Captain Collie and the Heart of Arkansas
In which we go after a diamond and learn it is not a girl's b...
It is the 1930s. Split by divisions in the Weimar Republic, Germany has fractured. In Russia, the bitter civil war has ended and the Bolsheviks hold a firm grip on power. In the Far East, the blood-red sun of the Japanese Empire dawns over China, and the Emperor eyes the bordering states with just a hint of desire.

The globe is uneasily at peace, but the powers of the world have turned inwards, towards isolation, and the frontiers are unguarded and wild. From Spain to Burma to the trade lanes of the Panama Canal, protection lies not in the armies of the nation-states but in mercenary groups. Wielding the latest in aerial technology and armed with bravado and will, these strong men and women hold the line against the looming darkness--for a price.

A sunny mid-afternoon over the desolate Pacific Ocean finds one of them...


"Pacifica Station, Pacifica Station, come in, over."

There was a second of silence before the radio crackled to reassuring life. "This is Pacifica, go ahead."

Well, that was one hurdle cleared--the signal was loud and clear, so the navigational exercise seemed to have turned out ok. This was good, since he had no desire to swim--even in the warm tropical waters--and he clicked the transmitter on to the flight channel. "Good job, rooks, you seem to have brought us home." Then he switched frequencies. "Pacifica, this is Red Flight, we are bingo and inbound requesting landing permission."

"Roger that, Danny." A brief pause, and then Chuck's thick Texas drawl again slipped through the radio like honey. "Alright, we got you on radar. You're about twenty-five miles out. Turn right sixty, and advise when you have visual."

"You hear that, rooks? Follow me in." Dan Mitchell, pilot extraordinaire, banked the purring Warhawk towards home. Below the flight, glimpsed briefly between intrusive clouds, the Pacific ocean rolled merrily by. The pilot trainees--rookies, he called them, though nearly all had at least some experience--were still nervous about talking to him, so the chatter was mostly one way. "Not bad. Hansen, how far off were we?" As he waited for Tom's answer, he sketched on his notepad, doing some quick calculations.

"Dan, Hansen. Uh... five, six miles sir?"

"You're too hard on yourself. I make it about three. Not bad, for your first time." Not bad, either, for dead reckoning over the featureless Pacific Ocean. "Alright, rooks. First one to see Pacifica is first one to land."

Two minutes later, and only fifteen seconds after Dan himself had spotted it, Tony Hill called in. "Dan, this is Tony. I've got a visual, over."

He grinned, and behind his goggles his eyes danced--there was something about shepherding young men to pilot adulthood, something grand and magnificent. "There you go, flight. Tony's first in." He switched the radio briefly. "Pacifica, Red Flight is yours. Take us in, please." He broke from the flight to circle and observe, keying his microphone again for encouragement. "Remember, this is easy. Just listen to the landing officer--he knows more about what you're doing than you do."

It wasn't so bad. Tony Hill touched down with a practised flare, and Tom Hansen followed him in close behind. Only George Taylor--ironically the sole combat veteran among the recruits, who had flown with a mercenary group in Spain--had problems, spiking his bird hard into the runway. But it was their third time, and he was inclined to forgive.

His own landing, when he made it, was smooth as silk.



***



"Welcome back, Cap'." Chuck was there to greet him as he swung himself from the cockpit to the warm metal of the deck below him. Pacifica, the four thousand foot base of operations for the Piasa Legion, was a behemoth, a leviathan in every sense. The runway was long enough to land even the Air Corp's new four-engine bombers--though their own heavy aircraft were seaplanes, of course. She was an inspiring sight, and Charles Davis was her commander. "How'd it go?"

They walked together toward the debriefing at the far end of the ship, where the rest of the flight's fighters sat, and Danny shrugged. "Good, actually. Better than the last crop--we can save all of 'em, I bet."

"That's something. 'Course, with our reputation, we get the cream of the crop."

"No, not all of it." The Piasa Legion was the world's foremost private air squadron, and they enjoyed warm relations with the American government. But they were still mercenaries, and being a mercenary took a specific kind of person. "Just enough. Taylor's seen fighting before--the rest are all barnstormers."

"But they can fly," Chuck pointed out, and there was no arguing with that.

In front of their airplanes, the engines still warm with exertion, the three rookies snapped to a military-esque attention. Mitchell waved them down. "Not bad, not bad at all. I was impressed with your manoeuvres, and I was impressed with your ability to get us home. If you want it, the Piasa Legion is hiring." From the looks on their faces, they all did. He grinned at them. "Welcome aboard, then. Minor details. Tony, you're a bit too aggressive. Wanting to press the attack is good, but you'll wind up overreaching. Stick with your wingman."

"Yes, sir." The young man--a mixed-breed, he thought; so many of them were--nodded eagerly. "I'll keep that in mind, sir."

"You do that. George, what was up with that landing?"

Taylor stiffened back to attention. "I, ah--was worried I would overshoot, sir. I wanted to land."

"Wanted to land?" Dan feigned incredulity. "You have wings--you're not supposed to like the earth that much. What'd they call you in Spain?"

He blinked. "Uh--George, sir. They called me George."

"I think you look more like a Groundhog." There was laughter, only a little restrained, from the other two. Taylor himself nodded curtly. "Just watch out. Airacobras aren't good for digging burrows."

"Yes, sir." George, according to his résumé, had never served in a real military, but one never would've guessed from his bearing. Dan winked friendlily at him and dismissed the new Legionaries. As the ship's mechanics set to work cleaning their planes, he walked back to Pacifica's looming control centre.

"Anything interesting happen while I was away, Chuck?"

"Not much, Cap'. You got an invitation, though." He handed over the folded note--a telegram, from the Legion's California bureau.

"Invitation?" Dan unfolded the thin paper, eyes scanning over the dense print. "Care to summarise?"

"Sure." As he spun the wheel to open the door to the bridge, Davis explained. "Came in over the wireless yesterday when you were gallivanting about Pearl Harbor. Seems like they pulled up some huge diamond over in Arkansas. There's a gala showing for it in Manhattan; they want an escort."

"Milk run," the pilot grunted, and Chuck shrugged, closing the hatch behind them.

"Probably, yeah," the big Texan admitted. "They specifically invited you, though. You can go to the ball, afterwards, if you want. Real high society affair." With his sunglasses and Stetson, Chuck Davis seemed an ideal man to comment on high society.

Even still, Dan--who had been born in Columbus and had little concern for glitz--was unimpressed. "Oh boy. Bunch of halfwits puttin' on the Ritz while Benny Goodman farts out some new music box crap?"

"Glenn Miller, actually," Chuck corrected, hiding a smile. "I take it that's a 'no'?"

Dan shot him a look. "I'd rather try to out-piss Poseidon."

"There'll be pretty girls there," his friend pointed out. "Probably score a dance or two."

Miffed, Mitchell glared. "Oh? And just how shallow do you think I am?"



***



"This is Dan Mitchell to Phoebe Snow, I have you in sight." He had been taking a winding course, high above the Super Electra, and the crew evidently found this discomforting. The alternative, flying level on the Phoebe Snow's wing, was criminally boring. Since he was the one flying his Warhawk, the twin-engined courier plane lost out.

"Oh--ok, roger that, we see you, Captain." From the tone of their voice, he could practically see them frantically searching the skies until the little fighter plane made itself apparent to them. He tried to stay with the Electra and it's evidently terrifically precious diamond cargo, but West Virginia seemed to go on forever and he wandered a bit as they drifted into Maryland. It seemed like far longer than two days since he'd left the Pacifica, and he jotted a short message in his notebook that read, in its entirety, remember to tear Chuck's throat out.

There had been no attack--of course not. Who would try to shoot down a plane in America's heartland? The very notion was absurd. Aerial piracy was something for comic books and maybe adventure-loving daydreamers, at least in the Union's forty-eight states. Why, then, was he being paid fifty thousand dollars to guard a lump of carbon?

Mostly, he suspected, it was for the publicity. He'd been allowed a glimpse of the rock, before they left Arkansas. It was pretty enough, he supposed--not as pretty as the menacing lines of his mount, or a brand-new Rolls-Royce Kestrel inline, but it would serve. And he was well aware that most of his fellow citizens did not share his particular aesthetics--so, they expected him to serve.

Serve he did! Six thousand feet above the Pennsylvania border, they banked towards New York. He slipped the Geruda into a few lazy barrel rolls for the benefit of the Phoebe Snow's crew and anyone watching from the ground for a glimpse of him. They would be looking, of course. Dan Mitchell--Captain Collie! Defender of the innocent! Mercenary knight in duralumin armour! Aerial hero par excellence!--was always a draw.

He did like the life--this much was true. It had been better earlier on, after Germany had broken up. For half a decade there had been constant need for men like him--men who could tame the great metal beasts, bend the air to their will. Now, things were quiet--too quiet, if you were to ask him.

Granted, it wasn't all parties. The discovery of oil--lots of oil--in the Alaskan territories had left that area rife with bandits and the quickly-resurgent Inuit tribes, some of whom could handle a warbird as well as he hims... well, no, he self-corrected. Nobody was that good--but nearly as well, to be sure.

Then, too, there was Japan, the rising sun of the Far East. He'd flown intermittently in Manchuria before pressure from Washington had stayed his hand. To be honest he thought nothing positive of the territorial ambitions of the Mikado--but nor did he want to tangle with the Roosevelt government that offered him so many useful favours.

He was never quite certain how things were going to end up. For a few years after the stock market crash, with the sudden--and as yet-unquenched--rise of organised crime, it had seemed possible that the Union itself could fragment. Would Japan declare war on America? Would Alaska secede? Would one of the countless warlords in the old German states manage to unite their tribes together?

All of these things he had no clue about, and none of them mattered much. He would go where there was fighting--or, failing that, where there was a paycheque and (he hoped Chuck was right) pretty girls. So on he drifted, now pacing the Phoebe Snow, now trailing behind, now inverted, directly above their cockpit, the blood rushing to fill his head.

America rolled beneath them until it had nothing further to give, and they touched down in New York without incident. Such was the power of having a hero riding shotgun.



***



If he had regretted agreeing to the job before, now he was completely despondent. Mitchell felt consistently out of place in balls--clothed in denim and leather, he lacked both the knowledge of how to wear a tuxedo and the desire to do so in the first place. There were enough people willing to dance, and yet--Chuck Davis's prediction having been true, but useless--they were unappealing, draped in lace and expensive Parisian fabrics as expensive (and no more impressive to him) as the diamond itself, which now sat on a bit of red velvet for all to admire.

The dance floor having lost whatever little appeal it started with, he drifted to the bar and procured a glass of whisky. Swirling the ice cubes within distractedly, he made a lazy circle, looking over the crowd. He had turned most of the way through three hundred and sixty degrees before he happened upon what, in retrospect, should've been his target in the first place.

Short, a dusty grey in colour, the woman--also wearing jeans, though without the leather jacket--looked as out of place as he did, which was to say both of them stood out like sore thumbs that had, in addition to being sore, been drenched in kerosene and set afire. More than this, she had a certain attractiveness about her, in a folksy, ranching sort of way. He tried to think of what might've brought her to the ball and decided it was probably oil. "Hey there," he said, and she turned to fix him in yellowish eyes.

"Can I help you?" The accent wasn't Texas--sounded almost more Californian. So there went the oil theory, unless she'd been sent away for school. Then again the directness of her speech did indicate a less-refined upbringing...

"I don't know, can you? I just noticed you here. You seemed so... enthusiastic."

She rolled her eyes. "I'm having just the time of my life, believe me."

Upon reflection, he tried to modulate his words a bit more. "Exactly. So I thought I'd... see what was going on. I hate to see such a pretty face--"

She cut him off anyway, which pretty well put an end to that. "Look, can we get to the part where you begin hitting on me more directly, so that I can reject you and go back to drinking? I have a pretty full schedule tonight as far as that goes."

Captain Collie--warrior without equal, but who had never exactly had what one might call a way with women--sighed in a somewhat exasperated fashion. This fetched a fleeting smile from his unwilling companion, which he was too flustered to notice. "Look, can we start again?"

The coyote--he had decided she was a coyote; it was the ears--made a show of looking at her watch. "Alright, but make it quick. I've got another unwanted suitor coming by in--oh, figure fifteen minutes?"

"How about we just talk?"

Fingers drummed on the bar. "Fine. Shoot."

"What brings you out here? You don't look like any of them out--" he jerked a thumb in the direction of the floor--"there."

"I'm not. I'm in New York for a few weeks and I figured I'd see what this..." She paused to think over her words and take a drink from a glass he believed was probably unalloyed scotch. "Fascinating and alien world looks like. You?"

"I'm providing security for the rock. Well, I was. So you're not from around here?"

"Neither are you, from the looks of it. Phoenix, here."

"Columbus," he said. "What are you drinking?"

"Whatever scotch they had on hand. It's not very good. You're having some kind of whisky too, aren't you? Also not very good. I didn't think so." She stopped talking, but looked on the verge of saying something, so he didn't answer. "Look, I'm sorry about earlier--I just have so many of these strange people coming up to me. I don't want anything to do with them."

"Fine by me," he said, making a face for emphasis as he took another drink of the whisky. "I wouldn't want anything to do with them either. Phoney little sons of bitches. I'm Dan Mitchell, by the way."

Caught off guard--for once--the woman cocked an eyebrow. "The Dan Mitchell?"

"Yeah."

"Mm-hmm." She grinned, then. "I'm Kalinda Garcia." His eyes narrowed, and her grin widened further. "Yes, José's daughter."



***



An astounding parry. Captain Collie hid his face behind a broad paw for a moment. "Shit."

"Mm-hmm," she repeated. "Fancy meeting you here."

"Look," he tried. "Curtiss just offered us the better deal. I love Garcia's products, I really do--the Double-16 is probably one of the best radials out there--but we just, uh... uh..."

By now Kalinda's grin had become positively feral, but she stowed it. "It's alright, really. Your man was right, the F3I doesn't have the range. Yet--I think you'll like the second version we're coming up with. Anyway, that's all business, right?"

"Right," Dan managed. Garcia Aerodyne was one of the biggest aviation firms in the country, and the Piasa Legion had, off and on, considered purchasing their equipment. The most recent decision not to had come only a few weeks before, after what was--had had been told--a lengthy redevelopment process on the part of Garcia's Ikarus Aircraft bureau.

"Look, we don't hold it against you. You've got a job to do, and... hell, if the machinery's not up to the task, then the machinery's not up to the task. We wouldn't want to sell you substandard equipment, Mr. Mitchell."

"Please," he said. "Dan."

"Mm," Garcia agreed. "Alright. Kali, then." Spelled like the Hindu goddess; pronounced to rhyme with 'tally'. He echoed it, and she nodded. "Hey, I'll tell you what. The drinks here are horrible. I've got a pretty good bar in my room, and I'm not doing anything with it. Could get out of this stuff, anyway." She gestured to the awkwardly cavorting high society.

"I thought you had an engagement. You seemed like you didn't want anything to do with me."

Kali smirked. "Fine. Promise you won't try to get me naked?"

Mitchell thought about this and decided the truth was the best way to go. "I'd rather not promise that."

José Garcia's daughter, heir to a multi-million dollar fortune, raised an eyebrow and was silent for a second or two, letting Glenn Miller intrude. "Well, I guess I like your honesty. Alright, let's go then." She gathered her belongings and stood; Mitchell tossed a twenty dollar bill onto the bar and followed her off.

It was a nice hotel room--brightened measurably by Kali's presence, he figured, in a sappy sort of way. She returned from a brief disappearance with two glasses and a bottle of Glenlivet; following this she produced from her purse a small sketchpad and began to draw.

"The problem," Captain Collie said, sidling a bit closer to her--an action which only fetched a curious glance the first time it happened--"is the weight. You need, what, thirty percent more fuel? Not to mention the extra stress on the engine, of course."

"I know, I know." The coyote stuck the pencil between her canines and bit down for a moment. "It's the damned 20s. Them and the ammunition."

"The RAF's still using .303s," he pointed out, but Kali only shrugged.

"That's fine if you're facing off with Tojo. The new Zeke?" He nodded in acknowledgement. "No armour at all. But the Bavarians, they've got a nice new thing going on."

"You planning on fighting the Bavarians?"

"It pays to be prepared." She sighed and scribbled over part of the wing she had drawn. "Fine, .303s. Worth a shot, right? So to speak?" Worth a shot indeed, he echoed, and put an arm around her. She looked to him, head cocked. "I thought I made you promise not to try to--" She stopped when he raised a finger on his free hand.

"I never agreed to that."

"Right, right." Garcia thought about the implications of this, then set her pencil down; after a momentary intermission he felt an arm behind his back. "Fine, then." She closed her eyes and he tilted his head a bit, bringing his lips to hers. There was no hesitation on her part that he could detect, which he decided was a good sign.

It was then that the building fire alarm began to wail.



***



Outside, and having sworn most of the way down the stairs--to the chagrin of the other hotel guests--Dan Mitchell and Kali Garcia surveyed the edifice. It did not appear to be smoking, and the fire chief, who looked it over with them, was sceptical. It took a few seconds--Mitchell was still distracted--for this to sink in. Then it hit.

"Oh, shit. The Heart of Arkansas." He took off running, Kali close at his heels, but of course the diamond was missing when they got to its pedestal. "Fuck," he said, allowing himself a rare use of the word.

Kali scratched behind one of her ears. "They can't have gone far. How would you get out of here?"

"Me? With a Warhawk. Not enough room to take off here, though."

"How about the basement? Down in the service area--kitchen, all that stuff? Probably lets out on a loading dock. Getaway car there?"

"Right." He drew the pistol from his holster. "You ever used one of these?"

The coyote rolled her eyes as they started for the service elevator. "I'm a cowgirl, Dan. Don't be stupid. That's an M1911, right?"

"Yeah." That made his bravado somewhat less powerful. "Alright, let's... let's be careful."

The kitchen was deserted, the staff having evacuated with everyone else. They moved as cautiously as they could through the humid corridors, Mitchell pointing the way with his sidearm. Kali tapped him on the shoulder. "Your safety's on."

"Oh, yeah, I..." Captain Collie flicked the switch, and shrugged. "I, uh--it's unloaded anyway. I don't... like bullets much." The look she gave him was withering, and he resolved to get over this distaste the next time he visited the armoury. Then a door clicked softly shut ahead of them, and they looked to each other in a flash. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Alright, uh, that room has two exits, I think--look. You take that door, and I'll... try to beat them to the other one."

A nod. Kali's voice was a hiss, too. "Ok. Be careful, remember?"

He snuck forward quickly, waiting by the far door. It opened a minute later, blocking his view. When it closed, he found himself abruptly face to face with a man in a mask that covered most of his face; the fur beneath it was black as well. Mitchell was suddenly glad his finger was on the trigger--useless as it might be. "Freeze! You!" There was a second man, now; one of his hands held a heavy cloth sack, the other a gun. "Hand over the diamond!"

"Or what? You'll shoot?" It was the second man who spoke, with a slight and unplaceable accent. "Your gun isn't loaded."

Captain Collie winced. "Fuck." Then he straightened again, meeting his immediate quarry's eyes once more. "Wait. You don't know that."

"Yes we do." This was the first masked individual, who appeared--from the little bit of his face that was visible--to be regarding the Captain with something approaching contempt.

"We heard you earlier--you talk very loudly. You should be quieter."

"And you..." A fourth voice, this one more familiar, and the sound of a Peacemaker being cocked. "Should learn to count. He's only one of us. Hand it over."

The first man turned suddenly to face this new intruder, which permitted Mitchell to grab him and hold him in place. Gun now facing his compatriot and with a revolver to the side of his head, the second man sighed, dropping the pistol and the bag with the diamond.

Kali grinned. "Alright, then." She tossed something long and twisted to Mitchell, who caught it to discover a length of rope. "Found it in the kitchen. Tie him up, please." This they accomplished quickly, and she lifted the diamond up, gauging its heft appreciatively. "So this wasn't too bad."

"Stefan?" A shouted voice from down the hall; the coyote's gaze met Mitchell's in a briefly petrified way.

One of their two bound captives shouted back, and without further encouragement Captain Collie and his accomplice took off running. "Front--that way!" Kali panted, and he skidded to a stop.

"Wait. Out front is firemen. Back here is people with guns. Firemen don't got guns."

"Shit, you're right," Kali said. "Ok... uh, garage. Let's go." Now she was the one leading the way. There was only one small obstacle.

"I don't have a car."

"That--" Kali paused to open the door into the valet parking area. "Is not my problem. Come on!"



***



"A Duesenberg?" He blinked, somewhat awed, when they stopped running.

"Wealth has its privileges. Can you drive, or is that something else you "don't like"?"

"It's your car," he pointed out, and with an exasperated sigh Kali pointed to the passenger's seat.

"Fine. Get in." By the time he was seated, the car's engine had roared to life, and they tore from the garage as three men with guns appeared at the door they had vacated scant moments before. A bullet clanged off the wall, spitting sparks, and they needed no further encouragement.

Save, of course, for the minor issue that neither of them knew the city. Stopped at a light, Captain Collie solicited instructions from a passerby. "Fio Field?"

The elderly fox paused, thinking. "Get to Broadway, then take that to Bowery, cross the Manhattan Bridge and follow that street until you're home."

"Thank you, sir. Can you get in touch with them and tell them to have Mitchell's plane ready?"

"Not a problem, sonny."

"I owe you one." Mitchell fumbled for his wallet, but the old man shook his head to halt him.

"Nonsense. You'd best get going before your friends are done reloading." The light had turned green, and with a wave from Mitchell the Duesenberg was off. As they leapt from the light, he was gratified to see their new friend animated as well.

"Can you follow those directions?"

"Oh, sure. Broadway's right h--fuck!" The unmistakeable snap! of a round above their heads left Kali ducked down, peering cautiously over the long hood of the car. Mitchell turned to see the sedan behind them, and a man leaning from it, waving an object that periodically emitted a bright flash and another snapping noise. Kali swung the roadster over with the wail of protesting tyres--though fortunately fellow motorists, perhaps detecting the gunfire, let them through what was, he realised afterwards, a rather illegal turn. "Shoot back?"

Unfortunately, their pursuers had a similar antipathy towards traffic laws, which on the plus side gave him a prime target. He emptied Kali's Colt in their general direction. "I'm out."

The car lurched forward as the coyote shifted up a gear, taking her hand from this task to point to the glovebox. "In there. I don't have gloves." Getting the bullets from glovebox to cylinder, as it turned out, was something of a chore, given the g-forces exerted on his body--but he managed; fired a few more wild shots.

"We're going to kill somebody," he pointed out. "If not with this, than with your driv--oh, dear lord, that light was red!"

"Uh huh," Kali answered, eyes fixed on the road. "If they break my car, by the way, you're paying for it. Are they still behind us?"

Setting aside questions of mortality, he chanced a look backwards. They were indeed, following in the wake Kali's Duesenberg left. "Yeah. Will this go any faster?" As if to accent this, a loud clang marked a sudden and novel dent in the boot.

The horn sounded, and as the cars in front of them parted to either side the coyote offered Mitchell a wild grin. "It will do better than a hundred," Kali confirmed, and then--as if he might not have believed her--shoved the pedal to the floor with a vengeance and an acceleration that left Mitchell pinned to his seat. "In second," she finished--though by his calculations the car was already in third, at least, when they roared onto the bridge.

Problematically, the supercharger was only of use when they had room to go fast, and Brooklyn--even on the wide street they found themselves on--was not conducive to this. They had left their pursuers behind, but not by much, and they were quickly losing their lead as they closed the distance to the airfield.

"Where are we going, anyway?"

"Here. Hard left--now!" The gatehouse, he was relieved to see, was open; they blew past the sign marking "F. LaGuardia Army Air Base" fast enough that the shocked expressions on the guards had yet to form by the time they were out of sight. Less relieving was the fact that, although the gate was lowered then, their intrepid hunters simply powered through it. He hoped he wouldn't have to pay for that repair in addition to the automobile.

"'Here' is a bunch of blimps, Dan. We're not getting out of here in a blimp."

"Zeppelin, technically," he corrected. "And no we're not. Right, please, between those two--and brake hard." Naturally, he failed to anticipate the vigour with which the coyote would follow these directions--but he didn't go through the windshield, and they came to a halt right next to the Geruda, engine already spinning. So the old man had done well.

As tended to happen, there was only one problem.



***



"It's got one seat, and there's two of us," Kali pointed out, as the Ford that had been following them drew closer. Mitchell swore, for this was true, and then swung himself into it.

"Well, you're lucky I'm short then. Get in."

Fortunately Kali was light enough, and obligingly flexible, which permitted him to see ahead after they closed the canopy and he shoved the throttle to the stop. Well, he'd never much liked taxiing anyway. He thought he felt the dull thump of a small-arms impact--but then they were airborne, and had a chance to catch their breath.

"You're insane. That driving? That driving was insane." He said, and Kali twisted around with a self-assured smirk. He made a note to remind her that in the future--when his blood was less than fifty percent adrenaline, for instance--such twisting was contraindicated, for his dignity's sake.

"Kept us alive, didn't it? Where are we going?"

"I'm not sure. Can you bend the other way, please?" She did, and he looked down over the city. "We have to return the diamond, of course."

"Of course." They circled for altitude. "Dan?"

"Kali?"

She smiled her predatory smile. "Having fun yet? Beats the ball, anyway."

Well, so it did. He smiled back. "Sure thing. Sorry if we wrecked your car, by the way."

"Can always buy a new one," she pointed out. "It was worth it." A pause. "Hey, Mitchell? Will you take me with you?"

"With me?"

"You know, with the Legion. You do this all the time, don't you? It's kind of exhilarating."

"It can be," he admitted. "Can you fly?"

"Barnstormed a bit," she said. "Never any combat, of course. But I'm willing to learn." She perked her ears at him and tried--with no little success, he had to concede--to look appealing.

"We'll have to see, I guess. We haven't got any women in the Legion."

Kali twisted around again, eyeing Mitchell. "You're saying there could be problems?"

Captain Collie shifted uncomfortably. "Well, you know how men are."

She narrowed her eyes. "If, say, they knew I was your gal, would that do it?"

Mitchell found her muzzle closer than it had been before and perhaps a little closer than would be, strictly speaking, normally acceptable. "Well. Probably. Are you?"

That was evidently worth a grin, but she ignored the question. "Good. You owe me, you know. From the hotel?" Her nose was not quite touching his, though it would take sensitive scientific instruments indeed to tell this. The adrenaline, rather than fading, was starting to return and he couldn't quite place why.

"This is not, uh," he stammered, "an ideal place for this sort of thing." He played idly with the throttle as a distraction of sorts. "You know."

She didn't or--yes, he thought this was the case--she wanted to spite him. Then her muzzle was crushed to his, and despite the awkwardness of their respective positions he rather enjoyed this. She pulled back slightly. "It could do..."

"It could." Captain Collie, who was now out of his element, despite being currently wrapped up in an airplane, left the throttle alone and used this arm to steady her as he kissed her again, met her tongue with at best only equal insistence as that displayed by its owner. They were out of breath, soon, and she leaned back against the glass of the cockpit.

"So, uh." She coughed, and cocked her head. "Diamond. We should take care of that."

"Oh. Yeah. Uh, can you--can you move, perhaps?" No, bad idea--too late. "On second thought, actually, don't. At all. That would be helpful." He needed the blood elsewhere.

She turned around; gave him a knowing smile. "Sorry, dear. Try focusing on the diamond?"



***



Easier said than done, but with a bit of an effort, and leaving control of the P-40 to her, he wriggled out of his jacket and contrived to fasten the bag containing the large stone to it. It had been some minutes, now, since they had left the airfield, and he hoped the police were finally getting into gear. He clicked the radio on.

"HQ control, anybody in the tower?"

A buzz, then a dispatcher's voice. "Roger, who is this?"

"Dan Mitchell. Listen, you got anybody moored right now?" The new police headquarters building had a zeppelin mast atop it.

"Uh, that's a negative, Collie."

"Great. Get the police chief up th--" Kali chose this moment--it was a choice, he felt sure of this--to shift a bit, hips moving in a provocative fashion. He hoped the dispatcher would chalk the inadvertent squeak up to radio interference. "Uh, get the chief up there and we'll take things from here."

"You have the Heart?"

"I do, I do."

"Roger that. Give us five, Collie. Out."

He turned the radio off and glared at Kali, who would have none of his reproach--though she offered a cursory and insincere apology. He took back the controls, pointing them towards the police building. "Alright, here's how it is, though. I need you to keep the plane as level as possible. We need to miss the mooring tower by a matter of feet."

"Alright, fair enough." They swung lower, dropping flaps as they lost altitude. He didn't figure they had much margin for error, and besides, neither of them had oxygen masks on. Kali zeroed in on the guidelights of the police headquarters with remarkable accuracy. He opened the canopy, jolting the Geruda, but she held it on course and as they zoomed past the tower he tossed his coat.

Kali circled around and he watched the falling package catch on the tower, hold for a second, then fall into the waiting hands of the police chief, who raised it to them with a barely-discernable thumbs-up. Splendid, all things considered; he closed the canopy and they had levelled their wings when the first burst of tracers crossed over their vision.

Then gravity ceased and he thanked again whatever gods had fashioned the Geruda's harness as they dove for the city streets. He looked into the mirror quickly, swore.

"What is it? Who are they?"

The profile of the Me-109 was hard to mistake. "Bavarians." Another burst of machine-gun fire, and the Warhawk shuddered. "Ok, we need to get some distance. He pushed his throttle hand far forward, past the stop, and the engine whine doubled in volume as the plane charged forward. "Nitrous oxide," he explained, and Kali nodded.

They were only a few feet above car level. He saw the bursting of cannon fire in front of them, little flowers of flame that blossomed and faded quickly into craters and splintered wood. An intersecting thoroughfare loomed ahead of them; the Geruda leapt upwards like a striking viper, ducking back down into the reassuring--if overly-constricting--canyon of the New York skyline, on a new, perpendicular course.

The Messerschmitts followed, knocking windows from the tenements and setting cars ablaze with white-hot machine gun bullets. The Me-109 was a match even for Mitchell's P-40 in nearly every way save power--and he had lost some of that advantage when he chose to take on a hundred extra pounds of coyote. Not that he regretted this, far from it--but it did make the manoeuvring somewhat more challenging.

"Get some altitude?"

"Huh? No." He spoke in clipped bursts as he tried to remember what New York looked like from above. "They'll eat us alive. P-40s got no--uh, shit, hold on." He didn't want to know how close the wing had come to hitting the building they swung tightly around. "Can't perform at altitude. Don't have the nitrous for it. Only chance is--keep 'em low."

They couldn't get much lower, not without making use of the New York subway system, and even Captain Collie had doubts about his ability to manage that feat. But then they were out over water, pointed towards the Brooklyn Bridge. With an oath, they skirted under it, leaving the Messerschmitt's bullets to ping against the bridge and kick up little geysers in the blackness beneath them.

He let the Warhawk drift right, watching in the mirror carefully until the time was right to jerk the Geruda on a break-turn to port. The guns blazed as one of the Bavarian fighters flashed in front of them. It wobbled, a hopeful sign, and then he could see the thick white vapour trailing from it. That was something.

Mitchell had lost track of its friend, though as it turned out this was a moot point; the second fighter--there had only been two, so far as he could tell--joined its companion, and they vanished off to the east. He breathed a sigh of relief, which got mostly of the way out before his breath caught. "Hey, wait a second."



***



His left hand, as he'd expected it would be, was on the Warhawk's throttle. His right, however, was still on the canopy, from when he had closed it. He looked from one hand to another, and then to Kali. "That was you, wasn't it? All that flying, there?"

She nodded, giving him a devilish grin. "That's not a problem, is it?"

Captain Collie blinked, because all the moves had been his own. "No, I suppose not."

"So what do you think? Can I fly?"

"Bit of barnstorming," he said, now trying to catch his bearings. "Only a little combat. I guess so, though."

They set down outside of Washington, in a little parts depot the Piasa Legion maintained. The mechanic on duty raised an eyebrow at Kalinda's presence, but when Mitchell explained that she was the daughter of José Garcia, he seemed to accept that.

"What's this?"

He looked around for the starter key, and was relieved to discover it already in the cockpit. "It's a Jensen Jester--Norwegian or Danish, can't remember exactly."

"It looks like a Messerschmitt One-Ten."

"Kind of," he admitted, looking over the engines--it had been a few months since anyone had flown it, from the maintenance log. "But about half the weight and a quarter again the power. Turns like a bull, but... moves like a wildcat with one of Goddard's rockets shoved up its--" he thought about this, clucked his tongue. "Moves quick, anyway. And it's got two seats. Four 30 millimetres in the wings, too."

"Impressive," Kali said, and hopped up onto the wing, peering into the cockpit. "What, you didn't like me sitting on your lap?" She looked over her shoulder at him playfully.

"Uh," he managed. "Fuel consumption?"

She snickered and popped the canopy open. "Right, fuel consumption. P-40's awful thirsty."

Kali swung one leg over the cockpit when he thought of something. "Actually, wait a second. You want to fly the first bit?" She stopped in mid movement and was in the pilot's seat before he could say anything further.

Especially stripped of its ammunition--he figured Iowa was a singularly unlikely place to run into any more Messerschmitts--the Jester made good time. The coyote was--as went without saying, he supposed now--a natural on the stick; they took a break over Kansas to play with the airframe a bit. It struck him that anyone below, knowing who was passing over, probably would've figured Mitchell himself at the controls.

Well, every Captain needed an executive officer, he supposed.

The Pacific was long. He had worried that it would be boring, too, but he underestimated the ingenuity of the Legion's newest member (fortunately he could make hiring decisions by executive fiat), who discovered that there was enough room between the pilot's seat and the canopy to stick one's head through. It made for workable face-to-face conversation and, what with them being face-to-face and all, a bit of physical contact as well. That was alright.

He flew the last leg from Pearl, though he wasn't quite limber enough to contort himself as she had, so they talked over the radio instead. Ah, bother. He could picture Chuck's laughter now--"ah, dames," he would say, as though this was a reasonable explanation. Was it? Hmm.

No, not entirely, Captain Collie decided. Admittedly, this aspect of it was something he wished to investigate further, when they had some time and the convenience of his stateroom. Presuming Kali was game, but from the way she talked he felt certain this was unlikely to be an obstacle.

"Pacifica Station, Pacifica Station, come in, over."

"Go ahead, Cap'. Had fun in New York, I see?"

"Stow it, Chuck. Can I get a steer?"

"Left five to one-five-zero puts you in the pattern. Green flight's about ten miles south-west of you."

He squinted as they closed that distance and was mildly pleased to see the flash of light before his navigator did. "Roger, I got 'em. Look, can you prepare a second stateroom?"

"Bringing home company, Cap'?"

"I'll explain on deck," he said, and turned the Jester into the landing pattern.

Oh yes. He would have some explaining to do.

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