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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 Nine: The Home Stretch

"Aaaaaaaaand...They're off!"

The gates clanged open and a line of horses thundered forward to the roar of a frenzied crowd. Hialeah Racetrack was a jewel in Miami's crown, boasting a high profile and a healthy dose of tourist dollars, even in tense times. The sky overhead was a brilliant blue, cloudless and bright. Arms waved as the throngs screamed and urged their favorite on to victory, betting stubs firmly clutched in their fists. Many of the spectators had binoculars focused on the action down on the dusty track, but a few people were looking elsewhere.

Justine "Battle-axe" Perot swung her lenses around once more to scan the east gate of the track. Near the gate, standing off to one side, was Mr. Grünstrasse accompanied by a pair of his seemingly endless stream of Teutonic thugs. Justine figured he had to have a machine stamping those guys out by the dozen. She narrowed her eyes at the image, and said just loud enough for her neighbor to hear, "Target one in sight."

For more information see:
Justine "Battle-Axe" Perot

"Bold" Amanda Hart stood at Justine's right elbow with her own pair of binoculars pointed at the other side of the track. "I've got target number two," she said.

Justine turned to look. She refocused the binoculars on the opposite gate, and sure enough, there he was. They had first encountered the Blonde Man in New York City at Darlene Devoir's swank party. After they'd stolen Devoir's diamond necklace—the Hope Diamond—the Blonde Man had turned up looking for it. The Diamond had turned out to be a fake, but Blonde's interest in it was the genuine article...meaning that he knew the same thing Justine now did: the fake diamond concealed a hidden microdot.

Justine figured he knew what was on it, too.

"Target three, right on time," said a voice from the row behind them. Sheila "Owl" Carter was peering far off across the track at the side entrance by the stables. Justine squinted through her own binoculars, but Carter's sighting was exactly on the money. Justine had a fellow in her sights she had come to call The Dark Man, after his swarthy complexion. He'd also been present at Devoir's party, but Justine hadn't connected him to this whole mess until he turned up in Miami and killed Sebastian Jacobs—Devoir's "friend" who Justine had hoped to follow to the real diamond.

The chase had taken them all the way down the eastern coast of the former United States, but Justine finally thought she had the whole picture filled in. There was just one more piece missing from the puzzle, but if her luck held out, it fall into place very soon.

"Okay, Medusas, time to move," Justine announced, and pulled a red handkerchief from her pocket. She waved it in the air over her head. Among the flailing crowd it didn't attract attention, but to the Medusas watching her from around the track, it was a clear signal: "Go."

For more information see:
The Medusas

Justine and her compatriots edged out of their row. The stairs down to the base of the track were crowded, but the women got through. At the gate below, a bribed attendant let them through to the track-side area. They made their way toward one end of the arena as the horses thundered past on the other side of the railing, momentarily drowning out the crowd's screams.

They assembled in a clear spot at one end of the track, beneath a large billboard. Grünstrasse brushed tan dust from his shoulder. Clouds of dirt hung over the adjacent track from the horses passing. The Blonde Man and the Dark Man stared at one another hatefully and said nothing. Each of them carried a briefcase.

Justine took a deep breath and exhaled.

This had better be a hell of a speech.

"Glad you could all make it, gentlemen. This affair has been bloody and unsatisfying for all of us. Hopefully, what I'm about to tell you can change all that."

The men stood like statues.

"Darlene Devoir was a very wealthy woman, but her tastes outstripped her ability to support herself, and her late husband's gambling debts had left her swimming in red ink. I think we all understand now that Devoir had turned to spying to make herself the extra cash she needed."

Justine paced around the circle as she spoke. She paused in front of the Blonde Man. "You work for the Imperial Bureau of Investigation. Devoir came to you and told you that she'd been approached by agents of a foreign power and asked to act as an intermediary of espionage material."

"True," said the Blonde Man. "She was a double agent for us."

"But she wasn't really," Justine said coyly. "Was she?"

"That depends," said the Dark Man. Justine continued around the circle to regard him.

"Yes, it does." Justine paused for effect. "Your accent was the piece I needed to put me on the right track. What part of Chicago are you from?"

"I get around," said the Dark Man, eyebrow raised.

Justine continued, "You both thought that she was working for you and fooling the other guy, but it turns out she was actually working for both sides and collecting paychecks all the way around."

The Blonde Man grimaced. "That's what we think."

Justine looked at the two agents. "Because neither of you figured she was clever enough to fool you and turn your own game against you. Well, you were both part-right." Justine moved on around the circle to face Grünstrasse. "She had help, didn't she?"

Grünstrasse chuckled. "Indeed, she did."

The Blonde Man snapped his fingers, "Sebastian Jacobs."

"Bingo," Justine confirmed. "Devoir's 'more-than-just-a-lawyer' was actually working for Grünstrasse, who in turn works for...?"

"I am independent now. The organization I was affiliated with experienced some...disruption, during the last few years thanks to a rather persistent meddler."

"Let me guess: Paladin Blake?" she replied with a knowing smile.

For more information see:
Paladin Blake

Grünstrasse shrugged. "You are remarkably well-informed, Fraulein."

"I read the papers. The messes over Washington and the Gulf were embarrassingly public, weren't they?"

Grünstrasse didn't reply; his eyes narrowed to slits. Justine had touched a nerve.

She leveled her eyes at the German. "Your intent was to give both sides enough information to convince them of their superior position. You were goading them into a fight. Tell me, Mr. Grünstrasse, you don't happen to have an interest in arms sales?"

"A good businessman has a diverse portfolio, Fraulein Perot."

"Good enough," Justine conceded, and moved around to complete her circuit and stood with her fellow Medusas facing the three men and their assorted flunkies. "Each of you has one piece of this puzzle. A piece that one of the others wants badly enough to kill for it." She paused to get the complex arrangement straight in her head.

"I have a fake diamond," she continued. "Mine was intended for you," she indicated the Blonde Man, "and I'll bet it fingers every I.S.A. agent in the Empire State. Something you'd be happy to bring home to your bosses in the Empire State Bureau of Investigation, I'm sure."

For more information see:
The Industrial States of America; The Empire State

"I would indeed," he growled. "I'd love to show those I.S.A. rats a taste of Bureau hospitality." He spat the words at the I.S.A. agent across from him.

Justine ignored his outburst and went on. "I'm sure. Too bad I stole it before she could give it to you."

The Blonde Man's lip twitched.

She pointed at Grünstrasse, "You have a fake diamond containing one microdot, intended for him," she indicated the Dark Man. "Presumably that microdot contains defense secrets of the Empire State, which his pals in the I.S.A. would love to get their mitts on."

The Dark Man smirked, "No doubt about that."

"No," Justine glared at him, "nobody doubts your resolve. You killed Sebastian Jacobs in cold blood over it. You also killed Darlene Devoir."

"Son of a gun," Sheila "Owl" Carter said with surprise.

"But of course Devoir had already given the diamond to Jacobs when you killed her, and Jacobs had already given the diamond to his superior, Mr. Grünstrasse, by the time you caught up with him. I think we can all agree that your timing needs work."

Several people chuckled as the Dark Man fumed.

"But the point is, that the whole thing left both of you movie serial G-men empty-handed." Justine smiled.

She eyed both of the agents. "Gentlemen, would each of you be kind enough to discreetly open your briefcases, please?"

Each hesitated, then stepped up to open each case enough to reveal rows of neatly stacked cash. If they were square—and Justine figured the stakes were too high for them to mess around—each should contain $25,000 in Hollywood Dollars.

For more information see:
The Nation of Hollywood

"Here's how this will play out, gentlemen," Justine's last word dripped with sarcasm. Any of them would take the chance to double-cross—and murder—the others without hesitation. "I'll hand over my diamond and microdot to the I.S.A. Grünstrasse will hand over his to the Empire State. Both of you get your own information back, with no loss of security." The agents seemed less than thrilled but they didn't interrupt. "Both of you men will hand over your packages to the Medusas for our troubles. I think you both can agree that twenty-five gees is a small price to pay to keep this information out of enemy hands.

"And," she added, "to ensure that your bosses will never find out how badly you botched this whole caper."

Grünstrasse cleared his throat. "Fraulein, you have left a few vital bits out of your beautiful speech. What is in this for me?"

Another voice piped up from the Medusas' side, Athena "Harpy" Jackson: "And what happened to the real Hope Diamond? That stupid rock was what got us into this mess in the first place, and I want to know where it is!"

A man's voice cut through the noise to get their attention. "I can answer both of those questions." A fit, athletic man stepped up to the group and stood behind Justine. He wore a brown khaki shirt and a wide brimmed hat pulled down in front to obscure his face. "What's in it for you, fat man, is this."

The man produced from his pocket a black cloth, and unwrapped the contents to reveal the most brilliant diamond necklace any of them had ever seen. The fakes paled next to its brilliance under the noontime Miami sun. None of them had any doubt that this was the real Hope Diamond.

With his other hand, he tipped the brim of his hat upward to reveal his face.

"Hi, Loyle," said Justine. "Glad you could make it."

"Major Crawford?" choked the Blonde Man. "What are you doing here? I assure you, I have the situation under control."

For more information see:
Loyle "Show-stopper" Crawford

"I'm aware of how much control this situation is under, Colonel." Loyle paused and fixed his steely gaze on the Blonde Man. "Keep your mouth shut, or President La Guardia will also become aware of your involvement in this mess."

The Blonde Man blanched. Crawford continued to Grünstrasse: "I'll hand over the diamond...in return for your cooperation in assuring the return of our microdot."

Grünstrasse smiled widely. A greedy gleam shone in his eyes. "Well, then, Fraulein Perot, Herr Crawford, I believe we have a deal."

Justine glanced at Crawford. "Hmph. Looks like Zachary's habits have rubbed off on you," she whispered. "You'll make a pirate, yet."

For more information see:
Nathan Zachary

Justine handed her diamond to the Dark Man.

Grünstrasse handed his diamond to the Blonde Man.

Crawford handed his diamond to Grünstrasse.

Amanda and Sheila collected the briefcases from the agents for the Medusas.

For a few moments they stood motionless, each looking at the others as they held their own prizes.

Then all hell broke loose.

 


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