Stories

The Crystal Dragon: Kangding, by Edward King

#crystal dragon

They arrived in Kangding. A great river ran through the center of the town. Green mountains rose above the river and the town.

The town was organized around one long street that ran alongside the river. As they walked, Hammer noticed an unfamiliar script on many of the signs.

“Tibetan,” said Laser.

“We should be safer here,” said Laser, “but it’s not impossible that the Ling Da have a presence here, or that we were followed. Everyone be cautious.”

They found a hotel off the main street where they booked a room for the four of them. There were two large double beds.

“Well,” said Emily. “Laser and Hammer, you two can share a bed. I’ll share with Fen Yi.”

 

%%

 

Hammer woke up in the night. The moon must have been close to full: the room was flooded with white light. Laser was snoring. Hammer turned to the bed next to him, where Emily was sleeping. So close, but so far away. He thought of the wooden steps that led up to her door—her bra and the soft sheets of her bed back home. He hadn’t had any kind of opportunity to be alone with her. He felt a pang of desire in his stomach.

 

He couldn’t sleep, so he got up, pulled his shoes on, and went for a walk outside. He could hear  the sound of the rushing river. He took the path above the hostel, climbing higher above the town, until he reached the entrance to a large courtyard. At the other end of the courtyard stood an archway and the rising tiers of a pagoda. A dog slept in the middle of the courtyard. Hammer thought he could see a man standing underneath the archway, but he couldn’t be sure.

He kept walking on the path above the entrance to the monastery he had just past. The path went behind the monastery and back into the town. Suddenly, the moonlight was mingled with another kind of light: a pink light spilling from a doorway up ahead. As Hammer approached, he noticed two skimpily-dressed young  women standing in front of the door. He thought of Emily—Alex—the wooden steps that led up to her door—her bra and the soft sheets of her bed back home. As he approached the door, the first of the young women smiled and caressed his shoulder, and he felt like he was arriving home.

 

 

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Stories

The Crystal Dragon: Train to Kangding

#crystal dragon

There are many thieves in the train but I am not a thief.

There are always many trains coming and going, and many people, and much hustle and bustle, and they use this to their advantage, as a distraction. And though my clothes are dirty and my beard is long, though my eyes are weary and my cap is worn, I am simply a traveler and I would never cause another person pain just for my own gain. I am a decent man.

It is summer now, and so the stations are more hot and dusty and chaotic. The cafes, once something of a refuge from the crowds, have been overrun—the tables are all full and even the spaces on the floor are taken, and I’ve heard that by the afternoon there isn’t any tea left at all; although this is hard for me to verify as I don’t touch the stuff.

Summer is also the time when I begin my travels in earnest. In June I will leave Xi’an and take a train to the coast, to Guangzhou where I once had relatives; but I have not been for a long time. I will look them up, I think, but I should not torture myself with old family history as they will want me to. Perhaps I will not look them up.

%

Fen Yi, Emily, Laser, and Hammer walked stormed down the KTV’s concrete steps. A green glow: the dragon hovered above them in the street.

Below the dragon were the words: “Green Dragon Cigarettes. Embrace a new today.”

Laser ran into the street to hail a taxi and the four of them crammed in.

Laser turned around in the front seat.

“The Ling Da,” he said, in English. “They’re an organization… I suppose you could describe them as a gang. They’re famous for removing fingers as a punishment. I had suspicions about Mr. Grey, but I convinced myself he just lost the finger in an accident. But the fact he had the tattoo—he must be a member.”

The taxi stopped suddenly and Fen Yi, Emily, and Hammer flew forwards. Hammer ended up partially entangled with Emily. She freed herself from him and held onto the handle above the door.

“Where are we going?” said Emily.

“To the train station,” said Laser. “If Mr. Grey believes that I have wronged him, I don’t feel safe being here any more. I have some relatives in a city to the west, Kangding. We should be safer there.”

They drove through the city’s chaotic traffic, along Xi’an’s ancient city wall. The wall had contained the inner city’s dusty streets for thousands of years. Hammer recalled the feeling of being in the present as the grey-eyed man chased them through the streets. They were traveling on the back of generations, living in a present that had been built by a history with no connection to his own.

The city walls were built by a bloodthirsty emperor consolidating his power. Two thousand years later, a gang that treated human life as a commodity now pursued them. What choice did he have in anything?

“来了,” said the taxi driver. (“We’re here.”)

The square in front of the train station was like stepping back a hundred years in time into the past. People sat on spread-out newspapers in the dusty yellow courtyard: families, shifty-eyed pickpockets, commuters carrying briefcases to work.

Every kind of human life pulsated through the square, in and out of the city, in and out of the entrance to the train station itself.

Laser moved cautiously across the square. “The Ling Da are everywhere,” he said. “Don’t let anybody get too close.”

They proceeded in a tight group towards the entrance.

They stayed in their tight group through the security checkpoint and through the lobby of the trains station. The departure hall was packed: there was not a seat open, and much of the floor was taken up by commuters sitting with their suitcases. They stood near the gates to the train, while Laser tensely eyed everyone that passed.

With five minutes until the train arrived, Laser seemed to realize something. “Stay here,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” He darted down the aisle into the crowds waiting for their train.

The group stood nervously waiting for him to return. What would they do if the train arrived without him? With one minutes left, he reappeared from the crowd. He was holding a little bottle filled with a brown liquid and printed with the words: 京酒. It was some kind of alcohol.

“Can’t forget this!” said Laser.

When they boarded the train at last, they shared a sleeper compartment. Four bunks on two levels were crammed into the compartment.

The train cut through the green mountains, ascending, taking tunnels through the mountains.

As it got dark, they talked and passed the bottle of alcohol between the bunks.

At night, Hammer stood with Sedgwick in aisle in the dark. The world rushed past outside: dark mountains against a darker sky. Hammer again felt an indelible sense of being in the present moment, of this being his life.

“When you got up this morning, did you think you’d be on a train to Kangding?” said Laser.

“I hadn’t heard of Kangding this morning,” said Hammer. “Or the Ling Da.”

“That’s how it goes sometimes,” said Laser. “I didn’t think I’d be working for them. Sometimes you have no choice.”

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The Crystal Dragon, KTV: part 3, by Edward King

#adventure #crystal dragon

“Alex!” Hammer called.

“Emily!” said Emily. “Hammer?”

“Emily?” said Hammer.

“I go by Emily now,” said Emily.

“Oh. …Why?” said Hammer.

“Because I want to.”

“Huh. Okay.”

“It was my mother’s name. Well—her Chinese name. Well—it’s what my Dad called her.”

“Huh.”

“艾美丽. (Ài měi lì). It means beautiful, sort of. It’s the Chinese version of the name Emily. He couldn’t really say her real Chinese name.”

“Oh. …What are you doing here?” said Hammer.

“I’m a photographer,” she said. “I came here to document the sex trade.”

“The what?”

“Oh, don’t be naive. Don’t you see what this is?”

She gestured around at the gaudy mural of a naked woman on the wall; the women’s skimpy clothing.

Suddenly it became clear to Hammer as well. He turned to Laser; Laser blushed.

Fen Yi walked into the room.

“Fen Yi!” said Emily, warmly.

“艾美丽!” said Fen Yi.

They conferred in Chinese, speaking faster than Hammer could understand. Their voices seemed to wrap around each other, like two friendly dragons playing in the sky, or two strands of DNA. Hammer focused on Emily: strong-legged, strong willed, and then Fen Yi: thin, timid, but equally as strong somewhere deep down. She would come out of this okay.

The grey-eyed man rushed into the room, swinging his arms in rage.

“I told you to get to WORK!” he said.

Fen Yi turned to Emily and then back to the grey-eyed man. She assumed a strong stance, her legs apart and her arms in fists at her sides.

“No!” she said. “I’m not your property.”

It was only as she said this the grey-eyed man seemed to notice the presence of Hammer, Laser, and Emily. His rage seemed to leave his body in thick flames.

“外国人,” he said (“foreigners”)—partly to Fen Yi, partly to himself.

The grey-eyed man frowned. He seemed to be deciding what to do. Then he smiled.

He reached across his body to lift his shirt-sleeve up. Hammer noticed that one of the fingers was missing on the hand that lifted up the sleeve.

Two characters were tattooed on his upper arm: “灵大.”

Laser’s eyes widened. “We need to go,” he said.

The grey-eyed man started to laugh. He fell into the chair behind him and lost himself in laughter as he pulled a cellphone from his jacket pocket.

Clouds brewed above as Hammer, Laser, Emily, and Fen Yi thundered down the KTV’s concrete steps. The light was fading, but the street was suffused with a green glow. A dragon hovered above them in the street.

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The Crystal Dragon: KTV, part 2, by Edward King

#adventure #crystal dragon

Hammer and Laser walked up the stairs into the purple light.
The sign above the door read “KTV.” Months worth of dust from the road covered the sign.

They entered the door and walked up a flight of stairs to the lobby. The purple light intensified.

The lobby contained a fish tank, an empty counter, and a bench under which lay multiple pairs of rubber slippers.
Where are we? said Hammer.
Laser shrugged innocently.

Fen Yi rushed out from the back.
“Welcome!” she said. “We’ll be with you in a minute. Would you like a cup of tea?”
%
A litany of women slept amongst blankets and pillows on couches and the floor. A bouquet of flowers lay falling apart.
Purple light fell onto the women, fell onto the canister of film.
Emily Long popped off the lid of the canister and took the roll of film out.
She loaded the roll of film into the camera and closed the camera.
Her camera would bring freedom.
Emily pointed, framed the shot, and took the picture.

%
Fen Yi led Hammer and Laser past the counter, deeper into the purple light. They came walked past a room with an open door. When they peeked in, they found it filled with resting women. Laser eyed the women curiously. Hammer looked around the room until he saw—
“Alex!” he called.
The wooden steps that led up to her door.

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The Crystal Dragon: KTV, part 1

#adventure #crystal dragon

New to The Crystal Dragon? Catch up here!

Fen Yi watched the dirt run off the potatoes. The water washed it down into the drain, the same as yesterday, and innumerable days before that.

A purple light spilled out into the alleyway.

“Come inside!” said a voice from within.

Fen Yi sighed deeply. “Coming!” she said. It would be him again: the one that kept her here. She picked up the knife and held it underneath the bowl of potatoes.

She walked in through the smudged glass back door, holding the knife and bowl of wet potatoes.

The walls leading to the kitchen were decorated with paintings of flowers she had bought from the artists’ school by the city wall.

A man with grey hair and one grey, opaque eye stormed up the stairs behind Fen Yi. As she put the bowl of the potatoes down, he poked his head into the kitchen, sweating.

“再晚,” he said. (You’re late.)

“知道了,” (I know), she said, under her breath. She gripped the knife firmly as she peeled and sliced the potatoes.

“你看一个外国人了吗?” he said.
She shrugged sarcastically. Had she seen a foreigner? Of course she hadn’t.
The grey-eyed man stormed out of the kitchen. Fen Yi filled a pan with oil and tipped the cut potatoes in. They crackled joyfully inside the pan.
The grey-eyed man grabbed the pan from her hands.
“Get out front!” he yelled.

Fen Yi dropped the pan and rushed into the lobby.

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The Crystal Dragon, Part 11: Chase, by Edward King

#adventure #china #crystal dragon

LAST TIME, ON THE CRYSTAL DRAGON: OUR HEROES, Hammer and Laser, meet in an Internet cafe to discuss the “Cloud Mafia”—a band of criminal elements controlling the mining of the metals used to make phones and computers, those essential pieces of our modern lives—but their talk is interrupted by a mysterious grey-eyed man!
Read the past episodes.
Hammer and Laser thundered down the steps of the internet cafe. Behind, the grey-eyed man pursued them.

They crossed the street. A heavy stream of traffic blocked their pursuer.

He had one grey eye and one normal, and wore a dull grey dusty rumpled suit.

He stood there helplessly, blocked by a car.

Time seemed to stop. Though they were far from the ancient city center, Hammer felt that they were in the middle of the city—of the world. The present dilemma a seamless part of the tapestry of his life.

Hammer and Laser stood in a town in the midst of three skyscrapers. Children played in the space underneath the grey buildings housing sixty stories of families. Every necessity for life was there, packed into the corners of the dirty streets. In a general store, Bottles of water and packaged food crammed onto tiny shelves. Cramped Sichuan restaurants served spicy pepper dishes. A cell phone shop, a bank. A basketball court in the concrete lot behind the supermarket. At a table on the street, family sat around a steaming wok filled with peppers, long-stalked mushrooms and potatoes.

He thought of her: Alex. The wooden steps, the falling snow, his beating heart.

His eye caught the pink, shimmering lights of a KTV, a karaoke center.

A scantily-dressed model stood outside. Her sequined pink bra revealed her fleshy stomach.

Hammer thought, inexplicably, of Alex Long. The wooden steps leading up to her apartment.

Her body, sheets and bra, embracing him.

“What are you looking at?” said Laser. “karaoke?”

“No,” said Hammer.

“I don’t think that’s one of the legit ones anyway,” said Laser. “Or—depends what you mean by legit, I guess. It depends what you’re looking for.”

The grey-eyed man appeared atop the stairs. One eye watching them, the other grey, opaque.

“Run!” said Laser.

They ran through the smoky streets between the skyscrapers. Past a karaoke bar where skinny women stood below gauzy pink lights illuminating the street. Down concrete stairs.

They hopped across a board between two roofs.

The grey-eyed man behind them reached into his coat. When he withdrew his hand, it held a dull grey revolver.

“Duck!” yelled Laser.

Hammer ducked. A shower of sparks rained from the fire escape above his head.

They ran down the concrete stairs. Laser bumped a wok, launching food into the air.

The peppers landed on the grey man’s face.

“AHHH!” he yelled. “MY EYE!”

Hammer and Laser sprinted down the street.

“Sorry!” He yelled back, still running.

They were back outside the KTV again.

“In here,” said Laser.

They ducked into the entrance and ascended a set of glimmering LED-lit stairs.

“Who was that?” said Hammer.

“We just call him Mr. Grey,” said Laser. “He more or less runs the rare earth mining operation in this province.”

“That was your boss?”

“I don’t think I’m employed there any more,” said Laser.

Midway up the stairs, they stopped.

“I thought I saw her!” said Hammer.

“Who?”

“Alex Long. My ex.”

The wooden steps that led to her front door. The white snow falling softly on the stairs.

They continued up the KTV’s glimmering stairs.

In the inner entrance stood someone.

Alex! Hammer thought. At last!

But it wasn’t wasn’t Alex. It was—

粉一, she said.

Her skimpy clothing shimmered in the light.

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The Crystal Dragon, Part 10: Internet Cafe, by Edward King

#adventure #crystal dragon

Hammer stood on the bus, holding the handle, swaying only slightly side to side at the bus’s violent stops and starts as it wove among disorderly lanes of traffic into the city.
He watched the tired faces of the people on the bus. They were a mix of laborers and office workers. A man wearing a rumpled shirt got up to let an old lady sit down. She smiled and thanked him.
The bus passed under red archways on the way into the city. The words passed by too fast of Hammer to understand. Billboards promoted engineering projects and the “Chinese dream” over photoshopped images of giant malls and industrial parks.
A sign read “Xi’an: 10 km.” Hammer closed his eyes and tried to get some sleep on his feet.
%%
The internet cafe was up four flights of dirty, graffiti-soaked stairs. Hammer was supposed to meet Laser here two minutes ago.
The girl at the front desk gave Hammer a sour look.
“Do you have an ID card?” she said.
“No,” Hammer said. “Do I look like I’m Chinese?”
“No ID card, no the computer,” said the girl.
Hammer was getting ready to put up a fight when Laser appeared from the stairs. “Forget about it,” he said. The front desk girl rolled her eyes, lit a cigarette, and returned to her screen.
Rows of teenagers sat along the internet cafe’s tables, wearing headsets. Rapt with concentration, taking breaks only when absolutely necessary. Cans of soda and styrofoam noodle cups sat half-eaten by their keyboards.
They sat down at a table with two computers in a quiet corner.
“Would you like some tea?” Laser asked.
He got a pot from the front, took the teapot poured the steaming neon-green stuff into plastic cups for Hammer and himself.
“I normally drink Pepsi but I know you guys like to experience the real China.”
“You guys?”
“Americans. Laowai.” He looked from side to side as he said this, as if he was suddenly self-conscious to be seen with an American.
“So, you’re working for an American company up in the mountains,” said Laser. “You must work for Nexus, right?”
“That’s right,“ said Hammer.
“The largest internet provider in the world. And now you’re penetrating China.”
“Yep.”
“And it’s for free, as long as it comes with a Nexus home screen. Nexus apps, Nexus store, all lines of profit going back to Nexus.”
“Hey, man, it’s just a job,” said Hammer.
“I’m just giving you crap,” said Laser. “Your Chinese is not bad, by the way. How long have you lived here for?”
“Two years,” said Hammer.
They had been slipping between Chinese and English through the conversation. Laser’s English sounded cribbed from American movies, with a twangy accent laden with slang.
Around them, the blue light of the screens reflected on the faces of the youths. They were taking valuable hours away from their studies to immerse themselves completely in the game.
Their eyes lit up with wondrous colors from the screens. Adventure, competition, victory.
Hammer eyed Laser’s clothes. They were cheap knockoffs, the kind you bought in past-their-prime malls that packed hundreds of clothes stores into their grimy colorful alleyways.
“So you work for the cloud,” said Laser. “Me too.” He grimaced.
“How’s that?” said Hammer
“Rare earth metals,” he said. “Mining.”
Suddenly it became clear in Hammer’s head. The explosion, Laser’s shadiness. He searched for his phone in his pocket and began mentally composing a text to Kip:
He’s with the cloud mafia!
That was what Hammer and Kip had taken to calling the rare earth miners. The mafia controlled the industry, exploiting others’ labor to extract the minerals that went to create the chips in our phones and computers.
An alarm bell sounded in his head: they were dangerous. He eyed Laser more closely. He had slicked-back hair over shaved sides, and wore a thin tough look as he put a cigarette to his lips. He tried to project world-weariness, but Hammer guessed they were the same age.
Hammer looked past the young boy leading an aerial assault on a European village to the front of the cafe.
Wait. Over by the counter. Was that—
Her! Alex Long. The wooden steps that led to her apartment. The mix of emotions they brought back: lust, adventure, trepidation, love. He’d left them far behind.
The girl holding the notebook at the front of the cafe could have been her. But he thought he saw her everywhere. Every Chinese woman the right age…
Laser saw him looking and turned around. He jumped, spilling his tea on the table and Hammer’s lap.
“We have to go,” said Laser. “We were followed. They must have seen me talking to you outside the mine.”
When Hammer looked up, the girl was gone but a man wearing a dark suit watched them. One of his eyes was normal and one was a dull grey.
They left the back way, keeping their heads low. Laser thundered down the steps, with Hammer close behind.

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The Crystal Dragon, Part 9: Qinlings, by Edward King

#adventure #crystal dragon

Some time has passed since our heroes and heroines’ training in Siberia. Out in the world, with Oilberger and Siberia far behind him, Ben Hammer embarks on a new adventure…
From the top of the radio tower, Hammer scanned the mountains. They were blanketed by an impossible green.
He thought back on what had brought him here. What seemed real, what seemed unreal. Siberia. The fire. Hartman’s voice calling through the flames.
He watched a hawk, a speck, circling below.
He wondered, briefly, what Alex was doing now. Back home, it was night time on Sunday. She would just be making dinner. Something cheap and simple simple—a chicken quesadilla or some noodles. In the distance, the same sun he’d left in Colorado hung behind Mount Hua.
Suddenly, he heard a boom below.
Thick black smoke rose up amongst the green.
He radioed down to the outpost, which looked the size of a Monopoly house below him.
“Hey, Kip,” he radioed down. “I’m seeing some black smoke somewhere on the other side of the village. Any idea what that could be?”
“I don’t know, I just saw it too.” said Kip. “Wanna go check it out?”
”Sounds dangerous.”
Hammer met Kip down at the base of the tower, where orange butterflies circled above the ground. A stray dog sniffed at the wild strawberries that ran along the path.
They walked down the path, past laborers carrying mechanical parts and farmers carrying wicker baskets and tanks of water.
Kip had curly hair and an always-earnest face. The strong jaw that had blessed Hammer had never suited his personality, he thought.
“Should we wait for Gordon?” said Hammer.
“It’s up to you,” said Kip. “He won’t be back til night, I bet. By the time he gets there it might be hard to find the source of the smoke. If we go a little bit closer and watch from a good vantage point we should be safe.”
“Sounds to me like you’re the EXPERT, Kip,” said Hammer.

They set off on the pathway into town. They passed day laborers, shirtless, carrying shovels, into rice fields.
“It looked like it was just past the village,” said Hammer.
A highway ran along the river, and the village had grown alongside it. Blue motorcycles hauled wood and baskets of fruit along the road. Trash and liquor bottles littered the shore of the river.
They passed rows of concrete brick houses. All had red doors and most bore a large sticker of the character for “luck” upside-down. Tired laborers passed, sitting in truck beds and crammed into buses, squinting over cigarettes. The sky was blue above the little town.
They passed the junior high, its concrete block-built buildings painted blue, a basketball match in session under the noon sun.
Older kids waited in line for bowls of noodles in plastic bags outside shops, some with ornate golden characters carved above the entryway.
A Chinese man in his twenties crossed them on the path. He was about their age. He eyed them suspiciously.
“You shouldn’t go past here,” he said.
“What’s going on?” said Kip
“Listen. I need to get back to town,” said the stranger.
“You work here in the village?”
“No, town meaning Xi’an. I’m just an inspector here. …Listen, I’ve already said too much.”
He seemed determined to set off on his way, before he changed his mind. He pulled a card from his wallet.
“Meet me here tomorrow morning at 11. I’ll explain then.”
The card read:
“Laser Xu, cloud engineer. LUCKY 8 INTERNET BAR.”
But he must have given them the wrong one by accident. The card was crumpled and worn, not the kind of fresh business card you would hand to a client. And where the card should have read “cloud engineer,” a word was scratched out and rewritten to read:
“CLOUD MAFIA.”

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The Crystal Dragon, Part Eight, by Edward King

#crystal dragon

Walking through the snow to Educational Building 2, Hammer had been expecting to find some kind of state college-administrative seating but found instead the yellowed modern of a Soviet-era lecture hall. Rows of seats divided by an aisle sloped down to a stage at the front of the room. A projector hung from the ceiling, pointing towards a screen.

The hall was quiet. A squat, bald man stood up on stage. He looked very nervous.

“Greetings,” he began. “I am Ron Dartle.” He cleared his throat. “In light of recent events,” he continued, “we thought it wise to remind our recruits of the history of the company in whose halls they are assembled. And so, in that spirit–and, in a happy coincidence, fulfilling several HR requirements we were truly behind on–I give you, the history of Oilberger!”

The projector above their heads sputtered into life.

“Founded in 1995 by Adam Hartman, a wealthy industrialist,” the bald man began.

Hammer noticed a pretty figure, listening intently. She had a defiant look in her eyes. She wore a black cardigan and her shoulders were slightly hunched.

A picture appeared on the projector of a handsome man shaking hands with George Bush, Sr.

“Hartman famously went through a meteoric rise after his service in the First Gulf War,“ the man on stage continued.

The girl in the black cardigan stood up.

“I’m sorry, but this is bullshit,” she said.
“Ramona, sit down,” said the decidedly more conventional-looking girl sitting next to her.

“No. I’m not going to listen to this shit any more. A dragon just appeared out of nowhere in the dorms, zapped one of our coworkers with a lazer, and disappeared. Are we just ignoring that?”

“I assure you, that incident will be taken care of post-haste,” said the man on stage, mopping his brow.

“Post-haste? Who says that? Are you a human being or some kind of PR machine?

“Ramona–sit down!” the other girl was hissing at her now.

“I will not sit down! –Not until we get some answers,” she said.

“I’m–I am giving you answers,” said the man on stage, “I’m simply not permitted to–”

“Quiet!” said a voice from the back of the hall.

The recruits turned around in their seats.

At the back of the hall stood a man with a handsome face and a full beard.

The man onstage, Dartle, began to sputter so much he looked like a pot bubbling over.

“Mr–Mr. Hartman!”

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