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The Broken Protector: Chapter 2

RED EYE (LUCAS)

I think I’ve read this book over thirty times by now.

Ender’s Game.

Genius boy, strange aliens, weird technology, interstellar conquest. I probably know every line by heart. You could turn a page, cover it with your hand, ask me what’s on it, and I could recite it for you word for word.

Guess I should get myself some new books.

Not like there’s much to do on shift but read.

Hell, there’s no point in even being out on patrol right now. There’s rarely any good reason in sleepy Redhaven, which is why right now my version of ‘on duty’ involves lounging in a chair in the back office of the police station and reading my bored ass off.

My boots are propped up on the captain’s unused desk while I keep an ear open for any incoming calls.

Over at the dispatch desk, Mallory’s filing her nails and playing a game that occasionally makes her phone spit something in Korean.

I don’t know a word of Korean.

Still, judging from the tone of the male voices and the way she’s blushing, I’d guess it’s awful dirty.

To each their own.

I read old books till my eyes turn red, and Mallory plays games where Korean guys purr at her and make her feel like she’s twenty again.

What the hell? It passes the time.

Maybe when my shift’s over, I’ll head out to the gym and break a sweat.

Normally, when a 911 call comes in, I don’t even look up.

Around here, what’s your emergency is usually more of a ‘pig caught in someone’s clothesline’ situation. Half the time I wind up feeling less like a cop and more like Redhaven animal control.

For some reason I can’t explain, though, this time my head snaps up when the phone goes off.

There’s this tingling on the back of my neck, prickling and cold and inexplicable.

Maybe I’ve just been uneasy all day, knowing that new teacher they hired is coming into town. We don’t get new folks that often, not the kind that settle in to stay.

Despite how Redhaven looks, your everyday person can’t afford the housing around here. You were either born here, or you’re vacationing.

Someone new always leaves the vibe a little unsettled.

Of course, it might also be the fact that she was hired by the Arrendells—or so I’ve heard through the town grapevine.

That’s enough to set me on edge all by itself.

I snap my book shut with my thumb as a bookmark and listen in while Mallory switches on the headset tucked against her salt-and-pepper hair.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” she chirps.

I can’t make out what’s happening on the other end of the line.

There’s a faint distressed voice and it’s not one I recognize.

A woman.

And apparently, she’s making poor Mallory go pale.

“Miss, can you please repeat that one more time?” she strains, her voice breathless. “I… yes, of course. Of course, miss, and could you give me your name? Thank you. Yes. I’ll send someone right out. Don’t touch anything, please. No, don’t go inside the house. Yes, yes. Thank you.”

I jump up and snag a sticky note, tucking it into my book before tossing it on the desk.

“Trouble, Mallory?”

Her wide eyes dart to me as she jots something down on a notepad, then murmurs something reassuring into her headset before ripping the paper off and thrusting it at me like a bomb.

“There’s a body,” she announces, just as Chief Bowden plods in from the little closet he’s claimed as his private office. His thumbs are tucked into his belt loops, dragging his uniform pants down below his belly. “It’s at the Crowder house. The new teacher, she said she opened her door and found a dead girl inside.”

“You’re shitting me,” I whisper, raking a hand over my face.

My stomach flips over as the numbness on Mallory’s white face says she’s not.

I snatch the piece of paper away and frown at the name written there.

Delilah Clarendon?

Fuck.

Even her name smells like trouble—and I already wonder what the hell kind she’s brought with her to our little town.


I’m not alarmed till I see the body for myself.

Tense, yeah, but part of being a police officer is keeping it cool as a cucumber until there’s reason not to be.

Sometimes all it takes is one person keeping their shit together to help everybody else hold it together, too. I learned that in some sticky situations.

Still, as Chief Bowden and I settle into my patrol car and hit the road, this ugly premonition sinks into my bones, harsh and cutting.

Why does it feel like I’ve been waiting for something to happen?

It’s been too quiet around Redhaven for ages. Certain people learned to take their dirty business somewhere else.

You know the old saying—don’t shit where you eat.

Well, sooner or later, somebody was bound to slip up.

And if there’s really a dead body at the new teacher’s house, it might just be my chance to catch them in the act.

As we head out to that little blue house at the edge of town, I’m expecting to pull up on this frazzled kitten collapsed in a mess of tears, flipping her fancy latte and throwing a fit, demanding to speak to—who knows?

The mayor, which we don’t have when it’s just a town council of selectmen.

The manager?

Some manager. Any manager.

Whatever authority figure she can complain to about how we could possibly let this catastrophe happen to her. As if we’re not just as shell-shocked as she is.

I’m not trying to be a dick. I’ve just got a feeling this stranger could make a nasty situation worse.

That’s what I’m assuming till the second we pull up and spot her.

This eerily calm, motionless figure waiting for us on the front porch. Not what I expected.

My first impression is that she’s kind of an old soul.

Young, for sure. Early to mid-twenties, maybe.

She’s tiny.

So damn small I could pick her up with one hand.

Leggy as hell with thick hips and a slender waist, all of her looking real casual in a dark-blue tank top and jeans.

Lightly tanned skin. From the thin white tan lines on her shoulders, it looks pretty natural, not sprayed-on or burned into her by tanning beds.

Her face starts with a tumble of black hair cascading over her shoulders and back. High cheekbones render her expressionless, stone-cold, her full lips set in an unrevealing line of horror.

Then there’s the tattoo.

That stylized dragon tattoo coiling over her shoulder and down her arm, its black ink crisp and fluid, hinting there’s a little something more to her behind that hard-set mask.

Shit.

She doesn’t look like the sort of girl who’d pack up her big-city life and come down here to teach a bunch of munchkins in a town that doesn’t know her from Adam.

Which makes it extra weird that the day she shows up, so does a body.

The girl lifts her head as I park my patrol car.

Her eyes are just faint shimmers in the shadows under the porch, watching us warily.

“Think she’s gonna be a problem? Looks skittish as hell.” In the passenger seat, Bowden clucks his tongue.

“We should talk to her before we make any kind of assessments, Chief.” I check my sidearm at my hip, make sure the safety’s locked, then toss my head. “Come on.”

We step out of the car.

Our new arrival instantly goes tense, but holds her ground.

The chief is half-right.

I haven’t spoken one word to her, yet the girl makes me think of an alley cat, guarded and feral but ever ready to defend her territory. I take it slow as I push the gate open and walk up with Bowden behind me.

Look, I’m no stranger to women turning to stone around me.

I’m a big guy. To some folks, that means safety.

To others, that just makes me a bigger threat.

So I stop at a safe distance, close to the steps. I don’t want to crowd her, make her feel unsafe, and I keep my hands well away from my weapon as I take a slow look around.

The front door is hanging open.

Can’t see inside at this angle, but I’m guessing that’s where our problem is.

Looks like there’s been a disturbance around the house. Grass in the side yard bent and broken, freshly crushed, probably by somebody running to dig into it that hard.

Was it her just taking a look around?

Or maybe someone fled the crime scene?

“Miss Clarendon, right?” My gaze snaps back to her.

She narrows her eyes. Now I can see they’re blue, indigo-like, a kind of dark night-sky shade.

“Yes. That’s me,” she whispers.

“Lieutenant Graves. Lucas.” I nod at the chief. “And this is Chief Bowden.”

“Think you met my wife,” Bowden pipes up in his slow, sleepy drawl. He’s staring off at the woods and doesn’t seem all that interested.

I hold in a sigh. Man’s getting close to retirement, and honestly, it’s a bit overdue.

“Janelle?” he asks.

“Um, yeah,” Delilah says coldly. “She gave me the keys. Don’t think she left me the dead girl, though.”

“Absolutely not,” I agree. Hell, I’ve known Janelle Bowden my whole life, and she can’t even swat a bee. “Mind if we take a quick look?”

“I doubt she’s going anywhere,” Delilah bites off before her face smooths. “I mean… I’m sorry. I think I’m still in shock. Yeah, take your time.”

I step up on the porch. The boards creak under me.

She immediately stiffens as I draw closer. I stop, keeping my gaze fixed on her and not looking inside just yet.

“You can breathe,” I say. “I doubt you’re a suspect. No need to panic. There’s a sidewalk over there if you don’t want to be here.”

I point my thumb over my shoulder.

Her lips thin.

For the briefest second, I think I’m about to get that city-girl freakout I expected.

Then she looks away, hugging her arms to her chest. “I’m not worried about that.”

I tilt my head. “You stressing about something else?”

“Like why there’s a body in my new living room, you mean?” Her shoulders jerk sharply in something that’s less like a shrug and more of a flinch. “But also, where I come from, you wonder how much you should say to cops. Even if you didn’t do a thing. You wonder how much they even care.”

“Fair enough, I guess,” I agree. “Where you from?”

“Queens. New York, I mean.”

“New York City?” I whistle softly. “Well, if you can give me a few minutes, Miss New York, maybe we can get this sorted.”

Her head snaps up and she glares at me, slightly baring her teeth.

I’m okay with that.

Rather have her pissed at me than panicked over finding the body.

See, that’s the thing with being a cop.

You get to see the front people put up. Right now, she’s putting up one hell of a wall, all alley cat bravado with her tail frizzed up and back arched, ready to claw me to pieces if I get too close or say the wrong thing.

It’s the body language that gives her away.

The way she holds her arms in close, making herself compact, shielding herself.

The way her fingers dig into her inner elbows until her knuckles show white through the skin.

For just a second, the way her lips tremble.

She’s holding it together out of sheer stubborn pride, I think, but it’s taking an iron will.

Deep down, the girl’s scared as hell, and who can blame her?

Who wouldn’t be, showing up in a strange new town and finding a body before they can even move into their new digs?

“Chief,” I say.

Bowden grunts back, climbing up on the porch behind me.

“Ma’am.” The chief tips his cap to Delilah before following me inside.

I hold my breath while my eyes adjust to the dimmer light.

Yep.

That’s a dead body, all right.

I stop just past the threshold, moving to one side to let the chief inside but going no further. I don’t want to disturb a single goddamned thing, just in case we’re dealing with a proper crime scene and not some freak accident.

I swallow hard, my throat going as dry as the Mojave.

At first blush, it looks like there’s blood all over the floor, spiraling out in liquid pools across the wood.

Actually, it’s not blood—it’s silk.

A red dress the same rusty color as half-dried blood, the bodice belted with a streaming scarlet sash, the skirt spread around the body of a once-pretty slender girl with gold skin and a twist of black hair pinned behind her head.

One arm sprawls out and the other rests against her side.

She’s young, judging by her build and porcelain-smooth skin. Face down, I can’t make out an identity just yet, but at first glance I don’t pick up on anything I recognize.

My heart sinks.

Who is she, and what the hell happened to her?

“You recognize her?” I ask Bowden.

He shakes his head, clucking his tongue in that annoying habit he has.

“Don’t look like nobody I seen around,” he says. “You wanna turn her over?”

“Not yet.” I fish my phone out from my pocket. “Don’t move anything until I get a few good pictures. Might have to bring in the Feds and they always appreciate the extra camerawork.”

I open my camera app, adjust the lighting, and start snapping photos, carefully circling the body at a distance. There’s no furniture in this room to move with the house still mostly bare, making it easy to keep an eye out for anything of interest.

Fucking shame I already know I won’t find anything.

Probably wasn’t meant to find this body, either.

Only, something happened.

Somebody made a big damn boo-boo.

I can’t imagine anyone leaving her here on purpose.

I step closer, crouching down and taking a few more detailed shots.

She’s definitely dead—no respiration at all—but she couldn’t have been gone for more than a day when there’s no sign of decomposition. If not for the awkward angle of her body and the total motionlessness, I’d think she was just passed out cold, sleeping pretty as a picture.

Just to be doubly certain, I stow my phone and fish out a pair of nitrile gloves from my pocket, then snap them on and press two fingers to her throat.

No pulse.

Wouldn’t that have been a lovely surprise.

Tell the new teacher her dead girl’s actually a drunk girl who stumbled into her house, and everything’s okay.

“Anything?” Bowden asks.

I shake my head. “She’s cold. Help me turn her over, Chief. Careful, now.”

I catch her shoulders.

Bowden catches her feet and we gently flip her over onto her back. Her limbs flop limply, her head lolling in this sad nod.

Once she’s repositioned, I crane my head, frowning down at her face.

Damn.

No signs of bruising, injury, nothing.

Just a little puffiness around her eyes, which is normal as the body shuts down. She’s Instagram model pretty, but she doesn’t look like anyone I’ve ever seen, even with the summer tourists who invade our growing handful of Airbnbs and rentals.

“No broken bones, no contusions,” I mutter. “No ligature marks on the neck. Any thoughts?”

Bowden hitches his belt. “Can’t say. We’ll need the coroner in on this.”

“Have Mallory call it in. I’m gonna take a look around.”

I straighten, pulling myself up—only for a shadow to fall across the dead girl, blocking the fading sunlight from the doorway.

Delilah stands behind us, her arms still tucked around her, her eyes clouded as she looks down at the girl’s body with her brows in a troubled line.

“Who is she?” she asks softly.

“I don’t know yet.”

It’s like the room goes quiet as the grave, the air somber, this nameless dead girl between us and a million questions I don’t have answers for. Underneath those midnight-blue eyes, there’s a searching need.

Almost like Delilah’s looking at that girl’s empty face and seeing herself.

Herself, or else every Jane Doe heartbreaker who ever died without anybody knowing her.

I shake my head, running a hand through my hair. “She’s not a local, I can tell you that much. There’s no sign she was assaulted or injured from any external trauma. It’s possible she had some kind of medical condition.”

“And that medical condition magically landed her in my house?” For just a second, Delilah’s voice cracks. A tiny break in that tough exterior. “You don’t think that’s a little weird?”

“It is,” I say carefully. “You’re a teacher, right? I bet you can think of a dozen reasons she’d wind up here if something happened and she wasn’t feeling right. People aren’t always thinking straight when their body goes haywire.”

Delilah’s mouth twists in a sour line, waiting for an explanation I can’t give her.

Shit.

I’ve got to watch my mouth. No need to disclose too many details.

Not even theories, and not just because if this is a murder, I can’t fuck up the investigation.

I definitely don’t want to start the small-town rumor mill spinning.

“Stranger coincidences have happened,” I say with a shrug.

“But I—” Delilah stops and turns, staring outside, her delicate face caught in profile with the light highlighting all her fragile edges. She’s like a cannon made of glass, frailty and fire. “I just thought…”

“What did you think?”

“I thought I saw someone when I pulled up. They were around the side of the house, gone before you could blink. Over the fence and then into the woods, I think.” She shakes her head. “I told myself it was a wild animal and I was just getting spooked too easily. But now…”

“Could be.”

Or it could be something else entirely.

Did someone dump this body here and run when Delilah caught them in the act?

Or was the body never meant to be found, and New York accidentally interrupted something worse?

I glance at the chief—but he’s moved to the side window looking out toward the fence, the forest. He’s just staring, chewing the inside of his cheek.

Goddammit.

He’s checked out again.

He hasn’t even made the call to dispatch like I asked.

I get that this job is pretty lazy ninety percent of the time, but this is the time when I’d expect any officer worth his salt to wake the hell up and pay attention.

Sighing, I step closer to Delilah. “Listen. Is there anyone you know who might want to hurt you?”

She stiffens and slowly looks up at me.

“Not here. I only arrived an hour ago. I don’t even know anyone in town. Lucia Arrendell hired me through a phone interview.”

Lucia damn Arrendell.

I have to hold back the urge to snarl at that name.

Keep it casual, Graves.

Still, I can’t help saying, “Odd way to hire somebody, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. Eccentric rich people, or whatever, right? And it sounds like you guys need new teachers bad.” She shakes her head, her inky hair falling against her bare shoulders, blending with that tattoo. “There’s this one guy, back in New York… But he wouldn’t know I was here. He couldn’t have followed me or gotten here ahead of me.”

My interest sharpens.

“You want to elaborate on ‘one guy?’”

Her lips curl bitterly. “Creepy ex. Kind of stalker-y. Every girl’s got one, you know.” She glances past me at the dead girl on the floor. “Maybe she did, too.”

“That’s one possibility.” I glance at Bowden again, the back of his buzz-cut head, before gesturing to Delilah and taking another step closer. “Mind coming out to my car to talk for a bit? I’d like to get this guy’s name and information. Consider it due diligence.”

And I’m doing some more as my eyes rake over her, trying not to let myself get too smitten with her looks.

I don’t know her, and a pretty face doesn’t mean she’s just a witness.

Delilah resists for a moment, uncertainty clouding her face—there’s that alley cat look again—before she retreats, putting distance between us.

“You mean,” she whispers over her shoulder as she steps onto the lawn, “you want to get me away from the crime scene. Especially if I’m a potential suspect.”

Damn.

I don’t know this girl.

She’s as much of a stranger as that dead girl on the floor.

Still, something about the way she holds herself and bows her head like she’s grieving the loss of a life she never even knew trips something primal.

It makes me want to wrap her up in a safe cocoon and protect her, even if I can’t rule her out as a suspect just yet.

Sure, she might be putting on a brave front or one hell of an act, but I won’t blame her for being rattled.

She’s got a car, a dusty old Kia, parked out on the curb. I can make out moving boxes and laundry baskets piled with her stuff inside.

Fuck, this sucks.

The girl threw her whole life into the back of a ratty SUV. Showed up in a new town where she’s got no kin, no friends. Took on a job with folks she’s never met, sight unseen.

Then she walked right into this fucking mess.

Lots of people would be breaking down right now.

Somehow, Miss Delilah’s spine is still stiff, her expression composed. She’s trying her damnedest to keep it together.

I follow her down the steps.

“You’re not under arrest. Until the county coroner gives us a cause of death, we’ve got no firm reason to suspect foul play,” I say. “I will have to ask you to make other accommodations for a few nights, though. Even if she died of natural causes, we need to preserve the scene and gather evidence before moving the body, and we can’t do that if you’re moving in.”

She whirls on me in a lash of black, her hair like smoke, billowing around her.

She glares at me, all burning blue eyes.

“And just where am I supposed to stay?” she snaps.

“I’ve got a sofa.” It’s out before I can stop it, a dumb joke rising in answer to her sparking glare. “Little bit of hometown hospitality. Welcome to Redhaven. Pillows cost extra, Miss New York.”

Me and my big mouth.

She’s not amused in the slightest.

A scowl settles over her face and her fuck-you gaze just hardens.

“I bet you think you’re real funny, cracking shitty jokes at a murder scene,” she spits.

When she says it like that, it ain’t my smartest move. She doesn’t see I’m trying to lighten the mood, mostly for her sake.

“Never thought about doing stand-up, but I keep myself entertained,” I throw back.

Delilah’s eyes narrow, right on the verge of shooting flames now.

One slender tanned middle finger pops up in a proper New York salute.

I can’t help grinning. “That how you say hello where you’re from, New York?”

“It’s how we say a lot of things, you prick.”

My eyebrows dart up.

“I’ll take it as a declaration of your undying love,” I grumble. Then I skirt around her and pull the driver’s side door of the patrol car open so I can snag the notebook tucked into the sun visor. “Now, if I could get that name and contact information, I’ll follow up and make sure your ex didn’t trail you out here and have anything to do with this.”

Delilah goes dead silent for a moment.

That middle finger disappears and her hand goes back to gripping her elbow in a death hold.

“Please don’t—just don’t tell him where I am,” she whispers. “Go ahead, make sure he’s still in New York and all that, but don’t tell him I’m in Redhaven.”

“I won’t,” I promise. “You’re safe here, Miss Clarendon. I wouldn’t dare joke about that.”

Her gaze flicks to me, then to the open door of the blue cottage house.

“Am I?” she asks sharply.

Knife, meet guts.

I wish I could make her believe me, but she’s got good reason to feel skeptical.

Sure, I can promise her I won’t let anything bad happen till I’m blue in the face, but that won’t make her believe it.

I’ll just have to do my job, and make sure she doesn’t have any reason to regret coming to our little town.

She’s subdued as she gives me a name, a number, a last known address.

Roger Strunk, age twenty-six, an HVAC repairman from Queens.

That’s one lead.

The chief steps outside then and tells Delilah she’s welcome to stay at The Rookery’s main property, free of charge. I know he means it when he says Janelle would be happy to have her.

Delilah warily accepts, but thank fuck she does.

That means I know where to find her.

I hate that it all feels a little too easy. Too neat. Too simple.

Maybe her paranoia is starting to infect me now.

Then again, I’ve got my own good reasons for finding this whole ugly business a little fishy.

The simplest explanation isn’t always the right one.

Usually, when things look too simple in Redhaven, it means one thing.

Trouble.


I can’t get that girl off my mind.

Both of them, really, but mostly, Miss New York.

I can’t bring that poor dead girl back to life. I’ll certainly do my best by her—make sure we get her IDed and start bringing her some justice. But justice won’t bring her back.

Delilah, though, she’s still alive.

And here I am, still thinking about the stiffness of her spine, the way her mouth was set in this grim line like she was trying not to break down in front of me.

I just had to run my mouth and upset her more, even if she flashed me her claws.

So I can’t help wondering if there’s something I should do for her, too.

‘Course, that might be because I’m parked across the town square from The Rookery, settled in my car for my patrol shift.

While everyone else in this God-fearing town is sound asleep, there’s lights on in the house up the hill—and in a single room in The Rookery.

I can make out a feminine silhouette, settled against the window seat, backlit by gold.

She must’ve been there for hours.

Barely moving, just staring into space.

I don’t think she’s noticed me.

Will she get any sleep tonight at all?

Fuck.

For about two seconds, I try to talk myself out of it.

Good thing I don’t listen very well. Because next thing I know, I’m stepping onto the sidewalk, locking my vehicle behind me.

Screw it.

As of now, the Redhaven PD does house calls.

I head up the walk and I don’t even make it to the door before I hear a window opening above me, and then a soft hiss.

“Lieutenant Graves?”

I stop, craning my head up to look at her.

She’s perched on the sill in a little babydoll tee and shorts, her hair tumbling over her shoulder.

“Evening, Miss Clarendon,” I call up.

“It’s almost morning,” she whispers. “What are you doing here?”

I shrug, tucking my hands in my pockets. “Thought I’d check up on you. You look like you’re having a bit of trouble, ma’am. Mind if I come up?”

Her expression darkens into a scowl. “I mind a lot, thank you. I’m not having more trouble, and unless you’re officially here to question me or you’ve got a warrant, no, you can’t come up. I don’t want to wake up Janelle.”

I try not to let my jaw set.

“She sleeps in the house out back with the chief, you know. They wouldn’t even hear you.” It’s damn hard not to smile at this girl when she gets her hackles up, and I’m glad for her attitude. If she’s using it as a shield, it’ll hold her strong till she’s past this crap. “Don’t worry, New York. We’re not so old-fashioned that she’d go talking behind your back for having a man in your room at midnight.”

Her blue eyes dagger me like icicles. “You’re right. You did the world a favor when you didn’t go for that career in comedy.”

I can’t help the way my lips twitch up. “Wow. I thought you New Yorkers spoke fluent sarcasm.”

“And I thought you townies only spoke hillbilly, but you actually pronounce the ends of your words. I’m shocked.”

“Nah. Hillfolk live a bit higher up in the woods. Not people.”

She blinks. “Hillfolk?”

“You’ll meet the Jacobins when they’re ready and not a minute sooner. They’re the kind of folks who can’t be found unless they want to be.” I rock on my heels, studying her face. “You sure you’re gonna be all right? You don’t have to worry. I’m just out here on patrol all night, and I tend to settle in around the town square. If anyone comes by this place, I’ll see it from there. Thought you should know.”

There it is.

That New York glower, coming back in full force. “I don’t need you to watch over me, Officer. You insisted I’m safe… aren’t I?”

She’s got me there.

“Just doing my job, lady. You happen to be where my job is.”

“Wow, the full cop chaperone experience. Haven’t seen that since high school. I feel so special!”

“You were the one who said you didn’t need me,” I growl. But there’s no point in riling her up, either, no matter how sweetly it makes her flush and her eyes glitter. I just nod firmly and lift a hand. “I won’t keep you up. You need me, I’m parked right across the way. Have a good night, New York.”

“Not likely, Officer Limpdick,” she mutters.

Snorting, I ignore that comically wrong insult to my manhood and start to turn away, but this odd hunch turns me back.

Right on time to see her New York salute again, her slim middle finger thrust to the night sky, jabbed in my direction.

Two one-gun salutes in one day?

This is going great.

Before the window slams shut, there’s nothing left but the lash of her hair before she vanishes from view.

There you have it.

It’s gonna be a long-ass night, the kind that leaves you red-eyed and questioning your own life the next morning.

At least New York’s gonna be fine, attitude and all.

And me?

I fight back a shit-eating grin and shake my head.

All the way back to my damn car.


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