A pout spread across Lizzie’s face. “Viggo is not mangy.”
“He looks it.”
She grinned. “Well, so do you most times, but we don’t keep you confined in your cabin.”
“Is that so?”
“Yep. You need a haircut.”
Jeth brushed his fingers through his hair, which was a darker shade of auburn than Lizzie’s. It was a little long, maybe, but definitely not mangy. “Huh, well, maybe so, but my point is, try to keep that thing from killing me, okay?”
“Yes, Boss.” Lizzie saluted him and clicked her heels together. “Will do, Boss.”
“No respect,” Jeth mumbled as he walked past her and into the galley. The rest of the crew sat crammed around the table in the small room, and they looked up at him with varying degrees of amusement on their faces. All except for Milton, who was bleary-eyed and cradling a cup of coffee beneath his lips, breathing in the steam. Milton’s once-brown hair was mostly gray, and his short-trimmed beard and mustache were white in places. His lingering hangover emphasized the cavernous wrinkles covering his face.
Walking over to the sink, Jeth said, “What’re you all smiling about?”
Flynn snickered. “Heard you had an encounter with a vicious man-eating kitten out in the hallway.”
Jeth looked at him, widening his eyes. “Have you seen that thing? It’s all hairy and it’s got claws and stuff.” He held up his hand as evidence. Like Lizzie, the crew didn’t seem impressed.
Shady, half choking on a bit of food, pounded his chest and said, “Damn straight. That thing’s ferocious. Are you okay, Boss? Need the doc to take a look at those battle wounds?”
Milton blinked, then lowered his cup. “Yes,” he said, his gravelly voice deadpan. “We could head to sick bay right now for an examination.”
Relieved to find Milton in a good enough mood to joke, Jeth grunted. “I doubt I can afford your rates.”
Milton gave a noncommittal shrug.
Once he finished rinsing the scratches, Jeth crossed to the counter and scooped helpings of imitation bacon and eggs onto a plate, trying not to think about the beggar from yesterday. Flynn must be in a good mood, to have cooked for everybody. Jeth’s mind began to buzz. Everything seemed to be falling into place.
He carried the plate back to the table and sat next to Lizzie, who’d come in behind him and had resumed eating.
“So, did everyone have a good night?” Jeth asked.
A clang echoed around the room as Shady dropped his fork onto his plate. “Uh-oh.”
Jeth glanced at him. “What?”
Shady’s eyes narrowed. “You’re going to drop something heavy on us, aren’t you, Boss?”
“Oh, yeah he is,” Celeste said from the other side of the table. The short ponytail she wore this morning swished back and forth as she bobbed her head.
Jeth frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“Come on, Jethro,” Lizzie said. “Everybody knows the only time you ask questions like that is when you’re setting us up for bad news.”
“Yep,” said Shady, “Like the time you told us we had to get vaccinated for the Feria job. My ass still hurts from those shots.”
“Please spare us references to your ass,” said Celeste.
“That wasn’t my fault,” said Jeth, trying to look indignant. “That was Hammer.”
“Or,” said Flynn, “like the time you said we had to climb down the sewage duct to snatch that giant ruby on Grakkus.”
“Now hang on a minute. That wasn’t everybody,” said Jeth.
“You’re right,” said Flynn. “It was just me.”
“It’s not my fault you’re so agile.” Jeth eyed him askance. Flynn had an unnatural ability for getting into hard-to-reach places like the inside of a ship’s engine. It came in handy more often than you’d think.
Flynn scoffed. “So is Lizzie, but you’d never have made her climb down that funky-smelling thing.”
“That’s because I’m a girl, and he likes me better,” said Lizzie.
“Jury’s still out on that,” Jeth said, motioning to his scratched hand.
At the far end of the table, Milton cleared his throat. That was all it took for the crew to fall silent. “What’s the job?” Milton asked, before taking a sip of his coffee.
Jeth considered sugarcoating his answer, but there really wasn’t a way to do it. “We’re going into the Belgrave.”
“What?” said Flynn, his indignant tone becoming serious. “But ships that go in there never come out again.”
“Not every ship,” said Lizzie.
“Yeah, but those that do talk about malfunctioning equipment and strange stuff happening to the people on board,” said Celeste. The amount of fear in her voice increased Jeth’s own worries. Celeste was usually the most fearless person he knew.
“She’s right,” said Flynn. “That place is a dead zone: unreliable comms, poor nav. And there’s supposedly antimatter pits too. They even say parts of it are haunted.”
Lizzie laughed. “Now you’re being retarded. That stuff don’t exist.”
“Doesn’t exist,” Jeth said.
Jeth clenched his jaw. Lizzie hadn’t seen the inside of a classroom since Hammer recruited her for the gang, and it bothered him when she spoke improperly. Someone so smart shouldn’t sound so ignorant.