Authors: Mindee Arnett
To Jay, for believing every time
THE SPACEPORT'S CASINO WAS THE PERFECT SPOT FOR THE
deal to go down.
Jeth Seagrave knew it the moment he stepped inside. The place seemed to envelop him, the lights so bright they made it almost impossible to see and the noise a constant vibration, everything from the hum of the slot machines to the shouts of dealers calling for bets. Some kind of mild, hypnotic music played in the background, blending the sounds together in a reassuring soundtrackâ
time does not exist here,
it seemed to intone.
Here you are safe. Here you belong.
Jeth knew better. There was nothing safe here. Everything was suspect, and that was all right. His shady dealing would be one among dozens.
He made a casual scan of the room, getting his bearings in the maze of tables, gaming booths, and gamblers. Then he turned to the right and headed for the casino cage, which held more than a dozen cashier windows. Even though Jeth had seen his share of casinos, he couldn't help but be impressed by the size of this place. Of the few Independent spaceports in the galaxy, Nuvali was the biggest and the hardest to get to, which gave it the dubious honor of being the favored hub
for drifters, criminals, and expatriates seeking refuge from the tyrannical reach of the Interstellar Transport Authority.
A sardonic smile crossed Jeth's face as he realized he could be described by all three. But any humor he might've felt at the notion dissolved at once. For the last eight months the ITA had been hunting him and his crew. Life on the run was wearisome and fraught with sacrifice. Even now his belly felt like a pinched, hollow ball. He hadn't eaten since yesterday, and that meal had hardly been enough to take the edge off his hunger, let alone assuage it.
The smells in this place weren't helping. The sweet, sharp aroma of steak frying in garlic butter, the salty tang of roasting peanuts, and half a dozen other scents, wafted out of the kitchen entrance a few meters down from the cage. Jeth sucked back saliva and fought off the almost overwhelming urge to forget the deal and just enjoy his first full meal in weeks.
Except he wouldn't. There were cheaper ways to eat, and despite his protesting stomach, he hadn't yet reached the limit of his endurance.
Jeth stopped in front of the first open cashier and pulled a roll of unis out of his left pocket. “Two thousand, with a sixty-twenty-twenty split, hundred high,” he said. This was the last of the reserve money. He didn't want to gamble with it, but he had to play the part until Wainwright arrived. He had a couple hundred in his boot, just in case, but that was it.
It won't matter if I lose some,
he reassured himself.
Just so long as the deal goes down the way it's supposed to
“There you are, luv,” the woman behind the counter said as she finished loading the carrier with his requested breakdown of tokens. She smiled broadly at him, her teeth artificially bright in the lights overhead.
Jeth cracked the knuckles of his left hand and schooled his expression to something close to eager. Time to play the part. He picked up the carrier and turned back to the action on the floor. He did another sweep, this time searching for a game to join.
His gaze slowed when he spotted two of his crew standing side by side in front of one of the retro slot machines. Sierra and Celeste had arrived some ten minutes before, part of the backup plan in case the deal went sideways. Old habits died hard. Before they'd become fugitives, Jeth and the original members of his crew, the Malleus Shades, had been professional thieves for one of the most powerful crime lords in the galaxy. Tonight they would deal with another criminal organization, and Jeth wasn't leaving anything to chance.
Jeth's breath caught as he watched Sierra raise one slender, bare arm and pull the lever down, setting the digital reels to spinning. He'd never seen her dressed like this, in a glittery, fitted thing that made her look all curves and nakedness. There wasn't any reason for her to dress that way aboard
. Spaceships made for cold homes.
Jeth knew that both she and a similarly dressed Celeste were armed, but he couldn't imagine how or where. Well, he
imagine it, but this wasn't the time or place for that sort of distraction. Especially when he was carrying two
thousand unis' worth of tokens around a roughneck spaceport casino without a firearm of any sort. Wainwright's men would surely pat him down before they entered the final stage of negotiations.
As if she sensed him staring, Sierra glanced over her shoulder, her eyes meeting his at once. Celeste caught Sierra looking at him, and she stepped in close to whisper something in Sierra's ear that made a blush blossom over her fair skin and set her to grinning. To an outsider they were just two girls flirting with a stranger.
Grateful for Celeste's ruse, Jeth started to look away, but then he saw her gaze flick past him, her smirk deepening into her own grin. Jeth followed the direction of her eyes and spotted Vince sitting at the bar, his eyes fixed on the video screen overhead while he idly sipped a beer. The personal comm unit hanging from his belt was the backup for the backup plan.
More like the doomsday plan,
Jeth thought, noting Vince's position. He doubted Celeste had meant to point Vince out to him. She just couldn't help herself.
No more than you can,
he mused, stealing another peek at Sierra.
Finally moving on, Jeth spotted an open seat at a poker table toward the back, not far from the private rooms where he would join Wainwright later. Exactly how much later, he wasn't sure. Wainwright had been sketchy on the details.
Jeth raised his right hand to his head and pretended to scratch behind his ear, activating the comm patch fixed to his skin. The touch of his cybernetic fingers always brought
on a surreal feeling of detachment, as if the hand belonged to someone else. He'd had the prosthesis for more than six months now, but he didn't think he would ever get used to it.
Ignoring the feeling, and the shimmer of painful memories it brought to the surface, he said through the comm, “What's the buy-in three rows from the back, two over?”
“Hang on,” Lizzie's voice answered a second later from her position aboard
. The ship was moored in one of the short-term docks several floors below, the closest spot they could get to the casino. Not that location mattered so much. Jeth's genius of a little sister could have hacked into the spaceport's security and surveillance systems from anywhere.
“Okay, looks like that table's . . . ouch, a thousand.” She paused. “But two down is only five hundred and the guy with the blue hair is just leaving.”
“Right,” Jeth said, disguising the word as an exhale. He kept his voice low and hardly moved his lips at all. It was a trick he did well, from years of practice. “But give me some help with that omniscient vantage point of yours.”
“That's cheating, you know.”
“Consider it a tactical advantage, unless you like skipping meals.” They might be preparing to make a gold mine of a deal, but they wouldn't be able to access the money right away. It would take time and caution, a transaction like that liable to draw attention. They would need every uni they could hold on to for food, supplies, and fuel.
“Good point.” Lizzie fell silent again, but Jeth had heard the hint of something more in her voice and he braced for what was coming next. “Are you sure we want to go through with this?”
Jeth drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. Lizzie had sprung this argument on him yesterday, just moments after they'd finalized the deal to hand over the Mirage Cipher to Wainwright for a three million payoff. The amount wasn't the source of her protest, though it should've been: the cipher would give Wainwright the ability to decrypt all transmissions sent by the Mirage Corporation, including flight path information on shipments. Mirage was the leading weapons manufacturer in the galaxy, making the cipher the proverbial golden goose for a crime lord in the arms business. It was worth double what Wainwright was offering. But criminal beggars couldn't be choosers, and Wainwright's deal was the best they were going to get.
Lizzie's protest, however, was more sentimental.
“I'm sorry,” she continued, “but it just doesn't feel right, not knowing what he'll use it for.”
“You mean supplying criminals and terrorists with military-grade weapons?” Jeth said as he headed farther into the casino toward the five hundred table.
“To put it
He sighed. “This is what we do. It never bothered you before, when we were working for Hammer.”
“That was different. We didn't have a choice, and it felt less . . . personal.”
Jeth didn't respond. He knew exactly what she meant. When they worked for Hammer, it had been like a game. They never had to witness the consequences of their crimes, the impact it had on real livesâpeople caught in the crossfire of warring gangs, workers laid off when a targeted company chose to cut their losses from the bottom rather than the top. They had just been following Hammer's orders.
Now, the blood would be on
hands. Jeth swallowed, the memory of what they'd gone through to get the cipher threatening to upset his cool.
He pushed it away. Yes, the decision to steal the Mirage Cipher and then hand it over to a man like Wainwright hadn't sat well with him either. But there was nothing for it.
The story of my life.
Wanting to end the argument once and for all, Jeth said, “Do you want to free Mom, or not?”
“I . . .” Lizzie's voice caught. “You know I do.”
“Then drop this.” He didn't mean to be cruel, but they had to make the deal. They needed a big score like this to buy a stealth drive for
. It was the only way to complete their nextâand lastâjob: rescuing their mother, held captive these past eight years by the ITA. Not only was the ITA the most powerful entity in the universe, but they were keeping her in a fortified lab on First-Earth, the most congested and heavily monitored planet in all the systems. Getting her out of there would be tougher than anything they'd ever faced with Hammer, damn near impossible.
Like trying to steal a piece of raw meat from a school of sharks.
He'd seen something like that when they had been working for Hammer, back in the aquarium at Peltraz Spaceport. A man who had crossed Jeth's old boss had been sliced open from nose to navel and dropped inside the tank.
With Lizzie silent once more, Jeth approached the table and set the token carrier on the empty space. “Mind if I join?”
The five players looked up in near unison. Their expressions as they assessed him were dubious, but Jeth knew what they saw: a young man, still a boy really, with plenty of tokens to burn. Even more, the prosthetic pieces he wore on his face to disguise his identity made him look faintly aristocratic. He appeared an easy mark.
He flashed an arrogant smile, encouraging the belief.
The dealer, a pretty brunette in a black tuxedo dress, gestured for him to sit. Jeth did so and pulled out five hundred worth of tokens, setting them in front of him. The dealer dealt the cards and, moments later, Jeth was down three hundred unis. Lizzie offered a few tips but he let them slide, afraid of drawing attention with too much good luck too soon. He had to blend in until Wainwright arrived.
With his thoughts on the meeting, Jeth slid his hand into the pocket of his flight jacket, his fingers closing around a false token. He waited to make sure no one was paying any attention, then slid it from his pocket and placed it on the table near the small pile he'd made with some of his real tokens. The new token looked exactly the same as the others except for a tiny deviation in the anchor emblem imprinted
on the top. It was so small no one would notice unless they were looking for it.
“Remember not to bid with that,” Lizzie said.
Jeth grunted at the reminder. He reached out and snagged one of the real tokens, a matching blue one. He waited a second, once again making sure no one was watching, and then slid the normal token into his pocket before returning his full attention to the game.
Sometime later, with his patience beginning to wane in direct correlation to the growing strength of his hunger pains, Jeth made another scan of the room. The arrival of four newcomers drew his eye. There was nothing conspicuous about the men, stopped a few feet inside the doorway, other than their complete lack of conspicuousness. They wore plain suits of varying shades of drab. They were neither large nor small, their expressions neither eager nor guarded.
“I think those are Wainwright's men,” Lizzie spoke into his ear.
“I know,” he whispered, and turned back to the game.
The player directly across from Jeth, a man with dusty-colored hair and an indistinguishable accent, slid forward a tidy stack of black tokens, raising the bet. The man to the left shifted in his seat slightly, although his eyes did not move off the cards in his hand.
Jeth tapped his finger twice on the table, the sign Lizzie had given him to use when he decided he was finally ready to employ her tactical advantage.
“Call or raise,” she said a few seconds later. “They got nothing.”
Jeth called, keeping his gaze focused on the cards in front of him, even when he saw Wainwright's men moving toward the hall of private rooms out of the corner of his eye. He wondered if Wainwright was already inside.
“Incoming,” Lizzie said, and a moment later, Jeth felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up to see one of the men staring down at him. The man handed him a card that bore an invitation to a private game in the Ruby Room. Jeth pocketed it without a word and the man walked away.
Once all bets were in, Jeth showed his two pair, winning the hand just like Lizzie had predicted. This time his grin was genuine while he gathered the tokens in the pot.