The Gift of Wallace Random
A Picasso Smith Story
by Hugh Lessig
Random got shellshocked at Iwo Jima, and he came home wide-eyed
and full of secrets.
. ..He took
government checks and wrote letters to his Aunt Tot in Eugene,
Oregon, whom I suspected did not exist. He spent his nights drinking
sasperella at The Chinaman's Tooth, a bar for reporters, stevedores
and the occasional preening galoot from City Hall who wanted
to slum with the unwashed. Two months after he came home, Wallace
Random began to predict the future.
. ..It started
with the horse races, and I was there to see it. He didn't check
the newspaper to see who was running. He didn't do anything except
stare into the bubbly recesses of his sasperella and yell out
Heat in the fourth race at Bayside Downs! Bank on it!"
. ..I laughed
and tipped my hat and bought Wallace another round of sasperella.
Just for shits and giggles, I put five bucks on Prickly Heat
the next morning. She won going away in the mud, and word got
around. I guess that was my fault.
. ..From then
on, whenever Wallace Random yelled out a tip, the conversation
stopped. Beer mugs clonked down. Reporters fumbled for notebooks
and pencils. If someone missed the tip -- if they were sitting
on the throne or playing pool -- that was too bad. According
to an unwritten rule, tips from Wallace Random could not be shared.
They were considered sacred, like words from an oracle.
. ..We didn't
make a lot of money, but we made some. As it turned out, Wallace
Random was never wrong. We could have bet our paychecks and retired,
but we didn't know that at the time. We thought he had some kind
of lucky streak going, and who knows when a lucky streak will
. ..One night
-- it was a Tuesday -- I leaned against the bar for another beer.
Wallace sat on the next stool with his sasperella.
Mr. Smith," he said. "Waitin' for suds?"
. ..We had
this thing going now. "That's right, Wallace. I'm waiting
for my suds. Got any good tips for me? I haven't made page one
in a week."
one tip, coming up," he said.
Let's have it then."
. ..He let
go of his mug and folded his thick hands on the bar. He looked
at me with those beagle brown eyes. He spoke very softly:
Mae O'Rourke dies tomorrow night. Icepick in the chest. Bank
. ..I paid
for my beer and walked away. As I did, a voice came from somewhere.
I figured it was the same voice that spoke to Wallace. You're
at a crossroads here, it said. Wallace just told you something
-- not anyone else -- just you. And now you're walking away with
a beer in your hand pretending that nothing just happened.
. ..I sat down
and drank half my beer. When I looked up again, Wallace Random
had left the bar. I didn't know where he lived. I didn't know
how to find him. The darker part of my nature suggested that
all lucky streaks come to an end, and if not, who is Edna Mae
O'Rourke and why should anyone care?
. ..The next
night came, and everyone cared about Edna Mae O'Rourke.
. ..She was
45 years old, and she lived at the end of a rowhome. She lost
her husband at Bastogne in 1944. She was childless. The neighborhood
kids ran through her house to get cookies and popsicles. She
threw parties on their birthdays to stay one step ahead of her
grief. People remembered her unwashed apron and red, calloused
. ..A cabbie
found her three blocks from home just after midnight. She was
in an unlit alley, standing against a telephone pole, eyes frozen
open, already going stiff. A 14-inch icepick had been inserted
into the lower half of her heart. It came out the other end and
embedded itself into the wooden pole.
. ..The killer
had untied her apron and retied it around the pole. He had taken
a smaller ligature and tied it around her neck, so her head was
relatively level. Between the icepick and the apron and the ligature,
she stood up straighter than someone walking out of church. It
is entirely possible that people strolled by her in the shadows,
figuring she was taking a rest, and nodded out of respect.
. ..I had worked
up a nasty buzz by the time the call came.
. ..It was
1 a.m. The paper had gone to bed and I had been at the bar. My
boss wanted 20 column inches that could jump off page one and
kill inside, next to the grocery ads. I had to file by 5 a.m.
to make the newsstands for the afternoon edition.
. ..I drove
out in my Ford and parked half a block from the crowd. I opened
the window and listened to the street noise. Normally I come
onto murders like your worst nephew in a candy store. I want
to know happened. I want to know how it happened. I want to know
who is crying, who is watching, who might know something. I want,
I want, I want.
. ..But there
I sat in my car, unable to get past the dim reflection of myself
in the windshield. Seconds turned into minutes. I forced my hand
onto the door handle and pushed, but the door wouldn't open.
I pushed harder, but it seemed I had no strength.
. ..The sweaty
weight of a man pushed against my door and spilled through the
open window. It had a badge and it smelled like half-decent scotch.
The badge said Captain Barnes.
. ..The big
man stepped away and allowed me to exit the car. We locked gazes
for a second or two. His eyes recommended that I get back in
the car. I don't know what my eyes said.
Picasso Smith," I said. "My paper sent me here for
thrilled. All of my problems are solved."
. ..I tried
again. "I don't believe we've met. You must be the new precinct
captain. I heard they were getting one."
name is Rottweiler Barnes. I am the new precinct captain. I don't
want to be here. I enjoy making trouble for the likes of you.
I carry a loaded gun and I've shot three people whom I hated
less than I already hate you. Just so we understand each other."
. ..He hunched
up his suit coat and lumbered towards the crowd. I counted to
three and began to follow. He counted to 10 and turned around.
"Are you following me, Mr. Smith?"
sir, but at a respectful distance. I believe you just let loose
a fart, and I don't want my cigarette to catch a gas jet, because
it would crawl straight up your ass, and that would ruin a good
cigarette. By the way, may I call you Rott?"
. ..He looked
at me the way a child looks at a fly just before pulling off
its wings. "You're a funny man," he snarled.
. ..We walked
together up to the crowd. Barnes pushed through the people and
bent under the tape. He moved gracefully for a big man. I could
tell he had been in shape for most of his life. I followed him
under the tape. I saw where the corpse stood, then I saw the
face of Edna Mae O'Rourke. The coroner had done nothing to her.
No one had even closed her eyes. I heard what sounded like a
laugh, and turned around to see Barnes gritting his teeth in
looking at you, Smith. I think she likes you."
climb up my ass. I don't talk to reporters."
. ..I started
to work the crowd. Asking questions and taking notes has always
proved to be my tonic. Maybe it's like anything else: the routine
of work comforts people. But the more people I talked to, the
sicker I got.
. ..A large
dumpy man was seen.
. ..He had
a funny grin.
. ..Seen near
the murder right before it happened.
. ..A real
. ..Big, wet
. ..Never saw
him in the neighborhood before. Didn't belong here.
. ..Some big
Georgie-Porgie. Didn't have a car.
like he hadn't a care in the world. People don't walk that way
at night around here.
. ..Then again,
perhaps it was not a grin.
. ..The last
observation came from an old woman who lived three doors down.
Her name was Hazel Nutt, and she had been a nurse at a children's
hospital for 43 of her 78 years. She was the kind of woman who
sensed pain, and I wondered if she sensed mine.
makes you think it wasn't a grin?" I asked her. "I
don't rightly know if I can put it into words," she said.
Her gnarled hand clutched a Rosary. Her lower lip trembled. She
stood on the cusp of true old age, but for now she possessed
the gift of clarity that the elderly have. I knew that. I think
she knew it, too.
he wasn't smiling, what was he doing then?"
pretty sure he was crying," she said. "Just crying
his eyes out to beat the band."
you think this man might have killed Mrs. O'Rourke?"
. ..She turned
over the possibility and finally shook her head. "This is
rough neighborhood, Mr. Smith. There's guns and dope, and people
can kill at the drop of a hat. You know that, I suspect."
looked at this man -- the one I'm talking about now -- and I
. ..Just a
man walking under my window. Now why would I do that? I don't
know the answer, but I know he wasn't a killer."
. ..I went
back to the newsroom and filed 20 column inches by 5 a.m. The
cop editor had a couch in his office, so I curled up there amid
cigarette burns and old newspapers. The next time I opened my
eyes, it was 10 a.m.
. ..I got up
and walked across the street to The Tooth. It had opened early
to catch the drunks coming off the graveyard shift, and now Woo,
the owner, was wiping down the bar. Woo was all right. The morning
crowd looked a little rugged.
Smith. You're in early." Woo eyed me with something resembling
suspicion. "Something wrong? You look like hell."
had a murder, Woo. Get me some coffee, willya? And some eggs."
Woo set coffee in front of me. He cracked a couple of eggs with
one hand and dropped them on the griddle, yolks unbroken. He
put in some toast without me having to ask. Then he said, "I
thought you enjoyed murders, Mr. Smith. Why the face?" So
it was that obvious.
is a hard one, Woo. Say, do you know where Wallace Random lives?"
connected with your murder?" Woo said that just a little
too fast for my tastes.
a helluva thing to say about one of your customers. I just wanted
to. ..thank him." My
stomach churned around a fat lie. "He gave me a good tip
he sweeps up around the place. I send his paycheck to an address--
oh, maybe 10 blocks from here. Belmot section. A row of brownstones."
Woo smiled. He was being too cooperative. Something was going
on here. He wrote down the address and gave it to me. I took
one look and knew it wasn't legit. Upscale brownstones with tree-lined
sidewalks did not admit people who lived on government checks,
even if they did fight at Iwo Jima.
. ..I ate my
eggs and drank my coffee. I gave Woo a two-dollar tip on a three-dollar
breakfast and walked out. I strode purposefully down the sidewalk,
turned the corner and doubled back through an alley. The back
of The Tooth faced the water -- a short inlet that emptied off
the Bay. He had a deck with a few tables out there, but it would
be deserted at this hour.
. ..I walked
up onto the rear deck and into the pool room. An old geezer played
by himself. I had him seen a million times, or maybe it was another
old geezer who resembled him. I asked if he had just seen Woo.
the man said. "Went upstairs. He's got some kind of squirrel
up his ass today."
. ..The staircase
was in the kitchen. I slipped into the main room, went behind
the bar and walked into the kitchen like I owned it. One of Woo's
cooks stared into a sinkful of dirty dishes. I tipped my hat
and walked up the stairs, which ran up to the left. The stairs
led to an attic where Woo stored everything from kegs of beer
to No. 10 cans of sauerkraut.
. ..Woo stood
in the corner. He was talking to Wallace Random.
. ..An attic
window gave them a full view of the street. Our newspaper office
stood across the street. It had large windows with venetian blinds
and gold-flake lettering. On the second floor, I saw my editor,
Lazarus Flint. He sat at his desk and stared idly toward the
newsroom. He probably wondered what I was doing right now. This
business sometimes, who would think?
. ..I walked
halfway across the attic floor. I took long strides and landed
purposefully on the balls of my feet. I didn't make a sound.
"That's not true," Woo was saying. "Don't twist
my words. I didn't say you had to get out."
said to come clean." said Wallace. He had been crying.
is going on with you," Woo said. "Mr. Smith from The
Foil was just in here. He's writing about a murder and he was
asking about you. I fed him a story because I like you, and you
deserve a break, and because you killed the Japanese who raped
my country. But that won't last forever."
killed Japs," Wallace said. "That I did."
you kill anyone else?"
. ..I harrumphed
as loud as I could. Woo jumped like someone just shot him. Wallace
scrambled around on the floor and came up with a M-1 Garand pointed
in the general vicinity of my chest. I stepped from the shadows
with a smile pasted on my face. "Sorry to disturb you,"
I said. "But the door was open."
Smith! Don't pull stuff like that!" Woo smoothed his apron.
put that gun down. There'll be no shooting in here." He
was back to being a bartender again. "I don't want any trouble,
Smith. But if you're here to do a story . . . "
Woo," I interrupted. "I'm always here to do a story."
didn't go to the brownstone, did you?"
Woo. I didn't."
don't ususually lie, you know."
know. I also know Wallace was about to say something that might
get you into trouble. You're not in trouble now -- not as far
as the police are concerned. And what you don't know won't hurt
you -- at least it shouldn't. Now why don't you go back to your
customers and let me take over?"
. ..Woo eyed
me. He eyed Wallace. Then he shrugged his shoulders walked toward
the attic door. "Don't be too long up here," he said.
worry," I said. "And don't move anything. I got heavy
kegs up here. I don't want to hear any crashing noises."
. ..Woo trudged
down the stairs. Wallace set his gun aside and stared out the
window. I got out my notebook and hunkered down on the floor
next to him. We looked at the street together. The smell of bacon
grease and coffee wafted up from The Tooth, mingling with the
aroma of aged beer from the kegs. On the sidewalk, a street vendor
parked his cart on the corner and pulled out fat loaves of bread.
The hard sun hit people in the eyes.
going to be a nice day," I said.
said nothing. He seemed to be watching the street vendor. Or
maybe he was looking past him at something else.
only makes it worse," I whispered.
never run." Wallace looked at me. "I never run from
what're you doing up here? Last night, you tell me Edna Mae O'Rourke
is going to die. You tell me how. And a few hours later she turns
up dead exactly the way you described. Furthermore. people who
live near the murder scene talked of a man who resembled your
description. One old woman said it looked like you were crying."
you killed Edna Mae O'Rourke and you were sorry? I got nothing
against you, Wallace, but I'm telling you right now. It's best
to come clean with something like this. Maybe you could cut a
deal. What with your condition and all."
seemed to find this funny. "Yop," he said. "I
got a condition all right."
you kill Edna Mae O'Rourke?"
never closed her eyes," he answered. "Not once during
the whole time."
you kill her?"
she didn't say a word, neither. That was something. Didn't scream
or cry out for help. I seen lots of people die. Usually they
scream or they cry out for help -- if they got the time. She
had the time. But she didn't say nothing."
Wallace! Did you kill her or not?"
. ..The big
man turned and smiled at me. Then he got up off the floor and
walked over to a big barrel. He hiked up his pants and pulled
himself on top of it. The floor groaned ominously. The barrel
was labled "SASPERELLA SYRUP: 200 lbs. gross wt."
. ..He patted
the barrel and said: "Right now, I'm in heaven. You can
print that, Mr. Smith."
nice Wallace, but . . . "
can print everything I just told you. It was all on the record."
. ..That stood
up me up. I didn't think Wallace was smart enough to know what
'on the record' meant, or to even know he was talking to me for
a story. "The record is full of holes," I said. "To
hear you tell it, it's clear you saw Edna Mae O'Rourke die, but
you won't say what happened. You won't confess, and you won't
say if someone else did it. That creates more questions than
answers. And you might as well tell me. If we run a story and
say you're holed up here in the attic at The Chinaman's Tooth,
the cops'll find you."
didn't say I was holed up in the attic, Mr. Smith. I said I was
in heaven. You can print what I said. That can be our agreement."
are you in heaven, Wallace?"
I like sasperella, and it's all around me. That's a quote. You
go write yourself a story, why don't ya? But I never told you
I was at The Tooth, and I would appreciate it if you didn't say
. ..He patted
the barrel. I straightened my hat. Across the street, Lazarus
Flint stared out the window. He would be looking for me in a
couple of hours. He would wonder what new dope I scared up on
It was no use to run.
Flint and I argued behind a closed door for the better part of
20 minutes. My pitch was as simple as it was ridiculous: Write
a story naming Wallace Random as a person who had seen the death
of Edna Mae O'Rourke, who had, in fact, predicted her death,
but wasn't saying if he did it, or if he saw someone else do
it. And by the way, he says he's in heaven, but we can't say
where that is.
. ..Flint grabbed
his glass ashtray and wound up for a throw. I scampered to a
neutral corner. The ashtray hit the wall and three weeks' worth
of old cigar ashes filled the room.
Smith! See what you made me do?"
. ..Flint opened
his window. As he toook a breath of air, he saw Wallace Random
in the attic window of The Tooth. Flint, who is too old to be
doing most things, leaned far over the sill and shook his first.
"You white-eyed hoodoo! You're the cause of all this! You
and a good-for-nothing scribe who doesn't know a murderer when
he sees one! Heaven, huh? I'll heaven you right in the head."
smiled and waved back. I grabbed my boss before he fell onto
feeling pretty bad about this, boss," I said. "Wallace
was trying to tell me something last night and I missed it. But
now I found him and it's starting to feel like a murder again.
Somehow I got a feeling it'll turn out. I want to write the story
just the way Wallace told me."
. ..Flint smoldered
for a few seconds. Then he turned around and closed the window.
"You have 45 minutes to make deadline," he hissed.
"Not that you ever do."
48 minutes later, my story was in a pneumatic tube on its way
to the typesetters in the back shop. Flint sent it on without
changing too many words. Not that he ever does.
. ..The story
hit the racks at three. I ate dinner at The Tooth at five. Rottweiler
Barnes was blowing diesel breath on my neck at six, fists clenched,
eyeballs pinpricked with rage, waiting for me to finish a wad
of meatloaf with onion gravy.
we have a chat, Mr. Smith?" His heavy hand rested on my
shoulder. It trembled ever so slightly, like a huge generator
thrumming under the floorboards of a factory.
a certain man who killed a certain woman last night with an icepick,
and about a certain reporter who knows said man and did nothing,
even after said man predicted the murder."
a newspaperman, not a reporter," I said around wad of meatloaf.
"To be more precise, we call ourselves Foilers."
"You'll be calling yourself for dinner at
Alcatraz pretty soon. If you covered up for this guy, you're
as guilty as the hand that held the icepick."
. ..I looked
at my hand. "Funny, it don't look guilty."
. ..The stool
next to me groaned as Barnes settled his weight onto it. He hunkered
forward with both elbows and motioned for coffee. It came in
a very small cup, or maybe it just looked that way when he curled
his hand around it.
really like newspapermen," he said quietly. "I know
everyone wants to shove a two-by-four up your giggy because they
blame you for all that goes wrong, but people still keep reading
your stories and feeding you stuff because they want you to twist
the other guy's balls a little. Am I right?"
funny, captain. Yesterday you wanted to shoot me."
Smith, I'm hard up for this icepick guy. That Edna Mae O'Rourke?
I knew her. Her husband had just started out on the beat when
he got drafted, and she's still in the FOP Ladies' Auxiliary.
Look at this."
. ..He dug
into his pockets and pulled out a crumpled square of green paper.
"I bought these raffle tickets off her just the other day.
That's the kind of dame she was. She'd do anything for the precinct,
for the kids in the neighborhood. You know her husband got killed
I said. "Battle of the Bulge."
yeah, that's right. I seen her around the station house just
last Christmas. She'd bring in toys for the Police Drive. Armfuls
duck her head in and say 'hi.' She'd come by four, five times
during Christmas Week. I don't where she got the toys. But sh'd
always duck in and say 'hi.'" Something in his eyes changed
what did you do?" I asked.
. ..I waited
for him to cuff me, but his eyes turned weaker and wetter. "I'd
just nod my head and see her on her way. You know. Just . . .
. ..He let
that possibility trail off and let out a heavy sigh. I watched
him play with his coffee cup. Fire alarms started going off in
my head. I saw Rottweiler Barnes with his big feet propped up
on his desk, watching Edna Mae O'Rourke walk down the hall, turning
a toothpick over and over in his mouth. The raffle ticket had
a date. It was more than six months old. He had bought a raffle
ticket and kept it in his pocket all this time.
walked alone at night," he said. "Something was going
to happen to her. You could see it." His trembling hand
curled around the coffee cup but did not pick it up.
an interesting observation, chief. By the way, the person I wrote
about did not confess to that crime. He may have just witnessed
it. You should have read the story more carefully."
I read the story carefully," he said. "I read every
word. To the point where I know where he is."
. ..I exhaled
softly and kept my voice straight. "How's that, chief?"
said he was in heaven, right? And you said he was sitting on
top of a keg of sasperella at the time he said that, right? That
was a nice touch. Do you know how many places in San Francisco
keep kegs of sasperella on hand?"
can't say that I do, chief."
only one warehouse that stocks it. And soda fountains don't go
for sasperella any more. They're into root beer. Sasperella is
too old-fashioned. In fact, according to shipping manifests,
there's only one establishment in the city that orders whole
kegs of sasperella on a consistent basis."
. ..I folded
my hands on top of the bar. "Then you don't need me."
right now," he said. "But I will. Stick around, Smith.
You did me a favor writing that story. Now you're going to get
a scoop. I won't even arrest you -- much."
. ..He slid
off the stool with surprising ease and walked behind the bar.
Woo had gone into the kitchen. Barnes looked that way. He looked
up at the ceiling. The Tooth had no storage shed, and it sure
as hell didn't have a cellar this close to the water. As Barnes
made for the kitchen door, I began to follow. His houndog ears
pricked up as soon as my heels hit the floor.
. ..He spoke
to me without turning around. "Smith, if you follow me,
I will shoot your balls off."
. ..A 45-caliber
had found its way into his hand. Barnes disappeared through the
kitchen door. It took a few minutes before his clunky footsteps
sounded on the back stairs that led to the attic. The noise stopped
at the top of the stairs. I started to count. One thousand one.
One thousand two. The clunk began 10 seconds later. Just one
step at first. Then another.
. ..I saw Wallace
Random on the far side of the attic. He had no particular expression
on his face. Cop shoes moved across the attic floor. They came
to the corner where I imagined Wallace was standing, where I
left him yesterday. It struck me that if Lazarus Flint looked
out his window right now, he could probably write the story himself.
. ..The attic
floorboards groaned. A knot of people came through the front
door. They had made an early start of it. One woman braced her
knees and leaned forward until she stopped at the bar. She looked
around for a bartender. She was a stupid, inexperienced drunk
and I thought she deserved whatever she got.
. ..The floorboards
groaned again. Woo's words came back to me. Don't move around.
I got a lot of heavy kegs up here.. I nodded toward the stupid
woman and gauged her proximity to the groaning. No voice told
me what to do, but went ahead and did it anyway.
I said politely. "You might want to move."
She acted like she heard swahili Then several gunshots
sounded from the attic. The knot of party-goers screamed. The
woman rushed into my arms. Woo burst in from the kitchen and
gave me a stare that asked if I knew what the bejeezus was happening.
The woman belched in my ear and asked if she got any on me. The
gunshots came impossibly fast, too fast for any gun, fast enough
for splintering wood.
Rottweiler Barnes fell through the ceiling about that time.
. ..He landed
head-first on the bar. He bounced up. Almost graceful. No expression
on his face. He landed on the floor and rolled. As he did, a
gout of blood burst from his abdomen. He screamed once and fell
silent. The woman passed out in my arms. I let her drop.
. ..Woo went
for a mop.
Random peered down from the hole in the ceiling and waved.
. ..I looked
at the body. An icepick protruded from the stomach.
was his," Wallace called down.
figures," I said.
. ..It came
together without much help.
. ..The medical
examiner determined that Barnes had stuffed the ice pick in his
waistband. Between the fall and the hard landing, it twisted
around enough to do the job. Wallace's prints were not on it.
When they checked Barnes' prints against the icepick that killed
Mrs. O'Rourke, it sealed matters pretty good.
. ..Over the
next few days, people started coming forward with stories.
blocked her way in the hall whenever she visited the station
with her toys.
. ..No one
could say anything. They'd lose their jobs.
. ..She would
run from the station red-faced and silent.
thing, how he got when she came around.
. ..Used to
call her from the station. Order flowers. Finally got himself
transferred to her neighborhood.
. ..That brought
it to a head. Evidently, he couldn't take rejection.
. ..I got Page
One play four days straight. By then it was the weekend and people
had stopped caring. I found myself at The Tooth drinking away
another Saturday night, eying who might be coming in and who
might be leaving. Woo kept them coming and he didn't charge me.
The publicity had increased business fourfold.
know something, Woo?"
Mr. Smith. I don't know anything." He smiled just barely.
you want a woman to come jumping into your arms, it never happens.
It only happens when a cop is about to fall from the ceiling,
and when that's going on, you don't have time to make conversation."
. ..Woo nodded
thoughtfully. "I never saw a cop bounce like that. What
about you, Wallace?"
Random sat at his usual stool drinking his usual sasperella.
He shook his head back and forth and said nothing.
Random has had a difficult week," I said. "Make sure
he doesn't have to buy any more sasperella tonight. Sometimes
I wonder why he doesn't drink Coke."
make you rich!" Wallace yelled. "Bank on it."
good Wallace," I yelled. "We'll all invest in soda
pop." Then I took out my notebook and scrawled a reminder,
just in case.
Copyright (c) 1999 Hugh Lessig
is a newspaper reporter who lives in Richmond, Va. His pulp heros
are the newshawks of old, especially Kennedy of the Free Press,
a creation of Frederick Nebel.
(Hugh did the a biography of Nebel for this site)
The Gift of Wallace Random marks Hugh's first appearance in Thrilling Detective,
and in fact, his first published crime fiction anywhere. Check
out his other stories at his site: The
River City Blade. It contains stories of Picasso
Smith and other hardboiled news guys.
And head here for more Thrilling Detective Fiction!
Please direct comments on the above story
and inquiries about submissions to the fiction
editor, or check out this page.
"And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking
to a man who likes to talk."
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