Friday flash fiction – The Many Names of Stacey Park

Stacey Park has been a superhero since she was nine.

https://pixabay.com/en/mask-carnival-mysterious-close-up-3092920/

When she was a little girl growing up in Busan, the daughter of an American diplomat and a Korean industrialist, she was once exposed to a radioactive meteor, or she was touched by the spirit-power of a mischievous Dookaebi, or she met a future version of herself who made her drink a bubbling serum. Stacey’s recollection is unreliable, riddled with suspiciously-timed gaps. She has learned to live with the ambiguity.

She has been a superhero her whole life, so as Madame Carmilla’s neural probe sizzles through her brain on a full-spectrum deep scan, she relaxes. This isn’t the worst jam she’s even been in. As far as she recalls.

She began her vigilante career under the name Rocky, sneaking off the balcony of her mother’s apartment balcony at night, wearing a grey hood and a handmade face mask. With extraordinary strength and an uncanny inability to suffer harm, Rocky fought street gangs, railway ghosts and the monsters that regularly emerged from the harbour. The mysterious “monster-punching-girl” enjoyed modest celebrity in the news and social media, but when Stacey’s parents decided to relocate to Colossus City in the United States, Rocky went into permanent retirement.

Stacey found herself in her element in Colossus City. Quick-witted for a ten year old, she soon deduced her classmate, Shelly Ness, was secretly Princess Silver, a probationary member of the Super-Scouts. She and Shelly became fast friends – their favourite joke. (Princess Silver’s top speed was once measured at over Mach 3). Stacey created a new persona called Kid Anvil, the Unwreckable Girl, and stayed with the Super-Scouts for several years, until a successful litigation forced the organisation to change its name.

The invasive scan has pulled this story from the recesses of Stacey’s mind and projected it as a glowing purple and red hologram for Madame Carmilla’s consideration. “All this time,” muses the masked villain. “You’ve been right in front of me for so long.”

Rebranding as Hammerteen and Silver Skater, Stacey and Shelly co-founded the Teen Rangers, who met on weekends and after school to deter alien invaders, unethical scientists and rogue artificial intelligences. It was during the Ranger years when Stacey made a startling discovery: instead of sleeping for the past several years, she had adopted yet another late-night crime-fighting identity, Midnight Owl. Though she had absolutely no recollection of her nocturnal adventures, internet research revealed a longstanding partnership with the teen avenger Tyrannosaurus. To her shock, some enthusiasts believed they were a couple, shipping them as M.O.A.T.

“You and Tyrannosaurus? Really?” Madame Carmilla sneers in disbelief and twists the dial on the neural probe. Stacey bites down on a scream. “All he ever did was grow twelve feet tall and chase cars. I expected you’d have higher standards.”

By the time Diabolus Cruz and his Diabolic Crew settled their longstanding grudge by blowing up Ranger Central with a nova detonator, Stacey had already moved on. Too restless to settle on just one codename, she joined Bastion Command as Anvil Girl (later Ms Anvil and finally just Anvil), the Battle Gurus as Flintlock, and Team Infinity as Diamondstrike. Shelly, now calling herself simply Silver, rose through the ranks of Bastion Command, and for years would chide Stacey to devote herself more fully to the paramilitary defence company. Stacey always declined with a laugh. “Me, get a career? Do I look like my mother?”

Though she was by now fully aware of her parallel occupations, Stacey was unable to clearly pin down how and when she moved between them. Whenever she paused to ponder her improbably intense schedule, her memories clouded over and she lost focus. She decided it must be a temporal slippage effect from her frequent dimension-hopping, time-travelling exploits with Team Infinity. That sort of nonsense would confuse anyone.

Come to think of it, Stacey’s been Madame Carmilla’s prisoner for over an hour. Team Infinity’s standard procedures when one of them is taken hostage is to mount a time-rescue within fifteen minutes of the capture. Maybe they don’t know she’s been caught?

“Maybe they’re not coming at all,” says Madame Carmilla, as if she can read Stacey’s mind. She smirks to show that’s exactly what she is doing.

As she finally left her teenage years behind her, Stacey began to learn that she was not the only one who kept secrets in her family. It was after one bruising encounter in which the Smoke Society almost got the upper hand on Bastion Command. A minor acrobat called Spring-Heeled Jack, trading information for leniency, revealed his previous career as a certain Korean business tycoon’s personal art thief.

Stacey, horrified to find her father criminally implicated, created yet another identity. Determined to uncover the truth and expose her father’s corruption, she went undercover as the industrial spy-for-hire.

Night Shrike.

“And there it is,” gloats Madame Carmilla. “I knew you had it in you.”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

“Night Shrike is wanted for burglary, sabotage and industrial espionage,” says Madame Carmilla. “Not to mention you put Aeronaut in traction for six months. Did I miss anything?”

Stacey fumes. She says nothing.

“So you committed all these crimes pursuing your father’s shady business dealings, and you thought you’d find the ultimate proof hidden in my office?”

“Something like that.”

Madame Carmilla pulls off her mask at last.

“Your father and I are very disappointed in you, dear. With your abilities you could have been such an asset to the family business. If only you hadn’t kept all these secrets from us.”

Stacey frowns. “I wish I’d been wrong about you, Mother.”

“Don’t worry dear. Once I’ve switched the neural probe settings, you’ll be a loyal daughter.”

“I know,” says Stacey. “I’m sorry.”

She drops the false memories she’s been projecting, letting her mother glimpse the truth just as the timewave opens and Team Infinity steps through.

“Really Stacey?” says Captain Silver, aka Shelly Ness. “This is how I get to meet your parents?”

 


A return to Colossus City, because I’ve been dying to get back to Night Shrike all year. She first appeared in Flyers, and got a fleeting mention in Tock Tock. She might come back again. There’s a real temptation with the Colossus City stories to build a continuous narrative out of them, but I’m conscious I don’t want to serialise too many of the flash fiction worlds.

I’m emerging from a very busy few weeks blinking and bleary-eyed, very conscious that I haven’t even talked about the book I helped launch at Conflux yet (nearly three weeks ago). I will get to it soon, I hope – and to make up for the delay, I will be running a contest. For books! More news soon.

Hello new readers!

My weekly flash fiction project appears here every Friday, but you can also get my short story collection Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales for free just by signing up to my newsletter:

 

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Friday flash fiction – Seven Devils for Jessica Rose

Jessie’s first devil looked like her mother’s ceramic cat.

https://pixabay.com/en/cat-ceramic-decoration-2578499/

It yawned and stretched on its kitchen shelf, its ginger belly stuffed with the batch of chocolate cookie Mama baked fresh just an hour ago. “Don’t you go crushing Mama’s cookies with all that stretching,” she told it, because she could hear them grinding against one another right inside that big old cat-shaped jar.

“I’ll do as I please,” said the devil in a lazy voice. “I feel like stretching. It’s no business of mine what happens to some baked goods.”

“My Mama put her faith in you to keep them cookies safe,” said Jessie, who didn’t care for those who neglected their chores.

“Then your Mama is a plain fool with too much trust in her heart,” said the devil. Showing a spiteful side Jessie would come to learn was the whole of a devil’s nature, the ceramic cat jumped down onto the kitchen table, stretched out long as a snake, and rolled back and forth on its belly. In no time the crunching of crushed cookies became the sound of churning sand.

Jessie said, “I’ll teach you not to disrespect my Mama,” and she laid into that devil with Mama’s claw hammer. The devil howled and cursed her as she worked, but pretty soon she’d pounded the shards of ceramic cat every bit as fine as cookie dust.

Mama didn’t understand when Jessie explained it and gave her a good tarring with her feather duster and no dinner besides, but Jessie didn’t mind so much at all.

That was the day she learned she could fight devils.

The next devils she met were the teacher twins, Bianca and Helen, who took Jessie for mathematics and fine arts. They were both good teachers, in their own way, but they would be forever asking Jessie to stay after class.

“Jessie Rose, you must write these lines,” Bianca would tell her, and make her write crude words and magic symbols on the chalkboard until it was full.

“Jessie Rose, you must scrub the chalk from these floors,” Helen would say, handing her a brush and a bucket.

Neither would let her leave until the chores were done, and while she worked, they would each tell Jessie spiteful gossip about the other. She knew they wanted her to pass their petty cruelties on, but she never did. In time she guessed that the sisters wanted her to choose between them in some way. Jessie kept her silence and endured their pointless labours, all through high school until its very last day.

With her proud mother’s eyes on her and wearing her brand new graduation gown, Jessie found her devils impatient for her choice. “I’m not choosing no art,” she told Helen, and to Bianca she said, “I ain’t choosing mathematics either. I’m going to study law.”

The devils slunk away.

Jessie started calling herself Jessica and dedicated herself to two things: the getting of knowledge and the banishing of devils. One devil tried to tempt her with free tickets to a cruise with the man of her dreams, but there were no men in Jessica’s dreams so she declined. Where did these devils get their information? She often wondered. While Jessica was graduating at the top of her class, the cruise ship got stuck in a mid-ocean garbage patch for a whole week.

Once, her mother called her on the phone and begged her to come back home to live with her. “I don’t feel so good and I miss my little girl. Come on back, Jessie Rose.”

But Jessica visited her mother plenty and knew her better than any devil ever could. “Mama wants me to make my way in the world, just like she did,” she said. “You devils will have to do better than that.”

When it came time for her to begin a career, a devil came to Jessica in the form of a great idea for a novel. She didn’t recognise it for what it was at first, and began to work on it, day and night. Jessica turned down invitations from her friends, and calls from her mother went unanswered for weeks.

But the devil over-reached itself. It was not satisfied just to eat Jessica’s time, it wanted to waste it too. It gave her more ideas, too many to use. It left browser tabs open to intriguing research topics. One week, it subscribed to three new social media apps.

Jessica lost momentum and abandoned the novel. The devil withered.

Jessica Rose took a job in a busy law firm and defended clients with unusual circumstances. Once, she represented a devil arrested for impersonating the star of a celebrity cooking show. The devil, called Kleo, managed to stand in for the real chef – also Kleo – for six whole weeks without anyone noticing that the star had checked herself into a clinic to treat her addiction to collecting figurines with oversized heads.

Jessica had learned never to trust her devils, but she was impressed that Other-Kleo managed to record half a season of Cook Yourself Out of the Corner episodes without giving the game away. She convinced the production company to settle the case before word circulated of their inadequate studio security and rampant neglect of their star’s wellbeing. It didn’t hurt Jessica’s argument that the devil’s episodes were more popular than the rest of the series.

Deciding it was time to strike out on her own, Jessica quit her job and started a private practice to help people with devil problems. She offered Other-Kleo regular consultancy work; devils being adept at turning their hands to new tasks, she accepted. They built a successful business and eventually moved into a flat together.

“We can all learn to live with our devils”, Jessica told her friends and clients alike. “It’s just a case of choosing the right one.”


I always make the mistake of underestimating just how busy my Octobers will be. This one has been a doozy, so I’ll keep this quick: this is a periodic reminder that you can get my short story collection Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales, featuring nineteen short fantasy stories about haunted places, heroic adventures and a surprising number of talking simians, just by signing up to my newsletter using this extremely simple form:

Sign up for occasional chatty emails about what I’m up to and some free short fiction (guaranteed).

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Friday flash fiction – The Penultimate Foe

As Cassandra Chalk stood over the fallen form of her mortal enemy, the Dread Lord Griefstalker, the enchanted medallion crumbled into glittering jade dust and spilled through her fingers. The mighty ethereal entity Uxlar, summoned to her side by the jewel’s explosive discharge, looked down at Griefstalker’s cooling corpse and whistled.

https://pixabay.com/en/necklace-jewelry-luxury-rich-2405165/

“Wow,” it said. “You just used the medallion, huh? Just like that? Wow, this is awkward.”

“I have defeated my ultimate foe,” declared Chalk proudly. “Using your gift of the Jade Emblem, I have destroyed his blackened soul across every time-line, in every corner of space.”

Uxlar nudged Griefstalker with the toe of his golden slippers. “You sure did. He’s toast, all right. This guy I’ve never heard of, dead as a dodo, right here.”

Cassandra looked around at her steadfast companions, each of them flushed and gasping from the exertions of the decisive final battle against Griefstalker. They shrugged in return.

“Let me get this straight,” said Uxlar, wrinkling his nose as the body began to shrivel and emit a putrid grey vapour. “Did I or did I not send you a series of oblique prophetic warnings to guide your path?”

Cassandra nodded in grim recall. “Though we were tested in faith, strength and sanity, my fellowship did not waver or stray, great Uxlar.”

“If I recall correctly, there was a dream-vision of the cities of man, laid to waste and ruin?”

“Aye, Uxlar.” Shining Neville looked the worse for battle. Its tabard was scorched, its plating pitted and scratched, and a dent the size of a melon had caved in its helm. “We knew this to be a warning about the threat of my people, the Pauldrones, against the fleshly folks.”

“Thanks to you, we had time to broker a peace between the living armour-people and the Duke of Rainbows,” added Cassandra.

“Impressive,” grunted Uxlar. “So, what about when the stars in the night sky rearranged themselves?”

The warrior-poet Lyranis tugged deferentially at his proud mane. “A cunning way to alert us to the sinister ascendance of the Nightmare Moon, great Uxlar. We almost missed it.”

Cassandra clapped her tawny lover on the back. “Lyranis sang the Beseeching Chords to encourage the Beneficent Stars back to their dominance and banish the Nightmare Moon for a thousand years.”

“Huh, how about that? Well done, I guess.” Uxlar held up a third, immaculately tattooed finger. “What did you do about the bone ravens swarming in the Sequestered Vale?”

The dishevelled sorcerer, Carren Tooth, whipped into a low curtsey, like a long twig bending in a fierce wind. “The carrion-eaters’ uncharacteristic boldness became a threat to stock animals and children, o limitless Uxlar. Not sword nor fire would deter them, but only the threat of a hunger greater than their own.”

Cassandra swelled with pride for her clever companions. “Carren persuaded the fading spirit of Shalaya, the demigod of all eagles, to merge with the great mountain Om Lacha. No scavenger will long endure beneath her shadow, and she will watch over the children of the Vale for all time.”

“A clever solution,” murmured Uxlar. “You all should be very proud. And you were never tempted to use the medallion?”

With a modest glance at the floor, Cassandra said, “By instinct or faith, we were confident you would not set us a labour so dire as to leave us no recourse but to invoke the amulet’s power.”

Lyranis lifted his mighty chin. “Aye, and each time we set aside the medallion, the true solution, some novelty hitherto uncontemplated, would occur to us.”

“Every time, eh?”

Togar Tormon’s eyes were wet with gratitude. “Without your enlightenment, Uxlar, I would still be crawling as a cursed beast rather than walking like a man.”

“Really? What’s your story?”

“When Cassandra’s divinatory visions led us to the ruins of the Lost City of Candlefell, you knew we would see the friezes depicting the last great werewolf plague.”

Uxlar inclined its head. “That sounds like something I might know.”

“There was a moment, when Togar was locked in battle with the Werewolf Mandarin, their jaws and talons wet with the other’s blood, when my resolve almost faltered,” Cassandra whispered. “If Neville had not arrived with the lycanthropy cure in that moment, I would have called upon the medallion’s power.”

“And if you had?”

“Then we would have been weaponless, helpless and hopeless before the sinister might of Griefstalker.”

“Who?”

Cassandra pointed at the body. “The tyrant Griefstalker. The monster you warned us about, who sought dominion over all, the subjugation of the free, and the extinction of hope. The great existential threat that dragged me from my world, flung me across the infinite reaches of existence, and set me down with the tools and will to destroy this oppressor. The final, ultimate threat. The one enemy worthy of the Jade Emblem.”

“Good speech,” said Uxnar. “Compelling argument. I can see how we got here. Great effort, all of you. But, just hypothetically speaking here, what would you conclude if you looked at all those hints and prophecies together, rather than one at a time?”

The companions exchanged quizzical looks. “Devastation. Forbidden stars. Ominous birds and hungry beasts.” Carren Tooth frowned at her checklist. “Hmm.”

“What?” said Cassandra, echoed by her companions.

“Well, if I didn’t know better, I’d say these portents and signs point towards a single entity.”

“Really?” said Uxlar. “Which one?”

“The Unmatched Appetite. The Chaos-in-One. The black heart of the Dark Crevasse.”

Cassandra’s jaw dropped. “Do you mean Hetchag the Ravener?”

Uxlar whistled again. “Wow. I mean, wow. All roads lead to Hetchag huh? I hear he’s bad news. Bet you wish you hadn’t blown the Jade Emblem already.”

Uxlar, messenger of the gods, peeled off its robes. The leathery skin-plates beneath were dark and weeping blood. Cassandra Chalk and her companions gasped.

“Tell you what,” said Hetchag the Ravener as new teeth sprouted from its face. “You’ve been really great sports about this. I’ll let you make the first move.”


I’m still recovering from three overwhelming days of Conflux, in which I launched books, appeared on panels and read my own work aloud in public. I’m still reeling from that last one. I think my audience probably is too, after I put on a special death-metal-growl voice for several demonic interjections.

If I recover enough energy this weekend I’ll blog about the con and post some photos. In the meantime, here’s a story which I have belatedly come to realise is an expression of one of my greatest fears in life: that you can go to great lengths to conscientiously follow the instructions, take meticulous care at every step of a task, and still get it completely wrong in the end.

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Friday flash fiction – Some Knowledge of Eldritch Matters

Mavis Grimshaw expected her preoccupations in retirement to include catching up on her reading, visiting with her nieces and the odd spot of gardening, but of what account are zucchini crops, afternoon teas and cosy mysteries when chthonian horrors are abroad?

https://pixabay.com/en/earthworm-soil-dirt-macro-686593/

It all began innocently enough. One spring afternoon, when her niece Pheme – she of the frizzy hair and circuit diagram tattoos – dropped in on a break from her driving job with the ride-sharing service, Shotgun. “It’s been one lousy week, Auntie,” she confided over coffee and white chocolate cherries. “I’ve lost one passenger after another.”

“You mean you dropped them off in the wrong place? Is your GPS on the blink, dear? Let me order you a new one.” Mavis did her best to let her late sister’s girls get on with their lives. They were grown women, after all, and scarcely needed her interference. But she just couldn’t help but to worry sometimes.

“No, Auntie, I mean I took them all to the same place. They asked me to pick them up again later, but when I came back they were gone.”

“Oh, well that’s different,” said Mavis, as she rinsed off her cup and put it in the dishwasher. “Where did you say you dropped them off?”

New Salisbury was commonly called the Sawl by its residents, though Mavis didn’t care for the contraction. A lifelong librarian, she was firmly of the view that things ought to be called by their proper name.

The proper name for the mountainous mullock hills on the town’s south side was Macnair’s Extraction Disposals, but to everyone else it was “the dump from the tin mines”.

It was hardly the town’s most scenic attraction, for its ten metre stacks of crushed rock and sun-baked mine slurry smelled of chemical waste and rotten timber, and were separated by several stagnant ponds thick with iridescent blue algae.

“This stinks, Auntie Mavis,” said Pheme, after they’d parked in the shadow of one large waste hill.

“Oh I think you’re right, dear, but not in the way you mean. Look at this.” Mavis pointed out several deep, dark holes in the mullock mounds. They were a uniform forty centimeters in diameter. Each was rimmed with a dark grey crust.

“Wombat burrows?” guessed Pheme. “They’re good diggers.”

“Not this good.” Mavis Grimshaw smacked her lips. “Tell me about your passengers, dear. And don’t touch that blue stuff. I suspect it won’t agree with you.”

Pheme counted them off. “Monday. I brought Tim Broome from the deli at the farmer’s market out. He had a big camera. Said he wanted to take photos of hawks, and wouldn’t hear a word of it when I told him there no birdlife out this way. Tuesday were that young couple who do the palm reading after midnight on Channel 29. Erica and Martin, do you watch them? They didn’t tell me why they wanted to come out here. They just kept watching this one Youtube video over and over, with a guy talking about the Bedrock Gods and chanting this weird song. I was going to ask them to turn it off but then their phone signal dropped out.”

Mavis nodded. “I see. What about the third one?”

“Yeah, she was a bit of a weirdo. Short, bald, had a bit of a skin condition.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, she was grey all over. Looked almost blue in shadows.”

“And did she chant anything?”

“Auntie Mavis, how did you guess that? As a matter of fact, she spent the whole ride humming that same song as the couple.” Pheme crossed her arms. “I suppose you know what the song is as well?”

Mavis shook her head. “Not the specifics, thankfully.” She pointed back towards Pheme’s car. “We should probably get a wriggle on, before they come back.”

“Who, my passengers? They’ll have to take turns. I can’t fit that many-”

She never got to finish the sentence. At that moment a roar like a collapsing cave tunnel split the tailings yard. The ground shuddered. Cracks in the hard ground radiated out from beneath Pheme’s car, which shook as if it had been started in first gear.

The ground exploded in a cloud of dirt clumps and mildly toxic dust. A cluster of worms boiled out from beneath the car, enveloping it completely. From somewhere behind the writhing mass came the sound of breaking glass and crumpling metal.

“Do you have insurance, dear?” Mavis’ athletic peak was well behind her, but she was pleased to discover she still possessed the power to run for her life.

“I can see a claims assessor asking some hard-to-answer questions,” replied Pheme as they fled towards an abandoned office shed. “Besides I doubt I’m covered for acts of God.”

“Probably not the one in question, no,” agreed Mavis. The shed walls were decorated with unpleasant symbols and diagrams painted in blood.

“Auntie, what’s going on?”

“I’m afraid we’ve stumbled on a spot of cultist shenanigans, dear.” Forty years managing the New Salisbury Library’s reserved collection had lent Mavis a regrettable familiarity with certain eldritch topics. “These ones are a bit more successful than most.”

“Should we do something?”

Mavis rattled the shed door to make sure the deadbolt was firmly in place. Then she pulled a stool. “Nine times out of ten there’s nothing we can do, dear. There’s a very good chance the problem has taken care of itself. Occult enthusiasts who stumble on a summoning ritual that actually works tend not to get a second bite of the cherry.”

“They get to be the cherries?”

“Plump and juicy ones, dear.”

Pheme scowled at her phone. “I’m not getting any reception out here. I guess nobody will be coming for us.”

“Not to worry dear.”

“Not to worry?”

Mavis pointed to an electrical kettle on a table in the corner of the shed. “Where there’s tea, there’s hope. Be a dear and see if you can find us some cups.”

 


By the time you read this I’ll be in full panic mode because I definitely won’t be ready for my very full weekend at Conflux. If you’re in the area, I’d love for you to come down to the A Hand of Knaves book launch, where I’ll be reading a story passage I haven’t quite picked out or rehearsed yet.

I’ll also be selling print copies of Mnemo’s Memory at the CSFG table in the dealer’s room, but look, you probably don’t have to make a special trip just for that. But if you do, I’d appreciate it. Really I would.

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Conflux 14 – My weekend with The Unconventional Hero

Conflux, Canberra’s annual convention of speculative fiction craft and appreciation, is being held next weekend 29 September to 1 October at Vibe Hotel (aka the wedge-shaped one near the airport).

The theme of this year’s con is The Unconventional Hero. To get a sense of what is on offer, the full program is here (and it’s definitely not too late to get day passes or tickets for the full weekend).

As well as being the coordinator for the dealer’s room, I’ll be out and about at various con activities. Here’s my schedule of events, in case you want to get a good look at the new T-shirts I bought specially for the occasion!

Social Meetup (6:30 pm, Friday 28 September) – I’ll be going along to the pre-convention gathering at O’Malley’s bar in Civic for some light conviviality and absolutely not to be talked into karaoke afterwards by Kaaron Warren.

Panel – DIY Hero (10:30 am Saturday 29 September) – I will be joining panellists Katie Taylor, Abigail Nathan and Paula Boer to discuss the formula for making the perfect hero.

Panel – Unconventional Hero’s Journey (9:30 am Sunday 30 September) – The panel of Gillian Polack, Simon Petrie, Robert Porteous, Abigail Nathan and I will look at the challenge of heroes who defy the Hero’s Journey plot structure.

Book Launch – A Hand of Knaves (5:45 pm Sunday 30 September) – I’ll be appearing along with several other contributing authors and the editorial crew of CSFG’s latest anthology. I will be reading a short (possibly blood-spattered) excerpt from my story ‘A Moment’s Peace’.

And most of the rest of the time I will be either sitting in on other panels or hanging around the dealers room. If you see me come up and say hello!

 

 

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