervousness.

Devoir was uptight, but why? Justine didn't like not knowing, but she didn't have time to solve a mystery like Paladin Blake in one of his dime-novel escapades. She pushed the door open and stepped quietly into the study, her pistol leveled at Devoir.

For more information see:
Paladin Blake

"You ain't kidding, Lady. Tomorrow's going to be a swell day; at least for me. Hand over the rock."

Devoir clutched the diamond at her throat and tried to look frightened. Justine didn't buy it.

Devoir pointed at a painting on the wall. "The safe is behind that picture. The Star of the East diamond is twice as large. Take it instead."

Justine didn't glance at the picture. She was too paranoid to risk turning away from her captives...and there was something off about Devoir's reaction to the stick-up. "Sorry, Sister. I've got no time for changes of plan. Heave over the diamond or—" Justine saw something out of the corner of her eye just an instant before it hit her arm. The impact knocked the gun from her grasp. It skittered across the floor out of reach. A hand grabbed her shoulder roughly and spun her around.

Loyle Crawford's face was dark and angry. "What's the big idea, Doll?"

 


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