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Not Again

Not Again

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Not Again

Lunghezza:
370 pagine
5 ore
Editore:
Pubblicato:
Mar 1, 2021
ISBN:
9781005330712
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

In 2026, after Hume Parkerton, a controversial former National Institutes of Health director, is infected with a lethal, manufactured virus from an unknown source, the hunt is on. What gene-splices have been added to the virus to make it so lethal? Why was Parkerton singled out? Who was the genius who made it? When a cryptic letter arrives at NIH, is it meant to be a warning, a threat, or a billion-dollar shakedown?
Within the the FBI, NIH, Department of Homeland Security, and the White House there are those who race to find answers to difficult questions, while others in those same agencies are most interested in keeping the virus a secret from the public. After Parkerton's former research partner, Victor Luskin, subverts Parkerton's attempt to develop a vaccine for what has nearly killed him, Parkerton joins up with Manny Perehia, a street-smart blogger, to start their own search to solve the mystery, a search which leads Parkerton back to his complicated past.

Will those trying to unravel the mystery be able to find out who developed the virus and how to combat it before the virus spreads, and Americans, five years after battling one pandemic, begin to cry, “Not again!”

Editore:
Pubblicato:
Mar 1, 2021
ISBN:
9781005330712
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Neil (aka C.N.) Hetzner is married, has two children, and lives a mile from the edge of the continent in Rhode Island. Since his inauspicious birth in Indiana in 1948 he has worked as a cook, millwright, newspaper columnist, business professor, vacuumist, printer’s assistant, landscaper, railroader, caterer, factory worker, consulting editor, and, currently, real estate agent.In addition to working, which he likes a lot, and writing, which he likes even more, he enjoys reading, weaving, cooking, and intrepidly screwing up house repairs.His writing runs the gamut from young adult futurism to stories about the intricacies of families; however, if there is a theme that links his writing, it is the complicated and miraculous mathematics of mercy.

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Not Again - Neil Hetzner

NOT AGAIN

By

Neil Hetzner

Copyright © 2021 Neil Hetzner

All rights reserved.

This story is a fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either came from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Contents

Acknowledgments

Chapter One: Summer 2026

Chapter Two: July 2026

Chapter Three: Late July 2026

Chapter Four: February 2026

Chapter Five: August 2026

Chapter Six: November 2026

Chapter Seven: 1985-2016

Chapter Eight: Spring 2017

Chapter Nine: November 2026

Chapter Ten: Monday November 23, 2026

Chapter Eleven: Friday December 4

Chapter Twelve: Wednesday, December 9

Chapter Thirteen: Wednesday, December 16

Chapter Fourteen: Wednesday, December 23

Chapter Fifteen: Friday, January 8, 2027

Chapter Sixteen: January 2027

Chapter Seventeen: February 2027

Chapter Eighteen: March 2027

Chapter Nineteen: July 2027

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

My deep-felt thanks to Martha Day and Jeni Martin for the insights and suggestions they offered to improve the story and to Mike Monahan for the cover design.

As the author is neither a scientist nor a bureaucrat, there are apt to be mistakes in his portrayal of the science and organizational machinations within the story. He hopes the reader will ignore or forgive those mistakes.

Chapter One

Summer 2026

Not again!

Hume Parkerton accompanied that protest by pushing himself up from his patio table. His eyes darted from the letter he was holding to the six softball-sized white stones that formed a border around a dwarf weeping cherry tree. Shaking his head in dismay, he slapped the letter he had just read next to his lunch dishes. Seconds later, the tall, gaunt, white-haired eighty-two-year-old was at the end of his weed-riddled brick sidewalk forcing his way through the ancient cast iron gate.

After closing the gate, Parkerton turned south toward Georgetown Waterfront Park, a favorite destination for his daily exercise. He walked regularly—at four o’clock in the winter, four-thirty in spring and fall, and five-thirty in the summer. Sometimes he headed north toward Montrose Park or Dumbarton Oaks, but mostly he walked south to the Potomac. For whatever benefit forty-five minutes of vigorous walking might have on his heart or cholesterol levels, Parkerton’s pace was mostly dictated by the pent-up energy that had plagued him ever since he had been forced into retirement. Less than fifteen minutes after leaving his home, the retired microbiologist was striding under the Key Bridge and into the riverside park.

As he approached the park’s labyrinth, sited just back from the Potomac’s banks, Parkerton forced himself to slow both his gait and his breathing. If he was successful, which by his record-keeping occurred no more than one time in ten, slowing his feet and lungs would slow his mind. However, over the years he had come to accept that it was a much simpler affair to slow his body than to slow his mind. After taking a deep, hopefully calming breath, the old man entered the maze. Concentrating his eyes on the dun-colored path directly in front of the scuffed toes of his ancient Dubarry boots and his mind on the meaning of the letter, he began to walk.

It wasn’t until his fifth time along the labyrinth’s winding path that Hume Parkerton’s mind—hyperactive as a teen at Taft and undergraduate at Yale, as a doctoral student at MIT and a post-doc at Cold Springs Harbor, as a professor for two decades at the University of Chicago, and as a researcher and administrator for more than two decades at The National Institutes of Health—slowed enough that he could hear the gentle slapping of the Potomac against its banks and the tinnitus drone of the unending stream of cars crossing Key Bridge.

The letter, which had been in the mail’s daily dross of revolutionary hearing aids and unsurpassed internet speeds, had reminded Parkerton of days gone by. The envelope was made from heavy bond paper. There was a colorful stamp in the upper right-hand corner; however, there was no return address. As just one more of the many small, inconsequential tests of his discipline with which he studded his long days, the retired National Institute of Virology and Vaccinology director had decided to delay opening the letter until after he had eaten his lunch. When that moment came, he carefully sliced open the envelope, withdrew the single page it held, and studied its brief message for no more than five seconds before a confusion of memories caused him to bolt up from the table and hurry to the park.

As he made his way through the labyrinth, Parkerton considered the letter’s words: Friend or Foe? As a student he had had many friends and few foes; however, as he rose in academia and, especially after he moved to NIH, he had far fewer friends and many more foes. Painfully, as had happened with Victor Luskin, his University of Chicago research partner, he had had friends turn to foes. Friend or Foe? Beneath that short evocative question was the famous first picture of a section of DNA the Italian physicist Enzo du Fabrizio had been able to capture in 2012. If the friend or foe question was supposed to be applied to DNA, then, again, he was familiar with both. AIDS, H1N1, and SARS had been his foes. His decades’ long work on vaccines and bacteriophages had been a search for DNA friends.

Some of his foes, the ones who had triggered his plea, Not again, had been gay men with diseases who, along with their friends, families, and lovers as well as academic and Hollywood opportunists, had generated unwanted attention in the media and personal threats to NIH AIDS research administrator Dr. Hume Parkerton. There had been threatening letters, threatening words painted on the sidewalk in front of his home, a half-dozen accusatory signs he had found bordering his backyard patio upon coming home one evening, and worse, much worse. Those threats had led to multiple interviews with the FBI, the addition of both an intercom system and lock on his sidewalk gate as well as a gate at the entrance to his driveway.

Friend or Foe? Was it a threat? Or, was it possible the letter just a piece of some kind of puzzle?

In Dr. Parkerton’s estimation, a major difference between scientists and the rest of the world was in their attitude toward puzzles. Non-scientists tended quickly to become frustrated by puzzles as was evidenced by the unfinished crosswords he often would find on the sticky seats of Chicago’s El back in the early days of his career at the University of Chicago. On the other hand, his experience was that most scientists were intrigued by puzzles. If not, why else would they have become scientists? As he walked the curves of the labyrinth, a memory came to Parkerton of a time in the Seventies when he and three other colleagues had sat around a cafeteria table alternating bites of sandwiches with twists of their Rubik cubes.

Friend or Foe? Threat or puzzle? Was the enigmatic letter nothing more than a brainteaser from a former student or colleague? Receiving something that was meant to engage his mind was something that once had happened with some frequency, although not so much since his retirement. Once or twice a year he himself would come across something that amused him enough to send along to a friend. Or, was his first reaction correct? The letter was a theat. In the late Eighties he had received scores of threatening letters. Letters written by dying men threatening him with death. When the first of those letters began arriving not long after he became NIH’s director of AIDS research, he ignored them as nothing more than drama queens being dramatic; however, when letters started showing up at his home, he turned them over to the FBI. When letters and horrific photographs started to be shoved toward him as he backed down his driveway by the Kaposi sarcoma-wounded hands of wraithlike men yelling at him, he began to wonder if the precision of science might sometimes need to respond to the muddle of politics. At the time, even having that thought had felt like apostasy; however, that righteous feeling changed the morning he had been unable to back down his driveway because one hundred four pound, twenty-six-year-old Cass Ainsley had decided to die there with a dew-smudged sign around his neck declaring Dr. Parkerton killed me.

After Ainsley’s manner of death and the attention it brought, the political muddling became worse. However, it was not until six small mahogany boxes with engraved nameplates arrived over the course of two days, each box containing human ashes and bone fragments, each with a card inscribed, Stop killing us, that Dr. Parkerton began to advocate for the benefits of muddled science. If any experimental AIDS treatment showed promise, he argued it should be allowed to be administered to those subjects desperate enough to try anything to prolong their lives.

In his later years at NIH, after AIDS research had been given its own division and he had become director of the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases and then NIVV, Parkerton would occasionally receive an anonymous threatening letter from an author who thought insufficient funds were being directed to some disease—SARS, H1N1, Swine flu—but no one had died in his driveway, he had received no more ashes, and the screaming, shouting, and muddling had somewhat receded.

Friend or Foe. Something meant to tease? Or, threaten? Were the words above in reference to the image below? Was the picture meant to represent DNA itself or was it a symbol of science in general? If DNA, then the unequivocal answer was both. DNA had been a friend to him. His genomic work had won him praise and power, if not a Nobel prize. DNA, however, had not been good to his brother Lonnie. Cystic fibrosis had killed Lonnie at fifteen, which had permanently broken their mother at the age of forty-seven.

Despite his question remaining unanswered, Dr. Parkerton left the labyrinth and walked over to the Potomac’s bank and let his eyes drift across the rippled water to the northern end of Theodore Roosevelt Island. As a scientist, he had been trained not to jump to conclusions. Benign? Malign? The doctor decided he did not have enough information to answer the question. As he had so often cautioned his students and Principal Investigators who became too eager to draw conclusions from preliminary results, Parkerton reminded himself that a deferred decision was a decision in its own right—and very often the right one.

Although his mind was somewhat calmer than it had been when he had left his home an hour before, Hume Parkerton’s pace back to his home was no slower than when he had rushed to the labyrinth.

*

Within a day of receiving the puzzling letter, Hume Parkerton decided the anxiety its friend or foe question had triggered was nothing more than the stirring of old, uncomfortable memories. He hypothesized there was a high probability that a friend, most likely a retired friend with too much time on his hands, had sent him a brain teaser. If his assumption was correct, then he was likely to get a follow-up letter because it was apparent to him there wasn’t enough information in the first letter to solve whatever the puzzle might be.

The scientist’s conjecture proved to be right when, three days after the first, a second letter arrived. After slitting it open, Parkerton found the same DNA picture; however, this time the words above had been changed to ‘Fight, Flight, or Fright?"

The retired director shunted the second letter on top of the first as he answered their questions. Friend or foe? Obviously, friend. Fight or flight or fright? None of the above. He had more engaging work to do than lose time thinking about an under-defined puzzle.

Fourteen days after receiving the first letter, a third letter arrived. Above the same copy of Fabrizio’s DNA image was a single word: FOE. Parkerton tossed that letter into the kitchen wastebasket.

Two days later in the middle of the morning as he worked on his memoirs, a project with which he had made little progress despite starting two years before, Dr. Parkerton experienced the first headache he could remember having since drinking too much the day he was forced to resign from his directorship. He took two acetaminophen and continued to work. Although it was his practice to eat lunch at one o’clock, this day the combination of the persistence of the headache and a lack of any appetite had him lying on the chaise lounge in his screened-in porch at that time. However, despite how tired he felt, he was unable to nap for more than a few minutes at a time as a dry, hacking cough kept jerking him out of his sleep.

By mid-afternoon, Dr. Parkerton gave up on the chaise lounge and decided to go upstairs to his bedroom; but by the time he made his decision, his fatigue was so profound he twice was forced to stop and rest on a riser. He finally made it to the bathroom for more acetaminophen and a double dose of cough syrup. Using an arm to support himself as he made his way down the hall, he managed to get to his bedroom and slough off his shoes and pants before collapsing into bed.

Headache, loss of appetite, fatigue, cough—that was a familiar sequence of symptoms to Dr. Parkerton. He expected, and his expectations soon were confirmed, that a fever and sweats would follow. Flu. Viral flu. An attack by a virus, a sub-microscopic chunk of mostly DNA—not exactly a life form, but not exactly not. But, either way, lots of them. Far, far more than the stars in the sky. Nearly a billion for every square meter of earth. Intellectually, Dr. Parkerton was quite familiar with viruses. As both scientist and administrator, he had spent a good part of his career investigating their processes and trying to prevent their harm. Despite his education and his work, however, Dr. Parkerton was, like all humans, physically unaware of all the good things certain viruses, especially bacteriophages, constantly were doing inside his body. Of the bad viruses, his only personal memory was of himself at fourteen soaked in sweat as he twisted and turned trying to escape an ache radiating out from deep inside his frozen bones.

Parkerton knew that for decades a combination of a strong immune system, annual flu vaccine shots, and good luck had kept him free from a collection of viruses that laid low tens of millions of humans annually. Now, his long-term flu avoidance regimen of caution plus luck seemed to have failed. He was sure he had a flu. The question was what kind? With the arrival of the fever and sweats, were his symptoms complete? Or was more to come? Nausea progressing to vomiting, which would dangerously increase his already heightened risk of dehydration from the sweating he was experiencing? Cold, aching bones? An attack on his respiratory system? It was the latter that could lead to viral pneumonia and, far too frequently as evidenced in the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 six years before, death.

Even as he tossed and turned, hacked and sweated, Dr. Parkerton, viral scientist and former DMID and NIVV director, wondered just how he, someone who by choice had very little interaction with others, had been invaded by an influenza virus, which tended to thrive in cold and damp and fade in heat, in the middle of one of the hottest Washington summers on record. However, in less than an hour, any scientific curiosity on Dr. Parkerton’s part as to the why of his infection had been completely crowded out by the agony of the infection itself.

*

While the patient’s 911 request that NIH be notified was not specific, Dr. Mario Castiglione, who had worked the medical front lines during DC’s battle with Covid-19, knew that NIVV was the NIH institute to call. Once the doctor made the call, the information he relayed bounced back and forth within the bureaucracy of NIVV, like a ball in a lottery cage. If Dr. Castiglione, who was overseeing Hume Parkerton’s care in ICU hadn’t been prevented from using his patient’s name by HIPAA rules, the ball might have bounced fewer times before landing on NIVV Director Melissa Bronston’s desk. If she had been told the patient’s name, the director would have been much quicker in her response to the information that an elderly man, a man who was on a ventilator in a negative pressure room at Georgetown Hospital, had insisted NIH be notified.

When the team Bronston sent to Georgetown Hospital returned with the news that the elderly man who had come in with multiple bruises, a 103° fever, and dehydration, except for his lungs, which were filling with fluids, the director felt her stomach roil at the thought that something new might be rearing its ugly head. When team leader Ivy Ballard, who was deep into her second decade at NIVV went on to explain that the patient was former NIVV director Hume Parkerton, Bronston thoughts turned to damage control.

The date of birth on her Virginia driver’s license indicated she was fifty-three, but NIVV Director Bronston’s photograph suggested she was in her early forties. If someone concerned with that discrepancy had taken a look in Bronston’s bathroom and at her calendar, he or she might have been able to explain the difference between her age and her appearance. Melissa Bronston’s skin, hair, nails, teeth, weight, wardrobe, and shoes were accorded the same attention to detail that she once had given to her scientific research.

In Melissa Bronston’s early years at NIH, which were spent at DMID, most of her emotional and intellectual needs had been fulfilled by gaining knowledge of and conducting research on zoonotic diseases, especially Lyme disease; however, as she entered her forties, without partner or progeny, her attention had turned to power. She had set her goal on becoming NIVV’s next director without going through the logical interim step of heading up one of NIVV’s many divisions, the obvious one being DMID.

Within a year Bronston had wangled herself into becoming Hume Parkerton’s invaluable assistant director. Her strategy was to assist Parkerton in every possible way so that when he retired, he would help her slide into his seat. However, after two years of playing faithful Friday to Parkerton’s Crusoe, Bronston had come to understand that her boss, who was seventy-two at the time, had no plans to retire. Not content to wait indefinitely, Bronston had developed a plan to undermine her boss by starting a whispering campaign about how improper and useless research had been conducted back in the Nineties when Parkerton ran the AIDs research program. Bronston’s bureaucratic skills were such that she had managed to keep herself out of Parkerton’s suspicions of who was responsible for the pressure he was getting to retire until it was time for the coup de grace.

NIVV Director Bronston barely had time to feel comfortable sitting in Parkerton’s old chair before the pandemic of 2020 made that chair one of the hottest seats in the federal government. Bronston survived 2020 in part because she was new and in part because she was politically astute, but she didn’t survive those chaotic times without scars. The leaks, the after-the-fact second-guessing, the bureaucratic undermining from within NIH, and the critical media judgment from without, had taught her to hold her cards close to her chest, or, when appropriate, to hold her cards in such a way that it was her chest and not her cards that held the attention of others.

As soon as she learned the patient in isolation was the man she had deposed, Bronston went into communication lockdown mode. Elena Montefiore, Ivy Ballard, Ballard’s two assistants, the five people who had touched the information as it bounced around NIH, Dr. Castiglione, and Bronston’s assistant Pete Steers were left with no questions as to exactly how tight their lips were to be. Once those concerns were addressed, Director Bronston turned her attention to the science of Parkerton’s illness.

Parkerton’s blood and sputum samples were nestled in an ice-filled cooler, which Ivy Ballard carried onto a Delta flight out of BWI. That evidence was still cold thirteen hours later as Ballard left the Missoula airport to drive an hour down Route 93 to NIH’s Rocky Mountain Level 4 Bio-Safety Laboratory in Hamilton, Montana. Along with the blood sample of subject GT-2026-1, Ballard handed over a file of redacted medical records.

Just hours after Ivy Ballard was back in her NIVV office on the following day, the virus that had infected Patient GT2026-1 had been sequenced and the results sent back, eyes only, to Melissa Bronston. As the director read through the report, the words heffalumps and woozles ran through her mind. Although the genome had one long sequence that duplicated a Type C virus with its seven strands of RNA, it was not a Type C. Bronston thought that was unfortunate because Type C flus tended to be mild. Although there were several other splices along with the Type C material, Rocky Mountain had concluded that most of the genome appeared to be from the Type D virus. That was not good news.

In 2011 when researchers at South Dakota State University isolated what came to be known as the Type D virus in a diseased pig, they thought it was confined to swine; however further research indicated that the primary host of the unique virus was cattle. At the time, there was no indication that Type D had ever passed to humans. However, with zoonotic viruses found in animals that have close contact with humans, the possibility always exists that a mutation could allow for the leap. Although the virus originally had been thought to be a C virus, when the research indicated that it was a separate species within the Orthomyxoviridae family, no popular uproar occurred as when Pluto was demoted from planet status. No angry letters to editors to Nature or Facebook groups arose demanding the virus remain within the Type C family. From a research perspective, Type D was the equivalent of a can of creamed corn—in the pantry but unlikely to attract anyone’s attention. The reasons it was mostly ignored despite the global attention viruses drew in 2020 and the years following was that the virus had not been found in humans and it was relatively slow to mutate.

Along with the long strand of Type C and the much longer strand of D, the report noted that there were sixteen other areas along the genome that were neither C nor D. The report stated the obvious—the virus that had infected GT2026-1 had been manufactured. Work would continue to identify the origins of the splices as well as the virus’s attributes, especially viability and transmissibility.

Director Bronston had a decision to make. Was what had happened to Hume Parkerton an act of revenge, or was it an act of biological terrorism? If it was revenge, Bronston could make the case to herself and, if something got out of hand, to others, that keeping the information within a tight circle within NIVV was both reasonable and justified. If, however, Parkerton was a warning and not just a target, then her duty was to sound the alarm. In a response not all that different from the medieval practice of ringing a church’s bells to bring townspeople hurrying to quell a fire or repair a breached dam, if Bronston was to pull the rope on the federal government’s bells, a herd of agencies would stampede to be in charge of whatever disaster the bell-tolling announced. Each of the armed services, plus NSA, CDC, DHS, NIH and others had remits that included bio-hazards and biological warfare or terrorism.

Tapping the report against her nose, Bronston continued to think. One way to survive a stampede was to get off to the side. Ring the bell and get out of the way. Little harm could come to her from that. But, given how long and arduous the path had been to get to where she was, the director figured she had already put in her shunting time. Given where she wanted to go—NIH Director—that argued she should keep her distance from a crush of would-be heroes. But … but … the opportunity to wear the hero’s wreath … that, too, needed to be given careful consideration.

In the end, Melissa Bronston waffled. She decided the best way not to be crushed in a stampede was to make sure there was no stampede. Ergo, it made sense to argue that it was Hume Parkerton who was being targeted, not the nation. Work would continue at Rocky Mountain, but under a strict black-out, and with no one else, other than her boss, NIH Director Sanjiv Patel, needing to know anything … at least for the moment.

Chapter Two

July 2026

Racial injustice, global warming, social shaming, unending wars, or presidential behavior could get some people stirred up, red-faced and spitting mad, but leave others with nothing more than a shoulder shrug. However, as had been proved in 2020, certain kinds of health news got everybody stirred up. Hunkered-down, masked-up stirred up. Afraid to touch an elevator button or get money from an ATM stirred up. That broad-based, deep-seated fear is what had motivated Manny Perehia to sell Tinseltown Talks, his blog with 1.69 million Facebook followers, 4.3 million Twitter followers, and a growing Instagram presence, and move from LA to DC to start the Hazardous to Your Health blog. Manny’s idea with HYH was to use the same recipe with health care research and findings that had worked with Hollywood: Mix a little fact with a lot of speculation and stir, stir, and stir. If an actor and an actress passed one another in Spagos or Catch LA, could marriage be far behind? If it were two actors, couldn’t they be the latest cogs in Hollywood’s queen machine? Running two days behind a Star Wars shooting schedule? The end of Disney must be nigh.

Manny found things harder in DC than they had been in LA. The number of HYH’s followers fell far short of what he had projected and, as a result, advertising revenue wasn’t even close to what he had been counting on. Looking at failure, after living with success, was not something Manny did well. As a result, he had modified his approach to HYH. In addition to dramatizing the feeblest of findings—two slices of bacon a week caused…, four members of the Kurowai tribe of New Guinea exhibited symptoms of the deadly…, he began adding entries about the health of DC officials. Senator A was back in the hospital … the end of the world is nigh. After that adjustment, his numbers began to grow, as did his fun. Rather than scouring obscure medical and pharmaceutical journals for experimental results that could be inflated like birthday balloons, he started hanging out in bars and restaurants near to the better hospitals in DC and its environs. In less than four months he had bought a lot of drinks and made a lot of casual friends with OR, ER, and ICU nurses and techs at GW, Sibley, Walter Reed, Howard, and MedStar Georgetown Hospital as well as the staffers who worked at the ancient psychiatric hospital, St. Elizabeth’s, where for twelve years the not exactly insane, but certainly politically embarrassing, poet Ezra Pound had been a committed guest.

When Annie Santiago, an ICU nurse at MedStar Georgetown, called Manny to tell him that an old man, who came in on the wagon, was being treated like he was made of nitroglycerin, he had questions. All Annie knew was that he had a wicked fever, was in ICU on a ventilator, and was being treated like he was highly infectious. With what, she didn’t know. When Manny asked the money-shot question, Anybody we know? Annie said just an old man.

Manny asked his source if she could poke around a little more and meet him for dinner the following night at Epicurious, the eclectic restaurant less than a five-minute walk from the hospital.

Since he couldn’t quite remember who Annie Santiago was, Manny’s preference would have been to hear her say that she would try to find out more but wouldn’t be able to make dinner because of her schedule. Or she could meet him, but it would have to be for a quick drink. Still, Manny reasoned, sharing a meal with Annie Santiago, which shouldn’t cost him more than a hundred bucks including feeding himself, was cheaper than thanking her for the lead with a hundred-dollar Epicurious gift card, even though, after the deal he had worked out with the Epicurious’ manager,

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