Mortal Sinsby Penelope Williamson, Penn Williamson
In 1927 New Orleans, attorney Charles St. Clair is brutally stabbed, and his wife, Hollywood goddess Remy Lelourie, is found covered in his blood. Detective Daman Rourke, who loved and lost Remy years ago, is torn between old loyalties and his pursuit of the truth, and follows a trail that plunges him into the secrets and sins of New Orleans's oldest family. See more details below
In 1927 New Orleans, attorney Charles St. Clair is brutally stabbed, and his wife, Hollywood goddess Remy Lelourie, is found covered in his blood. Detective Daman Rourke, who loved and lost Remy years ago, is torn between old loyalties and his pursuit of the truth, and follows a trail that plunges him into the secrets and sins of New Orleans's oldest family.
- Hachette Book Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)
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Blood was splattered and sprayed all over the walls and furniture. It lay in dark smears on the oiled wooden floor and pooled beneath the dead man's cut throat, glossy and syrupy, like blackberry wine.
Daman Rourke stood just within the shack's open door and tried not to breathe in the rank smell. He winced as the magnesium explosion of a flashlamp illuminated for an obscene moment the gashes in the dead man's white flesh and his bulging, glassy eyes.
"Sweet mercy," Rourke said.
The cop with the camera cast him a glance and then leaned over and pointed the lens at a cane knife that lay glued to the floor by a puddle of blood. "Day, my man. Welcome to the party," he said, as the flashlamp blew with another burst of white light. "Where you been at? I've had guys looking for you in every gin and hot pillow joint this side of the river."
Rourke resisted the urge to rub his hands over his face. It was past midnight at the end of a long day, beneath his linen suit coat his shirt was sticking to his back like wet paper, he had a scotch-and-rye headache throbbing behind his left eye, and he hated the smell of blood.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and smiled. "What can I say? I guess you didn't look in low enough places."
The other man's thick shoulders, which had been hunched up around his ears, relaxed. The smile worked, as always. Daman Rourke could charm anybody, and he knew it. Sometimes he did it for a reason, and sometimes just to get in the practice.
Rourke stayed where he was and let his partner come to him. The other cop's loose pongee suit was rumpledand sweat-stained, and his sparse light brown hair stuck up like tufts of salt grass on a sand dune. In this, the year of our Lord 1927, Fiorello Prankowski was the only homicide dick in the City That Care Forgot who wasn't Irish, but then he had been born and raised in Des Moines, and allowances were made for Yankees, who couldn't be expected to know better.
"The stiff's Charles St. Claire," he said. Fio had a sad, haggard face, as if all the cares New Orleans had forgotten he felt obliged to remember. "But then I guess I don't need to tell you that, since you both were probably altar boys together at St. Alphonsus, where you used to jerk off Saturday afternoons in the sacristy. Your mama likes to tell the story of how she got a little tipsy at his mama's wedding, and you, you bastard, once tried to screw his sister."
"Charles St. Claire never had a sister."
"Know him well, do you?"
"No," Rourke said, which was not the same thing as saying he wasn't acquainted with the man at all.
He knew it drove Fio crazy that in a city of half a million people, everybody was connected to everyone elsethrough blood or marriage, through shared secrets and shared desires. All those connections formed concentric and interlocking circles that no outsider could ever penetrate or understand.
Neither living nor dying in New Orleans was ever completely and truly what it seemed, but the trappings, the traditions, the rituals were all enshrined and made inviolate by a collective act of faith. You buried your family secrets deep and spun intricate, invisible webs to hide your sins from yourselves and from the world. And sometimes, thought Rourke, it was far better that the sins stayed hidden, the secrets safe.
"The Ghoul is here," Fio said, pointing his chin at the corpse, and at the man who was squatting over it.
Not that anyone could have missed him, for he had the thick, blubbery roundness of a walrus. The cops called him the Ghoul because he always smelled of rotting flesh. He spent his life in the bowels of the Criminal Courts Building, cutting open dead bodies and examining disgusting specimens under microscopes, drawing conclusions too wild ever to be admitted into court.
The feelings of aversion and distrust were mutual. Moses Mueller, coroner for New Orleans Parish for less than a year, already held to the firm belief that the collective intelligence of all the detectives on the force was only slightly above that of a mollusk.
"So what's he think?" Rourke asked as he made his reluctant way to the body. He hated looking at dead things.
"You asking me?" Fio said, following after and rolling his shoulders like a horse with an itch. "You know the Ghoulhe never gives us squat. He told me it was murder, like I was supposed to run out and stop the presses. Hell, I had to give up on my theory that the stiff went chasing himself around the room hacking at himself with a cane knife."
The Ghoul had leaned over to sniff at the corpse's gaping, blood-caked mouth. "Oh, man," Fio said. "Why does he do stuff like that?"
Rourke was trying to keep from stepping in the blood. It had dried in some places, in stacks like glossy black tiles scattered on the floor, but in other places it was still wet and sticky, and he had just bought his expensive-as-hell alligator wing tips with last week's winnings at the track. No matter how low he did go, he always went there in style.
Charles St. Claire had not died in style. His paisley silk robe gaped open, revealing naked flesh that had been literally bled white. His throat had been slit, his chest cavity ripped open, and his guts oozed out of a cut in his belly. A slash across his pelvis had left his penis hanging by a small string of what looked like gristle.
The Ghoul was smelling the corpse's hair now. Ash from the burning cigarette that drooped from a corner of his mouth sifted down into Charles St. Claire's open and glazed gray eyes.
Rourke almost flinched, half expecting those eyes to blink. With his gaping throat and his eyes wide open and filmed with a milky caul, the dead man almost seemed to be wearing a look of laughing surprise. Death: life's one sure thing. So what's the matter, Charlie St. Claire? Weren't you ready? The trouble is, Rourke thought, it was easy to forget what a playful trickster was good ol' Death. How, like a naked girl popping out of your birthday cake, he could still catch you bright-eyed and smiling foolishly.
The Ghoul had lifted the dead man's hand to peer at it closely. It had a deep gash across the palm and was missing a middle finger, but a gold watch and diamond pinkie ring glittered in the light from the flickering gasoliers.
"Any ideas as to when it happened?" Rourke asked as he hunkered down on his heels beside the body.
The coroner wiped the sweat off his upper lip. Cigarette smoke curled in steady streams out his nostrils. "Certainly not within the last hour or two or, perhaps, even threeregrettably one cannot be more precise." His words, as usual, were very precise, although with a flavor of the Old World about them. "Rigor mortis has started to set in in the eyelids and cheek muscles."
"He talks to you," Fio said. "How come he only talks to you?"
"He likes me." Rourke leaned over for a better look at the knife. It was heavy, wide-bladed, and hooked, and was supposed to be used for cutting sugarcane. "Well, diddy-wah-diddy," he said on a soft whistle. For a thumbprint, flashy as a neon sign, was etched in blood at the top of the blade.
"If that quaint colloquialism is meant to convey awe," the Ghoul said, "then I find I must agree with it." He pushed back up to his feet, his bulk shifting in lurches. "Such splendid arches and loops and whorls, and all distinct enough to be seen even with the naked eye. But before we do too much celebrating, I should point out that they could belong to the victim, who might have tried to wrest the weapon away from his attacker. Although it is, of course, always dangerous to speculate."
"Yeah? So maybe I'll just go on ahead and speculate that they're the killer's anyway. Just for what the hell." Not, Rourke thought, that he could count on it mattering. Many juries in New Orleans still tended to view the evidence of fingerprints as just so much hoodoo.
"Hey, get a look at this," Fio said. He had knelt to peer under a green leather wing-backed chair and now he lumbered back up, laughing. "It's the poor bastard's finger. His diddling finger." He laughed again and tossed the severed digit between the dead man's sprawled legs. "Better wrap it on up with the rest of him. What with his dick only swinging by a thread, he's gonna be needing something bonier to use on the chippies in hell."
Moses Mueller stared at the big cop, blinking against the cigarette smoke that floated before his face. "You are speaking," he said, "of a man."
"Hunh?" Fio said, and Rourke had to look down to hide a smile.
The smile faded, though, as he slowly stood with his gaze still on the dead man's face, on the sightless eyes. It wasn't so long ago some cops believed that the retinas captured their final view of life, like a photograph. Daman Rourke wished he could believe that those dying eyes had come to grasp all the truths that the living man had failed to see, but he knew that for a vain hope. If anything lingered in the eyes of the dead, it was what they had last felt in their hearts. Surprise, fear, perhaps, and an immense regret that this time the dying was happening to them, and that it was all, finally, going to be too late.
He lifted his head to find the coroner's eyes, small and hard like buckshot, studying him. "You have not asked me how he died, Lieutenant."
Fio blew a snort out his bent nose. "Gee. Maybe the cane knife and the big red grin he's wearing across his throat are some kinda clues."
"He drowned," Rourke said.
Fio laughed, but the Ghoul's shaggy eyebrows had lifted a little. He even took the cigarette out of his mouth long enough to almost smile. "You surprise me," he said.
He went to the back of the green leather chair, where he'd taken off an old-fashioned frock coat that was so worn in places it shone. He slung the coat over his shoulder while his gaze took a slow gander around the room, returning at last to the two detectives.
"Someone, or something, either evil or desperate, took a long, sharp implement, most likely a cane knife, and slashed it in a backhanded blow across the victim's throatsevering the jugular vein, the carotid artery, and the windpipe, with the result that the air passage filled with blood." He lit a fresh cigarette from the butt of the old one, then anchored a battered black fedora on his head. "Charles St. Claire did quite literally drown in his own blood."
He stopped on his way out the door to take one last look at the corpse. "This was not a quick way of dying, you understand. Not even in the final moments, after his throat had been slit open. It would have taken him a very long three or four minutes to die, and he would have spent that time in an agony of terror and pain."
He took a step, then paused again, half turning. The rotting porch groaned beneath his weight. "And it was likely that he was right-handed. The murderer, I am speaking of."
"He?" Rourke said.
The Ghoul stared off down the drive, where his chauffeured green Packard awaited him. The tip of his cigarette seemed to pulse red in time with his thoughts, then he sighed, shrugged, and began to make his slow, ponderous way down the steep and narrow steps. His voice came back to them from out of the night. "It could have been a woman."
"Well, la-di-da and kiss my achin' ass," Fio said once they'd heard the Packard's engine start up and its tires crunch on the oyster-shell drive. He fished a cigar out of his shirt pocket and scratched a match on his thumbnail. He turned, grinning, and winked at his partner as he curled his lips around the end of the cigar and drew deep to light it. "Drowned, hunh?"
The tobacco caught and he took the cigar out of his mouth, waving it through the air and trailing smoke. "Jesus, I don't know what stinks worsethe stiff or the Ghoul."
The smoke did help cut the rank smell, for Fio indulged in only the finest Havana Castle Morros. They were part of the juice he got for pretending not to know about the numbers running going on in the back room of a certain pipe and tobacco shop on the corner of Rampart and Bienville.
Rourke said nothing. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and walked around the small room, forcing himself to look at things, to think and not feel, and there was no way, really, to keep from stepping in the blood. He wondered if a place like this old slave shack could have a memory. If inanimate things like wood and stone could absorb pain and sorrow and fear like a sponge. If so, he thought, then these walls ought to be weeping, and long before now.
He found himself looking at the top of an ormolu-mounted bureau. At a tipped-over glass, a penknife, and a silver cigarette caseall coated with aluminum and carbon powders. Fio dusting for more fingerprints. Fio, his partner, who he would have to remember was much, much smarter than he looked.
Rourke dipped his finger in the dregs left in the glass and licked, and tasted absinthe and the cold, numbing bite of cocaine.
He closed his eyes for a moment, his hand curling into a fist.
He pushed abruptly away from the bureau and brushed through a glass-beaded curtain, into the second room. The beads clattered again as Fio followed in his wake. Fio, his partner, who had the air now of a man anticipating the moment when he would be able to spring the punch line of a joke he'd been dying to tell.
It was a small space and the brass bed filled it. The mosquito netting draped open, and the counterpane was a little wrinkled, as if someone had sat or lain there, but only for a moment. A small rag rug lay crooked on the floor and looked out of place, but then it hadn't always been there.
If he lifted it, Daman Rourke knew what he would find. Because some stains, some crimes, could never be washed away.
He went to the window instead.
"You know," Fio said from behind him, "how you figure it's a good bet that the person who found the corpse is the person who made the corpse . . ."
The window was open but the air outside was hot and still. You couldn't see much, with the way the bamboo and banana trees crowded against this back part of the shack. You could stand behind that curtain of green, though, shielded from sight, and watch what went on in this room, on this bed. He knew, because once he had done so.
"So who did find him?" Rourke finally asked, although he knew that as well. God help him, but he knew.
Fio plucked the cigar out of his mouth. He moved his jaw as though chewing his thoughts, then his battered face split into a wide grin.
They called her the most beautiful woman in the world.
Her image was everywhere, in rag sheets and magazines, on candy boxes and postcards. It flickered on the silver screens of movie palaces, and on the midnight stages of a million erotic dreams.
The newspapers called her the Cinderella Girl sometimes too. It came from the first movie she had made, The Glass Slippera dark and sultry interpretation of the classic fairy tale. It was the role that had shot a young woman by the improbable name of Remy Lelourie into the galaxy of celluloid stardom. The world had seen nothing like her, before or since.
For it wasn't only her beautywhich was a strange kind of beauty anyway, with her eyes set too far apart and her face too bony, her mouth too wide. She seduced you in a way you didn't dare confess, not even to your priest. You looked at her and you saw a raw hunger and desperation for life, not redemption and not salvation, but life. The down-and-dirty kind of life that happened on a hot, wet night, in a seedy room, with whiskey and desire burning in your blood.
You looked at her, thought Daman Rourke, and you saw sin. Dangerous, delectable, unaccountable sin.
He stood in the middle of the yard and looked at the old French colonial house. He hadn't come near her yet and already he felt the pull of her. "Remy," he said, seeing how it would feel to say her name again after all this time.
He stayed where he was, not moving, looking toward the bayou now. A wind had come up, rattling the banana trees and bringing with it the smell of sour mud and dead water. He saw a pair of lantern lights floating among the dead cypress, where Negro boys often gigged for frogs at night.
A hundred years ago this place had been a sugar plantation, before the city had grown up around it. Only a few acres and the house remained, but her beauty and charm were there still. In her tall and elegant windows, in the finely carved colonnettes and balustrades. In the wide galleries that spread all around her, like the dancing skirts of a southern belle. The man who built the house had called her Sans Souci. Free of worry, without a care.
The spell was broken by the chug and rattle of the coroner's hearse turning down the drive, come to take away the earthly remains of Charles St. Claire, who was free now of not only worry but everything else.
A gaggle of reporters with cameras slung over their shoulders was riding on the running boards, and the sight of them sent Rourke sprinting the rest of the way across the yard to the house and up onto the shadowed gallery. Light from the headlamps bounced off the brass uniform buttons of a beat cop, who stood at stiff attention in front of the door.
Rourke showed him his gold shield. "Sure is a hell of a hot night for it," he said, and smiled.
The patrolman, who looked barely out of school, read the name on the badge and stiffened up even straighter. "Lieutenant Rourke, sir?" he said, wariness and wonder both in his voice. His round, freckled face was red and sweating beneath his scuttle-shaped hard hat.
Rourke turned up the wattage on his smile. He had no illusions that the young man's awed reaction had anything to do with Lieutenant Daman Rourke's sterling reputation as an ace detective. Even being Irish and the son of a cop wasn't going to take you from walking a beat to carrying a detective lieutenant's badge by the time you were thirty. Promotions can come fast and easy, though, when your father-in-law is the superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department.
"Are you feeling generous tonight?" Rourke said.
The patrolman swallowed so hard his Adam's apple disappeared into his collar. "Sir, I . . . Sir?"
The reporters were leaping off the running boards now as the
meat wagon rolled to a stop. They would go first to the slave shack to pop photographs of the body. Pictures too gory to be printed, but not too gory to be passed around and cracked wise over in the newsroom.
Rourke brushed past the young cop, flashing another smile as he did so. "So be a pal, then," he said, "and promise them anything short of a night with your sister, but keep those press guys out of my face."
The boy finally relaxed, grinning. "Well, I don't got me a sister, but I know what you mean. Sir?"
Rourke paused, the cypress door swinging open beneath his hand.
"She couldn't have done it. Not Remy Lelourie. Could she?"
Rourke crossed over the threshold, saying nothing. He entered a hall that was wide and cool beneath a high ceiling fan, and sweet with the smell of oiled wood. The sliding doors between the double parlors were thrown open, and he could see into rooms that were dressed for summer in flowered slipcovers and rush mats. The French windows were open to the night, and a breeze stirred their long saffron draperies.
A small, slender woman in a gray silk dress stood before a yellow marble fireplace with her back to the door, her head bent. Her dark hair was cut boyishly short, baring her long neck. Her legs were bare as well, her feet caked and splattered with dried blood.
Rourke had to stop a moment and lean against the jamb. It was a strange high, to be seeing her again and with the smell of blood filling his head. A high as powerful as any that came from a glass of absinthe and cocaine.
"Hey, Remy," he said. "How you doin', girl?"
Slowly she turned, lifting her head. The softly tragic expression on her face looked drawn there as if by a knife. For a moment the wrench of memory was so strong he nearly choked on it.
"Day," she said, and that was all, but hearing it tore something loose inside him.
He walked up to her, holding her fast with his gaze. She waited for him, allowing him to look, daring him to see behind her eyes. The front of her dress looked like someone had taken a bucket of blood and drenched her with it. She even had blood in her hair.
Her right hand was pressed to the hollow between her breasts, as though he had startled her. Her fingers were wrapped around a stained handkerchief that had been twisted into a ragged string. He took her hand and she let him, her eyes the whole time on his face. Her eyes were exactly how he remembered them, wide-spaced and tilted up at the corners. Dark brown with golden lights, like tiny bursting suns.
He unwrapped the makeshift bandage. A ragged cut gaped open across her palm from little finger to thumb.
"Why did you do it, Remy?" he said.
She wrenched free of him and turned away, gripping her elbows with bloodstained hands. She didn't appear to be wearing anything underneath that single sheath of blood-soaked silk.
Rourke leaned against the mantel and stuffed his fists deep into his pockets. He allowed the space between them to empty into a hard silence, but she didn't fill it with any words. To Fio she'd spun a tale that she had been in bed, asleep, when she'd been awakened by screams coming from the old slave shack and she had gone out there to find her husband expelling his last breath through a rip in his throat.
"Now this was supposed to've been around nine o'clock, you understand," Fio had said. "But it was a whole two hours later when Miss Beulah, the colored lady who does for the family, comes down to the kitchen for something or other and she looks out the window and thinks something 'ain't quite right' about the shack. So she goes on out to see what's what, and lo and behold 'what' turns out to be Cinderella covered in blood, sitting 'longside of Prince Charming here, rocking back and forth and telling him over and over how sorry she is about it all."
Rourke took a step closer to her. "You going to tell me what happened?"
She raised her head as though meeting the challenge, but her voice when she spoke was dry and scratchy, as if she'd spent the night weeping. Or screaming.
"Why? What good will it do, when you've already made up your mind not to believe me?"
"Just think of it as a dress rehearsal for the jury, then, because things sure don't look good, baby. You saying you sat there and stared at the gaping raw wound of your husband's slit throat for all that time and did nothing."
The banjo clock on the wall chose that moment to strike one o'clock, and she flinched as if the soft gong had been a blow. "He was . . . there was this awful gurgling sound, Day, and all this blood came spurting out his mouth. It was like he was trying to talk to me, to tell me something, but I couldn't, couldn't . . . And then the next thing I remember is hearing Beulah scream."
"Yeah, I guess a couple hours of time must've just sort of slipped away from you there. It does that sometimes after an absinthe and happy dust cocktail."
"That was Charlie's poison. And yours, or so I've heard tell." She had lifted her head again, met his eyes again.
Her mouth trembled and twisted into a smile, but it was a wry one, full of memories and pain. "We've always been willing to believe the worst about each other, haven't we, Day?"
All he could manage was a shake of his head.
She held his gaze a moment longer, then the smile faded from
her face and she turned away. He watched her in silence while she picked up a mother-of-pearl smoking set from off the mantel. He waited until she fitted a cigarette into the holder and lit a match before he said, "Who was your husband sleeping with, besides you?"
The flame trembled slightly, but that was all. "Now, whatever would Charles want with anyone else, when he already possessed the most beautiful woman in the world?"
He watched as the wild self-derision burned sudden and bright in her eyes. That cruel and destructive pulse of wildness that had once, long ago, seduced them both over the edge.
Jesus save me, he thought.
He cleared his throat. "Uh-huh. And how often did he beat you?"
Her hand flew up quicker than she could stop it, although she tried. It got as far as her neck, and so she pressed her palm there as if feeling for a pulse. The color around the bruise on her cheek drained away, so that it stood out as stark as a smudge of soot.
"Oh, this little ol' thing . . . You remember how the rain came up so hard and fast this evenin'? Well, I went to close the windows and the wind caught one of the shutters and it up and smacked me right in the face." She breathed a soft, girlish laugh, and he almost laughed himself at this vision of Remy Lelourie suddenly turning into a southern belle with cotton bolls for brains.
"Cut the shuck, Remy," he said. "One thing you've never been is a magnolia blossom."
She put the cigarette down in an ashtray without having smoked it and wrapped her arms around herself again. "And you've always been one mean, tough bastard, haven't you?"
"Somebody has to be. And here's another interesting fact for you: The human body holds about ten pints of blood, and Charles St. Claire left most of his splattered all over the floor and ceiling and walls of an old slave shack on his way to being hacked to death with a cane knife. Now, Lord knows I was never all that fond of poor Charlie, but that sort of last moment I'd reserve only for my worst enemy, and I got this sick feeling in the pit of my gut that the big fat juicy thumbprint on that knife is going to turn out to be yours. Was he your worst enemy, Mrs. St. Claire?"
Her eyes had grown wide and stark. "I might have touched itthe knife. It was stuck in his chest. I tried to pull it out, but it was caught on . . . on something . . . and blood was spraying all around us, and then . . . then all at once it came gushing up out of his throat." Her hands fell to her sides and she looked down at herself as if suddenly just realizing what a mess she was. "It got all over me."
She lifted her head and there was a wounded look on her face now, and he wondered, as he'd always wondered, which of all the Remys in the world was the real one. "They wouldn't let me take a bath," she said. "When can I take a bath?"
"You'll have to take off all you're wearing in front of your maid, so's she can pass it along to us. Then tomorrow mornin' you're going to have to come on down to the Criminal Courts Building and give us your fingerprints."
"Oh, God, Day. You're not just . . . You really do believe I . . ." He watched her eyes brighten and grow wet with tears. Even though he knew it for the act that it was, he also thought that maybe a few things were getting through to her at last. That while she might be Remy Lelourie and the most beautiful woman in the world, there were going to be some in the city of New Orleans at least who would believe she had done this terrible thing.
He pressed his shoulder hard into the mantel to keep from touching her. She was still the most dangerous moment of his life. She had lied to him and used him and left him, hurt him in ways uncountable and unmeasurable, but he'd always wanted her anyway. He had never stopped wanting her.
"You remember how I worked the docks that summer, unloading banana boats? How I always had welts all over my hands and arms from getting bit by the rats and spiders that lived in those banana bunches?"
"Day." She had said his name on a sigh.
"'Cause I remember it. Just like I remember other stuff about that summer," he said. Welts on his hands and welts on his heart. "Like how you cried that last afternoon. Big fat crocodile tears, just like these." He was cupping her face, gathering up her tears as if he would keep them.
"I loved you," she said. "I loved you so bad it almost killed me."
"You were slumming. Andfunny thingbut this is the part I remember best: You were the one who left."
She wrapped her fingers around his wrist and held his hand in place so that she could turn her head and brush her lips across his palm, and the wetness of her mouth mixed with her tears. "I was afraid. Of you, Day. I wonder if you've any idea how frightening you can be."
Him frightening. That was a laugh. He leaned closer, until only a breath-space separated their mouths. He was opening the throttle wide now, putting his money down.
"You were always good, darlin', the best I've ever seen, and worth every bit of the ten G's a week they were paying you out in Hollywood." Her fingers were pressing hard on the pulse in his wrist, so that it seemed his blood flowed into hers. "But just like any two-bit hooker who finds herself owned by a cheatin', heavy-handed pimp, one day you up and killed your man."
He took a step back, pulled loose from her, let go of her. His face felt as though it were made of lead, but his breathing was fast and hard.
"You killed him, Remy girl. And I'm going to nail you for it."
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