The Joelene Stonehouse
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First up is AVANTI!
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FOLLOWING TWENTY-FIVE YEARS flying every kind of attack helicopter the Army has to offer, Joelene Stonehouse returns to a civilian world she barely recognizes. But sitting home alone painting pictures of horses and cows doesn’t cut it. Following a life of danger and excitement, what’s a warrior to do?
So her sister sets her up as a kind of independent courier / transporter for an alliance of East Coast import / export operators. Now, equipped with a set of hot wheels and a tight schedule, she’s off — no questions asked . . .
Then her world comes apart, sending Joelene on the warpath again — which is just the way she likes it.
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Musical Inspiration: Five Alarm Funk – Hot Funk Sunday
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OUTSIDE SANTA FE, 3:30 A.M.
WAY BACK THERE, flashing lights — a kaleidoscope of crazy dancing reds and blues — closing like a rocket.
“Oh, shit! It’s the cops! Gettin’ stopped out here simply won’t do, girl. No way,” Joelene says.
She punches it.
Her ride — made up special with custom state-of-the-art suspension, wheels, tires, engine can outrun anything!
“You dunno who you’re messin’ with.”
The flashing lights recede.
“Ah-hah! Chase is on now, sonny-boy.”
She cracks a wide smile. One-twenty-five and climbing. Dips in the road punch her in the gut. Weightless one instant. Whamo! the next. Needle cranks past one-forty-five. Outside’s a streaking blur.
She cracks a wide smile, checks her side mirror. Hello, heee’s back!
“Whoa, baby!” she shouts. ”Time to light the candle.”
Joelene slips on a pair of night-vision goggles and cuts off the headlights. Everything turns green. She flips a special switch. Stomps hard on the accelerator.
KAPOW! Twenty-five feet of angry flame lashes back at the cop car. And this time she really is gone, but for the heady scent of burning, spent kerosene.
She’s flying now! Not like the old days in her Black Hawks and Apaches during repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only . . . Only . . . Oh, hang on!
Fuck me! Dude’s still coming.
Red and blue flashers closing from behind, until . . . until . . . oh no, his headlights bouncing crazy in her rearview mirror.
Fuck! He’s off the road for sure. And . . . Oh, fucking no! What’ve I done?
JOELENE BRAKES HARD, BROADSLIDES, whips a neat one-eighty just in time to see a tower of flame geyser into the night sky.
“Oh, Christ, he’s burning!”
Her body jerks as triple-shots of adrenalin slam into her bloodstream.
Hmmm, that good old one-two punch. Oh, baby. It’s pucker time now.
Control! Control! Control! The mantra screams in her head as she jams her foot to the floor. She rockets back down the road, tires screaming, to discover yet another horror she’s created.
CLOSING ONTO THE wreckage, none of it looks good. The patrol car’s rolled and flipped. Doors are gone. Hood, too. Fuel tank’s corking off.
She jumps out, fire extinguisher in hand. Races into the blazing inferno. He’s still strapped in, head flopped onto his chest, seat back ripping with fire. Raging tongues of flame snap at her. She lets loose with the extinguisher. Hosing her way in, she fogs a narrow path to the burning vehicle.
She tries to grab him, but her hands feel like they’re melting. She reaches in again and again. Her fourth attempt frees his seat belt. She’s got only one chance to drag him out of there and she needs both hands to do it. Dropping the extinguisher, she grabs his leather jacket and pulls with all her might. Immediately, the flames are on her like a nest of blazing hornets. Unable to turn him loose, she flails at her burning hair with the sleeves of her fine red-leather jacket, now rapidly turning into char. She ducks her head, scrunches her eyes. In one last gasp, she pounds backward against the earth for what seems like forever, until she loses her footing and the two of them collapse in a smoldering heap.
Right then the trooper’s eyes pop open, and he’s looking straight at her, through her.
“Least I haven’t killed him . . . yet.”
– 2 –
VINCENT “VINNY” DI STEFANO is getting a royal ass-chewing from Uncle Rollo — Rolando Di Stefano. The one from over in Jersey. Yeah, that one. He’s a distant relative to the Trajanus family, who control the action in Manhattan and Miami. Nephew Vinny has just flown into town following a harrowing escapade that took him to Chicago, across Canada and finally the mountains of Montana. In short, Vinny’s just screwed the proverbial pooch. Fucked up everything. At least that’s Uncle Rollo’s take on it.
Rollo lurks in front of his big desk, staring down at his nephew. Behind them in semi-darkness, Rollo’s crew slouches around, all grinning and elbowing each other, anxious to watch Vinny squirm.
“You miss ya target. Get yaself shot up. Poor little Mario killed. Good job, kid.”
“Okay, Vinny pleads. “So I didn’t get the bitch, Uncle Rollo. Ya think it shoulda been easy, huh? C’mon. She’s already whacked out the heads of two families . . . huh? And she done it all by herself. Know what I’m sayin’ here? So’s I’m thinkin’ . . .”
“Vinny!” Rollo interrupts.
‘Cept Vinny keeps right on yammering.
“Vinny! HEY! Shut the fuck up five seconds and calm the fuck down. Ya unnerstan’ me? Huh?”
Rollo’s really pissed now. Sweat popping out on his bald head, spittle spraying all over. But mostly he’s pissed at himself for losing it and getting all whiney in front of his crew. Ain’t gonna change nuthin’ anyway. Now he’s made it look like all of this was his fault, simply for putting Vinny on the job in the first place — given that Vinny wasn’t ready and never would be.
Vinny had made his so-called bones awhile back. By now he should have his own crew and be earning for the family. Only Vinny wants no part of that mundane management stuff. It’s more than obvious to everybody that Vinny will never be any kinda businessman. Vinny’s a knucklehead, into the heavy lifting, the wet work. Sees himself as a major piece of work. And he’d be real good at it, were it not that he hasn’t sense enough to get outta the fuckin’ rain. Sure, he’s got no problem dropping the hammer on some poor schlub. Long as it’s something simple. Walk up and pop a guy in the head. He’s good with that. Only we’re not talkin’ simple targets here. No. We’re talking hard targets — real hard targets.
So, truth is Rollo never shoulda sent Vinny . . . like anywhere. Now there’s loose ends all over the place. Actually, it’s to Vinny’s credit that he was able to track his targets from Chicago, then clear across Canada and finally shoot it out with them in the mountains of Montana during a blizzard. It was only misfortune that Vinny’s impetuous young cousin took one in the head and tumbled off a cliff to be finished off by a hungry grizzly bear. Stuff happens inna mountains. Whaddaya gonna do? Also it’s to Vinny’s credit he nailed the girl’s old uncle.
“Yunno, Uncle Rollo, please. Least I took out the old fucker. Yunno, the bitch’s ancient, old fucking uncle, or whatever. That’s gotta be worth somethin’. Huh?”
Rollo makes a face. Looks like he’s gonna spit. “Yeah, okay, kid. But show a little respect heah. That ancient, old fuck, as you put it, was one time the best inna bidness. Hell, probably the best evah.”
Rollo shakes his head, turns back to his desk, picks a half-smoked cigar out of the ashtray.
“Now the guy’s pushin’ ninety and half blind. You pop him. So fuckin’ what? You wanna parade or somethin’?”
Rollo lights the cigar. Blows smoke all over Vinny.
Vinny spreads his arms, says, “I dunno . . . whaddaya want me to do? Fuckin’ guy’s still dead. Yunno?”
Vinny has a hard time containing himself. He’s never been good accepting criticism. Now Rollo’s blistering him in front of the entire crew. Vinny’s about to explode.
Vinny’s head jerks. He glances back at Rollo’s crew and clenches his fists. “Look, Rollo. So how come you’re the fuckin’ expert all’s a sudden? Yunno? There was only the four of us up there. . . Well, three, seein’ as Mario’d already bought it.”
Rollo casts Vinny a severe look. Enough to shut him up.
“Just you never mind, Vinny. I am the fuckin’ expert here, ’cause I say I am the fuckin’ expert here. I know the things I know . . . which is why I’m the boss . . . and why you ain’t.
Rollo chomps down on his cigar. Puffs and puffs. Stares down at Vinny. SLAMS his hand down onto his big desk. Just the right spot so it’s louder than a thunderclap. Everybody jumps.
Whaaat? Ya fuged dat alla sudden, kid? I say what’s what. ME! And I say who does what. ME!” Rollo juts his big chin out as a punctuation. “And I give my fuckin’ word to my own Uncle Trajanus. Tole him I’d take care uh this fuckin’ problem . . . that girl and her fuckin’ Uncle Stugots, or whatever. Said I’d clear our family name, considerin’ how the fuckin’ bitch took out poor Bruno and Jackie like she done. Ya unnerstan what I’m sayin’ to ya?”
Rollo raises his eyebrows. His eyes popping sparks.
“Yeah. Yeah, sure, Uncle Rollo. I got it. I know already. Kapeech?”
Rollo flinches. Looks around the room. Puffs hard on his cigar.
“Look . . . don’t start with that old-school shit, kid. Ya don’t even speak the fuckin’ language fuh chrissakes.”
Vinny stares down at his feet, like he’s standing in a pool of shame. Caught out again. Don’t speak the language. Just another modern kid don’t know fuck-all about what it was like coming up the hard way, when everything you owned was out there on the line. Yeah, Vinny’d heard it all a thousand times.
Rollo walks in circles, both hands over his head. “Look, here’s what I want outta yas. So . . . pay attention. I want you . . . to drag your sorry ass back up there, fuckin’ find her and . . . fuckin’ take her ass out.”
Rollo pauses. Staring daggers.
“Capisce . . . kid?”
“Okay. Okay, Uncle Rollo. I’m sorry. Just consider it done . . . Really.”
“But hold on, kid. There’s somethin’ else.”
“Yeah?” There’s always somethin’ else, but Vinny’s got no idea what. ‘Cept he’s quite certain he’s not gonna like it.
“So this Avanti chick, Stonehouse, my runner . . . one what rescued your sorry ass inna blizzard, takes ya to the doc, gets ya patched up . . . Fuck you say the doc was? Huh? Fuckin’ taxidermist?”
Rollo’s guys in the background murmur and chuckle. Uncle Rollo can barely keep a straight face.
“Ya-yeah,” Vinny says. “Guy’d been a real doc one time. Yunno? Before he hadda problem. Got disbarred.”
“You idiot, not disbarred for chrissake. What I’m sayin’ is YOU left loose ends hangin’ out all over the fuckin’ place. Can ya unnerstan’ that much? What ya done heah?”
“Whaaat? Uncle Rollo, please. Ya gotta be kiddin’ me. You want I should take ’em ALL out?”
“Jeez. Well ain’t you the quick study? Almost had me fooled, kid.”
“C’mon, Rollo, she coulda left me to die.”
“So? Whaddaya sayin’, kid? So ya gotta soft heart. Even I can understan’ that. Compassion’s good, yunno . . . most the time. But this here’s bidness, kid. Know what I’m sayin’?”
Vinny doesn’t speak. Just stares. He still doesn’t get it.
“Look, kid,” Rollo says. “Ya never heard uh witnesses? People can place you at one location or another . . . and at a specific time? Whaddaya, some kinda stunade? You better wake the fuck up, you wanna be in this bidness. Am I gettin’ through to ya yet? Christ, you’re givin’ me a fuckin’ heart attack heah.”
“Okay, Rollo. Sure. Yeah. Yeah. You’re right. Absolutely you are. Ahhh, and I wasn’t thinkin’, yunno, like I shoulda. I get it. So, sure . . . yeah, I’ll take care uh everything. Okay?”
“Yeah, kid. You be sure an do just that . . . before I see yas next.” Rollo gives him one of his really hard looks. Kind says, “No excuses.”
Vinny looks back. Doesn’t reply. Just waits.
“So that’s it, kid,” Rollo says, his eyes popping sparks. “Now clear on outta here. Go clean up ya bidness. Get everything straight. We don’t wanna have this conversation again. Yunno? So then . . . ya good with all that, kid? Huh?”
“Yeah, sure, Uncle Rollo. I’m good. So . . . ahhh . . . so I guess I’ll be seein’ yas then.”
“Sure, kid. . . . but not if I see you first.” Now Rollo’s all smiles.
That was their little game from way back when Vinny was a little wiseacre running around in short pants and being a pain in everybody’s ass. Back then, Rollo had to stifle an overwhelming urge to smother the little shit with a a pillow. Strangely enough, that made him almost feel guilty. So he concocted this little thing where he’d say to the kid, “not if I see you first.” And meaning every bit of it, of course. Now with the kid a grown man, he’s an even bigger pain in Rollo’s ass. And their little game of not if I see you first has taken on a rather ominous ring.
– 3 –
MONTANA, THREE DAYS EARLIER, MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
TWENTY-FIVE MILES SOUTH of the Canadian border and snow is falling like there’s no tomorrow. Visibility is zilch. Joelene’s vehicle is slipping and sliding all over the place. If she can just keep it rolling — fifteen MPH at best — she figures she’ll be safe and heading toward some measure of civilization and, hopefully, a nice hot meal. Then all at once there he is at the side of the road with his hands up.
“Holy crap, what’s this idiot doin’ out here?” She slows and stops.
In her line of work, picking up passengers is no good. So what am a supposed to do? Guy’ll likely freeze to death. Looks injured, too.
He opens the passenger side door, stands there staring.
“So get in! Get in for Pete’s sake!”
He gets in. Closes the door. The howling wind and blowing snow protest as best they can.
“What’s happened to you, mister? Are ya okay? You look hurt”
“Nuh-no. Not hurt. Just ca-cold is all.”
“Look, I got hot coffee in a thermos. You want some. It’ll warm you up.”
“Oh, ah, yeah . . . thanks. Yeah. Thanks for stopping, yunno. I . . . uh, got stranded out there. That’s what happened. Sure glad you happened along.”
The guy picks up the thermos, unscrews the lid, pours some. Sips it down. “Oh, yeah. Mighty tasty. Whew.”
Now she gets a good long look at him. Wavy black hair. Dark eyes. Long lashes. Strong chin. Prominent nose. He’s big and solid.
And then it hits her like a ton of bricks.
“Why, I know you! Sure I do!”
The guy looks up, eyes open wide. FEAR in capital letters etched across his face. “Wuh-what?” he says.
“Yeah, sure. Met you last month. You and your uncle . . . in New Jersey.”
“You’re kiddin’ me? How’s that even possible?”
“No, seriously, I did. You’re Vinny and your uncle is Rollo. Why I’ve been working for your family a coupla months now. I’m Joelene. I’m a driver . . . a courier . . . Yunno?”
“Oh, you’re right,” he says. “Must be my lucky day . . . or night. What’re the odds? But, yunno, I been hurt, actually. Pretty bad I think. Shot. She got me good a few times.” He opens his coat. Blood’s all over him.
“Oh, holy crap! I gotta get ya to a hospital quick.”
Nuh-no. Can’t do that. No hospital. No way.”
“But you’ll bleed to death.”
“No. I dunno. But not a hospital. They’ll call the cops on me for sure. And I can’t really explain these gunshot wounds. It’ll be a disaster once they find out who I am. How I’m connected. No. That can’t happen. No hospital. I’ll have to take my chances.”
“Yunno, Vinny, I do know of someone up here who can help. They gave me a list of places to go, yunno, should I need help. This doc’s worked for your family for years. Only he don’t have what you’d call a regular practice any more. ‘Cept now he works just for you . . . us . . . your family. Thing is, though, now the doc’s a taxidermist.”
“No way! A fuckin’ taxidermist! Get the fuck outta here.”
“Seriously. He’s down in Stryker. We can make it in an hour or so. But if you’re still losing lots of blood, that won’t work. You’ll have to go to a hospital or . . . or you’re gonna die, Vinny.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I hear ya, but turnin’ up in some hospital’s all I need. I’ll have cops all over me. In which case, I’m dead anyway. See. Or Uncle Rollo will kill me himself. He surely will.”
“Yeah. I know. That’s about the size of it. So get movin’. We’re lucky, maybe we get a break with this fuckin’ storm.”
TWO HOURS LATER, Vinny’s passed out cold and they arrive in front of the taxidermist shop in Stryker. Joelene’s honking like crazy. Of course a place like this doesn’t exactly have an ER, and waking up the doc is like waking the dead. She drives around the building. Rams the car into the back door of the place. This gets a quick reaction, and a light comes on.
“Get out here quick,” Jolene hollers, while still laying on the horn.
Eventually, the back door opens and a face appears.
“C’mon, Doc, ya gotta help us here. I got Vinny Di Stefano here. He’s shot up real bad! He’s nearly dead.”
That does the trick and the doc’s on the run. Together they hoist Vinny and drag him into what passes for a surgery. Joelene’s frantic.
“You wait right here,” says the doc. “I might need you. Ain’t nobody else here but us.”
So Joelene waits and smokes and frets and waits some more. An hour later, the doc comes out.
“So he’s stabilized,” the doc says. “He’s gonna be fine. Oughta be conscious in another twenty minutes. Then you can go in and see him.”
“Okay, yeah sure, Doc. But I don’t need to see him. Yunno? I’m only the driver here. A simple courier for the family is all. And I really gotta be on my way. Yunno?”
“No! No! No! Fuck no! You’re not leaving him here with me. You’re gonna have to haul him outta here when he’s able to move. You gotta get him home somehow. You can’t just dump him and run off.”
“Well, Doc, I gotta very tight schedule. See. I ain’t got time to just stand around here. So how long before he can, yunno, leave?”
“He’ll be here a day or two. That should do it. Anyway you gotta stay here and help take care of him. I can’t do it by myself. I got other stuff to do.”
“What other stuff? You saying that fooling around with a bunch of stuffed animals is more important than making sure the nephew of a, a . . . yunno, don’t croak on your fuckin’ table here? How’ya think that’ll play out in New Jersey? Huh?”
“Nuh-no that’s not it at all. Suh-see, it’s impossible for me to do this alone. The time directly following a surgery like this is critical. You gotta help. He dies, it’s on you, too, sweetheart.”
“Shit! Well okay then. Guess I’ll be movin’ in . . . So Doc, you got anything to eat around here? I’m starving half to death.”
“Sure do. Got a big freezer full of some nice steaks.”
“Ewwww. I’ll bet ya do. Carcasses from all those poor dead animals you stuffed.” She smiles as she says this. “By the way, Doc, I’m Joelene . . . and I sure could use a cuppa hot coffee in the worst way.”
“Yeah, bet’cha could. C’mon upstairs.”
– 4 –
MISSOULA, MONTANA, INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
“SO VINNY, JUST WHAT the hell happened to ya up there in the mountains, anyway?”
“Oh, don’t ask.”
“Yeah, sorry. I just did.”
“Well, it was a big job. Tracked these fuckers clear ‘cross the continent. Yunno. Up by Lake Superior and then clear ‘cross fuckin’ Canada. They’re drivin’ like maniacs, but I was right on their tail. Was a really big deal, actually.”
“No kidding. Sounds pretty exciting.”
“Oh, yeah. Plenty of excitement with them two. Coupla different shootouts, too.”
“Oh, my. That pretty dangerous. How come your uncle would send you out there like that? You were almost killed.”
“Well . . . you see, that’s what I do. I don’t just spend my time sittin’ behind no desk eatin’ cannolis and shit. I’m out there workin’. Yunno what I’m sayin’?
“Jeez. I had no idea. That’s pretty impressive . . . and dangerous, too!”
“Oh, yeah. Danger’s my middle name, yunno?”
“So you were chasin’ two of ‘em all by yourself?”
“Yeah, it was me pretty much. Had my little Cousin Mario along for the ride. Wanted to get in on the real action and all. But this was my show.”
“Really? Who the heck were these two?”
“Was this woman . . . a serious hitter, if you can imagine that . . . and her decrepit old uncle. Some Chicago guy. Run an old bookstore. Yunno? Kinda store fulla smelly old books. I can’t see the attraction myself. But . . . anyway, this woman actually whacked out the heads of TWO families. Can you imagine? She sneaks in there, gets all cozy with ‘em, then when they’re least expectin’ it, she pops ‘em. Ain’t that some shit? She’s like some kinda Matta Hairy, know what I’m sayin’? Eveah heard a her?”
“So this is like an honor thing with me. Set everything straight. That’s why I wanted this piece ah work. Was a big success, too. Dropped the both of ‘em. Whaddaya think?”
“What I think, Vinny, is that it won’t be long you’ll be takin’ over everything. You’re a good guy to know.”
“Yeah, that’s fuh sure, honey. Well, I see we’re at the airport now. So I gotta scoot. But next time ya back in Jersey with a little time on ya hands, I’ll show ya the sights. Know what I’m sayin?”
“Oh, yes I do. And I’d really like that, too. So you have a good flight and I’ll be seein’ ya then.”
“Hey!” Vinny smiles, gives her a big wink. “Not if I see youse first!”
“HAHAHA! Yeah, That’s a good one. I’ll have to remember that. Fur sure.”
Joelene watches Vinny saunter into the airport terminal. Arms out to his sides. Shifting all that weight as he walks, like he’s King Fucking Kong. Giving everyone that hard New Jersey stare of his.
She pulls away from the curb. She’s lost so much time with all this bullshit. Now she gonna have to hustle to keep any semblance of a schedule. She takes one last look at Vinny, disappearing inside the terminal.
– 5 –
THE NEW MEXICO SKY is spectacular at night. Joelene knows her constellations from all the nighttime navigation she’s done. Except the night sky she’s most familiar with is a hostile one half a world away. That business in Montana with Vinny has caused her a major delay. Everything runs on a tight schedule. The money needs to be put back in play soon as possible, not sitting around like dead weight. Joelene knows she should have rolled right on past the injured man freezing in the dark Montana night. But ignoring someone in great peril is not who she is. Then when trying to make up for lost time, she ends up losing even more time while rescuing the injured highway patrolman from the fire.
A little before dawn, she pulls into an all-night truck stop on the outskirts of Albuquerque. She needs to deliver her cargo, but she has to pee first and can use a cup of coffee. The joint is mostly empty at this wee hour. She runs in, orders a coffee to go and hits the head. Upon returning to the front register she discovers that her coffee is not yet ready.
“Makin’ a fresh pot for ya, dear.”
Oh, great. “Swell, thanks for that,” she says. While waiting, Joelene absently focuses on the mirrored wall in front of her — reflected images of old street signs — somebody’s futile attempt at artsy-fartsy. All at once she spots him slouched in a booth by the front window, staring into the depths of his coffee cup.
Holy shit. It’s fuckin’ Vinny — New Jersey Vinny — big as life. What the fuck’s he doin’ up here? He’s got a cigarette going. Its long ash looks about to drop into his lap. At which point, he’s gonna leap to his feet and see Joelene standing there at the cash register bigger than life. She slaps a fiver on the counter top and turns to go. At that point, the skinny waitress — either she’s an old lady or a young girl on meth — sets down a big paper coffee cup.
“Hey, lady,” the girl sputters. “Don’cha wan’cha coffee?” She probably couldn’t have said it any louder with an electronic amplifier. Nearly jumping out of her skin, Joelene snatches up the coffee and sprints for the front door, all the while keeping her head low.
“Ya wan’cha change, honey?” the waitress bellows out.
Joelene waves her off. “You keep it.” She doesn’t bother looking back to see if the loud-mouthed waitress has stirred Vinny or not. If he flies out the door after her, she’ll have her answer.
Hustling toward her ride, she watches him through the front window. He’s on his feet now, brushing cigarette ash off the front of his black leather jacket. She doesn’t need to be a lip reader to figure out what he’s shouting.
Why didn’t I see him through the window in the first place? Didn’t even think to check the place out before entering. Fuck. Way too much on my mind. Or maybe I’ve totally lost my edge and should go shoot myself.
Only she can’t even do that at the moment, having left her gun on the front seat beneath a map.
I gotta get my shit together damn quick.
Right then she spots a tricked out black Caddie parked next to an old beat up truck. Gotta be Vinny’s ride . . . his New Jersey Caddie.
She looks back, takes another peek through the front window. Now Vinny’s chatting up the skinny waitress. Joelene slips over next to the old truck, takes a knee, extracts her KABAR from an ankle rig and punctures a rear tire on the Caddie. Then she stands and brushes herself off.
Actually, she kinda likes the Caddie. Has to fight the impulse to steal it — now that she’s already flattened the rear tire. Oy! Anyway, that oughta slow Vinny down. But what the hell is he doing here in Albuquerque? Didn’t I just put him on a plane back to Jersey a coupla days ago? Shit. Something’s certainly not right.
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