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Killed at the Whim of a Hatby Colin Cotterill
“Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”
—GEORGE W. BUSH, LACROSSE, WISCONSIN, 18 OCTOBER, 2000
Old Mel hired one of Das nephews—the slow-witted one with the dent in his forehead—to sink a well in his back acre. The irrigation trenches his family had dug between the rows of oil palms didnt extend to the rear fence and the new fronds were browning even before they fanned open. It hadnt rained for a month. Mel had been lugging watering cans out there for two weeks and his back bones were starting to clack like mah-jong tiles. So, a well, a cheap Chinese pump, half a dozen sprinklers, and all hed need to do was flick a switch. Oil palms took care of themselves if you watered them often and gave them manure treats once every three months. Twenty palms saved without crippling his spine. Cheap at twice the price.
So, on Saturday last, Old Mel sat on the top rung of the back fence and watched the young man work. The nephews skull indentation made Mel wonder if hed been hit by a metal petanque ball thrown at high speed. Such was the concavity. But he decided it was better not to ask. He knew the response would be long and slobbered. He knew the nephew would stop work to reply because he couldnt perform two functions simultaneously. So Mel merely sat and watched him dig. He could have chipped in with some labor to make the job easier but Old Mel was a firm believer in not hiring a goat and bleating himself.
The tried-and-tested southern Thai method of sinking a well would undoubtedly not have been acceptable in any Western country where concepts such as “quality” and “safety standards” were firmly in place. Four one-meter concrete pipe segments lay on the ground to one side. The nephew would dig a hole broad and deep enough to insert one of the segments. He would then jump into the hole and continue to burrow downward, scooping out earth from beneath the concrete pipe. The latter would sink into the ground like a very slow elevator. Once its top lip was level with the surface of the field, the second pipe segment would be placed on top of it and the excavation would continue. The earth in Old Mels field was a mixture of dirt and sand and once you got below the knotty pissweed, it was not terribly hard to dig. The problems would begin—if you were lucky—when the third section was inserted and the water started to rise, turning the hole into a mudbath spa. Before the fourth segment was level with the ground, the unfortunate young man could be spending half his time submerged in murky brown water.
But on this arid Saturday morning the well would not allow itself to be sunk. At no more than waist depth below the surface, the nephews hoe clanged against something solid. A loud metallic gong scattered the wimpy drongos from the trees. Lizards scampered from beneath rocks. The nephew was obviously enchanted by the percussion because he struck three more times before Mel could convince him to cease. The old man climbed down from his perch, hooked his toes into his sandals, and ambled over to the hole. He stopped at the concrete rim and stared down at his laborers feet which, against all the odds, stood astride a small island of rust.
“It cant be much,” Mel said. “Probably a barrel lid. Sink your hoe off to the edges. You can work your way below it and pry it up.”
Easily said. The nephew prodded and poked but every foray produced the same tinny clunk. There was no way around it. For all anyone knew, the obstruction might have extended from the Gulf all the way across to the Andaman Sea and been connected to one of the earths plates. All Mel could think about was that this sheet of metal stood defiantly between him and lower-back-pain relief. He wasnt about to give in without a fight whether it unbalanced the earth or not. He walked to the fence, grabbed a solid black crowbar and held it out to the lad.
“Here, use this,” he said. “Smash your way through it.”
Das nephew stared forlornly at the tool. It was obvious some laborious mechanical process was taking place in his mind. The crowbar was getting heavy in Mels hand.
“Im just paid for digging,” said the nephew, at last. “Nobody said nothing about smashing. Thats a job for specialists, smashing is. Im just a digger.”
“Go on, boy. Look at it. Its rusted to hell. You could sneeze a hole in it.”
“I dont know, Old Mel. Wear and tear on the tools. All that added time…”
This was a lesson learned for Mel. A brain dent did not necessarily affect a young mans ability to extort.
“All right, look. Im not going to pay you to start a new well somewhere else, so why dont we just say … what? Fifty baht extra? Hows that?”
There was no further discussion. The nephew began jabbing the crowbar into the metal plate with renewed enthusiasm. With the fifty baht incentive, the young man performed like a large, enthusiastic can opener. He stood at the center of the hole and gouged through the metal around him. Like Mel, hed probably expected to be able to lift out a perfect circle of rusted metal and continue his dig south uninterrupted. He would have anticipated a firm grounding of earth beneath the metal. He probably didnt expect in his wildest and most troubling dreams to hear that teeth-grinding creak, or to have the metal upon which he stood drop like a theatrical trapdoor. He seemed to hover in midair for a split second before plummeting into the dark void beneath him.
The silence that followed stretched into the hot early morning like warm noodle dough. Crickets and songbirds held their breaths. A solitary wispy cloud hung overhead. Mel stood leaning forward slightly to look into the hole but all he could see was blackness. He didnt recall the lads name so he couldnt call it out.
“You all right there?” he said. Then, realizing the newly opened shaft might be vastly deep he shouted the same question. “YOU ALL RIGHT?”
There was no reply.
A number of lands around the globe have what they refer to as a southern temperament. Thailand is no exception. Old Mel could surely have gone running off screaming for help. He might have beaten a pestle against the old tin tub that hung from his balcony or trekked those two kilometers to the nearest payphone. But he was a southerner. He broke off a stem of sweet grass to chew while he sat on the concrete segment and gazed into the abyss. There was a good deal to consider. Perhaps this had been a blessing in disguise. He wondered whether theyd chanced on an old well shaft. Saved themselves time. But thered been no splash. It was probably dry. Bad luck, that.
“Young fellow?” he called again, half-heartedly.
There was still no response.
Mel wondered just how long was a suitable period of time before he should get anxious. He was in the middle of a plan. Go back to the shed. Get a rope. Tie it to the fence. Lower it into the hole, and … but there was his back problem. That wouldnt work. Hed have to call his neighbor, Gai, to—
The voice was odd, echoey, like that of a lone sardine in a tin can.
“Old Mel. You there?”
“What are you playing at down there?” Mel asked. “You stuck?”
“No, no. I had the wind knocked out of me, thats all, but I chanced lucky. Im on … a bed.”
“Thats what they call concussion, boy. You need a—”
“No. Im on a bed. Really I am.”
“What makes you think so?”
“I can feel the springs.”
“Plant roots, boy. Easily mistaken for bedsprings.”
Mel realized that in the nephews case, concussion wouldnt have made a lot of difference.
“All right, look, I need to fetch somebody,” he said.
“You know, I can probably get myself out, Old Mel. Im not so far from the hole. Im looking up at it.”
“No, but my shirts snagged on one of the springs. You should come down and have a look. This is odd, Old Mel. The more my eyes get used to the dark, the odder it is.”
“What can you see, boy?”
Old Mel chuckled. “Youre on a bed and youve got windows round you? Sounds to me like youve found yourself an underground bedroom. What are the odds of that?”
He was wondering where the nearest psychiatric care unit might be. Whether analysis was included under the government thirty-baht universal health initiative.
“And theres…” the nephew began.
“A bedside lamp?”
“Oh, no. Old Mel. Old Mel.”
There was a real panicky timbre to his voice.
“What? What is it?”
“Theres skeletons down here.”
Mel was hoping he wouldnt have to be responsible in some way for the young fellows rehabilitation. Whether hed be obliged to employ him in some menial position in which his affliction wouldnt be too much of a disadvantage. Scarecrow, perhaps? Maybe he could find a witness whod swear the boy was already eight points brain-dead before he fell down the old well shaft. You had to be careful these days with so many unemployed lawyers around. Mean buggers, those lawyers.
“They animal bones, boy?” he asked, just to humor the lad.
“No, Old Mel. Theyre people all right.”
“How can you tell?”
“Ones wearing a hat.”
* * *
That was as far as I managed to get with the fertile prose version. It takes it out of you, writing with heart. And it was just for me really. Sort of a confirmation to myself that my inner diva can still make love to the keyboard when shes in the mood. I have to keep her roped and gagged when Im writing for the newspapers. They dont like her at all. They dont want love. They want a quick tryst in a motel room thats forgotten in a few hours. They want dates and times and figures and facts and stats. They want the names and ages of the victims and the perpetrators, the ranks of every police officer vaguely involved with the case, the verbatim quotes from experts, and the ungrammatical misinformation from eyewitnesses. They dont care what I think. Im just that peculiar woman on the crime desk or, at least, I used to be. Id try to sneak in the odd metaphor from time to time but the Mail would set their editorial medusa on me until my piece looked like a lexicon of criminal terminology and place names. This is what hit the newspaper shops on Sunday morning.
TWO DEAD BODIES IN BURIED VEHICLE
Chumphon province. Two unidentified bodies were found yesterday in a Volkswagen Kombi Type 2 camper van, registration number Or Por 243, from Surat Thani province, buried at the rear of a palm oil plantation in Bang Ka sub-district, Lang Suan district, Chumphon province. Police Major General Suvit Pamaluang of the Lang Suan municipality announced that the bodies were discovered at 0800 hours on the morning of Saturday 23 August by Mr. Mel Phumihan, the owner of the land. So far, the victims have not been identified and there have been no clues found as to how the vehicle became buried there.
At 1000 hours, constable Ma Yai and constable Ma Lek from the Pak Nam sub-regional municipality police station in Lang Suan sub-district were dispatched to Bang Ka following a call logged at 0923 hours. Upon their arrival at Mr. Mels palm plantation they were met by Mr. Mel (68 years old) and his day laborer, Mr. Anuphong Wiset (22). The two men had been digging a well and had encountered an unexpected obstacle beneath the ground in the form of a complete 1972 model Volkswagen Camper van popularly known in the West as a Kombi with traces of red and cream trimming. The description of the vehicle was wired to the Surat police station and officers are still attempting to trace any missing vehicles answering this description. Desk Sergeant Monluk Pradibat at the central motor registry in Bangkok informed this newspaper that, “This vehicle will be particularly difficult to trace as computer records of missing vehicles date back only as far as 1994. Any records before that would be filed on paper forms at our central warehouse.”
As to the identity of the bodies, Police Major Mana Sachawacharapong, the head of the Pak Nam police station, in whose jurisdiction the discovery was made, told our reporter, “The identities of the dead bodies and the causes of death are still being investigated. But I can tell you that this was either an accident, murder or an act of nature.” The captain was not, however, prepared to rule out suicide.
They always did that, Thai police. Cover all the bases. Shot four times in the face over a period of twenty minutes? Dont rule out suicide. Theyd recently found a head in a plastic bag suspended on a rope from a bridge in Bangkok and they hadnt dismissed the possibility of suicide. It gave those self-promoting senior policemen something to talk about to the press. Made them sound more important. Rather than admit “We havent got the foggiest idea,” the ranking officer of the day would go down the list of bloody obvious possibilities even if he hadnt visited the site of the crime. As long as you spelled his name correctly hed talk to you the whole day. Perhaps you can see I have a certain dark feeling toward our gentlemen in khaki.
But the good news is, I was back. All right, I didnt get a by-line, the Thai dailies dont encourage reporter egoism, but word would get out that Id risen from the dead. I might be living in the buttock end of the world but I could still sniff out a story. After nine months of highway traffic pile-up reports and coconut yield statistics, Id been thrilled when I heard theyd discovered the bodies. Please let them be murder victims, I prayed. Dont get me wrong, Im not a bloodthirsty person. I just needed reassuring that man hadnt stopped displaying inhumanity to man. Id begun to doubt it.
Id been sitting in one of our grass-roofed huts overlooking the bay, gutting mackerel when I heard the news of old Mels VW. Unless we get a few sea bass or a tasty anchovy, mackerel guttings usually the highlight of the week in our cul-de-sac of a village. Kow, the squid-boat captain, stopped by on his Honda Dream with its fishball-dispensing sidecar. Hes our local Paul Revere. You dont need a cell phone or Internet connection if you have someone like Captain Kow in the vicinity. Ive no idea how he hears it all but Id wager hes a good hour ahead of the BBC on most news.
“You hear?” he yelled. Of course I hadnt heard. I never hear anything. “They found a car with dead bodies in it under Old Mels back lot.”
He smiled. Hes got a sort of mail slot where his front teeth ought to be. It makes you want to doubt him but hes invariably right. His southern accents so thick I needed a few seconds to decipher his words.
“Whos Old Mel?” I asked.
“Got twenty hectares out off the Bang Ka road just before Bang Ga.”
I was elated. This was the first burst of excitement Id felt all year. I had to get over there. My little brother, Arnon, playfully known as Arny, was out somewhere with the truck and Granddad Jah had the motorcycle. I didnt have any choice but to use Mairs old auntie bicycle with the metal basket on the front. I shouted to my mother that I was taking it and heard a faint “Make sure you put petrol in it” from deep inside our shop. Right, Mair.
Apart from the bridge over the Lang Suan river the roads are mostly flat around here, all palm and coconut plantations. Pleasant enough if you like green—I dont. There are limestone cliffs sticking up here and there, making the place look untidy, but not much in the way of hills. Old Mels place was a good ten kilometers away and exercise wasnt one of my strong points. But you know how it is when you get the scent of blood in your nostrils. My little legs pumped away at the pedals and the adrenaline coursed through my veins and, in a sudden bubbly rush of clarity, my mind became filled with all my glory moments. The marvelous crimes Id reported; the numerous bodies Id stepped over—being careful not to tread in the blood—the castrated cuckolds, the jimmied ATMs, the druggies, the lesbian high-rise suicides, the motorcycle hit squads, the truck smugglers, the mysterious backpacker mutilations, the high-speed school-bus-race crashes, philandering fake fortune tellers, gangsters Id exposed (albeit anonymously), stabbings, stranglings, garrotings … Oh, I could go on.
What a career I had ahead of me. My name, Jimm Juree, was synonymous with accurate crime reporting all over Thailand. Not even the simple dim fare left after the medusa had feasted on me could detract from my obvious affinity for my job. I was respected. I was one seat away from the senior crime reporters leather chair. Saeng Thip rum had left little of the incumbent and everyone knew his health was shot and his days were numbered. They gave him six months. Then Id be in. Id all but been given the nod. The first female senior crime reporter in Chiang Mai Mail history. Only the second in the entire country. Me. Flying high.
And then, one hot early evening in August last year, my rice-paper balloon burst into flames and crashed to the ground. I obviously didnt pay enough tea money to the right people in a previous life. Our mother, Mair, despite her red-handed involvement in the affair, would continue to say it was fate. Karma, she called it, but I dont think it was any coincidence that shed rediscovered Buddhism at roughly the same time the dementia started to kick in.
That evening, almost exactly a year ago, will be forever burned into the DVD of my soul. It plays over and over even when Im not switched on. I see the scene. Hear the soundtrack. I know exactly which frames going to freeze with the look of horror plastered over my face.
Id had a great day, which made it all the worse. I mean, a great day. An old-timer in Maerim had been found shot through the temple with a pen gun. The police had arrested the teenager next door who had a history of trouble and a tattoo of a kitten impaled on a lance on his shoulder. Id had dealings with him before. He had the devil in him, I knew, but I doubted he had the stomach for a killing. That takes an altogether different type of villain.
His grandparents had raised him, albeit badly, for the past thirteen years, ever since his bar-girl mother had dumped him and vanished without a trace. They obviously hadnt been able to do the job any better with him than they had with their daughter. I went to interview the grandparents. The police case file was officially closed and the boy was at the start of a long murky tunnel that would eventually spew him out in an adult prison for murder. Hed threatened the old-timer in front of witnesses and the police had found the murder weapon under his bedroll. They werent looking any further. Dirt-poor family. No money for a lawyer. A nice neat victory for this months statistics chart. Granny was distraught—unavailable for comment. But there was something edgy about Granddad. Hed been the old-timers drinking buddy. Theyd been friends since primary school. I could have marked his grunted responses and lack of eye contact down to angina or the fact he was missing his best friend, but I felt there was something else. He was a man who wanted to talk.
I went to the corner drink stand and returned with a half bottle of Mekhong whiskey. I suggested a toast to the deceased—wish him well on his way through nirvana to the next incarnation. Lets hope he does better there. Granddad poured the drinks without saying a word. There was a slight shake to his hand as he passed me my glass. He raised his drink to his lips but it paused there. He snorted the fumes and looked down into the glassy brown liquor as if he could see his conscience.
“We were drunk that night,” he said, more to the whiskey than to me. I put down my own glass to listen. “We often got drunk but that night was more foolish than most. Hed just come back from Fang with half a dozen bottles of hooch and that sodding amulet. Hed bought it from some Akha hill tribesman, he said. It was magic, he said. He swore to me before hed paid for it hed seen the Akha stare down a rifle and not even flinch when his missus fired it at him. Bullet just bounced off him … he said.”
That was the start of the confession and neither of us touched the Mekhong whiskey the whole time. But I considered it eighty-two baht well spent. It turned out the old-timer had been convinced the amulet made him bulletproof and as the evening wore on and they got drunker and drunker, the neighbor goaded his friend. “Go on! Shoot me. Shoot me if you dont believe me.”
“At first I ignored him,” Granddad said. “But he wouldnt shut up about it. I knew the boy had a pen gun. Id seen it. I fetched it more for a threat than anything else. Just to bluff him. Shut him up. You know? But it got him even more excited when he saw the gun. ‘Go on, he said. ‘I know you dont believe me. Go on you coward, do it.”
“And you did it,” I said.
The boy was released and the old man was charged with accidental homicide. The Mail let me write it up as a personal account. The medusa didnt like that. She took out all my adjectives and dumbed the piece down but it was still my story: How I solved a case the police had closed. Theres no way to describe how that feels. It should have been the happiest day of the week. I bought a five-liter cask of Mont Clair red to celebrate and two packets of Tim Tam biscuits. I imagined wed all sit around the kitchen table getting pickled, laughing at Mair who turned into a completely different person just from getting her lips wet with booze.
We had a small shop right beside the campus of Chiang Mai University. Most nights you could hear the high-pitched squeals of practicing cheerleaders—some of them female—and the late night drunken revelers careening their motorcycles into flower beds. Serious scholars retired to Starbucks for peace and chocolate croissants. Education had changed since I studied there. Our shop didnt sell much: packet noodles, rice crackers, mosquito coils, shampoo, beer, that type of thing. We were a sort of rustic 7-Eleven. Mair had put in a few washing machines for the students to leave off their laundry and theyd invariably pick up a snack and a drink at the same time. And we were right beside a condominium full of farang, the type of white-meat foreigners who couldnt imagine a night of cable TV without half a dozen Singha beers. That was our customer base. We wouldnt make it into Forbes but we did all right. The bungalow we grew up in, the only home wed ever known, was at the back.
Id taken a shortcut through the university, always an iffy move because the guards often left early to avoid traffic. It wasnt yet four fifty but the side gates were shut. The padlocked chain was loosely wrapped. Lean Thai students could squeeze through the gap; overweight large-boned rapists could not. The girls could sleep easy in their dorms. I parked my motorcycle beside the guard post and inserted myself between the gates. A few more pizza dinners and Id have to start driving the long way round.
I knew something was wrong when I saw my granddad Jah sitting on the curbstones in front of our shop. He was wearing his undervest and shorts and had his bare feet in the gutter. Neither the attire nor the setting were unusual. He liked to sit beside the road. Over the past few years, his reason for living had become the scrutiny of every vehicle that passed in front of our shop: study the number plate, look at the condition of the bodywork and glare threateningly at the driver. It was evening rush hour, his favorite time, but his head was bowed now and he was missing some fascinating evening traffic.
I asked if he was all right but he shrugged and pointed his thumb back over his shoulder. Granddad Jah wasnt a great communicator and I had no idea what the gesture meant. He might have been telling me about the two customers waiting in the shop with nobody there to serve them. Heaven forbid hed get up off his haunches and do a bit of work for a change. No. Too many passing cars to observe for that. I called out to Mair but nobody came so I served the customers myself and went through the concrete yard to our kitchen. I walked in on a scene reminiscent of a military court-martial.
At one end of the kitchen table sat my sister, Sissi, who at one time had been my elder brother, Somkiet. Filling up the space at the other end of the table was my current brother, Arny. He was what they referred to as a bodybuilder and this evening his T-shirt was so tightly strained across his muscles it looked as if it had been inked on. He had a wad of tissues scrunched in his right hand and it was clear hed been crying.
Between these two sat our mother, Mair. She was dressed in a very formal black suit she generally reserved for sad occasions. Shed put on a little make-up, her hair in a Lao bun, and she looked like an elegant, middle-aged funeral director, more beautiful than Id seen her in many a month. I did notice that the white blouse she wore beneath her jacket was buttoned wrongly. It might have been a fashion statement but I knew better. I couldnt stand the silence.
“Somebody dead?” I asked.
“Us,” said Sissi, staring pointedly at the joists inside the roof. The temperature had reached 34 degrees centigrade that day but, as usual, she was wearing sunglasses and a thick silk scarf because she insisted her saggy neck skin made her look like a turkey. It did no such thing; her neck was fine. There really was nothing sorrier than an aging transsexual ex-beauty queen. At least I used to think so.
“Does anybody want to tell me whats happened here?” I pleaded. Evidently not. Nobody spoke. The ceiling lizards were taking up their positions around the as-yet-unlit, fluorescent lamp above our heads and they were ticking with anticipation of a big night ahead. But my family was silent.
“Shes sold us out.”
The voice came from behind me. I hadnt noticed Granddad Jah follow me in but he now stood in the open doorway with his arms folded. It had been such a long time since Id heard him speak Id forgotten what his voice sounded like. The family was complete now but unstuck. I raised my eyebrows at Mair. The most wonderful if sometimes the creepiest, of my mothers traits was that she never seemed to be fazed by anything. She would greet even the most horrific moments, tragedies and accidents alike, with the same sliver-lipped smile. Her pretty eyes would sparkle and thered be a barely perceptible shake of the head. Id often imagined her going down with the Titanic, Leo DiCaprio splashing and spluttering beside her, and Mairs enigmatic smile sliding slowly beneath the surface of the icy water. She was wearing herTitanic smile there at our kitchen table and I knew it masked something terrible.
“Mair, what have you done?” I asked.
“Shes sold it all,” Sissi blurted out. “The house, the shop, everything.”
It couldnt be true, of course.
“Mair?” Again I looked at her. She raised one eyebrow fractionally. No denial. It felt as if the floorboards had been pulled out from under me. I plonked down on one of the spare chairs.
“Were going to have a better life,” Mair said. “I decided its time to move.”
“Please note the high level of consultation,” Sissi hissed.
“How could you make a decision like that without talking to us?” I asked. “This is our home. We all grew up here.”
“We should all die here,” added Granddad.
“A change is as good as a holiday,” said Mair. “Im thinking of you all. Youll thank me for it.”
“Is it too late to unsell?” I asked Sissi. She was our contract person, our unpaid clerk and accountant. I was sure shed have checked the paperwork. She pulled a wad of documents from her Louis Vuitton local rip-off handbag and dropped them onto the table.
“The deed is signed, witnessed and incontestable,” she said. A shuddering sigh erupted from the Arny end of the table. Granddad was seething in the doorway. We all knew the land documents should still have been in his name but hed listened to Granny on her deathbed. Listened to her for the first time in his life.
“Sign them over to the girl,” shed said. “You could keel over any second, then the bastards at City Hall will suck all the taxes and rates out of it. Therell be nothing left. Sign it over to the girl.”
So, thats what hed done, a final promise to a woman hed never really honored or obeyed. The one time hed done what she asked him, and look where it got us all. As the sole owner, his daughter had no legal obligation to involve them in her decision. No legal obligation.
I took some time to think.
“All right,” I said. “Look. Perhaps this isnt such a bad thing.”
“It isnt?” Sissi was sizzling like pork in deep fat.
Of course I was lying. I was as upset as any of them but I had to put some temporary repair work into my family.
“No. Look, we all know this house needs a lot of work,” I said with a knowing look on my uncertain face. “The roof leaks even when it isnt raining and weve got a world of termites. We could use the money from the sale of this place to find somewhere better…” Out of the corner of my eye I could see Arny shaking his head. I thought if I ignored him the gesture would go away. “Perhaps a little out of town, a short commute. We could even have a little yard with—”
Sissi let forth with that haughty laugh shed learned from her TV soap.
“Oh ho. But you havent yet heard the best part,” she said. “Theres more to it. The move is already taken care of, little sister.”
“I dont get it,” I admitted.
“The money I got from selling this old place Ive invested in a lovely resort hotel in the south.” Mair beamed with pride. “Well all have such a lovely time. It really is a dream come true.”
It was the type of dream you have after eating spicy hor mook and sticky rice directly before you go to bed. I could feel the knot. The south? They were blowing each other up in the south. Everyone was fleeing north and we were supposed to go south?
“How far south?” I asked.
“Quite far,” she said.
Copyright © 2011 by Colin Cotterill
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