Monster Behind The Masks

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Chapter 13

CARYSSA


“You’re the coolest ski mom,” Tyler declared while adjusting the straps of his goggles, stretching them over his helmet.

“Oh boy, I’ll sleep better knowing my teenager thinks his beyond-middle-aged mom is cool,” I responded while buckling my ski boots, smirking to myself.

Tyler let out a goofy 14-year-old laugh, “I said you’re a cool ski mom—but you still embarrass me all the time.”

And there it was; he’d taken me off my parental pedestal. Ahh well, I’ll take praise where I can get it. Teenagers aren’t the easiest to impress.

I stood to grab my ski-jacket and gloves. “Ah-ha! So, I’m an embarrassing cool ski mom. Okay.” I scrunched my lips, nodding.

“No, you’re totally rad on the slopes. It’s just everywhere else you embarrass me,” Tyler insisted while zipping his jacket.

“Just so I know how to stop embarrassing you, give me some examples.” I prodded. Perhaps if I figured out what I did that was so embarrassing, I could claim my ‘cool mom’ status with no exceptions.

“Let’s just go out and meet Dad, forget it,” He huffed with an air of laughter. I swear I saw an eye roll behind his goggles. Tyler snatched his ski pass, wedged it into his pocket and started for the door, ready to carve up snow and catch some air.

Following behind him, I raised my skis over my shoulder and begged, “Just one example.” I stepped from wood and indoor heating that came courtesy of the condo, to white powdery snow crunching underfoot. Treading through deep powder in ski boots proved a workout before even hitting the slopes.

“Like, I don’t know—like when you yelled my name across the high school gym in front of my friends. Really Mom, was that necessary?” Tyler shook his head, his words heavy with disappointment.

“Well, if you answered your texts and paid attention to the time, that wouldn’t happen.” I defended myself, feeling I hadn’t done anything wrong. Okay, maybe I had embarrassed him, but justifiably so. “We were late for your orthodontist appointment.” Maybe I needed a teen-manual. I wonder if you can find those at your local retailer. Parents would bash down the doors of bookstores to nab a copy.

“Sorry, I forgot.” He mumbled.

“Just like you forgot to do your homework, forgot to show your teacher your binder—” I was loaded with examples, firing off a list before he cut in and shut me up.

“Aggghhh! This is when you’re so uncool!” Tyler stomped briskly ahead, lugging his skis over his shoulder.

I admired the sunny plateau, the mountain peaks a stunning backdrop. They were huge and fluffy with heaps of snow. The wind knocked off sprinkles of white that misted the air. Lovely wooden chalets dotted the rising mountains.

It was crowded during the kid’s spring break, full of laughter, conversation, and banter. Colorful ski suits whizzed along the abundance of white, catching big air as they leaped high, or bombing as they soared down the mountains, leaving snow sprinkles and chuckles behind. It was somewhat chaotic. But being such a beautiful day, I couldn’t complain.

Really, who could complain after skiing five mountains within eight days? We just finished skiing at Snowbird and Alta in Utah, skied Alpine Meadows this morning, and are now at Squaw Valley. We were connoisseurs of the slopes. Or as fellow skiers might say, carvaholics. Yesterday we met friends at Sugar Bowl. Life doesn’t suck.

I caught up to Tyler, feeling the need to air my justifications, “Okay, first off, remember this: I’m your mom, not just a friend. If you think me being your parent is ’uncool’ well tough brakes. And second, the gymnasium scene is not a good example, I need another.” I explained over the ruckus of chortling school kids and the whoosh of snow being cut up by hungry skiers and snowboarders.

Tyler clicked into his ski bindings and stretched his legs, releasing a mighty sigh. “Since I know you’ll ask for yet another example of how you embarrass me, I’ll give two. During carpool when you drop us off, that music you play—”

I jumped in here. “What’s wrong with classical?”

“Nothing, it’s just a little boring to start school with Chopin ringing in my ears. You wonder why I zone out during the first period?” With that, Tyler took off for the chair, and I skated with my skis up to him in line, carrying further questions with me.

“Okay, so do you feel that way when I play rock?” I asked, intrigued by the psyche of a teen and what classifies as good or bad tunes. Perhaps I’ll crack the code and write the manual myself. I laughed off the image of hundreds of thousands of parents thanking me on a daily basis for writing an essential book in the raising of teenagers, talking on popular daytime chat shows, and becoming a deity for parents everywhere.

“No, but how’ bout some Rap or Brazilian jazz. Bossa Nova!” He suggested.

We laughed, razzing each other playfully. With this level of cooperation, he might co-write the book with me. “Wow, I’m impressed. I didn’t even know you like music from the 50’s and 60’s—” I’d managed to raise a cultural person, not just obsessed with fads and junk food.

“It’s a new wave now, Mom, get with it!” Tyler scooted over to let two other skiers around his age queue for the chairlift with us. “Did Dad say where to meet him?”

“Yup said he’d be at the top. So, what’s the second way your old mom embarrasses you?” I couldn’t let this go now. I was fascinated in a funny sort of way.

“I really love you Mother, but seriously—please don’t hug me in front of my friends!” He said with rolling-eyes. Okay, hugs off limit in public, got it.

With that, the two other boys on the chairlift laughed, joining in. One said, “Oh man, my Mom does worse than that! She’ll plant a big ole kiss on my cheek right in front of the school as I leave her car.”

Shock. Horror. What a monster, showing a sign of affection. I shook my head.

I was outnumbered by three teenagers that no longer thought their moms were the center of their universe. I remember a time when Tyler was basically joined to my hip. Of course, back then, he only came up to my hip. Now my child stands in a 6’1” body. It’s not a bad thing I guess, and I love who my kid is becoming—himself, as I slowly give him independence. And he takes it.

Looking behind us from the chair, the far-reaching view of impressive peaks stretched for miles. I saw the chocolate-box village with its fancy boutiques, cafes, and high-fashion skiwear.

My cell rang bringing me back to reality; I figured it was my hubby and retrieved it from my pocket. A glance at my screen proved me wrong.

I swiped-to-answer the call while watching skiers with an eye out for George in case he decided not to wait for us.

“Hello Anna, this couldn’t be a chairlift chat, since it’s ten at night your time…What? You’re in California?...

I jolted up in the chair, alerting Tyler. In the reach of my periphery, Tyler’s head shot my way.

“Why’d you cut your trip short?... An avalanche!?” The words spilled from my mouth louder than I’d intended.

“An avalanche!” Screamed the kid sitting hip-to-hip with Tyler. “Cool, where?” His eyes darted around.

I again spoke into the phone, almost in defense of my child’s common sense in case she overheard:

“That’s not Tyler talking. So, did they close the mountain…oh, my God, he got caught in the avalanche?!”

“Who got caught in the avalanche? Jared?” Tyler asked, leaning towards my side of the chairlift with concern in his voice.

The lift cranked to a stop, likely someone having trouble getting on or off. We sat, suspended in the air some 200-feet from the ground. Two of my biggest skiing concerns: avalanches and falling from lifts. My heart beat that much faster. Being held at this height didn’t help any.

After hearing about Jared caught in the avalanche, I became wary and pulled Tyler close to me, a maternal urge taking hold. “Hey guys, I’m pulling the safety bar down now!” We had ridden halfway up the mountain with no bar, which typically doesn’t bother me. I brought the bar down before the kids were ready, and the bar crashed into one of the boys’ helmet. “Oops, sorry about that!”

The kid seemed undisturbed about the little head thump, merely looking the other way without a word to say, no ‘ouch’ or ‘watch it’ to suggest I’d affected him whatsoever.

“Oh Mom,” his gloved finger pointed out, “that’s another way to be so uncool, riding with the bar down.” Tyler joked.

Anna had responded during the safety bar fuss. I moved my mouth toward my smartphone again:

“What was that? Oh my God, he’s okay though?...PTSD, poor kid!...he saved the life…holy snowballs I gotta hear more about this!”

Tyler was chomping at the bit for details, “Jared has PTSD? He saved who?” He became a needy puppy at my side, begging to be petted or fed.

“Yes Tyler, Jared got caught in an avalanche. It’s not all bad. He saved the life of another skier, a mother of two kids.” I informed Tyler, causing his mouth to make an ‘O’.

The chair cranked to life as my pulse found a gentler pace. Finally! Must have been stopped for five minutes. I said to Anna:

“We’re going to be at the top of the mountain soon, sorry I need to go. I’ll come to Sausalito when we get back. Give Jared a big hug.”

Before we ended the call, Tyler piped in, “Wow, there’s been lots of avalanches everywhere. There were two in California this week!”

The boy next to Tyler said, “There was one here—people got injured.”

I answered, “Yup kiddos, avalanches are becoming more common thanks to climate change.”

I gave my final goodbyes as we approached the top. George waved from the edge of the face run. My departing words to Anna before shoving my cell phone into my fanny pack and slipping off the chair were, “Even snow is political.”

Infused with a sense of well-being, I carved turns leaving a dust of powder behind me. I tried not to piss off any skiers with a dose of snow-covered goggles. Skiing was effortless as I switched into autopilot. At that moment, I became weightless, free of worries and concerns, experiencing a fleeting bliss of escapism.

The sun casts a magical glow over the rolls of snow. People, in their colorful attire, swerved and turned and rode the fluffy slopes. Skiers maneuvered with control and grace, whereas snowboarders performed impressive feats of acrobatics, toying with gravity.

After several runs, George stayed off-piste in the trees while Tyler and I cruised groomers. We raced to catch the last run of the day, tucking it to the bottom for speed.

“Sorry folks, lift is closed for the day,” the lift operator grumbled.

“No, no, please one more run!” begged Tyler.

The lift operator glanced at the last group that had settled onto a chair, then back at us, “Okay, go ahead.”

“Yay, thank you!”

“The squeaky skier stays on the slopes!” I joked while scanning my pass on the newfangled electric chip gates.

“Well, make it a good one; it’s the last of the day! The lift operator nodded. “And be sure not to venture off the backside as that chair’s already closed, you’d get stranded.”

And off we went.

The snow-blanketed mountains surrounded us on the chairlift. At the top, the shimmering turquoise and blue-hued water of Lake Tahoe made me stop and stare at its beauty.

I let Tyler take the lead. His choice was the terrain park, which elicited a silent groan from my arthritic right hip. I watched as he flew whooping over the jumps and through the halfpipe, completing tricks across the rails, taking an impressive crash at the base.

Laughing, he raised his arm, “I’m okay!”

When we finished for the day I asked, “Want to take a stroll through the village?”

“Ahhh...Nah…I want to go back to the condo and get out of my boots,” he answered while flipping his goggles onto his helmet.

“Tyler, I’m going back to take off my boots also. I mean after that, see the sights and sounds.”

He was shaking his head, “I’m kinda cold and tired, wanna veg out.”

“And play video games?” I asked. “You can warm up by the fire-pit in the village—”

“No Mom, I just need to chill and take a hot shower.”

“Suit yourself. I’m heading to the hot tub in about an hour. You and Dad can join me.”

I lugged my equipment back to the condo with Tyler, locked it all up, switched into my aprés ski boots and headed back out solo.

The crisp mountain air intoxicated my senses while strolling to the village. Alpine forests with fir and pine trees, mixed in with other scents—newly baked cookies, fresh popcorn, the smoky, savory smell of fire-roasted pizza. And another distinctive scent wafted past my nose—marijuana. It ebbed from a twenty-something group standing around one of the fire-pits, giggling like hyenas.

The combination of earthy—almost fruity aroma of marijuana and laid-back ambiance radiating off the group somehow lured me in. I wandered to the opposite side of the fire-pit palms held out to catch the fire’s warmth. Conversations traveled over the flames.

Words came from a barrel-chested man with a bushy beard and Aspen Meadows Resort bandana. He sported a flannel jacket and jeans, boots that came to his knees. “Dude, we thought you were lost, a goner, like that snowboarder found a few days ago.”

“I was lost, gotta admit. I don’t know this mountain like I do the ones at home.” A small-framed guy answered as he passed a pen-like vaporizer to the woman standing aside him. She was a vision: a leggy blonde bombshell in a one-piece gold ski outfit that fit her like a glove.

“You need’ta shred faster on your board to keep up with us.” Bearded-bandana man teased.

I was wondering how with the smaller guy’s bright lime-green ski jacket that stuck out like a neon light his friend couldn’t spot him. Maybe he was preoccupied chasing the ski-bunny.

“Dude! I shredded too fast, then landed head first in the pow! Took me half an hour to dig me outta a ditch. That’s some strange snow out there!” He replied defensively.

“No stranger than the snow we’ve had in Colorado this season,” Big Guy laughed. “You’re blaming your snowboarding mistakes on the snow cond—”

“Hello global warming,” the blonde interjected. “The snow has become unreliable. She rolled her eyes. “Knock it off Steve. Billy could have been dead out there and you only mock his boarding skills.”

One look across the hazy glaze of the fire into the owlish brown eyes of the girl gave me the impression that her mind and soul are expansive. The type of sexy woman who gets wrongly stereotyped as unintelligent or narrow-minded—like the only thing that matters is skin-deep.

Billy shook his head in the flickering light, “You really think global warming has anything to do with me getting lost in a snow pillow Steph? It’s colder than a witches’ tit in a brass bra out there.”

“It’s not simply local weather, it’s changing temps across the globe. Remember how it was hotter than a June bride last week? There’ll be no snow left for our kids!” Stephanie said while pulling on a stylish hat with the words Aprés Ski emblazoned in gold complimenting her outfit.

Steve bypassed the topic, “Dude, you gotta learn to put pressure on your back leg, man. Be the boss a ya board. And I care more about buddy Billy than his bad boarding.” He swung his arm around Billy’s shoulders while handing Stephanie the vaporizer. “Just joking out of relief! Take another tokey-smokey and chill out girl.”

She fanned her hands with a disapproving look, “No thanks, one hit off that thing was enough to make me feel like I’m floating off this rock.” Stephanie had climbed on top of the rustic cropping near the fire-pit.

I no longer find it surprising fellow skiers and boarders talk climate change, despite being shiny happy people that tune out reality on the slopes. Words rolled around in my mouth, finally spilling onto my tongue, “I was just saying to a friend today that snow has become political.”

They each shot me a surprised look, complete with raised eyebrows and taut eyes, with Billy responding first. “Ha, what’s not political?” He took a hit…then raised the high-tech-looking vaporizer, “The herbs we vaporize…politics.” His vocal chords sounded raspy.

Steve laughed, “The fact we hold medical marijuana cards making it legal to toke for pain management and breathing the air while skiing…politics.”

Stephanie added from atop her little rock, “The gas we buy to get to the mountain and pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord fucking up future generations of skiing…politics.”

Oh God; I’ve met my match in being the sardonic ski satirist, I thought. A couple walking by overhearing our conversation joked, “The sky is falling Chicken Little!”

I smiled into the last moments of sunshine for the day and added, “Yup, we better get our powder turns [WT8] in while we can!” As I glanced toward the mountain, the sun lowered like a glow-ball among the towering statues of snow-clad peaks. It resembled an oil-painting dusted with powdered sugar.

The big bearded guy, whose name was apparently Steve joined in, “Where I’m from—The Rocky Mountains—the opioid epidemic is about the worst in the nation. I think it’s cuz so many skiers get hurt, and good ole doc doles out addictive pain meds. Happened to a good friend of mine. Now that makes it not just political but personal.”

A moment of silence brought the conversation to an uncomfortable lull. Beautiful Day by U2 bounced off a pub speaker. It blended well with the atmosphere of laughter, skiers walking by and a couple dancing with their poles in their hands.

“What I don’t get,” added Billy, “If the ski resorts are hurting so bad with climate change, why some of them fund anti-climate action politicians.”

“Ha, that’s an easy one.” Stephanie slid off her rock nearly stumbling into the fire-pit, stayed by quick footing. “See that! I was between a rock and a hard place,” she laughed, pointing to the flames swaying in the wind, too close for comfort, “Just like ski resorts. I have one answer, water. They need water not falling freely from the sky to make snow, and fear their water rights are infringed—”

“That,” I added while holding up a pointer finger for emphasis, “and oil. Ski resorts use a lot of this black magic to run equipment….”

“And the biggest cause of global warming is burning fossil fuels,” finished Stephanie.

“Argh man, all this talk’ bout climate change makes me wanna change the topic. A great day skiing today, hey?” Steve looked high as a kite, eyes rimmed red and a slackness to his words.

“Seriously, we’ll take our passion to the grave talking this shit—but to be a political denier is to float endlessly in a powder turn.” Stephanie did a little nervous laugh.

I’d had enough powder politics with the stoners. “Well, I’m taking my passion to the hot tub, see you all on the mountain,” I announced, offering a wave.

While sauntering away one of the guys, likely Steve, spoke up, “I’d love to take my passion to the hot tub with ya girl!”

Oh Lord, I don’t have any response to that. Knowing I’d never see these people again, I sped back to the condo, where my husband and son were asleep on matching couches. The cozy fireplace flickered flames of yellow and tangerine while the TV blared. How can they sleep through that squawk box? Must be all the fresh air and exercise.

I freed myself from the ski clothes and slipped into a non-revealing tankini bathing suit and spa robe, slinging a towel across my shoulders. Fumbling in the kitchenette, I poured a little Chateau Laffite into a plastic cup. I learned the hard way that nice wine glasses and hot tubs don’t mix.

By 6 p.m. I was simmering in a bubbly hot spa, gazing at the gathering dusk in the slopes. The quiet solitude of the night and jets hitting my tired ski muscles brought me to a place of serenity. The only sound breaking through the silence was a trickle of children’s laughter from the clubhouse.

And then I heard the scream…

Alerted, I slipped out of the hot tub, grabbed my towel and spa robe, and dashed into the clubhouse. There seemed to be nothing going on, just a few people laughing. “What was the scream all about?” I asked.

“Oh, everything’s okay,” was the only response I got. What could I do to help if there’s no problem? Yet, the woman was still screaming, the sound coming from the bathroom.

Back out to the hot tub, I sank deeper into the water trying to get the jets to cover the screech of the woman’s voice. Any deeper and I’d need a snorkel to breathe. I let myself drift in the current while my mind and body eased, but it was no use. I could not only hear her high-pitched scream, it sounded louder under water.

I propped myself up on the edge of the hot tub as two children came running out of the clubhouse. “We need to get Daddy and tell him Mommy’s on fire!” A little boy yelled.

Fire? I looked through the glass doorway into the clubhouse and saw a guy emptying a fire extinguisher onto a blazing inferno. God almighty, I was thinking a firepit by the hot tub would be nice—but this isn’t what I had in mind!

I grabbed my cell phone out of the pocket of the spa robe and dialed the front desk. “Hello? I heard a woman screaming in the clubhouse and was told she’s okay. Yet she is still screaming—could someone check it out please?”

After the front desk assured me they’d send someone to check out the scene, I hung up.

A young man around thirty came out of the clubhouse calling after the children, “Boys? Don’t go alarming your Dad. Your Mom’s Okay,” he announced.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Oh, we’re barbequing and my sister is a novice at lighting the gas grill. The igniter button didn’t work and she tried a grill lighter. She waited too long. A cloud of gas built up and a fireball came at her face.”

“Wow, hope she didn’t get burned?”

“No, but her hair, eyelashes, and brows got singed. She ran to the bathroom screaming, expecting her face to be disfigured. Sorry for ruining your hot tub experience,” he laughed.

“No problem, I’m relieved your sister is Okay.”

I got out of the water to press the hot tub jets, ran across the spa deck in the crisp night, brrrr! Then sank deep into the tranquil darkness. The stars shone as I stretched my legs, getting my muscles ready for the last day of skiing.


I dropped down Alexander Ave and stopped at Bridgeway Café for a latte on the way to Anna’s place. The drive was beautiful through the sleepy Mediterranean seaside town of Sausalito.

When Anna greeted me at her door, she looked her radiant self. Flawless skin meets flawless heart. It seems her grandson shares her human compassion based on the rescue mission he performed while hurting with a broken bone.

“Hello snow sister, can’t wait to hear your ski stories,” Anna expressed as she took the bowl of strawberries mixed with blueberries from my hands. “What’s this, I told you to only bring your smiling-self.”

“Fresh berries from my garden. And a wedge of cheese to go with it,” I reached into my bag and presented the Camembert. “You are the one with a scary ski story. How’s Jared?”

“He’s fine, thank God! He’s asleep in his room.” Her eyes moved into the direction of the ghost room.

His…room?” I noticed the subtle yet obvious switch from referring to it as the “girls room.”

Anna looked up while placing the bowl of berries onto the table. “I worked with a contractor within days of leaving for the French Alps—and transformed the room into one that fits my grandson’s personality.”

She poured tea into the fine porcelain cups from her French collection—a white ground with blue and yellow modernist abstract pattern. The enticing aroma of tea helped me forget I left the latte in my car.

“Mmm…is this cinnamon black tea?” I questioned while raising the teacup to my lips.

“No, it’s L’Artisan Tea for Two. I made it myself, with bergamot, cinnamon, ginger and a touch of vanilla extract.”

“Wow!” I said. “You are amazing. Transforming the room into Jared’s, almost losing your grandson in the French Alps, then coming back and making homemade tea …”

“Shhh!” Anna put her finger to her lips. “We’ll wake him, he’s been traumatized and I want him to sleep—Doc says PTSD.”

“I’m not asleep, Grand-Mére,” Jared’s voice echoed back.

I turned towards the hallway, my eyes landing on Anna’s La Paloma The Dove leaning against a corner wall.

Before I could ask about her rendition of the Picasso painting, Jared appeared at the threshold. “Hi Caryssa!” The boy’s enthusiastic tone belied the vision I saw before me. There were cuts and bruises on his face, neck, and hands. His left eye was puffy and bruised as if someone had punched him. God almighty, the mountain beat this kid up.

Jared seemed to sense my surprise, and he said “Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it looks. I’m feeling good now.”

I smiled at him, my heart melting. “You’re amazing, saving a woman’s life with a broken collarbone!”

“I didn’t have pain when digging her out—only a grinding sensation in my shoulder. I was worried when I saw her rolling in the snow. I thought she was…she looked like…” He glanced at Anna. “She looked like you Grand-Mére.”

Anna nodded her head, wordlessly acknowledging the stress the boy experienced. We remained silent a moment while sipping tea.

Finally I said, “that must have been a scary experience for you Jared, getting caught in an avalanche.”

He shook his head, “I had no time to be scared—It happened so fast. I only had time to survive. It’s now I am freaking out.”

It was then I noticed how exhausted the boy looked.

Jared continued, “When I was rolling down the mountain I only thought of what I learned in surfing lessons. To push up with my hands, swim to the surface. I thought, stay on top, stay on top!”

Anna wrapped her arms gently around her grandson, avoiding the arm in the sling. “Jared, why don’t you go try to sleep some more?”

I noticed the swelling and bruising of the collarbone area and his wince at even the slightest touch.

“Yeah, I do need to sleep.” He waved goodbye and walked back to his room.

After he shut his door, Anna said quietly “He’s been having horrible nightmares, screaming out in the night. Like he said, it’s now he’s frightened. He was so brave during the experience.”

We talked and sipped our tea for an hour more, and I realized Anna also needed to rest. Her big almond eyes were glazed over and she seemed to struggle to keep them open.

I used the bathroom before leaving. As I walked past Anna’s painting, I lifted it and looked at the back. And there is was, Ava’s handwriting with the Picasso quote:

I stand for life against death. I stand for peace against war.

Since Anna had enough on her mind, I decided not to ask how and when she got her painting back from the police. As I was hugging her goodbye she asked, “Have you spoken to Julie lately?”

“Julie? No, I don’t talk to her as much as you do. What’s up?”

“Her pet parakeet was murdered by either FBI or the creepy CIA dude hanging around her street spying on her brother. They are on the Joint Terrorism Task Force.”

“What the…? How do you know it was the feds that killed the bird?”

“It would be too much a coincidence not to have been— an FBI agent stopped by her apartment the night before the bird was found dead. Apparently, Feisty said a little too much.”

“God almighty…it’s like the doves Ava killed—with a symbolic message, ’if you kill the dove, you kill peace.’” I insisted.

“Only the opposite. This was a federal agent, possibly two involved, that silenced her bird who was exposing the CIA and FBI for their roles in promoting war.”

I looked directly into Anna’s tired eyes. “Anna, you need to put this aside. You’ve been under enough stress with Jared’s ordeal. Go get some rest.”

“No, I won’t rest. I’m going over to Julie’s right now to comfort her. Come with me—you might want to hear what I have to say about how it’s all connected to the murders at my art gallery and the prison.”

I was jolted back to the reality I tried to escape. The reality that Diego Ramirez is my former bosses brother. The former boss in Silicon Valley that once had me working undercover in competitive intelligence. It was a fabulous position. Respected. Highly paid. Yet, so intrinsically related to technology itself used as a sword.

I was hooked in now.


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