Brooklyn Graves: An Erica Donato Mystery #2

Brooklyn Graves: An Erica Donato Mystery #2

A brutally murdered family man without an enemy in the world. A box full of charming letters home, written a century ago by an unknown female worker at the famed ...

About The Author

Triss Stein

Triss Stein is a small-town girl who has spent most of her adult life living and working in New York ...

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Chapter One

The day my friend Dima was killed, I was thinking about Tiffany. Of course that was before I heard the dreadful news.

Say Tiffany to most New Yorkers and they immediately see a box covered with glazed paper in a shade of blue that has been saying Tiffany since 1845. Maybe it holds a diamond engagement ring or the emerald earrings that will begin an affair or end a marriage, or perhaps the silver key chain that says, with that touch of Tiffany & Company class, thank you for another year of hard work.

Myself, I saw a cemetery. Not just any cemetery, mind you, but a famously beautiful one, the eternal resting place of the deceased rich and famous, a National Historic Landmark, Green-Wood Cemetery. Yes, a few of the founding Mr. Tiffanies, including the great Louis Comfort himself, were buried there under surprisingly simple stones, but I was not going to visit his grave. I was going to visit his work.

That was not my plan when I started this day. I work part-time at the Brooklyn Historical Museum, and I was worryingly behind on an assignment. The job was only one of the many balls I kept up in the air, so sometimes one of them knocked another to the floor. My plan for that day was to power-through and get entirely caught up.

Those balls began dropping all over the room the moment I walked into the cubicle I share with other part-time  assistants and interns. I arrived late due to the rain snarling up the traffic. Eliot, my boss, was already there leaving a note on my desk.

“Erica. Glad you are here. Did you by any chance drive today?”

Driving is the least sane way to get from my neighborhood, Park Slope, where street parking is only difficult, to my work neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, where it is impossible. Some- times I do it anyway because I have later errands. Or because I have temporarily lost my mind. He knew that.

“We have a distinguished visitor today, one of the great experts on Tiffany, and he needs some chauffeuring around and some note-taking assistance at Green-Wood Cemetery. It involves Tiffany windows. You know how to get there, right? It’s near where you live? Sarah is the logical choice, in fact, but she is out with the flu.”

Denying I had my car was a tempting option, but Eliot has been a great boss and mentor. I owed him.

“I did drive,” I answer, “but my car is not exactly a luxury ride.” My car, in fact, is a twelve-year-old Civic with pothole-damaged shocks and a backseat covered with work papers, school papers, daughter papers. A lot like my house.

“You are a lifesaver. Come be introduced in the conference room at ten, and join the meeting. It’s not exactly your field, but I promise it will be interesting.” He left without telling me anything more.

One more ball hit the floor, but my job is only a small step above intern. The tiny salary is useful; the flexible work hours are necessary; the experience will make me a little more employ- able when I finally finish my PhD. Maybe. Maybe I could take home my sure-to-be-unfinished work and fit it in with dinner, my schoolwork, my teenage daughter’s schoolwork. Oh, yes, and maybe sleep.

I hurried up the institutional-steel back-stairway, through  a fire door and out into the oak-paneled magnificence of the original building.

Eliot was in the conference room along with a chunky woman in a checked flannel shirt, her pepper-and-salt hair in a long braid. Also sitting at the table was a tall, thin silver-haired man in an elegant navy suit, a tie even I knew was silk, and cuff links even I could guess were gold. The distinguished expert? The rest of the crowd was the head curator, some department heads, and the museum’s managing director—all heavy hitters. I wished I had spent a little more time tidying myself up, and took a seat as invisibly as I could. My boss smiled at me and passed me a note. “Her name is Bright Skye (!!!). She has a story.”

Three large liquor cartons stood on the conference table beside the woman who was explaining in a soft, tentative voice: “…so you see, just by accident in a doctor’s office, I read that you have a Tiffany collection here. I have been away from New York for a long, long time. I live in the desert near Sedona now. I wasn’t even sure I could find you, but I had already found this.” She gestured to the boxes. “I didn’t know what it was at first, and I’m still not exactly sure, but when I read about your collection, I realized someone might want these things, and they might be valuable, and I came to see you to find out it they are worth anything.”

She stopped abruptly, as if she had run out of words. “Thank you,” Eliot said politely. “You showed us a promising folder of samples when you first contacted us, so perhaps now you could show that to everyone? And tell us where they came from?”

“I’m cleaning out my mother’s big old house, over in the Midwood neighborhood. It’s been in her family since it was built, maybe about a hundred years ago, I guess. Maybe more. And there’s about a hundred years of junk, too. I found this in the attic behind all the other junk. There’s a whole box of letters and other things. There are some sketchbooks, I guess, and a pouch of jewelry with pins and bracelets and little pieces of col- ored glass. I don’t even know what they are called. I don’t know anything about all this kind of stuff, but I saw the name Tiffany in the letters a lot of times. And these pictures seem very nice.”

She shook out the contents of a large envelope. The drab table was suddenly covered in a rainbow— pages of watercolors, brilliantly glowing. They were familiar Tiffany designs: lacy red dragonflies, exuberantly blooming wisteria in vivid lavender blue, rosy cherry blossoms, daffodils that radiated sunshine, pale opal- escent magnolias and shimmering blue-green peacock feathers.

The entire room seemed to take on the glow. I couldn’t stop staring. “Very nice” didn’t even come close.

The well-dressed expert, who seemed to have appointed himself in charge, was the first to reach for some of the papers, whipping out a pair of white archivist’s gloves to protect the paper from any damage.

“Hmm,” he said. “Certainly the style and colors are right. Some of these are very well-known—the wisteria would scream Tiffany even in China! But some, I don’t know.” He was talking quietly and quickly, murmuring as if to himself, his face flushed with excitement. “I’ve never seen them before. Perhaps never produced? And the signature is simply unknown, at least to me. Maude Cooper? But if even I have never seen it—and I’ve seen everything—it’s extraordinary, if true. Extraordinary.”

He snapped out of his reverie and looked directly at the owner of the papers. “This Maude Cooper. Who was she? Come on, woman, you must have some idea.”

Bright Skye whispered, “No, I have no idea at all. I think my grandmother had some Cooper relatives, but I’ve never heard about a Maude that I remember. My mother’s family name was Updike before she was married a few times.”

“And, umm, Skye was one of those married names?”

She flushed and whispered, “No, that is my own true name that I found.”

Goodness, I thought, what a wimp. A New Age wimp at that. He sighed deeply and turned to the museum director. “You spoke the truth. This is indeed very interesting and may even be of real importance, possibly even exceptional   importance.

Or not. Of course I want to be involved. Of course. I’d never forgive you if I were not included.”

“Just what we were hoping to hear you say.” He was all smiles. “Our staff has some thoughts, but we felt we needed more true expertise. Ladies and gentlemen, for any latecomers, let me introduce Dr. Thomas Flint, who is probably the leading expert on the artwork of the Tiffany studio. We are lucky he has consented to join us for this project.”

“I don’t know about that ‘probably.’” He smiled stiffly. Was that meant to be a joke? “Yes, yes, but unfortunately I need to leave today for a conference in Rome, and I have an appointment at Green-Wood Cemetery first. I must verify a few details for my presentation. Really, I had to squeeze you in.

“Let’s do this. Your driver gets me there and back here efficiently. Give me a room for an hour and let me see what I can make of this. While I’m abroad you take care of basic preliminary cataloguing and physical preservation. I already see terrible damage. Dear lord, they have been in an attic for a century! I’ll send my assistant over to help tomorrow. When I return next week, we will be ready to begin a full analysis. A good plan, don’t you think?”

An excellent plan, they all thought, and he was given the conference room on the spot.

A small voice rose from the end of the table.

“Do you think that these papers would be valuable? And the jewelry? I mean, for money?” It was Ms. Skye. She had been completely forgotten in the excitement.

Flint turned to her and said, “Did you understand that I am an expert on everything about Tiffany? His works and his life? This may indeed be very valuable, or perhaps it is not what it seems. It will take us some time to work that out.”

“But I was hoping…” She said it softly, and then she looked away, her voice fading. “I could use the money.”

“Miss…Skye, is it?” He raised one eyebrow as he said her name. “May we—that is, the museum—borrow the contents of these cartons for a few weeks? They will take excellent care of it, you can be sure of that, better care than it has had for decades in your attic, and then we will have an answer for you.”

“I guess so. I mean, I have no use for it.” She fiddled with the end of her braid, and then said, “I don’t like old things, personally.” “You will be given a receipt for the items, and they will be kept locked up here. Yes?” He looked over at the director, who said, “Absolutely.”

Ms. Skye drifted off, escorted by the director’s assistant, who was explaining what needed to be signed.

Eliot motioned me over to meet the intimidating Dr. Flint. “This is Erica Donato. Erica, Dr. Thomas Flint. Erica here will drive you, in her own car, and provide all the assistance you need.”

He frowned. “What happened to Sarah? She was a student of mine and she is reasonably capable.”

“Down with the flu.”

“Then you’ll have to do, I suppose. And you are also a decorative arts specialist, I hope?’

“No, I am an urban historian. Historian-in-training, really. But I’ll be happy to assist today.” It seemed like the right thing to say.

His cool blue eyes got much cooler. I added quickly, “I’ll try not to ask foolish questions.”

“See that you don’t.”

And that is how I ended up sucking down coffee in my car, peering though the streaming window, hoping the puddles were not deep enough to damage my old engine and hoping I had mastered taking pictures with the museum’s camera.

It was raining too hard to look over the spectacularly Gothic stone gate. We splashed our way into the visitors center and were greeted by a woman Flint’s age, somewhere in late middle age on the verge of old. My quick glance took in that she was small, gray-haired, no makeup, wrapped in a faded beige raincoat, with faded khakis and stout orthopedic shoes showing below. She reminded me of the older women of my youth, before they all discovered gyms and plastic surgery. Mrs. Mercer, she told us. “I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry.” She kept repeating it. “There has been a problem. The cemetery is closed to all visitors  this

morning. I cannot take you…”

“All the arrangements were made for me personally by Dr. Reade,” said Dr. Flint. “Just call her and get this straightened out. I don’t have any more time to waste. Give me a phone and I’ll call her myself.”

I stopped in my tracks. No one even noticed me.

“Dr. Reade is very busy today. I would not dream of disturbing her.”

“Well, I would! Her office is still in the administrative building over there?” He gestured with his right arm.

She nodded. “But…but…”

“Come along! If I can find Nancy Reade, perhaps I can rescue this monumentally wasted morning.”

We stepped outside to find the rain had stopped and bright rays of sunlight were streaming out from under the massive dark clouds. I always think that particular phenomenon looks like a Renaissance painting of a deity at work. The massive gate with its pointed arches and soaring towers provided a suitable backdrop, too, but Dr. Flint did not pause to look at it, and I had to hustle to keep up with his long, furious stride. The drab woman from the office trailed behind, but we did not get very far.

A man in work clothes stopped us where the road curves up the hill into the cemetery itself.

“Sorry, sir. No one is allowed to enter right now.”

“I had an appointment. I am a personal friend of Dr. Reade and several of the trustees as well, and I have important work to do here today.”

“Sorry, sir. No one is allowed in.”

Behind us I heard the lady from the office take a deep breath, but ahead of us I could see a group coming in our direction. Dr. Flint quickly walked over to a tall woman with a Burberry umbrella. She looked elegant and stressed.

“Nancy, what is the meaning of this? I had an appointment and as you know very well, I don’t have time to waste, here or anywhere.”

She stopped her group with a lifted hand, and drew Dr. Flint away from them.

“Oh, Thomas, we are dealing with an unexpected problem today. We had to close for a while. It is a…a safety issue. Of course I will personally reschedule your visit as soon as we… um…get this…um…resolved.”

“That is not helpful. I leave for Rome tonight. I came to confirm some old notes on Tiffany’s work here. I have a presentation coming up.”

I could swear she turned pale.

“Surely you can make an exception for someone like me, whose work you know so well? Under the circumstances?” The tone was not as polite as the words.

She looked back nervously and said, “Tom, you know I would, if it was just up to me—of course we know you—but there are other issues.”

She returned to her group and finally motioned Flint over. I followed behind him, and the lady from the office trotted along, too.

“We will allow you in, but only under escort from our security staff. One of the locations you wanted to see is…is where the problem is. There has been a collapse, a dangerous situation, so you cannot go there at all, and you cannot leave the paths anywhere. Will that be of any use to you?”

The red spots on his cheeks got redder, but he said, “Better than nothing. I suppose I’ll just have to write around whatever is missing.”

“Mrs. Mercer can take you to the other site, as planned. The Konick Mausoleum is the one off-limits.”

Mrs. Mercer nodded and led the way, but Dr. Flint took Dr. Reade by the arm, gently leading her from the others, and whispered urgently. She whispered back, looked apologetic, shook her head. He looked furious. He stalked off into the cemetery itself. I hustled to keep up with his long legs, and Mrs. Mercer, the guide who should have been leading us, trailed behind, along with the cemetery’s rent-a-cop security guard. Our parade would have been funny if tensions had not been so high.

The guard, an older man and not in the best of shape, did eventually outpace us all and stopped Dr. Flint with his bulk planted across the path.

“The other way, sir.”

He led us around a lake with flocks of birds, including brilliantly blue teals, some stately Canada geese, and a pair of swans as perfect as Dresden china ornaments. With the sun now shining, it was lovely.

Dr. Flint went on ahead, but Mrs. Mercer stopped me and pointed. “There. In the reeds.”

It was a long-legged white bird with a curved neck and a trailing headpiece of feathers, an egret or heron. It was standing as still as one of the cemetery stones, looking like a Japanese print, right here, unbelievably, in the heart of Brooklyn, just a few minutes’ walk from the truck traffic on a six-lane avenue. I was transfixed.

With a light touch on my arm she moved me back onto the path. The trees were in October gold, and with the unexpected sunlight glinting off the wet leaves and the polished stone chapels, there really was something magical about the place. It was a far cry from the bleak cities of gravestones where my mother and my husband were buried.

That was no accident, as I knew very well. Green-Wood had been designed from the beginning to be a kind of park, a rambling, pastoral, social environment meant as much for recreation by the living as for as interment of the dead. The living used to come in their carriages for scenic drives and picnics. It was a weird thought, but I know Victorians thought about death differently. On a day like this I thought the designers would have to be proud. Were their ghosts hanging around, satisfied to see that their work was in good hands, still valued and cared for?

Actually, I had no idea if they were even buried here, and I gave myself a little mental slap. The rare birds, the fanciful architecture, and the golden forest might have looked like an illustration from a fairy tale, but I was here to work, not to fantasize.

I stepped into a puddle, soaking my shoe to my ankle, shocking me out of my daydream. Dr. Flint stopped abruptly and pointed across the road to one of the oddest mausoleums we had seen so far. It was made of mixed red-and-yellow brick, with a Dutch-style stepped roof. Elaborate stone columns added a formal touch, but the effect was sadly diminished because so many of them were broken, and the wrought-iron gate was fall- ing off its hinges. At the back, a number of people were milling around with ladders and tools and putting up some kind of scaffolding. From our perch, it was impossible to see that side clearly. “That was to have been our first stop. You.” He meant me. “Come here with that camera. Get as close as you can.” He glanced at the guard. “Take photos of the windows as well as you can, not that it matters. None of them will be useful to me from here. It’s meant to be viewed from the inside, with light coming in.” He turned back to the guard. “What in the world are those workers doing?”

The guard shrugged, and Flint barked out, “Oh, give up the Sergeant Friday pretense. That shabby building happens to hold exceptional pieces of Tiffany glassmaking. I should be there if there is a building problem. Imagine if the workers do damage. It would be a disaster. Irreplaceable.”

He muttered, “Fools, all of them. You!” He meant Mrs. Mercer or me or both of us. “Keep on top of this while I am out of town.” I guessed he meant that for me. “If I had more time, Nancy Reade would have her ears sizzled.”

“Perhaps we should move on to our other destination?” Mrs.

Mercer could barely get the words out, she was so nervous. “Yes, let’s at least get one thing done. Come along. You. Are you taking notes? Describe what we have seen here, and note that this is the Konick Mausoleum. Badly neglected.”

I whipped out a notebook, wishing I had an iPhone.  Mrs. Mercer was standing next to me.

“Yes, the neglect is sad, isn’t it? I prepared for this tour by looking it up yesterday. The family has quite disappeared or died out.”

“What do you…?” I started to ask, but she guessed where my question was going.

“In the old days,” she said, “it would have been torn down, I’m told. Shocking, isn’t it? Now the cemetery will preserve it. Eventually.”

“Does it really have wonderful windows?”

“I should say it does! They are not very well-known, and it’s a shame for you to miss them, but at least you’ll see one here.” We had reached our destination. This one was a miniature Greek temple, white marble, with columns topped with curly decorations whose names I didn’t know. Two limestone steps up and the door had been opened for us. I was certainly curious. I had never been inside anything like this.

Facing us, above what I thought must be the tomb, was a huge stained-glass window: a redheaded Jesus in a field of shimmering white flowers, backed by a glowing red and yellow sky. I know I gasped. I’d never been so close to anything that large and that magnificent. The glass had the shimmering effect Tiffany was famous for. Even I knew that. Were the flowers lilies?

Was the sun rising or setting?

“His work doesn’t become less wonderful with familiarity.” Flint’s tone seemed almost approving. “Now, you. What I need is close-ups of that border. Borders are very unclear in my working collection of pictures, and I need the information for my speech. And make notes. I would know the origin, but I can’t say the same for my assistants.”

He took some measurements, made some notes himself, motioned to me to take a few more angles. I hoped I knew what I was doing.

There was a plaque with information. This was the tomb  of Octavios Knight, the Silver King of Montana, and his wife, Anne, who became New Yorkers after they got rich. I had never heard of them, but here was a true work of art they had brought into existence.

And that was it. Flint led the way out and down the hill to the parking lot. Before we could make our escape, a very young woman came up to us. “You are Dr. Flint? I must ask that you not discuss the problems with anyone. We prefer to handle it all privately.”

Flint lifted an eyebrow. “Since we have been told precisely nothing, that will not be a problem.”

The young woman seemed to collapse, just a little, from her rigid posture.

Mercer muttered to me, “That twelve-year-old child is our new public relations pro. I’m sure she thought her job would be getting journalists to write happy stories about our beauty and history.”

The young woman said, “That is good news. I was not sure, when I saw you talking to Dr. Reade. But you must not mention anything you’ve seen to anyone. Is that fully understood?” Mercer nodded, but Professor Flint said, “You misunderstand.

I am not an employee. You have no authority whatsoever with me, none at all.”

The woman looked even more stressed. “If you have any respect for Green-Wood as an organization, please help us here?” She tried a placating smile. “We do have a problem today, and we will handle it appropriately, but who knows what some idiot may want to make public? A blog? Local news?” She shuddered. “Of course. All you had to do was ask.” There was the tiniest emphasis on the word ask. “I would certainly agree to anything Nancy Reade asked.”

“She is just a bit preoccupied just now.”

“Yes, I suppose so. I wouldn’t deal with that gossipy trash, even without being asked, and I hope I can speak for my scholar colleague here as well.” He was looking at me. Now I was his colleague? I nodded. Of course.

Not another word was said until we were back in the suitably old and elegant part of Brooklyn where our museum is housed in a suitably old and elegant Victorian mansion. I paused at the main door to let my passenger out before tackling the unsuitably modern problem of finding street parking. He said, “I plan to keep quiet about this puzzling morning, and I certainly hope you will too.”

“I don’t see why…”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Trust me on this. The museum and scholarly worlds are endlessly gossipy. They are a bunch of old women of all sexes. Let them all learn something happened from public sources. It’s probably all a tempest in a teapot anyway.”

“I don’t think…”

He gave me a stern look. “Do you want to spend the rest of the morning pandering to their curiosity? I don’t care to waste my valuable time that way.”

I had to agree. I did not value his time as highly as he did, but I did value my own.

“I need you in a thirty-second meeting inside. Garage the car. There is no time to waste.”

He waited while I left the car at a commercial garage, hoping I would be reimbursed for the shocking fee. Once again I followed, struggling to keep up, as he hustled to the director’s office, picking Eliot up along the way.

He spun a vague excuse about being delayed at Green-Wood, and quickly set up a plan for the rest of the week.

I turned to leave, along with some other junior staff, when Flint barked, “You! Donadio, wasn’t it?”

“Donato.”

“Yes, whatever. You said you are a historian. Think you can create a reliable record of what’s here?”

“Yes, of course, but…”

“Good. I’ll ask for you to work on this for now. You kept your head this morning. That gave me a hunch you might be competent, even if you don’t know anything about Tiffany.”

I didn’t know which I wanted to argue about first, that I had other work to do or that I did, too, know something about Tiffany. It wouldn’t have mattered. He was already ushering me out of the room. “My airport car will be here in just minutes now.” Eliot gently took my arm and led me out. As soon as we were out of hearing range, I exploded. “I have other work to do—that whole new project for the school visits. And this Flint? I was with him this morning at Green-Wood. What a…”

“Yes, yes, an arrogant son of a bitch.” He smiled sympathetically. “I’ve known him for years. But you are overlooking how high-profile this could be, if, of course, it turns out to be what it seems.” He was still smiling. “I’m doing you a big favor to allow you to become involved.”

“Do I have a choice? I don’t, do I?”

“Nope. You’ll be grateful when this is published and your name is on it.”

“But…” Something told me Flint was not the glory-sharing type.

Eliot stopped me with an upheld hand. “I’ll make sure of that. It will be the price for us doing some of his grunt work for him, and he did promise some help. He left in a hurry but said he’d e-mail us some instructions, and a copy to his assistant and it will all be ready tomorrow. Set aside your other work, just until Flint gets back. I’ll make it all right. Oh, and put in a voucher for the parking today.” He winked.

There would be no more work today, not for me. I didn’t care who gave me another task. I was going out for a walk in the fresh, rain-washed air. If my walk just happened to take me past my daughter’s school, and it was time for her to be coming out, so much the better. I admitted to myself she might not see it that way. What high school sophomore wants to leave school with her friends and find Mom outside? Invading her world? As if she needed to be picked up? I didn’t care; I wanted to see her, whether she wanted to see me or not.

Unlike the noisy flood of younger classes, upper-school students usually came out in discrete, chattering groups. Today, no one was chattering. As I stood across the street, on the alert for Chris or her friends, I thought some of the students were crying.

There they were. Chris, fashionably sloppy and almost as tall as I am now, and her neighborhood best friend Melanie. Two other familiar faces were right behind. And they were definitely crying. I wove my way across the street, through the stalled traffic on the school block.

Chris walked right into my arms and sobbed, “I guess you heard.”

I held her tight and glanced over her head at her friends. One patted her shoulder, the others were standing by, arm-in-arm. They all looked teary.

“What in the world is going on?” I asked

“I thought you must have heard, somehow.” Chris’ sobs slowed down enough for her to talk. “Isn’t that why you came?” “Uh, no, I was just walking by. Suppose someone explains?”

They all grew a shade paler at the thought, and Chris finally took a deep breath.

“Alex wasn’t in school today and nobody heard from him, and Natalya wasn’t in the office, either. We thought, maybe, his grandmother? She’s pretty old. Then, later, like in Latin, there was an announcement.” Her friends waited, breathless, while she brushed the tears from her eyes. “It said his father had died and Natalya would be out of the office for the rest of the week. And that’s all.”

Melanie prompted her. “They said we would have an assembly first thing tomorrow to talk about it, to determine the appropriate school community response. You know how they talk, blah, blah.”

And that was how I learned Dima had died.

Alex and Chris have been friends since first grade. Natalya, his mother, was the secretary in the upper-school office. And Dima was the chief school custodian, handyman, friend to everyone in the school community, a vigorous man in his forties who could fix anything, build anything. I had a sudden picture of him walking the school roof to repair a leak.

One part of my mind said he could not possibly be dead, just like that, that it was impossible, but another part said, “You know better. You know better than most.”

“That’s all? There was no more information?” A stupid thing to say to these grieving girls; my mouth was moving on autopilot.

The girls all shook their heads, solemnly. Then one of them said, “But you know, it felt all day like there was something. Didn’t it? Teachers looked weird and, I don’t know, it just felt like there is more that they aren’t telling us. Something they don’t want us to know, right?”

“It wouldn’t be helpful to spread stories like that, Heather.” I hoped I’d said it gently. “I know you are all very upset, but wait until someone really knows the facts.”

“Wait, wait, I have a text.” Melanie turned the annoying tune off and consulted her phone. “Dan. Alex’s best friend.”

She turned even paler and passed her phone around. Each girl gasped as she read it.

I was last. “Alex’s dad killed. Not accident. More later.”

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