Zoo Station (John Russell Series #1)

Zoo Station (John Russell Series #1)

3.9 69
by David Downing

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By 1939, Anglo-American journalist John Russell has spent over a decade in Berlin, where his son lives with his mother. He writes human-interest pieces for British and American papers, avoiding the investigative journalism that could get him deported. But as World War II approaches, he faces having to leave his son as well as his girlfriend of several years, a


By 1939, Anglo-American journalist John Russell has spent over a decade in Berlin, where his son lives with his mother. He writes human-interest pieces for British and American papers, avoiding the investigative journalism that could get him deported. But as World War II approaches, he faces having to leave his son as well as his girlfriend of several years, a beautiful German starlet. 

When an acquaintance from his old communist days approaches him to do some work for the Soviets, Russell is reluctant, but he is unable to resist the offer. He becomes involved in other dangerous activities, helping a Jewish family and a determined young American reporter. When the British and the Nazis notice his involvement with the Soviets, Russell is dragged into the murky world of warring intelligence services.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Set in pre-WWII Berlin, Downing's fine new thriller introduces a clever and honorable hero, British journalist John Russell, who has spent 15 years working in Germany. Despite finding the Nazis despicable and war inevitable, Russell wants to remain in Germany to be near his girlfriend, beautiful actress Effi Koenen, and his son, Paul, from whose mother he's divorced. A mysterious Russian hires Russell to write a series of articles praising Nazi achievements, and though he finds this work odious, he figures out a way to make the job palatable by involving the British consulate and their chief intelligence officer. He's drawn increasingly deeper into the espionage web of not only the Russians and British but also the Germans. How he extricates himself from all three and gets revenge on the Nazis will have readers holding their breath. Fortunately, the satisfying ending suggests Downing (The Moscow Option) will bring Russell back in a sequel. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A British reporter in Berlin attracts offers from all sides while Hitler prepares to gobble up Czechoslovakia. Freelance correspondent John Russell does not think he believes in much. Once a communist, he now has no illusions about them or about the Russians. What little British patriotism he might have had was shed in the trenches during the Great War. Now in his early 40s, he is divorced from his German wife and dating a smart and cynical actress. Russell's soccer-mad young son, Paul, to whom he is devoted, is a member, like other kids his age, of the Hitler Youth. The reporter knows that there will be war, but he has counted himself out of it, placed on the sidelines by family relationships. He intends to stay in the country and city to which he has become accustomed, staying out of trouble, seeing Paul as much as possible until his inevitable forced exile. But trouble finds him. First, a friend from the British embassy offers him some extra income, teaching English to a couple of young Jewish girls whose family, the Wiesners, hope to send them to England before the Nazi terror escalates. Then Russell is approached by the Russians, who want him to do a little PR to smooth the way for the upcoming deal between Stalin and Hitler. Russell knows that the assignment must lead quickly to espionage, and he is reluctant to agree. But his admiration for his young students and their desperate family and his disgust for National Socialism and its loathsome believers begin to wear away at his avowed neutrality, and he agrees to act. Filling the British in on every move, the once-neutral reporter is, within weeks, a full fledged spy and, at the same time, the only hope for the Wiesner girls, theirfirebrand brother and their frantic mother. Smooth, scary wartime thriller drenched in period atmosphere, from Downing (The Red Eagles, 1987, etc.).
From the Publisher
Praise for Zoo Station

"One of the most intelligent and persuasive realizations of Germany immediately before the war."
—Wall Street Journal

"[A]n unconventional thriller ... a finely drawn portrait of the capital of a nation marching in step toward disaster as the Nazi rulers count cadence."
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch 

"There's nothing better than a well-written WWII thriller. Alan Furst continues to prove it, and now Downing has shown he can produce that creepy sense of paranoia along with the best of them."
—Rocky Mountain News

"Smooth, scary wartime thriller drenched in period atmosphere."
Kirkus  Reviews

"Downing's fine new thriller introduces a clever and honorable hero ... [the ending] will have readers holding their breath ... Satisfying."
Publishers Weekly

"If you like your tales spiced with morally ambiguous characters right out of Graham Greene, this is a train you need to be aboard.... A marvelous return to cerebral espionage."
—January Magazine

"A deeply satisfying, suspenseful novel... David Downing's writing is intelligent and strong; his portrayal of issues and conflicts, clear and compelling.... His imagery is so evocative that readers will feel they are watching a classic film, like Casablanca."
Mystery Scene

Praise for David Downing
"A beautifully crafted and compelling thriller with a heart-stopping ending as John Russell learns the personal faces of good and evil. An unforgettable read."
─Charles Todd, author of the Inspector Ian Rutledge Series
"One of the most intelligent and persuasive realizations of Germany immediately before the war."
Wall Street Journal
"In the elite company of literary spy masters Alan Furst and Philip Kerr ... [Downing is] brilliant at evoking even the smallest details of wartime Berlin on its last legs."
Washington Post

Downing distinguishes himself by eschewing the easy ways out. He doesn't shy away from portraying the cold brutality of the Third Reich, and his characters are far from stereotypes—they're flawed, confused and real.”

Product Details

Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
John Russell Series , #1
Sold by:
Penguin Random House Publisher Services
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732 KB

Read an Excerpt

THERE WERE TWO HOURS left of 1938. In Danzig it had been
snowing on and off all day, and a gang of children was enjoying a snowball
fight in front of the grain warehouses which lined the old waterfront.
John Russell paused to watch them for a few moments, then
walked on up the cobbled street toward the blue and yellow lights.

The Sweden Bar was far from crowded, and those few faces that
turned his way weren’t exactly brimming over with festive spirit. In fact,
most of them looked like they’d rather be somewhere else.

It was an easy thing to want. The Christmas decorations hadn’t
been removed, just allowed to drop, and they now formed part of the
flooring, along with patches of melting slush, floating cigarette butts,
and the odd broken bottle. The bar was famous for the savagery of its
international brawls, but on this particular night the various groups of
Swedes, Finns, and Letts seemed devoid of the energy needed to get
one started. Usually a table or two of German naval ratings could be
relied upon to provide the necessary spark, but the only Germans
present were a couple of aging prostitutes, and they were getting
ready to leave.

Russell took a stool at the bar, bought himself a Goldwasser, and
glanced through the month-old copy of the New York Herald Tribune
which, for some inexplicable reason, was lying there. One of his own
articles was in it, a piece on German attitudes to their pets. It was
accompanied by a cute-looking photograph of a Schnauzer.

Seeing him reading, a solitary Swede two stools down asked him, in
perfect English, if he spoke that language. Russell admitted that he did.

“You are English!” the Swede exclaimed, and shifted his considerable
bulk to the stool adjoining Russell’s.

Their conversation went from friendly to sentimental, and sentimental
to maudlin, at what seemed like a breakneck pace. Three
Goldwassers later, the Swede was telling him that he, Lars, was not the
true father of his children. Vibeke had never admitted it, but he knew
it to be true.

Russell gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder, and Lars
sunk forward, his head making a dull clunk as it hit the polished surface
of the bar. “Happy New Year,” Russell murmured. He shifted the
Swede’s head slightly to ease the man’s breathing, and got up to leave.

Outside, the sky was beginning to clear, the air almost cold enough
to sober him up. An organ was playing in the Protestant Seamen’s
Church, nothing hymnal, just a slow lament, as if the organist were saying
a personal farewell to the year gone by. It was a quarter to midnight.

Russell walked back across the city, conscious of the moisture seeping
in through the holes in his shoes. There were lots of couples on
Langer Markt, laughing and squealing as they clutched each other for
balance on the slippery sidewalks.

He cut over to Breite Gasse and reached the Holz-Markt just as the
bells began pealing in the New Year. The square was full of celebrating
people, and an insistent hand pulled him into a circle of revelers
dancing and singing in the snow. When the song ended and the circle
broke up, the Polish girl on his left reached up and brushed her lips
against his, eyes shining with happiness. It was, he thought, a betterthan-
expected opening to 1939.

HIS HOTEL'S RECEPTION AREA was deserted, and the sounds of
celebration emanating from the kitchen at the back suggested the
night staff were enjoying their own private party. Russell gave up the
idea of making himself a hot chocolate while his shoes dried in one of
the ovens, and took his key. He clambered up the stairs to the third floor,
and trundled down the corridor to his room. Closing the door behind
him, he became painfully aware that the occupants of the neighboring
rooms were still welcoming in the new year, loud singing on one side,
floor-shaking sex on the other. He took off his shoes and socks, dried his
wet feet with a towel, and sank back onto the vibrating bed.

There was a discreet, barely audible tap on his door.

Cursing, he levered himself off the bed and pulled the door open.
A man in a crumpled suit and open shirt stared back at him.

“Mr. John Russell,” the man said in English, as if he were introducing
Russell to himself. The Russian accent was slight, but unmistakable.

“Could I talk with you for a few minutes?”

“It’s a bit late . . .” Russell began. The man’s face was vaguely familiar.
“But why not?” he continued, as the singers next door reached for
a new and louder chorus. “A journalist should never turn down a conversation,”
he murmured, mostly to himself, as he let the man in.
“Take the chair,” he suggested.

His visitor sat back and crossed one leg over the other, hitching up his
trouser as he did so. “We have met before,” he said. “A long time ago.
My name is Shchepkin. Yevgeny Grigorovich Shchepkin. We. . . .”

“Yes,” Russell interrupted, as the memory clicked into place. “The
discussion group on journalism at the Fifth Congress. The summer of

Shchepkin nodded his acknowledgment. “I remember your contributions,”
he said. “Full of passion,” he added, his eyes circling the room
and resting, for a few seconds, on his host’s dilapidated shoes.

Russell perched himself on the edge of the bed. “As you said—a
long time ago.” He and Ilse had met at that conference and set in
motion their ten year cycle of marriage, parenthood, separation, and
divorce. Shchepkin’s hair had been black and wavy in 1924; now it was
a close-cropped gray. They were both a little older than the century,
Russell guessed, and Shchepkin was wearing pretty well, considering
what he’d probably been through the last fifteen years. He had a
handsome face of indeterminate nationality, with deep brown eyes
above prominent slanting cheekbones, an aquiline nose, and lips just
the full side of perfect. He could have passed for a citizen of most
European countries, and probably had.

The Russian completed his survey of the room. “This is a dreadful
hotel,” he said.

Russell laughed. “Is that what you wanted to talk about?”

“No. Of course not.”

“So what are you here for?”

“Ah.” Shchepkin hitched his trouser again. “I am here to offer you

Russell raised an eyebrow. “You? Who exactly do you represent?”

The Russian shrugged. “My country. The Writer’s Union. It doesn’t
matter. You will be working for us. You know who we are.”

“No,” Russell said. “I mean, no I’m not interested. I—”

“Don’t be so hasty,” Shchepkin said. “Hear me out. We aren’t asking
you to do anything which your German hosts could object to.” The
Russian allowed himself a smile. “Let me tell you exactly what we have
in mind. We want a series of articles about positive aspects of the Nazi
regime.” He paused for a few seconds, waiting in vain for Russell to
demand an explanation. “You are not German but you live in Berlin,”
Shchepkin went on. “You once had a reputation as a journalist of the
left, and though that reputation has—shall we say—faded, no one
could accuse you of being an apologist for the Nazis . . .”

“But you want me to be just that.”

“No, no. We want positive aspects, not a positive picture overall.
That would not be believable.”

Russell was curious in spite of himself. Or because of the Goldwassers.
“Do you just need my name on these articles?” he asked. “Or
do you want me to write them as well?”

“Oh, we want you to write them. We like your style—all that irony.”
Russell shook his head: Stalin and irony didn’t seem like much of a

Shchepkin misread the gesture. “Look,” he said, “let me put all my
cards on the table.”

Russell grinned.

Shchepkin offered a wry smile in return. “Well, most of them anyway.
Look, we are aware of your situation. You have a German son and
a German lady-friend, and you want to stay in Germany if you possibly
can. Of course if a war breaks out you will have to leave, or else they
will intern you. But until that moment comes—and maybe it won’t—
miracles do happen—until it does you want to earn your living as a
journalist without upsetting your hosts. What better way than this? You
write nice things about the Nazis—not too nice, of course; it has to be
credible—but you stress their good side.”

“Does shit have a good side?” Russell wondered out loud.

“Come, come,” Shchepkin insisted, “you know better than that.
Unemployment eliminated, a renewed sense of community, healthy
children, cruises for workers, cars for the people. . . .”

“You should work for Joe Goebbels.”

Shchepkin gave him a mock-reproachful look.

“Okay,” Russell said, “I take your point. Let me ask you a question.
There’s only one reason you’d want that sort of article: You’re softening
up your own people for some sort of deal with the devil. Right?”

Shchepkin flexed his shoulders in an eloquent shrug.


The Russian grunted. “Why deal with the devil? I don’t know what
the leadership is thinking. But I could make an educated guess and so
could you.”

Russell could. “The western powers are trying to push Hitler east,
so Stalin has to push him west? Are we talking about a non-aggression
pact, or something more?”

Shchepkin looked almost affronted. “What more could there be?
Any deal with that man can only be temporary. We know what he is.”

Russell nodded. It made sense. He closed his eyes, as if it were possible
to blank out the approaching calamity. On the other side of the
opposite wall, his musical neighbors were intoning one of those Polish
river songs which could reduce a statue to tears. Through the wall behind
him silence had fallen, but his bed was still quivering like a tuning fork.

“We’d also like some information,” Shchepkin was saying, almost
apologetically. “Nothing military,” he added quickly, seeing the look on
Russell’s face. “No armament statistics or those naval plans that Sherlock
Holmes is always being asked to recover. Nothing of that sort. We
just want a better idea of what ordinary Germans are thinking. How
they are taking the changes in working conditions, how they are likely
to react if war comes—that sort of thing. We don’t want any secrets,
just your opinions. And nothing on paper. You can deliver them in person,
on a monthly basis.”

Russell looked skeptical.

Shchepkin ploughed on. “You will be well paid—very well. In any
currency, any bank, any country, that you choose. You can move into a
better apartment block. . . .”

“I like my apartment block.”

“You can buy things for your son, your girlfriend. You can have
your shoes mended.”

“I don’t. . . .”

“The money is only an extra. You were with us once. . . .”

“A long long time ago.”

“Yes, I know. But you cared about your fellow human beings. I
heard you talk. That doesn’t change. And if we go under there will be
nothing left.”

“A cynic might say there’s not much to choose between you.”

“The cynic would be wrong,” Shchepkin replied, exasperated and
perhaps a little angry. “We have spilled blood, yes. But reluctantly, and
in hope of a better future. They enjoy it. Their idea of progress is a
European slave-state.”

“I know.”

“One more thing. If money and politics don’t persuade you, think of
this. We will be grateful, and we have influence almost everywhere.
And a man like you, in a situation like yours, is going to need influential

“No doubt about that.”

Shchepkin was on his feet. “Think about it, Mr. Russell,” he said,
drawing an envelope from the inside pocket of his jacket and placing
it on the nightstand. “All the details are in here—how many words,
delivery dates, fees, and so on. If you decide to do the articles, write to
our press attaché in Berlin, telling him who you are, and that you’ve
had the idea for them yourself. He will ask you to send him one in the
post. The Gestapo will read it, and pass it on. You will then receive your
first fee and suggestions for future stories. The last-but-one letters of
the opening sentence will spell out the name of a city outside Germany
which you can reach fairly easily. Prague, perhaps, or Cracow. You will
spend the last weekend of the month in that city, and be sure to make
your hotel reservation at least a week in advance. Once you are there,
someone will contact you.”

“I’ll think about it,” Russell said, mostly to avoid further argument.
He wanted to spend his weekends with Paul, and with Effi, his girlfriend,
not the Shchepkins of this world.

The Russian nodded and let himself out. As if on cue, the Polish
choir lapsed into silence.

RUSSELL WAS WOKEN BY the scream of a locomotive whistle. Or at
least, that was his first impression. Lying there awake all he could
hear was a gathering swell of high-pitched voices. It sounded like a
school playground full of terrified children.

He threw on some clothes and made his way downstairs. It was still
dark, the street deserted, the tramlines hidden beneath a virginal
sheet of snow. In the train station booking hall across the street a couple
of would-be travelers were hunched in their seats, eyes averted,
praying that they hadn’t strayed into dangerous territory. Russell strode
through the unmanned ticket barrier. There were trucks in the goods
yard beyond the far platform, and a train stretched out past the station
throat. People were gathered under the yellow lights, mostly families
by the look of them, because there were lots of children. And there
were men in uniform. Brownshirts.

A sudden shrill whistle from the locomotive produced an eerie
echo from the milling crowd, as if all the children had shrieked at

Russell took the subway steps two at a time, half-expecting to find
that the tunnel had been blocked off. It hadn’t. On the far side, he
emerged into a milling crowd of shouting, screaming people. He had
already guessed what was happening—this was a kindertransport,
one of the trains hired to transport the ten thousand Jewish children
that Britain had agreed to accept after Kristallnacht. The shriek had
risen at the moment the guards started separating the children from
their parents, and the two groups were now being shoved apart by
snarling brownshirts. Parents were backing away, tears running down
their cheeks, as their children were herded onto the train, some waving
frantically, some almost reluctantly, as if they feared to recognize
the separation.

Further up the platform a violent dispute was underway between an
SA Truppführer and a woman with a red cross on her sleeve. Both were
screaming at the other, he in German, she in northern-accented English.
The woman was beside herself with anger, almost spitting in the
brownshirt’s eye, and it was obviously taking everything he had not to
smash his fist into her face. A few feet away one of the mothers was
being helped to her feet by another woman. Blood was streaming
from her nose.

Russell strode up to the brownshirt and the Englishwoman and
flashed his Foreign Ministry press accreditation, which at least gave the
man a new outlet for his anger.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” the Truppführer shouted. He
had a depressingly porcine face, and the bulk to go with it.

“Trying to help,” Russell said calmly. “I speak English.”

“Well then tell this English bitch to get back on the train with the
kike brats where she belongs.”

Russell turned to the woman, a petite brunette who couldn’t have
been much more than twenty-five. “He’s not worth screaming at,” he
told her in English. “And it won’t do you any good. In fact, you’ll only
make matters worse.”

“I . . .” She seemed at a loss for words.

“I know,” Russell said. “You can’t believe people could behave like
this. But this lot do. All the time.”

As if to emphasize the point, the Truppführer started shouting
again. When she started shouting back he reached for her arm, and she
kicked him in the shin. He backhanded her across the face with what
seemed like enormous force, spinning her round and dumping her
face-first on the snowy platform. She groaned and shook her head.

Russell put himself between them. “Look,” he said to the man,
“this will get you court-martialed if you’re not careful. The Führer
doesn’t want you giving the English this sort of a propaganda victory.”

The British woman was groggily raising herself onto all fours. The
stormtrooper took one last look at his victim, made a “pah!” noise of
which any pantomime villain would have been proud, and strode away
down the platform.

Russell helped her to her feet.

“What did you say to him?” she asked, gingerly feeling an alreadyswelling

“I appealed to his better nature.”

“There must be someone. . . .” she began.

“There isn’t,” he assured her. “The laws don’t apply to Jews, or anyone
who acts on their behalf. Just look after the children. They look like
they need it.”

“I don’t need you to tell me. . . .”

“I know you don’t. I’m just trying. . . .”

She was looking past his shoulder. “He’s coming back.”

The Truppführer had a Sturmführer with him, a smaller man with
round glasses and a chubby face. Out of uniform—assuming they ever
took them off—he put them down as a shopkeeper and minor civil servant.
Danzig’s finest.

“Your papers,” the Sturmführer demanded.

“They’re in my hotel room.”

“What is your name?”

“John Russell.”

“You are English?”

“I’m an English journalist. I live in the Reich, and I have full accreditation
from the Ministry of Propaganda in Berlin.”

“We shall check that.”

“Of course.”

“And what are you doing here?”

“I came to see what was happening. As journalists do. I intervened in
the argument between your colleague and this Red Cross worker because
I thought his behavior was damaging the reputation of the Reich.”

The Sturmführer paused for thought, then turned to his subordinate.
“I’m sure my colleague regrets any misunderstanding,” he said

The Truppführer looked at the woman. “I apologize,” he said

“He apologizes,” Russell told her.

“Tell him to go to hell,” she said.

“She accepts your apology,” Russell told the two brownshirts.

“Good. Now she must get back on the train, and you must come
with us.”

Russell sighed. “You should get on the train,” he told her. “You
won’t get anywhere by protesting.”

She took a deep breath. “All right,” she said, as if it was anything but.
“Thank you,” she added, offering her hand.

Russell took it. “Tell the press when you get back to civilization,” he
said, “and good luck.”

He watched her mount the steps and disappear into the train. The
children were all aboard now; most had their faces pressed against the
windows, frantically wiping their breath from the glass to get a last clear
look at their parents. A few had managed to force back the sliding ventilators
and wedge their faces in the narrow gap. Some were shouting,
some pleading. Most were crying.

Meet the Author

David Downing grew up in suburban London. He is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction for both adults and children, including four novels featuring Anglo-American journalist John Russell and the nonfiction work Sealing Their Fate: The Twenty-Two Days That Decided World War II. He lives with his wife in Guildford, England.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Zoo Station 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 69 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1939 Berlin, Englishman John Russell earns a meager living as a reporter in Germany where he has lived for a decade and half. Although he fears what is going on inside his adopted country, John does not want to leave because he loves his young son Paul and the lad¿s mother his girlfriend Effi Koenen and wants to remain with them.----------------- A Soviet operative hires Russell to write several articles to be published in Pravda lauding the Nazi accomplishments, but ignoring their atrocities in order to sell the nonaggression pact to the people. Although he detests extolling the virtues of this criminal regime, John accepts the assignment that will pay a lot. He agrees not because of the money, but he thinks he can help his home country with information. However, the British no longer trust John and the Nazis watch his every move threatening his two loves ones.------------------ As in Russell¿s previous appearance (see SILESIAN STATION), he is an everyday guy caught up in world events thus once again even with plenty of suspense and intrigue, ZOO STATION is more a historical tale than a Nazi Era espionage thriller. David Downing writes how everyman finds the inner vigor and intensity to become a superhero when the motive, opportunity and means enable the person to step up to the plate. In harrowing times, John swings the bat.------------- Harriet Klausner
Leeds-Loiner More than 1 year ago
Iam totally hooked on this whole series, this is the first one and I found it fascinating, how a civilised people can be can be caught up and some taken in by an evil regime.the book is utterly gripping
Lynn Richardson More than 1 year ago
Eighty percent of this story consisted of descriptions of walking or traveling from one place to another with eating in between. Other than Russell, the characters could have been better developed. It was difficult to empathize with the main character and a potentially suspenceful situation just plodded along. Disappointing read.
jbc85 More than 1 year ago
This is a good book, moves along at a good pace, has enough grounding in history to be believable. Thoroughly enjoyed it, will have to look for more books in this series.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read the whole book expecting something to happen; nothing ever did. Even Russell's smuggling things past the Nazis - which one would expect to be frightening, if not exciting, is dull.
jhmJM More than 1 year ago
If you like Alan Furst, you'll love David Downing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was so blah I had forgotten i read it and reread it. John Russell is interesting but the story was not. I may try one more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is about the build up to WWII and what it was like for the people in Germany. It suggests and leaves you to think about what it was like. I loved it. I have traveled to Berlin and London so it was easy to picture events and relate. If you like history and wish to never forget the atrocities of Hitler, read and experience the time through these characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Looks at Flower. Now. Ahem Flower. How old are you exactly. You need a naming cerimonie if you are over 5 years. I will choose a name that you lik and that I think suit you.
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drh108 More than 1 year ago
Well written. Plausible plot. Page turner. Has you reaching for next in series.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great for Mystery lovers.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dont play stupid with me you knew that darkshadow was my mom and you took her so why wont u shut up and lets go mom these people are freaks and this one over here has anger issues like chill.....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ok. We meet back at 5:00
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Book_LadyDB More than 1 year ago
Was a very good story of what was happening at the time. I hope to read #2 soon.