A Gathering of Spies

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In 1943, America thought it had rounded up all the German spies on its soil. Now Germany's greatest weapon - a woman with special talents, both for tradecraft and for death - is headed home with critical information about the still-developing atomic bomb, and the Allies chief hope for stopping her is a British agent with agendas of his own. Originally recruited into MI5 to pose as a double agent, he's been telling Germans that he'd do anything to free his wife, a prisoner of a Polish concentration camp. This ...

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Overview

In 1943, America thought it had rounded up all the German spies on its soil. Now Germany's greatest weapon - a woman with special talents, both for tradecraft and for death - is headed home with critical information about the still-developing atomic bomb, and the Allies chief hope for stopping her is a British agent with agendas of his own. Originally recruited into MI5 to pose as a double agent, he's been telling Germans that he'd do anything to free his wife, a prisoner of a Polish concentration camp. This happens to be true. The question is: how much would he really do to set her free? Where are his loyalties exactly?

As the two spies play cat-and-mouse across three countries, the ambiguities deepen, each figure showing new sides, each action providing new twists, until at last both agents are swept into a series of climaxes as breathtakingly unpredictable as they are inevitable.

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Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
A female Nazi agent harboring the secrets of Los Alamos is pitted against an M15 agent with secrets of his own in this "engaging" debut "reminiscent of Jack Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed." "A page-turner full of intrigue and action," with "historical figures, double agents, and the race to develop the bomb. Altman is a bright new voice in the espionage genre."
Jack Higgins
If there are thriller writers better than this, I'd like to know who they are. John Altman is a major new talent on the scene. —
Kirkus Reviews
A debut suspenser chock-full of the requisite genre elements—plus a lot more gore than even those specs call for. Katerina Heinrich is a Nazi agent. To leave it at that, however, is to understate considerably. She's not only a spy, but she may be the best spy who's ever lived. She's cunning, trained to kill in umpteen thousand different ways, has the beauty of sirens, and is motivated to the point of zealotry. We meet her first in New York in 1933, where the far-seeing Nazis have planted her. By page three she's committed murder, her victim a blameless young woman whose identity she appropriates. It's this act that eventually—plotting gets a bit shaky here—leads her to Los Alamos in time to cotton onto atomic bomb secrets, which she's determined to deliver to the Fatherland. In the meantime, in England, Professor Harry Winterbotham, an elderly, scholarly literature teacher, is following his own unlikely path into the espionage business. He's been recruited by MI-5 to help perpetrate the famous ‘Operation Double Cross,' the intricate feint that bamboozled the Germans into guessing wrong about D-Day. Though Winterbotham is no ideologue, he's no less motivated than Katerina. He adores his wife Ruth. The Nazis are holding her in Dachau, and Winterbotham has his own, very private plan to gain her freedom no matter what the cost. Predictably, then, two paths are made to converge in order to stage a climactic confrontation. And so there they are—the old professor and the young Mata Hari—with their hands on each other's throats while the fate of nations hangs in the balance. Beatings, shootings, knifings, stranglings, some of it graphically detailed, mostofit competently handled—but all of it oh-so-familiar. First printing of 75,000; $100,000 ad/promo
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780399146411
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 6/26/2000
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.36 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

John Altman is a graduate of Harvard, where he designed his own major, Development and Construction of the Novel. Although the major required him to write three novels, they were all destroyed in a fire at his parents' home. He lives in New York City, and is at work on a sequel to A Gathering of Spies.

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Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


Salisbury, Wiltshire December 1942

They had been driving in silence for twenty minutes. Winterbotham's eyes were beginning to drift shut, despite his best efforts to keep them open, when Colonel Fredricks suddenly said, "You know, Professor, you're not at all what I expected."

For a few moments, Winterbotham considered letting it pass. He knew what the colonel meant, and he wasn't in the mood for a fight. He was too goddamned tired. But then his pride-his old bedraggled pride, never knowing when to stay down-forced him to respond.

"How do you mean, Colonel?" he asked.

The colonel let out a small chuckle. "I had been led to expect a sort of wildcat, I suppose."

Winterbotham looked out his window for another moment before answering. The countryside drifted past in absolute darkness; he couldn't make out even the top of the tree line. For the previous two years, all of England had been shutting itself down every night when dusk fell. He supposed they served their purpose, these voluntary blackouts; they made it difficult for the Luftwaffe to find their targets. But they also took a toll, one that was purely psychological but very real. Hitler hadn't won the war, not yet-but he had forced them to live in darkness, like animals in caves.

Then Winterbotham turned his head slowly to look at the man sitting beside him in the gloom. Colonel Fredricks was a tall, pallid man who resembled a cadaver. In the darkness, Winterbotham could see only a pale smudge, which would have been his face.

"A wildcat," he mused.

"So I had been warned."

"I'm sorry to disappoint you."

"Oh, don'tapologize, Professor. It is my great pleasure to find you..." He trailed off.

"Manageable?" Winterbotham said.

"Yes," Fredricks said, relieved. "That's exactly right."

"You thought I would demand to know where we're going," Winterbotham said, "and I would make the trip as unpleasant for you as possible."

"It had occurred to me. Yes."

"So it must have been Taylor who sent you."

Fredricks didn't answer.

"Taylor has always overestimated me," Winterbotham said, and allowed himself a thin smile at the man's silence.

"I'm afraid I can't-"

"I haven't demanded to know our destination," Winterbotham said, "because I already know our destination, Colonel Fredricks. We're going to a small nondescript house somewhere in the countryside, correct? I can't see that it much matters if I know the precise location or not. Once we've arrived, we'll meet with my old friend Professor Andrew Taylor, correct? And he will explain the reason for this rather bizarre invitation you have extended me, correct?"

Again, no answer.

"I haven't asked you what the matter is," Winterbotham said, "for the simple reason that you don't know what the matter is. Isn't that right, Colonel? You're his retriever, but you don't know what you're retrieving, let alone why, correct?"

Fredricks cleared his throat. "We're nearly there," he said stiffly.

Winterbotham turned and looked out his window again, feeling vaguely satisfied.

He knew they were near Salisbury because he spotted the extraordinary, unmistakable spire of the gothic cathedral-a stab of darkness just slightly darker than the sky behind it-shortly before they stopped. The car pulled up outside a small Tudor house that stood among a row of similar houses, modest dwellings all, with crossed slats of honey-colored wood on the peaked roofs.

Winterbotham waited for Colonel Fredricks to open his door for him, then stepped out into the night, trying to keep his teeth from chattering. A bitter wind immediately took his chestnut hair and increased its disarray. He pulled his tweed jacket more tightly around himself, crinkling his eyes against motes of flying dust.

The room they entered had a claustrophobically low ceiling; it smelled of cabbage and fish. The only light came from a crackling fire in a stone hearth. Blackout shades had been drawn over the windows nonetheless. A wireless radio somewhere, turned low, was playing softly "She's Funny That Way."

Winterbotham had guessed right: Andrew Taylor was sitting in one of two easy chairs by the fireplace. He rose as they came into the room, and offered his hand. He was a man of a certain age, like Winterbotham himself, and, like Winterbotham, he was a man of a certain weight, even in the midst of wartime rationing.

Winterbotham had not seen Taylor for several years, not since they'd been teaching together at the university. His first impression was that the man looked older, more haggard, more harried. His second was that he also looked healthier, in a strange way: His eyes were sparkling, and his handshake was firm. The war was doing him good, Winterbotham realized. Sometimes you found people like that; these dark days brought out the best in them. They were the Churchills of the world, the ones who thrived on conflict.

"Evening, old chap," Taylor said. "They found you."

"That they did. In my bath."

"Sorry about that, Harry. Come in, have a seat. Thank you, Colonel. That will be all."

Colonel Fredricks executed a courtly half bow, then stepped back out through the front door and closed it behind himself.

"You've got him well trained," Winterbotham remarked.

"Not I. It's the Royal Artillery who trained him so well. Tea?"

"Something stronger, if you've got it."

Winterbotham settled down in one of the easy chairs beside the fire. A marble chessboard had been set up on a table between the chairs. He inspected it with a small smile. Perhaps Taylor had dragged him all the way out here simply because he was hungry for a good game of chess ... although he rather doubted it.

Taylor handed him a chipped mug and sat opposite the chessboard, holding one of his own. Winterbotham raised the mug and sniffed suspiciously. Whiskey. He took a sip into his mouth and rolled it around. Not just whiskey, but good whiskey. How long had it been since he'd had good whiskey?

"You're looking well," Taylor said.

Winterbotham glanced at him with a raised eyebrow-he knew how he was looking, and well had nothing to do with it-and drank some more of the good whiskey without comment.

Taylor seemed content to let the quiet linger. The fire crackled and the wireless hummed and a whistle of wind rustled through the eaves of the house. Presently, Winterbotham turned his attention to the chessboard. The ranks were arranged in starting position. He reached out, took the king's pawn between thumb and forefinger, and moved it forward two spaces. The king's pawn opening, so simple, so workable, had always driven Taylor mad with frustration. Taylor felt that every move in a chess game, as in life, should be a feat of brilliance. He had no appreciation for the simple pleasures of a job well done if there was not some element of spectacle.

Taylor leaned forward, rubbing his chin, and then countered with the knight's pawn-nothing ever could be simple with him.

He said, "I didn't bring you here to play chess."

"I didn't think so," Winterbotham said, bringing a bishop out.

"I heard about Ruth," Taylor said. "I'm sorry, Harry."

Winterbotham nodded without looking up.

"Any word on her?" Taylor pressed. "Any hope?"

Winterbotham shrugged. "There's always hope," he allowed.

In Ruth's case, however, there wasn't much. She had gone to Warsaw, despite Winterbotham's warnings, in the summer of 1939. She had family there-two brothers, assorted cousins-and she had been determined to convince them to come out before it was too late. But by the time she arrived, it already was too late. Hitler and his SS squads marched in a week later. Now she was either dead or imprisoned; Winterbotham had no way of knowing. But her chances, as he long ago had admitted to himself, were not good.

He remembered that Taylor had a wife of his own. He couldn't quite recall her name. Alice, he thought, or possibly Alicia-or possibly Helen, probably Helen. He took a chance.

"How's Helen?"

Taylor was staring at the chessboard. "She's passed on," he said. "Nearly two years now."

"The bombs?"

"Tuberculosis."

"I'm sorry, Andrew."

"Mm," Taylor said.

For ten minutes, then, they played without speaking. Taylor tripped himself up, as was his habit, with his own ambition. He played dramatically, unwilling to take the time to build simple defenses, always looking for an unexpected cross- board coup.

Winterbotham whittled him down pawn by pawn, then split his king and his rook, nabbed the rook, and began to press his opponent's flank. He finished his mug of whiskey and waited to be offered another. Finally, Taylor tipped his king over and laid it down in resignation.

"The more things change..." he said with a sour smile. "Care for another drink?"

"I won't refuse."

"I didn't think you would. So, old chap, still teaching?"

"You must know that I'm not."

"I do know that, as a matter of fact. But I've been unable to discover exactly what it is that you are doing."

"Very little," Winterbotham said. "Locking myself in the library with my books, for the most part. Except when I'm being mysteriously interrupted during my bath and dragged out into the countryside."

"That's a shame," Taylor said. "A bloody shame."

He had fetched the bottle; now he refilled the mugs and then sat again, looking at Winterbotham contemplatively.

"It's a waste of talent, is what it is," he said. "England could use you. Now more than ever."

"The way she uses you?"

"Mm," Taylor said.

"It does seem to agree with you-whatever it is that you're doing."

"Mm."

"Bringing your extensive knowledge of the classics to bear on the Nazis," Winterbotham said. "What scares them the most, Andrew? Chaucer? Or is it Shakespeare?"

"You're digging," Taylor said, smiling.

"I'm curious. I don't understand exactly how elderly professors like ourselves are of service to His Majesty in wartime, I'll admit."

"How curious are you?"

"Mildly."

"Curious enough to want to know more?"

"I wouldn't have asked otherwise."

"Honestly, old chap, I wish I could tell you everything I'm doing. But I'm afraid that's not possible."

"Yet you didn't bring me out here just for a game of chess."

"No."

"Then why?"

Taylor chewed on his lip for a moment. "There was a time," he said slowly, "when you were not eager about this war."

Winterbotham said nothing.

"You were rather vocal with your opinions," Taylor said. "Extremely vocal, as I recall. What was it you called Churchill?"

"You know very well," Winterbotham said crisply.

"Of course I do. You called him a warmonger. You don't have many friends in my sphere, old chap, I'll tell you that. Do you know what they call you?"

"I could hazard a guess."

"Go ahead."

"Something along the lines of an appeaser."

"Right again," Taylor said. "You'd have been happy to sit back and watch Hitler take all of Europe, they say, just as long as we were left out of it. Let Germany and Russia take care of each other."

Winterbotham looked at the chessboard, at Taylor's king resting on its side. He took a long drink from the mug in his hand. A dark shadow crossed his face.

"We all make mistakes," he murmured.

"That we do."

"Perhaps that was one of mine."

"Perhaps it was."

"Are you telling me, Andrew, that you can't tell me what you do because of my politics?"

"I'm telling you that I need to be very careful with what I tell you, old chap, because of your politics. In fact, I'm taking quite a risk just by meeting with you."

"So I should be flattered."

"You should be."

"Then I am. I'm sincerely flattered. Now, tell me: What can I do for you?"

"Same old Winterbotham," Taylor said. "Too impatient for his own good."

"Same old Taylor," Winterbotham answered. "Too fond of games for the sake of games."

"We're living in a new age now, Harry. We're fighting a new kind of war. Games are what we do."

Winterbotham waited for elaboration.

"We're always looking for qualified men," Taylor said, "to help us win the games we play."

"What sort of games, exactly?"

"Ah!" Taylor smacked his hands together. "That's the rub, isn't it? The nature of the game is the game. I can't tell you anything without telling you everything. And I can't tell you everything, old chap, until I'm satisfied that you're on our side-completely."

Winterbotham drained the mug in his hand. "My time may be worthless these days," he said, "but it's all the time I have. You know whose side I'm on, Andrew. Get to the point."

"You don't understand, Harry. If I tell you what we're up to, here, then there's no turning back. Either you're with us or you're not. And if you're not..." He hesitated, looking at the fire.

"If I'm not?"

"If I choose to bring you into this and it doesn't work out, you could not be allowed to ... remain at liberty."

"I see."

"And I've no wish to deny you your liberty, old chap."

"Of course not."

"So I would need to be absolutely certain, before I could tell you any more, that you are the right man for the job-that you will do whatever is required of you."

"I suppose," Winterbotham said, "that I couldn't promise that until I knew what would be required of me, could I?"

Taylor shook his head. "That won't do."

"It's the best I can offer."

"Then I've wasted your time. I'm sorry to have brought you out here. Although I did enjoy the game."

He stood up suddenly and began to move toward the front door, leaving his drink by the chessboard.

"I'll have Fredricks take you back. And I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention- "

"This is hardly fair, Andrew."

"What?"

"You can't expect me to offer my services if I don't know what I'm volunteering for."

"Perhaps not. Well, then, I'm sorry to have-"

"Surely you can give me a clue."

"I'm afraid not."

He opened the front door, paused, and then turned to look at Winterbotham.

"Have a think on it, Harry," he suggested. "Colonel Fredricks will give you my card. Ring me if you change your mind."

Winterbotham looked back at him for a moment, without moving. Then he stood, formally, and buttoned his tweed jacket. He stepped out past Taylor without saying a word, and made for the car by the side of the road.

Taylor closed the door behind him.

The man who had been listening from the next room stepped in.

"I told you," the man said, "he doesn't want to have anything to do with it. He just wants to sit it out."

Taylor shook his head. "Bloody hell," he said.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 15 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Absolutely Riveting!

    Another spin on the duel for possession of the atomic bomb told with edgy characters in a Hitchcock-like plot. The fate of World War II hangs on two people, each driven by conflicting obsessions, and the playout overturns the reader's expected resolution. The hero is a potty professor and the villain is a seductive murderess--these contrasts alone transgress the usual images of high-flying spies and evil Nazis, but they do set up intriguing pawns in a game of wits between sides within their own ranks. For a first novel, it is outstanding, and stands amongst the best of Follett, Le Carre and Silva.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2002

    Disappointment over what could have been a great novel

    Excellent plot but totally unbelievable. Writer has an engaging style but characters and situations are seriously lacking in reality. It could have been so much better. This book will be frustrating for those who enjoy more believable WWII fiction. Writer has a long way to go before he reaches the stature of Jack Higgins and WEB Griffin. I hesitate to recommend this novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2002

    Implausible but loads of fun

    'A Gathering of Spies' is a great book to read as an antidote to the grim, dour and depressing 'Unlikely Spy.' In that book, the sympathetic female spy is gunned down -- in this book, the sympathetic female spy pretty much wipes the floor with the competition and comes close to winning WWII for Germany single-handed. Good thing she fails, of course, but I would love to see a sequel with Katrina -- fighting for our side, this time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2002

    Fun but silly

    Okay, Katrina is wonderful and it's great to root for the villainess. But the story is so ridiculous. Why does she have to kill her way from New Mexico to New York when she could've jumped the border and gone to the German Embassy in Mexico (a neutral country in WWII.) Just saying 'it's only a book,' doesn't cut it. The author should have tried harder.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2001

    Outstanding Spy Thriller

    I picked this up at the airport and was unexpectedly delighted at the quality of the writing. The book cover tells me this is a first novel, and I look forward to more from this obviously talented writer. It's a real page turner!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2001

    An Indiana Jones paced book

    The book read like a Indiana Jones film, but the characters lacked backbone. Did I care if the main character got killed? No. But if this is the author's first novel or so I will expect alot more from him

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2001

    Highly Recommended!

    A wonderful find, this debut novel by newcomer John Altman has everything I look for in a good spy novel - well defined characters, plot twists, historical detail, intrigue, and plenty of violence for good measure. This is an author to be watched!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2001

    A Fast Read But Lacks Credibility

    John Altman's debut novel, A Gathering Of Spies, is a WWII spy thriller that provides a fast read and lots of action. Unfortunately, I can't give this book more than just a 'fair' rating (i.e. 2 stars) for two reasons. One reason is that Altman's characters lack sufficient depth for me to care about any of them. The second reason is that while the plot takes many twists and turns, many of them lack credibility and are too predictable. I think Altman has the potential to be a future bestselling author and a writer of well-written books. However,unlike some other reviewers, in my opinion, this particular work does not deserve for Altman to be compared to some of today's better spy thriller authors. Maybe he'll be deserving of this comparison in the future, but not now.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2000

    Old Fashioned Thriller

    Mr.Altman has written an old fashioned thriller with some new twists, mainly the use of a female protaganist who vanquishes most of her male foes. It's hard to put this book down once you start it. Add it to your Christmas list.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2000

    An historical thriller

    This historical thriller is very enjoyable. The author skillfully intertwines fictional characters with real characters and real historical events. The heroine's achievements stretch the imagination at times, but certainly keep the plot moving.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2000

    First Rate Debut

    It was an unexpected surprise to pick up this first novel (mainly because Higgins was enthusiastic) and find a first rate espionage thriller, action packed and full of intrigue and surprises. What a find! Although some of Ms. Heinrich's escapades are implausible upon close examination, they are nevertheless always entertaining.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2000

    Intriguing Debut Novel

    This debut novel by John Altman is full of intrigue, quick paced plot twists, well developed characters, lots of violence, and gray areas often not seen in conventional spy thrillers. It's a thoroughly enjoyable read and I predict a stellar career for Altman. I'd like to see a little less violence in his future books.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2000

    Terrific Summer Read!

    I took several books with me on vacation and this debut novel was by far the best. It's full of historical detail and fast paced action. It's pure entertainment from the first page to the last, and I'm eager to read Altman's sequel. Keep 'em coming!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2000

    First Rate Spy Thriller!

    As a history buff, I was very impressed by this debut novel from newcomer John Altman. All the intrigue of World War II comes alive in this action packed thriller. I particularly liked the Princeton connection and wonder what Princeton University mathematics professor the Richard Carter character was based upon. This book could have been called Kat's Tale - based on the antagonist Katarina/Catherine - whose skills in the spygame are virtually unrivaled. Keep these books coming!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2000

    Incredible.

    Rarely have I read writing to match that of this John Altman fellow. His unbelievable narrative ability and creativity left me spellbound. I'm not usually a reader of spy fiction, but I'm looking forward to more from this author.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Excellent WW II espionage tale

    V.1353 is Katarina Heinrich, a German spy trained to be the best at infiltrating American society. Her job is to gather information to enable the Fatherland to win the upcoming war. In December 1933, Katarina kills Catherine Danielson and assumes the dead woman¿s identity. She moves to Princeton where she becomes a housekeeper for Richard Carter. Soon, Richard and ¿Catherine¿ marry. Katarina the spy becomes dormant. In 1942, her spouse obtains a top-secret job working on a weapon of mass destruction at Los Alamos. <P>Katarina kills someone else to use her identity to bring information on the project to Germany. Andrew Taylor recruits Harris Winterbotham to serve as a double agent, spying for the Germans. Harris knows the Germans have his wife incarcerated at the Dachau concentration camp and plans a triple cross to free his spouse. His actions lead him to a confrontation with the efficient and effective Katarina. <P>A GATHERING OF SPIES, John Altman¿s debut novel, is one of the year¿s best espionage thrillers. The action-packed tale dramatizes life in Germany, Britain, and the United States at the early part of World War II. The realistic characters include heroes and villains ordering innocent people to perform abominable tasks or else. Mr. Altman opens with a triumph that hopefully will be accompanied by more WW II spy stories. <P>Harriet Klausner

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