"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 caperrobbing 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 hisit 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 tacticthe 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 itthey 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 controlthe 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 knifea 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."