Revisiting the fairytale

This could be subtitled the stupidest man on the planet.  Where did it come from? I’m not too sure.  MAybe its because when you get past fifty you get soft.
It’s been rewritten several times and it always feels more than a little mushy to me.  This is as unmushy as I could make it.
I’ve called it revisiting the fairy tale because in our youth we get fed the fairytale line of living happily ever after with that special someone.
Sadly the odds say that the fairytale more often than not was written by the brothers Grimm, whose fairytales were more like horror stories.

I think most of us still believe in the possibility of the  fairytale relationship.  Ultimately all the fairytale is  is to be loved and to love equally in return.  Not too much to ask….

This is for my daughters, Diana, Beck and Gitta.  Because the fairytale does exist. By God whoever he is, had better be worthy of you.

 

Revisiting the fairytale

He shuffles along, oblivious to the cold, buffeted by the human tide of corporate wannabes, largely anonymous, but on a mission nevertheless.

He stops at a flower stall.  The vendor greets him with a friendly smile, “Tulips again today, sir?”  He agrees, fumbles in his pockets and finds the right change.

It is a ritual among rituals, a small step on his journey.  Maybe today will be the day. He smiles, a smile full of hope.  The vendor can’t help but smile back, he likes the old geezer, and his smiling face so much sometimes he just wants to give him the flowers for nothing, but he never does.  Business is business, besides there’s something about the guy that says he’d be insulted by the idea of charity.

The “old geezer” turns away clutching the flowers, still smiling, he’ll see her in another five minutes and today might be the day.

 

From here the walk is not difficult, it is downhill and the wind is at his back.  Tonight when he makes his way home, the journey will be cold taxing and lonely but that is way too far away to contemplate.  His steps quicken of their own accord and he finds himself at the Hospital entrance.

He knows the way from here – he could walk it with his eyes closed.

Today he decides to take the stairs, he doesn’t like lifts and stairs have always been his first option.  Besides, by the time he waited for a lift, he could be on the second floor.

He takes the steps with surprising ease, perhaps borne of anticipation, perhaps a legacy of many long walks, he doesn’t care much.

The nurse’s station is “manned” by one of the regulars.  She smiles and greets him warmly.  “Hello Howard, Nancy is much better today.”

He smiles back, “Does she…?”

She smiles “She’ll know who you are today.”

It is good.  Yesterday she had no idea, she called him Eric three times.  He didn’t know who Eric was and he suspected, neither did Nancy, but it hurt all the same.

Life was so bloody cruel.

“Would you like a cup of tea Howard?” the nurse was still smiling.  She liked him as well.  Everybody here did.  They thought his devotion “sweet.”
“That would be nice; do you think Nancy would be able to have some?”

It was part of the ritual, reserved for good days only.
“Of course,” it breaks all the rules but what does it matter?

He enters her room, she is dozing, her cheeks are sunken, her breath comes in ragged gasps and her hair is white and patchy, he still sees her the way he did thirty years ago, “the most beautiful person on earth.”  To him she always will be.

He sighs, sits by her side and takes her hand in his.

It is still soft and precious.  She opens her eyes.

“You came,” she smiles, “you always do.”

“Of course,” he forgets the pain of yesterday when she didn’t know him and is lost in her gaze.

“I bought you some flowers.”

She takes them and smiles, she looks almost girlish, “you remembered how much I like tulips, you’re so sweet.”

He blushes and fusses over her, then finds a vase in a cupboard to put the flowers in.

His speech is on the verge of his tongue.  It has been for years.

He shifts from foot to foot and then fumbles in his coat pocket.  “I have some letters for you.”  They aren’t new.  He read them to her a week ago, but she won’t remember.  She’s had two episodes since then.  The letters will bring her joy.  He loves making her happy.

“Oh good, can you read them to me?” Her eyes shine up at him and he feels the way he did when he had his first schoolboy crush eons ago except now the feeling has a time bomb ticking away ready to explode it all to bits in who knew when?

“Of course,” he sits and makes a production out of finding the letters mainly to calm his voice, but also its just age, betraying the sureness of his fingers.

“This ones from Alan.”

She lights up at the sound of her son’s name.  “Oh good, what’s news with him.”

He read the letter to her for the fourth time or is it the fifth?  It breaks his heart to think that her kids barely give her the time of day.  He doesn’t tell her that he pieced the letter together from swapped email enquiries over a period of weeks.  Nor does he tell her that Alan no longer replies to his emails.  It is not important.  What is important are her feelings and the letter makes her feel good.

“Thank you Howard,” she says, I never knew Alan to be such a good letter writer, there’s a quaver in her voice.

Howard squeezes her hand.  She squeezes back.
“Why are you so good to me?”

Their eyes lock.

His speech dances on the end of his tongue, but refuses to come.

“Because I care,” he says.

She squeezes his hand again and holds his eyes with her gaze, “but why?” There is urgency in her voice that speaks volumes.  He is so close….. But his courage fails him.

“I just do,” he mumbles and the moment is lost.

She looks away, “Well, I’m glad you do.  What would I do without you?”

He doesn’t answer.  He is thinking of the years they have spent running parallel lives that never quite intersected.  He had always hoped for that one big moment that would bring them together -something that would allow him to take her hand and sing his song without risk.  It was his fault. His lack of courage was frankly pathetic.  Of course there were reasons, when you’ve nearly been destroyed once by love it’s awful hard to risk what you have left of you again.

He sits for hours holding her hand, sharing reminisces, talking of places they have seen, of things they’ve done.  They laugh at some things and share many smiles.

Then it is time to go.  He kisses her affectionately on the cheek and he is gone.

She watches him disappear.  Her smile fades as he leaves.

A nurse bustles in.  “He’s a wonderful man isn’t he? It must be lovely to have someone who loves you that much.”

Nancy looks up.  “Do you think so?” her voice is uncertain almost surprised.

He has walked to the stairs, each step slightly heavier than the last.  He wonders vaguely if she’ll know him tomorrow.  He touches his coat pocket and realises he has left his letters on the side table by her bed.  He can’t risk them being lost. He turns and heads back to her room.

The nurse actually laughs.  “He comes every day, he sits with you no matter how you are, and he never leaves.  He’s totally devoted.”

 

Nancy nods. “But he’s never said he loves me, not once.”

“Well actions speak louder than words…”

“I guess so, but it would be nice to hear him say it.”

“Say what?” Howard is standing in the doorway.
There is a silence.  Then Nancy gestures towards the nurse – “this young lady thinks you must be in love with me.  I just said that if you are you’ve never told me.”

Howard looks at the nurse, he’s not sure whether to scowl or smile.  Then he looks back at Nancy, his carefully rehearsed speech totally forgotten.  “She’s right of course.  I do love you.  I always have.”   His voice shakes.

There is silence.

She smiles.  It’s a smile that will carry him through her coming winter, enough to carry him on afterwards and enough to carry him home tonight

“I love you too,” she says.

Today was indeed the day……….

What better way to finish then with an all time classic Soldier of Fortune

 

 

 

 

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If only I’d opened my eyes

This story is not a work of fiction – its what I remember to be true.  It first appeared in a charming little magazine called Morbid Curiosity under the title Visitor.  The original version used a fictional character to tie everything together.  I removed her and stated the whole truth. I’ve altered it slightly in other areas to more accurately reflect the sequence of events.  There  is some poetic licence.  But the key elements.  The friendship,  the visitation and the subsequent discovery are all true.

This is for Michelle.  I let you down.  I have no excuse.  I’m truly sorry.  You deserved better.

 

It took me fifteen years to work it all out but death does not scare me.  Pain does, but death certainly doesn’t.   Fifteen stumbling, fumbling years- where did the time go?  One day you’re just out of school with bugger all to look after, the next you’re approaching thirty five, greying, with the responsibility of family and the yoke of a fat mortgage forbidding you to ditch the soul destroying pastime that you call a job.  Funny that, you could die laughing.

My old mate, Chris would crack up.  He would say that I sold out and joined the other side.  I would agree, and then we would both have another beer.   Geez, I miss him.  I still wonder what happened exactly.  My mind gives the irritating itch a scratch occasionally, but never really provides any relief.  I guess it never will.

Chris and I were not always mates.  Ironically, throughout junior secondary school, I thought he was a mummy’s boy.  It was guitar that threw us together, in one of those awkward jam sessions where both players become painfully aware of their inadequacies.  Fortunately, we were both able to laugh about it and in doing so laid the foundation for our friendship.

It was not long before we discovered that we viewed the world from a skewed –almost Pythonesque- angle.  To the outsider we took nothing seriously.  Fun, couched in the form of rebellion, was the way to cope with a cock eyed world.  We bounced sarcasm and wit off each other like a kid belts a tennis ball against a wall.  I think we both were dealing with a heap of trouble below the surface and we’d chosen to deal with it in a very similar way.  Essentially we were pretty damn close to crazy.

Looking back, I can see that the trouble with Chris was that he thought himself indestructible.  He loved pushing things beyond the limits.  He drove around the streets like he was shooting for poll at the grand prix.  He’d deliberately provoke the tough guys in the mall to see what would happen. He drank beyond the point of rational thought to outdo anybody who was drinking with him.  He was a loose cannon and it was inevitable that he would slide into the drug culture.  It amazes me that I did not follow him.

I stuck with him while he charged head first into the drug world, but I was dismayed to see how quickly he progressed from soft to hard drugs.  It seemed to be a matter of weeks.  By the time he started using Heroin, he had teamed up with a low life middle aged junkie, Wayne, who may or may not have had serious crime connections.  This monumental dirt bag took on the role of tour guide to the “magical” world of mind altering substances and became the central element of Chris’ life.  So central in fact that they skipped town at a moment’s notice, leaving me and puzzlingly Chris’ girlfriend, Michelle, behind.  I didn’t understand that – I thought he lived for her.

Michelle and I were drawn together for a while.  My friends accused me of being a snake in the grass.  It wasn’t like that we just needed to grieve together.  That’s what we were doing.  We went out together a couple of times and then let it drop.  No big deal.  I still kept an eye out for her.  I felt obliged to do so.

We went for months without hearing from Chris.  Then, out of the blue he appeared on the doorstep at ten in the morning, his eyes were dancing with amusement and mischief.  “Come on mate, let’s go to the pub,” he half laughed.  It was the same old Chris setting the same old pace.  It was so great to see him; it took a while to recognize the apparent changes in his attitude.

The drugs were now ever present, bubbling away just below the surface of every TV show, all music, in fact just about everything- even Barney Bananas for Christs sake.  They had become his God and he had made it his mission to convert all of his friends to his chosen path with the zealotry of a seventh day adventist.  If you weren’t into drugs, you just weren’t in the game. He was unrelenting.  I am a stubborn bastard and kept throwing it back in his face.  He would laugh it off, but the joke was rapidly turning sour for both of us.

Others, according to him, were not so resolute.  Michelle, for one succumbed.  I didn’t blame her if it was true – he was a persuasive charmer and she loved him.  No contest.   That was when I cried enough and walked away.  I could tolerate him ruining his own life, but not hers.  We still moved in the same loose circles, but I had the shutters up when we inevitably met.  Once I lock somebody out I throw away the key.  He did not seem to care overly.  We slid into different lives with similar but fundamentally different value systems.  I pretended to myself that it did not matter.  My circle of acquaintances was large and somebody was always looking to party.  I threw myself into a booze soaked half –life – an accident waiting to happen.  The irony was totally lost on me.

During this period I got involved with a girl from Melbourne; I was vulnerable and put way too much store in the relationship.   She gave me the flick and I was left to lick my wounds.

I don’t think I’ve ever been lower.  I contemplated chucking my job in at the Bank and playing guitar ten hours a day, I considered applying for an Interstate transfer, but did not have the guts to take either course of action.  I just tried to wash all of my troubles away with as much grog as my stomach could handle.  As a result, I started to take my frustrations out on anybody who was unfortunate enough to be near me.  I could see the nasty twisted thing I was becoming, but was incapable of stopping.

I needed a circuit breaker badly.  When the bank offered me a week long service course in Melbourne, I took it with both hands.

It doesn’t matter where you go you take your baggage with you.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only country bumpkin on the course.  There were quite a few others.  Inevitably we hung out together in pubs after work hours.  It started off OK, but by Wednesday evening, I was finding this pleasant bunch of well meaning people tiresome and their modest hopes and dreams depressing.  I wondered if any of them had seen what I’d seen, or watched the deals made that I had.  I thought not.

By Thursday evening, I’d had enough and deliberately set out to provoke them. I mocked their safe middle class values and ridiculed their modest ambitions for advancement.  Not surprisingly, they deserted me.  It’s a pity one of the guy’s didn’t give me a hiding – it’s what I deserved.

Undaunted, I drank a few more pots before grabbing a six pack and heading for my third floor motel room.  The air conditioning was not coping with one of those hot sticky nights that Melbourne manages to conjure up five or so times every summer. I opened the window to let some air in and flicked on the TV.  The Aussies were getting annihilated by whoever the West Indies had bowling fast for them back then.  I cracked a can and half watched the carnage.  My mind wandered back to the performance I had put on earlier and I wondered what I was trying to prove.  “Grow up,” I whispered as I opened another can and took a hefty swig.

I turned the TV off and listened to the noises of a restless sweltering city while I wrestled with my self pity.  It was time to stop farting about and get on with things.  One way or another I had to come to terms with Chris.  It required plain speaking, but good friends should be able to speak and remain friends.  I vowed to catch up with him and sort things out.
I eyed the remainder of my beer and shrugged.  It was time to recognize when I’d had enough.  It was also time for bed.  I shut the window, preferring the heat to the babble from outside.  I crawled into bed and remarkably fell asleep.

I don’t know when I awoke.  When I did I was keenly aware of a presence in the room – the same as I am now aware of my kids wandering into my room when they want to go to the loo at night.  I don’t hear them, I sense that they’re there willing me to wake.  This feeling was the same.

I don’t  mind admitting that I was scared. My first thought was “burglar.”  If he was watching me, I did not stand a chance of confronting him. I would be set upon before I got out of bed, so I acted shamefully and kept my eyes shut, pretending that I remained asleep.  My ears strained to catch any sound, but apart from my own breathing, I heard nothing.  The sense of being watched remained.

After what seemed eons – probably only minutes – I heard a sound which I can only like to cellophane being scrunched up.  It seemed to come from all directions. My mind searched for an explanation and seized upon the newspaper that was in the room. Surely a breeze from an open window was rustling the pages.  Then I remembered shutting the window before going to bed.  Somehow, I knew that whoever was there was trying to wake me up.  I played dead, wondering why they just didn’t shake me and get it over with.  Without warning the sounds ceased.  As soon as they did the sense of the watching presence went as well.  I lay on my bed scared witless; listening for the slightest hint that something was still there.

When I finally scraped together enough courage to open my eyes, the digital display on the clock radio told me that there was little point remaining in bed.  I got up and conducted a thorough inspection of my room.  All windows were still closed, my door was still locked and nothing had been disturbed.  I could not fathom it and half convinced myself that I had been dreaming.

Morning light gives power to the rational mind.  By the time I arrived at my course, I had locked the whole affair away in a cupboard in my mind labelled “Remembered Dreams.”

The day was a long one, as days tend to be when you’ve alienated most of the people that you work with.  The day finished eventually and I headed home to Geelong.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until I called upon my parents the next morning.

My mother greeted me and asked if I was OK. She seemed very concerned.

Yeah, no worries,” I answered amused at her manner.

“You haven’t heard then?” Her voice sounded strained.

A tingle of fear scampered up my spine. “What?”

She looked at me and swallowed hard.  “Your mate Chris was killed on Thursday night,” it’s all in the Addy I’ll get it for you.”  She rushed out of the room in search of the newspaper leaving me alone with the news.

So Chris, the indestructible was dead.  My mind refused to accept the fact.  When Mum gave me the paper, I read the article over and over trying to get the story right in my head.  Chris, dead in a motorbike accident? It didn’t make sense. Eventually, I just gave up and walked out.

There was no chance of resolving things, no chance of reclaiming what was a great friendship.  Chris had self destructed as he was always going to in a way that was probably better than some of the alternatives he was bound for.

I didn’t cope at all well.   Remarkably I didn’t hit the booze – I saw nobody all weekend  I didn’t cry  I didn’t know how.   Somehow I managed to get to the funeral and sat at the back.  I was just a bit player in a cheap tragedy, watching but not participating.  They played “Because I love you” by the Masters Apprentices.   The chorus says “Do what you want to do be what you want to be.”  I smiled when it came on it was pure Chris.

Michelle kept herself together until they got to the cemetery.  When the casket was lowered into the ground, she broke down.  I stood at the back, feeling her pain but unable to approach her.  She was ushered into the mourner’s car and was driven away.  I never saw her again.  I was a cold bastard.  I’ve never forgiven myself for that.

Life went on.

I was angrier than I’d ever been and twice as self destructive.

Inevitably, I met one of Michelle’s school friends at a party.  She wanted to talk about Chris.  I couldn’t think of anything worse but she was insistent and I had a drink in my hand so things were tolerable.

The talk went around in circles.  I sensed she was digging for something and I wasn’t giving anything. Then she said it.  “I saw Chris a couple of weeks before he died and he said it was time that he patched things up with you – did he catch up?”

I grabbed her arm. “He said what?”

She repeated herself.  My mind went back to that Motel room.  I remembered the presence in the room and how I had kept my coward’s eyes shut.  My throat worked convulsively and I shook my head in bewilderment.

“Are you going to cry Hodge?”

I shook my head and blinked back some tears. I looked at her and took a punt.  “No, but something happened the night he died.  I can’t get my head around it.”

“What do you mean.”

“I think I sensed him.”

Her eyes widened.  “Michelle swears Chris visited her that night.”

That was enough for me.  I made a feeble excuse and left.  She didn’t follow me, thank God.
I walked home with tears streaming down my cheeks, cursing my cowardice and wanting my time over again.  I tortured myself with crazy notions and sad regrets…if only I’d opened my bloody eyes.

It has been fifteen years.  I feel a lot older and am hopefully a little wiser.  I still curse my lack of courage.  As it is I can only guess what happened.  Most of the time I like to believe that Chris tried to say goodbye.  For a long time I dismissed the idea as fanciful, but something inexplicable did happen and no matter how I suppress the idea it keeps bobbing up insisting that it was him.

Middle age approaches at the speed of light and I am now painfully aware of my own mortality.  I know I will see Chris again.  I’m in no hurry to do so, but I’m not stewing over it either.  I bet when we do meet, he gives me a razzing for not opening my eyes.  Then we’ll both laugh and have the equivalent of a beer.

Whatever it is.

Wherever we are.

)

For what it’s worth I still miss him.    Thoughts of him come randomly at odd times.  They sneak up uninvited and either make me laugh or feel sad.   Thats’ the way he was 🙂

 

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Story – Clone

This story has never found a home.  I’m not sure why.  The concept of Clones fascinates me.  Privileged wealth terrifies me. Add the breakthroughs in medical science that seem on the verge of solving the ageing riddle and you have a volatile cocktail The future probably won’t be as bleak as this will it?

Clone

By

Mark Hodgetts

            If I write it all down I might see a way out.  Nash taught me the art. He thought that it might aid my development and teach me how to work through problems.  “Writing allows you to tap into your subconscious,” he used to say.

            He was one out of the box, Nash was.  One of the few Regen’s who cared about our type.  I guess that is why they killed him.  Nobody can be allowed to upset the status quo, especially a mad bastard like Nash, who believed that we had rights and feelings.  He would approve of what I did and say that Laura had overstepped the mark.  But the law says different.

            I am confusing myself.  It is best that I focus on the problem and try to see a way out.  Nick, Griffo and I had been hanging around the market, waiting for business I guess.  Although none of us was really skint, it was best to take what was on offer.  You never know when your model is going to become yesterday’s news.  Then life is apt to become bloody impossible without some savings behind you.

            The three of us have been inseparable since we became aware of our existence.  We are what the Regen’s call complementary models.  According to hem, we are completely different from each other, but possess personalities that allow us to coexist in harmony.  I fear that I will not see them again.  Our closeness is recorded on my data file and they will be watched.  I dare not place them at risk.

            She spotted us from a fair distance and her eyes locked upon me immediately.  It was obvious that she meant to do business, and that in itself, was unusual.  A Regen is normally circumspect in these matters, lest they be judged to have made a poor choice.  Social standing is almost as important as pleasure to them.  She strode purposefully through the bustling crowds to our small group and spoke directly to me.  “How much?” she asked, dispensing with the usual banter that precedes such transactions.  I was taken back a little by her manner, but it was not my place to object.  Still, if she was going to treat me like a dog she could pay for the privilege.

            “Five grand,” I replied.

            She did not even blink.  “OK, half now and the rest when we’re done.”

            Griffo and Nick had moved away as quickly as possible.  It is not the done thing to listen to business being transacted, but her manner had taken us all by surprise.  I should have been wary of her and backed off, but the money on offer was over three times my normal rate and I thought that I had catered to all forms of madness.  I was sure that I could cope with her demands.

            “Done,” I replied and held my arm aloft for the first part of transaction.  She moved her arm forward so that our wrists connected.  We confirmed the transaction in the time honoured telepathic manner so that the funds were stored on my wrist.

            “Come on.  Let’s go,” she seized my wrist and literally dragged me through the market.  It was then that I began to feel uneasy.  Several people, Regen’s and Clone’s alike openly stared at us.  Regens were not given to outward displays of haste and urgency.  Her manner, to say the least, was unusual.

            Once she had piloted me through the crowds, bundled me into her cruiser and got the thing on to the superway, we drove in silence for several minutes.  Inexplicably, she threw her head back and laughed.  It was a genuine, full-bodied girl’s laugh and for a brief moment, I glimpsed the girl that might have been centuries ago.  I caught myself thinking that she would have been pretty then.  Her eyes met mine and the icy madness in them swept away the young girl image.

            “We need some mood music,” she said woodenly.  Bored ice chips gazed out of her perfect face, sending a chill through my body.  You can regenerate your body as often as you like, but the eyes give you away every time.  Nash had said that the eyes mirror the owner’s soul.  Now I know what he meant.  Her eyes reflected an ugly madness that was impossible to be attracted to.

            The vehicle was swamped with Regen music.  Foreigner or maybe the Doobie Brothers, all that Regen stuff sounds the same to me.  She laughed again and gave a voice command to the sound system.  Hotel California replaced whatever had been playing.  It repeated endlessly until we reached our destination.  It was a traditional Regen house in one of their up market suburbs.

            She bundled me into her house and shooed me into the living area.  “Sit down,” she instructed.  “I’ll be back in a sec’.”

            I sat, unsure of my ground.  Ordinarily, business is conducted immediately.  The only Regen living area I had been allowed in to had been Nash’s.  But that was different.  We had been friends and I had been treated as an equal.

            She emerged from what was her kitchen I guess, carrying two glasses and a bottle of wine.  She placed them on the coffee table and sat on the couch opposite me.  She smiled as warmly as I think she was able to.  “Come, sit with me,” she whispered and patted the place beside her.  I eyed the bottle suspiciously but moved over anyway.  To not comply with her wishes would be fraught with danger.

            She watched me closely and then gave a low chuckle.  “Lighten up.  I won’t make you drink it, nor will I tell a soul if you do.”  She touched my face gently and traced a line down my cheek.  “Let’s just relax and get to know each other a little.”  The words were encouraging enough, but seemed to carry some veiled threat.

            Despite my misgivings, I made an attempt to relax and moved to uncork the wine.  She would not allow me to do so and performed the task herself.  “Do you know why I chose you?” she asked as she handed me a glass.

            “Why?”  I was unsure of my territory and thought it best to say as little as possible.

            She sipped her drink and then looked at the ceiling the way people do sometimes when they pretend to think.  “The Green Series three is provided with all the necessary physical attributes as well as an even, honest personality that is not given to false flattery.”  Her eyes fixed upon me, again scaring me with their coldness.  “That is what your model specifications say.  Are they correct?”

            “True enough,” I replied, making no attempt to disguise the pain of being considered no more than a model.

            Her eyes glinted.  “Have I upset you?” she asked with a trace of a smile.

            Without thinking I answered, “I am human.  I do have feelings.”

            She looked at me strangely.  “So you have, I bet.  It has been a long time since I have heard words like that.”  She patted my knee the way a new owner pats a puppy.  “I meant no offense,” she murmured.

            “None taken,” I replied and took a cautious sip of the wine.

            We sat in silence for a while.  Then whatever was calling the shots inside her head flicked another switch.  She squeezed my arm tightly and blurted, “I need a lover who sees me for what I am and tells me the truth.”  Again I saw the girl that once was struggling to break through the Regen veneer.  I felt a touch of pity for her.  Not enough to let down my guard but pity all the same.  Regens were not given to speaking of love in any sense to my type.  Her behaviour was plain weird.  It was best to remain silent and wait for her commands.  I did not have to wait long.

            “Why don’t you respond to me?” she snapped.  Her eyes were blazing with madness and I think desperation.  Her mouth was stretched in a thin tight line and her hands had balled into tight fists.  She was ready to explode and I had to pick my path carefully.

            “I’m unsure of what’s going on,” I replied truthfully.

            The mood change was incredible.  She smiled and lowered her voice to a conspirator’s whisper.  “Of course, it’s not usual for one of us to want to talk to you.  Is it?”

            “No.”

            Again she looked up at the ceiling and chuckled.  Then she turned, seized my arm and stared fiercely into my face.  “You have it all you know.  I saw you enjoying yourself with your friends.  I want some of that.  I want,” she hesitated a moment, “acceptance without having to play the game.”

            “And buying me for a night will give you that?”  It was a stupid question to ask, but she did choose me for my honesty.

            “Insolent bastard!” she screamed and smashed her fist in to the side of my head, causing it to slam in to the hard fibre part of the couch that we were seated upon.  Sharp pain stabbed through my skull and for a moment my vision blurred.  While I was still trying to focus she was all over me whispering apologies and feathering my face with light kisses.  I did not respond to her at all.  Maybe I should have.  Maybe things would have turned out differently.  She drew away from me and fixed me with that by now familiar crazy stare.

            “Do I appeal to you?” she asked.  It was an amazing question.  Regens were supposed to be physically attractive and I had imagined that they never suffered from self-doubt.  I suspected that her question was loaded, as all her statements seemed to be.

            “You are very attractive,” I answered honestly.  She was.  As with most of them though, her beauty did not go below the surface.  You can polish a dry dog turd for as long as you like, but at the end of a day it’s still a dry dog turd.  I was not about to voice that opinion.  My model may well possess an honest even personality, but it also has some degree of common sense.

            Her eyes flared angrily for a moment and then went blank.  All the life seemed to flow out of them.  “Always the same answer,” she whispered and hugged herself as if she had grown cold suddenly.  Then, she refocused on me and touched my cheek tenderly.  “You’ve cut yourself,” she said with what seemed to be real concern.  “There are some bandages in the bathroom.  You had better go and clean yourself up.  When you’re ready, we’ll talk some more.”  Her mood swings were frightening and it was fear that dictated that I do as directed.  At least I would be putting some space between us.

            She pointed the way and I half stumbled to the bathroom.  The door was closed and I could feel her eyes boring into my back as I turned the handle and stepped in.  It was lavishly Regen in style.  All white tiles and gold fittings.

 The colour scheme served to highlight the dried blood spattered across the floor.  By the time my mind had worked out what the red trail was, I had journeyed far enough in to the room to see where the blood had come from.  Lying in the bathtub, staring blankly up at me, was the corpse of a clone.  He had my features and undoubtedly he had been chosen for his honesty as well.  The numerous puncture marks in his chest left little doubt as to the cause of death.

I have heard it said that clones are less human than Regens and more capable of dealing with trauma.  I am here to tell you that I felt vilely ill and my ability to think had deserted me.  It was blind luck that drew me closer to the corpse and further from the door behind me.

“He didn’t find me appealing either.”  Her voice came from behind and I turned to face her.  She was leaning casually against the doorframe, smiling a Mona Lisa type smile and swinging a wicked looking long bladed knife in her left hand.  In her right, she held a remote device, which she aimed at the wall beside me.  It slid open to reveal a shower recess.  Propped up against its wall was another body with my features.  It too had numerous puncture marks in the chest.  “Neither did he,” she giggled and then added, “It’s your turn.  You must submit to me.  It is the law.”  She moved towards me slowly, with absolute confidence.

Years of training demanded that I submit and if I had been closer to the door, I believe I would have been victim number three.  It was those extra few feet that I had gained by walking towards the corpse that gave me time to think of Nash.  “We are no better than you,” he used to say, “in fact, we are worse, because we think we are better.  Never forget that.”  Fortunately, I had not.

I nodded to her, giving the impression that I would submit.  She smiled and stepped within range.  I lashed out with my fist and smashed her in the face.  She fell backwards and dropped the knife.  I could have grabbed it and finished her then, but my only thought was to get out.  I leapt over her and bolted for the exit.

“You can’t get out,” she screamed.  “Come back here.  You have to pay for what you’ve done.”  I ignored her, charged for the door and found it locked.    She cackled with delight.  I turned to face her.

She stood on the opposite side of the room with the knife held out before her and she looked horrible.  Her nose was a twisted bleeding mess and her eyes glared at me with cold fury, but she was still smiling that idiot smile.  “Nobody hits a Regen and lives,” she hissed.  “The assembly would order a painful public execution.  Come to me and I will make it quick.”

I shook my head.  “You’re gonna have to earn your kicks this time,” I replied, hoping that my voice sounded calm and confident.  “If you want to kill me, then come and get me.”

She threw her head back and laughed, sending a spray of bloody mucus across the room.  Then, she fixed me with her best lunatic’s stare.  “I’ve heard rumours of your type.  I hoped I’d meet one.  It makes things much more interesting.  She held her knife out before her, the way the ancient soldiers held their swords as they charged in to battle.  She let out a shrill piercing scream and raced full pelt towards me.

I waited until she was almost upon me before feinting to the right and wheeling away to the left.  She fell for it and scraped past me, allowing me to catch her with a glancing blow to the back of the head.  I was off balance and couldn’t get a lot of weight behind it, but I did cause her to stumble.  She shrieked a curse and then cannoned in to the side wall.  The knife fell from her grasp.  Without thinking, I leapt astride her, grabbed her by the hair and with both hands, smashed her head in to the floor.  She writhed like a snake and tried to throw me off.  I snatched up the knife and plunged it in to her back.  She gasped and made a chugging sound, and then she pitched forward on to her face.

Her arms twitched by her sides and her breathing came in ragged gasps.  She would surely die.  Unless I could make it look like an accident I had signed my own death warrant.  I pulled the knife out and turned her over.

She was still conscious.

Her eyes fixed on me and she tried to say something, causing a flow of blood to trickle down her cheek.  Fascinated, I moved closer in an attempt to hear her.  She almost smiled at me.  I lifted her head, allowing her to clear her throat.  She coughed up a heap of bloody gunk and then fixed me with her stare again.  This time her smile was softer and even through the blood and bruising, I believe that I saw the girl that once was.  I think that I would have liked her then.  She gagged and coughed violently and her body had begun to shiver, but still she smiled.  She dragged me close to her and whispered, “Thank you for releasing me.”

She did not say any more and after a while she closed her eyes.  Her breathing became more erratic until finally, it stopped.  I looked at her for a long time before wandering off to find a sheet to wrap her body in.  I don’t know why I did that.  It just felt right.  I carried her into the bathroom and lay her on top of the dead clone.

Instinct told me to run, but there was nowhere to go.  So after scratching around for a while, I came across some paper and felt pens that she evidently had done some drawing with, and the idea came to write the story down.  As I had hoped, it has enabled my mind to focus.  The actual writing of Nash’s name in particular has helped.

In the days before his capture, Nash had begun to hint at subversive causes.  Of places and people that had not taken the Regen way.  They lived short lives in comparative squalor, but existed in relative happiness.  His tales kept returning to a village hundreds of kilometers from the Superway.  A place called Carey.  “It is a place of sanctuary for the troubled.  There is a publican called Barrington who welcomes anybody prepared to stand against the Regens.”  It had been a strange message and I guess that he knew that his time was growing short.  I had pressed him for more information, and he had grown coy.  “Come now my friend.  Surely you do not believe that I am the only Regen who is sick and tired of playing God do you?”  Then he had steered the conversation on to other subjects and the matter had been forgotten -until now.

It occurs to me that Nash knew that his time was up and that he was trying to tell me that I did not have to submit to the system.  But I was young and scared.  When they killed him I hid for days, certain that I would be next.  Nick and Griffo kept me alive.  When I finally was game enough to reappear I did everything possible to become invisible.  I have been a model clone until today.  Now, when all seems lost I can see the raft of hope that Nash left for me.  I know what I have to do.

Carey beckons and I am determined to make it.  To do so I must cut the wrist chip from her arm.  It will allow me to start her vehicle and use her funds until I leave the Superway.  The indications are that she was a loner and if so there is every chance that she will not be missed.  When her wrist chip stops transacting, an alarm will ring and they will come looking for her.  By then, I hope to be in Carey taking my chances with the man called Barrington.

ends

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Story Rosa’s Place

Originally written after going to a Deep Purple concert and inspired by the darkly mysterious song Rosa’s Cantina by that band, Rosa’s Place is a story about wanting to be better.  The question is how much are you prepared to pay to get what you want

The story was originally entered in the Tom Howard shorty story competition and was awarded Best Science Fiction story which is kind of weird because I don’t think the story is SF at all.  Dark fantasy maybe, you decide
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Rosa’s Place

By

Mark Hodgetts

 

We are at our most vulnerable when we are coming down from a high.  That’s what I think anyway.  I reckon Rosa thinks that way too.

That is when she trapped me -when I was vulnerable.

Highs are few and far between for struggling guitar players like me.  Music is all I’ve got really.  Not any music though.  Most stuff is just pap.  I only play what I want.  It limits my horizons, particularly in a country with a low population base like Australia.  Music has to be more than three chords and a hook chorus.  I’ve got many influences.  Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, Bach, even somebody like Billy Joel.  The granddaddy though, has always been Deep Purple.  Hard rock rooted in the blues, spiced with jazz and classical influences that can only be truly appreciated live.  When they arrived in Melbourne featuring American hotshot, Steve Morse on guitar, I secured front row tickets, hoping that they still possessed the magic that they had thirty years ago.

They blew me away with their musicianship, enthusiasm and sheer bloody joy, almost magically dusting away my crusty cynicism and replacing it with the vigour and hope of my youth.  Way back when my guitar promised to open doorways.  I wanted to play like them.  No matter what the cost.  I think that wanting is a tangible thing -something that can be sensed.  I don’t know how exactly, but I know that Rosa knew how much I wanted to play like them.

She was waiting for me outside Klinger’s music store the next day.  I’d hoped to run into somebody who had been to the show and had drifted around the city haunts, hoping that I’d make a connection.  She was wearing one of the band’s tee shirts and was the first kindred spirit I had seen since the concert.  I didn’t really notice her features until I’d barged in with naked enthusiasm.  “Did you see the show?”  I gushed boyishly.

She seemed to look through me for an instant before flicking some internal switch and smiling back at me.  “They were great weren’t they?”

I nodded awkwardly, embarrassed by my approach and suddenly intimidated by her beauty.  I’m no lady-killer and good-looking birds have always scared me.  Ordinarily, I would not dream of approaching a girl like her.  For all I knew, she could have been a model or an actress with her slim, sensual body and pert good looks.

She pretended not to notice my reticence and said that she thought that they were as good as ever.

I shuffled my feet uncertainly and mumbled my agreement.

She reached out and touched my hand.  “It’s OK.  I know that you’re genuine.  It was a great concert.  I was looking for someone to share it with.  Why don’t we have a coffee and talk about it?”

I blushed heavily; painfully aware of my lack of social skills and fearful that she would see my inadequacies once we shared a drink.

She seemed amused by my discomfort and took my hand.  “Come on.  There is a quiet place around the corner.  Let’s swap notes.”

I followed her dreamily, wondering at my good fortune and praying that it might lead somewhere beyond my experience.  The café was quiet and the coffee good.  The company was better.  She was fun to be with and kept the conversation flowing.  I listened raptly.  She ran a bar in the city and was between boyfriends (sounded promising), but not in any hurry for a romance (just my luck).  Things usually happened at a self-appointed pace.  There was no point forcing the issue she assured me, meeting my eyes with a thrilling openness.  We talked about the band and she drew a lot from me when we discussed the new line up.  “You’re quite an expert,” she commented after I had warmed to the task of comparing guitar players.  “It’s a pity you weren’t at my place last night.”

I raised my eyebrows but otherwise said nothing.

“My bar.  Some of the band came down after the show.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No.  Jon Lord and Steve came down.  They had a jam with the house band.”

“You’ve got a house band?”

Her eyes sparkled with what I took to be pride.  “Sure.  They’re hot.”

I scratched my head in astonishment.  “I thought I knew all the live band places in town.”

“All the advertised ones, my place is special -invitation only.”

“How do you make it pay?”

She touched her lips secretively and smiled.  “Trade secret,” she grinned as she leaned forward.  Her eyes betrayed an eagerness that I was unaccustomed to.  “Why don’t you come and have a peek tonight?”

“Why are you asking me?”  I could not hide the tremor in my voice.

She reached out and touched my cheek.  “You’re a muso, and you’re a nice guy.  You deserve to see just where music can take you.”  Her fingers stroked my face lightly, promising much.

“Just because I’m a muso?”

She laughed softly and held my gaze.  “OK.  I think you’re cute.  Please come.”

My mouth opened and closed several times before I could manage to accept.  She laughed again.  A rich clear sound that almost held me spellbound.  “I’m glad you’ll come.  My driver will pick you up on the street corner over there.”  She pointed out of the window to the opposite corner.  “Make sure you stand exactly two paving stones in from each gutter.”

“How will I know it’s him?”

“He’ll be in a black Caddy with my name on the plates.  See you tonight.”  She leaned across the table and pecked me on the cheek, a familiar partner’s peck.  “Bye,” she whispered.  Then she was going, with my eyes glued to her jeans and my heart trailing behind.

Clapton once said that when he was struggling to master his craft, women just weren’t interested, but once he became a star he had to beat them off with a stick.  It is a sentiment that I can identify with.  The only difference being that I never mastered my craft.  Consequently, my experiences with women could generously be described as limited.  I had no idea why Rosa seemed interested in me, but I was sure going to try to make the best of it.  I rushed home, showered, shaved and then showered again.  I could not eat.  Rosa’s face kept appearing before me, smiling and whispering promises of fulfillment that I had long thought beyond me.  I walked back into town, keeping my pace steady and trying to keep from getting ahead of myself.  I arrived twenty minutes early and settled down to wait.

Something inside me feared that I was being set up, but when I remembered the way she looked at me and recalled the eagerness in her face.  I rechecked my watch.  Two minutes to go.

A black, late seventies model Cadillac rolled around the corner.  My mouth went dry and for some inexplicable reason, I felt a sudden urge to run away.  The Caddy pulled to a stop and the driver got out and came around the front of the car.  My feet moved of their own accord and I met him at the passenger door.  He opened it for me and I stepped in to luxury.  The driver didn’t say a word until he had guided the vehicle out on to the Freeway.

“Bar’s open.  Help yourself.”  He eyed me through the mirror with what I took to be good humour.

I thanked him, poured myself a bourbon and took a sip.  I didn’t notice anything odd about the taste and welcomed the familiar warmth as it seeped through my body, calming and soothing my nerves.  I closed my eyes and thought about Rosa.  The night promised so much.  The driver said something unintelligible and I ignored him, letting my thoughts centre upon the woman who had invited me.  I think I heard the driver chuckle and then I was gone, dreaming of jamming with Morse and Lord while Rosa watched.

Rough hands shook me awake.  “Come on man.  Time to party.”  I blinked the cobwebs away and took in my surroundings.  The tang in my nostrils told me that we were somewhere near the bay.  Otherwise, I have no idea whereabouts I was.  It literally could have been a back alley in any city.  There were no signs of Rosa’s Bar.  No cars.  No revelers coming or going.  Just dead quiet.  The driver had seen alarm register in my face.  “It’s cool man.  She’s just through that door.”  He pointed to an indiscriminate door at the side of what appeared to be a warehouse.

“Where is everybody?’  I asked as casually as I could.

“Everybody gets delivered.  Them’s the rules.”  He gave me a conspirator’s wink and helped me to my feet.  Something about his touch made me shrivel up inside, but he seemed not to notice my disgust.  “Come along my friend.  Miss Rosa is waiting for you.”  He led me to the door and rapped some sort of Latin rhythm twice upon it, whereupon it swung inward, allowing a soft blue light to spill out on to the pavement.  The babble and hum of a party crowd drifted up from a level below.  “Take the stairs down, man.  She’ll find you when she’s ready.”  I took several steps inside.  The babble from below grew louder.  There was a half-sloshed quality about it that made me feel as if I was a late arrival.  I advanced towards the stairs with butterflies of anticipation dancing in my stomach.  The door closed of its own accord behind me.  The stairs stretched downward into thicker, blue light.  With every step, the light grew more intense, seemingly pulsing in time to my steps.  The crowd sound grew louder.  I stopped, steadied myself and listened.  The distinctive sound of a group tuning up comforted me and I continued my descent.

When I’d reached the bottom of the second flight, the light had grown so soupy that I could scarcely see my hand before my eyes.  I stopped and waited for help.  The crowd noise rose a notch and seemed to be coming from only feet away.  I suppressed the urge to scream and thought of Rosa.

As soon as I did, the band kicked into gear with            the splintering riff from “Woman from Tokyo.”  Instantly, the light grew more natural.  A bored looking doorman stood before me, guarding a pair of closed oaken doors.  “Welcome sir.  We’ve been expecting you.”  He turned and beat a similar rhythm to the one that the driver had tapped out on the entrance earlier.  The doors swung open on to Rosa’s place.

No expense had been spared.  The cavernous room appeared to have been hewn out of solid rock.  Large stone pillars supported a dome like ceiling from, which hung chandeliers of, lighted candles.  I’m no expert on architecture or interior design, so I won’t go into too much detail.  Suffice to say that the place reeked of money.  I am an expert on pubs though and the bar looked superbly stocked.  Its gold fittings gleamed and sparkled at me, seducing me to drink.

I started for the bar and stopped in mid stride.  Except for myself and the five-piece band cooking on stage, the only other soul in the place was a lone barman attempting to look busy mopping a dry bar.  He acknowledged me with a wave and poured a double JB on ice.  Unnerved by the emptiness of the place and the fact that the barman knew what I drank, I hesitated before succumbing to the drink’s call.  Trying my best to look casual, I sidled over to the bar and took a circumspect sip from the glass placed before me.  I waved my free arm at the vacant space behind me and shouted.  “The place seemed packed when I was coming down.”

He grinned widely.  “Sure is, isn’t it?”  The babble and hum of a large crowd insinuated itself beneath the band’s heavy sound.  I turned uncertainly away from the bar to see at least six hundred punters crammed around the tables that only moments ago had seemed empty.  I stared at them in wonder and turned back to the barman.  He was still grinning.  “It happens to everybody when they come down.  The atmosphere plays funny tricks, I reckon.”  He didn’t shout, but every word could be heard perfectly.

I skulled my drink and motioned for another.

“Good idea,” the barman purred.

The band kicked into the keyboard intro to “Lazy.”  Something I knew and loved.  They sounded hot and I closed my eyes to drink in the sound.  Somebody brushed my arm.  “Good aren’t they,” whispered a familiar voice.  Rosa.  I smiled, opened my eyes and turned towards her.  She looked absolutely stunning, but I’m damned if I can remember exactly why.  All I can remember is her eyes appraising me with an openness that was both exciting and unnerving.  I tried to appear calm and nodded my head in agreement.  She smiled at me, like she knew everything I was thinking, and reached out for my hand.  I hope that she didn’t notice that it was shaking, but I’m sure she did.  I’m sure that she knows things about me that I haven’t even considered.  “Would you like to jam with them?”

“That would be great,” I replied, wondering all the while how she wanted me to respond to the gentle patterns that she was tracing on my arm.

“Next song and you’re on.”

I don’t mind admitting that I just about shit myself.  “What?  Now?  In front all this crowd?”

Her hand dropped to my knee and traced several laps.  “You can do it.  You were there last night.  You heard Morse.  Here, you can play like him.  Everybody here has stepped up to play on their first night and I can’t remember a single failure.  They’re all like you.  They all have a genuine love of music.  Please try.  I promise that you will enjoy it.”  Her hand strayed up my thigh a little way and I reckon that if she’d asked me to go ten rounds with Mike Tyson right then I would have done it.

“OK, but I’m no Steve Morse.  I’m just a fan.”

She led me up to the front, just as the band was winding into a big finish.  We made our way through the crowd and several of their number gave me a pat on the back as we passed.  By the time we had reached the front, all eyes seemed focused on us.  The vocalist stepped forward and helped Rosa up on to the stage.  I was busy hoisting myself up when I heard Rosa announcing me as a red-hot guitar player in the Morse style.  Then she said something that didn’t make a real lot of sense, but by then sense had almost become an abstract concept.  It was something about energies being focused upon me.  I didn’t quite catch it.

Rosa handed me a guitar and I slung it over my neck, hoping that I would get to choose the number.  She kissed me on the lips.  “You’ll be great,” she whispered, then scurried off stage.  I was still watching her when the vocalist announced that “Ted the Mechanic” would be the next song.  That was something that I had never been able to get a handle on.  Even as my heart sank, my hands started to scratch out the intro.  The rhythm section kicked in and we were away.  I don’t know where I was pulling the notes from, but they kept coming, and as they came my spirit soared to heights that I’d never dreamed of.  I was kicking arse with a great band and everyone was digging it.  Magic.  We never missed a beat.  Even on that tricky end bit.  The adrenaline surged through me as I acknowledged the crowd’s applause and I wondered how the night could get any better.  Reluctantly, I handed the strat back to the owner.  He grinned knowingly, like a fellow tripper sharing an absurdity.

Rosa was back along side me.  “You were great.  I knew you would be.  Come and dance.”  She dragged me back out in front of the band.  They were drifting in to something mellow.  She stepped close to me.  “Dance close.”  It was almost a command.-one that I was more than willing to accommodate.  My hands slipped around her waist and she responded in kind.  The music brought our bodies close.  Our hips swayed in time with its gentle rhythm.  Her hand reached up under my shirt and stroked my chest.  “Did you like playing with the band?”

“Loved it,” I murmured, wondering how I could touch more of her without appearing sleazy.  Her fingers pressed against my breastbone, sending electric shivers through my body.

“Would you like to play again?”  She was looking at me hungrily.  It was hunger.  I have no doubt.

“Rosa, I could play with those guys forever.”

The music changed and took on an African tribal beat that seemed somehow sinister and yet enticingly exciting.  Rosa broke away from me and ran to a nearby table.  I followed her like a dog on a lead.  She jumped up on to the table and began to dance a slow, sensual, teasing dance.  The rhythm built upon itself and the crowd turned to watch Rosa.  I stood below her, waiting to be called.  She motioned for me to join her and I was up there in a flash.  The music enveloped us and reality evaporated.  The crowd seemed to literally dissolve.  The music was deafening but I could hear her speak just the same.  Like a lover in the dead of night.  She drew me to her and her hand again went to my chest.  “You can stay here with me and my music forever,” she whispered.  There was a brief burning sensation in my chest and I felt her fingers enter my skin.  “Give me your heart.  Then you can stay.”  Her hand delved deeper inside me.  It did not hurt.  On the contrary, she sent little darts of pleasure in all directions.  Her fingers touched my heart teasingly and her eyes held me in her spell.

“Won’t I die?”  I choked.

“Of course, but you can play all the music you desire forever.”  Her eyes bored into me and her fingers stroked my heart.  I moaned with pleasure.  “Give it to me,” she purred and pressed closer to me.

I am a stubborn bastard.  I always have been.  I love my music.  Always have.  I wanted to see and hear Deep Purple again.  I wanted to see how they turned out.  I couldn’t do that when I was dead, no matter what the enticements.  “No,” I whispered, and hated myself.

The music stopped abruptly and she stepped back from me.  Her hand was clean and dry.  “You’ll be back,” she said and then everything went blue.  Then black.

When I came to, I was walking along a back lane three blocks from my place and the sun was thinking about making an appearance.  My shirt was still open and my head felt as if a woodcutter had used it to park his axe for a while.  I touched my chest, remembering her touch and where her hands had gone.  There was nothing to suggest that she had touched me at all.

I hurried home, gulped too many painkillers and crashed for eons, dreaming of Rosa and playing in her house band.

It was two years ago.  Mediocrity is choking me and I reckon I’ve seen Deep Purple for the last time.  Every day I practice for five hours.  My last three bands haven’t actually played a gig.  For the life of me, I can’t remember any of the solo I played that night at Rosa’s.  I’ve never gone remotely close to playing at that level again.

I still have no luck with women.

I can hear Rosa calling me.  She’s promising all manner of delights, but mainly offering joy in music.  I’m going to go back and stand at the same corner at nine o’clock.  When that Cadillac pulls up, I’m going to hop in and beg to be taken back.

She said that I’d be back.  She knows me well.  I want her and I want to play like the Gods.  No matter what the price.

 

Ends

 

 

 

 

 

 

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