Forty-Three

“What the bloody hell, Seph?” Ben’s gaze bounced between Sephora and Padraig wildly, like a ball kicked between two teenage futbol players. “Someone blew up the girl’s house? How did no one hear about this?”

Their waitress swooped over with a towel to clean up the mess. Ben snatched the towel from her hand. “We’ve got it,” he snapped her. “Bring me another in five minutes and make yourself unseen until then.”

The girl went white and retreated. Sephora winced and reached for the towel.

“You didn’t need to—”

He relinquished the towel but not his anger. “Why didn’t it hit the newsnets?”

“Who the hell knows,” Padraig growled, glaring at his own glass for a moment before he watched Ben mop up the mess of whiskey and shattered glass from the tabletop with Sephora’s help. “Far be it for me to say, but probably conglom suppression.”

“Is she still here?” Ben asked, freezing in the midst of cleaning up the mess. “Is she somewhere safe?”

Sephora glanced at Padraig, brow arching in question. Padraig exhaled quietly, leaning back in his chair.

“She left on a transport for E-557 last week.”

“The Foundation? You must be desperate.”

Sephora put her hand on her estranged husband’s arm. “They may have finally gotten things right, Ben. They might be our only hope—the last refuge of the lost and desperate, of the ones who have nothing left to believe in.”

He stared at her for a long moment, expression slack and eyes bleak. “You sound like me,” he said at last. “The way I sounded back at the height of the last round of electoral ridiculousness.”

“Every round of electoral ridiculousness.” Her fingers tightened for a moment before she withdraw her hand. He caught it before she could pull away.

“Are you in danger?” Ben asked. He glanced toward Padraig. “Are both of you in danger?”

“We haven’t done anything illegal if that’s what you’re trying to get at,” Padraig growled. “Maybe not entirely above-board, but nothing shadier than what I’ve seen get rubber-stamped lately.”

Ben shook his head, wrapping the towel into a ball with the broken glass trapped inside of it. “That’s not what I meant. Is anyone out to…to…”

“To get us?” Sephora asked, one corner of her mouth curving into a wry smile. “You’ve been watching too many classic 2-Ds, Ben.”

He laughed at that. The waitress came around and gathered the towel, leaving Ben with a fresh glass of whiskey in return. “Maybe,” he said, eyes bright with mirth that faded all too quickly. “In all seriousness, though, is someone out to get you, so to speak?”

“Damned if I know,” Sephora said. She sighed and rubbed at her eyes. Her temples throbbed dully, the pain rooted deep somewhere behind her eyes. “Maybe not yet, but it’s coming. Someone’s going to take offense to our digging, our probing. Then the real trouble’s going to get started.” The comm in her pocket buzzed, vibrating against her ribs. She murmured a curse. The cadence meant the call was being routed through headquarters.

“What’s wrong?” Padraig asked as Sephora dug her comm out of the hidden pocket.

“Call routed through HQ,” she murmured.

“Can’t even have a drink with a friend and your estranged husband without getting buzzed, can you?” Ben asked, expression souring for a moment.

Sephora cast him a nasty look before she glanced at the comm’s screen. The message was text-only, but she didn’t need a voice to know who it had come from, even without some kind of signature attached. Her stomach dropped through the floor and halfway to the planet’s heart, blood running as cold as the icemelt from the polar caps.

It’s not possible.

“You look like you’ve just caught a call from a ghost,” Ben said, his expression softening. He reached for her arm again, fingers squeezing gently as he wrapped his hand around her wrist.

“I have,” Sephora whispered, swallowing hard against the sudden tightness in her throat. Freder. She stood from the table abruptly. “I have to go.”

“Go?” Ben’s brows shot up. “Go where?”

“What’s wrong, Seph?” Padraig asked, already waving to their waitress in the hopes of getting their bill that much faster.

“Not here,” she said. “We’ll have to go somewhere else.” A shudder raced through her. Is there even anywhere safe to have whatever conversation I’m about to have?

“Name the place,” Ben said, throwing a few hard credits onto the table as he rose. “Did you drive?”

“I walked,” she said, numbness spreading from her core to her extremities. The world seemed dimmer, more surreal.

I just got a goddamned message from a fucking ghost.

“I drove,” Ben said, gently taking her by the arm and steering her toward the front door. “You two can ride with me. Just tell me where to go.”

“The beach house,” she whispered. “The beach house on the coast where we used to go on vacation.”

Ben startled. “You didn’t—”

“I didn’t sell it,” she whispered. “I couldn’t.

“Take us there. Now.”

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