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The Night of Flame and Secrets

Guest WYN100

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Continues on from 'The NEXT Day'

The clutch of Hunter family faces in the corridor were trying to digest the gravity of what Flynn was telling them..

“Now Henry suffered a powerful impact to the side of the head in the accident . We’ve mainly been able to stem the internal bleeding, and..â€

“MAINLY ?!†cut in Kit – “And what the hell’s THAT supposed to mean ..?†, but before her banks of anger could burst again, she was halted by a restraining hand on the shoulder from her mother. “Go on, Flynn….â€

“Well, like I say, we’ve mainly been able to stem the internal bleeding – but the problem is the blood thinning medication’s being held up by..†–he halted doubtfully for a moment..â€Just lay it on the line Flynn !†, cut in Kit, her cheeks again flaming red - “Well, there’s some clear evidence Henry’s been using some fairly strong illegal substances, and that’s slowing the process quite considerably..â€

As Beth breathed in hard through her nose, a light of connection flashed on in Kit’s mind – she swivelled round- both hands on hips- to confront the under-fire Rhys. Avoiding her accusing glare, he wondered whether the hospital did any special deals on quick-opening holes to swallow one up….

Perhaps it was police instinct , perhaps it was her already-pale features , ruffled hair and hunted expression, but Peter had sensed within minutes that all wasn’t well in the world of Josie.

He’d been willing – just- to accept her surprise and shock at news of the fire – even though the sirens of the Yabbie Creek engine would have streamed their haunting echo through the road adjoining her house less than 15 minutes before.

“So you’ve heard from no-one at all this evening ?â€

“No –“ shot back her reply – rather too quickly –“no I haven’t – it’s a total shock to me.â€

“Ok – nor Jesse ?†She gave a start at the mention of his name and Peter’s glance became even more piercing.

“No – I – I don’t actually know where he is..â€

Peter frowned questioningly “Josie – its close to 1 o’clock in the morning – he’s NOT down at the fire – and you DON’T know where he is ?†Peter’s mind was racing now – something about this didn’t add up – most particularly, WHY didn’t this woman seem intent on rushing straight to the site of her business which she'd’just been told was being torn apart by fire….?

The Yabbie Creek crew were probing the fire with a grim and silent determination, breaking only momentarily to take a few welcome steps back from the searing radiated heat inside the building. A small crowd of morbidly interested locals had continued to watch events, the latest arrival being Barry Hyde. He immediately sought out Alf and took him by the arm to pass on his commiserations – struggling as others before him to get heard above the daunting noise cocktail of engine , hose and flames he boomed “ So very sorry – any idea yet how it started ?†Alf acknowledged the sentiments briefly but a weary shake of the head was all he could manage to the question about the fire’s mystery origin. That was a question MANY would like answered.

Hyde wandered off – shocking as news of the blaze had been, at least it had given him the chance to take his mind off the issue with Irene –he’d thought of little else for a number of days – and it would need tackling with little further delay…

Osbourne’s voice was a deep well of controlled fury “How in the HELL could you be so stupid Haslam ? I brief you to the tiniest detail about what’ll happen and what happens – you chase out like a child’s tea-party crowd at the first load of baloney some con-man feeds you down the phone – armed siege my eye !! How long have you BEEN in the force Haslam, 18 years or 5 minutes ? I’ve waited YEARS to fry this fish, and now….â€

He paused – struck by a thought that at least gave the unfortunate Haslam’s eardrums a little respite – but only a little..

“What I want to know is WHO could have known the exact time and day to send you on a wild goose chase ? His eyes darted angrily about the room before suddenly alighting on a file at the top end of the desk, labelled “Stafford McRae “ – Osbourne thought quickly – HE’D been the ONLY one who’d taken the proposal to Kane and Kirsty Phillips…â€Wait for my call†his clipped tones dismissed Haslam as the cellphone bleeped off. So – McRae fancied double-crossing him..? Then he’d soon learn the error of his ways he thought - his brow furrowing grimly..

The stunned disbelief that had temporarily paralysed Joe Austin to the spot at the edge of the woods approaching the Surf Club had moved swiftly and decisively into an adrenaline-pumped flight from the area . His thoughts were a crazy morass of panic, relief, and sheer naked fear. Aware that despite the early hour of the morning, Summer Bay residents were assembling from far and wide to see the town’s centrepiece disintegrate, he knew that in his dark clothing and carrying the flame accelerant in his bag, he was in an extremely compromising position should he be discovered. He intended to head straight for the hire car he’d left some distance away beyond the first curl of the coast road, and assess exactly what version of events to report back to his blackmailing puppetmaster Duncan. Unfortunately for those plans, two incidents at that moment threw them astray. True to the strictly precise timekeeping he’d shown during his developing hate campaign against the Bay, Austin’s cellphone shrilled out the Eminem ringtone that indicated the dreaded transatlantic call, while in the same instant there was a collective sharp intake of breath plus cry of horror from the crowd of fire-watchers. Torn between the two distractions, Austin unwisely attempted to keep running with his head craned back over his shoulder, AND trying to silence the cellphone. The course of action predictably and swiftly hit both disaster – and something far more solid. “Why on EARTH don’t you look where you’re going..!†snapped a severe voice with which Austin somehow felt strangely familiar even at that moment of crisis.

He soon knew why. With the unexplained shockwaves still reverberating through the crowd around 800 or so yards away behind him, he soon felt a few of his own, as he and his unintended crash victim fumbled their way back up to their feet. He glanced up from attempting to retrieve his incriminating bag which had been bumped clear and almost forced open by the impact – and found himself looking into the face of Morag Bellingham……

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The radio-alarm clock on the side table showed 1-34 as Kirsty shot bolt upright in bed. She’d awoken suddenly from a tangled technicolour dream pumped through with varying images – the weird- of Irene in a chauffeur’s hat driving Stafford McRae’s top of the range sports car over the Sydney Harbour Bridge – the disturbing – the sneering, snarling Gus Phillips dressed in a Summer Bay Surf Club t-shirt and running a one-man marathon that kept ending at the Beach House kitchen table – but ultimately the reassuring – herself and Kane regally dressed and sharing tea in the huge garden of a hillside mansion while a butler with a striking resemblance to Ian Osbourne carried out a tray of sandwiches. She smiled and eased steadily back into the comforting hug of her pillows. It was all going to be alright, she reflected sleepily – after all the two of them had been through, they deserved the future that tonight would bring them….

“Are you TOTALLY crazy ?†hissed Kane , struggling against the powerful grip of his brother and acutely aware of the firearm gripped just inches away from him. “That’s Josie Russell’s house – Peter Baker’s just headed there – she’ll have Jesse alongside – and after everything we’re just going to walk straight IN there ?â€

“Just button it,†snapped back Scott, swatting aside the rough serrated leaves of the bush that were beginning to scar his arm. “What you’re FORGETTING little bro is that we didn’t actually DO anything there tonight !.†– and, adding before Kane could cut in ..â€I know we WERE going to, but when that guy – whoever the hell he was –slithered out of that window juggling lit matches , then nuh-uh, nooo thank you !â€

Neither of the Phillips brothers had any idea who the fleeing firebug might have been, but Kane’s priority was now detaching himself from this unravelling situation as quickly as possible. A cold grim hand currently redecorating the pit of his stomach was telling him that would be NO easy task..

Events at the fire-scene had sprung shockingly to life again, leading to the earlier sounds of shock and fear that had shot through the assembled group as quickly as the ravenous flames. Workers and spectators alike had shared one consolation alike – that they were at least battling to save an empty building – with no-one trapped inside. That illusion had been blown aside with the arrival at high speed of Kim Hyde –unlike the other residents who’d assembled open-mouthed and disbelieving, he’d approached the surf club from the rear, and arrived with feverish yells of “THERE’S SOMEONE IN THERE !†Pausing for the briefest time he panted out “ I saw therer was a light in the back changing room – thought nothing of it – but you know it’s a slight hill – could just see him – someone - lying there – I’m going in !†And he sprinted back round the side of the building – the implications of what they’d heard and seen only just descending upon them. As Kim’s father Barry emerged from a 10 second paralysis of shocked horror , his desperate and haunting cry of “ KIM – NOO†was diluted to near silence by a thunderous crash of glass and masonry from the rear of the property..

Gus Phillips wiped his mouth clear of lager drops with the palm of his hand and aimed the crushed and empty can into the well-tended garden of one of the houses past which he was walking . His thoughts towards his two sons and about his actions of earlier that evening became increasingly savage and complacent as he continued to wander aimlessly, steadily fuelled by the six-pack of the cheap brew he carried with him. “THAT’ll have shown them..†he muttered randomly “ Him with his fancy little wife an- an – airs and graces – and the other mongrel – I’ll – what’d EITHER of them ever do for ME anyway ?â€

He sat down on a red-brick wall to yank at the ring-pull of another can, but as he paused , something was attempting to pierce the alcohol fumes and bitterness clogging the path between his mind and the real world. What WAS it ? He breathed deeply for a moment, then like a Grand Prix starting flag dropping, he realised –he KNEW that car – the sleek two door soft-top parked on the gravel drive of the house opposite. And – the further assistance his cloudy wits needed came in the shape of the registration plate – STAFF18 – it was that guy who’d manhandled him out of the beachouse a night or two previously ! He’d seen the car as he’s loitered outside eavesdropping – and even HE didn’t forget a plate like that . Phillips had inadvertently stumbled on the townhouse used by Stafford McCrae when he wasn’t staying over at the Osbourne mansion. He hauled himself up, cans in hand and began to shamble unsteadily across the road. He parted his grubbily unshaven lips in a smile of anticipation. This guy must be loaded, he told himself – this guy who tossed you around..†Revenge and profit were on the mind of Kane’s father as – unknown to him – he became the SECOND person to take a very close interest in the affairs of Stafford McRae within the last two moonlit and smoke-charred hours..

Peter Baker was becoming frustrated now. As 2am approached he wanted to either be at home in bed or down at the fire-scene, not in Josie Russell’s living room, where the sound of her feet-dragging was becoming almost audible. He believed on balance that she didn’t know where Jesse was and that puzzled him too, but he was also all but certain that she was hiding something too, and that kind of deception always made him fietcely determined to uncover the truth.

“Look Josie, I think the very best thing is if we both get in my car and head for the surf club – any tiny detail you can think of , however small, could help us get this thing sorted out…†Struck by a sudden thought, he added “ I remember hearing something about how the accounts weren’t holding up so well at Noah’s these last few months, Josie….?†She paused in the act of pulling on her coat and spun round, cheeks flaming with hot indignation – “if you’re suggesting for ONE minute…†– but before Peter’s unspoken hints could be probed any further, both were semi-startled by a bubble of music that cut across the tense and thickly silent atmosphere – it was the ringtone from her mobile phone. The looks of both tacitly acknowledged that any call received at 2am is a little out of the ordinary – and not surprisingly she snatched hard at the handset, jabbed the button and urgently began intoning “hello..?? hello ..?†Her initial bemused look to Peter indicated confusion as to the caller , but within seconds held up the palm of her hand and mouthed incredulously…â€I can hear Jesse’s voice ! – I’m SURE it’s him.., but not talking to me….â€

Peter stepped smartly forwards, but before he could claim the phone from her to check out what seemed a rather unlikely claim, the sound of the bay window being slipped smartly up became yet another call on their attention, and urgently so. – as their heads moved in unified reaction to the noise, they were facing the barrel of a gun……

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**PART 3**

Rhys uttered the kind of sigh that would send loose lotto tickets flying across a kitchen table and began the task of trying to verbally unpick the chain of events that had got him to this point.

“I know you’ll find this hard to believe Beth…â€

“Got that one right..†angrily snorted Kit, slumped wearily on seats nearby with Robbie and Matilda..

Easing past the interruption, he continued

“Well, you remember when my brother Pete ran out on Max, and he had to stay at the caravan park…?â€

“Yes…†said Beth slowly…†He owed money, and those guys were chasing him, right…?â€

“Right..†replied Rhys, aware of 4 pairs of Hunter eyes and ears now squarely centred on his account as Henry battled for life a few doors distant in the high dependency ward. “But after that it gets VERY complicated “ The insistent, grinding tick of the second hand on the waiting room clock grew starker with every second it carved out nearer the facts they were all waiting for him to deliver…

“The truth to me looks extremely simple Mr Austin..†Despite the advanced lateness of the hour, Morag was /slipping seamlessly into her prosecutor’s role – “we’re standing yards away from a hazardous inferno which could cause major damage to life and limb, and I find you hurrying the other way, dressed in black and with – with THESE in your bag ..†She swooped like a heron triumphantly pouching the choicest fish on the top wave and rose flourishing a box of matches and spray-can of fire accelerant ..â€Doesn’t exactly look great, now does it !!â€

Austin gave an experimental wriggle, but realised with a dip of spirit that Morag’s grip was as tight as the forbidding frown lines adorning her forehead. “I think you’ve got a LOT of explaining to do – don’t you ?†Austin rolled his eyes and prayed for inspiration – on THAT point, they were both agreed….

Daulby stirred fitfully in a sleep made significantly lighter by the bitterly acrid layers of smoke now sweeping their way under the changing room door like car-tyres driving thick envelopes of rainspray towards the kerb during a downpour . But even that superficial layer of rest was to be torn from him. Within a few seconds of unfathomable bedlam, firstly the wall-panels above him began to give way and drop floor-wards, then, as if from nowhere, the figure of Kim Hyde clad in a large, soaked peach towel was looming above him and booming “ Daulby – get yourself SHIFTED ! – and NOW !!â€

“W-what.,.h-how -? “ the questions seemed to stick to Daulby’s lips like a piece of chewing gum with survival training. But – from somewhere deep within a primitive instinct kicked in, and dipping his head low alongside Kim headed for the smoke-laden corridor.

“There’s a small delivery door right by the shower block†Kim bawled without diverting his head “It’s starting to give way but I got in there , and if we….†His sentence was amputated by the wrenching crash of falling brickwork….and all was again quiet but for the spit and snarl of the flames..

Gus Phillips lowered himself in expertly through the casement window at the side of the well-appointed house and dropped with only a minor thud onto the thickly lush carpet of what looked like some kind of study.

As the normal curiosity of the intruder began to ensnare him, he made a quick tour of the room, noting with approval a near-full drinks cabinet , a briefcase that he hoped may contain a wallet or cellphone, and on the lowest of three shelves containing various books and files a weird technical looking gadget he guessed may be one of those ipods he was always hearing about. His face twisted into a smile of satisfaction as he again recalled the way he’d been hurled out of the Beach House days earlier. He was set for a good little haul here, he thought – and that would show Mr McCaig or McKay or whatever his name was..The lateness of the hour was combining with the cheap lager he’d drunk to form a cocktail of fatigue and slow thinking, but even as he gazed foggily around for a bag or other receptacle to start helping himself, he was consoled by the thought of his “host†asleep and unawares somewhere in the upper floors of the house. He’d reckoned without the dedication of the near-workaholic however, and within seconds was having a second opportunity of the week to look at life from the horizontal as in one movement the powerful forearm of Stafford McRae encircled his neck and drove him hard down onto the office-desk in the corner…. The events of this many-layered night were moving at a bewildering pace..

Peter motioned almost imperceptibly for Josie to keep her cellphone in her hand despite the new, sudden and alarming turn to their evening. She needed no second bidding, as by now she was almost suffocating with curiosity to learn of Jesse’s whereabouts and what story lay behind his infuriatingly distant tones being only just audible and in conversation with person or persons unknown on her mobile. She lowered the phone carefully to the hip region still straining hard to collect any clue from the faintly hissing soundtrack emerging from the phone..

She and Peter were staring with tense apprehension at the window where the holder of the firearm Scott Phillips was making his entrance – a combined “ You – what the…†emitted from Peter and Josie who were already being motioned into a corner of the room by the elder Phillips brother. Recognising fairly swiftly who he was dealing with , Peter embarked upon diplomacy . “Look Scott – I think I know what’s been going on – now DON’T make it worse for yourself !â€

“You don’t know DIDDLY cop “ came the reply that somehow Scott wasn’t wholly ready for the diplomatic approach. As his eye alighted on Josie , he noticed the state-of-the-art cellphone clutched tightly in her left hand. “Looks VERY nice I reckon – hand it over !†At that moment Josie would rather have had the fillings pulled from her teeth without anaesthetic sooner than surrender her one thin if baffling link to Jesse’s whereabouts, so stood squarely in defiance of the intruder, ready to defend her property. And – it was as his wrist closed roughly around her forearm that the so-far silent spectator of this scene could remain quiet no longer- Kane flew from the look-out post he’d been assigned by his brother and hurled himself through the open window. Josie staggered back from the impact but Peter moved to intervene in the developing brawl – for a period of seconds the room blurred to a collage of arms, legs, threats and screams --- then the sound of a gunshot split the rising spiral of noise --- and all fell silent…

As the drama of the surf club fire was being played out in Summer Bay, by contrast along the coast , the Sands Resort seemed more than ever to be an oasis of tranquility. Such was the case at the night-time admissions desk as the clerk was checking in a tall, strawberry blonde lady of around 27 years old . “You in the region for business or pleasure ?†came his predictable question. The woman – attractive but with lines of fatigue under her eyes and across the cheeks gave a short, dry laugh “ Well I guess you could say both…â€

“Heading anywhere special ?†enquired the conversationalist as he closed the admissions book –

“Only Summer Bay†she responded --- stooping to her left to pick up a yawning 5 year old boy - “there’s someone we both need to see…..â€

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**PART 4**

Ian Osbourne drove through the leafy lanes and well-ordered streets of the more up-market far northern region of Summer By, tucked elegantly in a fold between the village cove and the Sands Resort area

The fact that the time was well after 3am mattered little or nothing to him as his controlled fury rose towards boiling point. He didn’t measure his days by time, more by what needed to be done – and right now that was a confrontation with Stafford McCrae. So – his number 2 was biting the hand that had fed him so well and so thoroughly, was he ? In Osbourne’s linear mind, the personal assistant was the ONLY person who possessed the knowledge needed to have sent Sergeant Haslam and his squad on a fool’s errand at the vital moment when they should have been at the Surf Club arresting Scott Phillips and clearing Kane. He couldn’t imagine WHY McRae should have done such a thing, but he intended to find out. He steered his car into the drive of McRae’s townhouse and settled it behind the owner’s vehicle. As he got out of the car he noticed there was a light on in the downstairs rear – interesting….Taking a few steps he heard voices coming out of that room’s window …. Even more interesting……

Rhys was aware that some of the early scepticism about his story was beginning to melt , so forged ahead while the stage was clear of interruption..

“So I heard that Pete had ended up in Perth but the money side of things hadn’t got any better… and then….â€

“And then what, Rhys ?†gently asked Matilda, who’d been the quietest of all the Hunters so far during the tempestuous evening, night and now early morning that they’d all endured

A deep sigh from Rhys – “Well – it’s not something you like to hear or think about your own brother – but I got wind of this rumour he’d become involved in drug-pushing – and a big-scale operation too..â€

Beth and Kit exchanged a swift glance, both mouthing at once “Henry…..?â€

Rhys went on…â€I HEARD that he’d been given charge of this area because he knew it already- so I thought the ONLY thing I could do would be to come and dig around and see what I could find out – and try to drag him OUT of the whole thing…! The Hunters sagged back into their chairs, trying to digest what they’d just heard. “Well, .†said Beth after a heavy pause “ I guess that’s a bit clearer….â€

They exchanged glances and stares as if to confirm their mother’s point of view – before Kit seemed struck by a sudden thought – “Yes – but that doesn’t explain EVERYTHING – what about your sharp suits – flashy car – all this business with sneering at Jesse every five minutes ? As I recall you weren’t exactly ROLLING in it when you flounced off back to your precious Shelley now were you ? What’s going on there then ??â€

Rhys stifled an inner groan – explaining about his brother had been one thing…..

He was saved a further cross-examination though as a door lower down the corridor swung open – there was clearly more news of Henry…..

When Morag Bellingham had demanded of Joe Austin “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t march you straight to the nearest police station, “, his under-siege mind had briefly flirted with asking whether she’d allow him to ask the audience currently assembled to watch the drama of the fire – but one look at the sternest, even sourest face with which she was observing him, plus his own desire to be anywhere else but there in the world at that moment assured him that it wasn’t the time or situation into which to be injecting humour of any kind.

As he bent low under Morag’s barked order to pick up his rucksack, his mind was racing for an “exit strategy†from a night which had hi-jacked him with unwelcome surprises at every turn.

And then it struck him almost out of nowhere – the very leeway he needed – and it had been staring him in the face . He straightened slowly, and attempting to keep the thumping of his heart in check, looked her squarely in the eye and said “Judge Bellingham, I think we need to have a little talk…..â€

A glance that would have disconcerted a newly sharpened knife was his only reply…..

Josie crumpled to one of the satin-bound cushions of her living-room sofa and clamped her eyes shut. I just don’t BELIEVE today – it CAN’T be happening “ she intoned in stunned disbelief.

The mobile connection that had offered her a thin clue to the mysterious whereabouts of Jesse had gone dead during the pandemonium, but the wild events that had unfolded in front of her had – if it was possible – temporarily relegated that concern to second place in her life priority list.

She ventured a glance across the room – deserted now – but shivered slightly at the sight of the upended armchair, the ragged chaos of cushions and magazines plus the damp stains now topping the carpet like mini-boating lakes where her previously full wine-glass had been projected during the struggle.

And then – a minor glow of relief – the lights in Peter Baker’s squad car leapt to attention and all at once glowed in a strangely reassuring way through the big bay window as he bundled the injured Scott Phillips into the front seat and prepared to head him back to the town for questioning. The moment where the buller had torn free and sliced into his right arm was frozen into her memory – almost in slow motion Kane and Peter had prised the gun from him and bundled him outside still cursing and threatening reprisals – especially to his brother. Through the glass, Josie saw Peter motion Kane to enter the back seat of the car, and with one thunderous plunge of the accelerator, all three were gone.

Her mind was a precise split of relief and apprehension as events thudded erratically inside her skull – the first because Peter’s ferreting questions about her knowledge of the fire would now at worst be postponed - the second because she was no nearer discovering the truth about Jesse’s whereabouts - - she eyed the cellphone that had earlier seemed to hold a vital clue – why didn’t he just ring AGAIN ??

All was chaos at the side of the Surf Club as the first suggestions of dawn began to prickle the corners of the sky. Torrents of smoke cascaded from the area where Kim had entered in search of Daulny and where the sickening masonry crash of minutes earlier had at a stroke dissected the awe-struck hum of conversation among the waiting crowd and sent a contingent of the rescue services pounding in pursuit of the apparent new crisis.

Few had believed Kim really would attempt to challenge the flame-lashed building alone – there was now cause indeed to regret such scepticism. Barry Hyde led the way – he for one had feared his son really would defy both the elements and all common sense – and struggling to make himself heard over a cacophony of competing noise, pulled the arm of the deputy fire officer and yelled “Is there any sign….?†The fireman barely registered the request, preferring instead to take immediate stock of the scene and bark urgently into his radio foe back-up from those battling the blaze at the front.

Then – a further blur peppered with random shouts – “Wait – lift it, lift it, QUICK – No, yes—YES – move them – QUICK…†– And as Alf Stewart thundered into view from around the corner a rare moment to savour in what had seemed a cruelly long night “Flamin heck – Eric – what the….†He gave a lunge of grateful relief towards the figures of Kim and his grandson – both somehow still breathing and miraculously freed from the teeth of the furnace that had been consuming the building – but as he stooped to take Daulby’s hand he at once pulled up short clutching the top of his left arm- his knees crumpled and yet another cry broke loose “Quick – I think he’s having a heart attack……!â€

The latest overnight arrival at the Sands Resort had been the first guest to come down for and finish breakfast the following morning. The blonde lady who’d survived the night clerk’s deadening brand of nocturnal small talk was looking refreshed even from such a brief night’s sleep and was vaguely relieved to see a new staff member on duty behind the desk as she and her young son trotted through reception and down the steps to the car park. It was still some way short of 8 o’clock as they jumped into her car and began to set off along the coast road. The bewilderingly well-behaved youngster popped his head through the gap between the two front seats, and shooting her an irresistibly infectious smile asked “What will we do today then mummy ?â€

“Well Benji,†she replies, tilting her head back a fraction to return the smile as they passed a sign saying †“Summer Bay 3 miles “*

The distant and always ominous tone of a an ambulance siren could just be heard folding into the horizon as she continued “ today…. You could finally get to meet your father………..â€

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