Second Snippet of The New Prophet

Here’s a bit more of the desert story:

The plant men wore their bright green armor and their black face masks and carried short staffs that spat lightning. They lined up the workers, the elders, the young ones who hadn’t run fast enough. They left the young ones under three years old, because they didn’t need useless mouths to feed. They left Archon, who was Zev’s age, because he was too tall now to work in the plant. One man spoke through the smooth black mask and even though she was far away in the rocks Zeon could hear him.

“Your youth will serve The God. Onward and forward.”

The workers and the elders repeated, “Onward and forward.”

He waited for a moment or two. “Which is the one called Zill?”

Zev made a sound and Zeon quickly put a hand over her mouth. Elder Zill was their mother’s mother. She wore a figure around her neck, a dancing figure in red and black, and she talked about the little gods.

When she’d been a young one, Zeon had played with the red-and-black figure that Zill called the Dancer. Once, in the caravan circle, Zill said, “Life isn’t onward and forward. Life is a dance. A god that has power helps people be strong.” The workers and the elders hissed her to silence, even though they’d been out on the plains, far from the men of the plants.

Now, Zill stepped out from the row of elders, facing the men. Two of them went to her, one taking each arm. They marched her forward. Zeon watched the vagrant breeze tug at Zill’s veil-cloak, rippling it.

The man who had spoken reached up and yanked the necklace from Zill’s neck. He crushed the figure under his boot, grinding it into the earth. They led Zill away, her head high, her gray curls tousled in the wind. As they neared the vehicles, the man who had spoken marched up behind her and struck her in the middle of her back with the lightning staff. Zill thrashed, and fell to the ground, twitching. He picked her up and draped her over the back of two two-wheels. With the young ones on behind, the riders took off.

Three riders remained behind.

Gradually, the caravan packed up and moved on. Zeon knew that the men from the plant were waiting for any young ones who had hidden to come back. She gripped Zev’s shoulder and held her still. They waited. They waited until deep into night, before stood up and started after the caravan.

The dust storm came up quickly. They barely found cover, robes and cloaks pulled over their heads, huddled together, while the dust piled onto them like blanket after blanket. Zeon kept them there during the heat of the day. The vessel her mother had given her held eight swallows of water, and they drank that while they waited out the storm.

She led them out at twilight, but the storm had wiped away all signs of the caravan. The place to go was Three Rocks, a common meeting place, so Zeon started that way. Now she knew they would not make it. They would die here. The God would mock their husks.

One rock in the middle distance caught her attention. It was shaped like one of the chimneys in the plant; shorter, squatter, rounded like a water gourd at its base. Her dry throat stung as she swallowed. She started toward the rock. Perhaps it was the shape that called her, as if the shape of a water gourd meant water. She knew this was foolishness, but with no idea which direction to go, this was no worse than any other. Her eyes were dry and she blinked rapidly. Once she stumbled over one of the gashes in the earth. She caught herself. The second time she didn’t and hurtled to her knees and hands. She lowered her head and breathed in, closing her eyes. Her eyelids felt gritty. She thought of lying down. She thought of Zev. She made herself get up.

A buzzing filled the air, deepening to a growl. She crouched down. That was the sound the two-wheels made. She cowered, unclasped her veil-cloak and draped it over herself, mimicking the color of the rocks. The sound grew deeper, and her heart pounded. They’d have water, she thought, and for a mad moment thought of standing up and casting off the veil-cloak, begging them to take her to the plant. They would help Zev.

The image of the red-and-black figure flickered against her eyelids.

The growl got higher pitched and fainter, fading. Had those been the three who had stayed with the caravan? Was it nearby after all? But their two-wheels could cover more ground, and faster, than a young one walking could. She peered about, saw nothing on the horizon, and stood up.

The rock was more than a strange shape. It had a regularity to it. The chimney shape was perfectly circular. Facing her was a rectangular block that rose in two curves at the top to a point. It wasn’t just a rock. It was a tiny building.

She watched her footing, dodging a chasm, and looked up again at the rock, the building. The rectangular part jutted out of a curving wall. It would provide shelter from the sun, and she could bring Zev here, into shade, while she searched.

Before The God had been the little gods, Zill said once. They would help, sometimes. People built little houses to the gods, not like the plant, but small places. Maybe this was the house of a little god.

The little house was made of squared rocks, red and pale, pale gray. The triangular roof shaded an opening. She hesitated outside, listening for animals. It might be a lair. Although most desert predators would be sleeping now, it wouldn’t do to wake one.

Zeon wished she were sleeping.

She went closer.

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A Snippet

Here is the opening of short story I wrote at our writers retreat in September. This story came from two writing prompts. One was given to us by Marta, but the other one had stuck in my head earlier in the morning when I was walking about the Mendocino village. Thanksgiving Coffee’s slogan is “Not just a cup, but a just cup.” You can see the influence of that in the opening line. Marta’s prompt was an image of an abandoned chapel in Estonia.

Often, my stories end up being about faith, various kinds of faith. As for miracles, I don’t know if I do believe in them, I want to, and this is basically a miracle story. I don’t think it will find a home out in the world (except maybe here) but I can see it being part of another work — say, a miracle tale the true believers of one religion tell each other.

Without Further Ado:

The New Prophet

Just one cup. Just one cup of water.

They didn’t pray to The God for water. The God loved the strong. The God loved those who found what they needed, who took what they needed. Zeon would have taken water if she had found some.

Zev lay in a swoon in the thin shadow of a great red rock, where, the night before, Zeon had dug a shallow hole to lay her in. It had been slightly cooler, but that wouldn’t matter if Zeon didn’t find water for them soon. Already Zev’s breath was shallow, with a catch in the throat at the start of each exhalation.

Zeon pulled the edge of her veil-cloak higher across the bridge of her nose. The ground, the red rock, the air around her pulsed with each heartbeat.

She skirted the gashes in the earth, the remains of the mining projects, where the last of the ore had been torn out of the ground, pale metals and black juice squeezed from the chunks. That had happened before she’d been born, but they’d heard the stories; great men, great machines, great cities, great wealth, all bestowed by The God. And water.

She needed some now; enough to fill the dry gourd that banged against her hip, even just enough to fill her cupped hands, that she could carry back to her sister’s side. She scanned the horizon, seeing only rocks and the rents in the red earth.

Her blood pounded against her skin, which already stung from the heat every time she moved. She searched the horizon again, for a plume of dust that might be a sign of their caravan. The sky, yellowish where it touched the earth, was unbroken except for the rocks.

They would have weathered the dust storm. They would even have survived raiders; they’d done that before. But they couldn’t stand against men from the plant. They’d gone to the town on the outskirts of the plant to trade, as they had every year as long as Zeon could remember. But that first night a dozen men had ridden out on their two-wheeled vehicles.

Her mother said, “Hide and don’t come out until we’re gone.”

“We have no water,” Zeon said.

Her mother handed her the water vessel and they ran, hiding deep in the rocks. Other young ones saw them and tried to follow, but the men from the plant surrounded the caravan and caught them before they made it out of the oval of wagons.


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Harvest Time at the Farmers Market

The best time of year at the market?

It’s harvest season; late summer, early fall, when squash, pumpkins, apples, pears and tomatoes are in. Leafy greens still abound, and the market is a festival of bright autumnal colors. Even the spindly trees in the plaza join in, turning from green to bright yellow and vivid red.

Kuri Pumpkins. For a long time I thought this was spelled “curry.”

Squash and gourds have come onto the stage now. They’re all good eating — well, maybe not gourds. Many are good carving too, if you are already planning for Halloween.

And peppers.

Peppers are in! Sweet, tangy, spicy and eyeball-melting.

These grapes are locally grown and picked by the growers.

Grapes, apples and pears filled out the fruit/dessert contingent, even though there was one vendor who still had strawberries.

(By the way, an apple with a couple of slices of Joe Matos’s San Giorgio 3-month-aged cheese is a delicious snack.)

Didgeridoo? Alpenhorn? I dunno. Let’s just call it a drone pipe.

September 22nd’s music was provided by this guy, and, yes, he did play the drone pipe and the stringed thing at the same time. He played some Beetle’s tunes — While My Guitar Gently Weeps was my favorite — and the Harry Potter movie theme song.

‘Tis the season for potatoes.

I’m already leaning toward those hearty, slow-cooked meals that go with fall; like pot-roast. I got everything except the roast and the red wine at the market. Go check it out!

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The Wand That Rocks the Cradle is Available

The Wand That Rocks the Cradle is available on Amazon. The eight-story anthology features tales of the fantastical — and families, two things that can bring you strength, or make you nuts, or both.

Our editor picked a variety of tales, set in different times and worlds (although many of them take place in worlds that look, at first glance, like ours). Mine tries for humor and I hope it succeeds.

As with any anthology, I have some favorites. The story that follows mine, “Legacy,” is based on actual historical events. The power of the main character’s belief in the face of cruelty and injustice won me over, as did the writing. “The Lake Cabin” takes a tried-and-true horror trope (the clue is in the title) and goes in a very different direction. I liked it very much. And while I’m not a fan of grimdark, Frank Saverio’s “To Find a Peach” won me over with the world-weary POV character and the deep bond between him and his young squire. Cail is a character trying to do the right thing in the face of an unstoppable catastrophe; there is something deeply appealing about his dogged commitment.

It’s only available on Amazon. With Kindle Unlimited it’s free; otherwise, $3.99, or $11.99 for the paperback.

If you read it and like, please do take a few moments to leave a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads. I’ve been told that helps sales. Thank you.

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A Bestseller List

It’s a real “Top 10 Books Sold” List, just not a national one

I’m on one. It’s from the Petaluma (population, 60,000) Argus-Courier, for Thursday, September 26. Here’s a link to the actual article.

I think this may say more about the book-buying habits of people in the month of September than it does about the popularity of my book, but it still gave me a thrill. And, I mean, I’m on a list with Margaret Atwood and Madeline Miller! Whoo-hoo!

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Raven Black by Ann Cleeves

I recently posted a review of a book by Quentin Bates in which I lamented the fact that the writer did not choose to immerse us in his setting (Iceland). At the other end of the immersion continuum is Ann Cleeves, who has two ongoing mystery series, the Shetland mysteries and the Vera Stanhope series.

Both rely on distant parts of Great Britain. The Shetland mysteries, as you might have concluded, are set on the remote Shetland Islands, a northern point of Scotland. I recently read a later entry in the Shetland series and then sought out the first one, Raven Black. Cleeve’s writing serves as an instruction in how to create atmosphere.

In this passage from Raven Black, one of the viewpoint characters discovers the body of a murdered woman. I chose this passage less for how it reveals landscape than for what it tells us about this viewpoint character.

“She stopped there to look down at the water again, hoping to recreate the image she’d seen on the way to school. It was the colors which had caught her attention. Often the colors of the island were subtle, olive green, mud brown, sea grey and all softened by the mist. In the full sunlight of early morning, this picture was stark and vibrant. The harsh white of the snow. Three shapes, silhouetted. Ravens. In her painting they would be angular shapes, cubist almost. Birds roughly carved from hard black wood. And then that splash of color. Red, reflecting the scarlet ball of the sun.

“She left the sledge at the edge of the track and crossed the field to see the scene more closely.”

This character, Fran, is a painter. As the scene progresses, she goes closer, still seeing everything in terms of shapes, relationships and colors, and it’s a few minutes before she processes what that “splash of color” is, and what the ravens are doing.

In this scene, Cleeves tells us about the usual colors of the islands, and the mist. We get a little sense of the life; Fran has walked her daughter to school on a narrow track on a sledge, because she lives in a village where everything is walking distance and there are no school buses. As the story continues, Cleeves uses bits of Shetlander language and culture to deepen the sense of a remote community, one that has evolved from a mix of other cultures; Norman, Scottish, Norwegian. She does it mostly through showing, letting people speak bits of Shetland colloquialisms while using context to let us intuit the meaning, by describing the food, the ferry system, and, importantly, the weather. I believed I was in the Shetland islands while I read this book.

This is one way to do setting and Cleeves is a master.

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Television Tuesday: Country Music

Ken Burns turned his detail-oriented documentarian’s eye to American music for his latest PBS documentary, Country Music. The show runs four sixteen hours, in eight two-hour segments airing on KQED Sunday nights. Burns start before the turn of the 20th century and by the third episode, he is discussing the music of the 1950s.

The show headlines male performers like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, but women are not erased from the genre here. Singer-songwriters like Roseanne Cash, Dolly Parton, Rhiannon Giddens and Brenda Lee all contribute to the commentary; and the show does not skimp on the contributions of performers like the Carter Sisters and their mother, Maybelle Carter, who wrote hit after hit and whose guitar style influenced and inspired generations of performers.

I also learned from the documentary that it was the Carters who discovered Chet Atkins, that they went to the wall to bring him to Nashville when their studio thought his style wasn’t “country,” so that basically they started his country career.

I also learned a lot more about radio stations in the first half of the 20th century, and what a huge, direct influence they had on music.

In addition to being a brilliant instrumentalist and vocalist, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is a historian with a concentration on American music. Giddens, who played blues and bluegrass, can also sing Welsh folksongs (Welsh!) and traditional ballads like Renardine and Barb’ry Allen. Giddens celebrates the confluence of Appalachian folk music in the late 1800s/early 1900s and black spirituals and blues. The banjo, for instance, an instrument almost completely associated with “country and western” music, came from Africa with the people who were abducted and enslaved. White musicians often “borrowed” songs from black churches and black musicians, and recorded those songs and made more money, but Giddens points out at the level of the musicians themselves, the flow went in both directions. Black players borrowed British-Isle folk tunes and jigs to add to their traditional music.

This is rabbit hole, but I just want you to hear her voice (and I highly recommend Full Screen.)

(As for appropriation, June Carter’s uncle AJ Carter made a tidy living traveling around the southeast, Kentucky and Tennessee going into each individual “holler” and talking to people, tracking down folk tunes. He’d get people to sing their songs for him. Then he’d go back, write them down, copyright them, and have Sarah and Maybelle Carter record them and have huge hits.)

Another thing that stood out in the first three episodes was how many of country’s big stars; Williams, Cash, Lynn as examples, grew up in grinding poverty. Even after the rest of the country moved out of the Great Depression, the southeast was mired in poverty. Did this background fuel the drive of some of these pickers and yodelers? I have to think it did.

We’re less than halfway through the documentary as I’m writing this; I’m still recommending it. There is one problem with it; it’s hard for me to listen to the speakers or the text, because I want to sing along with many of the old-time folk songs!

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Meeting and Greeting

(Standing) Amber from Copperfields Petaluma and me, with the book
(Standing) Amber and me, with the book.

I did my first Author Meet and Greet.

Copperfields in Petaluma was welcoming! The table and a book-stand was already in place when I got there a few minutes after 1:00 PM. Amber and Ray greeted me. (Amber told me she was going to buy a copy at the end of the event for me to personalize. She did and I did.)

I brought water for me, chocolate leaves, extra copies — it’s good that I did — several pens and a notebook. I assumed I would have stretches of time with no one coming by, so I was prepared to do some writing. Several friends showed up, though, not just to buy books (in fact most of them already had the book) but to provide support.

One of these was Terry, who drove from Hayward — from Hayward!– to spend some time. There was a bonus for her. Terry is putting together a book of writing prompts and Ray directed her to the Writing How-To section, where she found a couple of decent comp-titles. She bought a couple of books for her grandchildren and briefly checked out Petaluma Underground, the used bookstore.

Lillian Lee was there when I got there. Lillian bought me a pen! Greg and Mary Varley showed up, as planned, because the four of us were going to to out later as a mass-birthday celebration before they leave on a trip to Disneyland.

To my surprise, my across-the-street neighbor Carol appeared! She came with her daughter, ate a couple more chocolate leaves — she likes them — and bought a book.

While traffic to my table was light, I was happy to see that the store itself was pretty busy, and that many of the groups were families. Lots of kids were already inspecting the Scary Story display, preparing for Halloween, and several had Star Wars related books.
A man named Peter bought a book from me, after an interesting conversation and a lot of thought on his part. He is a regular at Copperfields, apparently, which is odd, because the second thing he told me about himself was that he doesn’t read. That seemed strange. He’s a boomer, and we usually read. He said he’d gone to New York to visit a friend, and in the course of a conversation she revealed that she doesn’t read either. I asked him, magazines, papers, newsites? Nope. He watches the news on TV. He likes the radio. I asked about audio books and podcasts — nope. He said he thought books needed to be shorter, like one sentence long, and then shared a “one-sentence novel,” he had “written.” I suggested he explore micro-fiction, a concept that was new to him.

And after all that he bought a book and wanted me to sign it, so… there’s a mystery.

Traffic was light, but I got down to one book from the original consigned inventory. I left another five books with them. In the two hours I was there I sold six books; a friend bought two. Brandy, who owns Second Chances, said six books in a meet and greet is pretty good. I was happy.

I hope to schedule one at the Sebastopol Copperfields once I get some more books.

Balinese Dragon Kite
Balinese Dragon Kite Over Margaret Atwood’s New Book
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Making Chocolate Leaves

The finished product, with copper and silver luster

Betsy Miller brought aluminum-colored chocolate leaves to the launch party, and Brian Fies said, “Marion, take these to every book event. They are your secret weapon.”

Betsy showed me how to make them, and lent me the chocolate mold and the brushes with which to brush on the edible luster dust. In the meantime, I ordered a mold online. These candies are about 2/3 the size of Betsy’s.

Since I want to bring some to the Petaluma Copperfield’s event, I have made a couple of practice batches. I’ve used these opportunities to experiment with different types of chocolate.

The easiest and most foolproof kind to use is called melting chocolate or covering chocolate. I found it at two places: The Baker’s Boutique on Farmer’s Lane, and at Nancy’s Fancy’s on Industrial Drive, both in Santa Rosa. I don’t know, call it a hunch or a feeling, but I bet you would find it on the internet.

For this batch I experimented with “gourmet” chocolate chips.

I’m a big fan of dark chocolate so that’s what I used.

The easiest, and again, most foolproof way to melt chocolate is in a microwave; the 30-seconds-and-stir, 30-seconds-and-stir method. Take it out and stir it even if the disks or chips haven’t lost their shape, because the chocolate will have softened. The 30-second intervals keep you from over-cooking the chocolate. Cooked too long, chocolate “breaks,” which means the solids separate out, leaving you with a dull, chalky texture.

I used a classic heating tool, the bain-marie, which is French for “I don’t have a microwave.” A bain-marie is a double boiler.

The helpful proprietor at Baker’s Boutique gave me some tips and some warnings about how to use one:

  • in a pot, heat water to a boil
  • remove from heat
  • set a heatproof bowl over the pot.
  • make sure the bowl fits tight; steam will affect your chocolate
  • make sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water.
This is 2/3 of a cup of chips
Bain-marie in action

Neither the melting chocolate disks nor chocolate chips require tempering. Tempering is a process that makes chocolate creamier and more shiny. It is laborious and precise; you heat the chocolate to Temperature Point A, let it cool to Temperature Point B, reheat to no hotter than Temperature Point A, let it cool to Point B… for a few more iterations. Imagine a fine sword maker heating up their steel blade, sticking it into water (Steam! Hiss! Crackle!), heating it up again, plunging in into water again,and so on. If they fail, a blade is destroyed. If you fail, you have ruined chocolate. I think we all know which of those is the true catastrophe.

I skipped that step.

Untempered yet shiny. Those tools are: one chopstick and a fancy cavier spoon.

With the chocolate ready I filled the mold.

As you can see, I am pretty sloppy when it comes to filling the mold.

I am not good, yet, at filling each mold. I alternated between the fancy caviar spoon (which has never, to my knowledge, touched cavair) and the chopstick. It isn’t a huge deal; once the chocolate has set and hardened, you can cut off any rough edges with a small sharp knife. Periodically, I tapped the mold firmly against the counter to get the molten chocolate to settle evenly into the mold.

Silver luster and copper luster. For scale, the length of the brush head is the diameter of a dime.

I put the filled mold in the freeze for 3 minutes to flash chill, then into the refrigerator for one hour. That was probably longer than they needed.

As in life, a little luster goes a long way. I popped the candies out of the mold onto a white plate. (They mostly pop out easily. There were a couple of stubborn ones.) The luster dust will fall off the brush, but you can sweep it back up off the plate. Betsy used silver to get the aluminum quality, which was perfect, and she was unable to locate copper. Nancy’s Fancy’s had copper, and I experimented with both.

Spouse taste-tested them. To be thorough, he ate several. He said they were good, but I had to test for bias, for so I took a plateful to my across-the-street neighbor. She ate three while we were visiting, so I decided that was a positive review. Her suggestion (since they’re small) “Just put it in your mouth and let it melt.” I pass that along.

While I like the flavor of the fancy chocolate chips, the texture did seem softer and more melty than that the “melting chocolate.” It’s late summer, temps in the high 80’s, and I’m transporting, so that is a real consideration. I also have not experimented with other flavorings, like vanilla, maple or mint, yet. I want to go cautiously, and will probably stick to the tried-and-true for Saturday.

I plan to make a three batches today. I store them in an airtight jar in the refrigerator, with waxed paper between each layer.

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Frozen Out: it Left Me Cold

Quentin Bates is a British writer who has written a mystery series set in Iceland. Bates lived in Iceland for ten years during the 80s/90s, and he and his wife live there part time now. He has translated several Icelandic authors work into English.

Frozen Out (also released as Frozen Assets) was published in 2011 and is set, roughly, in the run-up to the Icelandic governmental and banking scandal that was their part of the global Great Recession of 2008. For this reason, Frozen Assets would probably have been the more successful title.

I didn’t care for the book and I probably will not seek out the others. There were things that attracted me; the Icelandic setting, a woman detective (police sergeant Gunnhildur, who goes by Gunna), and a scandalous blogger called, in fact, Skandalblogger. I was looking forward to an immersion in the Iceland landscape and culture.

Unfortunately, my very first problem with Frozen Out came up quickly; it’s not an Icelandic mystery. It’s a British murder mystery nominally set in Iceland. Everyone speaks in British colloquialisms and slang, and Iceland is not well-evoked in the story. There are two exceptions: the names are good, and Bates has a character explain the Icelandic naming conventions to a Danish visitor, and a few of the foods mentioned are authentic local foods. Otherwise, it might as well be set in London, in The City, London’s financial district, during the 2008 economic collapse.

There is so little physical description given that when, late in the book, the villain pulls his car out of a parking space and “heads for the coast” I have no idea where he is going. Iceland is a large island; every direction is, eventually, “toward the coast.” Is he headed for the capital? For the airport? No clue.

The nation is filled with glaciers, geysers, lava fields, mountains, old farmhouses, old churches, modern churches, thriving modern cities (at least one, the capital); except for telling us in an early chapter about the “pastel-colored houses” in a village, there is no description. When Gunna and her crew head to Reykjavik and have to go into the “notorious bar district,” where things are skeevy, we don’t see it. Are the streetlights burned out? Is there graffiti? Is there litter? I haven’t got a clue.

The story itself also disappointed, I think in small part because Bates wasn’t sure where his story lay. He has a convincing woman police sergeant in a small fishing village. He also has a group of journalists from an independent paper in Reykjavik. For a while, it seemed like he wasn’t sure who his main character was. The story uses a mosaic point of view choice that compounds the confusion in some ways. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be reading, — a mystery, a thriller? Generally, when we follow the villain(s) in a story, the story is a thriller, but there were no real stakes in the book, no rising tension, which precludes “thriller,” and there was a murdered guy in the opening, so that should have made it default to mystery. I was confused.

The villains were horribly shallow, although the financial shenanigans were interesting, as was the blogger. I would hope the blogger continues as a story element in future books.

Basically, I think the repeated slackening in the tension is the mark of a new novelist struggling with a genre — and if here had been more for me; more immersion in the culture, more nuanced characters, I could be more forgiving about the dull plot and the missed opportunities. Overall, though, this book was not for me.

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