chapter twenty-one – one day in the life of doc morse

"Marshall, time to get up."

I opened one eye. "Why?" I asked.

"We have work to do. Come on," she replied briskly.

It was surprising that we were actually going to work, but it was good news, so I stood up. She left the room quickly as I started to dress.

"Where are we going?" I asked when I met her in the lobby.

"We're spending the day with Doc," she said. "I'm going to talk about it on the radio this week, and I want to write an article, too."

I was working on something caustic to say, but then we were in the little conference room and they were all there.

A couple of them nodded at me, and it was obvious that my presence and the story had been discussed already.

We sat down and Doc said, "What's on the docket for today?"

"Three groups want to meet," Ray said. "The Voting Now people, the Third Street merchants, and a group of factory workers."

"What do they want?" she asked, then she held up her hand. "I know what the voting people want, what about the others?"

"The merchants want more reliable electricity, the factory workers say they want to stay here, but we have to provide subways or busses or something so they can get to work."

"Any other news?"

"The insurance company settled with the university," Jack said. "So, they won't be trying to collect rent anymore."

"Did we qualify as an Act of God?" Doc asked.

Jack laughed. "The terms were not disclosed."

"Three new patients at the hospital," Ray said. "Two depressed, one of them suicidal, the other is bipolar, we think."

"Are you going to write about the hospital?" Doc asked Jan Sleet.

She shook her head. "I will if I have to, but it would be a lot better if there was an article in a medical journal, by someone recognized in the field. That would mean a lot more than another article by me. If I'm the only one writing about this, it's not going to be worth much."

Doc nodded. "Anything else?"

"Top news today is that Duffy's is closed," Jack said with a grin.

Ray looked up, surprised. "Closed? What happened?"

Jack laughed. "Not closed for good. But it's been open continuously since the Founding, and Archie was getting fed up. None of his regular crew would go home. They were just hunkered down in there, waiting for all the fuss to be over. He said they were getting really nasty, so he kicked them all out to make them go home."

"Nasty?" Ray asked. "That's hard to imagine."

"Not nasty in terms of personality. He was referring to the fact that none of them had bathed for so long."

"Ah," Ray said, grimacing. "I see what you mean."

"He'll reopen the place tonight."

Doc shook her head.

"And remember there's a meeting tonight," Jack added. "It's two weeks, you know. Tuesday is meeting day. It's good to celebrate, and plus a lot of people want to gripe about this and that."

Doc nodded. "We should all be there. It's worth celebrating, and we need to emphasize the good things even while we're letting people air their gripes."

"People see you meeting with this group and that group," Vicki said, "and they start to feel like groups get attention and individuals don't. It encourages people to see themselves as part of some special group, rather than as part of the whole."

Doc nodded slowly. "Very true. Ray, make a list of the things which come up at the meeting. We'll have to start to address some of them pretty quick, I think."

Ray nodded and made a note on his pad.

"What about electricity?" Jan Sleet asked. "It's going to come up more than once today."

Doc laughed. "I'm trying to keep everybody from realizing how little I know about these things. Where does electricity come from?"

They all looked at each other for a few moments until I finally said, "Power plants, running on coal or oil or nuclear power. On a smaller scale, there are often gasoline-powered generators in buildings like, oh, for example, hospitals."

Jan Sleet made a face at my sarcasm, but Doc only nodded. "We need to talk to the Jinx again. I wonder how much gasoline we'd have, if we pulled it all together."

"And would it work?" Jan Sleet asked quietly. "Remember what happened to the trucks when they drove over the bridge."

Doc shook her head. "I'm not going to believe that the laws of physics were changed that day. Not that I have a really clear idea what the laws of physics are, but I've always been led to believe that they're pretty fixed." Vicki smiled. "Even apart from our friend Vicki here," Doc continued. "I believe there's an explanation for her, too."

"You're protesting too much," Ray said, "at least in defense of principles which you admit you don't understand."

"Let's talk to the Jinx," Jack said. "Try to get some generators or something going. Probably they'll work. And if they don't work, because the laws of physics have been changed somehow, that's obviously not our fault."

"That'll be our stirring slogan for today," Doc said.

"What about voting?" Jan Sleet asked abruptly. "It'll come up on the radio, I'm sure."

"Not any time soon," Doc said. "We need some kind of structure, but not like that. Not now. People have to understand that this can really work before they start thinking about voting."

"Can we see about getting a generator hooked up at a club?" Vicki asked. "A bar and some bands might be a better celebration than another meeting."

"We've got another problem–" Jack began.

"We need to delegate the problems," Doc said. "Let somebody else handle them. We'll process the good news and the happy thoughts."

Jack laughed. "Interesting you'd put it that way. The issue is that we don't have a mechanism for dealing with disputes. People want us to settle their disagreements, but we don't have a system set up for that."

"What kind of disputes?" Ray asked.

Jack shook his head. "All kinds of things. Wages not paid for work. Husband stalking ex-wife. Disputes over apartments, who has rights to them. I could go on."

"We need judges," Doc said.

"That's easy," Vicki said. "I'll show you my answer at six tonight."

It was a strange day. First, because we walked everywhere (everybody did, except for the Jinx), and it was strange to see people's reactions. I was used to traveling around with somebody who was better known (and more distinctive looking) than I am, but this was on another level.

Of course, a lot of people we passed didn't react at all. If they knew who Doc was, they kept it to themselves. But the majority of people we passed obviously did know, and they either stared, or tried to pretend that they weren't aware of us at all. A few even took photographs.

The head of the merchant's group was an Italian shopkeeper named Bert and his wife Joanna. Their store proudly proclaimed that it had been in that location for over thirty years.

"Having a government is not like having a good supplier for pork," Bert said in a fairly thick accent. "We didn't choose you, but a government is like a supplier, it has to provide certain things, to everybody."

Doc nodded. "You're right, you didn't choose us, not you personally. But people around here, generally, they did choose us, and we're here to find out what you need and figure out a good way for you to get it."

"You're not a government, you're just a bunch of kids. How can you run this thing?"

My employer started to speak at that point, in Italian. Bert replied, and the conversation continued that way. I don't speak Italian, and to judge by Doc's expression, she didn't either. I expected her to indicate that the conversation should return to a language she knew, but she leaned back and relaxed.

It was at this point that I realized, somewhat belatedly I admit, that my employer was not just writing about this strange, bumbling amateur government, she was a part of it. She was helping run this thing, and whatever "reporting" she was doing was to serve that end.

This led me to two other thoughts. One was that I wondered if, in her new role as a government administrator (none of them had titles, of course), she would still need a writer's assistant. And I wondered, if she did still need my services, where the money was going to come from to pay me.

My other thought was that, however long this whole experiment lasted, there would certainly be a book in it, and nobody would be in a better position to write that book than my employer. That made me feel better.

I asked Jan Sleet what the conversation in Italian had been, so she wrote it out for me the next day.

(in Italian)

Jan: Bert, What did you do in Italy? Or did you come here as a child?

Bert: I came here as a young man. Before that, I worked in my father's store, in a town called Bardi. And my name is Bartolomeo. Bartolomeo Segadelli.

Jan: I'm Janice Stiglianese.

Bert (smiling): "Janice"?

Jan: My mother was an American.

Bert shrugs.

Jan: In Bardi, how did your father collect from a deadbeat? Did he go to the government and complain?

Bert: Of course not. He didn't give credit, except to regular customers. If they didn't pay, he'd ask them for the money, and if they still didn't pay, he'd shrug and not give them any more credit. If it was enough money, he wouldn't serve them anymore.

Jan: What about a supplier? If a supplier didn't deal fairly with you, what would you do?

Bert (laughing): If a supplier was really a crook, he wouldn't last long. Word would get around. If he was a little bit crooked, well, either you did business with him or you didn't. It would depend. What does all this have to do with your "revolution"?

Jan: Two things. One is that, since you don't know us, ask around. Talk to us and talk to other people. Get a sense of who we are as people. But also, don't think of us as a "government." Think of us as people. We don't provide services, not like the old government, and we don't make you pay enormous taxes. We don't go around shooting people or putting them in jail either, though I suspect we'll have to put somebody in jail eventually. Instead, we ask you to help us solve problems and fix things. For example, do you know anything about electricity?

Bert: I know it's not very reliable.

Jan: Fair enough. But do you know how it works?

Bert (shakes head): Not a thing. You mean you're going to provide me electricity and you're asking me how it works? You wouldn't last long in business.

Jan: Well, I'm a writer.

Bert nods.

Jan: But we do know people who know about electricity, and they'll help us.

Jo: He knows about telephones.

Jan (to Bert): You do? That's wonderful. How do you know about telephones?

Bert: I worked for the phone company when I first came to this country. Digging tunnels for the wires and then later installing phones. The patron in the old country sent me over here to have that job.

(in English)

Jan (to Doc): When are the telephone people meeting?

Doc: Tomorrow night, I think.

Jan: Great. (to me) Make a note.

Me: Of what?

Jan: Never mind. I'll tell you later.

(in Italian)

Jan: The people working on the telephones meet tomorrow night.

Bert: I know.

Jo: We do speak English.

Jan (blushing): Oh, right. Sorry. Would you be willing to help out with the phones?

Bert (smiling): Sure. What the hell.

(in rather bad Spanish)

Bert (to Jo): What do you think of all this?

Jan: I speak a little Spanish, too.

All three laugh.

(in English)

Jo: I think the skinny one is crazy, but we have two choices. Stay here, and see what happens, or leave and start over. You want to work for the phone company again?

We left Bert's store and walked down the block. A few women had gathered on the corner, obviously waiting for us. One of them, wearing her baby in a pouch on her front, looked very upset and angry. Doc went right over to her and asked her what was wrong.

She went into a tirade, aided occasionally by her friends, about the loss of the city-sponsored daycare center near them.

Doc was very patient, listening to their complaints, drawing them out more and more about specifics, proposing alternatives and then listening patiently as the alternatives were dismissed.

Finally, though, they'd developed a plan where the daytime care of their children would be shared among the three of them and three other women, who Doc promised to locate and organize.

We had to talk a few blocks to the next meeting, and as we walked I noticed that the street signs had all obviously been moved around or removed completely. The avenue we were on changed its name three time as we walked, but Doc seemed to know where we were going.

Then, as we crossed a street, Jan Sleet looked suddenly at a small man in a T-shirt and jeans across the street. "Hey, it's Pete," she said.

"Who?" I asked, looking at the man, who I had never seen before.

She pulled me around so I was facing in the other direction. "Never mind. Come on."

As we neared the apartment building where Doc was going to meet some of the factory workers, a smallish, handsome man came up to us and said, "Miss Morse?" He had short dark hair, carefully groomed, and a mustache. His clothes were neat, if somewhat shabby.

Doc, stopped, so we did, too. "Call me Doc," she said. "We have only a few moments, we have an appointment. But what do you need?"

"Something I would like to discuss very briefly, but perhaps with a bit more privacy." He motioned at the doorway of a nearby brownstone. The door was long gone.

Doc moved in that direction, but Vicki said, "wait," and we stopped right away. Vicki jumped up the three steps and vanished inside.

There was a strange crack from inside and then she reappeared. She had a long metal rod in her hand. It was nearly as long as she was tall.

"The coast is clear," she said.

The man's eyes widened as we went in. As he passed Vicki, she casually tied the metal rod into a knot. She smiled and he gulped.

Inside, we passed the broken door lying against a wall, from which Vicki had snapped the metal rod. Doc turned when we were all inside. "Yes?" she said.

"I need to ask a question about administration policy," the man said. "I help to provide a medical service, illegal at the moment–"

"You're an abortionist," Doc interrupted. "Now that it's illegal in this state, you provide abortions for people who can't travel to get one elsewhere. Frankly, if you managed to work without being arrested by Uncle Mike, you deserve a medal. But abortion is not illegal here, you can feel free to advertise, put up signs, hand out flyers, whatever you want. However, please write down your address, I'll want to come and examine your working conditions to make sure they're sterile. If you do start to advertise and anybody gives you any problems, come and see me. Anything else?"

"You're not a doctor," Jan Sleet said to the man as he scribbed his address on the back of a business card. He smiled as he presented the card with a little flourish.

"I used to be an impresario, but once I presented an evening of theater which the previous administration did not appreciate. After that, I had to look for another line of endeavor. An associate of mine, a nurse, performs the actual operations, all under the best conditions. Please do come and see. You are an M.D.?"

Doc shook her head. "No, but I have high standards for cleanliness. We'll see you soon."

She turned to go, and then immediately turned back, nearly bumping into Vicki, who hopped nimbly out of the way.

"Forget what I just said," Doc said. "Why doesn't your associate go to the hospital and work there? She can perform abortions, and I'm sure there are many other things she could help with." She overrode his objections. "You're an impresario, not a medical man, and that's where we need your help. Some people are going to put on a play, and we want maximum publicity and buzz over in the city, without spending a lot of money. We want to promote the play, and to promote u-town at the same time. Does that sound more interesting than what you're doing now?"

He smiled. "Well, I would have to read the script."

She laughed. "Fair enough. We have your address, we'll get you a copy tonight by runner."

Doc started to walk quickly, not remembering that Jan Sleet's legs might have been long, but only one of them worked very well. My employer started trying to keep up, but it had been a while since we'd eaten, and she was starting to get that glazed look which I knew meant she was running on empty. I stopped, put my arm around her waist and called to Doc as she started to collapse against me.

Doc and Vicki turned, and quickly trotted back.

"I'm sorry," Doc said, "I get all caught up in how late we are, and–"

"I think we'd like something to eat," I said firmly.

"Oh, I can manage . . ." Jan Sleet said weakly, her head slowly sinking onto my shoulder. I shifted my legs for balance and held her spindly body close to me.

"I'll find someplace," Vicki said, and she shot off down the street. There had been a glimmer of a grin as she'd turned away from us. I had the idea that she got a kick out of what she could do, and she enjoyed having an excuse to do it.

"I'm sorry, Jan," Doc said, though my employer didn't really hear her. "I start thinking that everything needs to happen all at the same moment and on schedule, and that's not really–"

Vicki reappeared from a different direction and zipped toward us. "There's a coffee shop down this way," she said. "Come on."

After a brief lunch, which we didn't have to pay for, we went to the meeting with the factory workers. There were about ten people crowded in a small living room. Somebody stood as soon as we came in and offered his seat to Jan Sleet, who gratefully sat down. Doc, Vicki and I stood.

The crowd was mixed men and women, mostly immigrants, including a couple whose accent said they were from Bellona. I wondered which side they were on in that conflict, but of course I never found out.

The factory jobs were five or six days a week, usually you didn't find out if you were working Saturday until you left on Friday night, and if you missed a day you'd lose your job. As before, Doc listened, questioned, probed, as if she had all the time in the world. By the end of it, she'd promised to have a working school bus at their disposal by Monday morning, they had agreed to share the driving and the cost of the gas among themselves, and four of the women had been enrolled in the daycare plan Doc had invented with the three women a few hours before.

When we were outside, it was getting dark. It was nearly six, so Vicki said she was going to introduce us to one of the judges.

As we turned a corner, I saw movement behind us out of the corner of my eye. "Don't turn around," Vicki said quietly.

Suddenly, a howling came from both ends of the block, getting quickly louder. We turned as the motorcycles appeared and came at us from both directions.

Two of the three men following us turned to run, but one ran toward Doc, and then his shoulder seemed to explode in blood and he fell to the sidewalk, screaming. It took me a minute to realize what had happened. Vicki had reached down, picked up a rock, and fired it at the man, almost too quickly to be seen.

It took a few blocks for my heart rate to get even close to normal, and then we turned a corner and went into a very dingy and dilapidated bar. The place was deserted except for the bartender, a middle-aged man with thinning hair and a paunch.

Vicki hopped up to sit on the bar. "Archie," she said, "we have a job for you."

Archie looked around. "I already have a job, as far as I know."

"This is a job you can do at the same time. We need a judge, someone to arbitrate and settle disputes. Someone patient, unbiased, impartial, experienced in the ways of the world, difficult to con, and wise to the foibles of human nature. Bartenders are the obvious choice."

Archie ruminated for a few moments.

"How much does this pay?" he asked.

"Nothing, except the fees you can charge the claimants. My suggestion is to charge a two drink minimum for each person in each dispute. More drinks for a more serious case. That way they'll be less likely to argue with your judgment."

"Coherently, at least," Doc added.

"Why would people accept this?" Archie asked.

Vicki shrugged. "It's up to them. We'll let them know that this is the official way. If people prefer to be judged at the Shamrock, or at Barney's, rather than here, that's up to them."

"You going to make me a sign?" Archie asked, seeing the competitive angle. "A nice sign?"

"Marshall can do that," my employer said cheerfully. It was sometimes alarming how multi-talented she thought I was.

After that, we walked back to the hotel. Jack was already in the small conference room, and Ray came in a few minutes after we did. I gathered that this early evening meeting was a regular event.

Jack took charge of the meeting as Pat served tea.

"We need a night off," he said. "I know none of you workaholics would admit that I'm right, so I canceled all your appointments for tonight."

"I helped," said Pat happily.

Doc nodded. "Sounds good to me. Can I go to sleep now?"

Vicki shook her head. "Absolutely not. We're going out to dinner."

"All of us?"

"All of us. With Marshall." She leaned forward and whispered, "We're hoping he'll pay."

I didn't even bother to reply to this.

So, we set out. My employer was in such high spirits that she crooked her arm through mine as we walked, and I started to tense up until I realized they were all watching me tense up, so I forced myself to relax.

The "restaurant" was the cafeteria of an elementary school. One side of the building was half-collapsed from the bombing, but the side with the kitchen and the cafeteria was intact.

We climbed up the worn front steps and went inside. The long, battered tables were all every which way, chairs placed around the room almost at random. The place was about half full, and there was a noticeable buzz when we came in. Jack pointed at the sign which indicated where the food was. We each took a tray, except for Jan Sleet, who couldn't carry a full tray successfully with her cane. I indicated that she could put her food on my tray.

The kitchen was very small, and we slid our trays along the metal rails beside the various steam tables. There was a wide variety of food, mostly Indian and Pakistani (as far as I could tell). Some of it wasn't labeled at all. Other dishes had signs identifying whether they contained meat, dairy, beans, spices, nuts, or sugar, or whether they were kosher and/or halal.

Along the other side of the steam tables, where surly school custodians had probably once held sway, were (I assumed) the various people who had cooked the various dishes. Each answered questions, describing the origins and contents of the food they had prepared.

We each loaded our plates and then obtained drinks, and moved to the cashier's station, where there was a basket and a young man with a shaved head, whose job was apparently to tease and harass each customer into leaving a contribution. His demeanor changed, however, when he saw who we were. He jumped down from his stool, bowed low, doffed his nonexistent hat and said, "There is, of course, no charge for you."

Doc laughed. "And we intend to pay anyway. You gonna try to stop us?"

He laughed. "Of course not, ma'am. Please pay whatever you think is appropriate."

Jan Sleet turned to me. "Pony up, you."

Which left me trying to figure out how much was appropriate. As I pulled out my wallet, I noticed that the young man was wearing a button, with a symbol I realized that I'd seen before. I had seen it earlier in the day, as graffiti in a wall, and I'd seen it on a T-shirt, too. It was a circle containing the letter "U" and two arrows, one pointing up and the other pointing to the right.

As we looked for an empty table, it seemed everybody was watching us. Suddenly, as we were about to sit down, my employer turned quickly, nearly losing her balance, and walked across the room to a table where a girl was sitting alone. She was probably about twenty, but it was difficult to be sure, because her hair was chopped off in clumps all over her head. Jan Sleet leaned way over to talk to her as we sat down.

They looked at me questioningly, but I just laughed. "I have no idea," I said truthfully.

Jack tasted a few of the things on his plate. He closed his eyes and sighed deeply. "I think the food alone is justification enough for the whole thing."

Finally, Jan Sleet straightened up and walked quickly back to us. Too quickly, she slipped and nearly fell, but I caught her and got her into the empty chair. I had placed her plate in front of her chair, but she didn't look at it.

"That's Uncle Mike's daughter," she said. "I asked her to come over and join us, but she said no. She indicated that she doesn't know where her father is, she doesn't care where her father is, she doesn't want to talk about her father, she came here to get away from her father and from conversation about him." She looked around. "Sometimes, I just have a winning way with people."

"Sometimes," I said, I pointed at the green stuff on her plate. "That's good. Try some."

She completely ignored this, and was about to start talking about another topic, but then she caught my expression and smiled sheepishly. She picked up her fork and lifted some of the food to her mouth.

Conversation sort of died out at that point, we were too busy eating. After a while, I worked my way around the rainbow on my plate to a bright yellow glop, which I thought looked familiar. I tried a bite, and then nudged my employer. She looked at me.

"Try that," I said, pointing. "It will taste very familiar."

It was a dish we'd had in Bellona, many times. I had heard it called a few different things. It contained vegetables (usually potatoes, peppers, cauliflower, squash), meat (if you had any) and a thick sauce. It was good hot or cold, and it was very spicy, to cover the taste of dubious meat.

The last had been explained to us by a young mother as she shared a pot of it with us as the three of us hid in a dark cave while she nursed her baby. There were bursts of gunfire outside from time to time.

As she finished the last of the food, the woman had suddenly grabbed up her rifle and fired one-handed at the man she'd spotted peering into the mouth of the cave. Her baby hadn't even reacted, he'd just continued to nurse.

We all three had survived that night, but a week later we'd found the girl in a ditch by the side of the road to Enyo. She had been dead for a couple of days, and on her chest was a U.S. penny. We had no idea what had happened to the baby.

In the wee hours of that night, I padded down the hall to the bathroom. Our rooms had bathrooms, of course, but the plumbing on our side of the building had stopped working a couple of days before, so we used a room in the other wing as a communal bathroom. As I turned the corner, I ran into Pat. She was dressed in a football helmet and pads, and a long T-shirt.

I was about to make a comment, but then I figured it out. She grinned and I smiled.

In the bathroom, I looked at my face in the mirror.

When we'd got back to the hotel after dinner, my employer had asked me to come to her room to go over a few things. This was not unusual, but as soon as she'd closed her door, she'd turned and grabbed me.

First I thought she was having some sort of fit, but as time went on I realized that this was a seduction.

So now, several hours later, I examined my face in the bathroom mirror for damage. Slightly split lip, bruise on my cheek, my nose looked better than it felt. All in all, not that bad.

When I got back to Jan Sleet's room, I tried to climb back into bed, but I encountered a forest of pointy elbows, knees, nose, chin, toes and I don't know what else, all on the side of the bed which had been mine.

I tried to get her to move over, but she just mumbled sleepily. Finally, realizing that nobody who was as narrow as my employer could possibly fill up a double bed, I slipped into the narrow space between the foot of the bed and the wall, then I climbed up behind her, where there was plenty of room. I felt her back quake with suppressed laughter.

"Very funny," I said, putting my arm around her. "I just found out that lunatic writers aren't the most dangerous people to sleep with."

She laughed again. "Nope, you don't need pads and a crash helmet to sleep with me."

I thought of pointing out how dangerously sharp some of her bodily parts were, but I decided against it.

It felt strange, but not as strange as I'd expected, to lie on my back with my employer lying beside me, her face next to mine, her arm across my stomach, my arm around her shoulders.

"So," I asked with some trepidation, "what brought this on?"

"Do you mind?" she asked quietly.

I shook my head. "No." I squeezed her. "Not yet, anyway." I hesitated, then I added, "So, I guess we're staying."

"Do you mind?" she asked with some trepidation.

I shook my head. "No. I didn't think it would work, the whole idea seemed ridiculous, but after today, seeing how things are going, I think it might work. Maybe."

She chuckled. "I know, that's why I dragged you around with us all day today, so you could see what we've been seeing."

"I thought that was for an article you were writing."

"Well, that too. But the most important thing was to see if I could win you over. This is all going to be a lot more fun for me if you're more into it. But also, I know you really well, and you are exactly the kind of person we need to be able to win over. If we can't, we're doing something wrong."

"So, I'm sort of a test case?"

"Of course," she said, squeezing me. "A big Mick lab rat."

After a while, when I was nearly asleep, I heard her mumble sleepily, "Thank you, Randi. For everything."

"You're very welcome, my dear," came a warm voice that seemed to fill the room. "I enjoy doing things for you girls. But, of course, you know what grandmothers are like."

By that time we were both sitting up in bed. "What?!" Jan Sleet demanded, but the room was empty, and the voice didn't speak again.

"What the hell was that?" I demanded.

Jan turned to me slowly, her eyes watery without her glasses, and I realized she was clutching my hand.

"It's a long story," she said, "and you may not believe parts of it."

I smiled and squeezed her hand. "I'm used to that by now." I handed her the cigarettes before she asked for them. She lit one, and I moved the pillows so we could sit up comfortably. She pulled the covers up to her waist and put the ashtray on her thighs.

"It all started four years from now," she began.

the end

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