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Red Dress
By Alan Cook
Posted: Friday, March 23, 2012
Last edited: Monday, December 24, 2012
This short story is rated "R" by the Author.
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           >> View all 26
When Priscilla looks for a fellow hedge fund trader who is missing, she finds out he may be the victim of a sex scam she is well familiar with.
           “See me when you get a moment, Pris.”
            Priscilla’s boss, Henry, barely slowed down as he scampered past her cubicle. He lived life at a gallop.
            “I have to finish these trades.”
            She almost had to yell to make her words catch up to him. She was pissed off. How many times had she asked Henry not to call her Pris? It sounded too…prissy. Besides, he knew better than to interrupt her when she was executing a series of trades.
            Today it was silver. She was going long on silver contracts, but also buying put options on the metal, so she wouldn’t lose money in case she was wrong and the price of silver fell. Hedging her bets. It was a complicated process, but with two years of experience working at the hedge fund Henry managed, she was getting very adept at finding winners and avoiding losses. Henry showed his confidence in her by giving her more and more money to play with.
            Henry had helped put the hedge back in hedge funds. After the devastating hedge fund failures of the late two thousands, when young would-be billionaires bet the farm without protecting their asses, the industry needed Henry. He had taught her all he knew about the business.
            Priscilla’s computer signaled execution of her last trade, and she took a few minutes to check her figures. A professor in her MBA program at the University of Southern California had talked about the perfect hedge—the situation where you have eliminated the downside risk in your position. It was an ideal, but with Henry’s tutoring she came close to achieving it.
            She took a sip of the cappuccino purchased at the Starbucks around the corner from their Century City building and remembered Henry wanted to see her. She needed to stretch anyway. Sitting too long at a cubicle slowed the flow of blood to her brain. She rose, did a couple of toe touches, and ambled down the row of identical prison cells to his office. The other traders were typing madly or staring at their screens.
            Henry was on the phone when she entered his roomy office, but he ended the call in ten seconds. He scribbled something on a pad and looked up at her. “Have you seen Jerry today?”
            Priscilla blinked. It wasn’t a question she expected. “Jerry? No…I don’t think I have. Why?”
            “I need to talk to him about what he’s doing in treasury bonds. It’s not like him to not show up without calling.”
            “I’ll call his home if you like.”
            “Thanks. Appreciate it.”
            Henry turned to his computer but Priscilla knew it wasn’t because he was downplaying the situation. He kept a lot of balls in the air. He also wasn’t good in personnel situations. Priscilla returned to her cubicle and called Jerry’s cell phone. It went quickly to voicemail.
            “Jerry, it’s Priscilla. Call me.”
            She clicked off and called his home number. After several rings his wife, Shirley, answered. Priscilla had attended the wedding of Jerry and Shirley two years before and talked to her at other social occasions. They got along well. Priscilla and Jerry had attended grad school at SC together. Priscilla regarded him as a good friend, but that was all. For one thing, he was sort of dumpy looking.
            Priscilla identified herself to Shirley and then asked, “Is Jerry there?”
            “No. Isn’t he at the office?” She sounded confused.
            “He hasn’t been here today.”
            “He left home at the usual time. I assumed he was going to the office. After working late the past couple of nights, maybe he wanted to take a little personal time. He was distant last night, maybe even upset. He hides his feelings. But why didn’t he tell me if he wasn’t going to the office? And…my God, it’s almost noon, isn’t it?”
             “Listen, Shirley, I’m sure it’s nothing. We’ll run him down. I’ll have him call you.”
            Priscilla disconnected. Sirens were going off in her head. She didn’t want to worry the eight-month pregnant Shirley. Priscilla had been the last person to leave the office the past two nights. Jerry hadn’t been there. He hadn’t worked late.
            What now? As a friend, she was worried about him. She called his cell phone again. Still voicemail. She walked quickly to Henry’s office and told the admin who sat at a desk in front of his door she was going out for a little while. She exited the office and took the elevator from the fifth floor to the ground floor.
            It took Priscilla only five minutes to walk to the bar the office staff sometimes frequented after work. This was a long shot, but she didn’t know where else to start. Jerry confided in her, often telling her more than she wanted to hear. He was frustrated by some of the problems of Shirley’s pregnancy.
She entered through the swinging door. The place was almost deserted at noon on a work day. The real action on Friday started in mid-afternoon after the eastern stock exchanges closed.
            Nobody she recognized sat on the stools. She stood near the entrance and peered into the dimly lit corners where the booths were. No luck. Priscilla went up to the bar. She recognized the bartender, a man named Zeke. He recognized her too. He got a kick out of her, because in his words she was a gorgeous babe pretending to be a master of the universe.
            He gave her his most leering smile. “Priscilla. Fancy seeing you here. Shouldn’t you be at your computer getting rich with other people’s money?”
            She suppressed a retort. This familiarity could work in her favor. She smiled in return. “I’ve made enough fortunes for one day. Tell me, Zeke, have you seen Jerry from our office in here, recently? Fairly short, round, big glasses, sometimes wears a USC sweatshirt?”
             Zeke scratched his head. “Yeah, I know the guy you mean. Let’s see…he was in here last night…no, the night before last. I remember now. I recognized him by the glasses. He usually comes in with your crowd on Fridays. But nobody from your office was here. Instead, he sat down in a booth with some young chick. Younger than you are.”
            “What did she look like?”
            “Pretty. Long red hair. Red dress, too. I carded her. She was twenty-one, but just barely. Provocatively dressed. Of course, all the young ones are. Funny thing. She arrived first and told me to serve her only water—sparkling water.”
            “Have you ever seen her before?”        
“No. I would have remembered her by her hair. She certainly had his attention. I’ve never seen him laughing like he did. His eyes were all over her. His hands, too.”
            “What was Jerry drinking?”
            “Ginger ale. Teetotal heaven. But he tipped well. Say, he isn’t two-timing you, is he?”
             “Me? Not a chance. Did they leave together?”
            “She left first. I didn’t see her leave, but I think she left a few minutes before he did.”
            “Let’s see if I’ve got this straight. You said she had red hair and a red dress and was drinking water.”
            “Sparkling water.”
            Priscilla took her wallet out of her purse, fished out a twenty, and laid it on the bar top. She forced another smile. “Thanks. You’ve been a big help.”
            “Any time, sweetheart.” That must be his Bogie impression.
            She went out of the bar and headed back to her office with a sick feeling in her stomach. She tried to convince herself this was a coincidence. But the MO was so familiar. The red dress and the water. And the red hair sounded mighty suspicious. She did a quick calculation in her head. Yes, Sherry would be twenty-one now. Still, that didn’t prove anything. Regardless, she had to get to Jerry before he ruined his marriage and his life.
At the office she sat and thought for a few minutes. Much as she didn’t want to, she had to call Gordon. She hadn’t talked to him for over two years. She punched in the last number she had for him. It was out of service. She tried telephone information without success.
Next she Googled “Gordon Danvers.” Nothing useful appeared on the screen. No luck with the Internet white pages either. Perhaps the scumbag had moved away. Or been shot. One could only hope. Reluctantly, she looked up the number for her foster mother. She hadn’t been in touch with Mrs. Jenkins for several years. She was trying to leave her past behind. She almost hoped the phone would go to voicemail, but the woman answered right away.
Priscilla said, “Mrs. Jenkins. This is Priscilla.”
“My dear girl, how are you? Long time no call. Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine. I need—“
“I’m so glad to hear that. I always love to hear from my girls.”
Mrs. Jenkins went on and on, asking questions, showing concern for Priscilla, just as if they had been one big happy family. Priscilla needed her help so she played the game, answering her but keeping her voice down. She didn’t want her office mates to hear. Finally, Mrs. Jenkins paused for breath and Priscilla had a chance to ask her question.
“Do you have a phone number or address for Uncle Gordon?”
“Uncle Gordon? Oh dear, I haven’t seen Gordon in years. He moved, you know. Let me check…”
Gordon was an uncle in name only. In reality, he wasn’t anyone’s uncle. When Mrs. Jenkins came back to the phone a couple of minutes later, the number she gave was the one Priscilla had already tried. She didn’t have his current address. Priscilla had one more question. “Where is Sherry now?”
“She’s one girl who stays in touch.” Accusing voice. “She’s at UCLA. I saw her a couple of months ago. In fact, I have her information right here.”
Priscilla took down Sherry’s address and phone number, and then got stuck talking pleasantries with Mrs. Jenkins for endless minutes before she could extract herself. She immediately called Jerry’s cell phone number, hoping against hope. When it went to voicemail she left an urgent message for him to call her.
She called the number for Sherry and heard another voicemail. She didn’t leave a message. This time when she left the office she took the elevator to the parking garage underneath the building. She went to her car and drove it up the driveway onto Avenue of the Stars.
Priscilla made the short drive to the UCLA campus, wishing the always horrible traffic in West Los Angeles weren’t quite so horrible, grinding her teeth at every red light and car that cut in front of her. Finally, she reached Gayley Avenue and even found a parking place within a block of the apartment building she was looking for.
As she knocked on the door of the apartment she composed herself, having walked rapidly, feeling hot in spite of the brisk but sunny autumn day. She tried to think of what to say to Sherry. The young woman who opened the door wasn’t Sherry.
Priscilla quickly regrouped. “Hi. I’m looking for Sherry Jackson.”
“She’s in class.”
“I-I’m Priscilla, an old friend. Do you know when she’ll be back?”
“She keeps her class schedule on her desk. Come on in.”
Priscilla for once thanked her lucky stars people thought she looked harmless, although that usually rankled her. She followed the girl, whose name she hadn’t caught, into the two-bedroom apartment. It appeared from the mess that some number of people greater than two lived here. They went into one of the bedrooms.
The girl picked up the schedule and showed it to Priscilla. Friday afternoon. She had a class in Haines Hall. She had another class immediately after. Priscilla couldn’t wait all afternoon. She scribbled the information in a small spiral notebook she used to write down ideas for trades, thanked the girl, and left quickly before she could get sucked into small talk.
She went back to her car and drove to the campus, paying an exorbitant fee to park in one of the garages. She had attended UCLA as an undergrad, and knew her way around. She made the exhausting climb up the endless Janss Steps and stopped in front of the brick building that was Haines Hall.
A scattering of students walked here and there, chatting in pairs, or alone and intent on their destinations. In a few minutes a horde would spill out of Haines, creating confusion, but Priscilla was confident she could pick Sherry out of a crowd because of her hair.
As predicted she did spot Sherry, but she had to work her way through other students, mumbling apologies when she bumped into them. She caught the girl from behind and grabbed her by the arm.
Sherry turned with a surprised look on her face. “Priscilla. What are you doing here?”
No time for niceties. “Hi. I need to talk to you.”
“I’ve got a class.”
“I’ll walk with you.” Sherry didn’t resist, and they fell into step together. Priscilla had to talk fast. “Have you seen Uncle Gordon recently?”
Sherry’s expression gave her away. “Why is that any of your business?”
“Were you in a bar in Century City Wednesday evening?”
Sherry started running. Priscilla was a runner and Sherry was wearing a backpack. Priscilla caught her in five steps and hung on to her arm. “Were you with a man named Jerry—short, tubby, glasses?”
Sherry tried to jerk away but Priscilla held her fast with both hands. “You promised to meet him for sex, didn’t you?” Sherry looked belligerent. “You and Gordon are running a scam. You’re going to get Jerry in a compromising position, take pictures, and then extort money from him.”
People were looking at them. Sherry motioned to a spot partially sheltered by the wall of a building. They walked over to it, but Priscilla didn’t let go of Sherry’s arm.
Once there, Sherry turned to face Priscilla. “You did it.”
“Who told you that?” Even though it was obvious.
“Gordon. That’s how you paid your way through grad school, isn’t it? That’s how you got your M-B-A,” accenting each letter. “That’s how you got your high-powered job as a hedge fund trader.” She took a breath. “I’m drowning in student loans. I’ll never pay them off. I hear you even bought a house.”
“From my salary.” But what Sherry said stung. “Jerry’s wife is eight months pregnant.”
“That’s how Gordon found him. He works at Big Mart. He watches the women going through checkout. He’s good at reading people. He can tell the ones who might have husbands looking for action even though they’re thoroughly married. He gets their credit card information, checks the men out on the Internet to see if they’ve got any money, finds out their schedule, arranges a chance meeting—in a bar, if possible—lets them cry on his shoulder, tells them about a girl who’d like to meet them. But you already know all this.”
“This is going to wreck Jerry’s marriage.”
“That’s his problem. He deserves what he gets for being unfaithful.”
“Is this the first time you’ve done it?”
Sherry deflated a little. “Yes.”
“Jerry works in my office. He’s a good guy. I found out by chance he met a girl with red hair in a bar the other night. When I…when Gordon and I worked together, he always set up a meeting between me and the victim first. He wanted to make sure the…man was hooked and would show up at the rendezvous for the real action. We worked in West LA, but not in Century City.” Which meant there was little chance of her running into one of the victims, a possibility that still gave her nightmares. “Still, this had Gordon’s fingerprints all over it. You drinking only water. Wearing a red dress. Those were his rules. Then when I heard about the red hair—”
“Gordon insisted I wear a red dress. I didn’t want to. It clashed frightfully with my hair.”
“Let me tell you a story.” Sherry looked at her watch, but Priscilla kept a tight grip on her. It was obvious she was going to miss her class. “The first few times we did this we were lucky. The man paid off, no problem. But then we got a guy who said he didn’t have the money. Gordon threatened to send the pictures to his wife. He…he killed himself.”
Sherry’s eyes were wide. “Gordon didn’t tell me that.”
“I told Gordon we were through. I thought he accepted it. That was over two years ago. But all this time he’s been in touch with you, hasn’t he?”
“He was nice to me, gave me little gifts. I didn’t have a father in my life. Mrs. Jenkins’ husband is a drunk, as you know. I had to stay out of his clutches. Gordon hinted we could do things together to make money, but he didn’t actually propose anything solid until several weeks ago. He said he’d found this guy from your company who’d make a good mark. He said everyone in your office is making tons of money. He said Jerry was mild mannered and wouldn’t be a danger to us.”
“That bastard. He’s been tracking me. When are you and Jerry going to meet?”
“We met last night.”
“Last night?” The damage had been done. No wonder Jerry was among the missing. Priscilla feared the worst. “Gordon took pictures?”
Sherry nodded. “Gordon told me what to do. Jerry and I went to the motel room. We kissed a little and I felt him up like a TSA agent to make sure he wasn’t carrying a gun. Then I started taking off my clothes. I had Jerry take something off for everything I took off, so he’d be clearly implicated. When we were down to our underpants, I sent a pre-written text on my cell phone to Gordon. He was waiting outside. He burst into the room and started taking pictures. I cuddled up to Jerry.”
“What did Jerry do?”
“He freaked. He started shaking and yelling ‘no, no, no.’ Gordon had a gun in plain sight so he wouldn’t attack us. Gordon told him he could get the digital pictures deleted for twenty thousand dollars. Jerry said there was no way he could raise twenty grand. Gordon threatened him and told him to bring him the money today.”
“Where? Where is Jerry supposed to take the money?”
Sherry looked at Priscilla belligerently.
Priscilla squeezed her arm. “Where?”
“Oww. You bitch, you’re hurting me. You’re going to interfere, aren’t you?”
Priscilla squeezed harder.
Sherry jerked her arm away and slapped Priscilla in the face. She started running but before she could go two steps Priscilla tackled her. Sherry went down like a sacked quarterback and landed on her stomach with an “ooof.” Priscilla sat on her legs. Sherry tried to wiggle out of Priscilla’s grip, but she couldn’t get any traction on the slippery grass. A frat boy stopped to watch with a grin on his face, but the other passers-by ignored them.
Priscilla gritted her teeth. “We’re going to stay here until you tell me.”
“All right, all right. Gordon uses an apartment near the beach.”
“Is that where he lives?” He’d never used his own residence as a meeting place before.
“No. It belongs to somebody he knows who’s out of the country. Gordon has the key. Jerry’s supposed to meet him there at five.” Sherry rattled off an address in Santa Monica.
“How come you’ve memorized the address?”
“Damn you. Even when I’m telling the truth you doubt me. Look, I met him there to discuss this thing. And…”
“And what?”
“Never mind. It’s none of your business. Gordon was nice to me. You know, I’m not the only girl he was working with.”
“He’s been doing this with other girls?”
“Of course. You’re not the only chick in the henhouse, you know.”
How many lives had Gordon wrecked? He had to be stopped. “If we go now we should be able to get there by five, in spite of the traffic.”
“We? You got a mouse in your pocket?”
“You’re coming with me.” Priscilla trusted Sherry about as far as she could throw her. The address might be a fake. All the foster kids learned to live by their wits, and that didn’t necessarily include telling the truth.
“Blow it out your ear.”
“If you don’t come with me, so help me, Hilda Jenkins, I’m going to the police.”
“You wouldn’t do that. It would ruin your career.”
Priscilla wondered, herself, whether she would carry out her threat. She thought she would. “This has got to stop.”
Sherry twisted her head around from her position on the ground, and looked at Priscilla’s face carefully. “Getting caught would hurt you a lot worse than it would hurt me.”
“Tell you what. I’m going to…” Priscilla swallowed. “Tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to help you get through college.”
“You’re going to give me money?”
Priscilla couldn’t speak. She nodded.
The apartment wasn’t right on the beach, but it was close enough. True, Santa Monica had rent control, but Priscilla knew Gordon couldn’t afford an apartment like this on his salary at Big Mart. But if he’d been running scams all along… Sherry said it belonged to a friend of his. She’d better be right. Priscilla hoped they’d find Jerry here before something really bad happened to him.
They parked on the tree-lined street and walked toward the building. Priscilla suddenly stopped. “That’s Jerry’s car. She recognized the Saturn and the personalized license plate, “HEDGER.” She pulled on Sherry’s arm. “Come on.”
“See, I was telling you the truth.”
They ran the remaining hundred yards to the walk that went to the front of the building. They ran up the walk and several steps to the front door. It was locked.
Priscilla turned to Sherry. “Ring him. Have him buzz you in.”
Sherry hesitated, but something in Priscilla’s expression must have convinced her. She punched in the apartment number on the intercom.
“Gordon, it’s Sherry. I need to speak to you.”
“Not now. Jerry’s on his way up.”
“It’s urgent.”
Silence for several seconds. Priscilla was about to say something when the buzzer sounded. They opened the door and went inside.
“What apartment number?”
“Three twelve. Third floor.”
There was one elevator. The readout showed it was at the third floor. “Come on.”
Priscilla opened the door to the stairwell and led the way up the stairs, taking them two at a time. She pulled ahead of Sherry. At the third floor landing she opened the door and looked down the corridor to the right. Nothing. She looked to the left. She saw Gordon disappearing into an apartment.
Priscilla ran down the corridor. By the time she got to the doorway through which Jerry had disappeared, the door was closed. She tried the doorknob. Locked. She was about to knock when a gunshot sounded loudly from inside the apartment. Then another.
Sherry ran up, her face white. “What was that?”
“I’m going to break the door in.”
Priscilla had martial arts experience that involved kicking. In two kicks she busted the flimsy latch and the door flew open. Only then did it occur to her she might be coming into a dangerous situation. Jerry stood facing the door, a pistol in his shaking hand. Behind him, Gordon lay on the carpet, blood oozing out of his chest.
Priscilla forced herself to freeze. She modulated her voice to sound calm. “Okay, Jerry, give me the gun.” She carefully reached her hand toward him.
Jerry seemed to be in shock. He stood, looking at her, the gun pointed at the floor. At least he wasn’t pointing it at her. The damaged door couldn’t be securely shut. Somebody else must have heard the shots. There wasn’t time for negotiation.
“Jerry, here’s the situation. Somebody at this very moment is calling 911. We have about two minutes to get out of here. Give me the gun and take the stairs. Go!”
Jerry came out of his coma. “The pictures.”
“I’ll get rid of them.”
Jerry hesitated for only a second. Then he obediently handed the gun to Priscilla and left the apartment on the run. Priscilla grabbed a Trader Joe’s bag sitting on a nearby counter and shoved the gun into it.
“What are we going to do?” Sherry, who had shrunk into a corner, seemed on the verge of panicking.
Priscilla picked up the laptop computer from a table—the computer that held the incriminating photos—and jerked a couple of cords out of it, the power cord and another one. She handed it to Sherry. “Hold this.”
Where was Gordon’s camera? Seconds were ticking. The camera wasn’t here. He wouldn’t bring it to the rendezvous. The device Priscilla had disconnected from the laptop was a camera chip reader. Gordon was going to read the chip using the computer and erase the photos on it while Jerry watched. The chip wasn’t in the reader. Where was it?
Priscilla looked at Gordon. He was lying on his back, all the cunning gone out of his eyes, staring at nothing. The ooze of blood from his chest was slowing. She suspected he was almost dead. She didn’t want to touch him but she had to. She got on her knees and put her hand in the front pocket of his pants, feeling sick. She pulled out a wallet, quickly wiped it off with her shirt, and dropped it on the carpet. The other front pocket produced a handkerchief and a car key.
She had to get into Gordon’s back pockets. That meant shifting his body. He was a big man. She turned to Sherry.
“Help me lift him so I can get the chip. It must be in his back pocket.”
“No.” It was almost a scream.
“Quick, before the police get here. Do you want to go to jail?”
Sherry set the laptop down, moving in agonizing slow motion. Priscilla wanted to shake her. Sherry knelt, and together they moved Gordon enough so Priscilla could reach into his back pocket. At first she didn’t feel anything. She had to dig deeper. She hated touching Gordon, even through his clothes. Was the chip in his other back pocket? Wait. She felt something hard. The chip. She pulled it out.
That was all. Or was it? It was Gordon who had first taught her the principles of hedging your bets. “We have to check his other back pocket.”
“You’ve got the chip.”
“There may be something else.”
Priscilla sprang to the other side of Gordon and forced a reluctant Sherry to help lift him enough so she could get her hand in that pocket. She found what she was looking for and pulled it out. A digital stick. Gordon had made multiple copies of the photos. She showed it to a shocked Sherry.
Priscilla stood quickly and grabbed the bag with the gun in it. She threw in the power cord for the laptop and the chip reader. Sherry was staring at Gordon’s body. No more time. Priscilla spoke harshly. “Bring the laptop and follow me.” She remembered to wipe off the door handle before she ran from the apartment toward the stairway. Nobody was in the corridor yet. Most people weren’t home from work. Priscilla heard Sherry behind her. They flew down the empty stairway. They slowed as they reached the first floor.
Exit the building as if you’re just going about your business. It’s not unusual to see people carrying a laptop or a Trader Joe’s bag.
They went out the front door and down to the sidewalk. Priscilla cautioned Sherry against going too fast. “We’re just pedestrians like everybody else.”
They got into Priscilla’s car. She drove away at a moderate speed. After they had gone two blocks they heard sirens. A few seconds later a police car flew past them toward the apartment building. Fast response.
Priscilla arrived at the office early on Monday morning. Early on the West Coast was really early since the markets were on East Coast time. Over the weekend she had erased the photos from the laptop and destroyed the chip and the stick. She wiped any fingerprints from the computer and the gun, although she had heard it was difficult to lift prints off a gun. Better not to take chances. She placed the laptop and gun in the Trader Joe’s bag and took the boat to Catalina Island. In mid-channel she casually dropped the bag over the stern when nobody was looking.
Television news had reported the shooting death of Gordon Danvers by an unknown assailant. The door to the apartment where he was found had been damaged. It was obviously a break-in, but the police were puzzled as to the motive because his wallet was lying on the carpet with his money and credit cards in it. They suspected this wasn’t a random attack.
The reports didn’t talk about fingerprints, but the police made a plea for witnesses to come forward. Priscilla was quite certain there weren’t any. Luck was part of any undertaking, financial or otherwise.
Priscilla was relieved to see Jerry walk in the door. He looked all right, if a little pale. She smiled at him. “Did you have a good weekend?”
He seemed to search for words. “Yeah. How about you?”
“I’ve been reading a book about hedging, written by a friend of Henry. I’m trying to improve limiting my downside risk. You can’t be too careful.”
He stood at her cubicle, sipping coffee from a paper cup. He nodded. “Me too. Maybe I can borrow it when you’re through.”
“I’ll let you have it. No charge.”
“Thanks.” Jerry hesitated, and then thanked her again. He almost smiled. Then he continued on to his cubicle.
Priscilla looked at her watch. Sherry’s first class wasn’t until later. Priscilla called her number. A sleepy voice answered the phone.
“Did I wake you? I’m sorry. I forgot college students don’t get up early if they don’t have to.”
“It’s okay.”
“Are we on for dinner tonight?”
“Good. I’ve got a check for you. And some advice.”


Web Site: Alan Cook, mystery and walking writer  

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