The Woman Who Corrupted Diddleyburg

A stranger who passed through Diddleyburg during a critical time in her life has returned. She had been gravely offended during her first visit and has vowed to have her revenge — not against just one person, or a set of individuals, but against the whole town.

(Let’s hope Mark Twain can forgive me for what I did to his great story.)

“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.” — Mark Twain

The Woman Who Corrupted Diddleyburg
By Angela Rasch

Chapter One

“Lisa, I’m shocked that you would suggest such a thing.” Pamela clutched her gavel to her chest as if to protect her heart from a sudden attack of misguided ideology.

“All I’m asking,” Lisa explained, “is for our Society for the Arts to open up the festival to a few more entrants. . .a breath of fresh air, if you might.” How I wish I could afford a dress like Pamela’s. Everyone else but me is wearing something they bought just for today. I try to look “prim” but I’m afraid I come across as mousey. She thought.

Pamela fixed Lisa in a gaze she might reserve for a cockroach. The odds that she would actually see such a grotesque insect were highly improbable given the brand-new McMansion she and her husband owned on four secluded acres of Diddleyburg’s most prime real estate. “Need I remind you about the basic values espoused by Diddleyburg?”

“Diddleyburg!” Lisa said to the other members of Diddleyburg’s Society for the Arts -- with a loathing that comes from living in the same town for all of your fifty-five years. “Everyone here is so disgustingly honest.”

Several of the other women gasped. It was near blasphemy to use “disgusting” and “honest” in the same sentence. Of all the positive personal characteristics a person might enjoy, the ability to resist temptations was by far the most prized by the residents of Diddleyburg.

Lisa looked around the luncheon/meeting room of the La Quinta Inn at the steering committee for the annual Fine Arts Festival. Membership in the Society for the Arts was a high honor in that they only brought in a new member every three to four years. They were known as Diddleyburg’s finest and most successful. Everyone in town knew who was in their club because they were so highly visible, officiating at each and every social function and offering opinions and unsolicited help on most civic projects. If a new coffee shop opened, a member of the Society for the Arts was there to cut the ribbon. Once you were a member the only way you gave up the honor was to die.

Lisa bit her lip and then proceeded. “All I’m suggesting is that we step outside the mold a bit and ask a few young, maybe unknown, but obviously talented artists to display their work. The rule in the past has been that any artist who wants to take part has to have sold or commissioned at least one piece of art for over $10,000. That might be stifling the creative element. What does changing the rules for eligibility have to do with honesty?”

“We have to maintain the integrity of our community,” Pamela said, biting her words into brittle projectiles. “If we allow untried artists to take part, it could be the crack that causes the eventual demise of Diddleyburg, as we know it.” Pamela wielded her presidential gavel like a mallet, sending new ideas flying like so many croquet balls. “We know what we like in Diddleyburg and that’s not going to change on my watch. We give our arts patrons an ‘honest’ value for their entertainment dollar . . . without principles we are nothing. The world counts on us. If we stamp our approval on someone, our members can rest assured their work is worth supporting by purchasing a painting or sculpture. I’m surprised at you, Lisa”

Having my morality questioned in public like this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Lisa thought. Isn’t it bad enough that I came to be part of Diddleyburg’s society early on when it appeared it was only a matter of time before Tim was made an officer at the bank; who knew he would never get a significant promotion?

Julie tentatively raised her hand. She had daintily set aside the cheesecake that had been meant to top off the committee’s noon meal. “I’ve found in my life that change can be a catalyst to make life bearable. If I had stayed as I was in my younger years I don’t think I would have survived. Perhaps the new ideas represented by some of the untried artists would be just the thing to motivate Diddleyburg to question some of its practices?”

I’m surprised Julie would ask such a question during her first meeting as a new member of the Society for the Arts. She is the only member who wasn’t born and raised in Diddleyburg, but she’s been active on so many civic committees and has donated an incredible amount of money to several worthy causes. Pamela couldn’t reject her application for membership. Everyone just loves Julie.

Pamela smiled somewhat condescendingly, although one could hardly tell because she always smiled that way. “You’ve only lived here for two years. Once you’ve had adequate time to appreciate the wisdom involved in the Diddleyburg way of doing things you’ll feel different. If we don’t tell our town what to think, someone who isn’t qualified for the job will step in.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” Julie agreed, although her head shook from side to side. “However, artists need to have their perspective challenged through the rigor of public approval. Don’t you agree that life should be a series of tests. . .for all of us.”

Lisa scanned the faces of the other members of the Steering Committee: Donna, Tammy, Sandra, Laura, Jennifer, and Brenda. They had all been cut from the same bolt — middle-aged, upper-level incomes, either nurturing their own influential careers or riding on the coattails of their banker, lawyer, executive, or politician husbands. Each of them looked as if she had spent the morning at a salon. Their hair and overall appearance ran the spectrum from lovely to simply gorgeous. I’m sure Julie, no matter how sweet she is and how well she’s already managed to fit in, isn’t going to find anyone in this crowd who will support her position. They love the status quo. Talk of “tests” and “change” isn’t what they will support. Most of the other members are going through a mid-life crisis and are suffering from lack of fulfillment.

“I think we’ve allowed this matter more than enough discussion,” Pamela said sharply. “Diddleyburg has its status as a scrupulous, ethical town to protect.”

Here we go. At least once a meeting Pamela has to remind us about our town’s sterling reputation.

Pamela stood and closed her eyes for a moment as if locating her center. She then stared self-righteously at us all. “I’m just so proud to be a citizen of Diddleyburg. As an attorney I struggle with the concept of contract law because written contracts are rarely needed here. Everyone within four states knows that a Diddleyburgian’s word is their bond. One’s personal standing is as important to our citizens as the cash they have in the bank, and safeguarded as stringently. I would rather parade the streets of Diddleyburg without a stitch of clothing, than to place the veracity of Diddleyburg at peril. We hold out participation in our arts festival as being meritorious and so it shall be. Each artist will have been judged by public consumption to be worthy of our regard.”

Pamela smirked knowingly. No one challenged her authority or questioned the necessity. Diddleyburg’s honesty could never be besmirched . . . and she knew exactly how to use their lack of courage as a weapon to have her way.

Chapter Two

Later that afternoon in her home, Lisa stopped her seething just long enough to realize the noise she had been ignoring was the front door buzzer. She stopped at the mirror on the way just long enough to reaffirm that she still was one of the most naturally beautiful woman in town. Pamela isn’t half the woman I am, and never will be. Some things you have to be born with. She smirked in satisfaction that her genes were pure -- and oh so feminine — even though she couldn’t afford to enhance her beauty like the others.

“I’ve got a crate for you in my truck,” the UPS man said briskly while handing her an electronic slate to sign. “It’s not super-heavy, but it’s also not anything I’d like to carry around too much. We don’t see many crates anymore.”

“What’s in it?” Lisa asked. “I haven’t ordered anything that I know of, for at least a month or so. We’re trying to buy local more, what with the recession and all.”

“We don’t open things to check what they are,” the man said, shaking his head, “but it’s awfully heavy for its size; so I’m thinking it must be a statue or maybe some chemicals you ordered for your pool.”

“We have a service to take care of our chlorine and other chemicals,” Lisa sniffed. “Just put the box in the garage.”

“Do you want the packet that goes with it? Or, should I just leave it on top of the crate?”

Lisa shook her head in wonder, spying the envelope in the UPS man’s hand. “Of course I want the letter.” She fairly tore it from his grasp after he finally offered it to her. She stood at her door and glowered at the delivery man until he’d unloaded the obviously quite heavy box into her garage, shut the side door, and commenced backing down her curved driveway.

If that oaf allows his truck to pass over even one blade of my grass, I’ll have his job.

After she had been satisfied that the UPS man had left without damaging anything she opened the letter.

“To be published, or, the right person sought out by private inquiry. The box that accompanies this letter contains gold valued at approximately $1,200,000 . . . .”

The letter, temporarily forgotten, fell unnoticed to the floor as Lisa sprinted to the garage.

OMG! She thought as she, for the first time since they bought the house nearly fifteen years prior, used the locking device on the overhead garage doors. As quickly as possible she also locked the side front door the deliveryman had used and the door to the back yard. She then searched the supply cabinet in the corner for the .22 rifle that Tim kept in the garage -- because she wouldn’t allow guns in her house. Finding it and a box of bullets, she pondered how to load such a thing.

It’s a joke! There can’t really be gold in that crate. She went to the workbench at the back of the garage and found a pry bar. After several minutes of clumsily jamming the bar into crevices on the crate’s exterior, she stumbled upon a method that resulted in the lid coming off.

“That’s either gold or something that looks a lot like it!” She stared in amazement at the bars in the box. They were wrapped in a clear plastic and sealed with a special tape that she instinctively knew she shouldn’t disturb. Totally mesmerized, she jumped when the motor for the overhead door came to life. It shut off almost as quickly when the door refused to budge, because of the latch she had locked. The motor clicked on and off several more times.

She grabbed the rifle. Damn! Why didn’t Tim ever teach me how to use one of these? The doorknob on the side door rattled but did not open.

“Lisa are you in there,” Tim called from the other side of the door.

“Tim! Tim! Are you alone?”

“Of course I’m alone. What’s going on? Why have you locked yourself in the garage?”

She opened the door and found her extremely annoyed husband.

He stomped in and threw open the latches on the overhead door while launching a tirade. “I’m nothing but a slave down at the bank. They pay me just enough so I can’t afford to quit and not enough to allow me any options. And than I come home to find you playing games with. . . .”

She grabbed his arm. “Tim. . . .” She pointed to the shipping crate. “It’s full of goooolllldd.”

He stared at her as if she had lost her mind, and truth be told she had — to some extent. He walked over to the crate, lifted the cover, and took in a sharp breath. “What the hell! I’ve seen gold down at the bank and that sure as hell looks like the real thing.” He hoisted the crate about two inches off the ground, and then set it down with a scintillating thunk. “It’s heavy enough to be real. But who would send such a thing to. . . .” He checked the box. “No return address. It’s addressed to both of us.”

“Wait here!” She handed Tim the rifle, and then turned to sprint into the house.

“Hey!” Tim called from behind her. “Why do you have my rifle out. . . ?”

His words were lost when the door separating the kitchen from the garage shut behind her. She hurried to the living room where she had dropped the letter, snatched it off the floor, and then returned to the garage where Tim was busily loading a clip with shells.

“This letter came with the box.”

They read it together.

“To be published, or, the right person sought out by private inquiry. The box that accompanies this letter contains gold valued at approximately $1,200,000.

“I was born in a large city on the East Coast. Over the last fifteen years I have made many changes in my life and have also made myself wealthy through my gambling and subsequent investments, much wealthier than I ever imagined possible.

“I’m grateful to Diddleyburg for providing the motivation and initial money that allowed me to first change my gender, and then to grow my wealth.

“When I came to Diddleyburg fifteen years ago I was a ruined man, hungry and without a penny. I had started my year-long real life test and asked several people in Diddleyburg for help. . .because I had nowhere else to turn.

“A woman, all I know about her is that she is or was a member of Diddleyburg’s Society for the Arts, gave me $600. She actually gave me a fortune because I hit on a streak of luck at the crap tables at a casino and rode that $600 into a small fortune, which I subsequently invested in several ventures that became cash cows.

“You know how it is, a woman gives you money and thinks that buys her the right to also give you ‘free’ advice. That woman’s remark has remained with me to this day, and at last conquered me and saved me.

“Now I have no idea who that woman was, but I want her found and I want her to have this gold -- to give away, throw away, or keep as she pleases. It is my way of showing my gratitude.

“I have to leave to watch over my foreign operations. If I could stay I would find her myself, but no matter, she will be found. This is above all else an honest town, an incorruptible town, a town with compassion and love. I know I can trust it without fear. This woman can be identified by the remark she made to me. I feel persuaded she will remember it.

“My plan is this . . . as cashier of the bank, Tim — you can keep the gold in safekeeping while you and Lisa make inquiries. One or both of you can approach the various women of the Diddleyburg Society of the Arts from fifteen years ago . . . including yourself, Lisa. If she answers, “I am that woman and the remark I made was “such and such” you will then open the sealed plastic and compare what she said to what you will find in a sealed envelope — which contains the actual remark. If the remark asserted by the woman matches what is written, give her the gold and ask no further questions for she is certainly the right woman.

“If you two prefer a public inquiry, then publicize this letter, for your recollection and mine of who was a member of the Society -- and who was not -- might be impaired. Include these further instructions. Thirty days from today, let the candidate appear at the town hall at eight in the evening (Friday) and hand his remark, in a sealed envelope, to the Rev. Mr. Burgess. And then destroy the seals around the plastic, open it, and see if the remark is correct.

“If the remark is correct, please deliver the gold, with my sincerest gratitude, to my benefactor thus identified.”

“It has to be a joke,” Lisa said softly, but hoping it wasn’t. “All that talk about sex changing . . . and some sort of life test.”

“And, why Reverend Burgess? He’s the one person in Diddleyburg that no one trusts.”

“Except us.” Lisa shuddered, thinking of the tall, gangly preacher with the deep and gravelly voice who now spent his time sitting, whittling in the park, talking to the elderly. Several years back Reverend Burgess had been charged with violating a trust, not a legal matter, but one that seriously called into question his ethics in a town like Diddleyburg, where everyone was so proud of their honesty. Lisa could have introduced evidence that would have cleared his name, but knew that in turn it would cause people to question her integrity, so she had remained silent.

“Holy moley,” Tim whispered softly, “Judging by the gold I see people putting into their safety deposit boxes down at the bank. . . .” He pointed to the crate. “. . .this much could well be worth over a million dollars.”

For a long moment the two of them looked at one another. There was no telling what Tim was thinking, but Lisa’s thoughts had gone to their depleted savings account, the last of which had paid for their daughter’s final year at college. They were ten years from retirement without anything put away to live on. Of all the members of the Society for the Arts she was the most destitute. Sure, they had a nice lifestyle, but it was all smoke and mirrors — necessary pretenses given Tim’s job at the bank.

Tim’s weak chin quivered. “I’m so tired. Every day I scheme and plan — trying desperately to achieve the great American dream, and fall further and further from my goals. Tell me, Lisa, was it you? You’re always doing things for people. Please tell me you gave this poor, unfortunate person $600 fifteen years ago — so we can pay off our mortgage and go into our golden years with peace of mind.”

“It could have been. . . .” she said hesitantly, pulling at her colorless hair. She knew there wasn’t one chance in ten billion that she had. Fifteen years back, $600 wasn’t something that had grown on trees for her. “I can see myself giving someone money if she really, really needed it.”

She stopped abruptly as if she had been hit in the face with cold water. “But, that gold is a gambler’s money. It’s as corrupt as could be and we couldn’t take it — I mean — touch it.” She took a step back from the crate . . . and then another.

Tim acted as if he hadn’t heard her. He ran a hand through what was left of his hair. “Not ten men in this whole town have that kind of solid net worth. Give me that note again.”

He poured over it as if it contained the secret to immortality. Finally he looked up and smiled. “This is the adventure we’ve been waiting all our lives to savor. Isn’t it romantic? It’s like you read about in books, but know will never happen to you.” He tapped his wife’s shoulder as if cutting in for a dance. “Why. . .why we’re rich, Lisa. All we have to do is bury the gold for a while and burn this note. We wouldn’t even have to pay taxes on it. If the gambler ever comes checking we can deny ever seeing it and. . . .”

She shook her head. “While you’re having fun with your jokes, we’re sitting with a fortune in our garage without any real means of protecting it from thieves, other than that silly rifle. I’m not even sure you know how to shoot.”

“I was pretty good as a kid. I could hit a pop can at one hundred paces, three out of five tries.” He grinned. “I suppose I am joking. We’ve lived a life of conscientiousness too many years to suddenly become crooked. What do you think we should do? Should we do things quietly and simply ask around? No . . . that spoils the romanticism. The public way is better. Think of the talk we’ll create! This will make all the other towns around jealous. No stranger would trust any other town to do the right thing with the money. Who should we talk to about this?”

“Cynthia. . . . As station manager she can get it on the local news. It’s about time we get something out of our friendship with her. I’ve never really liked her; she’s so greedy.” Lisa took the note and headed for the door. “You stay here and think about how you hit those pop cans. If someone makes a try for the gold I want you to dot their eyes.”

Chapter Three

Cynthia, a woman who each morning crammed her size sixteen body into a size fourteen dress, readily agreed with Lisa about the newsworthiness of the note and the crate. She promised it would be on the evening news at 6:00, which was fast approaching. She called an aide into her office and told him to take her notes and a copy of the letter to the anchorman with the instructions that he was to improvise. “It’s too late to write copy, but he can wing it. Lisa — what amazes me is. . . .”

Lisa’s cell phone buzzed. “It’s my husband,” she apologized. “I’d better take it. Hi, Tim.”

Cynthia got up and left her office, affording Lisa privacy.

“I figured it out,” Tim said hurriedly. “It had to have been Susan Goodson.”

“Susan Goodson? What are you talking about?” Lisa scrunched her brow. Why is he calling me about Susan Goodson at a time like this?

“I’ve gone through a list I made of all the members of the Society for the Arts of fifteen years ago and Susan Goodson is the only one who would have given a stranger $600.”

“Are you sure?” Lisa asked quickly. “Susan died several months ago and left no heirs. If she’s the one, we could have kept the money and no one. . . .”

He said he had been thinking the same thing. For the next few minutes they reviewed his list and Lisa deemed it accurate — there had been twenty-one members and two had since died: Susan Goodson and Constance Blake. Tim and Lisa both felt it obvious that Susan would have been the only one. She would have made it a horrible experience for whoever got the money, but she would have written the check.

“She was the most hated person in Diddleyburg,” Tim said. “She had the nerve to say exactly what everyone else was thinking, no matter who she said it to.”

“The only person more hated was Reverend Burgess,” Lisa added sadly.

“He deserved it for what he did. He’ll never get another congregation. Say — why would the stranger pick such a jerk?”

“Maybe the stranger knows more about him than this town.” Lisa felt a stab of regret for never coming forward with what she knew, not even to her husband.

“Would have you picked the Reverend?” Her husband sounded shocked.

“Tim, he’s not a bad man.”

“Nonsense,” he exclaimed.

She tried again. “He is not a bad man. I know. Everyone got down on him because of that one incident.”

“As if that ‘one incident’ wasn’t enough,” Tim scoffed.

“Oh it would have been, had he been guilty; only . . . he didn’t do it.”

“Everyone knows he’s guilty.”

“Look. . . .” She had seen a look on Tim’s face that told her Tim had read her, so she saw no other way out but to confess to her husband. “I could have saved him and. . . . You remember how upset everyone was. They weren’t acting logical. I didn’t have the nerve to step forward. I don’t know who did it, but I know he didn’t, and it would have looked like I did it. Don’t you see?”

Tim sighed. “They would have blamed you, and I would have lost my job. The bank wouldn’t allow itself to be drawn in. You did the right thing staying quiet. What should we do now?” Tim asked quietly, getting back on topic. “What should we do about the gold?”

“I’ll get Cynthia to yank the story. At least that will give us time to think things through.”

Lisa ended the phone conversation and ran to where Cynthia was watching a monitor. She pulled her into her office. “Can you stop that story?”

“I was wondering when you would come to your senses. Does anyone know about this other than Tim, you and me?”

Lisa shook her head. “Tim and I think the person the stranger got the money from was Susan Goodson.”

“That makes sense,” Cynthia agreed. “She was the meanest person in Diddleyburg, but she never saw a cause she didn’t give money to. . . she was a walking contradiction. Okay! I’ll do it, but you’ve got to make me a partner.”

Lisa nodded. We’ll give her a share — a small share.

Cynthia turned up the sound on the monitor and heard her anchorman finishing the story about the mysterious stranger, the crate filled with gold, and the town that was known to be totally honest.

“Only in Diddleyburg!” the anchorman said, punctuating his remark with a broad smile.

Both women sagged into chairs and said nothing for five minutes. Lisa finally got up and left the building without uttering another word.

***

Tim could tell from her expression that she had been too late to stop the story from getting on the air. “If only you had waited.”

“Next time I’ll know. . . .”

“Next time? When will that be? In a million years?”

Tim seems completely demoralized. “It must be for the best, after all we still have our good name and that’s everything,” Lisa offered. “It must have been meant to be that. . . .”

“It was meant to be that we have that money. It came to us and we let it slip through our fingers.” Tim sank to his knees. “We could have. . . .”

“It’s this town,” Lisa wailed. “We’ve been trained to be honest and not think like normal people would have, had they had such a great opportunity.”

“Oh, I know,” Tim agreed, “but everyone in this town is shielded as much as possible from temptation. Anyone can be honest without being tested. You know what I think. I think Diddleyburg is a hard, stingy town without much going for it except its stupid honesty. And who gives a damn?”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Lisa said after a long period of reflective silence. “You were thinking that if I could guess what Susan told that stranger we still might be able to get that money.”

Tim nodded. “Would that be so bad? Doesn’t it seem like fate wants us to have it?”

Lisa agreed and they went to bed in turmoil, rejecting theory after theory about what possibly could have been said to a stranger that would turn around her entire life.

At around midnight they received a call from Cynthia. The network had picked up the story. They wanted to have Tim and Lisa on their national news program at eight the next morning to talk about the most honest town in the United States.

Chapter Four

Within twenty-four hours every one of the nineteen living members of the Diddleyburg Society for the Arts who had been a member fifteen years back had been contacted by at least one of the major TV networks. They had all become minor celebrities and Diddleyburg was on the map for being "an honest town, an incorruptible town, a town with compassion and love" as stated in the letter from the anonymous stranger.

One of the talking heads said that “Diddleyburg” was destined to live in dictionaries forever as a synonym for “incorruptible”.

Not one of the women interviewed gave any indication that she had been the one who had given the stranger the money, which pleased Tim and Lisa. They were concerned though when they noted that not one had indicated that she hadn’t.

The bank kept the crate out of the vault under armed guard to allow the curious to stop by to look at what $1,200,000 looks like in its solid form. The line of local gawkers stretched around the block idly discussing how they would spend the money if it was theirs. It included most of the members of the Society for the Arts.

After about a week things in Diddleyburg seemed to return to normal, but behind closed doors Lisa and Tim wrestled with their private torment. Not once did they give up on trying to imagine the exact words that had been spoken to the stranger. . .words that would allow them to claim the gold.

Three weeks passed, leaving only seven more days until the public meeting when things would come to a head. General consensus in Diddleyburg had it that Susan Goodson had to have been the one who gave the $600, leaving everyone to speculate who would end up with the gold.

Lisa and Tim sat in their living room. The television set sat cold from lack of use. Tim hadn’t watched even one of his baseball games since seeing the gold. Their computer had been virtually unused during that same time. There was only one pursuit that had any interest for them. . .how to claim the gold.

The daily mail arrived with its share of magazines and solicitations. One letter stood out in that its address was handwritten in careful script. The postmark was unfamiliar so Tim tossed it on the table and went back to pondering what mattered.

Two or three hours later Lisa got up to go to bed. She was too tired and distracted by their dilemma to say goodnight, as she had been the last dozen evenings. Something about the letter caught her eye and she broke it open and began to skim it.

“Oh my,” she gasped.

Tim barely looked at her.

“Tim, you need to read this.”

“Later,” he said impatiently. “Leave it on the table and I’ll get to it when I do the bills. . .maybe next week.”

“No. . . . Now. Read it now.”

The urgency in her voice stirred Tim to finally take the letter from her. He looked at the postmark again. “Who do we know in Maine?”

“No one. Read it, for goodness sake.”

“I am a stranger to you, but I have something important to tell you. I just returned from out of the country and read in a magazine about the crate of gold. Of course you don’t know who made that remark, but I do. And, I am the only person living who does know.

“It was a woman by the name of Susan Goodson. I knew her well many years ago. I missed her funeral, but downed a pint or two in her honor when I heard of her demise.

“I was visiting Diddleyburg that evening fifteen years ago and staying at her home. She was a benefactor of the non-profit I worked for at that time.

“I happened to overhear her make that remark to a young woman. Susan and I discussed it after she had left. During the course of the evening Susan and I discussed many of the people in Diddleyburg — and as you knew Susan I’m sure you’ll believe me when I say she wasn’t very complimentary in what she had to say about most of them.

“In fact there were only a few she had anything good to say about — you, Lisa, were one of them. Not that what she said was all that positive, even about you.

“I can vividly recall that she said she didn’t actually like anyone in Diddleyburg — not one. But she said that you — I think it was you — had done her a very great service once, possibly without knowing the full value of that service. Susan wished she had a fortune so she could leave it to you when she died . . . along with a curse apiece for the rest of your town.

“So you see — if it was you who did that service for Susan, you are her legitimate heir and entitled to that crate of gold.

“The news lately has been full of talk of the inherent honesty of the citizens of Diddleyburg and you’re one of them, so I trust you to do the right thing.

“I’m going to tell you the remark as I heard it that night and it was burn into my brain. If for some strange reason unbeknownst to me you aren’t the right woman I’m certain you will find whoever it is and make sure they receive their just reward.

“This is the remark: “Live as you will wish to have lived when you are dying.”

“I will leave this letter unsigned as I want no reward or ties for the media to seek me out.”

“Tim. . . ?”

“The money is ours,” Tim said. He grabbed Lisa and kissed her. “It’s ours. I can retire. Between what we can earn on investment income from the $1.2 million and social security we’ll have enough to live comfortably.”

“It’s fate,” Lisa said, returning his kiss. It’s been weeks since Tim has touched me. When we finally have the money I’ll make sure he’s happy with me.

They spent the next happy half-hour on the sofa pawing and peeking — making cooing sounds of great joy. They had always enjoyed each other — prior to that damned crate coming into their lives. And now it was going to be a good thing for them.

“It’s a darn good thing you did something nice for Susan, though I can’t imagine why anyone would even pull her back to the curb — to prevent her from stepping in front of a bus.” Tim was opening a bottle of wine while Lisa put out crackers and cheese for them to snack. “You should have told me when you did something that nice for someone.”

“I . . . er . . . . You see. . . .”

“I’m so proud of you. Everyone thought Susan was the only generous person in town, even as sour as Susan could be, but now you. . . . Tell me, Lisa, what was it you did for Susan?”

She studied him for a second. “I can’t. She made me promise I would never tell a soul.”

Tim stared at her with his mouth open. “Lisa - - you’re telling. . . . Why did you tell me such a thing?”

Lisa went on the offensive. “Do you think I would lie?

Tim was silent for a moment, but then laid his hand on hers. “No . . . no. I think . . . you made that promise to Susan. Let’s let it rest.”

They immediately made the switch from doubt to planning how and when they would spend their new wealth.

At first Lisa’s conscience was sore, on account of the lie she had told Tim — if it was a lie. After reflection she concluded that it hadn’t really been a lie, because she obviously had done SOMETHING that Susan thought was important. Even Susan had said that Lisa might not realize how important . . . so it was merely a matter of not remembering — for the moment.

But - - - the person who had sent them the anonymous letter from Maine had been just a trifle unsure. She damned him for that small doubt, for it became the seed of her great concern.

As the hours passed she thought of dozens of incidences involving her and Susan that no doubt had been the one that mattered. It was simply a matter of perception. Susan had found Lisa’s help to be beneficial and she — being a person who helped a great many people in a great many ways didn’t quite know which one had taken.

In the end it doesn’t matter, the money is going where it should.

The next day Lisa called a contractor about remodeling her kitchen. She had been wanting to do it for years and now. . . .

They had talked about her plans for nearly ten minutes when he suddenly stopped. “Lisa, I’m going to have to get back to you. You know how it is. I haven’t had a lot of work the last year or so, and then this morning it’s like my phone won’t stop ringing. I’m already committed to three additions and another remodeling job, and I have two more calls to return. I’ll stop out Friday afternoon to talk to you and look at your kitchen in person.”

They agreed on a time for him to meet with her, and then Lisa’s mind went off on another course.

A party!

She hadn’t entertained in years. It was high time she and Tim threw a party and showed the people of Diddleyburg that they knew how to have a good time. Just as soon as they had the money they would have a party for all the members of the Society for the Arts.

The days drifted along as Tim and Lisa worried only that they couldn’t stand the anticipation and would die of happiness before the public meeting where they would claim what rightfully was theirs.

Chapter Five

Never had the Society for the Arts risen to such heights as fourteen years back when the school had needed a new gymnasium and struggled mightily for community support, but watched two bond measures fail miserably. The Society for the Arts brokered a deal between the town of Diddleyburg, the Diddleyburg School District, and the Diddleyburg Park District to pool their resources and influence to build a community center.

The Activity Center included a gymnasium for the high school that would serve as home court for the Diddleyburg Abes. Surrounding and above the basketball courts was a running track that was open twenty-four hours a day for walking and jogging. At the South end of the courts was located a proscenium stage to be used for community and school plays.

The building also housed a weight room and exercise facility with many modern machines, a swimming pool, and several studios for band practice and choir rehearsals.

Every Diddleyburg citizen was entitled to join the health club for a nominal fee.

The public meeting to decide the opener of the gold was held in its auditorium. It could seat nearly six thousand people, which was about the entire population of Diddleyburg over the age of fifteen. On the West wall was a huge mural of Abraham Lincoln with a quote beneath it. “In very truth he was the noblest work of God — an honest man.”

Listed below the mural were the twenty-one members of the Society for the Arts at that time, who coincidentally were also all of those who seemed eligible to walk out of the gym with the gold, less the two who had passed on.

A large podium had been set at center stage with a bank of microphones to feed the various media. Nearly one hundred applications had been made for press credentials. At least a dozen large tractor-trailer units took over the street in front of the auditorium to send pictures around the globe of the most spectacular meeting in town history.

Journalists in a variety of blazers and sports jackets paraded the street, armed with microphones and 5,000 watt smiles. Every person in town had a pat answer ready for the inevitable question, “Just why is Diddleyburg so honest?”

The crate of gold stood on a raised platform where all could see, under the watchful eye of three sheriff’s deputies. Security included armed guards at every door . . . not to keep people out, but to keep the gold from leaving under improper circumstances.

Politicians did their dog and pony shows for as long as the audience would stand them.

Reverend Burgess finally stood and took over the podium. Not a sound was heard as he arranged his notes.

He related the curious story of the crate, almost as if no one had heard of it, and then went on to speak of Diddleyburg’s well-earned reputation for honesty. The irony of someone who had been humiliated speaking of veracity was seemingly lost on a crowd who came to see one of theirs become instantly rich.

At long last he took an envelope from his pocket. The house held its breath as he slit it open. He read its contents slowly and impressively. The audience hung on every word — each standing for a bar of gold. “The remark I made to the distressed stranger was ‘Live as you will wish to have lived when you are dying’.”

“The money is as good as ours,” Tim whispered to Lisa, whose heart was pumping at twice its normal rate.

Reverend Burgess continued. “We’ll know in a moment whether this remark matches what is concealed with the gold. And — when it is certain there is a match, that person will have unquestionable claim to the gold and our gratitude for having helped an unknown stranger.”

“Who signed it?” A person from the back of the auditorium demanded for all.

Reverend Burgess looked with good humor at the bank of reporters standing to the left of him and smiled. “Ah yes. That would be the $1.2 million dollar question.” He held the paper up and peered at it, as if he’d never seen it before. “It’s signed by Pamela Tollefson.”

“What!” Tim hissed to Lisa grabbing on tight to her hand.

“Who?” several asked in astonishment.

The president of Diddleyburg’s Society for the Arts stood and waved to one and all, while camera’s click and TV personalities talked excitedly into their microphones.

“If there’s one person I never would have guessed would have given money to anyone,” Lisa whispered to Tim, “it would be Pamela.”

The negative comments from those around Lisa and Tim seem to echo Lisa’s sentiments.

“No way!”

“It had to be Susan Goodson; she’s the only one of them that had the money and would give it to a stranger.”

“I saw Pamela open her purse in a restaurant the other day and moths flew out.”

“She wouldn’t give a dime to her mother.”

Pamela evidently didn’t hear what was being said about her because she continued to beam while she glided to the front of the auditorium.

Her smile faded when she heard Brenda shriek.

“I told you we shouldn’t allow Reverend Burgess to handle this,” Brenda said shrilly. “He’s up to no good. I signed that paper.”

Pamela looked at her as if she’d spit on her first born. “You did no such thing. Mayor — take that note from Reverend Burgess and read the name at the bottom so that Brenda can hear it.”

The Mayor rose and read the paper with as much gravitas as his mostly ceremonial office provided. “Pamela K. Tollefson.” He looked toward Brenda. “Sorry.”

“There,” Pamela shouted, “what have you got to say for yourself now. You owe me and everyone here an apology for attempting to play such a preposterous trick.”

“Brenda’s a cheat!” someone shouted and started to lead a chant that was taken up by most those in attendance. “Brenda’s a cheat! Brenda’s a cheat! Brenda’s a cheat!”

“Order!” Reverend Burgess pounded the podium with his gavel. “Order! Order! Order!”

Brenda quickly made her way to the front and stood at the podium, speaking into the microphone to silence the crowd, who were all mocking her. “No apologies are needed — from me!” She pointed to Pamela. “Obviously Pamela has somehow gone into cahoots with Reverend Burgess to steal what is rightfully due to me.”

Pamela, who had been standing next to Brenda, leaned into the microphone. “That’s a lie.”

“Is it?” Brenda asked with a flourish. “You took the note I gave to Reverend Burgess, made a photocopy, and signed it with your own name. That’s the only way this could have happened. I’m the only person other than the stranger who could have known what was said.”

The journalists jabbered into their microphones suggesting to the world whatever they had made of the situation.

Reverend Burgess rapped his gavel. “Please. There is a logical explanation — I’m sure. And, I hadn’t gotten to it yet, but Brenda also gave me an envelope.”

That brought a buzz from the audience that roared like a wave around the building.

“Another envelope?”

“What’s the meaning of this?”

“Who’s the crook here?”

Lisa leaned into Tim. “Do you think it’s possible several others got a letter from Maine?”

Tim would not speculate.

The Reverend took an envelope out of his pocket, looked at it carefully then stuck it away and reached in another pocket and pulled out a third envelope. “Here it is,” he announced. He ceremoniously slit it open and read from it. “I once said to a needy stranger, ‘Live as you will hope to have lived when you are dying’. It’s signed by Brenda.”

“I’m starting to get a bad feeling,” Lisa whispered to Tim.

“There,” Brenda said with apparent satisfaction. “It should be obvious to everyone here that Pamela stole my answer and is trying to make it hers.”

“Stole?!” Pamela spat out, looking as if she needed to be restrained from going after Brenda. “I never have stolen. . . .”

“Of course not,” Reverend Burgess said soothingly, “but something is wrong here.”

“Could it be. . . .” Genevieve Becthold offered. She would have loved to have been a member of the Society for the Arts but had never demonstrated a potential net worth that made her eligible. “Could it be that both women are correct. It seems possible to me that both of them said the very same words to the stranger and. . . .”

A woman broke in; everyone knew her as Mabel when she served them pie at the coffee shop. “Sure . . . odds are slim of them both saying the same thing but it could have happened. But you’re forgetting the other thing. I’ve waited on these two women for years and during that time neither of them has so much as given me a dime for a tip. There’s no way either Pamela or Brenda gave a stranger $600.”

The audience laughed in agreement. “Cheapskates!” they chanted.

The Reverend gaveled the meeting to order again.

Genevieve gained his attention and spoke in earnest. “It seems to me that someone may have overheard something. I’m not saying who, or making any judgment, but their words aren’t exactly the same. One said ‘hope’ where the other said ‘wish’.”

The Reverend compared the two notes. “That’s true. Brenda said ‘Live as you will hope to have lived when you are dying’. Pamela said ‘Live as you will wish to have lived when you are dying’.”

“Open the test envelope,” someone yelled.

The Reverend, with the able assistance of several helpers, removed the plastic wrapping from around the gold bars. “There are two envelopes,” he stated. “This one says ‘The Test’ and there’s another one that says ‘To Be Opened after all Envelopes are Opened.’ I’ll open the one marked ‘The Test’.”

He laboriously opened the envelope marked “The Test” and read the letter it contained. “I do not require that the first part of what my benefactor said to me be quoted exactly because it wasn’t anything but a badly paraphrased Tim McGraw lyric. But it is the second part, the closing twenty-one words, that they should remember, for it is those that were burned into my consciousness. They were the ones that drove me to work day in and day out to achieve my goals. Those words, which my benefactor said were the feelings of the entire town, seared my heart like hot iron. My benefactor said she rarely gave advice to anyone, but that you could tell it was coming from her heart when she did. Then she said this and it will never fade from my memory ‘Live as you will wish to have lived when you are dying’. ”

“That settles it,” Genevieve said, “the gold belongs to Pamela.”

Pamela smiled and waved prettily to the audience, while Brenda sat with her mouth agape.

The crowd roared its approval, seemingly glad to have a winner declared, but the Reverend pounded his gavel as if he had unfinished business.

“You need to hear the last of the remark,” he said and prepared to read again from the letter. “ ‘Live as you will wish to have lived when you are dying, and know that no honest person would ever lie so horribly to themselves as you are on the road to self-mutilation’.”

The huge room went silent until one by one people reminded each other that the stranger had been a transsexual who was going through her real life test.

Mabel stood and got the attention of the audience. “Now that sounds like something that would come from the cold, black hearts of Brenda and Pamela.”

The laughter started slowly, but soon people were bending over in mirth at the truthiness of Mabel’s statement.

Pamela and Brenda didn’t leave the stage, but had sagged into chairs with their heads hung.

Reverend Burgess once again stood at the podium. “The difference of a single word was in itself gravely troubling as it would seem to indicate that one or the other of these two had committed a theft, but now to add such a heartless remark and. . . .” He shook his head. “Which was it,” he directed at Pamela and Brenda, “collusion or theft?”

Pamela rose instantly. Her face had taken on the look of the practiced attorney that she was.

“I’m thinking we should leave.” Lisa grabbed Tim’s arm. “This whole thing is crazy.”

“Sit still,” Tim whispered back. “This isn’t over yet and we might still find a way to get the gold.

Lisa looked at Tim as if she had never met him.

“My dear friends,” Pamela started. “I hope you will stick with me as I try to shed light on what has occurred. As much as it pains me to do it, I’m going to have to cause some pain for Brenda. I only bring this up to preserve my own honor. I confess with shame that fifteen years ago I said all those words. I would never say such a thing now, of course. So I ask you to think about what the stranger has said and done. She found value in my words, even though I should have been more circumspect in my remarks.”

She stopped and an expression crossed her face like she’d passed a kidney stone. “You see, my friends, the other day when I was preparing the note to the Reverend that was read to you I was called into a meeting and left it there on my desk. When I got out of that meeting I noticed Brenda leaving my office, but thought nothing of it.”

Brenda leaped to her feet. “That’s a lie.”

The Reverend asked her to be seated as Pamela had the floor and she would have her chance after Pamela was done.

Pamela continued. “Those are the simple facts. My note had been moved, now that I think about it. I suppose at the time I had thought a breeze had caught it. Who would have ever thought that Brenda, who I always thought was an honest person, would look at my private papers. As you can plainly see, her using the word ‘hope’ instead of ‘wish’ is a product of a defective memory. Although I’m forever embarrassed by my callousness toward an afflicted person it is clear that I’m the only person who could have accurately remembered what it was I said to the stranger.”

The general consensus in the hall swung to Pamela and a chant went up. “Brenda’s a crook! Brenda’s a crook! Brenda’s a crook!”

A crowd of well-groomed young men and women with microphones circled Pamela to get her remarks for the home viewers.

Brenda skulked, appearing to be at a loss for what to say to counter Pamela’s lawyer-tactics.

No amount of gaveling would bring a halt to the uproar until Mabel took over the podium. “I don’t see what else there is to do but give the gold to Pamela.” By the look on her face you could tell she expected no part of it to ever come to her as a tip.

This time when Reverend Burgess gaveled he was able to quiet the room. “You seem to forget that there’s another envelope to read.” He picked up the other envelope and studied it. “It says I’m not supposed to open it until ALL the envelopes are opened. In the excitement I forgot. . . .” He reached into another pocket and pulled out a third envelope he had received. “It says, ‘Blah, blah, blah, ‘Live as you will wish to have lived when you are dying’ signed Tammy O’Brien.”

“Oh my,” Mabel cackled. “Poor Pamela. It looks like her note was stolen by two people.”

General laughter rocked the building as it appeared three of their leading citizens had been scammed.

The Reverend then fished several more envelopes from his pocket.

“We’re about to be ruined,” Lisa said to Tim, whose eyes had glazed over.

The Reverend read from each of the envelopes he had been given by various members of the Society for the Arts. Each contained the phrase “Live as you will wish to have lived when you are dying.”

After each was read, raucous mirth split the faces of all in the room except for the hapless members of the Society.

With each reading Lisa felt the dread of knowing that her turn to be humiliated was upcoming.

“How many envelopes have you read?” Mabel asked for everyone.

“Eighteen,” the Reverend answered. “I’m done.”

“Eighteen?” Mabel asked suspiciously. “Aren’t there nineteen members of the Society for the Arts who could have given the stranger the money?”

The Reverend nodded.

Mabel giggled. “And all but one of them fell for a cruel hoax in their pursuit of the gold?”

He again nodded. “Lisa was the only one who didn’t give me an envelope.”

Lisa’s mouth dropped open and Tim poked her.

“Didn’t you?” he asked so as only she would hear him.

She stared straight ahead as if in a trance. “He’s exercising charity toward us. But why?” Her heart stopped. “He wants to hold it over our heads and watch us twist in the wind.”

Tim nodded gravely, all too aware of their fate.

“Eighteen crooks!” came the chant from the back of the room and it echoed from the rafters as the majority of those in the auditorium let the Society for the Arts know what they thought.

“Read the stranger’s other envelope, please,” Mabel asked of the Reverend after order was restored.

He dutifully approached the podium, opening the envelope on his way. “This is all it says. ‘All men are tempted. There is no man that lives who can’t be broken down, provided the right temptation is put in front of him.’ ”

A woman made her way to the podium; one who had been silent all evening.

“It looks like Julie has something to say,” Lisa said to Tim. “She’s the new member of the Society, who joined only this last meeting.”

“People of Diddleyburg -- it appears to me the stranger wanted to teach this town a lesson about how we react when we want something badly enough. She had wanted to change her sex and was scorned by those around her for giving in to that desire. One can only imagine how it is for those people who feel they were born in the wrong body. How awful they must feel when people judge them as happened here in Diddleyburg. I imagine there are those in this room who even this evening question whether or not it was right for that poor stranger to go through what she did to achieve her personal gender-changing goals.”

She looked around the large arena and into the lenses of the various TV cameras. “The stranger has gone to great lengths to demonstrate that even in a town known for its honesty -- people will succumb to temptation. There’s really nothing new here. People have been giving in to temptation way back to Eve and the apple. People have been reaching their goals through sacrificing their family’s needs, or shirking their duties at work, or many other things they maybe shouldn’t have. What’s happened here isn’t all that strange. No one needs to be judgmental because each of us has done something like this. We dream and dream about something that’s just outside of our grasp and will do almost anything to get it. But we have to conclude the business at hand. It appears we now have one more question to ask ourselves. What is to be done with the gold?”

No one seemed to be ready to propose a solution, so Julie turned to Reverend Burgess. “Did you say Lisa was the only person seemingly eligible to get the gold who didn’t give you an envelope?”

“I did.” He seemed very nervous.

“I think. . . .” Julie said. “I think that the Society for the Arts should get the gold and should use it for the general benefit of Diddleyburg.”

“No . . . .” Mabel argued immediately. She pointed at Pamela and Brenda. “I don’t think the town would feel safe having those two -- and them other sixteen who tried to cheat -- in charge of that money.”

Julie smiled. “I think we can count on all eighteen of them to resign from the Society for the Arts. That will leave Lisa and me and four others as a nucleus to create a new, more vibrant Society. But, we need someone we can trust to really look over things. I think we should pay Lisa and her husband, Tim, an annual stipend of $20,000 out of the earnings of what the gold brings -- to handle the Trust.”

By voice acclaim it was decided by the crowd to proceed as Julie had proposed.

Lisa pulled Tim close to her and whispered angrily. “The Reverend Burgess will wait for just the right time to expose us. It could be any time, or any place, but eventually the town will know that we were just as crooked as the rest of them. It’s his payback for me not helping him when I should have.”

Chapter Six

“Thank you Reverend,” Lisa said while walking slowly away from Tim’s grave. It had been two years since that evening in the auditorium and both Lisa and her husband’s health had steadily declined due to their fear that the Reverend would come forward with Lisa’s envelope. Tim had finally passed on, never really enjoying a pleasant or robust moment in the last twenty-four months, buried under debt they had taken on while believing they would get the gold. “Tim and I hadn’t been to church for . . . since . . . . I didn’t know who else to ask to. . . . I’m glad you agreed to let me have his funeral at your church.” She had been afraid to offend Burgess for fear that would trigger her ultimate humiliation.

“Why wouldn’t I want to speak at Tim’s last rites?” The Reverend glanced around himself and Lisa did as well to check to see if anyone was within earshot.

Much to Lisa’s surprise the funeral had been well-attended. The eighteen who had been humiliated had left town with their families. The Society for the Arts had never regained its prominence and Lisa had all but lost interest in life. It shocked her to see how kind the town could be in response to her loss.

“The doctors tell me that if things don’t turn around for me, I’ll die before Christmas.”

“Don’t say that, Lisa.”

“It’s no big deal. I don’t want to go on living. It’s been hell these last two years wondering when the other shoe would drop -- and feeling all that guilt for not saying a word that night about the missing envelope. At the time I thought you’d done us a huge favor, but as time went on I wondered. . . .”

“Lisa, are you feeling okay?” he asked, taking her arm. “I really don’t understand a word you’re saying.”

“Sometimes I wish you would have read our envelope as well,” Lisa continued. “When I gave it to you, you told me no one else had even talked to you about the gold, so I know you remember getting an envelope from me.”

“I don’t remember any such thing,” he said slowly. “It’s possible I simply misplaced your envelope. I thought all the 'to do' over that gold was unseemly and tried to distance myself from it.”

“Are you saying you haven’t been waiting to seek revenge?”

“Revenge?” The Reverend stared at her with concern.

“I could have come forward years ago and saved you,” Lisa wailed. “When you were wrongly accused.”

“Oh. . .that.” He put an arm around her small shoulders and hugged her. “I wish I had known you felt so bad about it. Lisa . . . your friends in the Society for the Arts had it in for me. They would have gotten my congregation to get rid of me no matter what. Had you come forward Tim would have lost his job — and in reality I didn’t care about being a preacher under those circumstances.”

The Reverend stopped walking and stuck his face in hers. “It wasn’t your fault. This town has been sick for a long, long time. The only way people could go on believing I was a guilty person was for them to accept the dishonesty of what they had been told by Pamela. Trusting her is what this town found convenient to do. They were more comfortable accepting dishonesty than demanding truth.”

I don’t understand.

“Here’s how it was, Lisa. I inherited a great deal of money when I was young. I didn’t need the financial support of a church. Losing my congregation actually gave me the freedom I needed to concentrate my spiritual guidance on the elderly.”

Lisa felt faint as the weight of guilt was lifted off her shoulders.

The Reverend took her arm again to support her. “When the stranger came to Diddleyburg seventeen years ago she was running from honesty. She couldn’t decide whether or not to go through with her gender transition. The world was lying to her, telling her that a person is what is written on their birth certificate. I’ve been around too many births and too many deaths to believe that nonsense. But — people felt more comfortable accepting the huge lie in order to just get through the day.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

“You were part of the problem. You, and all those other members of the Society for the Arts, worked hard to convince people that you were special people. You people wanted the average person in Diddleyburg to think you had the right to tell others how to live.”

“I’ll grant you that. We were a lot like the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a curtain to get our way.”

“I was surprised as everyone else when I was picked to be the person to coordinate finding the owner of the gold. After the false accusations against me and your failure to provide the evidence needed to clear me, the citizens of Diddleyburg hadn’t given me a lot of trust.”

Lisa blushed.

Reverend Burgess smiled kindly. “The stranger, Julie, evidently recognized the bias against me, just like the unwarranted hatred she encountered for her gender-dysphoria. Julie went out of her way to do what she could to refurbish my reputation by having me administer the envelopes and the gold.”

“It worked. From what I’ve seen you’re right back to where you were in the community before the incident.”

“Yes, unfortunately I’ve had to resume my duties at the church again, but such is life. We don’t always get to do exactly what we want. But . . . Diddleyburg is now a much better town where people think for themselves. Lisa, do you know what acedia is?”

She shook her head.

“Acedia is one of the seven deadly sins . . . spiritual indifference . . . apathy. It is the failure to help another in time of need. Diddleyburg sinned in that so many people here were unwilling to help Julie when she needed it. Even Susan Goodson only gave her the money out of meanness.”

Tears started down Lisa’s cheeks. She hadn’t cried in a long time. Tim and Lisa had quit feeling much of anything shortly after the meeting over the gold. They had lost their appetite for life.

“Have you heard, Lisa? The town council voted to change the name of Diddleyburg. They want to break cleanly with the past and move forward to a world based in real honesty and compassion.”

“What name will they pick?”

“It really doesn’t matter as long as it’s something the people want, now that they’re doing their own thinking.”

The End

Thank you to Armond for suggesting that I update the Mark Twain story and later suggesting I change the ending of my first draft.



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