“I’m Marcus Renford.”
The name didn’t mean anything to Jeth. Lots of people had known his parents. They’d been somewhat famous for their deep space explorations and discoveries that were often sensationalized to the general public by the ITA. “Never heard of you. But if you’re going to arrest us, get on with it already.” And leave my parents out of it, he silently added. Fear still made his heart race, but anger over the subject began to temper it.
Unconcerned, Renford motioned at Celeste. “Why don’t you step up there next to Jethro?”
Jeth eyed the Mirage in Renford’s hand. He flexed his fingers, trying to figure out how long it would take him to draw the stunner from his own belt. Too long, he decided, assuming this guy was in a mind to shoot him. He glanced at Celeste as she stepped up beside him, hoping she could make a move. But like him, she’d stowed her stunner as well.
“You too, little miss,” Renford said, turning the Mirage on Lizzie. “And I must say that you are the image of your mother. It’s remarkable.”
Jeth bit his tongue, fighting the instinct to shield his sister. Lizzie stood up from the nav station and joined him and Celeste.
“It’s a shame, however,” Renford said, “that Robert and Marian’s children turned out to be criminals.”
Jeth smirked, masking his anger with sarcasm. “Well, one could argue that we’re just following in their footsteps.”
Renford sighed and shook his head. The reaction didn’t surprise Jeth. There were a lot of old people around who still admired his parents even though they’d been executed for treason. Just what his parents were supposed to have done, Jeth didn’t know. The ITA had classified the entire incident. What Jeth did know was that he wasn’t about to fall into the same trap of trusting the ITA.
“No matter,” said Renford. “I’m not here to arrest you.”
Hiding his shock at this news, Jeth said, “What do you want, then? In case you hadn’t noticed, we were kinda in the middle of something here.”
Renford snorted. “Indeed. But I couldn’t wait for a better opportunity.”
“But how’d you know to wait for us in here?” said Celeste, sounding spooked.
“I overheard Hammer talking about this job.”
Jeth frowned. Nobody just overheard Hammer. He was too smart, and his security was airtight. Officially, Hammer was the governor of Peltraz Spaceport, where Jeth and his crew lived. In reality, he was an interstellar crime lord, and the man behind everything to do with the Malleus Shades. Although, as the leader of the crew, Jeth had chosen its members, Hammer had determined the candidates.
But how could this guy know about the Shades, about this job?
Only one explanation occurred to Jeth, and it made his pulse skip a beat. Renford might be an Echo. One of the ITA’s special operatives. Most people didn’t believe Echoes existed, but Jeth’s mom had told him once that they were very real and capable of extraordinary feats. Including uncovering secret information about a man as powerful and well insulated as Hammer.
Jeth wanted to pursue his theory but held back. If this man was an Echo, he wasn’t likely to admit it. “If you’re not here to arrest us, what do you want?”
“I’ve come to discuss your next job.” Renford paused, eyeing all of them skeptically. “You’ve got to admire Hammer for his cleverness in using teenagers to steal for him. No wonder people fail to see you coming.”
Celeste made a noise of disgust and put her hands on her hips. “That’s right. But we only do jobs through Hammer.”
Renford cocked an eyebrow. “Only? But surely young mercenaries such as yourselves would be interested in exploring other, better offers.”
Jeth stared at the man for the span of several heartbeats, unsure how to answer. None of this made sense. “You want to hire us to steal something?”
“Yes,” said Renford at once. Then he paused, the silence a preamble. “From Hammer.”
Lizzie drew a startled breath, and Celeste visibly stiffened. Jeth managed not to react, although he couldn’t blame the others. Hammer might murder the lot of them for even listening to such a notion, let alone entertaining it. This was betrayal with a capital B. And people just didn’t do that sort of thing to Hammer. Not unless they hoped for a slow, horrible death.
Still, Hammer wasn’t here at present, and Jeth couldn’t exactly tell the guy with the gun to piss off. “Steal what?”
Renford’s easy smile pricked Jeth’s nerves. The arrogant asshole believes he’s won already. Jeth smiled back, content to leave him to his delusions for the time being.
“A ship, naturally. That is what you do, after all.”
Jeth slid his tongue along his teeth, feeling the urge to bite something. “Naturally. But which one?”
“Ah, that’s the catch. Hammer doesn’t have the ship yet. He intends to send you to get it for him as soon as you return from this job. But I’m here to convince you to bring the ship to me instead.”
Celeste tapped the toe of her boot, the sound punctuating her displeasure. “Why don’t you just take the ship yourselves? You are the ITA.” Her gaze dropped to the man’s badge for a second. “Isn’t that what you do? Confiscate things?”
Jeth managed not to snicker. Celeste had a good point, but he didn’t think it wise to openly provoke this man. Especially with his little sister in the danger zone.