Sharon sipped her Lunabrew, the house specialty. “My brother…he died about six months ago. I’ve been trying to take care of his affairs, since I’m between jobs. Well, more than just that; I have a noncompetition clause in my old contract that keeps me from doing any job in my field for a year after I quit.”

“Well, that explains why you’ve been back in town so long,” said Ward, whose own drink was a Groenbach. “I was sure it wasn’t for the ambiance.”

“Paul worked for Sav-Mart, in the electronics section. He had a master’s degree and a ton of debt but he worked there, living through the internet and making just enough to pay the bare minimum against rent and loans even though my parents live here six months out of the year.”

“A slacker?” Ward said.

“Don’t use that word,” Sharon snapped, slamming her glass to the table. “He was my brother and he’s dead.”

Ward held up his hands. “Sorry, sorry, that…it slipped out. But you didn’t ask me here to tell me that, did you?”

“Paul lived his life online, so that’s where I’ve been trying to set his affairs straight. He left me some but not all of his passwords, and…Ward, he was an online stalker.”

“Come again?” Ward said, his expression unreadable.

Sharon held her head in her hands. “He had all these saved links, photographs, even chat logs, of a girl that lives a few hours away from here near LA. I’ve been getting some weird prank calls and messages and thought they might be from her. Ward, I called her and she had never heard of Paul.”

“So you think he was stalking her? That’s the kind of thing that happens if you dig too deeply into people, Sharon. De mortuis nil nisi bonum – speak not ill of the dead.”

“You don’t understand. Not all the messages I’ve been getting have been pranks. I think Paul may have set something in motion before he died. Something horrible, something I can’t even bring myself to understand. I’m afraid this girl, this Umbriel, is at the center of it somehow.” Sharon lifted her head as she spoke, looking directly at Ward. “She might even be in danger.”

“Paul said you might say something like that,” Ward sighed. Sharon’s blood ran cold at the words. “I told him not to worry, that I’d deflect you with my wit and charm. But that hasn’t worked, has it? And now we’re here, taking over flat beer, and things have just gotten a hell of a lot more awkward.”

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