“I go by Shady,” Shady shouted, still refusing to remove his helmet. He also hadn’t lowered his gun.
Jeth reached over and pushed the barrel downward. The last thing he needed was for Shady to shoot one of them by accident. If that happened, whatever had made that noise might start up again. What had it been?
And where was the little girl?
As if on cue, the girl slid out from behind a row of nearby barrels and raced over to the blonde, grasping her hand.
The blonde stepped in front of the girl as if to shield her. “Did you say Jeth Seagrave?”
Jeth frowned. “Yeah, that’s right. What of it?”
She looked away from him, visibly nervous, as if she had made some kind of blunder. “Nothing. So who are you? Why are you here? You’re not ITA, that much is clear.”
“We’re . . .” Jeth didn’t know yet how much to share. When in doubt, lie quick and keep the conversation moving. “We were just passing by. And you are?”
She hesitated, then said, “Sierra Hightower, and this is Vince Mallory.”
Jeth nodded, glad to finally get a question answered even as a dozen more popped up to take its place. He chose the easiest one next. “And who’s she?” He inclined his head toward the little girl.
Sierra’s expression hardened as if Jeth had made a threat toward the girl rather than asked a perfectly reasonable question.
“I’m Cora,” the girl said, peering around Sierra’s side.
“Hello, Cora.” Jeth flashed an awkward smile at her. Talking to kids always made him feel inadequate, as if they spoke a language he didn’t quite understand.
Cora hid her face in Sierra’s side, demonstrating “a case of the shies” as Jeth’s mom used to call bashful behavior. He remembered Lizzie had been prone to the same thing. He wondered if Sierra and Cora were related, but the only resemblance he could see was their light-colored hair.
“So, not to be rude or nothing,” said Shady, shifting around nervously, “but what was making all that noise?”
Sierra looked away, her gaze roaming around the cargo bay even as she pulled Cora tighter against her side. “We don’t know. It’s been happening off and on for a while now.”
“How—” Jeth began.
Sierra cut him off. “What are you doing on our ship?”
Jeth frowned at the command in her voice. That was a pretty reckless attitude considering the position she was in. Feisty. He kind of liked it. Of course, he would’ve felt a lot differently if it had come from her big-muscled companion. The realization annoyed him, and he glared at her, remembering the unfriendly greeting moments before.
“We came to rescue you, but we weren’t expecting to get shot at.” He paused. “Why did you shoot at us?”
Sierra returned his glower. “Have you seen this place? What did you think we were going to do when you appear out of nowhere, carrying guns? And you didn’t stop when we told you to.”
Beside Sierra, Vince straightened up to his full height. The gesture spoke volumes to Jeth about the nature of their relationship. If anybody threatened Sierra, Vince would take care of it. Simple as that. Jeth wondered if they were together, like a couple. Surely they couldn’t be related. They looked nothing alike, plus the different last names.
Jeth took a deep a breath. He supposed she had a point about the guns. Not to mention plenty of reasons to be on edge, stranded here. He glanced away from her, sweeping his gaze over the holes scattered around the cargo bay. He was glad to see none of them contained body parts. “So, what did all this exactly?”
Sierra bit her lower lip and shivered.
Vince cleared his throat. Then in a smooth, deep voice that made him seem much older than he looked, he said, “We don’t know that either. We got lost in the Belgrave, and then a few days later those holes just started tearing their way through the ship. Then some of the crew started disappearing, too. Just vanishing.”
Sierra nodded, her mouth drawn into a thin, frightened line. “It was complete chaos.”
“Whoa,” Shady said. “So the stories about the Belgrave are true.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” said Jeth, even as he remembered Celeste’s story about her mother.
“What else could’ve done what we’ve seen?”
Ignoring Shady, Jeth said, “So how did you three manage to survive?”
“We got lucky,” said Vince.
“Yes,” added Sierra. “Some of the others would’ve survived, too, but in the panic they started firing and killing one another. We barricaded ourselves in one of the passenger cabins and rode it out.”
Puzzled, Jeth examined the three of them as a group, wondering what connected them. “What are you all doing aboard a transport like this? You don’t look old enough to be crew members.”
Vince folded his arms. “You’re one to talk about looking old enough.”
Sierra cast Vince a warning look. “We were just hitching a ride.”
Jeth raised an eyebrow. “Marlins aren’t generally used to transport passengers.”
Sierra pressed her lips together, looking as if she were struggling not to give him a tongue-lashing. Perversely, it made him want to smile. “This one is,” she said. “Or at least it was, if the captain felt the price was right.”
Aha, Jeth thought. So this is a smuggler’s ship. That made sense. He wondered how anybody his age could afford to hire passage on a smuggler’s ship, but he didn’t think it important enough to ask at the moment, not with other questions pressing their way forward. What did matter was that as passengers on this ship, they might know a thing or two about the rest of its cargo.