Category: Ghost Stories


Surprises Await

“Emery was running late,” Miles said as he followed Morrissey out of the car. “The only thing we got told was the case was weird. What’s going on?”

“According to people who really should know better, a ghost. We’re supposed to investigate the caverns. Apparently people from the rail company have been attacked by person or persons unknown.” Morrissey paused in his recitation when he noticed the boy was no longer following him. He turned back to frown thoughtfully at the younger Ballard. “Miles?”

“Stevrim Caverns? We’re going in there? Oh, no. No, no, no. I’m waiting in the car. Bring me any trace you want identified.” He was pale but otherwise seemed alright as he spun on his heel and all-but-ran back to the waiting vehicles.

“Miles? Miles!” Morrissey called after him. The teen ignored him and just kept going, however. Shaking his head, Morrissey waved a welcoming arm at Emery. Maybe the elder Ballard would be able to explain the younger’s actions.

**
Emery ran towards where the other forensics wizards were setting up and was surprised to see his brother running the other way. He almost turned and called to the younger boy but Morrissey was waving so fiercely at him, he reconsidered. Instead he ran all the faster to join the supervisor.

“What’s the problem?” Emery asked as he caught up to Morrissey. The rural area they were in, which was surprisingly close to the old Ballard Family homestead, was far from the city but still within their jurisdiction. The forensics team had been called in on what the local people would only describe as a weird case. Emery frowned as he realized where exactly they were. He had a sinking feeling he knew exactly what the case was.

“Supposedly there’s a ghost,” Morrisey explained as they walked toward a rocky outcrop. Emery nodded. He’d heard about the ghost since he was a child. “It started out as things going missing from houses. Then, when the rail company came through, it escalated. As it stands, it’s been attacking anyone who gets close to that cave. The problem is that there’s a new rail that’s supposed to be running right past it so the workers have been attacked. Three people have been hospitalized so far. It’s only a matter of time before someone is killed.”

“So we’re here to… antagonize the local spirit?” Emery asked. He was from this area. Everyone knew the Ghost of Stevrim Caverns was not to be trifled with. “Can’t the rail company just avoid the area?”

“You don’t believe in ghosts surely?” Morrissey said with a teasing note in his voice.

“I grew up near here. I’ve been hearing stories about the Ghost of Stevrim Caverns since I was a small child. Bold kid that I was, I still steered well clear of that place. The old tales would curl your hair, Morrissey. There is no doubt in my mind that there is something odd in that place.” Emery shuddered at the thought of actually entering the cavern to investigate.

“Are you sensing anything?” Morrissey asked.

“Trauma, mental and physical both, but I can’t say whether from the ghost or its victims,” Emery returned.

“Your brother took one look at the place and said he’d wait in the car,” Morrissey said.

“I’m not surprised. He had a bad scare one night while we were returning home. He swore he saw unearthly eyes peering out from the cavern at him. He was only about ten at the time so it pretty well freaked him out,” Emery replied. He gave the elder magician a strained smile and took out his wand. Once his hands touched the wand the vague sense of trauma became much more clear.

“Is the trauma directional?” Morrissey asked. Emery nodded and began walking toward the cavern mouth.

“I assume if I’m supposed to find the ‘ghost’ we’re bringing wardens with us,” Emery murmured. Ordinarily he hated the escort he was forced to continually deal with because of his status as an investigator. Today, however, he would be glad to know there was a person with an actual weapon beyond spells and scurd-flit.

“Here’s Hassett waiting for us,” Morrissey said. “He must have gone ahead to get a briefing from the other wardens.” Hassett wasn’t alone; Franklin, Grant and Everett were all waiting with him. “Emery’s got a bead on him,” Morrissey called to the officers. They nodded and moved into a protective formation around the young wizard.

“The trauma’s getting stronger and not because of proximity. The… ‘ghost’ is scared,” Emery reported as he darted a glance at Hassett.

The lieutenant nodded once and said, “Go easy, guys. We don’t know what he’s capable of and we don’t want to spook him.”

“He feels so… familiar,” Emery murmured. “I’m not usually any good with connectivity and it seems to me that I’ve felt this before.” He led them around a corner and a dimly lit, and very rude, shelter greeted them.

Suddenly a brilliant light flashed and they were blinded. Emery closed his eyes and sat on the ground, trying to make a smaller target of himself. He heard a guttural roar and several outcries from the wardens who’d been protecting him. Soft thuds of bodies hitting the hard earth around him were followed by a larger body landing nearly on top of him.

“Morrissey! Hassett!” Emery yelped. He opened his light-dazzled eyes to find the others all unconscious. An older man was standing about five feet away from him. His hair and beard hung in wild strands all around his head and face. He was frightened and angry but also territorial. Emery dropped his wand and held his hands up in what he hoped was a non-threatening manner. “Alright, just… just relax. I… I’m not armed.”

He swallowed thickly and his breath was coming in short gasps. He could tell the officers and Morrissey weren’t hurt badly but only unconscious. He’d escaped because he’d made himself a small enough target that their attacker had missed him. However, that wouldn’t work a second time. He was relieved to find that it was a human attacker and not a spectral one; but he was still alone in a cave with someone who was most likely not entirely sane.

“I’m Emery. Who’re you?” he asked with a voice that trembled slightly.

“I’m the ghost,” the man replied. Emery was again struck by a sense of familiarity. He’d heard that voice before, though the last time he’d heard it, it had been more refined and less strained.

“D-Dad?” he murmured in wonder. No wonder they hadn’t been able to find their father before their mother’s death. He’d come unhinged and been lost in the hills. “You… you aren’t a ghost. You’re Nathaniel Ballard. You’re a magician, not a ghost.”

The older man roared again and Emery had time to gasp before his world narrowed to a point and darkened.

continued here

Several weeks passed before Emery finally summoned up the courage to visit his father. Armand had told him the likelihood of the older man being moved to a less clinical facility hinged on how stable he was. Emery needed to see him; to see for himself how his father was.

Emery sighed as he settled the visitor pass around his neck. He hated how confined he felt and he was only a guest; he couldn’t imagine how his father felt in the hospital ward. People crowded the narrow corridor. Some seemed to think they were somewhere else. Others seemed unaware of anything around them at all, simply shuffling along until something, or someone blocked their paths.

“Emery, what are you doing here?” a familiar voice said. “Please tell me that you didn’t bring your brother here too.” The crowd parted and his father stood scowling at him from a doorway.

“No… just me,” Emery said. “I… wanted to see how you were settling in… see how you were.”

His father nodded and waved him into the room. Once they were alone, in what Emery realized was his bedroom, Nathaniel sat down on one narrow cot and gestured for Emery to sit in the room’s only chair. “I have a room-mate but he’s in the recreation room. I think he’s painting. He paints a lot. They want me to paint to but I don’t like the smell of the stuff. Does your mother… did you tell her… that I was here?”

The question took Emery off-guard but their father had disappeared before their mother had died. “No,” he said, recovering himself. “I didn’t tell her anything about it. Did – did you want me to?” He wasn’t sure what he would do if his father asked if she could visit.

He was saved from trying to figure it out when the older man shook his head. “It’s better if she doesn’t know. Are you… taller than you were?” he asked abruptly.

“It’s been six years, Dad,” Emery said softly. “We’re older. I’m almost sixteen. Miles’ll be fifteen. We’re forensic mages. I can sense… trauma. Miles can sense… the emotions of people around him. Can you-?” He broke off when his father waved him into silence.

“Does anyone else know about this?” the older man asked keenly.

Emery shook his head. “Only Morrissey – my supervisor. He figured it out when I got… near something dangerous and… nearly had an attack. He doesn’t know about Miles though. Hassett might have some idea… but he’s not a mage so he wouldn’t know the implications.”

Nathaniel frowned and began to pace the small room like a caged animal. “That might be even more dangerous,” he muttered darkly. “Do you know the charm to erase a specific memory?”

Emery nodded, his eyes widening slightly. “Dad, what’s going on? Are Miles and I in some danger? Are you in danger? Will you be safe here?”

“You said that you nearly had an attack… like your mother used to?” He was changing the subject but he seemed so anxious that Emery replied. It was a simple nod but the motion was enough of a response that Nathaniel slumped into a chair dejected. “You inherited her Auric Decay Syndrome? How long have you had it? Have you been taking care of it? What’s the prognosis?”

“I was diagnosed about five months ago,” Emery replied. He hadn’t intended to tell his father about this. He’d intended just a short visit; just to say hello and see how the older man was faring. “They have me on auric stabilizers and strengtheners. There’s a new medicine I just started that’s meant to heal the damage. They had me on bed rest but that got me so irritated that the doctor decided the stress of being cooped up was making me worse. I’ve got more good days than bad. The… new medicine seems to be working well enough. The shredding didn’t reach my auric core but my right arm is affected, and my left leg. They’re recovering, just slowly. Slower than I’d like.”

“Is there any pain?” Nathaniel asked. “How has your breathing been, and your heart?”

Emery smiled. The conversation they were having was the closest thing he’d had to a father –son chat in six years. “Both of them are fine, Dad,” he replied. “My arm hurts when the weather is foul. My leg gets tingly now and again. Other than that, everything is fine. Miles seems to have taken after you, aurically speaking. He has no problems.”

“Thank goodness. Emery… will you… I want to tell you to stay away. I want you safe, but…”

“I couldn’t stay away, even if you did ask,” Emery said. He caught his father’s hand. “I’ll visit… and I will bring Miles next time.”

“Not your mother though,” Nathaniel said firmly. “I… don’t want her to see me like this.”

“Alright, Dad,” Emery murmured. “Take care. If you need me, you can call me at the station.”

Nathaniel nodded and smiled a little as he stood to see Emery out. It was less nerve-wracking as he headed back down the corridor. The strangers still crowded around him but seeing his father reassured him that the older man was better. He seemed to know who he was now, instead of thinking he was the Ghost of Stevrim Caverns. All in all, Emery was glad he’d taken the chance to come visit. He hoped next time, he could get the courage to tell his father what had happened to Mom.

Serenity pulled her hair back from her face and clipped it there. It wouldn’t do for one of her own hairs to get into a sample she was trying to identify. She drew the sample out of its sealed container and was about to begin her analysis when Emery stomped into the room.

“Hello,” she greeted quietly. When the younger analyst didn’t respond but began to set to work she hesitated only a moment before continuing her work.

Miles entered shortly afterwards. “Brother,” he called softly. “Did you want to talk about this?”

“What’s there to talk about?” he snapped. “After all this time we find Dad and he’s got to be locked away in some hospital for the rest of his days because he attacked people. There’s nothing we can do about it. What’s the use in talking it to death.”

“You’re upset because we have to go get evaluated now too, Em,” Miles pointed out softly.

“What if I am?” Emery said, his voice tense with emotion. “He left us, God only knows why. He didn’t even come back when Mom was dying and looking for him. When he finally shows up again, he’s loony and we have to get evaluated to make sure we aren’t even though we’ve never given anyone any reason whatever to doubt our sanity. He’s… he’s nothing but trouble.”

“But he’s your father and you love him and want him in your lives and not locked away,” Serenity pointed out. “I know the feeling,” she added after a moment.

Emery blinked in shock as she settled down at a small table that dominated the center of the room. “Your father’s…” he trailed off.

“In prison. He was a bank robber,” Serenity said. “It’s… weird at first… difficult around the regular wardens. It does get better. Honestly.”

Emery nodded slightly and sighed. “Yeah… thanks.” He smiled slightly and added, Really.”

Serenity sighed and shook her head. “Now I have something that is probably going to be even more difficult for you to hear than it is for me to say. Miles, Emery, until you have been evaluated, you are to remain in the offices and not to involve yourselves in ongoing cases.”

Emery drew a breath to protest, then broke off. “Because if we’re crazy then our judgment may not be sound and they’d have to re-evaluate all the cases we’ve worked on so far.” He spun back toward the door. “I’ll just… do paperwork then. There’re those files to re-organize. I don’t suppose I have to be entirely sane for that.”

After he’d left, Miles sent her a tremulous smile. “He’s just upset,” he said before he followed his brother out of the lab.

continued here

Days later, Emery still hadn’t gone to see his father and the older man was still hanging on his mind. In the cozy world of academics, questions might be difficult but not complicated. Answers were correct or incorrect, right or wrong. You had either grasped the concept or had a misconception. If you were wrong; if there was some misconception, then you could get help. You could learn more, gain a better understanding and clear up that misconception. You weren’t bad or evil, just wrong.

The real world presented more complicated questions. There were no wrong answers, nor right ones. Everything seemed a matter of opinion. Everything depended on point of view.

If their father was truly mad, he should be placed in a facility where he could be cared for. If not he was culpable for his actions and should be punished for injuring the railroad workers and wardens he’d attacked. He should be made to pay restitution for what he’d stolen. There was a fuzzy area between the two, however. How crazy was he? Was it all an act or did he have moments of clarity? Was he really in danger and attacking people out of a misguided attempt to protect himself? Were the people after him figments of his imagination?

Emery sighed and leaned back. The only thing that was clear was that both he and Miles had a form of off-magic. They had likely inherited it from their father. Other than those two facts, nothing was plain. He wanted their father to be sane… but then he’d go to jail for assault. He wanted their father protected and safe but the man seemed to feel anyone in uniform, even doctors in their scrubs or lab coats, would hurt him.

“Dad, what are we going to do with you?” he murmured in exasperation.

continued here

It was unusually dark for the time of day. The dim light fit his mood. Emery sighed and pulled files out of his in-box. He began to leaf through them without really seeing the text or images that went with it. It was the latest in a series of almost make-work cases. It had been like this since they’d discovered his father.

The man had been hiding in a cave and attacking anyone who came too near. He’d attacked a number of wardens and even knocked Emery unconscious. He sighed and pushed the files aside. He’d been trying to get his father moved to a better facility, one where he might a little more free to roam instead of locked in a cell. It was more than obvious that Nathaniel Ballard was mentally disturbed – at least on the surface.

He’d seemed almost coherent when he’d spoken to Emery. He’d been worried about unnamed people who might be after him and whether the railroad workers or wardens had been sent by them. He’d been obviously upset about the mystery men fallowing Emery to the caverns. However, just as any father would be, he was concerned that Emery and Miles might not be safe. True the danger had been from the mystery men, but he’d recognized Emery and connected Miles.

There was also the fact that Emery was gifted in sensing trauma without a spell, as Miles was with sensing the emotions of people around him. If they had off-magic or semi-magic it was a fair bet that their father did as well. That being true cast his ravings in a whole new light. Emery wanted his father comfortable and safe. If only he could just cut through all the red-tape that was being thrown in his way.

continued here

Speak to me in Riddles

Emery woke slowly and with a throbbing head. He sat up and looked around. He’d been laid out on a stone shelf. Somehow his leg had come to have a gash on it and his pants were torn. He looked around again and gasped as his eyes came to rest on the bedraggled “ghost.”

His hair was longer than Emery remembered and hadn’t been washed in some time. His beard had grown out quite a lot. “What are you doing here?” he asked. His voice was hoarse. It was hard to tell if he was upset or angry, as he had been with the other officers. “Why have you come back? Are they here because of you? Did you send them to find me?”

Emery shook his head and replied, “The men… the ones who you’ve been attacking are surveying for the railroad. They aren’t here to find you.” He spoke slowly so that the man would be not feel the tension in his voice. “We… we came back because… it was time we did. We can’t move on with our lives without some closure. If we left and never came back we would never stop looking back.”

“You should never have come here,” he barked, gesturing almost frantically. “They might follow you to me. They might come after you too… and Miles.”

Suddenly, there was a shout and the “ghost” collapsed to the ground. Behind him Morrissey stood, panting and holding a wand aloft. “Emery, are you alright? Did he hurt you?”

“No!” Emery shouted. He bounced to his feet but collapsed as his injured leg gave way under him. Morrissey and the other officers swept into the cavern and moved to gather the “ghost” up. “I’m fine. Morrissey! Don’t hurt him. He’s my father.”

“Your father?” the older mage asked, shock evident in his voice.

“That’s what I said.” He glanced around for Hassett but the familiar form of his designated protector was not among the wardens with Morrissey. For that matter, both Everett and Franklin were missing as well. “What happened back there… when he took me?”

“He used some kind of spell, most likely the same one he used on the railroad workers,” Morrissey said. “My magic protected me from most of it but I was knocked out for a time. Hassett and the others fared somewhat worse. They’ll be alright but they’re staying overnight at the local clinic.”

“Good,” Emery said. He cast a minor healing spell toward his leg and sighed in relief as he stood up. “Please don’t let them hurt him, Morrissey. I know he’s done some horrible things but he is my father.”

“Well, no one died so that’ll help his case. That and the fact he’s plainly not altogether sane,” the older man said. “Treat the suspect gently, it’s possible he wasn’t entirely aware of what he was doing.” He turned back to Emery and asked, “Can you walk?”

“Yeah, I’ll be alright,” Emery replied. The small party moved on and Emery followed, limping slightly. He wasn’t surprised when one of the wardens stuck close by him the entire way out of the cavern. Nor was he surprised when he was bundled into a waiting ambulance as soon as he exited the cave mouth. By that time, his leg was throbbing once more and the services of a full healer were more than welcome.

He dozed on the way to the clinic and woke hours later, in a private room. His leg felt much better and any after-effects from the spell had dissipated by now. He had only to rest and recover. It was more than likely that he’d be released in the morning.

continued here

Later that day, when they’d gone home, Emery leaned back against the chair he’d been sitting in while he tried to read. He pulled his eyeglasses off and set them on the table that held the reading lamp and his notebook. He couldn’t concentrate.

His father, who he had figured must be dead by now, had been found. The man had been living in a cave and scaring the locals by masquerading as a legendary ghost. It was clear to anyone who met him or even saw him that he was quite mad. The question that remained was simple: why? What had caused the once brilliant mage to lose his mind?

Some mages used high level spells so often that the energies destroyed their minds. Emery thought back to the once proud man his father had been. He’d never known the man to use a high-level spell once, let alone to excess. He’d actually warned his very gifted sons about the dangers of using high-level spells.

Something had to have caused the madness though. Surely a simple hereditary metal illness would have been discussed once the boys began learning magic. Those with mental illnesses were all but forbidden from even learning magic.

Emery snorted. The wardens wanted both of them re-evaluated. They couldn’t afford to have two mad mages on their payroll. He stood and looked up at the books his father had left them. Once they’d made the decision to return to their family home, he and Miles had begun pouring over the books as they had in their childhood.

With older eyes and the experience of practicing mages, the texts were clearer. There were some gems in the expansive collection. There were some unusual books regarding such topics as semi-magic and off-magic. Not much was known about the gifts that were almost magic but not done through the casting of spells. Emery had always figured it was something like his ability to sense trauma.

Morrissey and even Miles had to cast spells to find where trauma had originated. Emery, on the other hand, seemed to feel it in his mind. Sometimes he even felt the pain of the injured person or the feelings they’d had while undergoing the trauma. It was something he’d learned not to mention during his schooling at the academy.

“Mi, do you sometimes do magic… without casting a spell?” he asked abruptly. “You know, like I do with sensing trauma.” Maybe, just maybe, their father wasn’t paranoid after all. Maybe he was onto something. Maybe he thought someone was out to kill him because he was actually in danger. Emery turned to his brother, waiting for the answer to his question. He thought about that strong, honest man who’d raised them… he couldn’t think of the bedraggled madman as their father. He would find the answers.

Miles looked down, chewing his bottom lip thoughtfully and said, “I sense emotions, Brother. It’s strange. They’re outside of me, but it’s almost like I’m feeling them too. I have since school. I just wasn’t sure how to tell you. Why?”

“Something Dad said,” Emery said softly. “I think I might need to talk to him; if he’ll talk to me.”

Continued here

Morrissey was waiting for him when he arrived. “We have a meeting,” he said. Miles shot him a tremulous smile and followed the supervising investigator out of the office. Emery had no choice but to join them.

Emery sighed as he stepped into the Commander’s office. He already knew what the meeting was about. Somehow he wasn’t surprised to find two men in the office in addition to the expected Commander Hartley and Master Morrissey. Miles trailed along behind him silently. Both stood in such a way that the officials would assume that they were at attention. If Emery leaned a little or Miles didn’t have his head perfectly erect, no one bothered to say anything.

“Thank you both for coming,” Commander Hartley said softly. “This is Captain Abraham Wilder and Chief Avery Wallace.”

Emery nodded politely at them both but neither boy moved besides that. “You aren’t in any trouble so relax,” Morrissey said in a calm tone. “The Captain and Chief just want to make sure that there are no irregularities.”

“The… person who was found living in the cave and stealing from and harassing the locals was your father, was he not,” one of the men, presumably the captain, asked.

“Yes, but-,” Emery started. He stopped when the captain held up a hand. “Yes, sir,” Emery said, glancing sidelong at his brother.

“Do you know why he was in the cave?” the man asked.

“He wasn’t exactly very articulate when I found him,” Emery said softly. “He left us when we were little. We haven’t seen him since. We didn’t know he was there or why or what his plans were.”

“He was your master in magic, wasn’t he?” the chief asked. “Until you went to the Academy, he taught you magic. Was there any signs at that time?”

“We were eight and seven,” Emery snapped. “How would we know if there were signs that our father was crazy? He seemed fine at the time. He disappeared shortly after we left for school and then Mom died about a year later.” He shifted from one foot to another, wishing he could pace the room.

“So you claim to have no idea that your father was even still in the area?” the captain asked, giving both boys a cool look.

“We had no idea where our father was or even that he was alive still until we responded to that call,” Emery said firmly. He took a step toward both officials but stopped and shook his head. “It’s not a claim, it’s a fact. You can even ask the school. The whole reason that they were going to make Miles stay an extra year was because they couldn’t see emancipating some at age fifteen. That wouldn’t have been an issue if we’d known where our father was. If I’d known where Dad was I would have told the school Miles was going to live with him and then turned around and taken him myself.”

Morrissey smiled slightly and murmured, “As it was, Miles was released into my care.”

Emery’s eyebrows rose a fraction as he heard this. He had no idea that Morrissey had been named Miles’ guardian. He’d assumed that the older mage had convinced the school officals to emancipate his brother somehow. A glance at his brother told him that the younger boy was aware of the arrangement.

“You’d severed all ties with your father then, before the incidents?” the captain asked.

“Sir, he severed ties with us long ago. He disappeared without a trace. He never sent word of his whereabouts or even that he was still alive,” Miles said in a calm voice. “Is this an offical inquest or were you just wondering about something?”

“Your father seems to think that his life is in danger,” Hartley said softly. “Judging by your expressions that’s as strange to you as it is to us. Gentlemen, I think it’s safe to conclude that Mister Ballard burned all bridges with his family when he left.”

The two officials nodded and left the office. Emery sighed in relief and looked up at Morrissey. “What was that all about?”

“A fishing expedition,” Morrissey said softly. “They didn’t seem to have caught anything though.”

“Just remember, boys, not all burning bridges collapse,” Hartley said as Morrissey ushered them out of the office.

Later that day, a courier came to their offices and handed them each a letter. Both boys read silently for several minutes before Emery looked up, locking eyes with his brother. “Evaluation of our mental competence,” he said softly.

“What’s that mean, Brother?” Miles asked, though his expression told Emery that he already knew the answer.

“They think we’re as crazy as he is,” Emery hissed. He tossed the letter into the in-box on his desk and spun toward the door.

“Brother?” Miles said as he followed.

“I’m going to the lab,” Emery said. “I need something to do to keep my mind occupied.”

continued here

Emery watched the man pace the padded cell with a strange detachment. He’d been the “ghost” that had so frightened the townsfolk. He’d been breaking and entering people’s homes and barns. They now supposed that the crimes were merely trips to forage for food.

“Poor man’s deranged,” Hassett said softly. “He seems to know you and Miles though.”

“Yeah,” Emery agreed in a voice that hardly carried. His voice grew stronger as he continued, “He… was in hiding for some reason. He left his home and family and… all this, ‘I’m a ghost, fear me,’ stuff was because he didn’t want any intruders. He didn’t want anyone finding him. But what was he hiding from?”

“How do you know he had a family that he left?” Hassett asked gently.

“I know because I recognized him the moment I saw him. I’d have recognized him anywhere.” The young mage looked sadly at the older man as he paced inside the confining cell. “He’s… He’s my father,” Emery admitted. He glanced at his assigned protector, expecting almost anything from shock to anger. This man had attacked them both, after all.

“You look a lot like him,” Hassett said softly. “He looked familiar and now I see why. Whatever happens, Emery, I’m behind you one hundred percent.”

“Thanks, Hassett,” Emery said. His voice hardly carried in the quiet room. “I guess we should be getting back to headquarters no that we’ve been released.” He turned to leave, wincing as his father screamed in anguish. He glanced behind him to see the once proud man cringing against one of the walls, plainly terrified of the doctors who’d come to examine him. Hassett gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze and led the way out of the room.

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Monica Ferris

an author with many hats

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