"How did we do today?" asked the older man, Joe
His son, John looked up from counting the cash from their usual Saturday market stall where they sold eggs that came from their smallholding.
"About a hundred down on last month," replied John with a hint of sadness in his voice.
"That's two weeks in a row. Any ideas why?"
John knew the answer bit his father might not appreciate the answer. After a moment's hesitation, he decided to tell him.
"Isn't it a bit obvious?"
Joe looked at his son for a second then he realised what his son was hinting at.
"What? Are you suggesting that the presence or the lack of a busker is the cause for the variation of our takings?"
"Well, she is pretty good and always draws a crowd. As our stall is right by her pitch then… it makes perfect sense to me. We get a lot of casual buyers after she performs."
Joe knew that his son liked the busker. He also knew that his son was perfectly right. There was always a surge in business right after she'd done a 'set'.
"Do you want me to take the excess stock to the Shelter?" asked Joe changing the subject. He knew that his son was concerned for the well-being of the young girl who for the past six months had plied her trade at the Saturday Market.
"No Dad, I'll do it. I want to see if she is there."
Joe sighed and let his son collect the three trays of unsold eggs and put them in the back of his car. He'd drive the van home once he'd dismantled the stall. His son would appear back at their smallholding whenever it suited him. He was just pleased that his son was alive and well after three tours of Iraq and Afghanistan when he was in the Army. He wasn't pleased that his son's marriage had broken up as a result of his time in the Army. He'd gotten quite attached to his former daughter-in-law Sara. Still, everything had been amicable and Sara still came by the stall whenever she was in town on a Saturday. He secretly dreamed that one day, they'd get back together but as Sara had recently married again, that dream would probably never happen.
As he finished loading the last of the stall into the van, Joe sighed again. He wanted his son to settle down on the smallholding so that he could retire but there was little chance of that anytime soon. His son had hardly looked at another woman since he left the Army despite Joe having set John up with several dates but none of them amounted to anything beyond a second date.
John, meanwhile had arrived at the women's shelter. John was one of the few men that were allowed to set foot inside. This was he came bearing gifts that the shelter sorely needed as it relied on donations to keep going. John's gifts of eggs and a few chickens were more than welcome. He'd also employed a few of the women who'd sought refuge at the shelter when his father was away on holiday.
John carried the trays of eggs and a chicken up the path to the front door of the shelter. He rang the bell and stepped back so that the CCTV camera could see him. A few seconds later, the door clicked and John went inside.
He went into the communal kitchen carrying the trays of eggs.
"Hello Ladies," he said greeting the four women who were sitting around the table drinking tea.
Two of them knew John but the other two were new.
"What are you doing here?" asked one of the newcomers angrily.
"Shh. Yvonne," said one of the two that knew him.
"John comes here around this time every Saturday. He brings us fresh eggs and do I see a chicken under your arm?"
"That's it Caroline. I come bearing gifts for the house."
"Well leave then a get out of here. You are not supposed to be here," said Yvonne angrily.
John looked at Caroline for some help.
"Yvonne, John and his father were instrumental in getting this place off the ground. They make sure the house is well maintained and they give us lots of help both with money and food."
"Well, this is a women's refuge and I thought that men were not allowed?" argued Yvonne.
"John is allowed otherwise I would not have let him in. He is a friend of the refuge."
Yvonne gave John a dirty look and left them alone.
Caroline smiled at John.
"Don't worry about her. She's new here. Her partner beat her a lot so she's very suspicious of all men. Give her some time and she'll come to appreciate the work you do for us."
"I know how things go Caroline. You were not much different yourself about a year ago."
"I guess I was at that," she replied with a smile on her face.
"I'll be back on Monday with your Veg order. Any changes?" asked John changing the subject. He knew that Caroline had been through the ringer with her former husband but had recovered enough to actually become the resident warden of the shelter.
"Some more carrots would be nice. Yvonne's son has a pet Rabbit."
He was about to leave when he asked,
"Have you seen or heard about that Busker that normally plies her trade next to out stall at the market?"
"Oh, you mean Avril?"
"Is that her name?"
"Yes, well that is the name she goes by. Who knows if that is her real name. Anyway, she was here for a few nights but had an argument with another of our residents. Sadly, we had to show her the door."
"Why? She never struck me as an awkward person."
"She wasn't but she wanted to practice her songs and a few others objected."
John understood that only too well.
"She has not been at her usual pitch for a couple of weeks."
"Oh," replied Caroline.
"have any idea where she is now?"
"Last I heard she was living rough in Jacobs Wood."
John knew of the encampment. It was not a nice place. It used to be a WW2 Arms Depot. For a long time, the concrete structures left over from the '39-'45 war had been home to a variable bunch of vagabonds, criminals, pot growers and now the homeless.
"Thanks. I'll head down there tomorrow and take a look."
"Be careful. Magpie, the guy who controls the site does not like homies visiting."
"People who have a home."
"Ah, ok. Thanks."
The following day John finished clearing out a chicken house. That was his least favourite job on the smallholding. They had three buildings that were each home to around 200 birds. They were free range but every few months the houses needed cleaning out. The ammonia released by the chicken shit took some getting used to at first but after a while John didn't notice it.
The by-product of the operation was that he ended up looking like a bit of a scarecrow. There was even some straw in his hair. As a rule, he'd head for the shower but today, he kept his overalls on and got on his old bicycle and pedalled the couple of miles to Jacobs Wood. He hoped that his dishevelled look would allay any suspicions of being an interfering busybody with the residents of the camp.
When he arrived at the encampment, there were lots of people around but none would stop and speak to him. Almost by accident he ended up outside the biggest wooden structure. Unsure what to do next, he was about to call out to see if anyone was inside when the canvas flap that covered the entrance opened and out walked a very tall man. He was covered in tattoos but one side of his head was totally free of them. John guessed that this must be Magpie.
"What's your business here? We don't take kindly to interference from outsiders."
This threw John for a second.
"I… I was looking for the young girl who busks in the market square on Saturdays. I run the egg stall that is next to her pitch. Some of my customers were inquiring after her."
"And what would you be wanting with her if you happened to find her? Give her a right seeing too like her old man did?"
"As I said, I was just wondering if she was ok so that I could tell those who asked about her. She's pretty popular you know."
"Popular? That means money, don't it?"
"I guess so."
"When I see her, I'll be sure to tell her that she was missed by some poncy bloke in overalls that smells of chicken shit. Now get on that apology for a bike and get the fuck out of here before…"
John didn't need any more hints and left the site in a bit of a hurry. As he cycled home, he wondered if he might have dropped the girl in it by mentioning that she was popular.
Two days later, John was loading up the van with a supply of eggs for the local Farm Shop when a stranger came onto the smallholding. They needed them before they opened up for the day. He looked like one of the people from the encampment.
"Hello. Can I help?"
"I was wondering if you's had any work? I am a real, good worker," asked the man.
John looked at him. He was all skin and bone. His tatty clothes hung limply on his frame.
"Well… If you had come by last week then I would have had something for you. Didn't I see you at Jacobs Wood the other day."
"So? What of it?"
John took the hint.
"I don't have much to do today. I was about to take these eggs to the Farm Shop on the other side of town. Why don't you come back on Friday? I'll have something for you then."
Just as the man was about to speak his stomach gave a big rumble.
"When was the last time you had a decent meal?"
"Don't know. Magpie don't like us mixing with you Homies."
"This Magpie keeps you all in line then?"
The man nodded.
"Was the girl I was looking for on Sunday at the camp?"
He nodded again.
"He gave her a good beating. You said that she was popular. To Magpie that means money. Everyone has to give him half of any money you get from the state or from begging or working. If you hold out on him, he gets his goons to get it from you."
The man started to look around anxiously.
"I've stayed here too long already. I'd better get going. You never know who is watching you."
John got the message.
"Well, come back on Friday and I'll have some work for you. Ok?"
Then he added,
"If anyone is watching then you can tell the truth and come back at the end of the week. There will be some work. I have two pig huts that need cleaning out before the sows give birth sometime next week. I'll pay you twenty quid and give you a decent meal. You can't give
Magpie half of that, now can you?"
The man smiled then nodded his head.
John put out his hand.
The man grinned and shook his hand.
"Deal," he replied.
As he walked away, he turned around and said to John.
"She's begging outside the railway station today. She's pretty beaten up though. Magpie thinks that people will take pity on her and give her more if she looks bad."
Then he left John alone.
John was fuming. This Magpie was a hoodlum of the old school. His victims were those who had next to nothing to begin with. As he loaded the rest of the eggs into the van, he decided to make a couple of calls on the way back from the Farm Shop. He wasn't going to let this rest.
By the time that John returned home in time for lunch, he knew a good deal more about Magpie thanks to an old Army buddy who was now a Detective Sergeant with the local Police. Magpie was a nasty piece of work and John was told in no uncertain terms to stay well clear. He was told that some residents of the camp had simply disappeared without trace. As well as this advice, he was told that Magpie was subject to an ongoing investigation for fraud by the Police. John promised to be careful and not to get in the way of the Police Investigation.
That evening John thought long and hard about what he should do next. He was no clearer about that by the time he went to bed which pissed him off because he was normally very decisive.
He was no nearer a decision the following morning. His Father, Joe noticed this.
"A problem shared and all that?" he asked over the breakfast table.
John didn't answer right away. After a minute or so he said,
"Fancy a trip to the Station?"
He shook his head.
"Apparently, she's begging there. I want to check it out."
"Can't you do it on your own?"
John shook his head.
"I need you to keep any eye out for anyone watching her."
John nodded his head.
"To keep her from running away with Magpie's money."
"Who the heck is Magpie and how is it his Money?"
"Magpie runs the homeless camp at Jacobs Wood. He takes half of what the people who live there get by working or as benefit. Sort of protection money."
"Well, we need to put a stop to that, now don't we?"
"Dad, the Police are investigating him so we can't take the law into our hands."
"Ok, I get the message."
One the way to the station, Joe said,
"Stop the van. I have an idea."
John looked at his dad. Internally he did a groan. Dad's ideas usually ended in disaster for one of them. Nevertheless, he stopped the van and looked at his father.
"Ok, what's this brilliant idea?"
Joe smiled back at his son.
"As you are known to Magpie and his mob, why don't we drive to the next station down the line. Then you can take the train to the station. I'll go and wait for you there. Then I'll have a legitimate reason to speak to her, if she's there of course, while I wait for you to arrive on the train?"
For once, John had to admit that this idea was a good one.
"Sounds like a plan," replied John smiling.
Then he reached for his phone.
"What are you doing?"
"Checking on the train times."
Joe didn't answer. He knew the train times but this was his son's gig so he didn't intervene.
A minute or so later, John said,
"There is a train in forty minutes. That should get us back home in time for the feed delivery this afternoon."
"Better get going then."
Joe arrived back at their local station ten minutes before his son's train was due. He parked in the '20 minute' spot right outside the station entrance. He saw that the woman who'd been busking was begging outside the door. No one was giving her even a glance. He felt rather sad. She looked really down and bedraggled. Then he realised it was probably part of the act, or was it an act? He knew that she looked happy when she was singing. Now she had the look of total depression if not dejection.
Joe got out of the van and after locking it, he looked around. He saw a very rusty white van parked at the far end of the car park. There was one man inside. He had a clear view of the front door of the station.
Joe looked at his watch. He had five minutes to wait before the train was due to arrive. In order to maintain the appearance of just waiting for a train, he went onto the Platform and looked up the line towards where the train would come from. There was nothing to see so he went back out of the station. As he did so, the girl said,
"Mista, do you have any change you can spare?"
She rattled a tin cup with a few copper coins in it.
He stopped and dug some coins out of his pocket.
He knelt down and put them into the cup.
"Thanks Mister," said the girl.
"Hello. Don't you remember me? I'm from the Egg stall at the market."
"Please go away. I can't be seen talking to anyone. I'll be in trouble if he finds out."
Joe stood up and said,
"You are welcome to come and stay at our place. It is on London Road, the other side of town. Magpie does not own you and besides, your singing has its admirers at the market."
Joe walked back onto the platform as the train was just arriving. He hoped that he had not put her into danger.
As the train departed, John and Joe walked straight out of the station and towards their van. As they did so, the old white van with a very noisy exhaust, came up to the station entrance. They clearly heard the words,
"Get in here now Bitch. Magpie wants us back at the camp."
A few seconds later, the van sped away with her inside leaving a cloud of oily smoke behind it.
John and his father sat in their van for more than a minute as they tried to comprehend what had happened.
"I need to tell my contact in the Police," said John in a voice that told his father not to interfere.
John found a contact on his phone and made the call.
"I'm at the railway station. The girl that I was talking about was begging outside the station when her handler almost dragged her into a tatty Transit. His words were 'Get in here now bitch, Magpie wants us back at the camp'."
"No. I was being picked up by my father. I'd just arrived on the 11:34. I didn't say anything to her. I never even looked at her. Could there be something going down at the camp?"
"No, we are heading home to get some Lunch."
"Yes. I understand. We are to keep away from the camp. We will do that but I do fear for her safety."
"Cheers Andy. Bye."
John looked at his father.
"Home I think. We have a feed delivery that will be arriving soon."
"Yes boss," replied his father.
John kept an eye open for the man from the camp who'd promised to do some work later in the week but he never materialised. John shrugged his shoulders and cleaned out the birthing pens himself.
Nothing more happened until the middle of the following week when John was out making a delivery when two fire engines sped past him lights and sirens flashing. As he topped a rise, he could see smoke rising in the distance. He knew in an instant that it was Jacobs Wood.
John debated delaying making his delivery and following the fire engines instead. Common sense prevailed. They were just a small producer and had to work hard to win commercial customers. The wood wasn't going anywhere so he reluctantly turned off the road and into the Hotel where he was to make the first of his two scheduled deliveries.
Some forty minutes later, John arrived close as he could to Jacobs Wood. There was a heavy Police presence including C.I.D. He saw his friend Andy talking to a scenes of crime officer. He got out of his car but kept his distance from them.
His friend saw him and came over to him when he'd finished talking to the SOCO officer.
"Hi John. I wondered if you'd turn up."
"I was making some deliveries close by when the fire engines raced past me."
"I can't say much but it looks like a meth lab blew up," said Andy.
"Sadly yes. It looks like two are dead. It seems that there is one man and one woman but it will be a while before identification can be made. It will be made all the harder as most of the people who lived in the camp didn't carry any ID."
"Thanks Andy. Any sign of that girl I told you about?"
Andy shook his head.
"Nothing so far but as soon as the place blew, anyone around made themselves very scarce pretty quickly."
"We had someone on the inside. That's all I can say."
"Thanks Andy. If you come upon the girl please let her know that there is a place of refuge for her at my place."
"I'll do that John. I'd better get back. The DCI is a hard taskmaster. He'll want all my reports done by the time I get back to the station which is impossible. Sort of reminds me of someone I know?"
"Hey Andy. Just because I was your C.O. once there is no need to keep reminding me of those days. We did what we had to do to not only survive but keep sane."
"Yesssir," replied Andy with a huge grin on his face.
There was a visible Police presence in Jacobs Wood for several more days. They unearthed a huge cache of cannabis, meth and around fifty guns of various sizes and calibres. Sadly, there was no sign of Magpie. The two people that had been killed in the explosion were identified and were not Magpie or any of his cabal. The TV News still mentioned the manhunt for Magpie but other supposedly more important Political scandals were deemed more important it slipped down the running order in news bulletins.
Despite some prodding of his friend Andy, John was still in the dark as to the whereabouts of the girl who'd been busking in the market.
It was almost a month later when Magpie became hot news again.
Northumbrian Police had him cornered in a farmhouse close to the Scottish border. He had a number of hostages who were threatened with death in order to keep the Police away. The standoff went on for two days before it ended without any further injuries.
Magpie was charged with all sorts of offenses including murder. It seemed that the Meth Lab explosion was caused by a remotely detonated bomb. The phone that triggered it was found in his possession after this arrest.
About a week later, John was grading the day's eggs when he heard a car pull up outside the smallholding. John knew that Joe was out getting the Van serviced and was not due back for several hours. They didn't get many unannounced callers so John wiped his hands and walked out of the shed where he was working to see who had arrived.
John got a real shock when he saw his friend Andy getting out of a car. That wasn't really shocking, it was who was with him. It was the girl from the market and who'd been begging at the railway station.
"John," said a smiling Andy.
"I'd like to introduce you to Detective Constable Mika Mathews."
John just stood there with his mouth doing the drowning while Mika walked around the car and smiled at him.
"I… I had no idea," said John when he'd recovered sufficiently to get his brain and mouth into some form of synchronisation.
"That was the idea. Mika is on loan to us from the Met. Anyway, she wanted to meet you properly once the case was mostly wrapped up."
"I'm pleased to meet you Mika and it is nice to know that you are ok. I thought the worse when the news said that one of those who died was a woman."
"Hello John. It was a close call and it is nice that someone was trying to look out for me. You might not know it but your attention helped me. Magpie guessed that there was an informant in the camp. He suspected me but when word got around that you were looking for me, he looked elsewhere once he'd checked you out. That was done by Sammy. It was him who came here looking for work. What you told him was enough to keep Magpie off my back until I was able to pinpoint the Meth Lab and the arms cache."
"I am pleased to be of some use after all."
"John, can you give Mika a lift into Town when you are done? I need to get back to the station."
"Sure but…" said John a little sure about what was going on.
"Don't worry John, I don't bite," said Mika.
"Then I'll head off," said Andy.
Before John could react, Andy had started his car and was gone up the drive.
"What just happened?" asked John.
"I think Andy just set us up," said Mika.
"Do you mind?"
"I don't know. I've never had that happen to me before."
They both laughed.
Then John did something that was totally out of the norm for him.
"It is almost lunchtime. Fancy something to eat?"
Mika smiled. John was beginning to like her.
"Sure, why not."
As they walked towards the house where John and his father lived, John asked,
"Are you a meat eater? If you aren't then the larder is a bit bare today."
"I'll have whatever you are having."
'Whatever you are having' turned out to be a homemade chicken and ham pie with a small side salad.
"This is good," said Mika.
"Then thank my Father Joe for that. He's the cook. I just look after the chickens, pigs and stuff," said John between mouthfuls.
As the meal progressed, John relaxed and realised he did like Mika. He was only too aware that she'd be off back to London any day now so he had to make his move.
"Mika, I know that you are only here for a limited time, but I'd like to take you out to dinner before you go back to London."
"Andy said that you would be direct."
"How much did Andy tell you about me?"
Mika went all coy.
"That would be telling now wouldn't it."
"Did Andy tell you that I saved his ass not once but twice in two days when we were in Kandahar?"
Mika's smile disappeared from her face in a flash.
"He didn't but it makes sense. He… Well, I think you can guess."
"That's Andy through and through. So? How about that date?"
Mika smiled and nodded her head.
"Ok then, how about tomorrow night?"
"That will be good for me. I'm here until the end of the week then I have a week's leave before going back to work in London."
The following evening John picked up Mika from her hotel and they went to dinner at a local gastro pub. They talked and laughed all evening.
At the end of the evening, John took Mika back to her Hotel. There was a moment of awkwardness as they said goodnight. Neither of them wanted to make the first move. In the end, John said goodnight and went home.
As he drove home, he felt that Mika wanted to go further but for some reason, decided not to at the last moment. John smiled as at least she'd agreed to meet him for Lunch the following day.
The next day, John was up very early and finished all his duties at the smallholding before 11:00am. Joe remarked on that but smiled when he did it. John knew that he meant well. They'd always had a good relationship since John's mother had left them when he was twelve. Joe was from then on more of a brother or a friend than that of a father to his son. That hadn't changed much over the years.
"Don't worry Dad, I'm just enjoying her company before she goes back to London," said John when Joe remarked that it was a definite change for his son to get shaved during the week.
"Yeah and pull the other one. I know you like her but you know that long distance relationships really don't work very well."
John knew that only too well. He'd been engaged to Sara when he went on his second and final tour to Afghanistan. They'd tried to keep things together but with the wedding looming and a very vocal future mother-in-law, things had eventually fallen apart with John in the middle of some intense fighting in Kandahar. Sara broke off their engagement by text which wasn't the best way to do it but that was not all that uncommon for those out in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
John collected Mika from the Police Station and they went down to the coast for a picnic lunch. It was a beautiful day with just the hint of a breeze coming in off the sea.
As they cleared up the things on the beach, their faces came close together. John kissed Mika lightly. She responded for a second or so before breaking away.
John could see that she was upset.
"Mika, I'm sorry. I should not have done that. Please forgive me."
Through tearful eyes, she said,
"No John. It wasn't you. It was me."
John's heart sank when he heard those words. Memories of his relationship with Sara and the words she put in her text to him really hurt.
"John, I need to tell you something important before we go too far?"
John's heard sank further.
"Are you involved with someone else?"
Mika shook her head.
"No, nothing like that. I would love to have a relationship with you. I have never met anyone like you. I saw that right from the very first day that I was busking at the market. I need to tell you something that could affect how we go on from here."
John started to say something but changed his mind at the last minute.
"John," said Mika as she took his hand in hers.
"I wasn't always called Mika. My birth name was Michael. Yes, I was a boy. I spent years growing up denying who I really was and … well I came out and began to transition almost three years ago not long after I joined the CID."
John's mouth fell open.
Mika tried to smile but only half managed it.
"But Mika, you are more of a woman than many I've known."
"Thanks John but that does not hide the fact that down below, I still have working set of male kit. And, before you ask, I am supposed to be having that sorted out in a couple of months."
John sank down onto the beach his mind in a total muddle. Mika sat down beside him still holding one hand.
After a few minutes, John at Mika.
"Mika, thank you for being honest with me. That must have been really hard for you."
A concerned look came over Mika's face.
"Does that mean you don't want me?"
John shook his head.
"Mika, I need a bit of time to digest what you have just told me. At the moment, I do want you and… Oh heck Mika, I've fallen for you, big time but I knew we could not … What I'm trying to say is that I've tried a long-distance relationship before and it ended with a text. I don't want to go through that again. With you going back to London I wasn't expecting us to go much beyond that but as hard a try I can't get you out of my mind."
Mika managed a smile.
"I was feeling much the same about you. That's why I had a meeting with the Assistant Chief Constable earlier. I was looking into the possibility of getting a transfer down here. There is an opening if I want it."
There was an uneasy silence between the two of them.
"Where do we go from here?" asked Mika.
"I don't know. This is all a bit new to me. I mean to say that I have met some trans people before but you… are… bugger, I'm not saying very well but honestly Mika, I would have never known about your past. You are effing beautiful."
Then she gave John a kiss. This time it lasted several minutes.
"Where do we go from here?" asked a slightly breathless Mika.
John smiled back at her.
"I think we will need to hot foot it back to the car. There is a whole lot of wetness about to dump itself on us."
Mika looked over her shoulder and the smile disappeared from her face in an instant.
They made it back to the car only slightly drenched but both of them sat for a few minutes in the front seat laughing at each other.
The following Saturday, Mika was back at the market busking for the last time. The takings at the stall were 20% up on the previous week.
Even Joe went about with a huge smile on his face.
Mika returned to London the following day but this time John went with her. She had a week's leave due which they spent together. They took their time to really get to know each other. The evening before Mika was due to return to work, they ate at the Restaurant at the top of
'The Shard'. The weather was perfect so they could see for miles in every direction.
John popped the question to Mika.
Mika took John's hand and looked into his eyes.
"Can we wait until after you know what?"
John smiled back at Mika.
"As long as I can be there for you while you are in Hospital?"
"John? I can't ask you to do that."
"Mika, can't you understand that I love you. I'll be there for you through the whole thing."
Before she could answer he added,
"To be really honest with myself and you, I've been in love with you since the first time I saw you sing at the market. I only realised last Saturday when you were in the Market again that it was then that I knew I wanted to be with you from then on."
This time Mika broke down and cried. Her tears were of joy. She'd never met anyone like John, someone who loved her for being her. This was a new experience for her. Not even her parents had been like that to her even when she was masquerading as Michael.
When they left the restaurant, they walked along the Embankment westwards. When they reached the Royal Festival Hall, Mika stopped John.
"Yes," she said.
John looked at her slightly puzzled.
"Yes, I will marry you but I'm not going to transfer to your area. I'm going to leave the Police. Then Joe can retire and we can run the business together. That way I can sing as I serve customers on Saturdays. I know how that pleases you and besides it is good for business."
Then she added,
"And I'm not going to take any arguments from you John Malkovich. My decision is final."
John knew when he was beaten but for once, he didn't really care.
Mika completed her transition a few months later. She and John were married a little over six months after that. Andy was John's best man. Thankfully he didn't bring up any of the more risqué of John's Army 'escapades' during his speech. Then the pair left for their Honeymoon scuba diving in Belize.
So, if you come upon an attractive brunette singing while selling eggs in a market on a Saturday, just enjoy the song and don't forget to buy some eggs. The singer may even give you an extra chorus for doing so.
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