A Taste of… Cold death
Bethany flopped onto her side and wiggled deeper under the covers, pulling the blanket up to her chin. When rough fabric scratched her cheek, and a chemical odor tickled her nose, she frowned and tried to sink back into sleep, but the wrongness of the blanket poke-poke-poked at her brain.
What a weird dream.
The laundry detergent her mama used reminded Bethany of sunshine and flowers and made the covers soft. This dream blanket had been washed in something that smelled like chemicals and was itchy on her skin.
Eyes pressed shut, Bethany rolled onto her back and sniffed again. The blanket still smelled wrong. Plus, too much cold air was sneaking through and making her shiver. At home, the comforter was so nice and thick that she sometimes woke up sweaty, even when there was ice on her windows.
The thought squeezed Bethany’s ribs like a giant’s hands, the pain jolting her awake. She blinked her eyes open to darkness. No glow from the happy face nightlight her mama had plugged in by the door, no soft green numbers from her clock.
Bethany remembered now. This wasn’t a dream. Or even a nightmare.
She wasn’t with her real forever mama. The bad man had kidnapped her and trapped her in some icky old house.
Her tummy rumbled, reminding her that she’d gone to sleep hungry. Since the bad man always slept until after the sun came up, now might be the only chance she had to fix that.
The little room she slept in had two windows with wood nailed across them, so even in the middle of the day, it stayed gloomy and sad. Right now, there was no light at all peeking between the cracks in the boards. Bethany guessed it was still early morning.
Careful not to make the bed creak, she eased into a sitting position. She strained her ears, waiting for any noise from the hallway, and when none came, she relaxed a little and scratched her cheek.
The instant sting made her jerk her hand away and stuff her fingers into her mouth. Stupid windows. She’d forgotten that she’d cracked and torn her nails on those boards when she’d tried to claw them off yesterday. The wood hadn’t moved at all, but now her fingers hurt any time she pushed too hard.
Bethany shivered, and her eyes burned. She wanted to go home.
When her fingers stopped hurting so much, she pulled the scratchy blankets up higher and hugged her knees to her chest. She hated the blankets and the cheap, uncomfortable bed with the mattress that somehow felt harder than the floor. She hated the ouchie boards on the windows and the bad man who’d put them there.
The entire room smelled funny and old, like this ugly brown rocking chair one of her adoptive parents had kept in the living room. It had supposedly belonged to the woman’s grandfather, and her face had turned red when Bethany asked if he’d smelled bad too.
When Bethany complained to the bad man about those things, he just smiled his creepy smile and said the itchy blankets and hard bed were good for her. “Being too comfortable makes people complacent.”
She scowled into the darkness. She didn’t even know what complacent meant. Not that she was about to ask. Not him. Even when he smiled, he scared her because she didn’t think he was happy for the same reasons that most people were.
The first man who’d taken her had been scary, but she could tell he’d liked her sometimes too. But this man…
She didn’t think the bad man liked her at all, and when he talked about her mama, his face changed and his fingers stroked the knife in his pocket.
Bethany trembled and buried her face against her knees. “Where are you, Mama?” Her whisper was soft in the empty room, barely louder than a breath.
No answer from her mama, but her stomach growled, reminding her of why she’d woken up in the first place. The man never fed her enough, and she’d never been so hungry in her entire life.
A little bit at a time, Bethany scooted across the mattress. She eventually reached the edge and eased her bare feet to the wooden floor. When she went to stand, the blanket tangled around her legs, tripping her weight onto the wrong board. The wood creaked, and the sound was as loud as a scream to Bethany’s ears in the silent house. Fear turned her legs to ice, and she sucked down a breath, waiting.
When the man didn’t burst into her room by the time she counted to thirty, Bethany padded over to her discarded socks and slipped them on. Not so much because the wood floor was cold—even though it was—but because her mama had once told her that socks made footsteps quiet, and that was what Bethany needed to be right now. Quiet as a mouse. Or a burglar.
Socks on, she crept across the tiny room, choosing each step with care. She’d spent hours pushing her feet against each board to see which ones creaked, then she’d practiced walking while only touching the quiet spots enough times to memorize the path. It was kinda like the dance moves they’d had to practice over and over for a school musical last year.
Back then, though, she hadn’t thought to practice in the dark. Or when her heartbeat filled her ears, and her hands shook with fear. Her mama had taught her that.
“Practice when you’re happy and when you’re sad. Practice when you’re afraid and even when you’re mad.” Mama had taught her so many useful things in the short time they’d been together. “Be prepared for any situation at any given time, sweet girl. That’s what will help you be a superhero.”
Bethany touched her foot to the next board, relieved when nothing squeaked. The bad man had really good ears. Like superhero hearing.
She scrunched up her nose. No, not superhero hearing. Supervillain. Because Bethany was one-thousand-percent sure that anyone who kept her away from her mama was a bad guy. She just wished this particular bad guy wasn’t as sneaky as a cat. Sometimes, she’d turn around and scream because he’d be right there standing behind her, smiling his creepy smile while she almost peed her pants.
Bethany focused on her feet. Forward, forward, to the left, forward, to the right, to the right, forward, forward. When she reached the end, her hands shook so much that she almost turned around and crept back to the bed. This was too scary. What if the bad man caught her sneaking around?
The cramp in her stomach helped her swallow her fear. Once her hands stopped shaking, she reached for the doorknob and circled her fingers around the cold metal. Careful. She rotated to the left. A little more…a little more…there! The knob caught, but Bethany was ready, pushing the metal toward the door before it could make that loud screech.
After pressing her ear to the wood and waiting for a count of fifteen, Bethany eased the door open, just wide enough to squeeze her body through the crack. Any wider and the door would creak, and then the bad man with his supervillain hearing would appear like magic.
Bethany shivered as she slipped through the narrow sliver of space and chanted a reminder in her head. Be sneaky, like Catwoman.
Maybe the chant worked because Bethany didn’t make any noise when she entered the hallway. Wonder Woman was still her favorite hero, but she had super strength and a magic lasso, and Bethany didn’t have either of those things.
Neither did Catwoman, though. She mostly ran around wearing a tight black suit and broke into people’s houses to steal stuff, and for now, Bethany needed to be more like her. Not with the black outfit, but with the sneaking and stealing stuff part, because all the bad man had given her to wear were three sets of the same pink pajamas.
That sounded bad, but her mama told her that sometimes people had good reasons to steal. Bethany figured that her empty belly counted.
Plus, secretly, she was pretty sure that Katarina—oops, she meant Katrina—was more like Catwoman than Wonder Woman, and her mama was tough.
If Bethany wanted to eat, she needed to be tough too. A Catgirl.
She pressed her body close to the wall as she crept down the hallway, testing each board with her toes before placing her full weight on it. In the darkness, she could barely make out the painted pictures that lined the walls. Most were of a little boy and a lady with big, poofy hair, like in one of those old TV shows. There were Polaroids too, but they were stuck in the middle of fancy gold frames with swirly designs, which Bethany thought was weird.
Then again, everything about this house was weird. And creepy. Like the layer of dust that covered the glass and metal picture frames and the furniture, and the cobwebs that hung from every corner. Almost as if the house had been empty for a long time before the bad man dragged her here.
Just thinking of the dust tickled her nose, and a sneeze built in Bethany’s throat. Her eyes widened, and her lungs stopped working. Oh, no, not now! If she sneezed, the bad man would wake up.
Desperate, she shoved her fingers against her top lip and pressed hard. Another tip from her mama. The trick seemed too silly to work, so she was surprised when the need to sneeze disappeared after a few seconds.
Once her heart stopped drumming in her ears, Bethany began creeping down the hallway again. She passed an open doorway that led to the bathroom with its thin, ugly brown towels and even uglier brown-and-pink striped plastic shower curtain and didn’t stop until she stood just outside the hateful man’s bedroom.
In the dim light, her eyes took a couple seconds to find the lump in the bed and a few more to catch the rise and fall of the blanket with his breaths. She waited until she memorized the pattern before moving again, timing her footsteps the way Mama had taught her after that one time Bethany had tried to sneak up on her.
Her tummy turned warm when she remembered that day. She’d woken up early that morning and tiptoed into Katarina’s bedroom, holding the I like to poop sign she’d drawn in purple marker. She was only a step away from taping the sign to Mama’s t-shirt when Katarina had reached out and grabbed her before yanking her onto the bed.
At first, Bethany had shrieked, then giggled. Once she’d caught her breath, she’d asked her mama how she’d known.
Mama had tapped Bethany’s nose. “Always time your footsteps to your target’s exhalations. That helps hide any noises you might make.”
Bethany was smart enough to know that exhalations meant breathing out, and target meant the person you were sneaking up on.
But her mama was even smarter because she knew how to sneak up on people in the first place.
Count to five, step. Count to five, step.
Walking that way was slow, but finally, Bethany made it out of the hallway and into the living room. She didn’t even look at the front door as she snuck by. She’d tried all the doors lots of times, and they were always locked. Maybe sometime soon, she’d be brave enough to search the bad man’s room for the keys, but for now, she just wanted food.
The living room was colder than the rest of the house but less stinky. Bethany tried to rub away the goose bumps on her arms, wishing she’d wrapped the scratchy blanket around her like a cape. But no, the fabric would have dragged on the floor or even knocked a lamp over, and that would be bad.
As soon as she got back to her room with her prizes, Bethany promised herself she’d jump under the covers and pull them over her head and have a mini feast until she was warm again.
For now, she had to keep going. She was so close. Almost there now.
At the entrance to the kitchen, Bethany stepped on the metal strip that divided the carpet from the stained floor that was peeling in spots. When she shifted her weight to that foot, something sharp stabbed the bottom, stinging like a piece of glass. A tiny whimper escaped before she could stop herself, and she cringed and covered her mouth. Tears prickled behind her eyes, but it was fear that stopped her breathing and cocked her head toward the hallway.
Several seconds passed. Nothing.
To be safe, Bethany waited another ten seconds before leaning one hand on the wall. When she was sure she hadn’t made a peep, she balanced on one leg and lifted the other one to carefully pluck the small nail out of the meaty part of her foot. The sock felt wet now, and she wondered if she was bleeding. She shuddered. Hopefully, her sock was thick enough to keep the blood from messing up the floor.
Not that it mattered. Either way, she wasn’t about to turn back now. Her stomach hurt too much to leave without food.
Bethany limped halfway into the kitchen before hesitating. Her head shifted from side to side. Refrigerator or pantry? The man kept all the dry food up on the highest shelves over her head, but refrigerated food went bad. If she wanted to bring snacks back to her room to hide for later, she needed stuff from the cabinets.
With a nod to herself, Bethany veered toward the pantry. She pushed her hands down on the counter slowly, checking for any loud noises first before pulling her knees up one at a time. With one hand on the wood for balance, she pushed up to her feet.
Twisting, she eased open the cabinet doors and gave a soft gasp.
The inside was crammed full of food. Everything from cooking stuff like dry spaghetti noodles and jars of sauce and tuna to all sorts of snacks. Potato chips! Cookies! Crackers! Cereal! Peanut butter! Bread!
Bethany’s mouth watered, and her empty stomach growled. Suddenly ravenous, she stuck her hand in and latched on to the closest snack—peanut butter crackers.
Even though they sounded so delicious that she was almost drooling, Bethany forced herself to put them back. The plastic wrap they came in was too tight and noisy to risk opening. She grabbed an individual packet of cookies instead, using her teeth to carefully open the bag. The sweet chocolate scent hit her as she lifted a cookie to her mouth, making her dizzy with excitement.
The cookie was almost to her lips when hands grabbed her around the stomach and yanked her backward. Bethany jerked in surprise, and the cookie and bag slipped between her fingers.
Bethany wanted to cry when the single cookie hit the old stained floor and cracked into little pieces. The bag landed near the man’s foot, and she wanted to scream when he kicked it under the counter.
“Let me go!”
Bethany squirmed and wiggled and kicked, trying every move she could think of to escape, but the bad man was too strong. His hands tightened and dug into her tummy. As much as she wanted to fight, her energy disappeared quickly, like living in this house had turned her muscles into noodles.
No wonder she was so tired. The stupid, mean man didn’t feed her enough. She knew because her teacher last year had taught them all about bodies and how their cells turned food into fuel. If kids didn’t eat enough food, their cells got super tired.
Bethany was tired of being tired.
When she stopped struggling, the bad man sat her on the counter. “Sit.”
Bethany was too weak and disappointed to disobey. Once her butt touched the cold surface, the man rested his hands on her shoulders.
“That was very naughty of you, trying to sneak food while I was asleep.”
The man stood close enough that his nasty sleep-breath hit Bethany’s nose. She tried to wiggle away, but his hands clamped down harder.
“You must learn self-control. A person should never allow themselves to be ruled by their stomach, so for your own good, your punishment will be smaller portions for the next two days until you learn how to put mind over matter.”
Bethany’s stomach clenched down hard. “That’s stupid. How can I learn any lessons if I’m starving to death? My teacher said we don’t learn well if we don’t eat enough.”
His soft laugh made Bethany bunch her fists in her shirt. “You’re in no danger of starving to death, and I’m afraid your teacher is wrong. Sometimes, we only learn the lesson when we’re forced to sit with our discomfort.”
“I don’t want to do whatever that is. I’m hungry!” Furious now, Bethany lashed out, shoving her palms against his chest before twisting her body to the side. She ducked free of his hands, long enough to leap to the floor and lunge for the cookies beneath the counter.
He grabbed her by the shirt and yanked her backward before her fingers could grab the bag. With rough hands, he whipped her around to face him. Bethany pulled back her leg to kick him in the shin when light creeping in from the gaps in the boarded-up windows struck silver.
Bethany’s mouth went dry, and she forgot all about fighting.
The man shook the weapon a few inches from her nose before tapping the blade against her cheek. Bethany shivered from both the icy metal and fear. She squeezed her legs together to stop her knees from shaking, and she didn’t cry or yell, even though it was hard.
Never let them know you’re scared. Unless acting scared gives you an advantage, in which case, use it.
Another of her mama’s tips. Bethany got the feeling that the bad man wanted her to be afraid, though, so she swallowed hard and stuck out her chin. “You keep showing me your stupid knife, but I know you’re not gonna kill me. You want to catch my mama and lock her up too, and you’re using me to trap her.”
This time, the man’s soft laugh sent shivers down Bethany’s arms. “Aren’t you a clever girl? But who’s to say I can’t carve you up a little while we wait to snare your dear mama in our trap?”
Oh. She hadn’t thought of that.
Bethany’s lower lip trembled as the knifed dipped lower, down to her neck. The man pushed the flat side of the metal into Bethany’s throat and used it to lift her chin.
He pressed harder, and the sharp edge bit into her skin. Just a teensy bit, but enough that Bethany was scared to breathe.
He laughed, and the sound was scarier than if he’d yelled. “Besides, I only need Katarina to think you’re alive.”
This time, Bethany couldn’t stop her knees from trembling.
Click, click, click, click.
Charleston Detective Ellie Kline hit the backspace key until the freshly typed words vanished off the page. After hunching over the report all morning, she’d hoped to have more to show for her efforts, but so far, every attempt to complete the write-up on Valerie Price resulted in the same pattern. Type, erase. Type, erase.
She blew a loose red curl out of her face and reached for the breakfast burrito by her mouse, grimacing at the shiny grease congealed on the yellow paper wrapper. She shoved the barely touched takeout to the far side of her desk without taking another bite, the sight turning her stomach.
Wrong. The breakfast burrito was wrong, her report was wrong, everything was wrong.
A snippet from the page caught Ellie’s eye and punched her in the gut, stealing the air from her lungs.
Valerie Price: deceased
Valerie was gone, and Ellie wasn’t sure anything would ever feel right again.
The cursor blinked at Ellie from the white screen, as if taunting her to finish. But how? How could she be expected to condense Valerie’s life down to a couple of pages? Especially when Val should still be alive right now?
Grief crashed over Ellie, ripping away the fragile veneer of control that Ellie clung to as easily as a schoolboy ripped the wings from a fly.
Val had been a survivor. A fighter. Careful, smart, and capable, she’d escaped a murderer’s clutches once and deserved to live out the rest of her days safe from the human predators that prowled the earth. She was the one who’d got away. The woman who’d lived through the worst yet somehow persevered. After her traumatic experiences, she was supposed to go on to lead a long, happy life.
Except she couldn’t now. Because, now, she was dead.
Fate was so cruel sometimes.
A bark of male laughter across the bullpen wrenched Ellie from the image reel flickering through her head. Two of the other on-duty detectives were shooting the shit in the corner, joking around like today was any other day.
Meanwhile, the cursor blinked at Ellie, reminding her that, sooner or later, the job required her to fill the blank page with facts leading up to Valerie’s death a week ago.
With a soft snarl, Ellie shoved away from the desk and stormed out of the bullpen that housed the Violent Crimes Unit.
She paced the hallway a few times before flinging open the door and stomping down the stairs, the bang of her footsteps against concrete oddly satisfying. With her hands in her pockets and her chin tucked to avoid eye contact with curious coworkers, Ellie wandered the first floor.
This is a waste of time. You have a stack of cold cases to solve.
She wasn’t sure why she bothered with the mental reprimand. None of them had helped so far.
She’d recently tracked down one of her cold cases, a man named Luke Harrison. Luke had been snatched over a decade ago as part of an illegal child adoption and trafficking ring run in part by the now jailed Neil Burton, an attorney who had probably been stripped of his license to practice law by now.
After finding Luke, Ellie should have been eager to find the rest of the victims. Sold to the highest bidder by the corrupt lawyer, each and every one of them deserved to be found just as much as Luke did. But not even the folders full of missing children on her desk had worked as an effective motivator.
The most she could muster was a half-hearted scan of her voice messages and email to confirm that none of the detectives from other jurisdictions with possible matches to her missing kids had gotten back to her yet. But…nope. Nothing. And she wasn’t expecting anything for days.
That left Ellie with a lot of spare time on her hands. Too much. Days she should spend chasing down other leads. Instead, she wasted hour after hour torturing herself with the last few minutes of Val’s life.
Gunshots exploded, and the man who’d kidnapped Ellie crashed to the floor. Val screamed as she tumbled down the steps.
Ellie grabbed the dying man’s gun and squeezed the trigger at the madman firing from the top of the stairs. She got off several shots before he fled, then raced to Val’s crumpled body, falling to her knees by the woman’s head. “You’re going to be fine, you hear me? Just hold on.”
But even as Ellie uttered the words, she knew she was lying.
Blood. So much blood. A bright red river pouring from her friend’s chest, staining the perverse pink getup their nemesis had forced her to wear.
That brave, strong woman had died on that cold floor, wearing ruffled pink underwear and a matching cropped baby tee with little white socks. A toddler’s outfit. A cruel reminder of the man who’d held Ellie prisoner years ago.
Val died with her blood still warm and slick on Ellie’s hands.
Murdered at the hands of a vicious monster. The very same man who’d kidnapped Ellie when she was only fifteen years old and had never forgotten her since. One man responsible for so many deaths and so much pain. Some mornings, Ellie was surprised to wake up and find her heart hadn’t exploded from the burden of containing it all.
Dr. Lawrence Kingsley, otherwise known as Abel del Rey. Psychiatrist, genius, and sociopath. Ellie wouldn’t rest easy again until he was locked away for good or dead.
If there was any true justice left in the world, it would be the latter option, and by her hand.
“What did those Skittles ever do to you?”
Ellie jumped, and Val’s face disappeared, leaving her glaring at the contents of the vending machine and the fuzzy reflection of a tall man in a cowboy hat. Funny, she didn’t even remember stopping there. She definitely hadn’t noticed Clay walk up behind her.
She grimaced. Some detective she was. So lost in her own thoughts that anyone could have snuck up on her. She needed to get her head on straight…and fast.
Shivering, Ellie rubbed her forearms as she turned to face Special Agent Clay Lockwood. With his usual casual aplomb, he leaned his shoulders against the wall, his favorite cowboy hat perched atop his dark hair. Most days, she allowed herself at least a few moments to appreciate the agent’s lean, muscular grace.
Today, it was all she could do not to whirl back to the vending machine, beat on the glass with her fists, and scream.
“What are you doing here?”
She winced at the sharp edge of her voice, but Clay didn’t miss a beat. “I’m picking up Luke Harrison’s file so that I can use it to help find Caraleigh.”
His tone was so matter-of-fact, he could have been discussing the weather, but Ellie wasn’t fooled. When it came to the younger sister who’d disappeared on a family trip to the fair when she was only eleven and he was thirteen, the agent was a maelstrom of guilt and fear.
“You should probably leave her case to someone who’s less emotionally invested.”
Clay’s eyebrows pinched together as he studied her face, and she thought he was going to say something about pots calling kettles black. Instead, he asked a simple question. “What’s wrong?”
On the heels of her snappiness, his soft, gentle tone was almost more than Ellie could take. Her throat tightened, and that annoying burn kicked in behind her eyes. Another second of his concerned gaze would topple her over the edge, so Ellie stared at her shoes and blinked. “None of your business.”
The hand that circled her upper arm and guided her into the closest empty room was gentle. Clay kicked the door shut behind them. “Go ahead, cry and get it all out.”
The pressure in her throat intensified. “I don’t need to cry. I’m…fine.” The tremor in her voice contradicted her words, but Ellie didn’t care.
She balled her fists, clenched her jaw, and fought off the pain. Crying was worthless. Not even an ocean of tears would bring Val back or rescue poor nine-year-old Harmony…Bethany…from Kingsley’s clutches.
After the psychiatrist killed Val, he’d shot his former protégé, Katarina Volkov, and vanished with her daughter. The pair had been living under the aliases of Katrina and Bethany Cook, courtesy of WITSEC and the federal marshals, but he’d found them anyway.
“I know you better than that.”
Emotion exploded in Ellie’s chest. Dark and furious and wild. She didn’t want Clay to know her better than that. She didn’t want anyone to. Letting people in always ended in pain. Relationships crashed and burned, and the people she was sworn to protect were murdered by sadistic serial killers. Each time, the outcome flayed another piece from Ellie’s heart.
Why couldn’t he understand that and leave her be?
“You might think you know me better, but you don’t. Just because we slept together once and we work together doesn’t mean you have a direct line to who I am or how I think.”
She scoffed, the need to lash out coming stronger and stronger with each word.
Ellie waited for Clay to say something, and when he only looked at her with those tender brown eyes, she poked him in the chest. “I knew Nick my entire life, and I guarantee you he had no idea what made me tick, not really. So, stop pretending that we have this deep connection. Some people are just meant to be alone, and I’m one of them.” She poked him again, harder this time. “This isn’t a Twilight movie, and we aren’t soul mates. Get over yourself. It’s the twenty-first century now. Women don’t need a man to feel complete.”
When her fury and heartache were finally spent, the last of the fight drained from Ellie. Her legs wobbled like she’d just run a hundred miles. She grabbed a nearby chair to steady herself while shame seeped through her pores and filled her throat with a thick, oily residue.
A tear slipped down her cheek. Ellie bowed her head, searching for the words to apologize for lashing out.
Clay’s finger was gentle as he lifted her chin. “Look at me.”
Ellie didn’t want to look at him. She’d rather crawl into a hole and hide away. From him. From Val’s death. From Bethany’s kidnapping. From her memories. From the world. But she was tougher than that. She had to be.
His face swam in front of her, thanks to the stupid tears filling her eyes, but she blinked and blinked and forced herself to meet his gaze anyway. Whatever rebuke he planned to deliver, she deserved it.
“I love you.”
All Ellie could do was gape as Clay leaned in and pressed a featherlight kiss to her lips. The contact was there one moment, gone the next. When he straightened, she pressed shaky fingers to her mouth, which still tingled from the brief contact.
She tried to speak, but her vocal cords locked up. Probably for the best because she had no idea what to say. Her mind spun, and her emotions yanked her in every different direction all at once.
And curse him, Clay must have had an inkling of how she felt because he tipped his hat with a faint smile. “Shh, don’t say anything now. I just needed you to know that whenever you’re ready, I’ll be here.” His expression turned solemn. “And I mean it. When you’re ready, and not a second sooner. Pressure and love don’t mix, no matter how someone in your past might have acted.”
Great. Now her eyes were burning again. Ellie nodded, afraid if she tried to utter even a single word, she’d collapse into a sniveling heap.
“Good, glad that’s settled. In the meantime, I’ll be filling every free hour by searching for Caraleigh.” His voice turned to steel. “Luke is the first real lead I’ve had on her case in years, and I won’t stop until I exhaust every damn resource and reach every dead end.”
As if mentioning his sister was the reminder the agent needed to get back to work, Clay headed for the door but paused when his hand touched the handle. “Any word on how long Katarina will be stuck in the psych ward?”
Still reeling from Clay’s shocking declaration, Ellie’s brain required a few seconds to process the abrupt subject change. When she did, she hugged herself and grimaced.
“That’s entirely up to Katarina.”
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