Eve woke suddenly and lay absorbing
the strangeness of it all. The fire had died, for no longer did
those tendrils of acrid smoke drift upwards. She turned her head
very carefully and dragged the mosquito netting away from her
face . . . the Major lay deeply asleep, his black hair tousled,
his chin and jaws dark with his beard. Eve had a feeling he had
kept awake most of the night, but now as dawn crept into the sky
he allowed himself the luxury of an hour's sleep.
She didn't intend to wake him, and with extreme care she rose to her feet and disentangled herself from the rest of the net, bundling it and setting it to one side. Then she turned to the small pile of articles she had confiscated from that circular suitcase which the pilot had obligingly left behind. A bar of soap, a sponge and a towel were gathered up, and with a final glance at that sleeping figure to make sure he wasn't foxing her, Eve made for the tree-shadowed path that led in the direction of the creek.
If there was one thing she just had to have it was a plunge into water and a good lathering of soap to help make her feel fresh and human again.
This was like playing truant, as if she were a schoolgirl again, and Eve smiled to herself and reckoned that if she were quick she could be bathed and dressed and back at their camp site before the Major awoke and [59-60] could alarm her with reasons why she shouldn't bathe in the creek.
She breathed the cool morning air and felt the spell of a slumbrous quiet that would last until the sun began to spread its flame across the treetops. She heard rustlings and the occasional bird call, and gazed in wonder at the yards of moss hanging down from the forks of trees, along with ribbons of fern. Several enormous webs glinted with the thick dew that had made their recent occupants retreat into the underbrush. Eve firmly closed he mind to anything unpleasant, and a few minutes later had emerged on to the banks of the creek. A mist lay over the peat-coloured water, and there was a cluster of blue lotus at the edge where she stood, their petals closed into a big bud, waiting for the sun to open them on the big green leaves.
Eve hung her towel on a lower branch of a massive, mottled tree whose roots stretched out into the water, swiftly removed her clothes and hung them with equal care on another of the branches. Then, nude as Phryne, with soap and sponge clutched in her hands, she ran out gleefully into the water and gave herself up to the bliss of bathing and splashing about, lost to everything but the need to feel clean and fresh.
Above the treetops the rising sun had become a ball of flame, and a flock of green birds rose in unison against the red-gold sky. The mud banks, however, had begun to give off a rank smell which Eve ignored, and from the jungle came the chattering and scolding of monkeys in the high crowns of the trees as they swung back and forth on the long chains of creepers thick as an arm.
She'd enjoy a few more minutes in the water, which [60-61] despite its leaf-dyed colour had made her feel tingling clean, then she would have to dress and return to the camp site. Suddenly she felt the nerves knot in her stomach as she spotted a movement beyond the bank where she had left her clothes . . . a figure swung out from among the trees and with long hairy arms grabbed at her belongings and carried them off.
Clad only in the wet sheen of her white skin and auburn hair, Eve realised with dismay that one of the more daring monkeys had decided to find out if her garments were edible . . . oh, lord, now she was in a naked predicament, with only a bar of soap and a sponge to keep her covered . . . unless like that other Eve she got hold of a large leaf to cover herself!
With every passing second the jungle was coming noisily awake, and Eve realised that Wade O'Mara would be waking up as well, and he'd be furious when he found she had slipped away from his side to come and enjoy a forbidden bathe in the creek.
Furious he was . . . she could see that the instant he strode from among the trees on to the mud bank. "You damn little idiot," he yelled across the water. "You'll come out of there without delay, or I'll come in and drag you out!"
When she didn't move, his voice cracked like a whip. "You crazy little fool, Eve! Can't you see this creek mud is crawling with crabs now that the sun is up?"
It was . . . the rotted vegetation was moving and shifting as if alive and Eve felt her stomach turn over.
"I-I can't come out," she half-choked. "I have nothing on!"
"For heaven's sake! I've seen unclad females before [61-62] today, and I'm old enough to be your father! Come on out before the mud crabs make a meal of you!"
"M-my clothes," she whimpered. "A monkey took them--"
"That figures," he said grimly, and as she watched he unbuttoned his khaki shirt and removed it, revealing a torso the colour of copper. He waded out into the water, holding open the shirt so she could dive into it.
"Come on, you little jackass!" he ordered.
Eve had no option but to obey him, and with her skin aflame with mortification she dashed towards him, flinging up water as he gathered her into the shirt and swung her up into his arms, so her bare white legs were out of reach of that mass of scurrying black crabs, clicking and snapping round his booted feet. He strode back with her to their camp site, along the pathway droning with flies. Eve's fingers clenched a warm coppery shoulder and never had she felt so helpless and vulnerable, all but bare in the steely arms of this angry man.
"You damn little jackass!" he said again.
"You're always so complimentary," she mumbled.
"You deserve a good hiding where it would sting . . . so you were going to emerge from the creek like Aphrodite of the foam, eh, glowingly clean and a real sweet meal for the crabs and the gnats?"
"I-I didn't expect a darned monkey to run off with my things," she said. "Whatever will I do?"
"You'll trek through the jungle wrapped in a blanket," he replied, "if I fail to find your shirt and trousers. Hasty little female, aren't you? I told you last night to stay away from the creek, but you had to wash yourself and smell like a lily. As if I care!"
[62-63] "Well, I care," she rejoined. "I'm not one of your soldiers."
"No," he drawled, and she could feel him looking down at her, and again she felt an acute helplessness in his arms, with the dark hair curling down to his wrists, embedding the thick leather strap of his watch. There was such assurance to his strength, a careless male power, a saddle-tanning to his skin that seemed to make him impervious to what would bite her.
"We're quite the knight and the rescued maiden, aren't we?" he jeered. "Lady, you just don't go bathing in a jungle creek as if you were taking a dip in the family pool, and from now on you'll do nothing except on my say-so. Do you hear me?"
"Your voice would carry across a parade ground," she retorted. "I bet the men under your command just love you!"
"Love?" He gave an abrupt laugh that startled a pair of sunbirds from their path. "In this inhuman race to survive, honey, that commodity is now in very short supply. Human beings have become like the bird-eating spiders in this jungle."
"Ugh!" Eve shuddered in his whipcord arms, lashed around her as he ducked beneath a curtain of ragged mosses and they entered the clearing where they had spent the night. "Of course, one occasionally sees a white canary flying in the face of danger."
"The Beauty and the Beast syndrome," she murmured.
"Exactly." He set her down on the khaki blanket. "It's a fact of life."
Eve pushed a damp strand of hair from her forehead and allowed herself a brief look at him. Did he understand that in her hunger to be clean the creek [63-64] had taken on the look of a laguna in the dawn mist, hiding the things that slept in the mud? His eyes flicked the auburn dampness of her hair and fell to the tremulous redness of her mouth.
"I know darn well I can't treat you like a raw recruit," he said, "but I'm afraid you're going to have to smarm yourself in gnat repellent from your ears to your heels, so you'd better start now while I make a fire and cook us up some coffee and sausages."
"Sausages?" she exclaimed, and became aware of another sort of hunger.
"I found a tin of them at the airfield bungalow, so we'll eat a good breakfast before setting off for Tanga."
"What about my clothes, Major?" Eve bit her lip as the grey eyes scanned her slim figure in the khaki shirt that came to her thighs. His mouth quirked into that one-sided smile. "At the moment you look cute in my shirt, lady, but I'd dread to imagine what you'd look like after several hours of slogging through jungle bamboo and flying bitchos. We'll have our breakfast, then I'll make a search for your things--dammit, Eve, we'll lose about an hour of our trek because of your female irresponsibility!"
"I-I'm sorry, Major."
"That's all very well. You women hasten in where angels fear to fly, and then get all dewy-eyed with regret. You do realise that we're on the run from a pack of two-legged animals who would have a glorious time passing you around like candy?"
"You said--you promised--" She glanced significantly at his gun.
"Sure, but you'll recall, you little jackass, that I was taking a snooze when you sneaked off and took a bath in the creek. What would you have done had it not [64-65] been a monkey who grabbed your clothes?"
"Screamed," she said, with a shudder.
"Hoping I'd hear you, no doubt, with a jungle full of animals waking up for their breakfast. Well, come on, get yourself well anointed with insect repellent--and do put on that robe before I start getting ideas!"
"At this time of the morning, Major?" But she turned away instantly in search of the plaid robe, feeling the heat come into her skin. As she grabbed the robe and put it on she heard that short growl of a laugh issue from Wade O'Mara's throat.
"What's the time of day got to do with it?" he asked, as he went in search of wood that when stripped of its bark would be dry enough underneath to ignite without too much trouble.
After he had got the fire going and placed his smoke-blackened kettle on the stones, he opened the can of sausages, which to the delight of both of them were bedded in baked beans in a thick sauce. "Manna from heaven," he growled, and handing Eve a plate he prepared to tip half the contents of the can on to it.
"Cold?" she exclaimed.
"Can't be helped," he said. "I haven't a pan to heat them."
"Can't you stand the can in the fire?" she asked. "It would be nice to have a warm breakfast."
"No doubt, if you don't mind it smoky?"
"A little smoke won't hurt me."
"Not quite the hothouse orchid I took you for, eh?" He replaced the lid of the sausage can, dug a couple of holes in it with his opener and carefully settled it in the fire. He flicked a look over her and she tilted her chin, standing there in a man's robe trailing round her feet, her hair combed back damply from her temples. [65-66] "You look little more than a kid at the moment."
"I expect I do," she said, but inwardly she didn't feel like one. She was still wearing his shirt under the robe, and he was standing there palming coffee into the kettle, his torso tanned to the toughness of saddle leather, except for a puckered scar about six inches long in the region of his heart. She wanted to ask about it and decided that it had something to do with why he had been discharged from the regular army.
He saw her eyes upon his chest and his mouth gave a sardonic twist. "A bit of metal from a bomb," he informed her. "It got bedded in me and spoiled my beauty. "You're flinching, Eve, so it's just as well you can't see the one on the back of my left thigh."
"And yet you enjoy being a soldier and can't stay away from a fight," she said, and she was flinching at the thought of the white-hot metal ploughing its way into his body. He was tough, but he was still flesh and blood, and she couldn't understand why his wife had never insisted that he put away his uniform for good. One day . . .
He nodded, reading her thoughts in her eyes. "Sure, one day my luck will run out, but we've all got to go and I don't fancy growing old and weary and dependent. I've always looked out for myself and soldiering becomes a way of life and I'm too steeped in it--I guess like the leopard I can't change my spots."
"What about your wife, doesn't she count?" Eve asked, and it worried her that it was such an effort to mention his wife in a casual tone of voice. "It can't be much of a life for her, surely?"
"It never was," he said briefly. "Do you like your coffee sweet?"
[66-67] He dropped lumpy brown sugar in the big mug, poured the strong-looking coffee and handed it to her. "There was one other reason why I didn't want you to go bathing in the creek," he said. "I'm not a spoilsport and I appreciate that a girl likes to be clean, but there could have been a leopard about and you wouldn't have seen him. Those lovely lithe creatures can almost flatten themselves to the ground and be invisible in the tall ferns, and if one of them leapt on you, you wouldn't stand any chance of getting away."
"You're really laying the dangers on the line for me, aren't you, Major?" She sipped her coffee and gave him a challenging look. "Do you reckon our chances of getting to Tanga are fairly good?"
"If you obey orders and don't treat the jungle as if it were a safari park, with big white hunters strolling about."
Eve couldn't suppress a smile as she handed him the lion's share of the coffee, which was abominably strong. "You have the edge of a panga to your tongue, Major O'Mara."
"Do I scare you?" he jeered, taking a deep swig of the coffee. "You surely guessed what you'd be in for when you decided to take this trek. I could have got you on that plane, you know. All I needed to do was sling that fat oaf out of his cushy seat."
"Would you have preferred doing this trek with him?" she asked, looking demure.
Wade gave his lopsided smile. "At least he wouldn't wander off in search of a bath, and lose his pants in the process."
"Don't be mean." Eve turned to the fire. "Shall I dish up the sausage and beans?"
"No, I'd better do it. You might burn your dainty [67-68] little fingers and drop the lot in the flames."
"You always have to be the bwana, don't you?"
"I have to be practical, ndito, and there's a difference. We haven't much food to see us through and it would be a pity to lose the dogs and beans." As he spoke he whipped the can on to an enamel plate with the blade of his knife, and once again Eve had to admit to herself that he was very deft with his hard brown hands.
They ate hungrily and quickly, using biscuits to mop up the beans and sauce. The food was smoky, but somehow that added to the taste and Eve had never enjoyed a meal so much.
"I'll tidy up," she said, when they had finished eating, anxious for him to go and look for her clothes.
"Right." He stood up, flexing his arms. "Leave the fire, lady. I'll see to that when I get back--that monkey swiped the garments from the creek bank, eh?"
"From the limb of one of those big mottled trees, just where the mud crabs appeared, then it darted back into the bush."
"Well, keep your fingers crossed." He loped off among the trees, and Eve set about tidying their camp site, wiping off the plates with handfuls of grass, folding the blanket after giving it a good shake and rolling it as tight as possible. All the while she was conscious of the jungle sounds all around her, and the tunnels of trees where anything might creep and be upon her before she could look around.
She tensed as she caught the rustling of leaves, but it was only one of the gorgeous sunbirds fluttering out on bright wings, pausing on a thick branch as if to [68-69] watch her; and then it flew off again, its wings catching the sun that was now a flame of pure gold above the roof of towering trees.
Wade was at the edge of the clearing before she heard him, and then he called her name so he wouldn't alarm her. Relief caught at her heart that he was back, and with a quizzical look on his face he held out a couple of garments for her inspection. Her shirt, ripped and dirty, and her slacks with a piece of material hanging loose from the backside. "No luck with the lingerie," he said. "I only hope your briefs aren't lying on a bush somewhere, a sure indication that a woman has passed this way."
"I took a spare pair from that woman's suitcase, so I can manage." Eve ruefully examined the torn shirt. "Lord, this is a mess!"
"I expect a pair of monkeys were wrangling over it, until they got bored and went off in search of fresh mischief. I can't spare the time for any mending, Eve, so you'll have to make do--" He broke into a grin at the way she was regarding the backside of her slacks. "We'll have to pin them, and then all you'll need is a dirty face to look like Judy Garland singing that tramp song with Astaire. Did you ever see that movie?"
"I can't somehow picture you as a film fan," she said, watching him open a waterproof pouch in which he had cotton and needles, tablets and matches, a couple of candles, a tin of germicide plasters, and several large safety-pins attached to a piece of string.
"I was a member of the Green Jackets, not part of a holy order," he handed her three of the safety pins. "I went to the cinema when I had a couple of hours to spare, and contrary to popular belief it's a busy life in [69-70] the army, especially if you belong to a regiment famous for its drilling and its marksmanship."
"I'm glad you're a good shot, Major." She accepted the pins and set about pinning her slacks into some sort of order. "I imagine you are?"
"Sure." He stroked a hand along the length of his Breda, almost as if it were part of a woman. "This isn't army issue, but I found it some months ago in an abandoned plantation. It was probably used to hunt with, but these beauties can bring down a lion or an elephant."
"I-I'm going to get dressed," she said. "Do you mind turning your back, Major?"
"Anything to oblige a lady." He swung about as if on the parade ground, but not before she had seen his lips quirk at the edge. She felt the colour mount to the line of her hair, for when he had seen her in the altogether it must seem prudish to him that she hesitated to step into her slacks in front of him. The Major whistled that Garland-Astaire song as she scrambled into her garments--We're a couple of swells, we live in the best hotels . . .
"Are we really going to make it to Tanga today?" she asked, and was brushing at her dirty shirt when he turned to face her once more.
"All being well." He slapped a hand against the mahogany grasp of his shotgun.
"Superstitious, Major?" It was her turn to smile.
"Soldiers are, lady. Have you never walked out on the arm of a dashing guardsman? I thought that was all part of the debutante set-up?"
"I've always preferred sailors," she rejoined. "My father was one."
[70-71] "A Naval Commander, no less?"
"No, he had a rather rakish yacht and he used to take Bahamian tourists out on fishing trips. One of the fools fell overboard on too much bourbon and my father was killed by a barracuda when he dived in to help his client."
"That was a bad stroke of luck." Wade O'Mara looked genuinely sympathetic. "Is your mother still alive?"
Eve nodded and fingered a rent in her sleeve, poking her finger through it. "She married a cotton-mill owner out in Peru. They have children of their own, so I was reared by my godfather. I-I owe him a lot, as you can imagine."
"So it hasn't been all sugar and sunshine for you?"
"Is it ever? One would have to be a romantic optimist to ever believe that life can be like the movies, or one of those cloying novels you accused me of reading in bed. I actually prefer Raymond Chandler."
"Well, that's one for the books." He looked at her in a sort of pleased astonishment. "I really rate that man! His atmosphere--Bogart, of course, was superb as Philip Marlowe. Well, what do you know! A gal who goes for the real thing in thrillers. Have you got a thing about James Bond?"
Eve shook her head, and thought how startlingly alive were his eyes in his unshaven face . . . slithers of steel in much-worn leather. "You sort of put me in mind of Bogart, do you know that?"
"The African Queen," he drawled. "Best movie ever made!"
"We seem to have something in common, then?"
"Anyway, let's hope we don't have to blow up an enemy battleship before we make it to Tanga."
[71-72] "I can't imagine the best hotel letting us in," she smiled. "We're hardly a pair of swells."
She handed him his khaki shirt, but needless to say he didn't turn coyly away in order to put it on. He left it loose around his middle, but buttoned it to his throat. "Just in case a mosquito fancies a piece of my hide," he drawled.
"Put some of this on your neck and face." Eve held out the tube of repellent.
He shook his head. "That won't last much longer and you need it more than I do." He came over and examined the rents in her shirt. "Are your arms well smarmed with the stuff? Those little brutes go for tender meat."
Eve nodded and could feel his fingers stroking against her arm through one of the rents, and for the briefest moment they stood like that in the jungle clearing, eyes meeting, senses suddenly alert to each other.
"I bet you look irresistible in tennis white," he drawled, "with one of those coloured bandeaux around your hair."
Eve couldn't answer him in her usual quick way; she was so aware of him that her heart felt as if it were pounding in her throat. "Afternoon tennis," he went on, "and then out to dine in a silver dress, with a fox fur like snow about your face. A far cry from all this, eh? And you escort a smooth-faced boy instead of a seasoned soldier trained to live by the gun and the panga."
"No smooth-faced boy could get me to Tanga," she said huskily. "We'd better be on our way, hadn't we?"
"Right." Wade released her arm, but where his hand had been Eve could feel her skin tingling . . . electric sparks that seemed to be darting into her very veins. [72-73] Nothing like that had ever happened when James tentatively touched her . . . never before had she felt such an awareness of another human being, and as she tied her bits and pieces into a plaid bundle, she was both sorry and glad that their trek to Tanga was almost over. There was a danger to this man that went beyond the fact that he was a tough mercenary soldier . . . he made her aware of herself as a woman, and that was alarming, because always in the background of his life there hovered a wife and a son, and the last thing Eve wanted was to complicate her life by falling into an infatuation for a married man.
She had seen that happen to a couple of her friends, one of whom had become involved with a married man of fifty, and there had been a terrible scene when his wife found out what was going on. The wife had attempted suicide, and the girl had been discarded, to spend weeks feeling heart-stricken and used.
Eve recoiled from making that kind of mistake . . . better to marry James than to fall for a man she could never call her own. The marriage would make her guardian happy, at least . . . always supposing she could convince James that the mercenary Major had behaved like a perfect gentleman.
"What are you grinning about?"
She glanced somewhat guiltily at Wade . . . then she realised that he was searching his pockets with a rather troubled frown meshing his eyebrows. He tapped each pocket in turn, then proceeded to turn them out, revealing a collection of oddments that included a gold medal on a grimy ribbon. Then he stuffed the things back in his pockets and began to look about on the ground.
"What have you lost?" Eve enquired, and for no good [73-74] reason she began to feel rather nervy.
"I can't find my compass," he replied grimly.
"You mean--you've lost it?"
"Yes dammit to hell. Must have happened when I went looking for your clothes, and the devil knows where it could have dropped out of my blasted pocket. I've gone and done what a raw recruit would have avoided unless he wanted a tongue-lashing!"
"You mean, Major, you need it in order to follow the trail correctly? That we might get lost if--"
He pressed his lips into a grim line and thumbed his jaw, rasping the black bristles. "I should have made sure the compass was safely lodged in my pocket, and now it's lying somewhere in the jungle and I either lose more time searching for it, or we take a chance and plough on and hope to God we don't lose ourselves."
"Do you feel you ought to search for the compass?" she asked worriedly.
He glanced at his watch. "Every hour we spend in this part of the territory is ripe with danger. I'd like to chance our arm, if you're game, Eve?"
She gazed at his strong, irregular features . . . unyielding and unafraid. It was a face that gave her courage; in fact she was prepared to bet that he had chanced his arm on more than one occasion and had beaten the odds.
"Let's take a chance and go on," she said. She glanced about her at the tangled jungle, thirsting under the hot sun, with vapour beginning to rise around them. Suddenly the place took on a menace that made her want to be on the move. "You know the risks better than I, and it does feel risky to remain here any longer."
"Either way it's a risky decision, Eve. I'll be honest [74-75] with you, I could lead you astray."
She met his grey eyes, slivers of pure steel in his hard brown face. "I've trusted your judgment so far, haven't I?"
"You have, lady, but don't burst into tears if we end up in the middle of nowhere instead of the airport at Tanga." Having said that he began to stamp out the fire, brushing big leaves over the ground where it had been, and tossing deep among the big ferns the stones he had used for a stove.
"C'est la vie," he murmured. "I heard a guy say that in a film once--was it Alan Ladd?--and it sounds exactly right for this occasion."
"What will be, will be," she said, hoisting her bundle.
"Right. And if we do lose ourselves, the golden rule is--stay calm. Think you will, lady?"
"Hope I will." She brought a smile to her lips, but remembering it was her fault that the precious compass was lost, her smile melted swiftly away. "I'm sorry, Major."
"Regret is a waste of time, and we've wasted enough of that. All set, and quite comfortable. The sandals okay, and the ankle?"
He had brought her sandals back with him from the creek bank where she had left them, and as she nodded, hope ignited in her eyes. "We could search along by the creek, couldn't we?"
"We're going to, so keep your fingers crossed."
Eve would have crossed all ten toes and fingers if it would have helped, but unfortunately there was no glinting betrayal of the compass in the mounds of rank vegetation, alive with horrible-looking crabs that scuttled away from the kicking movements of Wade's boots. [75-76] Finally he gritted his teeth and gave a resigned shrug. "We can't waste any more time, so let's be moving along. Got your walking stick?"
She nodded and off they set along a path that had to be cleared every step of the way by a hefty swing of the panga in Wade's hand, lopping the rubbery leaves and spiny branches with an ease that formed in Eve's mind a mental image of what that kind of blade could do to human flesh.
It was like walking in a monotonous dream, for everything had a sameness to it . . . the same tangles of trailing vines, curtains of dank moss and fern, plaitings of whiplike tree-limbs. The smells alone had some kind of variation, musky from the clumps of orchids, earthy and almost sinister when they struck a patch of rotted vegetation, almost seductively scented by velvety bells big enough to hide a snake.
Eve could feel the sweat running down her spine, her thighs, and the slight valley between her breasts. There were innumerable flies, gnats and other venomous things flying about in the stripings of sunlight, but she followed on doggedly, blinking her sweat-clustered lashes and wincing at the soreness this produced after a while.
When they paused for a five-minute rest, Wade handed her a few more berries, big as strawberries, squashy and tasteless, but they helped to moisten her mouth and throat.
"We could have boiled some of that creek water, except that even a boiling might not have killed off some of the tougher germs that breed where decay is rampant. We don't want cholera, eh?"
[76-77] "We might come across some coconut palms, and if the nuts are green we'll have ourselves something to drink, but in the meantime I'm preserving what we have left in the water bottle."
"I bet you wish I was a boy," she said, licking the last remnant of juice from her lips. "Then you wouldn't concern yourself quite so much, would you?"
"Who says I'm concerned about you?" he jeered.
Eve flushed slightly and evaded his eyes, which could look so mocking when he liked. "I don't think you're quite as hard-boiled as you make out."
"Don't kid yourself, lady. In my kind of army you have to be tough in order to survive, and I'd be tough on whoever I had with me--even a creamy-skinned little vixen from the manor."
"Is that sarcasm meant to pepper me up?" she asked, and beneath her shirt her creamy skin felt as if a flame had swept over it.
"What do you reckon?"
She dared to look at him, but his face was imperturbable and her vision was too sweat-blurred to take an accurate reading. "I shouldn't imagine that anyone has ever got into your mind and found out what you're really thinking," she said. "I bet you're an awfully good poker player, aren't you?"
"You wouldn't lose your bet," he drawled. "Shall we make tracks, ndito?"
"Ready when you are, bwana."
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