Inspector Tony Yau Chan found Leila Yu Chau in a decrepit room on Sai Kee Wan, pinwheeled in coitus beneath a pruning cadaver. They couldn’t have been dead more than twelve hours, he heard the coroner say. The voice floated toward him as through the filter of a dream. Her limbs were frozen stiff on the heart-shaped bed. The hourly hotel was called Sai Kee Sauna Res Inn, the t stripped of its neon—the Chinese characters all but darkened in the sun. Tony tongued the name around in his mouth all the way up the stairs. Leila Chau’s lips were just barely parted in the nascent creases of a smile. 50s and 60s Hollywood kitsch decked the room: a Marilyn Monroe cut-out here, a life-sized James Dean there. Suspended, vigilant, casual. The beeps and clicks of the forensics units’ digital cameras swam across the room. Tony wore a white button-down with the sleeves rolled up and a holster affixed to his belt. The man poised inarticulately on top was a slack-skinned conjuction of knobby bones. The face was screwed up in a pained, even wistful, grimace. His nakedness didn’t strike Tony as obscene. Leila’s smile was just barely perceptible—to him, maybe, only. Disembodied sheaths of white latex gloves poked and scraped around the scene. The smell of jasmine perfume filled the hollow of Tony Chan’s lungs. He’d recognize that smell anywhere. It was twelve thirty in the afternoon. The light fluttered in from the curtains. The bedsheets were blue.
The room was submerged in an aqueous palette, blue-green in its hue. Particles of dust hovered around the bodies like plankton or submarine glowworms. No external abrasions, no evidence of asphyxiation, a voice said. The light ribboned around the room like phantom algae. This must be what birth is like, Tony’s head went. He walked as if underwater across the suffused light. No sign of distress in the girl, someone said. What an orgasm, someone else said. Tony stopped at the foot of the bed. The smell of jasmine was overpowering. They didn’t get that far, the first voice said. Click and beep. Tony’s eyes traced the limblocked reef of her body. One more spray and you’ll drown yourself, Tony’s head remembered saying. Then what the fuck stopped their hearts? That one doesn’t exactly look like your neighborhood fitness instructor. What’s that supposed to mean? The blue-green algae of light were swimming around the crown of her head. Tony’s eyes vaguely registered a Betty Boop poster in his periphery. Meaning the coronary stress was enough to ring his ancestors. Tony drank the jasmine in without noting what it was he was drinking. Haven’t you seen those hard-on pill commercials? The smell seemed to match the color. Even his eyes swam slowly across her skin. Hold your breath, said another, and he waved something plastic and crumply sounding in the air. What do we have here— The snow’s still fresh, gentlemen— Toxicology reports haven’t come back yet— They stopped talking, suddenly realizing Tony was standing there. He didn’t feel their eyes on him. That jasmine perfume was unmistakable. He breathed in the tinted light. The semaphors of dust glinted coolly. I am not here, he thought.
A wave of ice swelled from his chest and up the backs of his eyes as he blew a long exhale into the jasmine deep, scattering semaphoric light. The bodies were immersed and motionless as sunken ships. Beijaflor, he whispered… come back to me.
Now this is a first, said the burly man with the toothpick. Tell me they at least got their money’s worth. Did he feel like crying? Tony’s head went again. He didn’t feel like he felt like crying. Attention! Uni’s up the stairs. Will someone get this poster out of my Look, way? get at the ankles and I’ll move here What’d they use, Just make superglue? sure you don’t break old Stogie’s legs At least it’s a dry affair Yep incredibly so Like a fucking Gobi down here You’re done if you leave so much as a blueberry on the girl Does this rival the Move move! Big Poles Tight Holes I’m trying to vol. 6 get in here or what? Just move your fucking hand! No, that one is unrivaled Vol. 5 is better Unparalleled, I believe is the word you’re looking for Better than Debbie Does Dallas? You’re all sick fucks. Just get them apart without copping any glands … No, Tony’s head went, passing over the echoes of their voices. No, he didn’t feel like crying.
He called her Beijaflor. He called her lots of things. Beijaflor, because she loved the sound of Portuguese. Leila, because of the song, but also because of the aura the word gave off when she said it. She charmed herself like that. It was a long time ago. Then again it wasn’t. —You’re too quiet to be at a bar, she said. What’s your name? —That’s Inspector Chan to you. In an instant, whiskey ginger was venting out her nose and onto the bar. —I—I’m sorry … It sounded like you were saying … you’re a … cop. Hiccups of laughter gargling. —Shouldn’t you be in your dorm or something? A hiccuping, matted laughter. You barely reach the bar. Bubbling laughter. —Is that how you ask a girl’s number? —I didn’t ask you your number. What’s with the perfume? Slurp, slurp, at the bottom of the glass. —Jesus, you’re slow. Tony wasn’t quick enough to rebut that. Not too many Kowlooners used the word Jesus. In English, no less. She didn’t wait. —Call me Leila. Do you like Hollywood, Inspector Chan?
The stretcher nosed in. The emergency response crew was tender at work prying and unsticking. A white latex hand swabbed around in the sandwich baggie of blue pills with dolphins imprinted on them. More voices. But the second you pull it out of the fridge it starts to decay. I saw it on a TV show. It occurred to Tony to think about the way the wind plays about in a seashell. We need a drape on this bench. They manhandled her onto it first, him second. While they manhandled her, they had to lay the knobby guy flat on the bed, and his relic in that position stood in prayer toward the light. Tony felt around at his holster but it didn’t feel real. Impressive for an old stogie, came an amused voice. I guess those commercials are right. All the glowwormed dust dispersed in waves from the bodies, schools of latex lowering white skin on the stretcher. It smells like clams, came another voice from the deep.
He called her lots of things. Among the things he called her were Seashell, Beijaflor, Jasmine Chau. Their first date happened in a parking lot. Black-shirted grips and artsy PAs ducking under crosshatches of lights. They were filming the beginning of In the House of the Kitchen Gods. A murder scene, in an alley. The director had called wrap and wrap beers were circulating in hands and gaffers were turning the kraft table into an impromptu bar. You get to know some cool people with me, Inspector Chan, Leila said. She was wearing black Yoko sunglasses, even though it was night, and a top with gill-like slits along the arms. Yoko, Leila, Lola, Jaz. What makes you think I’m so interested? He called her all kinds of things. Leïlu, Lola, Santa Teresa. Well you did come tonight, now didn’t you, Inspector Chan? Layla, Mei Mei, Santa, Beija.
He thought of them lying on the bed that night. She didn’t care to cover a thing. Leaned her white breasts out the window and smoked. He thought of the picture he still had on his cabinet. The director eyeing her from the left side of the photo. Black goatee, black glasses in tow.
Jasmine, Yoko, Cranky, Flor.
When they carted the bodies down the stairs, the burly man, Fung, stood there chomping at his toothpick. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, Chan, but you’re not needed on this case. Tony stood at the last step. For what it’s worth, I didn’t want to call you. Apparently someone thought it was a good idea to get you out of that shithole basement. But I’m here telling you, don’t bother. We’ll take it from here. I need some air, Tony thought. Fung went on chomping away. There was a wet, grizzly sound to his saliva. He spit at length. I’ll take that as you’ve heard me, is what I’m hearing. Suddenly the buildings and the din of Hong Kong all washed away in an instant, as a cloud passed over the sun and plunged everything into an ashy blue. This isn’t birth. This is just a lousy film, he went. For a moment, everything was submerged and blue. The buildings, the dripping air cons, the dampened clothes on clotheslines, all seemed to bleed along a collective grain, like a cosmic fan had blown across a still-wet watercolor. And then the cloud passed.
Are you fucking listening, Chan? Je-sus—he said in English—no wonder they have you locked up down there. Forget it, alright?
Chief Fung hocked a dry, raspy loogie onto the pavement and pitched the shredded toothpick onto the stiff puddle it made. Tony watched him as he moved casually away. The stretchers were clambering into the vans. It looks like a movie set, doesn’t it, Tony might have said out loud, the sun baking everything in an instant in a cloud of heat.
His Quarter Pounder was his purest artifact of pleasure. His ritual, the only semblance of something approaching quietude. There, before the sparkly glass window, before the vista that spilled into further and further streams of human confluence, ever more minutely shaped, breaking off into smaller tributaries of comings and goings and estuaries of intermittent footfall, there, from that vantage point, the gears in his head slowed their machinistic grind, placated for the moment by the gentle reprieve of moist and salty meat, salty cheese, moist and salty excuses for onions, onions and salty, sugary bread, sugar-packed ketchup laced with salt, and salty, morosely moist tomatoes. The golden brown french fries, glittering like stalactites frosted with salt, crunched beneath planes of poorly maintained molars. Yellowed, like the oil-slicked stalactites. The glug of a fantastically chilled Coca Cola. So syrupy, so fizzy under the nose. The juice was enough to stem the movements of his heart to a sort of sludged-out catatonia. One look in the eyes of this supremely stuporous man and one might not hesitate to use the word “tranquilized”.
The thing was, no one ever looked at Daniel Greenberg. He wasn’t obsese—it wasn’t that—it wasn’t the sort of programmed, willed disacknowledgment with which people regard the fat or otherwise aesthetically grotesque. Despite his daily (and often multidaily) ritual, he wasn’t that overweight and he didn’t secrete any particularly noxious odor that might otherwise keep him at a ten foot pole’s distance from passers-by, though his canines did leave something to be improved upon. To tell the truth, he was the kind of taciturn, painfully introverted fellow whom no one paid much attention to—just didn’t register he was there. You know this kind of person because you also know his opposite: the garrulous, booming figure who must absolutely instantaneously become the lifeblood of whatever room he walks into, lest apocalyptic damage to the ego ensue.
If Daniel Greenberg had an ego, he didn’t value it at much. Chewing, grinding, mashing bits of macerated beef and salt-drenched tomatoes, his heart rate appeared to nearly flatline before the window, tapering to the sounds of mushy morsels and plangent alternating slurps and gulps, all producing a sort of lethargic chorus, lulling him into a state that wasn’t so much blissful as it was just lacking in anything disagreeable. It’s not even clear, from this scene, that happiness or sadness are even registered markers on his modal bandwidth, right now. It’s more just he has blunted the receptors for any kind of feeling whatsoever, at this moment.
And he was feeling this absence of feeling with such blanket unawareness of his feeling it, just numbly going in for morsel and nectar and whatever tangential, briefly-lived scintilla of possible-but-too-negligible-to-really-notice-let-alone-savor-it sliver of stimulation that may or may not have resulted from this stultifying exchange. The last recourse for the melancholy is the numbing of the sensors that let in the gloom. With each bite and each slurp, Daniel Greenberg seemed to fade farther away.
Who knows what prompted a brief curb in his brinksman’s languor, leading him to pick up his cell phone and search once again for the name he’d yet to place a non-automated voice to.
Well he knew the secretary’s voice by now, at least.
“Daniel Greenberg here, again…mmm….is, Mr. Bernstein in?”
“Did you leave a message the last four times?”
“mmm…wondering if you could actually ask—”
“I can transfer you again.”
“mmno I’d rather—”
Click. No ring.
Was she painting her nails, Daniel Greenberg found himself wondering.
Straight to voicemail, of course. He’d memorized it by now. You’ve reached Martin Bernstein, I’m either on another line or receiving clients now—Greenberg stared vacantly out the window—leave a message and I’ll get back to you. What was her color? And then: The subscriber you have reached is unavailable. Leave a message after the tone, or hang up and dial again. Pause. Deep red, like a cherry coke? He’d once dyed his hair that color. “Cherry Coke.” Then he immediately regretted it. If you’d still like to leave a message, then wait for the tone. Even the automated voice was short with him. Tiredly he tried to push the 1 key but struck a 5 instead. That is not a valid entry. If you must, leave a message after the tone, or hang up and dial again. No, he imagined her with bigger tits and long eye shadow. It had to be like a flaming scarlet or auburn. If you absolutely insist on leaving a message, stay on the line and wait for the tone. No, she was probably texting her boyfriend. The nails that whipped across the keypad were slightly flaking. So he imagines.
He places the cell phone back on the table.
As he sits, he sits in hunch. He sits with letters in his lap. He has business cards, phone numbers. Snatches of paper. He doesn’t see a landslide of ketchup discharge from the burger’s backside. He has notebooks, acquaintances, semen-soiled underwear at home in the hamper, dreams. Here he has a grand total of five of these such notebooks, stacked around him like collapsible walls. Turretting castles of words too immense or poorshouldered for the hand that made them. They line the catsup-colored booth like childlike fortifications.
Beyond the window pane, there are people, and these people are connected to other people, and those people are moving as if on strings through a hemisphere of cold, though the sun is dead bright. Daniel Greenberg, to this day, can’t leave his house without the battlements of those notebooks. As a child, he used to be drawn to all kinds of spherical objects. Whiffleballs, baseballs, outsized American footballs (an anomaly, not being spherical), miniature bath-safe basketballs and rubber imitation ping-pongs; tennis balls, replicas of planets, the retracted corpses of rolly-pollys, snails’ shells (prized dead or alive, the snails), the most impossibly orotund pebbles, Indian money dislodged from the drive, the neighbor girls’ beads, a 24-carat De Beers decorative gem he stole without reason whatsoever from a matryoshka-doll-like series of chambered display cases in the sunlit corner of his aunt’s Persian-themed dining room at the age of eight during an especially formative Thanksgiving family trip, for absolutely no reason whatsoever but for the awe and prismed calm that touched him when he held it in his palm as far as the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, nearly 325 miles and 6 hours later, when Aunt Elaine called her sister in an absolute state about the missing diamond “worth more than my or your life.” “Daniel? Do you know anything about this?” His mother’s hair was sculpted in sunlight as she craned a contorted neck from the front seat. Daniel was always a miserable liar.
Spherical objects: like talismans, preserving some force field around him, sheltering him from the world outside. When it was time to go to the park, to run some errands, to pick around the town in the marshmallow Volvo, he’d gather up as many as he could carry in his arms. There would be his mother standing at the door. Now Daniel, you can only take two, she would say. Only two, Daniel. What to leave behind? Each object was like a relic that opened some passage of commune with the spirit of the things attached to it. He rarely thought of those things now, but if he were pressed to explain it, he might explain it like that. What he probably couldn’t explain was that calm. Why couldn’t he venture into the world without those protective amulets? Why the snatching of buckeyes from the church grotto, why the stashing of marbles from the art room and the hoarding of tennis balls when he had to leave the house? The jingle of his mother’s keys rattles in his memory, even now. Now, he just hoards notebooks. A black Moleskine. An Italian handbound with a sequinned brocade. Three 180-page spirals of 100% post-consumer recycled paper pulp and cardboard sheathing. They line the catsup-colored booth.
At least in McDonald’s he could watch the people pass by, he could feel invisible behind the transparent of the glass and chill as the New York heap piled by in drifts. Like most OCDers, Greenberg has lived a life of perpetual tension populated by a fully consummate range of desires and an equally manifest set of perceived or imagined hindrances to those desires, which he must struggle exhaustingly to either overcome or ignore, in order for the simplest of tasks to reach fruition. This perpetual struggle, he fully well knows, is unsustainably taxing.
The last bite is the saddest and most savored of them all. A liver-shaped and -colored hack of meat hangs embalmed in the folds of an oily bun, laminated by the sodium light. A bouillon cube’s worth of salt piled in a ziggurat on the tray. He thinks, doesn’t think, thinks again. Dips the morsel onto the ziggurat. Drift of salt impressing itself upon a lip of ketchup locked in crested tsunami pose, like hair-gelled hair. Places on tongue, folds into mouth, chews. The whole affair is over in about five seconds. He’s left with a feeling of renewed and bottomless hunger and a tongue swollen with salt.
The birds are shooting about in the Lower East’s Sara Roosevelt Park. They’re all in a rush but they’ve all the time they want, Daniel almost mutters. What will he do with those notebooks. The birds are comforting to him. A family of them is ringed around a cold cadaver of bread, stamping and carrying on like it was a séance. They strike him as very old, these birds. They look like pigeons except not. They’re too bony, too shapely, to be pigeons—more like robins or stunted orioles, Daniel notes. Wizened birds, he writes, scratching at a notebook. It’s another nearly empty one, the Italian. It’s smaller, pocket-sized; his “subway pad,” as he likes to call it. What will I do with these notebooks? The one who appears to be the ringleader cocks his head back in Daniel’s direction and casts a screwy eye. Some cohorts nearby are hopping and chortling like ministers.
Two half-finished novellas, mind maps and character sketches of antagonists and heroes, a cadre of give or take 306 very short, poem-like vignettes (his “vignette-ettes”, as he likes to call them), depending how you count, and six or eight appendices of interesting or useful words consigned to various queues from which they’ll (one day) feed into stories (at the opportune time). The contents of his notebooks are miniature notebooks in themselves, doors that lead to a self-referential nowhere and stairwells that run in Escher loops. On his laptop at home he’s got his five or six, depending, novels. He’ll transfer his notes and his vignettish exposés into tangible, linear stories, and there they’ll take up lives like dreary, impoverished tenants. He’ll write, he’ll write some more. He’ll call Martin Bernstein at Atlantic-Pacific and he’ll write Jacob Marie Shoemaker at blast mag and hang on the peripheries of pigeonish rings of conversation at book launches in Upper Manhattan, trying to get in on that séance. The birds are thumping at the wind with their sails.
Soon the Italian handbound will be filled, the park will swell with post- lunch-rush footfall, and at night again will burn the lonely empty page, the empty park frozen with a still, dry cold. Sara D. Roosevelt is shuttered with dark at this hour, when it comes, and no bums wait around to see how cold it will get. Daniel wonders where the birds go then. Right now they are swooping, hollering, milling about in the false promise of sunlight, being birds. What am I supposed to be? The thought occurs to him that, like birds, you don’t choose. There is only the illusion of choice. Birds, maybe—he’s writing this—are maybe freer than us, because they don’t know that they don’t choose. For us there is fretting. For us there is mental milling. We are milling and grinding about in our minds these faux masquerades of choices …. …. [a long pause here] … …… …….[his pen hovering] ……. … …[still] ………when it’s really what does it come down to but choices whether or not we will choose? [he pauses, almost crosses it out, dawdles, leaves it] The birds don’t think they can choose. They be birds. We, we can’t be birds. We can’t even be ourselves.
His tongue is about to explode and he leans in for a slurp of Coke and instead catches plastic-piped air on the intake. The screweyed ringleader goes in for a commanding thrust at a crumb. The crumb is not quite spherical. The other séanciers hop and croak. Plumes of air push from the mouths of passing strangers, slicing past the window, bundled in heaps of clothes, pursuing countless errands. The séance has gotten hysterical. The crumb tears and shreds in the beaks of the warring faux pigeons. They pick, they nip, they stab at each other’s necks over the frigid morsel, torn into feather-like shreds. It’s not the first time Daniel Greenberg has doubted whether he will ever become the novelist he has dared to be.
He’s staring vacantly at the 1:08 emblazoned in cold, digital blue across his cell phone when a bird streaks in from the park and slams with a violent crack against the window, ricochets to the ground, and scatters the feathered ensemble outside. Daniel’s eyes gape at the corpse, still as ice. Wiry legs turned flat up against the sky. Beak smashed and bloodied in on itself in the cold white silence of the afternoon. Eyes open.
His last morning on earth began in the following manner. Sunlight through the curtains, the sounds of grizzled traffic. Rolling over, he dug his teeth into the mattress. Christ, he said once. His head felt like it was being smashed over and over by a rock. Did you smoke last night? the thought asked him. Christ, he said again. He groped for a glass at the table. It wasn’t there. Christ, Xavier, Christ. He let out a coarse moan. Did you not even close the window? A slight breeze moved through the curtains. He moaned again and turned on his side. Water, he said to himself. Fucking. need. water.
He thought about having a cigarette. The thought immediately revolted him. As he rolled from the bed he felt his stomach turn. Your hands smell like smoke, Xavier, the thought told him. You had a fucking smoke last night. He creaked his way off the bed. A glass of water was perched at the edge of the counter. He made for it, then felt his stomach lurch. He made right past the water and straight for the bathroom. He fell on top of the toilet and retched.
He hung there for a while, catching his breath. Is this what you want, Xavier? he asked himself. He looked at his bone-white hands gripping the toilet bowl. He had nothing else to look at. He couldn’t have pulled away his eyes if he’d tried. He steadied his breathing, realized how hard he was gripping the toilet bowl. Slowly let his hands unclench. The color returned to his knuckles. He let out a pinched, shallow breath.
Five glasses of water later. Xavier was at the window. The laundromat across the street wasn’t bathed in its fluorescent hues now. It was mild outside, a latticework of breezes and sun. There were some shopkeepers hacking at metal scraps and a signpost was going up with some characters written in thick red brushstrokes on it. He smelled his hands again and went back to the sink. He washed them furiously. Outside, the breezes and the sun worked against the street corner. Carts piled with pastel-colored textiles and rolled-up spools of fabrics were urged along like water bison by street hands in faded denims and t-shirts.
You’ve gone and done it, Xavier. His throat felt dry. He wanted a coffee. Another glass of water down the hatch. Couldn’t be later than ten o’clock. He was thinking in French now, not in Mandarin or Cantonese (which he couldn’t, now) or in English. He looked at the coffee pot a long time. Perhaps very long. Stammerings of trucks, some whoops and hollers of staccatoed Chinese. The thought about the cigarette came and the thought went. You’re a joke, Xavier. The back of his throat was all scratchy. You’re a fucking joke.
He threw on some shoes and hit the stairwell. The slide and the crunch of the metal door echoed down the stairs. Once he clambered out the bottom, the gust of dusty breeze splashed his face. How much did he drink last night? Obviously too much. He felt miserable about the cigarette. He vaguely remembered lighting it, but not in his room. It seemed like he was somewhere else, in the bar, fiddling with the jukebox. Why did they have a jukebox in that bar if it didn’t even work, he half-thought. It definitely didn’t play the putamadre songs he paid for. He moved down the sidewalk. None of the Pakistanis were there on the corner—just the red hydrant, sitting by itself. He didn’t really take note of it. At best, thoughts were little puffs of wind right now. Striking his skin and crumbling off. Maybe I had another cigarette in the apartment. On the last laundry wire above him before he reached the curb, a couple of crows were squatting into a washbin. His eyes were on the ground. Jesus, how many cigarettes did I have?
Around the corner, it occurred to him that it was a horrible idea not to make coffee before he left. That feeling in his head hadn’t gone away. Well Xavier, you can donate your liver to your father’s practice so he can poke at it and interrogate it and display it in a display case. The thought took on vivid proportions all at once, the image ballooning in an instant to a full-on projection across his mind, one of a half-lit museum room with polished wood floors and taupe walls and installations arranged at angles in orbit around his liver, encased in glass, in the middle. It was impaled on a stick and propped up by thin wires. It looked gruesomely preserved, the way kimchi or beets darkened and soured with vinegar look when they’re opened after some months of canning. It was riddled with what looked like teethmarks. He decided to pay a visit to the zebra-haired woman. When he crossed the couple streets thick with the opium-scented incense and half-heard shop talk, there was the tarpaulin-covered stand jutting onto the street and into view. You had at least two, we know that. You had one at the bar, and you had one in your room, otherwise it wouldn’t smell like ass. And you could have another. I’m not going to have another, he told the thought. His throat cried for coffee. The zebra-haired woman wasn’t there. Then he remembered the absinthe. And how it glowed and flared in the glass, lit by the barman’s Zippo. He remembered how about the shifting color of the flame, the green and the yellow and the methane-blue. That was all he really remembered.
He looked toward the alley, but he was sure his head was going to explode. The thought of another cigarette made him want to puke. The sunlight streamed around the corner, breaking across the wisps of a neglected incense hollow in the building’s side. A pruning pomelo and a better looking orange marooned around the edges. Look at this day, said the thought. You should be happy. And all you want to do is puke. Finally he turned and made his way toward the alley. He almost got hit by a taxi crossing the street. He stood dumbly at the nose of the taxi. He thought about it for a second or more. He slid in the taxi and shut the door behind him. The taxi roared off, scattering textiled bison. Xavier closed his eyes and leaned his head against the window. He touched something in his pocket. He pulled out the notebook and made out something obscene in the pages: some screwy remnants of the night before. I hope you’re happy, he said to the thought, or to himself. He put back the notebook and leaned his head against the window again.
When they pulled the taxi into the alley, he realized he’d been nodding in and out of sleep against the window. The car rolled to a stop, gently, almost. This isn’t the alley—Xavier thought, but didn’t have time.
‘Hey, what are you doing—?’
The two men turned around from the front seat and the first one flashed his yellowed fangs. ‘It’s okay, we’re friends. Aren’t we friends, Mr. Levi?’ Xavier didn’t have time to think. There’s so much sadness in the world, said the thought, as the object came down with a howl on his head.
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