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Those Snowy Nights You Read to Me, They'll Never Be Forgotten

One volume, four immensely different novellas.

Thirty Thousand Pieces sets up the ultimate battle between art and commerce, as a vengeful literary genius uses a landmark book deal to bring down the publishing house which crosses him. Little Boy Games is a baseball story, a celebratory biography of a left fielder whose heroic exploits on the diamond preclude a fall which opens his eyes to grander definitions of glory and triumph. Love Story With Just One Hesitant Kiss follows an angry young man on a journey across the afterlife to get back to the girl whose empathy almost redeemed him before his untimely end. The finale, Incantations, is a dark, sometimes violent tale of paranormal researchers pressed to the edge of reason by uncountable personal stresses. Their chaotic investigation of what might be an authentically haunted church forces them to confront horrors far more intimate than mere phantoms and ghosts.




In the novella Thirty Thousand Pieces, Morella Duvall, an ambitious young editor at troubled Skybridge Press, finds herself ensnared in a vicious battle between her publishing house and the author Thomas Tull, a legendary literary figure who signs a wealthy deal to publish his first novel in almost three decades. Tull's hostile, irrational contract wranglings wither the patience and good will of everyone who tries to deal with him, until Skybridge's financial fortunes are directly threatened. When the bad blood between Tull and Skybridge Press reaches a revolting breaking point, a vindictive rogue element within the house decides to retaliate brutally against Tull's tactics, committing the ultimate atrocity that can be perpetrated against the creative mind.
















THIRTY THOUSAND PIECES

















Welcome to Skybridge Press

New York . Los Angeles . Atlanta

VICE PRESIDENT OF PUBLISHING OPERATIONS
Everett Pauly

PROJECTS MANAGER
Dean Hammond

LEGAL AFFAIRS
James Diaz 510
Tim Lazenby 344
Neil Blum 346

EXECUTIVE EDITOR
Gail Cole 340

MARKETING
Lilla Morganthal 260
Donna Schulz 278

EDITORIAL STAFF
Louisa Miller 308
Michael Perlozzo 312
Morella Duvall 316
Hannah Cobb 326














In 1999, Morella Duvall and her then-fiancee Philip Jost wrote a mystery novel upon receiving their master's degrees in comparative literature from the University of Chicago. They submitted the novel to eighteen publishers; Random House agreed to distribute it. The book was met with some acclaim and very good sales in the trade paperback format. Based on the book's success and on her education, Morella was then hired by Skybridge Press of New York as a junior editor. A promotion followed a year later.

In early 2002, Skybridge entered into negotiations to purchase the rights to the new novel by the reclusive writer Thomas Tull. It was called Tyrant, Draw They Sword, and it was his first book since his 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning tale of World War II, The Mortalist. Morella Duvall was one of the editors assigned to the project.

She was thirty-one years old.



*


She got to the conference room at seven-thirty, a full half hour before anyone else, and she waited the time out sitting alone in the dark, not smoking, not doing anything, wanting nothingness. She was a black silhouette against the mediocre skyline outside. She listened for sirens, found their noise a comforting reminder of a separated world. Very few sirens came. She wondered what Diaz would think if he walked in to find her sitting so stonelike in the dark, a part of the shadows. The thought drifted into her mind and out of it, one of a series of disconnected ideas and images that kept her company, each no more intriguing than the view through the window.

Diaz was indeed first through the doors. He turned on the lights and didn't appear to give Morella's odd sentry duty a second thought.

"Hello, Morella," he said cordially, arranging his suit jacket against a chair near the middle. "I hope this isn't too late for you."

"No, no."

Diaz joined her in her silent appraisal of the skyline. It held little attraction now that the tired fluorescent lights inside were on. Everett Pauly came in bare seconds later, seeming vaguely out of breath. Dean was behind him, and shortly after him came Gail Cole, Lilla Morganthal, and finally Louis Steen, whom Morella suspected of entering last simply for effect. In any case, he had misjudged his timing somewhat and no one took any special notice. Morella nodded cordially to each one of them in turn. They positioned themselves just as she thought they might: Dean sitting as close as a pet dog to Everett, Gail at the far end, playing the overseer, Louis hunched forward beside her, baldly anxious.

"Okay, everybody," Dean began. "Everett just wanted to get together one last time to go over some last minute details before we draw up a schedule. First of all, Gail, there was some question as to your official capacity. I'm sorry, what was that about?"

"Well," she said, "it was explained to me last month that I was going to be moved off the Big Penis book and onto Thomas Tull's, but I've had no clear signal as to deadlines, and I wasn't too comfortable with that with everything else I have going on."

"All right," Dean said, taking a deep breath. "The deal is, Frank's been moved onto the Big Penis book because he's had a recurrence of whatever his weird finger/knuckle/nail syndrome is, and that campaign just needs tidying up anyway. You can focus on the Tull as of Monday morning, if you want. I'd like you in Frank's office, too. Good?"

"That's fine," Gail said, rather more loftily than was necessary.

"Okay. Now, Louis, why is nothing being shipped anymore to Inksmith?"

Louis leaned even further forward. The track lighting made him seem at least a little older than twenty-seven. "They're not Inksmith anymore," he said, "they're called Donna's Attic. I had Tim tell them to give us their new business plan before we signed this year's deal. I walked into one of these places the other day, there's no sections, there's no order, no signage, no method of inventory, all the books are mixed together regardless of the subject. The idea's supposed to be that you go in and just 'discover' things."

"There's really no sections?" Dean asked wonderingly. "Well, maybe they should discover having to pay for every new title in advance if they want to run a chain like a bunch of crackheads. Let them screw a distributor, not us. Ah....Lilla, as long as I have you here, I want to entirely re-think jacket copy when it comes to the author bio on fiction titles. It's time to realize no one gives a damn about where a writer spends his summers or how long he's been married to his third wife or if he's into feng shui. We're not just going to stroke these people anymore; I want one valid selling point in that jacket space, I want these people using some kind of recent photo, and nobody sits on a motorcycle anymore, that just makes me want to punch their face in."

"Did you get a chance to see the copy I left for the Mathews novel?" Gail asked him.

"Yes, it was good. Now, James will flatten out the Tull contracts by Thursday—"

"Wednesday."

"Wednesday? Excellent. Now, I'm going to be entering the hospital for a few days and if I'm still there when the schedules are done, I'll go over them there. Anything else? Questions? Comments? Last requests?" Dean lazily fluttered his pen in everyone's general direction.

Morella waited until the last possible moment before she spoke. Dean was just about to put the pen back into his breast pocket, the inevitable signal of closure, even more of an icon than Everett's trademark finger snapping.

"I'd like to say something if I could," Morella told them.

"Sure." Dean's pen disappeared. Silence.

Morella clasped her hands, rested them on the table. It was already too late to go back.

"Look, I don't know if this is my place," she said. "I haven't been high up for that long and I'm not great on protocol yet. But I've been looking over what we have, and I don't think I can let this go." She paused for a sustaining breath. "I think that as it stands, this Tull book may wind up being serious trouble. Yesterday we all sat here and went over a carefully detailed advertising and distribution budget with a fine tooth comb, and I honestly have no idea how all that money is supposed to come back to us. We're talking about releasing a totally literary title during the most competitive week of the Christmas season. No one has said anything about the Vorvez suit against Skybridge; it had been my understanding that until that was settled, we needed to stop greenlighting anything even remotely expensive. And Tull's stupefying royalty package makes it a fantasy that this book can even break without a movie sale, which I've heard nothing about. I hear it's a very compelling outline, as Tull's contract will not allow any one but Everett to actually read it, maybe even a prize winner. But what really worries me is Tull himself." She had to take yet another breath. She hadn't thought she would go on this long.

"This man," she said, "is going to sign a contract tomorrow to receive six and a half million dollars for a book which by his own admittance he hasn't even completed yet. We're talking about a man who wrote one classic twenty-five years ago and has not attempted to publish a single word since then. This wouldn't mean anything, but The Mortalist itself was nearly incomprehensible; if it hadn't been assigned to every freshman English course in America, no one else would ever have read it. Tyrant, Draw They Sword is not going to be a lunch read, it's going to be tremendously bloated, perhaps twelve hundred pages long, with a pricetag that might hit thirty-five dollars if it's any longer. I'm sorry if I've offended anyone, but I see no reason to buy into what has a fifty-fifty shot of becoming a well-publicized disaster when you can make good on some old promises and buy some loyal authors the time they want and the ads they deserve to make their winter projects something memorable. What am I not seeing?"

There was no immediate reply. Now she found herself unable to arrange herself in her seat, calling more uncomfortable attention to herself. Louis Steen and Gail Cole exchanged an unreadable glance.

"Well, Morella, that was quite an analysis," Everett chuckled, speaking for the first time, smiling a bit condescendingly. "Thank you. I think we all completely understand your concerns. I can only say that I probably have the most to lose if this project doesn't pan out, but I've read some of the book, and I have complete confidence that we're in for a whale of a seller, and I'm willing to trust Gail here and Dean to keep things reined in. Regardless, the book will make a profit even if we have to remainder it six weeks into the release. This won't be some anchorman's autobiography. But I will certainly take your thoughts up with the big man. It's been eye-opening."

"I wouldn't worry too much, Morella," Diaz said before the post-Everett silence became too painful. "From the legal end things are as secure as they ever were. We're more than ready for the Vorvez suit, which is just a nuisance anyway. And I've made certain that Tull's contract will keep him leashed."

Morella only nodded, having internalized little of it. She willed someone else to break the orphaned quiet.

"Okay?" Dean said, tapping a fist on the table. "Thanks a lot, everyone, sorry to keep you here so late. And thanks for your concern about my hospital stay, I could really sense the love there."

They went more or less single file out of the room. Morella was the last to leave, and it fell upon her to close the doors behind them. She turned right instead of left and headed for her office.






It was dark in here, darker than it had been in the conference room before. She had a better view now, overlooking Bryant Park, and further north, the edge of Times Square. The forecast earlier had predicted a beautiful day tomorrow, and this gave Morella the kind of evening sky she most liked to gaze at: a rich blue tapering down to a lush red haze hanging over the city. She wanted very much to be home, did not think she could stand the drive back to Long Island.

She turned her desk lamp on and prepared her briefcase to leave, filling it with letters to send out the next day. Footsteps padded down the hallway. She looked up to see Louis Steen entering her office in a state of some distress.

"Okay, so what the hell was that all about?" Louis asked her, stopping in directly in front of the desk. He appeared to have lost a treasured family pet.

"Sorry?"

"I can't believe you did that, man," Louis said to her, already beginning to stalk the office restlessly. "You just made a snotrag out of me."

"How did I do that, Louis?" Morella asked him patiently.

"You can't just suddenly start spouting off about the death of the Tull book in front of Everett like that. How could you possibly think that was acceptable?"

Morella closed her briefcase. "I'm sorry, when should I have done it?"

Louis shook his head, hands on his hips. "Whenever, but we are partners on this one, Mo, one of us isn't supposed to go sneaking around on the other. Do you know what Dean is going to tell people now? I've been eviscerated!"

Morella considered many possible responses, all focusing on Louis' dubious use of that last term. She chose none of them.

"I thought about telling you first," she said calmly, "but you were in Atlanta yesterday and I thought that if just one of us spoke our mind and it backfired, the other would be spared."

"I have e-mail in Atlanta, I just got a palm thing."

"I don't know what to tell you, Louis."

Louis, now at the window, staring out and most likely seeing the traffic squalor below rather than the skyline, nodded reluctantly. "All right. All right. I accept that. But that's got to be the last time, man. Did you see the look on Gail's face? Do you know what Everett's going to think of you from now on?"

"I didn't know what else to do," Morella said, and shut off her desk lamp, the most effective way she knew to signal that she wanted Louis out of the office. Louis, however, remained at the window. Not done. Morella should have known it.

"Jesus," he complained, "if you had dragged me into that tirade, I would have spiked. I wouldn't have been able to control myself, I don't care who you are. I started out as a courier here; I don't need you mucking up my forty-eight month plan."

Morella closed her eyes, rubbed her forehead. She sensed Louis was heading for the doorway.

"I didn't mean to make you....spike with my tirade, Louis, or eviscerate you, or decapitate you. Are you going to be around tomorrow morning for the meeting with Diaz? Because I want to be there early."

"Yeah, yeah," Louis answered testily. "No earlier than me, though, goddammit, all right? Call me first."

Morella opened her eyes and the first thing that struck her was that Louis was combing his hair differently yet again, trying to look older, of course more menacing.

"I got it," she said lamely, hoping it would be enough to send Louis away. He turned and clumsily knocked over the single chair that sat before her desk. He swore under his breath and bent down to examine it.

"Jesus, I broke the damn chair," he sputtered. After failing to upright it two or three times, he carried it right out of the office with him. Morella waited another five minutes, and then returned to the window. From this side of the building she could see Louis emerge out onto Fifth Avenue, leaving Morella little doubt that she herself would be the last one out of the building except for the security guard on the ground floor. With this certainty came a flood of relief. She watched Louis Steen walk down the busy street from three floors above until the man was out of sight, stolen away by a passing taxi.




It was an hour and ten minutes back to her house on Oyster Bay. Because of the late meeting she had missed All Things Considered, the only thing she looked forward to each night on her way out of the building. That left only one sure respite, the echoing sound of the waves behind the house as she pulled into the drive and traversed the stone sidewalk.

When she turned the front doorknob, it spun like a top in her right hand. The door was already open, she saw. She nudged it inward and stepped hesitantly into the house.

All the lights were off, another sign something was very wrong. The foyer appeared its normal barren condition, but she could see from here into the living room, and her coffee table had been wrenched off to one side in there, the rug beneath it curled back in on itself.

She descended into the slightly sunken living room. The first thing she noticed was missing was the stereo; no surprise there. Strangely enough, it seemed also that they had taken the marble raven bookends that had sat in front of it. No; they were on the floor. They seemed to have been set there rather gently while her guests unhooked the wiring and helped themselves to the speakers.

She walked through the room idly. The television was gone but the VCR remained, apparently too cheap for them to bother with. She had always meant to get a better one but it had been months since she had taped or watched anything on it. She noticed that the two Haring prints she had gotten from the mall just a few weeks before, and subsequently found she did not really like, had been removed and set down on the couch beneath them. Surely the thieves must have been expecting a safe. No dice.

She took a quick glance into the kitchen as she opened the screen door leading out onto the back porch. Everything seemed in place there except for the microwave, another appliance she had used so scarcely that it had hardly seemed her own. A few bottles of Gallo had also been swiped from the wooden grid mounted beside the fridge.

Outside, there was virtually no wind. It was quite comfortable; perhaps this was not merely Indian summer, then, but spring's actual blessed return. She closed the screen door behind her and lowered herself into a deck chair, placing her briefcase beside her.

"'It was a pleasure to burn,'" spoke a voice to her right, and her entire body jerked involuntarily in that direction.

Philip Jost was slouching in one of the deck chairs. It was so dark out she hadn't seen him at all, or even sensed his breathing. One of the wine bottles Morella had thought pinched was clasped firmly in Philip's hand. Judging by the indelicate way he held it, suggesting a diminished weight, he was already well into it.

"Jesus, you frightened me," Morella scolded him, leaning back to look at the beach. The sky had gone a dull, muddy blue, and the water was disappointingly calm. She held out a hand for the bottle, but Philip merely gave her a glass instead after filling it very close to the rim.

"I thought I might," he said. "I got here an hour ago, it was like this." He gestured toward the interior of the house with no more concern than a parent for a messy room.

"How did they get in?" Morella asked, knowing full well how they did. "Goddammit. What's missing that I haven't seen?"

"Probably nothing, unless you have vast riches I don't know about. I guess not, since you were stupid enough to go for Skybridge stock instead of extra money. Did you want me to call the police? They may have taken your club soda."

Morella thought about it briefly, watching the waves collapse tiredly on the sand seventy feet away. "Forget about it; I'm moving. That's the second time in four months they've gotten me. What's the matter with all the other houses on this beach? I don't even have a second floor."

Philip finished his second glass of wine. "How are things at the office?"

"Wonderful," Morella said, and drank. "I just got chewed out by your favorite person."

"Who?"

"Louis Steen."

Philip smiled bitterly through the dark, barely perceptible. "Frankensteen, the human abattoir. Someone's got to get that boy a secretary so he can fire her."

Morella strained to see Philip's face. She could not tell if the ugly good humor there was a natural outgrowth of his usual gallows mentality, or in fact induced and enhanced by the alcohol.

"I just heard this morning what happened," Morella said quietly. "I called, but you don't have a machine. I can't believe it."

Philip stared at the floorboards. "Oh, I can. Did you hear the details yet?"

"No. My God, I had no idea they would do that to you."

"It's all right," Philip replied, obviously meaning it wasn't. "How's the Tull book coming?"

"It's got problems. Forget that, though, what are you going to do now? Do you have any legal recourse?"

"You're asking me? I don't want to know."

"You don't seem too upset."

"I'm not. I'm through. I'm done. I'm going home."

"Where? Manhattan?"

"No," Philip said flatly, and turned his face to the water. "Ann Arbor."

Morella shook her head, poured herself more wine. "Come on. I can understand you being demoralized, but that's no reason to go back to Dachau. The book will come out a year later, that's all."

"There's not going to be any book," Philip said firmly, enunciating. "I'm dying out here, and I came to ask you to come with me."

Morella looked at him. Her night vision had improved just enough to see the childlike anger on Philip's face.

"What can you be thinking?" Morella asked him softly.

Philip reached beside him and lifted something from the chair. He brandished what looked like a couple of index cards in front of his face. "Look. I've got two tickets. Amtrak. I figure I could use a slow ride. Next Friday morning."

Morella leaned forward a bit to establish the fact of the tickets. Then her eyes went to Philip's face again, longer this time. Her old writing partner looked as he used to whenever he'd had a good story idea and knew it, and was adamant about its potential.

"Philip, I'm not coming. Now you're being ridiculous. I don't know if you care, but I'm getting a little bit of clout around here. I can't get your book back, but it doesn't have to screw you so royally."

"I'm being ridiculous?" Philip chided, digging a cigarette out of his pocket, dropping the tickets on the overturned recycling bin before him. "Here's what happened yesterday at Friendly's. Ready? We sit down and we have the entire bloody meal before Don O'Shandy says he has to talk with me about something. And Weems hasn't said two words since we started. Do you know Weems?"

"Only through homosexual reputation," Morella replied. Her eyes went to the water, to its inane sounds and shadows.

Philip lit his cigarette with a lighter he'd taken from Morella's kitchen counter.

"O'Shandy pulls out my manuscript, my complete manuscript, and hands it to me and asks me to look it over. I notice that about half of it has been printed in a very intense garnet color....sanguineous, I would say....almost carmine in nature—"

"I get the point."

"Weems explains it to me. He wants to publish a line of books under a special Skybridge imprint which he claims will attract both the serious reader and the everyday saliva machine who'd rather watch old episodes of Will and Grace. See, every word, every sentence which explains the absolute essentials of plot and character, will be printed in red, to expedite the reading of the novel should the fuckhead who bought it at Walgreen's get bored."

"Okay, you're making this up," Morella interjected.

Philip tapped his ashes.

"I had the predictable writer's reaction to this suggestion: I took hold of the ice cream menu in case I suddenly need it to slash both their throats. I asked them why my book had been selected for such an honor. It seems they were disturbed last week to find certain similarities between the novel I'd written and one by a first time author named Janice Flagstad, who was being wooed by Skybridge even as we digested our crappy nine dollar lunches. Both books are set in Baltimore, both are mysteries, both start out with a heist scene. Are you with me? This bitch's book is the start of an apparently endless series starring a perky vet's assistant with a nose for missing persons cases; the character's name is Duffy Jakes. As in 'A Duffy Jakes Mystery.' And maybe I shouldn't smuggle so much vodka into these family restaurants, because I laughed in their faces.

"At which point Weems reached into his fabled red duffel bag and produced two flawlessly margined eight and a half by eleven inch tables detailing the similarities between this soon-to-be legendary novel and mine. He made them on his iMac.

"Bad news, Philip, Don said. This woman's book has a bigger ad budget and it's coming out after yours, and we feel there's a conflict of interest. Can't compete with ourselves, there's no percentage in that. So for you, my friend, it's the Skybridge, Crimson Pen, Word-A-Minute Deal. No hard feelings.

I walked out. I didn't say anything. I had no words whatsoever."

Morella clasped the wine bottle in both hands, resting it on her lap. "Christ, that is surreal."

Philip reached behind his own chair and came up with another bottle. He made motions as if to open it, but then stopped and merely stared at the label.

"What was I thinking, Mo?" he asked rhetorically, his voice far more pained than when Morella had first broached the subject. "I help you write some dime novel and then I think I can rule the world? I'm sitting there talking business with two men I want to kill, physically kill? What the hell happened?"

"This is what we always wanted," Morella said. "We were just too proud to admit it."

"You may be right. So I am never going to write another book out here. I'm taking the money I made off Skidding and I'm going to teach that creative writing course at Madison. I want to get married too, maybe, to somebody if it's never going to be you."

Morella, feeling his cool appraisal to her bones, looked down at the planking beneath her feet.

"I've thought about ditching it," she said carefully, doing Philip the courtesy of truth. "I can't do it. Not yet. I promised my grandfather."

"Terry doesn't care anymore, Morella, this is not what he meant by success. He thinks you're writing, you're going to break his heart. My heart's been broken, and I know you're Ken Griffey Junior and all, but I'm harder than you." He pointed a slightly shaky finger. "I am. Most of these people were normal once, they were decent. It's this place, and most of all, it's Skybridge. The place is a sinkhole. The Donner Party made better decisions than these people."

"They can be beaten," Morella said defensively. "Look at Frenchy."

"Yeah. Hell of a guy. But you can already see an old man in him."

Morella stood up, a conscious move to end the conversation before it got worse. She pretended to be very interested in the sleepy beach and the occasional empty bottle it had been forced to adopt. "In two years," she said, "I'll be able to greenlight books myself. It's something to shoot for." She could think of nothing more to add. It seemed like enough. "If you're going," she told Philip, "do me a favor. Go by and see my grandfather, tell him I'm doing all right."

Philip took in her words, seemed to find them meritless. "Sure," he said. He rose then as well, faced the house. "I'm going to leave this ticket here for you," he said, taking only one of his offered gifts with him. "I want you to put it up on your bulletin board, I don't think they stole it. Don't put in a drawer or in the phone book. Promise me. All right?" He spoke to the back of Morella's head. "Promise me."

"I promise," Morella said with no enthusiasm. "Call me before you go if you go."

Philip opened the screen door. Thinking he had gone, Morella turned, but Philip was still there, waiting.

"Take it easy," he said. "Leave that where you can see it." He had secured the train ticket to the upended recycling bin under the first empty bottle of wine. Morella looked at it with dull eyes and the screen door was closed again. Philip's shadow was sucked in by darkness. A minute later, Morella heard his car start and pull away. The waves, roiled a bit by a passing speedboat, ate up the sound of the engine and its withdrawal.

Morella took the empty glasses inside and put them in the sink. She walked through the house once, turning on all the lights. They'd taken her clock radio and her golf clubs, a present from Skybridge she had kind-of, sort-of been intending to use when summer came. They'd missed the two hundred dollars she kept in the refrigerator for emergencies and tips. Feeling not at all tired now, she went to the phone, picked it up, and dialed the police.

"Yes, hello," she said to the dispatcher. "I need to report a burglary."


*


She was walking down the hallway toward her office at seven fifteen the next morning when she saw Louis Steen jogging in her direction, nearly colliding with two men in white uniforms removing a faulty vending machine. It was not an uncommon sight to see Louis in such a madding, ungraceful rush but now his target was clearly Morella. Louis stopped beside her, bringing an unwelcome hand down on her shoulder, and turned to walk in her direction, assuming rather too much forward momentum and nearly dragging Morella with him.

"Jesus, where have you been, I've been trying to call you," Louis said in a clumsy spill.

"I'm twenty minutes early," Morella informed him, "what's going on?"

"We've got trouble," Louis said ominously, steering Morella into the largest of the third floor's trio of conference rooms. "Don't say anything, try to keep your mouth shut."

Gail Cole was already seated at the table, appearing as she always did, as if she had a complaint with a cold draft of undetermined origin. Diaz was in the room as well. Morella settled hastily next to Howard French, alias Frenchy, a man who looked exactly like a Frenchy should: almost comically paunchy, rapidly balding, normally with a smile for everyone. There was no smile as such today, but the pink dress shirt and opulent tie were predictably present.

"Frenchy, what happened?" Morella asked, trying to keep her voice inaudible to Louis, who had settled on the opposite side of the table and produced a notepad seemingly from thin air.

"Better to let Dean explain it." Frenchy sat comfortably in his chair, the only one in the room, as usual, who made no real effort to speak discreetly.

Three seconds later Dean strode in beside a pretty female assistant whom Morella had seen virtually every day without having any clue what her name was. Dean stood at the head of the table while she sat on one of the garish vinyl airport couches off to one side. Dean did not have his briefcase with him; instead he held only a thick sheaf of papers which he dropped impressively on the table.

"Gail, did you call Neil?" he asked brusquely.

"I called him, he's not coming," Gail said, crossing her legs. "He's headed to a signing."

"Do you have a cell phone on you?"

Gail produced one from a small pouch she carried everywhere. Morella looked carefully at the others, for a moment feeling an immature dread of having missed something entirely, of being responsible for an inadvertent loss no one would forgive her for. It was briefly no different than the adolescent fear of an unexpected chemistry quiz, or the dream of standing naked before a crowded room. Dean divided his sheaf of papers and began to pass out copies of a stapled document to all present while someone picked up at the other end of his phone call.

"Reggie, where's Neil?" he asked gruffly, and then, after a pause barely long enough to have gotten any kind of response: "All right, tell him he has to call me back within the hour, no excuses. Good? Okay."

He handed the phone back to Gail and took a deep breath.

"I want you all to look at the orange highlighted paragraph of this document. This was faxed to me this morning by Sam Rainchaser. This is the supposed final draft of the contract signing Thomas Tull to sell Tyrant, Draw They Sword to Skybridge Press, to be released nationally in December. The initial terms were for five million eight hundred thousand dollars up front plus four hundred K upon a May completion, against twenty percent of all American royalties in hardcover and fifteen in trade paper. Also, forty percent of electronic rights and seventy of a movie sale. All right, good, now skip down to the yellow highlight and read it very carefully."

Morella's eyes scanned the page rapidly, trying to get just a little bit ahead. Strangely, it appeared as if some of the printing on the contract had been the work of an old Underwood typewriter whose 'g' had seen better days.

"It says: 'Both the contractor and the undersigned agree that at any time before the book's initial surrender, defined here as the receipt of the author's final draft, if the possessor of final draft rights of Tyrant, Draw They Sword is not satisfied with the terms of agreement of Clause A, that individual or trust has the option of offering first rights to other individuals or trusts at a rate of one hundred and ten percent of sum advance payments.'"

Dean paused after reading this last sentence. If he was hoping for a strong reaction, he got none; the others were still reading.

"'Sum advance payments are defined in paragraph twelve below and the contractor and contractee must agree to terms before the above option is granted,'" he finished, and then dropped his copy of the contract onto the table. "What I would like to know is," he said slowly, "who the hell allowed this clause into this contract? It was signed at two fifteen last night by Tull, Rainchaser, Tim Lazenby and Neil. It is now legally binding unless the original buyout clause is used." He finally sat down, turning to his left. "Frenchy?"

Frenchy sighed. "The word came down from Everett around eleven last night," he explained, "that we were to accept whatever terms Rainchaser and Tull offered because of the eighty thousand dollar penalty we'd have to pay if we didn't settle by midnight of the first. Neil went to take care of it. As far as anyone knew, all the terms had been settled."

"Everett said to settle?" Dean asked disbelievingly. "He's insane, does he realize what this clause means? And how come James was never contacted before the final signing?" He motioned in Diaz's direction with his freshly brandished copy of the contract.

"What exactly does this hold Skybridge to, what does this mean, individuals or trusts?" Louis cut in, still poring over the text.

"It means, Louis, that legally, Tull, who already has the right to final everything, can at any time, from here to eternity, for any reason that goddamn well suits him, sell the entire book to any house that suits him as long as they pay us for his advance plus ten percent. In my six years here, I have never heard of such a thing!"

Gail frowned at something at the top of the page. "There's no attachment in the contract about reasonable cause to sell?"

"If there is," Dean spat, "I'd love to know where, because I've been all through this goddamned thing with a pair of tweezers. What you just read is the entire deal, there is no more."

Frenchy looked out the broad picture window, narrowing his eyes. "Is there any room for wrangling with the sum advance payments?"

Dean dismissed the question with a curt head shake. "Neil spelled that out for them a week ago, signed and delivered. Tull has been given a big Go Directly to Boardwalk with the final draft, he can turn in a book of any length he wants. As long he's willing to give the cash back, this book doesn't belong to anybody before he surrenders it."

"Is this bad enough to buy him out?" Gail asked, with such hesitancy it seemed to Morella as if she were actually afraid of being struck.

"I don't know," Dean said disgustedly, "you tell me, it's not my project. I'm just telling you that we've just made ourselves very willing hostages. Whether or not to kill it has to be Everett's decision." He folded his hands in front of him in a gesture of helplessness and finality.

"Everett must have known about this," Gail mused. Morella was about to request a copy of the contract's specifications concerning advance payments when Neil Blum walked in, a steaming cup of Starbucks coffee and nothing else in his hands.

"I thought you were going to a signing," Dean said testily.

Blum's brow furrowed sharply. "Not till three," he said, seeming confused and annoyed. He sat in the empty chair beside Morella and took off his jacket, revealing a bone-thin frame that hadn't given in to a decent sit-down meal in years. "What is it?"

"Is Tim with you?"

Again, the baffled, exaggerated frown. "Tim's in Atlanta, why would Tim be with me?"

"Well, both of your doodles are on Tull's contract. You signed this last night, right? I'm not dreaming?"

"I know about the contract," Blum said, stirring his coffee tiredly. "I don't want to hear about it."

"No one approached James for a second about this," Dean said, causing Morella to realize that Skybridge's designated legal hawk had yet to speak a single word. "I hope Everett's not thinking that I had something to do with it."

"It was Raymey's idea, Dean."

Dean was quiet for a moment. It appeared as if he didn't believe what Blum was saying.

"Raymey was there?"

"No. He phoned Everett."

"Whose idea was paragraph six?"

"That was something Tull came up with," Blum said, "and our instructions were to fly with it. Raymey wanted the contract settled; the eighty thousand dollars—"

"Does anyone up there realize that in saving eighty thousand dollars you just forfeited the book?" It appeared that Blum's intentionally sleepy drawl was irritating Dean even more than his sketchy report.

"You want to leave me alone and have a glass of milk or something, Dean?" Blum asked, sipping his coffee. "I had no authority in this situation. James is the legal end."

Diaz raised his eyebrows. "I went home last night and went right to sleep. I was never called, there were no messages on my machine."

"Look," Blum began as if every word caused him chest distress, "this is what Everett said to me that Raymey wanted: Tyrant, Draw They Sword is Skybridge's only signature Christmas release, and any more screwing with the contract would delay things right into hell. Tull had to be signed or it would have been another eighty thousand dollars down the tubes. So it was basically whatever Tull and Rainchaser wanted to do."

Dean ran a hand through his absurdly thick hair. Blum stirred his coffee some more, peering into it intently.

"I mean, am I wrong?" Dean asked pleadingly. "Is this not a nightmarish scenario he's written in? James, is there any other option that wouldn't delay the book?"

"Not unless you want to give him more money," Diaz told him. "Anything else and Tull would sue."

"What am I going to do, give him my ATM card?"

"What was his mood like last night?" Morella asked pensively.

"Tull's?" Neil asked. "He didn't seem to care much, he was busy re-lining his pool table."

"And how much exactly would the buyout be?" Morella asked, her voice scratchy.

"Two million," Dean said, pausing ever so slightly between each word, "and four."

"No, wait, I think it would be more than that," said Diaz. "It might even be open-ended, no exact calculation was ever signed upon."

"What makes you think Tull would have any reason to bail out and take the book away from us?" Gail asked.

"I didn't, until he and his goddamned agent came up with this clause themselves," Dean retorted. "Neil, was this clause here when Rainchaser showed it to you?"

Blum was already nodding, eyes shut, petulant. "Yes."

"What do we all think here?" Dean asked the table. "He could change his mind after listening to the editorial suggestions and take it back to Time Warner or S & S again, or Ballantine, or Mad Magazine, for Christ's sake. What's his game?"

Morella waited for anyone else to speak. They apparently took the question as rhetorical.

"Tull is a control freak," she ventured. "He's had a history of it since his first days with S & S. I mean, he got into an enormous fight with the Cliffs Notes people about The Mortalist two years ago about the wording of some brochure. The clause might be just a way of saying stay out of his face. It's doubtful that another house would spend upwards of seven million dollars to buy the book when they have their own Christmas releases already set. It'd be chaos."

Dean mulled it over. "Gail, is that true about Tull?"

"I haven't really talked to him at length yet."

Dean gawked. "You're technically the editor of the book, Gail, you think it might be a good idea to give him a jingle sometime?"

Gail riveted her eyes out the window. "I've been busy," she said.

"The Big Penis book's been final for a week; what have you been busy with?" He looked to Diaz while Gail became a muted stone. "James. Is there any way, even if Tull called us on this, that we could dump him, keep the book as ours, release it, and then get into court and piss it out? We need a book bad."

"You could try, but you'd actually need the book in your hands. That's something no one's been able to accomplish, right?"

"This is a disaster," Dean pronounced simply. "Raymey's a madman."

"There won't be a problem if you just let Tull do what he wants," Frenchy said soothingly. "He has no reason to turn in a lousy book or go anywhere else. Just be on your best behavior."

Morella shook her head. "I say at least approach Everett with the idea of killing it. Where did Skybridge get six million dollars to begin with?"

"What about Christmas?" Dean asked him.

"There's no way Everett's going to kill our Christmas leader," Blum said before Morella could respond herself. "Our second biggest book is that hideous Jennifer Lopez thing."

Dean sighed. "I'm going to pitch it to Everett anyway, let him take it upstairs."

"You can mention my name if you want, if it helps," Frenchy said good-naturedly, an anomalous attitude that today carried no weight.

"All right," Dean finished. "I'll be in touch by nine or so tonight. In the meantime, don't say a word to anybody, I've got to embarrass myself and call Sam Rainchaser and pretend I don't know there's been a monster screwup. Okay, I need those copies back."

The pages were handed to him wordlessly. Everyone waited for Dean to head out before they rose themselves. It was a clumsy exit. Before she reached the doorway, where she planned to pull Frenchy aside, Morella heard an extremely venomous, extremely loud female voice explode in the hallway.

"Oh Neil, go fuck yourself, retard!" Gail Cole shouted at Neil Blum. Neil, standing two paces behind her, flinched back as if from an anaconda. Gail walked quickly down the hallway toward the lounge. Morella stood in her tracks, as did James Diaz, who looked at Morella and raised his eyebrows. Whatever Blum had said, no one asked him about it. He went in the opposite direction, still pointlessly stirring his coffee, shaking his head. He had a reputation for being on very poor terms with both female editors and the concept of tact in general.

Frenchy ambled along with Morella, and when they were out of earshot of everyone else, Morella dared to ask him, "So where did we get six million to drop on Thomas Tull?"

Frenchy shrugged. "Any one of thirteen shady deals," he said. "What's the outlook on Arby's for lunch?"

"Very good," Morella told him. "I'll see you later."

"Walk softly, Mo," Frenchy responded strangely, another new farewell from a man who had a million different variations on So Long.





Her secretary, a kindly woman with an advanced degree in American Colonial History, was nowhere in sight. Morella picked up a promising yellow Post-It note off her desk and examined it, but was unable to decipher its meaning.

Sara came out of her office, looking embarrassed. "Sorry, I was talking to Ronnie in there. You just got a call from John Raymey. He wants to see you in his office as soon as you can get away." She pointed to the words she'd scribbled on the paper.

Morella stood for a moment, long enough to make Sara frown at her worriedly. "Raymey? Are you sure?"

"He didn't even go through his secretary," Sara said. "Actually, I'm not even sure he has one."

"Thanks," Morella said numbly. She turned to the hallway but remembered someone was waiting. She stuck her head into her office and saw a familiar face sitting there, a science fiction writer whom Morella thought as dedicated and perhaps even as potentially prolific as Asimov. The man wore blue Wranglers, ten-dollar sneakers, and a Miller Lite T-Shirt.

"Hi, Ronnie," Morella said, flashing a brief smile. "How long have you been waiting for me?"

"Decades."

"Listen, I'll buy you breakfast if you can wait twenty minutes."

"As long as it's Burger King, I'll do it," Ronnie said. Morella was already out the door.





She took the elevator to the fifth floor. It opened on the same navy blue carpet, the same boxy hallway, but there were fewer doors to pass by. They all seemed to be empty conference rooms. She noticed Diaz's office on the right, announced with a silver nameplate. No one seemed to be in there. Diaz split his time between Skybridge and one of WorldSeer's other subsidiaries, a foundering pharmaceutical company, and had little time for a desk and chair.

Around a corner, Morella came across a rather sad development. The hallway had been bisected lengthwise by an enormous sheet of thick industrial plastic. Several workmen in white jumpsuits labored wordlessly beneath it, stripping the walls down to the core with alien hand tools. All wearing surgical masks, they looked like victims of some disease that required them to live forever within a translucent bubble. Odd; the last time Morella had come up here, two months before, it had seemed to her the renovations were just ending.

She sidestepped the plastic divider, turned an L-corner, and found the way down the corridor blocked by an enormous heap of old office equipment. Two desks, about four broken fax machines, and the biggest filing cabinet she had ever seen formed the heap's delicate infrastructure. She instantly recognized the chair that Louis had broken the day before, lying directly before her. How it had gotten here already to join this sad testament to obsolescence was beyond her.

She heard footsteps behind her and turned to stop a man passing by in the main hallway. The man was holding a piece of gauze to his eye as if recently struck.

"Excuse me," Morella said to him, "I can't seem to find Johnathan Raymey's office; do you know if it's been moved? I can't get by this way."

"Yes, ah....you've got to be careful," the man told her. "I just knocked myself good on a ladder. They're tearing apart the whole floor. If you go down the way I just came from and take a right, they have a tiny little path to the other side. You have to curve around to the left and go all the way down the corridor. But watch out, all the paint is wet everywhere, and you can't use the bathrooms." He winced in pain.

"Are you okay?" Morella asked him.

"Yeah," he said, trying to laugh it off. "This building, I swear to God."

He left her there and she moved down the hall. Just before she came to the pathway the man has spoken of, she heard an impressive THWAM behind her, and she turned to see that a large piece of molding had fallen of the wall entirely on its own volition to the floor twenty feet away. This building, indeed.





She eventually found a nondescript but brutally varnished wooden door with a rather ornate handle. She pulled on it and was greeted by a strange semi-darkness. There was no lobby area here, then, just the office itself. Her first impression was that the room was absurdly large; her second was that a vampire lived here. The blinds were drawn, the curtains were closed. Everything was more or less a shade of deep crimson.

"Come on in, Morella," he heard a rugged voice say. On the far side of the room, a rather burly man of about fifty was approaching her. He was dressed head to toe in burly, dust-streaked work clothing. In his right hand he held a sledgehammer.

"I'm John Raymey," he said. His thinning, but still naturally black hair was covered by a baseball cap supporting something called F.A.C.O.N. Safety goggles hung around his neck. "Sorry about the outfit. I'm hacking at the wall just outside, taking it down little by little before I go home at night." He walked over to the curtains and pulled them open, then the shades as well. Morella noted that they both had essentially the same view of Fifth Avenue, except that Raymey's windows were far bigger. His office had a desk, a television, an expensive trundle cot, and almost nothing else but space and bookshelves. The volumes ranked across them were mostly the products of other publishers.

"What is the project up here?" Morella asked him.

"Worldseer apparently ordered extensive renovations to the building in preparation for Frito Lay coming in, and we up here are being hit first. The method to it is a little confusing, I must say."

"Yes."

Raymey set the sledgehammer down with what seemed like real regret and removed his ballcap.

"I just read Skidding for the first time," he said, and walked toward his cot, gesturing for Morella to sit in one of the chairs across from the tidy desk. "That's a fine piece of work."

"Thank you." Morella had to turn sideways in the chair to see Raymey, who sat on the cot like a very old man. He made no effort to explain its significance, and so she assumed it was a talisman of some very long nights in the office.

"A fine book," continued. "It'll still be read in ten years."

"Thanks," Morella said again. She felt more uncomfortable here than under Dean's blazing, accusing eyes. The heat was on way too high, for one thing, and the air felt cloying and somewhat diseased.

"Why didn't you write another one?" Raymey asked.

"My fiancee and I broke apart."

"That's a shame. Do you like what you're doing now?"

"Yes, very much."

Raymey laboriously removed his shoes. "I was listening to the meeting this morning. I've never done anything like that before, but I asked someone to set it up for me." He raised his face to see Morella's shock, which was very carefully hidden behind a veneer of polite interest.

"You heard that entire conversation?" she asked. Her voice betrayed her; she was honestly stunned.

"Yes. I wish I was there last night. I heard you had a lot to say about Tyrant, Draw They Sword."

Morella shrugged. "I guess it's what I'm paid for. They never gave me an official job title."

"I've read the outline, if it can be called that. Do you think it will survive?"

Morella looked at him, feeling oddly that Raymey deserved the blunt truth. She found herself ready to give it. It had always been her theory that the higher management went, the less tolerant they became of lies and compromise. There was also a sixth sense that whatever was spoken here would remain between them.

"Based on the author's reputation," Morella said, "maybe not."

Raymey smiled. "I knew him, did you know that? I turned down The Mortalist when I was with Ballantine."

"I didn't know that."

"It's sort of an ugly story. My rejecting the book, that is. Actually, the same could be said for the book itself. An insane janitor's recollections of the war in the desert. Not happy stuff. Tell me honestly, what do you see becoming of this new one? I want you to be completely candid."

Morella looked out the window at the brilliant sunshine. "He's been given the right to sell the novel if he isn't satisfied with the way he's treated. And he's got the right to any length he desires, which is worrying. He's very fond of the idea of mammoth stories and cycles. I figure the best scenario is that the book is a very good one, in which case it'll still sell poorly, owing to his style. It'll be remaindered within three months after the release. I'm not good with figures, so I'm not sure how severe a loss that is for Skybridge. Maybe the prestige factor would make it worthwhile."

Raymey seemed pleased with the answer, offering no alternative theory, not questioning Morella's own. Then he took on a different cast, and seemed to be musing intently over something. Morella was silent, watchful.

"Did you ever read Tull's first book?" Raymey asked him.

"In college. I don't remember much about it."

"Do you remember what a mortalist was?"

Morella shifted in her chair, concentrating. "I'm not sure, I think....it meant someone who was so defeated that he didn't care if he lived or died anymore. Someone who lived out his life on the assumption that he was already gone. Literally."

Raymey nodded. Enough time went by so that the topic misted away strangely, leaving Morella to wonder what Raymey's point had been. She eyed the hidden corners of the office, making a private inventory of objects and styles that would give insight into the man's strange persona. There was very little to work with, other than a curious feeling that she herself had been the only invited guest of this place for some time.

"I think you're right in what you say," Raymey said finally.

"Then why don't you kill the book?" Morella asked softly.

"Killing the book would mean no large scale Christmas release for Skybridge other than that awful Jennifer Lopez thing, which means five people would lose their jobs. It may all be taken out of my hands anyway. I'm going to be released from here very shortly. You know Irn Stebn?"

"No."

"Eyeglasses magnate, he owns thirty percent of the house now. He made a verbal deal with the Dutch to keep me here as long as he was alive. He's got brain cancer now, he's in Sloan-Kettering. I don't think they'll wait until he dies to kick me out. I think it'll happen as soon as he loses consciousness for the last time, slips into a coma."

Morella stared into the rug. "That's ghoulish."

"I suppose. But I'd like you to have a more active role in the final stages of this book. Starting today, I want you to be there with Howard French and Gail Cole, as much as possible."

"I'm needed on several other things."

"No, I just called Louis Steen and told him you were on Tyrant, Draw They Sword for as long as it took. He'll watch over your other duties, and he'll lust over the long hours. If you'd like to back out, of course you may. But I'd really like you there."

Morella sighed. "Of course I'll be there."

Raymey rose and moved toward his desk. "Watch Tull closely but try not to interfere. I'm sure you know that. I'll be watching him, too."

"You will?" Morella asked, perplexed by what that could possibly mean.

"In a sense," Raymey said, not very mysteriously. "You'd better get going." A second later, there was a resounding thud from above. Their necks craned. A fine mist of plaster appeared in the air a few inches beneath the ceiling.

"I hope I'm taking down the right wall," Raymey said to no one in particular, frowning and lifting the sledgehammer again. In the end, he offered not even a casual goodbye to Morella, just disappeared out a side door.

When she left the office, Morella was forced onto a musty freight elevator by a sudden assemblage of unpainted metal racks blocking the one she has used to get up here. She resumed her schedule for the day and tried to avoid Louis Steen as much as possible.

She left the office a bit early, and instead of driving straight home, went to a tavern near her house. She played some electronic trivia, working her way very slowly through a Bacardi and rum, and trying to remember John Raymey's every word, and the way he had said them.




The phone woke her up a little after one in the morning. She lifted the receiver after several rings, dazed.

"Hello?"

"Morella. It's Louis."

"It's one in the morning."

"I know. I didn't think you'd heard. The Tull book is going on like they planned. There's not going to be any buyout."

Morella sat up in bed, turned a lamp on. "Who did you hear this from?"

"Everett. We're supposed to tell everyone tomorrow. Did Raymey actually put you on the book? Did you meet with him? What the hell was that all about?"

"I'm going back to sleep now, Louis," Morella croaked. She hung up the phone. Louis tried to force some last words in, some sort of chillingly cautious accusation, but she didn't hear it. Morella fell back to sleep quickly enough, but two hours later, needing a glass of water, she went into the kitchen, where the Amtrak ticket Philip had left for her sat next to the sink. She didn't remember putting it there. She made a mental note to send him an E-mail the next day, telling him she'd found out that the Accelerated Reading Series was a definite go. They were going to use green ink instead of red. Green was cheaper.

Morella saw that the narrow window of the train ticket's dates of validity was machine-printed on a side margin in purple. Time was running out quickly.

She left it where it was for now.




Excerpt from an interview with Johnathan Raymey in The Utne Reader, April 2001:

UR: As an editor at Ballantine, you rejected two or three of the most respected novels of the seventies.

RAYMEY: As an editor at Ballantine, you have no idea how many fine books I rejected. I've been living for years under the assumption that the greatest novel ever written was something forgotten years ago under my slush pile because I wanted to get to dinner on time.

UR: Why did you re-surface in publishing at Skybridge, which many in the industry consider to be a minor and troubled house?

RAYMEY: The people who own Skybridge are collectively known as WorldSeer Endeavors. We share many of the same philosophies about business and beyond that, the way life can be lived. We're symbiotically attuned, I think.

UR: Before Ballantine you were a sociology professor in Spain. In 1991, you left a position as talent scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers to work in a mountain camp for handicapped children. In 1994, you spent one entire year in a single room inside your house. But after all this, you've never written one world yourself or even spoken publicly about your adventures. Why is that?

RAYMEY: I'm afraid. I'm afraid of some sort of karmic vengeance if I try. In the book trade I've spent a good part of my life saying No to miniature universes created from nothing, sending them back to where they came from, turning a lot of them into dust. If I were to tell a story, or write so much as an article, I think something terrible would happen to me.

INTERVIEWER: Like what?

RAYMEY: I will tell you a story. This story is a true one. I will change minor details out of respect. It happened many years ago.

There was a fairly well respected professor at a large eastern university. This professor also wrote some fine poetry when he wasn't drinking. He was a deeply sad man, and his drinking made him sadder. But he was passionate about the writing; it was all that kept him alive.

One year the professor had in his class an extremely angry young poet who had nothing but contempt for the faux literary life. He was in love with a young woman who wrote some strong fiction as a student. The professor took her under his wing, nurtured her writing. It made her poet boyfriend even angrier. He could see that she was becoming seduced by the writer's universe, which he thought a sham, a self-serving playground.

The professor's alcoholism got worse and worse, and so did his obsession with a crazy idea to start a writer's colony somewhere in Arizona. Finally, he told his students that he was headed west, and that anyone who wanted to 'preserve the state of the written word' was welcome to join him.

The girl, so very young, decided to join him in his experiment. Her boyfriend became enraged, cursed her to hell, never wrote another word.

Three or four years passed. The next I heard of any of them, the professor came to me to borrow money. His alcoholism had progressed into a cocaine habit. I told him I wouldn't give him anything until he told me where he was getting the drugs. The answer? From his former student, the poet. He had dropped out of college and drifted into the periphery of the drug trade, and he kept his old professor well supplied. I asked the professor, who had been out of work since his brief time in Arizona, how he had managed to give the man anything at all.

Well, for a year and a half, he had been paying with poetry. His poetry. This professor had been going through his old works, and giving the young man anything that had never been published. They were of no use to the young man, of course. But he took them, hoarded them, as payment, because it was the only thing of value the professor could offer, and it gave the young man the vengeance he desired. The professor had stolen the love of his life, and the poet he would steal the love of his.

There are snakes in this forest, make no mistake. You can step on the wrong one very easily. For me, it's only a matter of time.


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