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Cemetery Girl

David Bell - Author

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ISBN 9780451234674 | 400 pages | 04 Oct 2011 | NAL | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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Four years after Tom and Abby's 12-year-old daughter vanishes, she is found alive but strangely calm. When the teen refuses to testify against the man connected to her disappearance, Tom decides to investigate the traumatizing case on his own. Nothing can prepare him for what he is about to discover.



Prologue

Let me tell you something about my daughter.

My daughter disappeared, and there were times I wondered if she was somehow responsible.

Caitlin wasn’t like most kids—she wasn’t immature or childish. She wasn’t ignorant. In fact, she possessed a preternatural understanding of how the world worked, how humans worked. And she used that knowledge to deceive me more than once, which is why sometimes—I am ashamed to admit—I questioned her role in what happened.

Caitlin disappeared four years ago—when she was twelve. But the first time I became aware of her ability to deceive she was only six, and the two of us were spending a Saturday together. There were many days like that one with Caitlin, and I always remember them as some of the happiest. Quiet. Simple. As easy and effortless as floating in a pool of water.

On that particular day, Caitlin was playing with a group of kids from the neighborhood. Back then, a number of families with small children lived on our street, and the kids were all about the same age. They ran around together in the yards, playing on swing sets and jumping in leaves. No matter where the kids went, a set of adult eyes watched them. We liked the neighborhood for that reason.

Unfortunately, shortly after we moved in, and not long after Caitlin was born, the city widened the boulevard that sat perpendicular to our street in the hope of accommodating more traffic. This brought more cars to our neighborhood. Every parent on the block felt the same degree of concern, and some talked about moving away. But we wanted to stay, so we made a rule for Caitlin: do not ever cross the street without one of us watching. Not ever.

Anyway, on that Saturday—although it was only later that it would become that Saturday—with my wife, Abby, out of the house for the evening, I cooked hamburgers in a skillet, managing, as always, to splatter the stove top with a liberal amount of grease. I also baked frozen premade french fries in the oven; it was exactly the kind of meal a dad makes when he’s left in charge of his daughter.

At dinnertime, I stepped into our front yard, expecting to see Caitlin nearby with the other kids, or at the very least I expected to hear their voices. But I didn’t. I stood in the late-afternoon shade of the big maple in front of our house, and I looked one way, then the other, hoping to catch sight of Caitlin and her little posse. I was just about to call her name when I finally saw her.

She was standing at the far end of the street, where they had widened the thoroughfare a few years earlier. I knew it was Caitlin, even from that distance, because she had left the house that afternoon wearing a bright pink top, and that electric burst of color stood out against the muted browns and oranges of the fall. I started toward her, lifting my hand and getting ready to wave, when Caitlin made a quick move toward the street.

I’ll never know if she saw the car.

It turned onto our street, moving faster than it should have, and its grille filled my vision, looming behind Caitlin like a ravenous silver mouth.

My heart jumped.

I froze, and for a long moment, time ceased.

Then the driver slammed on his brakes and stopped a couple of feet from my child.

Inches from crushing her.

But Caitlin didn’t hesitate. She took one quick glance at the car, but despite its proximity to her body, she kept on walking across the street, into a yard, and around the back of the house, acting as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I remained rooted to my spot, as dumb and still as stone, my mouth frozen in the process of forming the shout that never came.

After a brief pause, the car moved forward again. It came down the street slowly, right past me. A couple about my age occupied the front seats; the man was driving. His wife or girlfriend waved her arms frantically, her face angry, no doubt chastising him for his carelessness. And the man held his right hand in a placating gesture as though asking for calm, for time to explain. They didn’t even notice me.

What should I have done? Flagged them down and chewed them out? Pulled the man out of the car and pummeled him with my fists? The truth was that Caitlin had darted in front of them, and if she had been hit or run over, I couldn’t have blamed them for the accident. My daughter was careless, extremely careless and—more importantly—disobedient. And, yes, I had been careless, too. I had let her go too easily, too thoughtlessly. I deserved my share of the blame as a parent.

I went back inside the house, where the smell of fried hamburger hung thick in the air, and waited for Caitlin to enter the front door.



You might think I grew more and more angry as I waited, that I paced and stewed and contemplated the appropriate punishment for a child who blatantly disobeyed me and almost ended up dead as a result. But I didn’t. Abby and I agreed we would never raise our voices to Caitlin, and we would certainly never lay hands on her in anger.

About thirty minutes later, Caitlin came bustling through the front door. She strolled into the kitchen and bounded up onto a chair.

I set the table with paper plates and napkins. Caitlin sniffled and carefully wiped her nose with a tissue. She looked at me, her face cheery and full of expectation.

“Can we eat?” she asked.

“Not yet,” I said. “Caitlin, honey, I want to ask you something.”

“What?”

I took a deep breath. “Did you cross the street while you were out? Did you cross the street without permission?”

She didn’t flush or blink or swallow. “No, Dad.”

“Are you sure, honey? Are you sure I didn’t see you crossing the street?”

Her voice remained calm. “I’m sure, Dad. I didn’t.”

I held a paper napkin and twined it between my fingers. I released it, letting it drop to the table. Caitlin, for her part, didn’t seem to notice. She stared back at me, eyes wide and innocent. They were completely free of guile.

I said, “Are you telling me you didn’t cross the street and almost get hit by a car? I saw you, honey. I was in the yard watching you.”

Her face flushed a little. A tint of red appeared in her cheeks, and while Caitlin wasn’t a crier, I thought she might break down after being caught in such a blatant lie. But she didn’t crack. She remained composed, a little six-year-old poker player.

“I didn’t, Dad,” she said. “No.”

I didn’t lose my temper or send her to her room or give her a patented fatherly lecture on the importance of telling the truth. I didn’t do anything except stand up from the table, go to the stove, and make her a plate of food. I brought back the food and put it in front of her. The two of us sat there, as the sunlight slanted through the kitchen window, eating our burgers and fries like an all-American father and daughter. We chewed our food and talked about her friends and what time we thought her mom would be home. We never again spoke about crossing the street or her near fatal run-in with the car.

And I never told Abby about it.

At some point, all parents realize their children have layers that may remain forever unexplored. Maybe I learned it sooner than most. For whatever reason, Caitlin’s uncharted depths formed a black hole at the center of my being, and when she disappeared six years later, I thought of that moment often.



Chapter Two

Buster came to the memorial service late.

I’d assumed he wasn’t coming at all. He liked to promise to do something—come hell or high water—and then not follow through. His appearance surprised me, but not his tardiness.

As I stood in the back of the church, feeling constrained by my coat and tie, a whirl of emotions stewed within me. Every person who passed by, every hand I shook or hug I received, brought me closer to tears and bitterness. I associated a memory, a fleeting glimpse of Caitlin, in so many of the faces I saw. A girl who’d gone to school with Caitlin, for example, looked grown-up and every one of her sixteen years. Did Caitlin reach that age somewhere in the world away from us? Did she ever become a young woman? When I saw a former neighbor, an elderly woman who used to babysit for us when Caitlin was a child, I wondered: Why was she allowed to live, approaching eighty, while Caitlin might be dead?

My throat felt full of cotton, and I choked back against the crying and the anger until my jaw ached. I did this not because I didn’t feel the tears or anger were heartfelt, but because I feared that giving in to them would validate the entire ceremony, making real what I still refused to accept.

By the time Buster came in—late and apologizing—my feelings toward him shifted a little, and I welcomed the distraction his appearance provided. Most everyone else was seated, and all that remained was for us—the funeral party—to walk down the aisle.

“I’m sorry,” Buster said. “My car. And then the traffic . . .”

To his credit, he wore a suit. It looked like he’d borrowed it from a midget, but still, it was a suit. The pant legs rode up above the tops of his shoes, revealing white socks, and I doubt he could have buttoned the jacket. He wore a pair of cheap sunglasses that hung loose on his face and kept sliding down the bridge of his nose. He pushed them up with the knuckle of his right index finger every few seconds.

No one said anything for a long moment. We—Abby, Buster, Pastor Chris, and I—stood in an awkward little circle, waiting for someone to speak.

Finally, Pastor Chris smiled and said, “We’re glad you’re here.”

Abby remembered her manners before I did. “This is Tom’s stepbrother—”

Half brother,” Buster said.

“Half brother, William,” Abby said.

Buster shook hands with Pastor Chris, then leaned in and gave Abby an awkward peck on the cheek. She averted her eyes like a child receiving an inoculation. She’d never liked Buster, which is why I was so surprised that she’d gone to the trouble of inviting him. She’d meant it as a gesture of goodwill, something she was willing to sacrifice for me, I’m sure. So I clung to whatever faint hope remained for us—between Frosty’s departure and the memorial service, she and I might be able to dig our way back toward common ground. I never imagined Caitlin’s homecoming without imagining the three of us reuniting as a family. I couldn’t think of it any other way, even though I knew there had been cracks in our marriage even before Caitlin disappeared.

“Quite a church,” Buster said.

And it was. A former warehouse purchased by Christ’s Church eight years earlier and converted. It sat two thousand people and included a workout center and coffee bar in the back. Plans were in the works to buy a large video projection system so that Pastor Chris could be seen up close and personal by everyone. More than once, Abby mentioned donating money toward that cause.

“We should begin,” Pastor Chris said, looking at his watch and then the settling crowd. “Is that okay with all of you?”

Abby nodded silently, and so did I. She reached out and took my hand. The gesture surprised me. Her hand felt unfamiliar in mine, the hand of a stranger, but the good kind of strangeness that comes when two people have just met and are beginning to get to know each other. My heart sped up a little; I squeezed her hand in mine and she squeezed back. Like two scared children, we followed Pastor Chris down the aisle to the front of the church with Buster trailing behind.



Pastor Chris was like a celebrity on the altar. His straight white teeth gleamed, and despite his slightly thinning, slightly graying hair, he still looked youthful and vibrant. At forty-five, a couple of years older than Abby and me, he ran obsessively, even competed in the occasional marathon, and his body was trim and sleek under his perfectly fitted suit. He believed that God rewarded those who maintained their bodies and that exercise kept the spirit sharp, so it was no surprise that the addition of the workout facility to the church complex had been his idea.

Buster and I grew up Catholic, trundled off to Mass every Sunday morning by my overbearing stepfather, who believed that to miss one Sunday was a sin of the worst kind. While I no longer practiced or believed much of anything, I found it difficult to attend a new church, especially one that seemed so different from the religion I knew. Christ’s Community Church felt too touchy-feely, too positive for me. Pastor Chris offered nothing but encouragement to his congregation, as well as the sense that heaven could be attained through the application of a series of steps found in a self-help book. I expected my spiritual leaders to be removed and slightly dogmatic, wrapped in their colorful vestments and staring down at me, and I didn’t respond well when one of them wanted to be my friend. I also couldn’t fully understand the nature of Abby’s relationship with Pastor Chris. I understood the spiritual side of it—Abby was looking for guidance and community and found it in the church. But in recent months she grew even closer to Pastor Chris, going out to lunch with him on weekdays and referring to him as her “best friend.” Never in the eighteen years of our marriage had I suspected Abby of infidelity, but the “friendship” with Pastor Chris—as well as the perilous state of our own marriage—made me wonder.

Abby and I continued to hold hands through the beginning of the service as Pastor Chris led the congregation through a series of prayers and readings from scripture, including the one in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Buster sat to my right, holding his sunglasses in his left hand and bouncing them against his thigh. He seemed older. The crow’s-feet at the corners of his eyes looked more permanent, the gray in his hair more visible. But he appeared to be paying attention, his eyes focused on the altar, and my initial instinct turned out to be wrong: I was glad to have him there. My brother. My closest blood relation.

Pastor Chris started his sermon—which I still thought of as a homily—by thanking all the friends and community members in attendance. But they were Abby’s friends and people from the church. Her family was a small one. Her father had died when Caitlin was little, and her mother had retired to Florida. She and Abby had not been close over the years, and while Abby had extended an invitation to the service, her mother had apparently chosen not to come. For my part, I didn’t invite any of my colleagues from the university to attend. It was a sabbatical year for me, one I’d reluctantly decided to take in an effort to complete another book, and I knew my colleagues would not mix well with the evangelical crowd.

Pastor Chris continued, his voice a little high and reedy, almost like an adolescent’s on the brink of changing. “While we’re here as the result of a tragedy, the loss of a young life, we are also here to support one another as well as to take comfort from Christ’s eternal pledge to us. And what is that pledge? The pledge is that those who die having been redeemed by Christ’s eternal love shall not die, but rather have eternal life in Christ’s glory.”

Voices through the church muttered “Amen,” including Abby’s. I studied her face in profile. Somewhere in there, I told myself, a vestige of the person I fell in love with nearly twenty years ago still remained. It must. But it was increasingly difficult for me to find it, to see her, and as I watched her mutter “Amens” under her breath and stare at Pastor Chris like he himself incarnated the second coming, I wondered if what I knew of her, or thought I knew of her, was gone forever, just like Caitlin.

“I was blessed to speak with Tom and Abby last night.” At the sound of my name, I turned back to Pastor Chris. It took me a moment to process his words. He said he’d spoken to us—to me the night before—but he hadn’t. I hadn’t seen the man. “And while they are understandably devastated by the loss of their dear Caitlin, they both told me, Tom as well as Abby, that they took comfort from the fact that Caitlin is now in heaven, reunited with Christ and basking in his divine love.”

I looked at Abby again, but she still stared forward, muttering her “Amens.” Buster leaned in to me on the other side. His breath smelled like cough drops.

“You were really shoveling it last night.”

“I didn’t say that,” I whispered.

I removed my hand from Abby’s. She didn’t seem to notice.



After the last prayer and the final song, we filed out. Abby, Buster, and I went first with Pastor Chris; then we stood around at the back of the church while people headed to their cars. Abby and I stood side by side, still not touching.

“I’m going to ride with Buster,” I said.

“You don’t want to ride with us?” Abby asked.

“Buster doesn’t know his way.”

“It’s a procession,” she said. “He can ride with us.”

“I need to talk to him,” I said, breaking off eye contact with her. “It’s fine.”

“But you’re going to the cemetery, right, Tom? You’ll be there?”

I didn’t answer. I put my hand on Buster’s arm and guided him toward the parking lot.



We stopped in Shaggy’s, a bar near campus. Students occupied most of the tables. Guys were trying hard to impress the girls, and the girls sat back, absorbing the boys’ attentions, encouraging more. We ordered sandwiches and then Buster asked for a pitcher of beer. When the waitress left, I asked him if he was drinking again.

“Just beer,” he said as nonchalantly as a man waiting for a bus. He’d been in rehab twice and then was arrested for drinking and driving. He’d also been arrested for indecent exposure, a fact that had caught the attention of the detectives investigating Caitlin’s disappearance. Buster claimed he’d been drunk and lost his clothes, but at some point he’d run past a group of children in a park and was initially charged with the more serious crime of child enticement and lewd and lascivious behavior. He’d spent two days in jail and served a thousand hours of community service. “You sure you don’t want to go to the boneyard? We can still make it.”

I shook my head. “Forget it.”

“Abby’s going to be pissed.”

I shrugged. He was right, of course. But when I heard Pastor Chris ascribing beliefs to me, actual words even, that clearly weren’t mine, something gave way. I tried to go along, to appease, but I’d reached my limit. Someone—maybe Pastor Chris, maybe Abby—decided to lie, to misrepresent my beliefs in public. I couldn’t stand being part of it, being lumped in with the flock of blind sheep.

The beer came and Buster poured it into the disposable plastic cups they provided. One of the drawbacks of living in a college town—restaurants and bars don’t invest in glassware. I took a sip and it felt good. And then another. That was all it took to start a buzz at the base of my skull.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. A text.

Need to see you. Four p.m.

“What’s that about?” Buster asked. “Abby?”

“No. Liann Stipes.”

“Who?”

“She’s a lawyer here in town. She handles the everyday stuff—mortgages, wills. Small-time criminal cases.”

“What does she want with you?” Buster asked. “You making a will?”

“Her daughter was murdered about ten years ago. She was just sixteen. They caught the guy and convicted him.”

“They fry him?” Buster asked.

“Life in prison. No parole. Are you sure you didn’t meet Liann right after Caitlin disappeared? She was at our house a lot.”

“I wasn’t around much then,” he said.

I studied his face for a moment. He took a long drink of his beer and ignored my interest. “Anyway,” I said, “she really tried to help us out. She’s become something of a crusader and an advocate on behalf of missing or murdered children and their families. She likes to see that the bad guys get punished. She doesn’t handle the prosecutions, of course, but she advises the families, sort of an informal legal counselor. That’s what she’s been doing for us. She tries her best to help victims’ families sort through all the mess of their cases. Dealing with the cops, dealing with the media. She tries to keep our spirits up. And she believes in justice.”

“A lawyer.” Buster made a gagging face.

“She’s not really a lawyer to me. She’s more of a friend. Like I said, an advocate.”

He kept making the face, so I ignored him. I wrote back and asked where she wanted to meet.

The Fantasy Club.

“Hmm.” I stared at the screen. “She wants to meet me in a strip joint.”

“Interesting place to meet a missing-children’s advocate.”

“Who knows? She meets a lot of interesting people in these cases. She gets to know the victims and their families pretty well. She seems to know everything and everybody. I just wish I knew what she wanted to tell me. She can be so fucking secretive sometimes, like she’s in the CIA. Jesus.”

“Drink up. It’ll help pass the time.” Buster drained half his cup on the first try, then polished off the rest and poured more. He nodded, encouraging me. “Tell me why we’re bailing on the graveside service.”

“I didn’t say any of that stuff at the church, that stuff about heaven. That idiot, Pastor Chris, made it up. Or Abby did. But it’s not just the stuff from church,” I said.

“Yeah?”

The beer tasted good. Real good. I felt myself reaching my limit. My stepfather—Buster’s father—drank. He drank and he raged at us and he usually passed out on the couch. I never acquired the habit, but Buster did.

“I knew Abby was going to buy the headstone,” I said. “Hell, I knew how much it cost. But she promised me it wouldn’t be up yet. She promised me. And it was there the other day when I went to the cemetery, the day I talked to you on the phone while I was walking Frosty.” Just saying his name caused a spasm of guilt in my chest. Where was Frosty? In an abusive home? Sitting in his own filth, waiting for the gas chamber? “The headstone has her name on it. My little girl. And it says she died four years ago. It’s a big fucking thing, too. You can’t miss it. Can you believe that?”

“Which part?”

“Any of it.”

Someone put coins in the jukebox, and a country song came on too loud. The steel guitar whined and someone else shouted in protest. The bartender bent down behind the bar and, mercifully, the volume dropped.

Buster put down his cup and steepled his fingers in front of his face. He looked thoughtful, sincere. “Have you ever thought—? And I’m only saying this because I do care about you. I really do. I mean, I know I can be a royal screwup. I know Abby can’t stand me and all that. Hell, maybe you can’t stand me either. I wouldn’t blame you.”

“I can stand you. Most of the time.”

He smiled. “Thanks.”

“And I think I know where you’re going with this . . .”

“You know the odds,” Buster said. “But it’s probably true. There was never a ransom demand. She probably did die that day. There’s been no evidence to the contrary.”

I closed my eyes. Even in the noisy bar, I could imagine the screams. Caitlin’s voice. High. Cracking. Stretched to its limit. Daddy!

“I don’t like to think we lost her that day,” I said.

“That’s fine. I understand. What are the cops saying?” He reached behind him, to an empty table, and grabbed a bowl of peanuts.

“Very little. When we do hear from them, it’s the same stuff. They have one detective on it. The feds have pulled out. They call it an active case, but what does that mean? I know they have other things. Newer cases.”

“They still think she ran away?”

“It makes it easier on them, right? If she ran away, there’s no crime. She’d be sixteen now . . .” I paused.

“We can drop it if you want,” Buster said.

I nodded.

Our food came. Buster salted his fries and started eating. I stared at my plate, my appetite uncertain.

“I stopped by your house on the way to that crazy church,” he said. “I thought I might catch you. I knocked and knocked, but nothing.”

“We were at the church already.”

“I know that. But Frosty didn’t bark.”

I shook my head. “He’s gone.”

“But you were just walking him the other day. He died? What happened?”

I shrugged. “I took him to the shelter. He’s an older dog, set in his ways. They said there’s a chance someone will adopt him, but if not, well, they euthanize the dogs eventually.”

“Did he get sick?”

I shook my head.

Recognition spread across his face. “Abby wanted him gone?”

I didn’t respond. I picked up a french fry and popped it in my mouth.

“And you did it? You took him to the pound?”

“I did it for Abby. And for me. He was Caitlin’s dog. He was a reminder of what we lost. If it helps us to turn the page . . .”

“Jesus. That’s cold.”

“The dog who knew too much. Except how to tell us what he knew.” I emptied my cup and poured more beer for Buster and myself.

“How are things with you and Abby?”

I started eating my lukewarm food. “The same.”

“That good?”

“We’re fine.”

“Let me ask you something, and if I’m crossing a line here, just let me know.”

I laughed. “Would that stop you?”

“No.” He signaled the waitress for another pitcher. “But I’m just wondering . . . do you two still do it? I mean, do you sleep in the same bed? Do you fuck?”

The pitcher came. “Put that on my brother’s tab,” I said.

“You can put it all on my tab. My treat.” He winked at me. “I guess I owe you a few.” He didn’t refill his cup. “Well?”

“I know you’re trying to provoke me now. It always ends up this way with you.”

“You don’t fuck? Ever?” He shook his head. “I don’t know how anyone could live that way. I just have to get something, you know? I can’t live without it.” He kept shaking his head. “See, I’m really just trying to find out why you stay married to someone who you don’t have anything going on with. She’s at that freaky church; you’re a college professor. She wants to do this whole funeral thing; you don’t. She thinks Caitlin’s dead . . .”

“She hasn’t worked for a long time. She gave up teaching when Caitlin was born.”

“So?”

“Our lives are intertwined. It’s not as easy as you make it sound.”

“Isn’t it?” He pushed away his plate and drank more. He let out a hissing burp. “I think it is easy. Easy for me to see anyway. The dog’s gone. The headstone’s been laid. People are moving on. Remember when Dad died? My dad? Remember how you cried at the funeral?”

“I didn’t cry.”

“You did.”

“Not for him, I didn’t.”

Buster sighed. “He raised you.”

“If you want to call it that.”

Buster leaned back. He brought his hand up and scratched his jaw. I could tell he was angry. Whenever we talked about my stepfather, one or both of us ended up full of anger. But Buster managed to swallow his this time. When he spoke again, his voice was even.

“Here’s my point—it wasn’t long after the old man died that you went off to grad school. You started a new life, a new career. You met Abby. You had a baby. It was like his death liberated you in a way. You know, they say we don’t fully become ourselves until our parents die. Maybe that’s why I’m something of a late bloomer.” He spoke the last sentence without a trace of irony. “Maybe you have the chance for a new life here. Now. If you just . . . accept things . . .”

I stared at him across our dirty, cluttered table. I thought about walking out—hell, I thought about punching him. But instead, I just signaled for the waitress, who brought the check.

“Give it to him,” I said. “We’re finished here.”

"Cemetery Girl is a smasher. It twists and turns and never lets go, and...it could happen just this way."
-Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times bestselling author of The Deep End of the Ocean and Second Nature

"Cemetery Girl is more than just an utterly compelling thriller-- and it certainly is that. David Bell's stellar novel is also a haunting meditation on the ties that bind parent to child, husband to wife, brother to brother--and what survives even under the most shattering possible circumstance. An absolutely riveting, absorbing read not to be missed."
-Lisa Unger, New York Times bestselling author of Darkness, My Old Friend

"Trust me: you have never read a missing persons story like this one....A fast, mean head trip of a thriller that reads like a collaboration between Michael Connelly and the gothic fiction of Joyce Carol Oates, Cemetery Girl is one of those novels that you cannot shake after it's over. A winner on every level."
-Will Lavender, NYT bestselling author of Dominance

"Cemetery Girl grabbed me by the throat on page one and never let up. An intense, unrelenting powerhouse of a book, and the work of a master."
-John Lescroart, New York Times bestselling author of Damage

"A smart, tense, creepy take on the story of a missing daughter, told by her far-from-perfect father. If you think you know this tale--from all- too-familiar newspaper accounts, from lesser movies and books--then this terrific novel will make you think otherwise.
-Brock Clarke, national bestselling author of Exley and An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England




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