Based in Oakland, California, with her husband, Ezra Barany, also a novelist, Beth has lived abroad three times — Quebec and twice in Paris, France — and speaks fluent French.
Known for creating rich world, tough and kick-ass heroines, and refreshing romances, Beth creates cinematic stories to empower readers to be the heroes of their own lives.
When she’s not penning rip roaring reads, Beth runs an online school for fiction writers, speaks at conferences and international cultural centers, most recently in Saudi Arabia, and enjoys her many dragon figurines sprinkled throughout her house.
For freebies, excerpts, and more about her books, go to Beth’s site: author.bethbarany.com.
From her elevated vantage point on the stairs, Janey McCallister, lead investigator of L’Étoile’s security team, scanned the crowd of gamblers for the elusive pickpocket—the thief who’d been striking every night for the last few weeks. She didn’t see him, but he was down there somewhere, hunting for his next mark. She had to find him before he stole from another guest and cost the casino more business.
And before she was fired.
She was facing a three-strikes-and-you’re-out scenario.
What the stardust!
She wasn’t a green recruit anymore, but she’d already messed up twice since she arrived on the L’Étoile space station twenty-five days ago—and on her first job as a lead investigator.
Tonight, she’d make an arrest that would stick and get her back in the good graces of the chief.
On the floor below her, the immense viewscreen window flickered to life, and a deafening cheer went up. On the casino floor, three hundred bejeweled men and women attired in tailored tuxes and evening gowns whistled and hooted at the show broadcast on the viewscreen. The heady smell of expensive alcohol and perfumes permeated the football field-sized area.
Out in space, beyond the energy shield that protected the station from cosmic rays and other hazards of space, crazy acrobats twirled for their nightly gravity-defying act. Their fantastic contortions a literally out-of-this-world spectacle. They danced with no tethers, using only jetpacks on their sleek, sparkly space suits to control their precise movements. One of the many reasons people flocked to the hotel-casino space station, L’Étoile. The Star.
“Sections, check in, please,” Janey said in a low voice into her wrist communicator and scanned the crowd. Their attention was on the show.
“Section Two, ten-twenty-six,” Security Agent Meilani Shawhan said, her tone cool. The all-clear. Section Two was off to Janey’s right, near the slot machines and the exit. Security Agent Shawhan’s sparkly black pantsuit and fabricated diamond necklace made her hard to pick out from the rest of the revelers.
Janey glanced again at the daring acrobats flying through space out there beyond the floor-to-ceiling viewscreen window. Itchy pain stabbed through her solar plexus like a thousand bees swarming. Panic flooded her limbs, urging her to run. She shouldn’t have looked. Her damn zero-g-force phobia was back—the one she battled during space walk training at Space Wing Basic. There really was no reason for it; she loved everything else about space.
The job. Breathe. She could do this. She thought she had arrested the culprit—two different times, two different men. But both times, the chief had said there was not enough evidence for them to be the nightly thief, and he wrote her up, putting her back on probation. They may not have been the nightly pickpocket, but she’d certainly caught thieves. Someone must be putting pressure on the chief to release the suspects, but when she’d confronted him, the chief had merely given her a beady stare from behind his archaic eyeglasses. Who wore eyeglasses anymore?
For all her hustle, she’d landed two demerits on her work record and the enmity of her new team. And that fracking warning. One more wrong arrest and she was out, the chief warned her.
She couldn’t believe it. She’d never done so poorly in a job, and she’d no idea this one would be so rigorous. She’d been expecting a low-key job—and she needed this one. For Mom. She probably would have stayed in Space Wing Command working as an MP Criminal Investigator if Mom’s illness had responded to standard treatment.
No, that wasn’t true. Her contract was up with Space Wing, and she’d been hungry for something new.
“Section Three, ten-twenty-six.” Security Agent Antonia Lane’s iridescent mermaid gown fit right in among the high roller tables in Section Three, to Janey’s left. “You need to stay off the comms and let us do our job… ma’am.”
“Lane—Enough.” Janey snapped. Then she softened her tone. “Roger that. We’re all in this together.” She tended to be too clipped, too military. That’s what the chief had said, anyway.
Lane muttered something that sounded like, “Yah, right,” but Janey let it go—for now. She’d speak to the agent later. The op came first. If this had been Space Wing, Lane would have earned herself a formal warning for her backtalk.
Janey caught another glimpse of the acrobats gyrating in space. A high-pitched whine vibrated in her head—no more than a half-second—and made her ocular implant screen flicker with grey lines and white dots. Then the sound stopped, and the screen flipped back to normal.
Thank the stars, but what in Venus hell was going on? What was glitching her system?
It had to be something hardcore because her world-class implant was supposed to be unhackable. Yet, she’d had another glitch her first night on L’Étoile. She’d searched for the source in the security logs but hadn’t been able to find any breaches or anomalies—not that her hacking skills were anything but average. Venus hells—the glitch was messing with her focus.
In her previous attempts to catch the thief, she’d left her team behind and gone undercover, after learning that no one had tried working the case covertly. But flying solo hadn’t worked either. So, she’d brought in the rest of the team. Tonight, either she’d catch one of the previous men in the act or apprehend someone new, with enough evidence to convince the chief to approve the arrest.
“Kou?” Janey prompted.
“Oh, yes, ma’am. Section Four, ten-twenty-six also.” Security Agent Eduard Kou cleared his throat. He was above them, in the overwatch position on the mezzanine.
“Is there anything else, Kou?” Janey asked.
Kou hadn’t given her a hard time about messing up the first two arrests. He’d rather be relaxing with his buddies than working, though he did his job competently enough from what she’d seen these past few weeks. In his tux with a shimmery bright green cummerbund and matching bow tie, he looked like someone’s favorite uncle or big brother, with a kindly smile for everyone.
The full-immersion pop music accelerated, thumping through the floors and walls of the cavernous casino. Another cheer went up.
Janey admired the acrobats’ courage and athleticism, but after the first night aboard, she couldn’t watch the show anymore. As it had the previous nights, her heart rate jumped, and her breathing picked up at the thought of whirling weightless in the void, no connection to anything solid.
No up or down. No control. No answers.
You’re not thirteen anymore, Janey, and flat on your back, blind in the hospital in Spaceport Las Cruces. You’re thirty-two years old and a former Lieutenant Commander of Space Wing Command Orbital Criminal Investigative Unit.
It was 2130, dammit.
Work, here and now. Breathe and blink, she commanded herself.
A waiter rushed past, a tray full of highballs of caffeinated fizzy vodka, its pungent fruity aroma in his wake. The lights dimmed, and the viewscreen brightened as the music rumbled louder. She’d worked during the show enough since arriving about a month ago to know that she had twenty minutes until its end. Time enough to catch a pickpocket in the act. If they felt invisible as they moved through the riveted crowd, they might be less careful.
“Nineteen minutes left,” Janey said through the comm, though she didn’t really need to remind them.
From her periphery, she spotted a flash of red and black—a movement out of place. Perhaps someone was shoving their way through the crowd.
With a mental command, Janey focused her ocular implant to scan, but there was no one in red and black, no further movement out of place. First, the glitches, and now this. Never in all the nearly twenty years since she’d had her state-of-the-art artificial right eye had anything like this happened. Minor, but troubling. It had to be more than space dust. She’d run another diagnostic as soon as she got off duty.
More oohing and aahing by the crowd. The show was winding down. Guests in their dazzling silks and classic black tuxes, wrapped in twinkling jewels and real furs, sipped drinks and whispered in excitement to each other. Still no conspicuous movement.
As the guests turned their heads in profile to chat, their hotel records flashed in the corner of Janey’s ocular screen. All looked normal, except one—a Ms. Eliza Jamon, listed as a hotel guest, not as a staff member.
Eliza had introduced herself as Beliza Ramon and had traveled via StarEl, the staff space elevator, along with Janey and thirty other hotel-casino staff members and asteroid miners a month ago. Now under a false name, Beliza was mingling with guests as if she were one herself, in an iridescent, sleeveless black gown fringed in a sparkly green fringe.
Beliza chatted and giggled with the women around her. As she watched the show, her posture relaxed. Beliza most likely wasn’t her pickpocket, but maybe she was up to something else. And what had she been doing for the last three-plus weeks?
Starting at Earth Port in the central Pacific Ocean and during the five-day trip up in StarEl, they’d chatted several times about their exciting new jobs. Beliza had mentioned starting her new job as a supplies project manager in the hotel-casino’s engineering department, then diverted the conversation to the beloved dishes she’d learned to cook at the feet of her abuelas—her grandmothers. Yet on Janey’s ocular screen, the hotel records showed Beliza had registered as a guest under her false name the day she arrived on a business trip for a metamaterials conglomerate. No staff record matched Beliza’s face.
A discrepancy? Her gut fluttered. Janey hated discrepancies. How could she do her job if the hotel records weren’t accurate—or was this a security breach? Why hadn’t engineering noticed that one of their staff hadn’t shown up for duty? She flagged Beliza’s record for the security office manager to review in the morning. No need to bother nightshift security about it. Best stay focused on the current case.
Fourteen minutes to the end of the show, when the crowd would disperse, and the pickpocket could slip away.
Janey released a breath slowly, straightening her midnight-blue silk gown, a slit down one leg. If only she could adjust the laser-sighted pistol strapped to the inside of her thigh unnoticed—to calm her nerves.
The side of her head tingled. Was someone watching her? She turned. A dark-haired man was indeed gazing at her, mesmerized, as if he knew her and had been studying her, instead of the show. After a long moment, he broke eye contact and shifted his cool gaze to the crowd, as if removed from the frivolity and the devil-may-care attitude that people sauntered around with here. He acted like he was casing the place.
He sported a black tux with a candy-cane-red silk pocket square and thin red tie to match. He was probably the one she’d noticed in her weak peripheral vision earlier, and he looked familiar.
Very familiar. Oh, yes, she distinctly remembered his strong clean-shaven jaw, those expressive lips, that very cute dimple when he’d smiled during their poker game the night she arrived on the station. She’d admired him while playing poker undercover on her first assignment—an initiation of sorts—dressed in her red cocktail dress and short brown-haired wig. From over his poker cards, his brown eyes sparkled with mischief and delight. He made her laugh, smile, relax—even as he was losing a hand and she winning it. She hadn’t felt that playful in a long while. Like anything could happen, and it would be fun—an adventure.
The brown-eyed man had invited her to his room. She’d been tempted—his genteel manner, his smarts, and his humor were qualities she appreciated. If only she wasn’t staff. But she was, even though she wasn’t properly logged into the hotel registry yet. The chief had wanted to test her with no net.
If only guests weren’t off-limits per employee regulations. She was on probation and couldn’t afford to bend those regulations.
For an instant, when she was laughing and flirting with him, she’d felt carefree, light, full of hope, and full of the wish: If only this wasn’t her life.
But it was her life, and love was not in the cards for her. She’d looked him up anyway in the hotel registry when she’d gotten back to her quarters—the fantasy of another life swirling in her.
He was Roberto Gonzalez. Her room’s digital assistant had narrated his short hotel guest profile: a salesman in the asteroid metals business, on a three-night stay, traveling solo.
But tonight, his profile didn’t pop up in the hotel registry on her implant screen. How had he managed that? Had he breached security to scrub his name? Who was this guy?
The fantasy was definitely dead.
Her chest tightened. She told her implant to take footage of him—and to scan him for any transmitters, body enhancements, or any other physical anomalies. Maybe he was working with a partner. She needed to catch him in the act.
Seven minutes left of the show.
On her screen, his heart rate and respiration displayed as normal for a man of his estimated age of thirty-five. He looked trim and healthy, so no obvious signs of subterfuge. He had one hand in his pants pocket, and his weight heavier on one foot than the other—a casual stance. But he could be trained to regulate his body. Maybe a paranoid thought, but that was the job. He didn’t look ready to bolt. He gazed at the viewscreen, still and relaxed, but didn’t sway or smile. He didn’t seem to be caught up with the spectacle. Maybe he was thinking about a business deal. Many people combined business and pleasure on L’Étoile. He certainly looked the part of the wealthy metals industrialist his profile had described.
The music crescendoed—an even-faster beat that had the crowd cheering in anticipation of the show’s finale outside the enormous window. She wouldn’t, couldn’t watch. Janey’s heart pounded.
Yet nothing was out of place. So far. Maybe the wrist baubles thief wouldn’t strike tonight.
Over a dozen hotel guests had filed reports about thefts in the previous few weeks—petty cash to them, but still, it was the principle of the thing to them. Items stolen included a Louis Vuitton multi-planetary time zone watch, several diamond wrist-phone bracelets, a women’s emerald-studded band containing her engineering patents, and even a few rare pearl necklace heirlooms embedded with several generations of family records—always lifted in the crowded close quarters during the acrobats’ nightly show, but only discovered and reported missing the next morning.
The thief had to be smooth, flawless in his or her ability to lift such intimate objects while blending into this crowd.
Could Gonzalez, or whatever his name was, be the pickpocket?
Three minutes left of the show.
He turned his back on her and leaned in close to speak to a tall brunette, adorned in a rainbow-sequined gown. He snaked one hand around her waist, snuggled close. The woman giggled, a half-filled flute of bubbly sloshing in one hand. An irrational flash of jealousy burst through Janey’s chest but quickly vanished. Oh, for star’s sake.
Janey turned her attention back to the crowd, scanning for anything out of place. A woman yawned in boredom, and the man beside her swayed, spaced-out on some mind-altering substance—indicated by how his heart rate and respiration were slow and level, as if he were sleeping.
Her implant flagged a quick movement in the crowd. Out of place, a shadow shifted. She clicked on her video. She’d get irrefutable evidence this time. Hope and determination fluttered in her chest.
A short, grey-haired man wove his way through the crowd, shoulders hunched, barely jostling people. Her implant flashed an ID: Mortimer Xang. His hotel record showed he’d arrived via space jet a week ago, and he had a room in the mid-priced level. No others in his party. He was leaving on the next transport Earthside in a few hours. Payee: Xang Enterprises.
One minute left.
He looked innocent enough, except for how one corner of his mouth quirked up in a faint smirk even though his gaze was downcast. His arms seemed pasted to the side of his body, and he took tiny steps as if to make himself even smaller.
Classic moves of a thief. Suspicious, though not evidence.
Her vid was recording, but all the other thefts had happened under the casino cameras and had not been detected.
She’d always trusted her intuition and her ability to read body cues before. But since she’d come to the station, she’d gotten it wrong twice. Should she wait for another sign that Xang was guilty? No, her gut told her he was up to something. She trusted that.
If she waited for the pickpocket to strike tonight, they could be here all night and still come up empty. She had to act now.
But if her instincts were wrong again, she’d be looking for a new job tomorrow.
“Got a possible,” Janey said to her team. “Shawhan, guard the exit. Lane, converge on my position. Kou, take our six.”
The team acknowledged. In her sturdy, strappy high heels, Janey glided down the stairs, wove around the poker, blackjack, and pai gow tables, and slipped through the crowd.
Head down, the salt-and-pepper-haired old man glanced sideways, not seeing Janey until she was right in front of him, blocking his path. Maybe he wasn’t the thief she was hunting, maybe he was. Either way, he was hiding something. Time to find out what.
She bent down and spoke loudly into his ear. “Excuse me, sir. I need you to come with me.” She caught a whiff of a faint perfume that reminded her of someone.
His gaze snapped to her, and he jolted back a step, but not before Janey noticed a slight skin color difference where his grey-white sideburns met his ears. She zoomed in with her ocular implant. His aged pale skin was mottled at the edges and clashed with his darker scalp and microscopic black hair follicles. A disguise. It was a very good prosthetic job, but most people couldn’t see what she could.
She spoke again, with more force this time. “Come with me. Don’t make a fuss.”
He squinted up at her as if confused and spoke, his voice warbled with age. “I don’t know you, do I, young lady?”
He sounded innocent and confused. Befuddled, her mother would say. But his rapid breathing, sped-up heart rate, and pupil dilation revealed something else—fear perhaps or shock. It was virtually impossible to hide the body’s reaction to these emotions as they were part of the primal flight-fight-freeze responses. And he smelled odd. She still couldn’t put her finger on where she’d smelled it before. There was a definite mismatch between this bent old man and the lingering sweet, fruity feminine perfume.
Then she remembered. It was the same perfume—a rare and expensive blend of pepper, ylang-ylang, vanilla, and orange accents—that had been worn by a woman she’d had in holding last week, long enough to get a good whiff and have the perfume analyzed by the in-room sensors.
“I believe you do know me,” Janey said with force. “The craps table. You were dressed as a woman from New Hong Kong by way of Moscow Prime, Stephanie Lee. If that’s even your real name. I banned you from the casino for card counting. Let’s go.”
“Who? I’m Mortimer Xang, financier.” He frowned up at her. His voice shook with confusion, but his eyes narrowed for a fraction of a second, as if calculating odds of escape. Janey’s ocular implant caught it. “You’re talking nonsense.”
“I’m not.” Janey took his upper arm, but he jerked free, glared at her, and stepped back. The back of her hand brushed against his jacket and something hard under the fine black silk. That was probable cause for a search. People carried all they needed in their identity bracelets or necklaces. No one carried items in their pockets anymore.
“Stop.” Janey glared. She scanned for his identity bracelet but didn’t see it peeking out of his jacket cuffs.
Lane slipped in behind Xang, blocking that escape route. Xang glanced over his shoulder, gulped.
“Got your six,” Kou said from behind her.
“Nowhere to go,” Janey motioned ahead. “Except with us.”
Boxed in, Xang stuffed his hands into pants pockets and headed for the casino exit, Lane leading the way, Janey a step behind.
Janey came alongside Xang, and using the x-ray band of her implant, she scanned the side of his body. She could only handle a millisecond scan since the x-ray frequency was dangerous and tiring, and it worked only short-range and over a small area—but it was enough.
There was something under his coat. Three bracelet shapes showed up on her mental screen as distinct grey outlines. She could even make out the watch face of one of them. Yes! She wanted to shoot a fist into the air and do a happy dance. Thank the stars. Her job was safe.
“Gotcha,” she said softly, and to her team. “Shawhan, we’re heading your way. You’ll be back up. I’m taking in a suspect. Lane, Kou, keep working the floor.”
Lane nodded and turned to watch the casino, and Kou headed deeper into the crowd.
The crowd cheered at the end of the acrobats-in-space show.
“Where are you taking me?” the thief said, his warble pitched loud over the noise. “You have no cause—”
“I do have just cause to search you.” Janey leaned in and slid a hand into his inside coat pocket. She pulled out two diamond fitness tracking bracelets and a platinum-banded multi-planetary watch. Yahtzee. “These for me?”
“Those aren’t mine!” The thief blinked rapidly, acting surprised. Maybe it wasn’t an act. It seemed unlikely that someone planted them on Xang, and for Xang not know or not object if he did know.
“Then I’ll take them.” Janey smiled. “You’re under arrest.” Janey recited the rights warning. “Do you understand these rights as I’ve recited them to you?”
Xang grunted, glared at her, and stopped beside a poker table. Nobody paid them any attention.
“Say yes for the record.” Janey lifted her wrist comm to his mouth and gripped his arm tighter than an air lock hatch. If he was going to rabbit, well, he couldn’t.
“Yes,” he said, his gaze shuttered. Janey led him without further fuss past the busyness at the poker tables, SkyBar, and the clanging slot machines, out into the wide lobby, thankfully less crowded. The quiet was a balm to the nerves.
Shawhan was leaning against the front desk chatting with one of the staff. When she saw Janey and the suspect, she came to attention. “Investigator McCallister.”
“Shawhan, we talked about that,” Janey said in a warning tone. The newest security recruit knew better than to use official titles in the public areas.
Luckily, no guests were around. The hotel owner wanted security issues handled discreetly, so his guests would feel relaxed in his peerless “Jewel of the Sky,” which meant security staff had to blend in.
Janey handed the junior agent the jewelry. “Log these, and check to get a clear ID. His ident bracelet may be counterfeit. Then search his suite.”
“On it.” Shawhan waved her standard-issue one-inch-wide wrist comm over the suspect’s identity bracelet—a thin platinum band tight around his wrist. She studied her wrist comm screen. “Mortimer Xang, double-verified, ma’am,” Shawhan announced.
Jane nodded, and Shawhan hurried to the staff elevator.
“Let’s go, Mr. Xang,” Janey said.
“This is an outrage!” Xang exclaimed and struggled unsuccessfully to free himself of Janey’s grip. “I can get you fired. I have connections to the Russian Underground.” Xang glanced about the near-empty lobby, as if he expected his connections to be strolling across the Mediterranean marble floor.
Why would the resistance against the Russian dictatorship care about a fleet-fingered jewel thief?
“That’s nice.” Her sarcastic remark didn’t seem to dent Xang as he straightened and stood tall, no longer looking like a hunched-over old man.
“Frederick Schoeneman, L’Étoile’s owner, is a friend of mine,” Xang said.
She knew who Schoeneman was.
“Why is it whenever I catch a guest in a lie, they bring up how chummy they are with the hotel-casino owner?” Janey said.
“Not going to help me this time, is it?” Xang sighed and stared at the blue-green swirls in the marble. Xang seemed to give up the fight. That was quick.
“Doubt it. We have evidence of items stolen over the past few weeks. And probably more evidence in your suite.” Janey glared at Xang. “Meeting a buyer, were you? Who?”
Scuttlebutt was that illegal trade was happening in the hotel, but so far Janey hadn’t seen any evidence of it, nor any old cases on such matters.
Xang didn’t answer, he only sighed, slipped off the grey wig to reveal a skullcap, and peeled away a prosthetic nose. He was really a she. And Janey was right, it was Lee—her facial image matched Lee’s hotel record. “I need to contact my lawyer.” The voice was now higher.
“Sure, once we book and hold you for the requisite twenty-four hours.” Janey headed across the lobby, toward the security wing.
“You can’t… I’m due on the next transport. I will complain to Schoeneman about this. I pay good money—”
“Who do you pay good money to?”
Lee firmed her mouth, as if she wanted to spill but wouldn’t.
“Let’s go.” Janey led Lee down a side corridor and took the curve toward the center ring of the space station. All the corridors curved as the hotel was built in a circle. The guest rooms and amenities were on the outer ring, and the hotel administration offices, the security center, and all the mechanics that ran the hotel and station lived in the inner ring. The hangar and other operations took up the entire bottom level.
Was the hotel owner corrupt? Was the chief of security as corrupt as her former commander back at Space Wing? Her career had almost been ruined by the commander. Details about her first two failed arrests ran through her mind—how they got released with only a warning by the chief; how their high-powered lawyers dropped Schoeneman’s name in defense of their clients. Both facts seemed suspicious.
Her stomach dropped, as if she’d taken a too-fast elevator. Not again.
How could she do her job if the hotel owner and the chief were involved in something illegal?
She had no evidence, only a hunch. No sense jumping to conclusions, not when her livelihood was at stake.
And she needed this job for both Mom’s sake and her sanity. If she walked away, she’d need to find a job all over again. This position had taken a month to secure. If she lost this job, she wouldn’t have enough cash reserves to pay for Mom’s med treatment next month.
Once again, she had Lee in holding—a small plain room with two chairs and a table.
Lee frowned at Janey. “You can’t keep me here.”
Janey had to get ahead of this. She couldn’t be outmaneuvered by the suspect or the chief. She had to do her job in the best interest of L’Étoile’s security. Then an idea came to her. She’d have to hustle. “I don’t plan to keep you here.”
“What?” Lee froze.
“As soon as I get your arrest logged, I’m walking you to the transport myself. Sol Space Authority cops will pick you up Earthside.” Hopefully, her former co-worker at Spaceport Las Cruces would accept her call.
Sol Space Authority was a military unit of the Sol Unified Planets government, like Space Wing was. The Sol UP government governed all peoples, Grantons, and corporate entities spread out across much of the solar system.
Lee gaped like a fish and flopped in the chair. “You have no idea what’s going on here,” she said with no oomph, her voice flat.
“Why don’t you tell me?”
Lee fished a packet from her pants pocket, tugged out a dainty square, and wiped the greyish-white makeup from her face. “Why don’t I not?”
“Doesn’t matter. I have all the evidence I need. Sol Authority can handle it from here.”
Lee sucked in a breath at that but continued her grooming, as if it didn’t matter. But it did. Sol Authority wouldn’t let this thief squirm away.
What exactly was going on here at L’Étoile?