Aphelion Issue 287, Volume 27
September 2023
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Poker Face

by William Joseph Roberts

Fergus counted the cards of the well-worn deck diligently, dropping out the jokers and placing them back into the cardboard box. He shuffled the deck with the skill of a Vegas card shark.

“While that game...” he paused, thinking. “What did you call it?”

“Usska,” the sasquatch-like Rohbandi said.

“That’s it. While usska was fun, it’s time we show you an ancient card game from our homeworld of Earth.” Fergus shuffled the deck again, loudly this time, then tapped the deck on the table, neatly packing them into order. “I have no doubt that each and every one of you will greatly enjoy this game.” He spread the cards evenly across the table in a fan-like pattern, then lifting the edge of the first card, flipped the entire deck, fanned the deck back together, shuffled again and placed the deck before the Rohbandi to his right.

The Rohbandi looked up at him with an odd, questioning glance.

“He wishes for you to cut the cards,” the cat-like creature standing behind Fergus said. He casually leaned against the wall, reached beneath his leather flight cap and scratched through his thick black fur.

“Casraownan is correct, Skoocom. You may cut the cards if you wish, or pass, trusting that Fergus has properly shuffled the deck,” Trae said.

The Rohbandi stared at Fergus, then back to the deck. “Cut the cards? I do not have a blade with me that is suitable.”

“No, Skoocom,” Trae said. “He doesn’t mean to literally cut the cards. He means to break up the deck yourself unless you fully trust the man dealing the cards.”

“Ah! You mean to splay,” the sasquatch-like creature happily replied. “I will be more than happy to splay the cards.” He separated the stack of cards and divided it into six equal stacks then proceeded to restack the deck and placed it back in front of Fergus.

Fergus stared at the cards for a long moment. “Hu,” he grunted.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say he doesn’t trust you, Ferg,” Chico’s voice boomed as he entered the room.

“Ya think,” Trae added. “He hasn’t had a whore house cut like that since Tallahassee.”

“What happened in Tallahassee,” Chico asked.

“Don’t ask,” Trae said.

“Well the Veronica is all fueled and ready to go when y’all are,” the mountain of a black man said. “Woody will be along in just a few. He’s slowly navigating his way through the bar. That hover wagon of his isn’t exactly small, ya know.” He closed the hatchway.

“It’s still better than being in the main room of the Mare,” Trae added. “I’m glad Max told us about these side rooms so we don’t have to worry about drawing the attention of the wrong crowd.”

 “You alright there, Ferg,” Chico asked. He took a seat next to a yellow haired Rohbandi on a well-worn sofa which sat against the wall by the door.

“Yeah. Just a little flashback is all. It’s all good,” he breathed heavily.

“We aren’t going to have an issue, are we,” Trae asked.

“I’ll gladly knock him out again if you need me to,” Casraownan said with a hissing laugh. The cat-like Chinchassan shifted his weight to the other foot and casually preened the black fur on his arms.

“No, I’m good,” Fergus said. “Just a quick flashback to Wichita Falls is all.”

“Man, that was ten years ago,” Trae reminded him.

“I know,” Fergus said with heavy frustration. “I’m good, man.”

“Did I do something wrong,” the Rohbandi asked.

“No, Skoocom. You didn’t do anything wrong,” Trae assured the bigfoot-like Rohbandi. “This is what we call a whore house cut back on Earth. If someone cuts the cards in this manner, then you are not trusted by them. The last time anyone cut the cards…,” he paused. “I’m sorry, the last time anyone splayed the cards like this, we had to fight our way out of a room very similar to this,” he motioned to the room around them.

“Can we please get on with it already,” groaned Juuls, the blue reptilian skinned Sf’Rums.

“I agree with Juuls. Get on with it already,” Sleed, the small Crogt angrily concurred.

Fergus forced down a chuckle at the phrase.

“What is so funny,” Sleed asked. His four wide eyes squinted in a perturbed countenance toward Fergus. The tips of his blue and red goblin-like ears twitched with agitation. “I have an important meeting very early in the morning. So if you will please proceed.”

“Okay, okay, let’s play cards,” Fergus giddily sighed, then began dealing the cards. He placed one card face down, the other face up. “The game we are about to play is a simple one. It’s called blackjack.” Fergus dealt a five of hearts on the table in front of himself. “All number cards such as this are worth their face value. Face cards such as the king, queen or jack,” he said as he laid down the queen of hearts on top of the five, “are worth ten points. The aces,” he said as he dug through the deck, then placed the ace of spades next to the other two cards, “are worth either one or eleven points. It is your choice which you wish to use. To keep things simple, we’ll keep to the basic straightforward rules for now. You tally up the total points value of your hand with the goal to arrive at or as close to twenty-one points as possible without going over. So, go ahead and look at your face down cards,” Fergus instructed as he shuffled the cards he’d used as examples back into the deck. “Now, if you are happy with your hand and would like to stay, then by all means, stay. But if you’d like another card, then you say, hit me. Here, I’ll start with Trae so you can see for yourselves.

Trae looked at his face down card then to the three of diamonds which was showing face up. “Hit me,” he said with a knock of knuckles on the table.

Fergus dealt an additional card face up next to the first. “See, he has a three and now a King. In itself, these total to thirteen, ten for the face card and three for the three. So thirteen showing, but what is his face down card?” Fergus looked questioningly around at the tables other occupants then turned back to Trae. “What do you want to do, Trae,” Fergus asked.

“Hit me,” Trae said, again rapping his knuckles on the table.

Fergus dealt the next card from the top of the deck and placed it next to the others. “Four of clubs.”

“Dammit,” Trae shouted and slapped the table. He flipped the face down card over to reveal a five of diamonds. “Bust,” he grumbled.

“See, he scored a total of twenty-two points, going over the goal of twenty-one. So he’s out this round.”

“Oooo, I wish to go next,” Skoocom urged

“Scootch...um, wasn’t it,” Fergus asked, pointing at the massive brown fur covered alien. A toothy wide smile perfectly fit the beaming excitement in the Rohbandi’s large amber eyes.

“No, Skoocom,” The Rohbandi pleasantly said.

“Alright, Skoocom,” Fergus said. “We’ll start with you and go around the table from there.”

“Yes, yes, excellent. Hit me,” Skoocom growled as he rapped his large knuckles on the table.

“Alright,” Fergus said as he dealt the Rohbandi a jack of hearts.

“Dammit,” Skoocom shouted, pounding his hands against the table hard enough to cause their drink glasses to jump in place.

Chico was immediately on his feet. “Alright now, big, dark and hairy. How’s about we calm down just a notch.”

“Did I not do it correctly,” Skoocom asked. An unsure tone laced his voice.

“You did perfectly fine,” Trae assured. “Just the next time you may want to reign in the excitement just a little. We wouldn’t want to break the bar’s table, would we?”

“Very truly, I shall endeavor to remember this.” Skoocom smacked himself in the side of the head with a goofy roll of his eyes.

Juuls sighed with frustration. “Can we please move this along,” the trader asked. “While I find all of this slightly entertaining, what I’m really interested in is the merchandise you promised for us to inspect and sample.”

“I agree,” Sleed added. “I am here to talk business and make money, not to be entertained by parlor tricks.”

“But we were just getting started,” Skoocom complained.

“But...but...but,” Sleed parroted. “Why do we listen to him,” he asked Juuls.

“Because we are gullible and take pity on our hairy friend,” Juuls replied as she patted the Rohbandi on the shoulder.

The hatchway to the main bar suddenly swung open.

“Woody,” Trae blurted out. “Perfect timing.”

“Yeah,” Fergus added. “We were just talking about you.”

“My name is K’etu, not Woody,” a robotic voice argued through the speaker of a hover wagon, mounted by what looked to be a five-foot-tall willow tree planted in the center of the dirt filled wagon. Woody maneuvered the hover wagon into the room. The alien’s small, willow tree like branches shivered and flailed as the robotic voice erupted from the floating transport. “I am an ambassador of my people, not a pack blrrrrbg.”

“This had better have been worth the wait,” Sleed grumbled.

“I am sure it will be,” Skoocom said. “My clansman have spoken highly of the humans and the beverage they ferment. I think they called it, buurr.”

“Beer,” Fergus corrected. He quickly shuffled the cards together and placed them back into the carton, tucking them away into his coveralls. “And everyone has to earn their keep, Woody,” Fergus reminded the It’Vit ambassador. He quickly made his way over to the hover wagon and opened a rear hatch. Frosty fog wafted from the opening as he removed four icy cold bottles from its depths. He popped the tops and passed one to each of the aliens at the table, keeping the last one for himself. He raised his bottle, presenting it in the semi dim light of the room. “This, my friends, is a beer, but more than that, it is classified as a lager due to its ingredients and the process by which it is brewed. This represents only one of many hundreds of flavors of beer available to the wide variety of pallets in the known galaxy. This particular type has been very popular with your people, Skoocom,” Fergus said to the Rohbandi merchant. He turned up his bottle and drank deep, foamy gulps.

“Drink it while it’s cold though,” Chico added. “It doesn’t taste nearly the same as it warms up.”

“And after you finish those,” Trae interrupted. He opened a separate compartment on the hover wagon and produced a bottle of dark amber liquid and a small wooden box. “I am about to share with you a sacred rite of passage of manhood on our planet. A rite passed down from father to son for hundreds of generations.”

“Now this is beginning to become an interesting evening,” Sleed said. He sniffed cautiously at the open beer bottle. “Though if this beer tastes as bad as it smells, this may have been a complete waste of my time.”

“Oh, I don’t think the aroma is all that bad,” Juuls disagreed. She took a long drink from the bottle. A contemplative smile crossed her face. “Strangely sour, but not unpleasant.”

Sleed deeply sniffed at it once again and cringed. His body heaved. “Then you do not have any idea of what tastes good and what doesn’t.”

“Then by all means, try this,” Trae suggested as he sat four shot glasses down in front of the disgusted Crogt. “This is some of the finest Scotch whiskey known to man. I was assured by the distillery that it has been aged the last twenty-two years in charred oak barrels.”

Sleed looked at the amber liquid with skepticism as Trae decanted it from the ornate glass bottle.

“Now before you taste it, you must first try another of the finest things Earth has to offer in the way of goods.” Trae opened the small wooden box and produced a dark, thumb sized cigar. He closed his eyes and breathed deep as he passed the cigar under his nose. “This, lady and gentlemen,” he explained, presenting the cigar for the others to see. “Is the finest of Cuban cigars, rolled by the witches three on the backs of Sabine virgins.” He reached into his pocket and produced a gold-plated cigar cutter. Carefully, he removed the tip of the cigar, retrieved a similarly gold-plated flip lighter and lit the cigar, closing the lighter with a snap. “You see,” he said between thick puffs of smoke. “The proper way to smoke and enjoy a thing of such fine quality is to combine it with something of comparable quality.” Trae picked up one of the shot glasses and dipped the unlit end of the cigar into the Scotch, then once again began to puff at the cigar. Inhaling deeply, he slammed back the shot of Scotch, then exhaled the thickly sweet aroma through his nostrils, letting the liquid linger on his tongue before swallowing. He offered the box to Sleed, who sniffed at it with interest.

“It does smell quite intoxicating,” the Crogt agreed. He picked up one of the large cigars awkwardly from the ornate wooden box with his three long, gangly fingers. He passed the cigar beneath his nose just as Trae had. His four, triangular pupiled eyes rolled back into his goblin-like head. “This is delightfully decadent. Almost arousing,” he said, then tasted the end of the cigar. “Oh my,” he gasped. “You said this is called a cigar,” he asked slowly, careful to properly pronounce the word. “What is it made of,” he asked curiously. Trae reached over with the cutter and snipped the tip as Sleed picked up the lighter. He flipped it open and proficiently struck the flint, lighting the cigar.

“It is made from the leaves of a plant called tobacco,” Trae continued, “which is native to the American continents back on Earth.”

Sleed puffed at the cigar as Trae had done. “This is quite enjoyable.” The Crogt eagerly grinned between puffs.

“Now dip it in the Scotch as I did and tell me what you think,” Trae reminded.

The goblin-like alien did as instructed while the others eagerly watched. He smiled a pleasantly surprised smile as he puffed on the Scotch dipped cigar.

“It may make me wretch before we are done here,” Juuls admitted as she fanned at the smoke which drifted across the table.

“We also have a number of other exotic items from the far reaches of our home world you may wish to try,” Fergus reassured. He removed a number of other bottles from the wagon’s compartments, placing them at the center of the table. “Please, help yourselves to inspect or taste these items as you each see fit to do so. We have a wide variety of samples, baubles and collectable chachkies. Cold refreshing bottles of Coke-a-cola, a global favorite for hundreds of years,” he said, popping the tops of the icy cold bottles. “We also have a number of other beverages, root beer, made from the bark of the Sassafras tree. Iced tea and iced coffee, both of which have hot counterparts which are consumed as equally as the cold variant,” he said, placing a number of empty glasses onto the table. Fergus quickly added ice to each of them and poured the coffee and tea into separate glasses.”

“I’ll take a Coke if you don’t mind,” Casraownan said as he quickly snatched an open bottle from the table. His nose twitched as the bubbly sweet liquid tickled his nose.

Skoocom picked up a bottle and chugged as Casraownan did, then exhaled with a loud belch. “This is an interesting flavor and sensation,” the Rohbondi laughed.

“Oh, did you guys bring any bubble gum,” Chico asked, getting up from the couch and looking over the table.

“Yeah, here you go,” Fergus said. He ripped open a package and tossed a piece to Chico.

“Bubble gum,” Juuls inquired, shaking her head from the lack of understanding.

“You chew it,” Chico said. “It’s like, you chew it for the flavor or you chew it to blow bubbles and occupy yourself. Here, watch,” he said as he popped the piece into his mouth and began to chew, expertly blowing a small bubble before popping it. “See, it can be something to occupy yourself as well as taste good and give your breath a minty fresh smell.”

“It already smells disgusting,” Sleed said. He frowned in disgust at the small package as Chico opened it beside him.

“Let me try this bubble gum if you would please,” Juuls requested.

“Gladly,” Fergus replied, handing over the small wrapped morsel. “Now be mindful, this brand has a liquid center which will burst open once you begin to chew. So don’t be surprised when this happens.”

Juuls eagerly opened the soft candy and examined it before gently placing it into her mouth. “Oh— this is quite wonderful and refreshing already and I have yet to even chew! The effervescent tingling sensation of it resting on my tongue alone is wonderful. The flavor though, it reminds me of something familiar, but I cannot recall from where.”

“Go ahead and bite down on it and see what you think,” Trae suggested.

The Sf’Rums’s eyes went wide as she bit down onto the soft candy. “Oh my,” She gasped. A solemn tear escaped and ran down her cheek as she slowly chewed. “This reminds me of when I was a very small child on my home planet. Myself, my siblings and my cousins would spend a season on my grandfather’s lands in the south of the Urwel forests. We spent many hours playing in those forests, unsupervised. One of the most sought after treats of those visits were the Prechworms that lived in fallen logs. It was a small skill to find them. They did not like newly fallen trees, nor did they like the old, desiccated husks. You had to quietly find the right one, then quickly open its surface in order to catch the grubs. They were sweet, refreshing and exploded flavor into your mouth very much like this bubble gum.” Another tear escaped her puffy eyes. “I have not thought of those memories in decades. I thank you very much for this and will gladly place an order for this item.”

“We can get to the orders a little later,” Trae offered. “For now, sample and enjoy the wares.” Trae dug into another of the compartments of the wagon and produced a jar and three plastic spoons. “This is a delicacy which began in the southern United States. It is made from a root nut called a peanut. It can be smooth or crunchy, sweet or savory and can easily be made to the required taste of your species.” He opened the jar and spooned out a portion for each of the aliens at the table. “Just remember to take a drink with it. We wouldn’t want you to choke on a spoonful of peanut butter.”

Juuls put up a hand to the proffered spoon almost immediately. “I can smell it from here already. I believe I should pass on this item,” she said with a hard swallow of bile.

Skoocom made loud smacking sounds as he tried to clear the thick condiment from his mouth. “It tastes, bland, I suppose,” he said, questioningly.

“I agree with the fur ball,” Sleed said. “It is bland and uninteresting.” Suddenly, his goblin-like ears perked up as all four eyes locked onto something of interest. He perched slightly upon the table as if ready to pounce. “What is that?” Sleed quietly hissed.

“What is what,” Fergus asked, looking around.

“That.” Sleed pointed toward the dirt filled cavity of the wagon where Woody was planted.

“Hu. Well hell, Woody, I didn’t know you had worms,” Fergus said with a chuckle. “You know they make medicine for that sort of thing.” With no effort, Fergus retrieved the fat nightcrawler from the soil and held it in his hand.

“The witches placed those creatures in my roots against my wishes,” Woody complained. “They said these creatures would help to refresh the soil and improve my overall health.”

Fergus held out the fat worm toward Sleed who watched it like a hungry predator. “You were talking about this?”

“Yesss…,” the Crogt hissed.

Fergus looked at the worm, then back to Sleed. “Well here ya go. Give it a try and tell me what you think.” He tossed the worm onto the table in front of the Crogt.

Sleed tilted his head curiously from one side to the other, as a bird examining its prey. He hovered as the large worm began to slink across the table top in an attempt to escape, then with blinding speed, dove and slurped up the morsel in one seamless motion.

“Well alrighty then,” Trae blurted.

“How many tons of these creatures can you supply,” Sleed demanded.

“Would you want them live or prepackaged,” Fergus countered.

“Live of course! Who in their right mind would want something as tasty as this tainted by packaging? It must wriggle and writhe down into one’s gullet to get the complete sensation.”

Fergus looked back to Trae with a questioningly glance.

“I will have to ask around to find out quantities, but it will take some time,” Trae said.

Fergus turned back to Sleed, “It will take some time my friend. In the meantime, how about taking a look at these other items of interest?”

Fergus placed a number of cheeses onto the table, proficiently cutting into each block with a knife to make bite size pieces, then turned back to the wagon and opened the last compartment. “The tea is grown and processed by Chinese monks, who dedicate their lives to the art and practice of patience and focus. The benefit of this is the beautifully ornate work which they create during their time of focus where they painstaking form and paint works such as these by hand. Each one a work of art in their own right, but dedicated to the exact duplication of the original.” Fergus placed an ornamental teapot, complete with fake gold leaf gently on the table.

“This is truly something of elegance and beauty,” Juuls said. Carefully, the Sf’Rums picked up the cheap flea market tea pot and admired the deep blues and reds accented with fake gold leaf. “In what quantity could you deliver goods of this quality and in what frequency? I am almost certain to make a fortune throughout the Sf’Rums worlds with goods such as this.”

“Generally, the item in your hand is used to brew a hot version of this beverage,” Fergus explained, handing over a glass of iced tea to Juuls.

Juuls gently placed the teapot on the table and took the offered glass. Her eyes widened at the slightest sip of the ice-cold beverage. “Oh my, it is so bitter, yet so refreshing at the same time.” She gasped and took another sip.

Following Juuls lead, Skoocom eagerly took up a glass of the iced tea and quickly began to drink down the beverage, then just as quickly spitting it back into his glass. “That is detestable!” Even through the layers of brown fur across his face, Skoocom wore the wrinkling cringe of disgust fully on his face.

“Not everything will be for everyone,” Trae commented. “Our differences in genetic and chemical makeup are one factor, but above all else, our personal tastes are an unfathomable factor which cannot be calculated.”

“As for quantity and delivery,” Fergus continued. “We have eight cases of ceramics such as these in the hold of the ship, as well as a number of cases of each of the different drinks and such.”

“And to each of you,” Trae added. “We will pass along, free of charge, a case of each of the items which we have presented to you today in token of friendship and sincerity of these trade negotiations; so you may take them back to your people to better obtain a consensus of demand.”

“That is very generous of you, human,” Juuls said, saluting with her glass of sweet tea before gulping down the remainder and holding out her glass. She clinked the ice in her glass for a refill.

“Almost too generous if you ask me,” Sleed said in an accusatory tone. Ringlets of smoke drifted upward from the cigar which dangled out of the side of his mouth as he reflexively puffed at it.

“It is the least we can do in hopes of opening dialogs of trade and friendship among our peoples,” Trae said as straight faced as he could before losing his composure to an explosive chuckle.

“I told you that you couldn’t drink your own kool-aid,” Fergus chidded.

“Yeah yeah, I just couldn’t hold it in any more,” Trae said.

“Drink your own kool-aid,” Skoocom looked at the humans, shaking his head in confusion.

“It’s an old American saying which basically means you believe your own bullshit,” Fergus said plainly.

“Bullshit?” Sleed starred curiously.

“It could take a little bit to explain,” Chico added.

“Can I please go back to the ship now,” interrupted Woody’s robotic voice.

“Yeah, go on ahead,” Trae said. “Take Chico and Cass with you and deliver the gifts to the ships of our friends here if you would please.”

Juuls suddenly stretched herself fully across the table, reaching for the blocks of cheese Fergus had set out. “Why am I suddenly so hungry?” She stuffed a large hunk of cheese into her cheek, barely chewing before inserting another. “Oh my this is soooooo good…” she giddily sang.

“Um, hey Trae,” Fergus said, suddenly worried.

“Yeah, I see,” Trae sighed. “I’m pretty sure that’s not good.”

“Ya think,” Fergus groused. “She’s freaking stoned, man.”

Juuls giggled uncontrollably, spitting half masticated pieces of cheese across the table from where she lay.

“Just keep her on her side and don’t let her go to sleep,” Chico advised as he hurriedly exited the room.

“Yeah,” Trae said. “I’m sure she’ll be fine in a few hours, or days maybe.”

“Maybe we should get the folks sampling to sign waivers or something next time,” Fergus suggested.

Trae turned to Fergus with a look of utter disbelief. “Really?”

“It sure can’t hurt,” Fergus said. “I mean, look at her. How were we to know this would happen?” He turned and started for the door, then turned back to the alien attendees at the table. “This concludes our show and tell session for today. Please enjoy yourselves and rest assured the free samples are being delivered as we speak. Feel free to fill out a survey or to leave questions or comments with the waitress before you leave. Again, I thank you for your time.” He half bowed then quickly made his way to the door.

Trae turned back to the alien merchants and took a deep breath. “We will return in one standard month. If you wish to place orders for any of the supplied samples, we would be happy to take your orders at this later date. We will also return with other goods to sample. Good day to you lady and gentlemen,” Trae said with a bow, then hurriedly followed Fergus out of the room. He sprinted ahead, easily catching up to Fergus who trailed just behind the others, slowed by Woody’s progress into the main room of the bar.

“I keep getting this nagging flash back of Goa, India and the time the Colombian fruit we were hauling was more than just fruit,” Fergus expressed.

“You’re just being paranoid, Ferg,” Trae reassured him. “Don’t worry, we’ll get out of here and in a months’ time we’ll have a full cargo hold that will turn us a small fortune. It’s a sure thing.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. We’re going to clean house with these guys,” Fergus proudly stated.

Alarms erupted in a cacophony within the tight confines of the corridor as fire suppression systems dispersed the waiting contents of their pipes.

“This had nothing to do with us,” Trae shouted reassuringly toward Fergus.

“Just go! Get back to the ship and we can sort it all out…,” Fergus’s words were cut short as Juuls wrapped her naked form around Fergus.

“There is my handsome little human,” Juuls sang, then firmly planted a long, open mouthed kiss on Fergus. She playfully slapped his face, then drunkenly danced and skipped her way through the artificial rainfall and over the hover wagon that blocked the path into the main room of the bar.

“Okay, so maybe you’re right,” Trae admitted. “Maybe we should get waivers signed before giving out samples.”

“Yup,” Fergus agreed, wiping water from his face. “Let’s just get back to the ship.” Fergus slogged through the damp corridor into the bar. “I need to brush my teeth. Who knew blue lizard lady would taste like chicken?”


2019 by William Joseph Roberts

Bio: William Joseph Roberts... My short story, “When Vulcans Cry” was published earlier this year in the Sha’Daa: Toys anthology from Moon Dream Press/Copper Dog Publishing. 

In a previous lifetime, William Joseph Roberts was an F-15 mechanic and Staff Sergeant in the United States Air Force. He has traveled the world and experienced many things in his few years. During his tenure in this lifetime, he has been called a Jack of all trades, a Renaissance man and insane squirrel wrangler by his peers. Since his enlistment ended, he has perused careers as an industrial and architectural designer, design engineer, and now, eclectic writer. William Joseph Roberts currently resides in the quaint southern town of Chickamauga, Georgia with his loving wife, three freaky smart nerd children, and small pack of fur babies. My current web links are: 

Webpage: William Joseph Roberts--Insane squirrel wrangler, father, storyteller

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E-mail: William Joseph Roberts

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