Murder Under A Mystic Moon

Murder Under A Mystic Moon
Original Edition: Berkley Prime Crime, January 2005
Second Edition: Nightqueen Enterprises, LLC, November 1, 2016

With her teenaged daughter's birthday on the horizon and the town's autumn festival in full swing, Emerald has her hands full with party preparations and teashop specials. But a request from her friend Jimbo has her using her abilities to look into the disappearance of his friend. In the woods surrounding the Klickavail Valley enclave, Emerald senses a strange energy manifesting itself-before literally stumbling across the body of Jimbo's friend. While the police are willing to blame the death on a cougar attack, Emerald knows there's something else wandering the forest-something that resembles the Klakatat monster of legend, but may actually be a monster of a more human kind.

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Chapter 1

THE PHONE JARRED me out of my pre-caffeine stupor as I was eating breakfast. I'd woken to find the kids already up and halfway through their chores, hustling to make it down to the Chiqetaw Recreation Center before the swimming pool got too crowded. I grabbed the receiver on the third ring, trying to maneuver my tongue around a mouthful of jelly doughnut.

"'Lo?"

"O'Brien?" Jimbo Warren's voice came booming over the line. A biker and self-proclaimed mountain man, Jimbo and I had started out as adversaries and ended up as friends. Not only had he helped me save my son from kidnappers, but he'd insisted on paying me back every penny that he'd cost me and my insurance company for throwing a brick through my living-room window. Now that we'd put the past to rest, we actually got along pretty good.

"I need your help," he said. "My buddy Scar's gone missing. I want you to find out if he's dead."

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Dead? Did he say dead? I glanced at the clock. Yep, it was eight in the morning, all right. Jimbo didn't sound like he was joking. Didn't sound drunk, either, so that eliminated any practical jokes he might come up with after a long night at Reubens. I squinted at the phone. Maybe I'd missed something along the way. I'd barely started on my espresso; the caffeine hadn't had time to hit my system yet and there was a good chance I was still running at half-speed.

I licked my fingers. "Say what? Who's Scar, and why do you think-?"

"I'm not kidding, O'Brien," Jimbo interrupted. "I need your help. Scar's my best buddy. He lives in the biker enclave out in Klickavail Valley, and he's been missing for a week. I think he's dead, and if he is, I was thinking that you might be able to contact his spirit. You owe me one."

He had me there, but did he have to pick this way to collect? Things had been going so well for a change. Nobody had died on me in months. I was thoroughly enjoying a break from the astral brigade that seemed to have set up camp on my doorstep over the past year and I had no intention of courting any more trouble. Events promised to be shaping up for a crisp, calm autumn. I wanted them to stay that way.

I grabbed a paper towel and tried to wipe the residue of raspberry jelly off my face, succeeding only in getting the paper stuck to my fingers. Exasperated, I told him to hold on for a minute and dampened the towel. Once my face and hands were reasonably clean, I said, "I'm back. So your friend's disappeared. Are you sure he's not just hiding out somewhere?"

Jimbo let out a sigh. "Do I have to beg? Okay then, please help me find out what happened to Scar. You know the cops aren't going to do anything about a missing biker, and his old lady's really upset. She's pregnant. Scar wouldn't up and leave her. I really have a bad feeling about this."

I straightened up. Jimbo never begged anybody for anything. For him to say "please" meant that he was dead serious. I glanced at the clock, gauging my list of errands for the morning before I headed down to my shop. "This morning's booked, but if you come down to the shop around noon, I'll buy you lunch and you can tell me what's going on."

"Thanks. And... O'Brien, you know I wouldn't bug you about this if I had any other choice." He hung up and I stared at the receiver, listening to the dial tone. Somewhere, out there in the universe, the cosmic scales teetered and I could feel all the balance and order I'd managed to regain over the past few months list to the side as it went crashing to the floor in a heap. I glanced out the window. The sky stretched out cloudless and sunny, but I had the feeling I'd better lash the mast and batten down the hatches. A storm was making its way to shore.

* * *

MY NAME IS Emerald O'Brien, and I own the Chintz ‘n China Tea Room. My daughter recently suggested that I change the name to the Chintz ‘n China Tea Room & Tarot Emporium, since I read the cards for so many of my customers, but I told her that sounded like a carnival sideshow. I preferred to maintain what little dignity I'd managed to scrape together over the years.

You see, I hold the dubious honor of being Chiqetaw's one and only "town witch." It wasn't my idea to dub myself that, but people say it with a smile, so I good-naturedly accept the teasing that goes along with the role. In some ways, the nickname fits, though I don't match any of the stereotypes people automatically think of when they hear the "W" word. I've never visited Stonehenge, I'm not an angst-ridden Goth girl, I don't wear a long black cape, and I'm only flaky when I haven't had my caffeine.

What I am is a thirty-six-year-old divorced mother of two wonderful children-Miranda, my star-struck daughter, and Kipling, who just happens to have been born with a strong dose of second sight. Granted, some folks think I'm a little wacko, but I don't care as long as I've got my family and friends. Over the years I've met more than my fair share of ghosties and ghoulies, both good and bad, and I know how to handle them thanks to my grandmother. Nanna taught me to work folk magic the same way that her grandmother taught her. I miss Nanna, but her spirit still pops in from time to time to give me a little advice or a helping hand when I really need her.

And even though I seem to be a beacon for the entire spirit world-the blue-light-special of the "other side" so to speak-I really didn't sign up to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer or one of the Ghostbusters. I honestly have no idea where the universe got the notion that my idea of a good time consists of hunting down astral spooks and mortal murderers. But when destiny knocks, you don't slam the door in its face.

So when the bad guys come calling, I take it for granted that I'm going to end up with bruised knees, nasty welts, torn clothing, exploding cars, virtual visions, astral journeys, the occasional haunting, and all sorts of delightful jaunts into the netherworlds. Score one for the karma police, zero for me.

In the meantime, I just try to keep my children safe, make a success of my business, and enjoy life as much as I can.

As I gathered my keys and purse, my mind lingered over Jimbo's call. In the pit of my stomach, I knew that my temporary reprieve from adventure was over. I took a deep breath, opened the door, and plunged back into the maelstrom.

* * *

CHIQETAW'S ANNUAL EARLY Autumn Breeze Celebration ran from Friday through Sunday during the second weekend in August. Designed to attract shoppers eager for end-of-the-summer bargains, the street fair encompassed most of the downtown businesses. When I opened the Chintz ‘n China Tea Room a couple of years back, I happily joined in the fun.

Since western Washington had the well-deserved reputation for being the rain capital of the Northwest, there was a definite benefit to luring customers downtown while we still had shirt-sleeve weather. In a little over a month, the rainy season would start and the sky would be overcast again for months on end.

I studied the layout of miniature gift baskets, glancing at the clock. Five minutes to ten. Almost time to open the doors. Friday mornings usually were a little slow, but with the advertised sales going on along Main Street, I expected business to pick up as the day wore on. I adjusted one of the baskets, admiring my handiwork. Brimming with honey and crackers and packets of orange spice tea, they looked so inviting that I thought I should make up a few to take to my parent's anniversary party next month. My sister Rose had roped me into helping her plan a huge affair that I knew my folks wouldn't like, but Rose was a force in her own right, and with Grandma McGrady on her side, even the devil himself wouldn't stand in her way.

Satisfied with the display, I surveyed the entire shop. The windows blossomed with color, sporting arrangements of Indian corn, giant sunflowers in tall urns, and baskets overflowing with poly-resin mushrooms, silk autumn leaves, and bottleneck gourds. The faint essence of cinnamon lingered in the air from the incense I'd burned earlier, a subtle but perfect invitation to stock up on harvest supplies. A lot of the town matrons canned their own fruit and put up preserves at this time of year; they'd be in the mood to pick up a box of spiced tea or a pumpkin-shaped teapot.

Like most small stores, half my yearly revenue came from holiday shoppers. I hadn't resorted to putting up a Christmas tree the day after Halloween, but I had caved in to some of the retail traditions, subliminal suggestion being the best of them. And, of course, I supplemented my business savvy with a few little charms for abundance that I'd tucked away in the nooks and crannies. They were the icing on the cake, adding to the general ambience of the Chintz ‘n China, and to my family's prosperity.

"Are you ready?" I asked Cinnamon, grateful I'd been able to extend her hours to fulltime. She was a good worker, and she needed the job.

Cinnamon finished arranging the last of the china plates and cups on the sideboard, then fished out a box of Irish mints and fanned them onto a silver salver, setting it on the counter. "Almost. What should I call today's menu?" She picked up the chalk, poised to write up the menu on the new floral motif board that my friend Murray had made for me.

"Let's see, what do we have? Petit fours and pound cake and raspberry tea and lemonade? Hmm... why not ‘August Garden Party'?" I gave the shop one more look-see, unlocked the front door, and propped it open to let the morning breeze drift in.

"Are the kids coming down today?" Cinnamon asked, as she finished writing up the menu. "Or is Kip waiting until Lana gets here?" My nine-year-old son had a crush on our part-time clerk that had been going on for months. Lana took it in stride, and I was grateful for her patience with him when he followed her around like a puppy dog.

I shook my head. "They went swimming this morning, and this afternoon, Kip has computer class and Miranda volunteered to clean the shed." My daughter's birthday was coming up and I knew she was trying to win me over for some new astronomical gadget. In July, she'd received the treat of her young lifetime-a long-coveted trip to Space Camp. The week-long experience had only intensified her focus on becoming an astronaut. Not quite fourteen, Randa was already studying up on colleges, intent on finding the best astronomy department in the nation.

The bells over the screen door tinkled and Margaret Files bustled in. My boyfriend's aunt, she was the only family he had around these parts. She had retired from her job as a file clerk several years ago, and had been coming for tea almost every day since I opened the shop. Like clockwork, she scheduled a tarot reading during the last weekend of each month.

"Emerald! You're looking so pretty today. That sun-dress matches the green of your eyes perfectly." She gave me a big hug and planted a petunia-pink kiss on my cheek. I discreetly wiped off the lipstick, grateful for her support. She never made any mention of the fact that Joe was ten years younger than I, and seemed genuinely happy that I was involved with her nephew. "The store looks absolutely lovely, like a painting."

I escorted her to the tearoom. "Have you heard from Joe?" It had been a long week. Joe was at a conference for EMT's in Portland, Oregon. Though he'd called before bed every night since he'd been gone, I missed the scent of his woodsy aftershave and the feel of his arms curling around me as we fell asleep.

Margaret sighed. "Of course I have. He's a good boy, Emerald, but sometimes I wish he'd cut the apron strings. He phoned last night right when I had the hand of a lifetime. I told him to call back later. It isn't every week that I get a chance to shoot the moon, and Leticia and Iris were hopping mad." She rested her hand on my arm. "You should join us, dear. Sometimes Iris isn't feeling up to snuff; she has angina, you know. The girls wouldn't mind if you sat in for her."

I knew all too well about Margaret Files and her pinochle club. On the surface, they seemed like a nice, genteel group of older women who got together every week for cards. In reality, they played cutthroat pinochle for higher stakes than I could afford, and they played to win. Since no men were invited, and tea was served instead of beer, they had decided that what they were doing wasn't gambling, but when push came to shove, their strategy made cockfighting look tame. I didn't have the stamina to keep up with them and I knew it.

"Margaret, you know I'd be outgunned in an instant. I'm about as good at gambling as I am at keeping out of trouble." I gave her a wink and she giggled.

"So tell me when my nephew is due home?" She zeroed in on the platters of cookies and cakes, then lifted a lid on one of the soup vats to give it a good sniff. Today we were serving gazpacho and chicken noodle, as well as a selection of turkey and cream cheese sandwiches.

"Sunday night. I miss him." I straightened the stack of napkins, then rearranged a platter of cookies, trying to squelch a sudden flood of longing. Joe had wormed his way into my heart, all right, and his being gone left me lonelier than I wanted to admit.

She kissed me on the cheek, then settled at a table with her food and a book. "I don't know if you realize just how sweet he is on you, my dear. He always talks about you. Now go on back to your other customers; you don't have to fuss over me. I've got my petit fours and my tea and my latest Danielle Steel novel to keep me busy. I love the juicy parts, don't you?"

I winked at her. "A woman after my own heart. Okay then, if you're comfortable, I'll talk to you in a while."

Cinnamon could handle the few customers milling in the shop, so I slipped outside to catch a breath of fresh air. Golden sunlight flickered through the trees standing guard along the sidewalk; it glinted off parked cars and reflected in the row of shop windows that lined Main Street. The city had planted them years ago, interspersing benches and flower boxes between the tall, smooth trunks. The snakebark maples provided shelter in summer for pedestrians strolling along the main boulevard, and in the winter their bare branches twinkled with hundreds of Christmas lights, shimmering along the snow-shrouded streets.

I perched on the bench directly in front of my shop and leaned back, closing my eyes to avoid looking at the white lines marking the crosswalk just a few yards away. Back in April, one of my tarot clients had met his untimely end between those two white lines, thanks to a hit-and-run driver who sped through the red light, clocking a good forty miles an hour. The image had stuck in my mind and offered up an instant replay every time I looked at the intersection.

"Yo, O'Brien, wake up!"

I knew that voice. "I'm asleep. Go away."

"Come on, wench. It's almost noon and you promised we'd talk."

I opened one eye to stare at the familiar face. Yep. There stood Jimbo Warren, decked out in full leather and studs, towering over me. I didn't see the monster he called his "Sugar" anywhere. "Where's your chopper?"

He jerked his head toward Chiqetaw's downtown parking lot and I could tell he wasn't up for small talk. I still found it difficult to believe that this giant of a man and I had started out as enemies. Over the past few months, his drunken bouts had tapered off and he'd actually taken to stopping by my shop for a bag of cookies or an honest-to-goodness cup of tea.

"As I said on the phone, I need your help."

His sober expression got me moving. I stretched, then motioned for him to follow me into the shop. As we navigated our way through the display tables, several of my customers tossed us questioning glances. I returned their looks with a gracious nod, but Jimbo added a little half-bow with a flourish, his eyes twinkling.

"Morning, ladies," he said in an easy voice. "I trust the day's being kind to you?"

Flustered, they tittered back a few daring responses and one of them-I think it was Elvira Birmingham-positively beamed. I forced myself to keep a straight face. Oh yeah, women loved bad boys all right; especially the prim and proper matrons of the town.

I led Jimbo to the table I kept reserved for shop personnel and offered him a seat. Jimbo eyed the chair. The delicate scrolled backs were aged with a green patina, and the smooth leather seats belied their strength. "You sure that bitty thing's gonna hold me up?"

"It might look dainty but the framework is solid iron; it won't bend under the weight of a sumo wrestler." I motioned for him to sit down. "I'll get us some lemonade and cake." After I brought the food and drink back to the table, I settled into my own chair "So what's going on?"

He hesitantly perched on the cushion and swigged down his lemonade. He set the glass back on the table, staring at it for a moment before speaking.

"I told you that one of my buddies has disappeared."

I nodded. "Scar, right?"

"Yeah. Scar's been hanging around Klickavail Valley for the past four years. Now he's up and vanished. Nobody's seen him for a week. He wouldn't just wander off like this, O'Brien. I know something's happened to him." His lip twitched.

A biker who'd vanished spelled "road trip" to me. Or "jailbird." "I assume you've talked to the police and to his other friends?"

Jimbo grunted. "Scar's old lady hasn't seen him since Friday-a week ago today-and that's the last time I saw him, too. Seems Traci came into town to buy groceries. Scar told her he was going to head over to my place. When she got home, the lock on their trailer was busted and the place was trashed. Every drawer had been tossed. A real mess. I went up there and looked around. Whoever did it was searching for something and I don't think they found it."

"Thieves?" I asked.

"That's just it. Nothing was missing, except Scar. As soon as Traci saw the state of their trailer, she drove over to my place, figuring Scar and I would be out fishing, but he never showed up. I followed her back to the enclave and we asked around. Clyde-he runs the joint-was the last person who talked to him. Clyde said he asked Scar if he wanted to hang out and have a beer, but Scar told him that he was heading out for my joint. Then he vanished. We went to the cops Saturday morning when he still hadn't shown up."

Jimbo must have been worried if he'd actually brought in the police. "What did they say?"

"You know how they feel about the bikers. They keep hoping the whole lot will just disappear, and since they can't raid the place without a good reason, they're not about to do anything to help find a biker gone AWOL. They were total assholes."

"I can't believe they'd just ignore the fact that he was missing." I knew several of the officers, including my best friend Murray who had made detective earlier in the year. The Chiqetaw police were usually responsive to the public.

"Oh, they took a report all right, but then that paunchy old dude-what's his name? He's the head of detectives?"

"Coughlan?"

"Yeah, thanks. Coughlan, that's it. He took one look at the report and passed it off. He said that Scar was probably off on some road trip. Traci told them about the trailer, but they ignored it. Just said that they'd ask around at the bars. Real big freakin' help, huh?"

Jimbo scratched his chin, his beard still braided in the long cornrows that I'd suggested. The first day he'd showed up with them, I realized that I had no business offering fashion tips to bikers, but he seemed to like them so I refrained from commenting other than to murmur an "Oh yes, how nice."

"Coughlan, huh? That figures." The officers I knew took complaints seriously, checking things out as much as their constrained budget and limited force allowed, but Coughlan was another matter. Murray's supervisor, he'd made her life miserable ever since she got a promotion to his unit. They'd managed to achieve a truce, but I didn't expect it to last.

He shook his head. "Remember, we're talking about the Klickavail Valley bikers. The cops suspect all sorts of trouble out there, most of it the product of their overactive imaginations. Since the enclave is housed on private property and the boys have permission to live there, and since there's no proof that anything illegal is actually going down, the cops ignore the place, hoping the group will get bored and leave. They're not gonna help any more than they're forced to. Anyway, so Scar's vanished and Traci's freakin'."

"They have a fight, maybe?"

"Nope, no way. She's pregnant and they're happy as a pair of lovebugs. Kid's due to pop in about a month. I told the cops Scar would never run out on his old lady. All he can talk about lately is having the kid and settling down. He wants two or three more, after this one." Jimbo shrugged, but I thought I glimpsed the ghost of a smile behind his worry.

Curious. I'd have thought that anybody living in the biker's enclave out there would want to remain free, unattached. "What about you? Have you ever considered getting married?" The question slipped out before I could stop myself.

Jimbo picked at the crumbs of his cake. "Me? Nah... I mean, it just ain't the life for a woman. Hell, you know me. I spend most of my time in the woods. What would I do with a wife and kids? I got my land and my house and that's enough. Heck, I was here before most of those guys even knew the valley existed. I'm about as settled as I'm ever gonna get."

Jimbo's home, from what I had seen, had been built one room at a time; he just kept adding on as he needed to and it resembled a sprawling shack more than a house, but I wasn't going to nitpick over subtleties.

He continued. "But after years on the road, some of the boys need to settle down, plant some roots. Don't mean they get kicked out of the gang, they just keep the home fires burning for the rest. Anyway, so you see, Scar wouldn't leave Traci, and he sure as hell wouldn't run off without his new Harley. He just bought that baby and she cost him over thirty grand."

"Thirty grand? For a bike?"

"Hey, it's a customized Screamin' Eagle Electra Glide. They don't come cheap."

I didn't ask how Scar had managed to get his hands on thirty thousand dollars; the less I knew about the financial dealings of Jimbo's friends, the better. But something about the situation intrigued me. I'd shed a lot of my stereotypes over the past few months. If Jimbo was right about his friend, then Scar wouldn't have up and taken off without letting somebody know. On the other hand, could the man still have a wild streak that Jimbo had overlooked?

"Has anything else happened that strikes you as suspicious?"

He glanced around to see if anybody was eavesdropping. God knows, somebody probably was. I loved my customers but a select handful were firmly ensconced in the busybody boot camp. My tearoom had become a hotspot for the tea-and-crumpet set to pick up a little gossip along with their daily "cuppa." Whenever I had a few moments, I joined them, doing my best to keep tabs on local rumors and squash anything I knew to be wrong.

"My chickens have been disappearing. Last week, something tore up my fence-that's pure barbed wire, babe, and ain't much fun to tangle with."

"Cougar? Bear maybe? This is the time of year when they pack on the weight for winter, so they'll be out and about." Chiqetaw was nestled out in the boonies off Highway 9, about fifteen miles southeast from Bellingham. Quite a few wild animals wandered in from the woods to the outskirts of town, especially out near Miner's Lake and up on Jumping Jack Ridge.

Jimbo shook his head. "I don't think so. Whatever did it trampled my carrot patch and got into the corn. I found footprints in the dirt, and O'Brien, they weren't made by any four-legged animal. They were big and barefoot. Bigger than my feet." Jimbo stretched out his leg. Yep, his boot was mighty big, at that.

He leaned in closer. "My guess is that something's tromping around Miner's Lake, something dangerous. A few of the guys in Klickavail Valley told me that they've come up short on stuff lately. Food... blankets... stuff like that. Terry-T said his sleeping bag disappeared off the clothesline a couple weeks ago. And they've been hearing strange things in the woods out there, too. Noises, and seeing shadows that shouldn't be there."

A tingle pulsed in the back of my neck and it felt as if I stood poised on the edge of a cliff. "You said you thought Scar is dead. Why?"

He sighed. "I can't prove that he's dead, but I got one of those awful feelings in my gut that I ain't ever gonna see him again. This week I've had a couple dreams about him calling my name, but in them, I could never find out where he was. And then last night, I had another dream, and he was there, and he was all bloody and holding out his hands. Scared me shitless."

"So you want me to go ghost-hunting."

"Yeah," he said with a bob of his head. "Come out to Miner's Lake and take a look around. You can see these things better than me."

I took a deep breath. The situation didn't sound good, that was for sure. "What exactly do you want me to do?"

"What I was thinking was, seeing as how you're a hoodoo woman like my Granny, maybe if he's dead, his ha'nt is hanging around and you might be able to see him or hear him."

I leaned back in my chair, contemplating the situation. Over the past few months, Jimbo and I'd had several talks about his grandma, who practiced some sort of folk magic down in the bayous of Louisiana. Jimbo firmly believed in the supernatural, he'd had several interesting experiences as a kid, then again when helping me rescue my son. And apparently, I was the only one he could talk to about the paranormal without being labeled a wacko.

I took a long swallow of my lemonade. Chances were good that Scar had just dropped out of sight for a while, but Jimbo had tweaked my curiosity. If it would set his mind at ease, I'd do it. And as he'd said, I owed him one.

"All right. How about Sunday? I can't promise results, but I'll give it a try. Do you mind if I bring my friend Murray?"

He hesitated for a second, then shrugged. "What the hell, it ain't like this is top secret. Why don't you bring some chips and beer, and I'll fry us up a chicken, fresh from the henhouse."

It was my turn to pause. "Fry a chicken? You can cook?"

Jimbo smirked. "Hey babe, I ain't just good looking, you know. My Granny taught me how to pluck a hen and skin a possum, and fry up catfish fresh from the lake. Hell, you think I could do the work I do if I lived on baloney sandwiches?"

We had more in common than I'd thought. Since my mother had worked in my father's business, I'd learned most of my skills from my Nanna, too, though I'd never once had to face skinning a possum. I shuddered, grateful for small favors.

He pushed back his chair and winked at me as he stood up. "I'll hide anything your cop-friend shouldn't see."

Oh yeah, that made me feel better. I cleared my throat. "Sounds like a plan." He stood up, but paused when I rested my hand on his. "Jimbo, what do you really think happened to Scar? You said you think something's prowling in the woods out there. Are you hiding something from me?"

He paused, his expression guarded. "You'll think I'm nuts."

I stared at him. "You do realize who you're talking to, don't you?"

He rubbed his hands together. "You know, those woods have a lot of secrets. There's some crazy-assed shit going on out there; always has been, always will. Rumors and stories float around. I laughed most of them off until lately. About two... maybe three weeks back, I start getting the feeling that I'm being watched every time I'm out there. I tell you, those woods are alive, and they seem agitated."

My psychic alarm clock began to ring. "So what do you think happened?"

He sighed, then jammed on his helmet and pulled on a pair of leather gloves. "I think the Klakatat Monster killed him and dragged him off somewhere. That's what I think." And with that, he saluted me and strode toward the door.

Klakatat monster? What the heck was that?

With visions of beasts and bogies dancing in my head, I glanced over to where Margaret sat, ostensibly reading her book. I could see her peeking over the top, her face a question mark. I leaned down next to her and gave her a gentle hug. "Jimbo's just a friend in need of a little help."

"Friend, indeed," she said. She shook her head, but looked relieved. "He's wearing enough leather to build himself a cow." I poured her another glass of iced tea, then got back to work.

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