"Pig," Amanda interrupted him, seething.
He stopped, and seemed satisfied to have gotten a rise out of her. "Bring her over here."
The other agent ushered Amanda into the open, while the Blonde Man took a step toward Justine.
"Nice suit," Justine sneered. "You looked better in the tux."
"Charming of you to say." he said dryly. He scooped up Justine's gun from the desktop and tucked it in his waistband. The other agent covered them with his government-issue revolver. "Where's the item you stole?"
"I left it at home. It didn't really match this outfit."
He slapped her. Justine's shock mixed with rage as the stinging blow brought back a flood of unpleasant memories. Amanda twitched forward, but the other agent warned her back with his pistol. Justine rubbed the side of her face and regarded the Blonde Man with an icy gaze.
"Don't play dumb," he said coolly. "I've read your sheet. You passed up the real stuff to get my item. I want it back."
"You don't have to slap me" Justine said.
"If you don't like being slapped, give me back the item." The Blonde Man's face was impassive.
"You didn't let me finish," she shot back. "You don't have to slap me...like some kind of milquetoast." Justine's voice was steady as a rock. "You can use your fist...if you know how, that is."
"Didn't mean to offend, Ma'am." He threw a left that spun her head.
She stood still for a moment and waited for the stars to clear. Salty blood welled up in her mouth.
"Not bad." She wiped her lip with the back of her hand, spat blood and grinned.
"Empire State Middleweight Champion in '34." His regarded her with unblinking eyes. "Feel better?"
"Yeah." She wagged her jaw side to side with her hand. "You're not exactly a white hat are you?"
"I'm sure Mother would be disappointed."
"That's a laugh...that you had a mother, I mean." She smiled wickedly. "Don't apologizeI think bad men are...interesting."
"I'm not apologizing. I'm explaining why you're going to get a bullet in the head if you don't give me what I want." He cocked the pistol and brought it up to Justine's eye level. "Right now."
Her smile disappeared.
Someone rapped on the doorframe of the office. The woman wore a blue utilitarian dress and carried a mop and bucket. She had stringy graying hair and a face of earned wrinkles. She rapped with the mop handle again.
"Cleaning," she called in a throaty rasp.
The bloody-nosed agent turned to her while the rest of the action stayed frozen. "Government business, lady." He held out a badge. "Scram."
"Eh?" She snatched it from his fingers with a scowl and a mutter. Her brow knitted as she squinted and scrutinized it.
The Blonde Man didn't take his eyes off Justine as he said, "Get rid of her."
"Ma'am. My badge, please."
She looked him up and down once more, and gave a dissatisfied harrumph before holding out the badge. It slipped from her fingers as he reached for it.
He leaned over to retrieve it, and finally noticed the jodhpurs and leather boots poking out from under her dress.
The sound of a body hitting the floor didn't make the Blonde Man shift his gaze; the cold steel of a gun muzzle against his neck did. He sighed and reversed the pistol in his grip. Justine accepted it with a nod.
"Pleasure doing business with you." She reached into his belt and slowly pulled out her own .32 automatic. She tucked his revolver in her own belt and motioned with her pistol. "Get in the closet."
"And if I refuse?"
"You'll end up in the closet anyway. Whether you're able to walk out again later is up to you."
He stepped toward the closet doorway while Mathilda "Hag" Hannigan shrugged out of the cleaning woman's dress. He shook his head ruefully at the unconscious agent in the doorway.
"It's so hard to find good help," he muttered.
Justine shrugged. "You hire women?"
"Tough break." She drew her fist back and landed a solid punch on his jaw. He stumbled back into the closet. Amanda slammed the door while Justine shoved a chair up under the doorknob.
Amanda looked at Hannigan. "Where's Gertie?"
"In the car," she said as she scooped up Gertie's fallen sidearms from the floor. "I got the other guy on his way down."
The sound of distant sirens drifted in from the broken window. Justine cut off the conversation. "Let's get out of here."
Justine's cabin aboard the Gorgon was dark, except for the small lamp that illuminated her rickety fold-down desk. She'd been going over the east coast charts for some time.
The best route south was a tough call. They'd have to be careful to avoid the main lanes, and that meant a wide swing over the Atlantic, or a risky flight over the Confederacy's northern border. Either way was dangerous. South Atlantic thunderstorms could come up suddenly, and were hellishly difficult to climb above.