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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 Five: In The Rough

The staccatto ping of machine gun rounds filled the cockpit. The gyro heaved in the air unsteadily...but stayed aloft.

Barely.

Justine's mind raced. The gyro couldn't take another hit, and New York waters were a hell of a lot colder than Hawai'ian. She gritted her teeth. Time to change the rules.

For more information see:
Kingdom of Hawai'i

The diamond formation of Avengers—militia insignia boldly emblazoned on their fuselages—roared over them. Justine yanked on the stick to jerk the gyro up, and gunned the engine to full speed.

For more information see:
Grumman E-1C Avenger

"What the hell is she doing?" Ivy's confused voice yelled out of the radio. "Where is she?"

"Right in front of me!" came the reply from her rear point plane.

"Shoot her!"

"No, I mean she's right in front of me!"

The look of shock on the faces of the two wing pilots was priceless. Justine wished she could see Iverian's, but she'd have to settle for the tail view of the woman's Avenger. Justine smiled. She'd found the only place in the Manhattan sky where they couldn't blast her to bits—right in the middle of their own formation.

For more information see:
Justine "Battleaxe" Perot

Ivy maneuvered, but anything her wing pilots could keep up with was a cakewalk for Justine—the autogyro stayed right in their center pocket. Justine lacked Ivy's or Amanda's formal training, but she knew the rules of air combat. If any of the planes broke off, Justine could peel right after them and get a clear shot at their tail. You never leave your wingman.

Ivy dove and pulled up, banked and rolled. Her wing pilots stayed right on her. So did Justine.

"Oh, man," said Amanda with a wicked smile. "Look at her rudder twitching. She's plenty steamed."

Justine narrowed her eyes, watching the plane's rudder intently. "Yeah, she's ready to make a move. Which way will she break, miss College Education?"

Amanda leaned forward. "Left. She always goes to the left when she's mad."

The radio crackled again, and Justine grinned as she heard Ivy's command. "All units break formation, now!"

The Avengers scattered, but Justine broke left. Ivy's plane stayed dead ahead of her. Ivy wagged and dodged, trying desperately to shake her, but Justine kept the nimble autogyro right on her six. The formation was the only thing keeping Justine from firing. Now that it was gone, the Empire State ace would realize she'd made a big mistake.

For more information see:
Empire State

Justine sent a trail of .30-caliber rounds across Ivy's tail at point blank range. Sparks flew from the Avenger's fuselage, but Justine didn't see any significant damage.

Puny thirty cals, she thought. The Avenger was under-armored compared to some fighters, but it could darn well stand up to the peashooter on this autogyro. She only had a few seconds before the other planes came around and get her in their sights. There was no time to be neat, or safe.

Justine flipped a cover up on the panel and pressed a toggle switch into the down position. A red light illuminated on the panel. As Justine jammed her thumb down on the firing stud, Amada sucked a breath in alarm.

"We're too close!" she yelled.

The rocket flared beneath them. Justine pulled back hard on the stick and the nose pitched up to show their belly to the blast. A deafening explosion slammed into the autogyro and pressed them down into their seats. A split-second later they were weightless.

The panel shorted out in a blinding spray of sparks and half the instruments went dead. There were spots in Justine's eyes as she struggled to recover her night vision. The darkness made it impossible to tell up from down.

Justine's stomach wrenched as the autogyro tumbled. She frantically searched for a reference point. C'mon, just one break.

Lightning flashed across the horizon.

The gyro's blades caught air as she righted the craft and pulled out of the dive just a few yards shy of the water. A few hundred feet away, a flaming Avenger hit the water and winked out.

Amanda whooped at the prospect of being alive, and glanced up. "I see her chute." Then something aft caught her eye. "Look out! They're right on us!"

Justine looked up to her left and saw them too—three pairs of wing lights coming dead on, and between them a total of twenty-four wing-mounted .30 caliber machineguns. The autogyro was already on its last legs, and at this alititude her maneuverability was reduced to zero.

There was no place left to run.

Suddenly, lightning struck the lead plane and it disintegrated in a blinding flash of fire!

No, not lightning, Justine realized an instant later. A rocket!

For more information see:
HE Rockets

The two remaining planes scattered to avoid the explosion. The radio sparked as it received a transmission. "These here guys botherin' you ladies?" came the Texan drawl of the Medusa's own Mary "Longshot" Longnecker.

Four more Medusa planes roared past, in hot pursuit of the Empire State fighters.

Justine smiled. "Yeah, Longshot. Tell 'em to hit the road."

The pirate gang's greater numbers made the Empire State pilots think twice. They made a beeline for Manhattan.

The steady voice of Shiela "Owl" Carter—one of the founding members of the Medusas gang—cut in. "They're on the run, Boss. But I see wing lights approaching from the northeast." Owl's eyesight was legendary in the gang. Justine knew better than to argue with her.

"Okay, Medusas, head for the Gorgon. Stay on course and watch your instruments. It's dark and the weather's going south fast. You don't get a cut if you die on the way back."

For more information see:
The Medusas

"Lookit the size of that rock!" Mary Longnecker's eyes were as big as saucers. She frowned and put her hands on her hips, "Are y'all sure it ain't from Texas?" Someone snatched her stetson off her head and hit her with it.

For more information see:
Republic of Texas

The Medusas were boisterous, as they had every right to be, but Justine sat off to one side of the mess room, lost in thought. She couldn't quite fit it all together, but something about the caper was wrong.

The situation wasn't what she had wanted either—the Gorgon was socked in by fog. Normally, the zeppelin could just rise above it, but the weather had turned foul enough that going anywhere would be more dangerous than sitting off the coast of the Empire State an extra few hours. Besides, if they couldn't travel, neither could the Empire Militia's military zeppelins.

"Cut it out!" shouted Gertie "Two Guns" Puckett. Gertie was standing between Mathilda "Hag" Hannigan and "Bold" Amanda Hart. She turned toward Mathilda, who lobbed the Hope Diamond necklace over her head to Amanda. Puckett glowered for a moment, then drew two huge nickel-plated revolvers, holding them out in opposite directions at Hart and Hannigan.

"Woah!" the two said in unison. Hannigan laughed, "No hard feelings!"

Amanda gingerly hung the necklace on the barrel of the revolver facing her. Gertie pulled it back and dangled it in front of her own face, wide-eyed with greed. "Sweet Mary Magpie..." she gasped.

Justine lifted the prize off the gun barrel, which elicited an involuntary sigh from Puckett.

"Enough horsing around," Justine said. She tossed the necklace to Hsi. "See if you can get all these monkey's fingerprints off that."

Hsi stepped back a pace and slipped away down the hall.

Justine continued, "The rest of you get busy making this ship ready for a storm. I'd hate to die so soon after getting rich."

"Hey boss," came the clean voice of Katie Callahan, huddled over by the short-wave radio. "I thought you said everything went down clean?"

Justine stepped over to the radio. The bad feeling that had dogged her through the evening crept up her spine as she cranked the volume up.

"...awford said that the Broadway Bombers would be on the Medusas' trail immediately, and that he would personally shoot down the gang's leader, Justine Perot, known among pirates as 'Battleaxe'." The gang broke into laughter. Justine shushed them with a hand.

For more information see:
Loyle Crawford; Broadway Bombers

"Manhattanites are stunned, and calling for increased defenses, in the wake of the theft of one of the world's most valuable diamonds, and the murder of Darlene Devoir, famous Manhattan socialite. President LaGuardia appeared before reporters fifteen minutes ago and promised the full force of the Empire State military in the effort to capture the Medusas gang. He said, quote, The murderous Medusas will be brought to justice, by any means, no matter how long it takes. On that you have my word. Unquote. This has been an emergency broadcast. AeroTone Radio returns you now to another episode of 'The Privateer'—"

Justine turned off the radio. Outside, thunder shook the black sky, and it started to rain.

Justine "Battleaxe" Perot hurled the chair with all her strength. It smashed to pieces against the metal bulkhead of the map room and fell in a heap. She seethed for a moment longer, then steadied herself. Ching "Wasp" Hsi sat calmly at the map table.

"Are you positive?" Justine knew the answer already.

"Absolutely," she stated firmly. "This diamond is a fake."

Justine leaned over the map table to look down through the large magnifying glass at the "Hope Diamond" in its brilliant necklace setting. A bright cone of light over the table shone straight down on the surface. Around the perimeter of the room, a handful of Medusas lined the shadowy walls. Their faces were dark, and quiet.

Dangerously quiet, Justine thought. When this group clams up, it can only mean trouble.

Justine had slept for several hours to take the edge off her exhaustion after she returned from what should have been the Medusas' most successful caper—robbing Manhattan socialite Darlene Devoir of the Hope Diamond. Now it looked like all they'd gotten for their troubles was a lot of heat, and no diamond.

Thunder rattled the frame of the Gorgon. The storm had darkened the coast of the Empire State most of the day. It buffeted the zeppelin with strong winds, but they weren't in any danger yet. The storm had also grounded the Empire State Militia. At least she wouldn't have to worry about that blowhard Loyle Crawford showing up. There was something uniquely charming about that schoolboy grin of his—it had felt good to hit him right in that famous kisser. I wonder if he had a fat lip for the photographers? The thought almost made her smile.

"Justine?" Amanda. The concern in her wing pilot's voice snapped Justine back to the present. She took a deep breath to buy a moment while she stuffed all thoughts of Loyle Crawford down to a place where she wouldn't hear of them for some time. "What do we do now?" Amanda said seriously.

Athena "Harpy" Jackson glared at Justine.

"I knew it," Athena said with disgust. The space across the table between them grew cold. "I should have gone myself. It was my plan, my contacts, my caper, but you just had to be the one to go, perfect Justine Perot."

"Shut up, Athena," Amanda snapped.

"Ease up," cut in Shiela "Owl" Carter. As the founder of the Medusas, Athena had the loyalty of some of the elder members. Shiela was the one Justine worried about most. After Athena's capture, Shiela had helped Justine to rebuild the Medusas into a fighting force to fear. Now that Athena was back, where did Sheila's loyalty lie?

"Sounds like we need to find this Sebastian fella that was with her," said Mary Longnecker.

Katie Callahan chimed in with Watson-like enthusiasm, "Yeah, he must have been the one that killed her and took the diamond!"

Athena snorted derisively. "This isn't an episode of Mystery Theater."

Amanda ignored Athena and continued, "We have to move forward quickly. The trail is getting colder every minute."

Justine straightened up. "We do need to go after Sebastian. Someone put a bullet in Devoir right after we left. Finding the killer and punching his ticket is our best defense. More importantly, its probably the way to get to the real diamond."

"That's a load of booshwa," Athena spat. "This caper is finished. We should be putting as much sky between us and the Empire State as possible." She spoke softly, but her clear alto sent chills through the Medusas. "I will not go back to prison."

"We'll go when I say we go," Justine shot back, her fist clenched. Careful, a voice in her head cautioned. Don't let Athena control the situation.

Athena took a deep breath. When she continued, her voice was cool and measured. "We can't stay here for your ego, Justine. You blew it. Come clean and get the Medusas out of here." Justine recognized Athena's tactic—the Medusas' founder was going for the "high road" to curry the gang's favor; Justine read the between-the-lines message loud and clear, though: if you can't be a leader, then at least act like one. And if you won't, I will.

Justine pursed her lips and picked the necklace up. She regarded it casually as it dangled from her fingers. The central jewel was a rich blue. Sixteen smaller white stones ringed it—they would have seemed large under other circumstances. The whole bauble was bigger than an old silver dollar, and as if that weren't enough, it hung from a diamond-studded necklace too. She stalked slowly around the map table, lost in thought.

Athena had backed her into a corner. If she fled, she gave Athena control—the Medusas would look to Athena for confirmation of every order Justine tried to issue from now on. If she stayed, and she was wrong, she'd probably end up with a bullet in her back. If there was one thing the Medusas punished, it was weakness.

Justine paused, as inspiration struck. Weakness, she thought. Devoir was a high-society dame. She should have been a sobbing little pushover...but she wasn't. Why?

She faced the Medusas, a calm smile on her face.

"Devoir had a fake necklace. We put a gun in her ribs, and she pointed to her safe instead of giving it up. Hundreds of thousands of bucks in real diamonds. Why?" Justine continued around the perimeter of the room, looking into the eyes of each Medusa as she circled. Nobody answered.

"She should have been crying, begging us not to kill her," she said. She reached Athena and stopped nose to nose. "Why?"

Athena met Justine's gaze without flinching. "Do I look like a radio-show gumshoe? I don't care why."

Justine's hand blurred for her belt. She pulled her knife—a razor-keen, thin bladed stiletto she habitually carried. The blade slid into place with a metallic click, and Justine held the weapon steadily between their faces.

Nobody breathed. Justine turned away and slammed the necklace down on the table under the cone of light. In a fluid motion she jammed the knife into the necklace's centerpiece and wrenched the rock out of its setting. The clear crystal popped up into the air. She caught it easily and turned the fake over in her hand.

On the back of the rock was a black dot, about as big around as a pencil's eraser.

She held it under the light for the rest of the Medusas to see.

Athena's confidence wavered. "What's that?"

"That," said Justine with an even stare, "is why you should care 'why'."

"It's a microdot!" Amanda said as she leaned over it in astonishment. "I've heard of these."

"I haven't," Shiela replied. "So what the hell is it?"

"Its like a really small photograph," Amanda explained. "You need a special machine to read what's on them, but they can store several pages of information," she paused, and an avaricious grin tugged at the corners of her mouth, "like maybe bank accounts, safe combinations. Stuff you want to keep secret."

"So what's on this one?" said Shiela greedily.

Amanda shrugged. "Could be anything."

"You don't even know what's on it." Athena resumed her previous superior air. "It could be Darlene Devoir's laundry list for all we know."

Justine faced her down squarely. "I know one thing..." Justine glanced around at the eyes of her Medusas, hanging on her words. "It's no 'laundry list': Devoir thought it was worth more than the rest of her diamonds combined."

The lady pirates looked at one another. Justine tossed the rock up and caught it in her fist with an avaricious smile. "To me that sounds like something worth sticking around for."

 


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