by Matt Spencer
T'was the wee hours of the morning, right where that first deep blue seeps through night's chilly blackness. The only soul stirring was a little hunched man, pushing a rumbling claptrap wagon several times his size along Petticoat Lane. Quite peculiar he looked, in his countryside straw hat and shabby gray coat, three sizes too large at least. His cart's heavy wooden wheels rattled on rickety axles. It would be at least an hour yet, 'til other street stall merchants appeared to set up. If his racket woke anyone in the dosses and tenements above, none threw open their windows to fuss. So along he went, stooped forward, his bow legs bent outward, rising and falling like a crab's. He whistled cheerfully, a queer tune from some distant shore he'd once docked at, somewhere in travels that seemed like a lifetime ago, perhaps several. As he neared his spot of choice, the rumble and splash of his wheels fell preternaturally into the tune's rhythm, as though playful gods or devils had pocked and cracked the street to create a giant xylophone just for him. All the little rising morning sounds fell into this pattern for blocks around. How far or wide the echo might spread, before the sun was high, who could say?
The little man's whistling was easy and joyful... yet its echo drove fierce against the physical world... sharper and harsher the further it spread. Soon it pounded cruelly through the bloodstream of everyone it touched, though no one consciously noticed it. If they still slept, they could blessedly dismiss the visions it brought as queer dreams.
Blocks away, Cole Sprat certainly didn't notice, not consciously. Perhaps he mistook it for his own thundering heart. Why did he feel so riled already? Not over Lila or Gus... Best not think on them 'til there was anything to be done for them. Yet weren't this morning all for -- No, not now! His fists thundered on Tommy's door, like a man with some devil on his heels.
If that tosser's drunk himself useless...
"Who is it?" whined someone within.
"What time is it? Cole, please, let me sleep!"
"Half after four, on the dot. That's what we said. You ain't slept enough, it's your own bloody fault. Now open up, you fat simpleton, and you'd best have your trousers on."
All sorts of heavy thumps and crashes sounded. A moment later, the warped, creaky door opened on the tiny, smelly doss. There stood a lumbering, pear-shaped lump of a man with the sleepy eyes of a confused child, his holey cap and frayed coat already on, still stuffing his yellow-stained nightshirt into his trousers. He doddered out into a hallway that looked too narrow for him, ever swaying as though he could barely hold up his own weight. The two lads -- each somewhere in their twenties, though neither knew his own exact age -- left the doss house quietly as possible. One followed the other down the narrow, chilly street like a huge, docile dog sniffing after a small, snappy one. Halfway to their destination, two more youths leaned against a cart of straw. Pete's cigarette glowed in the dank, shadowed, narrow byway. He stood only a little shorter than Cole, though also tall and lean with twitchy, gnarled hands, his brown nails uncut and cracked. They looked sculpted to do violence, those hands, while his beady, darting eyes seemed ever to plot and assess with cruel, shrewd intelligence. Oley was the shortest, tough and stocky with lazy hooded eyes and thick short arms, ever ready to commit whatever horrors his mates suggested, so long as it sounded like fun and he'd to be paid for it.
Oley stepped forward and chucked his smoke into the straw cart. It sizzled out in the dampness of the morning dew, though he might have done the same just as idly on some hot, dry day, laughing as he and his mates strode off to their business with the smoke and flame rising behind them. "You lads all bright eyed and bushytailed for this?" Without waiting for an answer, he sauntered into the lead towards Petticoat Lane. The others fell in reflexively behind him.
Tommy waddled at the rear. "We's only off for a wee chat with the ol' fellow, ain't we?" he squeaked. "That's to say, we ain't out to hurt him or nothin'..."
"Aye," Pete rasped thirstily. "Just talk a bit of business. Let him know what's what, who runs things 'round these parts. So long as he don't want no trouble."
"Just a silly, daft ol' codger," droned Oley.
"Is he so old?" muttered Pete. "I don't think I's ever seen him so up close."
"I've heard some say he's very old." Tommy spoke swiftly though he tried not to, as one leaping at the chance to throw his voice in as just another of the lads. "Then I've also heard others say he's... well, not so old at all. Like only thirty. But with some ailment, makes 'im look funny. Some of the yids whisper he's their Baal Shem Falk returned."
"Tommy, you never think nothin' what you ain't just recallin' someone else said," spat Pete. "Keep quiet 'til I says otherwise."
"Some folks -- what buy from his stall -- they calls him the... the artifact man," droned Oley. "Or some long word, hard to pronounce."
"The Artifactition." Pete sneered and spat.
"Aye. What's that mean?"
'Til now Cole had kept quiet. "Aye, you know, deals in fancy wee trinkets, ancient things from old places around the world."
"It ain't true what they says, is it?" whined Tommy. "That he's some, y'know, magician, uses them -- what's the word -- artifacts to --"
"Tommy, I said shut up! His artifacts ain't nothin' but cheap knickknacks, bought off other mountebank shams, all dressed up so's he can sell 'em like mystical cure-alls or such rot. Quiet, look, there he is."
Aye, there, just across the street from the end of the byway, was the strange little man's cart. Still in his big coat and funny hat, he'd scooted it into place, set to opening, disassembling and reassembling the thing. Still whistling, he removed a few panels of wood, propped up a long wide board on stilts for cover, lit an oil lamp and set it on a shelf within where he kept his till. In the morning blackness, it resembled a square of spectral glowing orange, like a floating window with no building around it. On the shelf next to the lamp, there rested a small stuffed crocodile and a little gold-rimmed coffin-shaped box carved from something char-black. A goblet of curiously shaded glass caught the light so a ball of spectral flame seemed to float within. On a lower shelf rested something shriveled, the size of an apple with a silently screaming human face... Surely that couldn't have once been a real human head?
The lads strode forward then slowly circled the merchant and his stand.
"And a fine morning to you, ol' squire." Pete sounded cheerful though not friendly.
The fellow neither paused nor looked up. "And a fine morning to you, lads."
The lads halted and looked at each other. Somehow the voice made them question whether they'd really heard it, like it might be some trick of the whistling wind. What sort of accent was that? The East End was enough of a cauldron of folks from all over the world that they ought to have known. French? Asiatic? Mohammadan perhaps, even? Face still unseen, the merchant went on whistling while he worked. Suddenly desperate to remind himself who was master here, Pete stepped forward.
The whistling trail off... though of course its echo remained. "I fear you shall have to wait a bit, if it's exotic trinkets for your sweet ones you be wanting."
"Oh, I fear we ain't here to shop, mate." Pete circled close. "Oh, we're here on business, sure enough. See this fine street here? See that store space behind you? All belongs to my family, it does."
"Your family is master of all this block?"
"Aye, that's right. My family's quite respected 'round here. Did you know that? Deep roots in the community, we have. See that fine spot o' road you've set your cart in? And it surely is a fine spot of road... Why, me auntie, she just loves settin' up her own stall in just that spot."
"Oh, have I ousted someone in a bit of friendly competition?"
"Well, see, ol' squire, there's ordnances to stick to 'round here, local permits and such. Ain't that right, lads?"
"Aye," droned Oley, "permits." The other two nodded and grinned.
"Now," Pete went on, "you secured all the legal claims to this here spot, from them holds sway on this block, that's all well. We just needs have a look at them papers, is all. Whenever you've a moment."
"I've been told of no such ordnances. Not in all this long, toiling week over which I've been keeping my post." The voice remained friendly, though slower and quieter.
"Aye, well, you know who I am? Pete Pincher, of the Pincher family. Now if you wants to keep peddlin' your wares here, sir... Well, we'd be happy to make an arrangement of sorts, here and now."
"Ah, but this auntie of yours, she's not made use of this spot in some weeks. Surely you'd know that, Peter Pincher, were you more involved in your kith and kin's legitimate enterprise."
Pete puffed out his chest and edged in closer on the hunched gray shape. "Look here, mister, here's how this is all going to work. You want to stay on this block, you pay up to me mates and me, or we give you a thrashing and take what we please anyhow."
"Ah, so much more forthright! I suddenly like you better, Peter Pincher."
"Stow the shyte, old man, and let's have a look at your till!" Pete's hand shot out, went beneath the hat's wide brim, and fastened on a narrow, leathery neck. The flesh he touched was dry, but with a slick, filmy quality. Fighting the urge to let go, he shoved the old bastard back against the side of the cart.
"Not to share with your auntie, surely."
How was it physically possible, for the voice to still sound so calm? That crash into the cart ought to have knocked the wind out of any man, let alone one so slight and brittle! The brim of the straw hat bobbed up so the lantern light spilled across the face. Pete gasped, let go and recoiled. His mind scrambled for explanations. Some grotesque form of puppetry, it must be. He'd watched the same shrouded shape for whole minutes, seen it move here and there, heard words come from it, before laying hand on it... yet there was no way that could possibly be a living, human face staring back at him! The flesh was all drawn up, stiff and yellow brown, like a dead creature that had lain for a week to bake in the sun... or like that mounted crocodile right there... or that little apple-sized thing that up close looked all the more like a shrunken human head. Why, this was a preserved corpse! Yet one eye glistened and bulged brightly, too large for a human head it seemed, staring straight at Pete like a child overjoyed to find a playmate. The other eye was small, narrow, glassy and cloudy.
"Of course I already had such a discussion with her -- if I remember the correct one -- of pooling our resources, as it were in this spot. You know, I doubt she'd like my money or yours, one way or the other, at the bottom of the canal. On her way there she was, last I saw her."
"What you know 'bout me auntie -- 'bout me family?" Pete fought to keep his nerves steeled, though he already trembled violently. "Stop lying, you bastard!"
Bored with Pete, the merchant stepped back into the light before his goods. He looked the other lads over. They all stood deathly still, with no idea what to say or do. In the lamplight, the bright bulging eye moved about naturally. The glassy cataract seemed to role like a loose marble with the shifting of the skull that held it... a dead eye, left in there to rot, its infection seeping through the rest of the frame. Yet somehow, the longer one looked, it was the dead eye that truly seemed to look back. Perhaps the bright bulging one saw nothing so different than anything anyone else saw. The glassy one seemed to peer so much deeper, through everything...
The face split into a crooked, sharp-toothed grin, though the flesh looked like it ought to crack and flake to pieces from so much movement. "Ah, by my soul, young Master Cole Sprat, is it not? Why, oughtn't you be home, seeing to that darling wee ailing brother and sister of yours, not out at this morning mischief with these rascals?"
Cole blanched, first at those strange eyes -- that horrid, glassy eye -- settling on him, then more to hear the creature speak his name. "I... I... Now look here, what's the idea?"
"Such would be my question to you, Master Sprat, did I not already know the answer. Why, you think the meager coin you'd earn from this rascal here would fetch a doctor for the poor wee darlings? Why, even now they're at death's door, little Lila soon to follow little Gus. So t'would be for not by the time you -- how is it said -- shook me down and collected your share."
"Shut up!" Pete again loomed in on the fellow. "Cole, what you standin' there gawking for? This blighter don't know nothin' --"
"I know his time would be better spent -- in the interest of those darling wee siblings -- as a proper customer."
"I... I haven't any..."
"Aw, Cole, what you even listenin' to this for? You can't be serious --"
"Let me just see what I have here..." The man turned away and slid open a small drawer near the bottom of his stall.
"Save your bloody quackery for all them gullible marks, you --"
The man turned back to them and rose up to his full height, lifting a tiny silken pouch. "Ah, the very thing! Perhaps a demonstration..."
"Stay right where you are, you --"
But Pete made no move when the fellow strolled past him, a few paces out into shadow.
"Of course they don't believe in the mystical cure-alls, anymore than they'd believe the tales I could tell of my travels... of my collection... But you'll help me show them, won't you, my little friend, yes..." The merchant bent towards the gutter. His arm shot downward at something. A shrill screech echoed. He rose and moved back into the lamplight. A huge, dusty black rat dangled squirming by the scruff of its neck from the long spidery fingers of his skeletal hand. His other hand stroked the animal, as if to soothe it. "A demonstration, yes..." With that, his free hand took hold of the creature's tail. With a supple strength that belied his apparent frailty, he snapped the creature like a whip against the side of his own cart. The apparatus shook, rattling the shelf's contents.
All the lads flinched and quivered.
The man strolled again into the spill of light from his stall, his stage, this window into his strange domain. The dead rat swung by its tale from his fingertips, now out of shape, its black fur glistening. "There, you see? Quite dead, yes, yes?" He held it out, offering to let them touch it, smiled wider as they recoiled. "Very well, I shall proceed..." He laid the broken creature at the edge of the curb, rose, turned back to his goods and set about preparing something. Soon he turned back, knelt over the rat, and poured something that oozed like mud-thick water into the animal's mouth. Within moments, the rat twitched, righted itself, flipped over and made to scurry away. The merchant caught it and held it gently in place, as though subduing an rambunctious puppy. "Oh no, no, no, not yet to be on your way, my little friend... These young men here, they need a proper look at your full rejuvenation..." His eyes flickered to Cole. "I dare say young Master Sprat here could benefit the most from it."
Rising, he again lifted and cradled the rat, going to each lad, so they all saw that it was quite alive, no trickery. They all wanted to draw away, turn and flee, beat the man and the rat 'til both abominations were good and dead... but the rhythm of the morning's strange song held them like the vomitous convulsions of too much drink.
Cole made his vocal chords work first. "That... Wha' you just done there... Might it so cure the living..."
The little man thought it over. Absently he let the rat wriggle free, spring down to the stones and scurry off into the darkness, presumably back to whatever it had been up to previously. "Cure the living..." He rubbed his chin and forehead, smearing rat blood from his fingertips. "Such a curious way to put it... But ah, of course, Master Sprat, you mean the two wee ones whom, if I'm not mistaken, expire..." He drew an antique timepiece -- the sort with a thick, smooth, flat rim and a clear glass center to show the primitive gears working within, ridged in minute engravings crusted with ancient dust -- and looked it over. "Oh, dear. Expired five minutes ago, I should say."
"How could you know that? You're lying!"
"Well, as you've seen, I'm not lying about what might remedy that. Though I'd think twice on the honesty of your little ringleader here, one says you could earn enough coin to pay for a proper doctor of the usual sort for the wee ones."
"What the hell you just say?" spat Pete.
"Merely that you are the shyster here, Mr. Pincher, not I." The man's tone was offhandedly civil.
Pete again caught the man by the throat. "You filthy abomination, I'll squeeze the life right out of --"
"Let go of him, Pete!" Cole seized his mate's arm. Without quite realizing it, he cocked his fist back for a nasty blow.
"Cole, you'd best unhand me now and step away."
"Now, now, both o' you, please, there ain't no need for this!" Tommy lurched desperately up next to them.
Only Oley remained silent or at all calm. Again he circled the scene like no one had broken from the original intimidation routine. His dull eyes brightened a little for the eminent violence, not much caring about the shifting whys and wherefores and unto whoms of it.
"Going once, going twice," chirped the merchant, "quite literally in the case of the wee nippers at home."
"He's lyin', Cole!"
"Now, now, now, let's not cast about slander, Mr. Pincher! Though really, of the two of us, whose promises have proven truer so far?"
Still gripping Pete, Cole's eyes bore into the merchant. "That tincture of yours... How much you askin' for it?"
"Oh, let's see this dispute settled before we discuss payment... which you might want to see to quickly. Our friend, dear Master Rat, was treated rather promptly. I can't say how fresh your dead little darlings shall be by the time you reach them."
"I done told you to shut that hole in your --"
Cole's fist crashed across Pete's mouth, sending the latter shambling back, blood flying everywhere from his lips. His jaw now hung slightly lopsided and his eyes flashed with enraged wonder. In the same moment, Oley's eyes gleamed joyously. He came at Cole like an out of control whirligig, both great fists rising and falling in flailing haymakers. Of the two, Cole was by far the smarter fighter, though in his surprise, it was all he could do to duck and swat aside the flurry of powerful blows, with little enough opening to return any strikes. Then all at once, Oley was dragged sideways and flung to the ground by an even more powerful force. There stood Tommy, true to his purpose in eternal simpleton loyalty to Cole, looming over Oley as he might anyone or anything what tried to get at his mate. Without a sound, Oley started to rise. Tommy's giant fist stopped him halfway, square in the face. He thudded against the stones, rose again, was struck down again, face increasingly misshapen and bloody. The third time he rose, he caught Tommy's wrist in both hands and sank his sharpened shattered teeth into Tommy's hand.
With a howl, Tommy started punching Oley over and over in the head, smearing the matted hair and swelling face in an ever thicker black glisten. Oley's jaws tightened, spasming from side to side, worrying ever deeper into Tommy's flesh, his knees dragging to and fro across the stones, ripping his trousers then the skin beneath to ragged shreds. Cole sprang between them, fastening his fingers on Oley's throat, trying to pry the jaw open. Still Oley held fast, even as his skull gave off louder and louder cracks. There was no stopping now, for any of them, no swerving from this course of destruction. The echo of this morning's savage song had chased that option from their very bloodstream, well before anyone had come to blows.
All at once, Tommy cried out, back arching. Both his arms flung up, one of them striking Cole in the chin in the bargain. Finally Oley fell away and lay still on his back. A chunk of Tommy's flesh stuck out of the clenched shards of his clenched teeth. Pete had pulled a blade from his boot and jabbed it through Tommy's lower left back. Tommy started to turn, already getting his head about him. Not sure the knife had done the trick through all that blubber, Pete yanked it free and stabbed the same spot again, over and over. Cole tackled Pete, one hand fastening on the wrist of the knife hand, the other going for the throat.
Somewhere behind them, Tommy moaned sleepily, "Aw, Pete, why'd you..." -- There came a resounding smack as big lad's knees hit the stones -- "...Think you cut somethin'... important in me..." -- And another as he fell and sprawled, heavy enough to shake the ground a little beneath the other two's feet.
The back of Pete's free hand struck Cole across the face. Cole felt some of those long, cracked, jagged nails rake his cheek. Somewhere far away in his mind, he feared he'd grow ill from it, wind up worse off than poor wee Lila and Gus. Then something other than those putrid nails bit into his gut, something colder, longer, harder, sharper... It sank deep. The bastard's knife hand had wrestled free. Now he was stabbing Cole over and over. Cole caught the wrist again, this time with both hands, and twisted 'til the knife came loose. Soon as his own grip tightened on it, he lashed it up between them, across Pete's neck.
Cole wobbled in place, long enough to watch Pete stumble back gagging and gurgling, clutching his sliced neck like he thought to hold it closed long enough to do himself any good. Then he toppled not far from the other two dead or dying men. For his own part, Cole was never sure if he fell over or merely lay down. The sky was a little brighter overhead, though still more black than blue. Why couldn't there be more stars? He'd have liked to go to sleep looking at the stars. Aye, well, there was the sun's glare after all... Oh, no, that was the lamplight, from the merchant's cart, the one who claimed he could cure Cole's dying brother and sister --
Full consciousness flashed back through Cole, and his eyes snapped open. With this came full, bright awareness of his injuries, of this shrieking, churning agony, paralyzing him from his core outward. How many times had he been stabbed? It felt like all his guts had turned to rancid, burning liquid. He tried twisting up into a ball, but he could barely bend his knees without feeling like he was ripping himself apart worse. When his head rolled side to side, he saw and smelled the scattered, leaking heaps that must have once been his mates -- and here we've all killed each other, over --
The merchant knelt next to Cole. "Now then, where were we, young Master Sprat?"
Cole coughed. Something hot and thick splashed his chin. "Ain't much good to each other now, is we, mister?"
"Oh, but why should you say that?"
When Cole tried to answer, he coughed worse.
"And here I thought," the man went on, "what with that little dispute out of the way, we might start haggling prices!"
"Prices?" Cole finally managed.
"Yes, well... I had thought we'd settle up with whatever we could scrounge from poor Mr. Pincher's pockets, but now it seems you'll be needing to buy for three."
Cole stared up, eyes ever wider, blinking furiously to keep them from going too blurry. Each time, they cleared less and less.
"Look here, young man, here are the facts of the matter. It's not as though I've an endless supply of my miracle tinctures. For our friend Master Rat, what little I gave ought to do for the rest of his days. One little snort doesn't stave off the hands of time forever, you know, merely turns them off the scent for a bit, if you'll excuse me mixing metaphor."
"Oh, never mind. The point is, your wee siblings and you shall all three require a prescription, to ensure this gift of mine keeps on giving. And I've suppliers of my own to answer to. As you're clearly not made of money, how would you care to work off your debt a dose at a time?"
"Presently, as you see, my business is a humble one. But I've been pondering how to expand, first throughout our fair city and then... well, who knows? I could do with a fine, strong, brave, hard-working lad like yourself, out for just a chance to provide a better life -- or any life at all, really -- for his family. Oh, once they're back up and about and all, we might ask the little ones to do their part too. But one thing at a time, yes? Yes?"
Cole tried desperately to speak, managed only a violent gurgle that ran throughout his body. By now, he felt little else, as though the rest had leaked out to seep into the cracks in the street with all the blood he'd lost. Finally he managed, "Yes."
"Very well." The merchant sprang back to his feet and skipped back over to his cart. "I shan't be but a moment. Don't go anywhere!"
From far away, Cole seemed to hear the rustle and tinkle of tiny bags and bottles, then the sifting and pouring of this and that powder and liquid into various containers. Then, there, was that the swish and tinkle of a spoon stirring something up? After that, he neither heard nor saw nor felt anything, for what might have been a moment or an eternity. Next he knew, a pair of hands rubbed something warm and gelatinous into his wounds, inside the wounds -- bloody hell, that was a pair of hands reaching into him, handling his guts like vegetables.
Then the hands were tugging him shut. When he moved, he stayed shut, like a sack with the string drawn tight. Funny, he'd not felt stitches. Something hot and thick poured between his lips. It mixed with the congealing blood he'd coughed up. The mixture became something sweet and milky with a tinge of rot. It rolled rather pleasantly down his throat.
He drew a sharp breath, and his lungs filled with air, invigorating him as though for his first time out of the womb. He bolted upright, rolled onto his stomach, made it onto his knees. His head was clearer than he ever remembered it being, along with all his senses. Then the smell hit him, the voided bowls of his dead mates, all around him. He wanted to retch, but couldn't, as though his own body had voided, purified for the start of this new life he'd been lent.
Despite all the blood and filth covering him, he indeed felt pure -- strong and complete, reflexes robbed of all option for shrinking and hiding, energized for any duty, impossible to think of anything as a burden... and it was a greater nightmare prison than the paralysis of death had been. He wanted to scream, found even that was no longer in him. He stared at the man... the creature that had saved his life, only to claim it for its own purposes, whatever those might be. His life, and those of little Lila and Gus. For now, all he could do was stare bewildered.
"Well then, Master Sprat, it's high time you ran along home. Can't have you standing about out here looking like that, in this what shall soon be a bright busy street. And I, for that matter, out to push my wares along and find another spot for today's business. This block's grown..." -- He sniffed and wrinkled his face against the stench -- "...inhospitable. Ah, but I nearly forgot!" He reached out, lifted one of Cole's hands, placed something in the palm, gently pressed the fingers closed around it. "There now, that's all I have just now, but it ought to be enough to see those little ones off to a fresh start. If you want more -- so's to ensure you're all three kept going -- come back and find me at my new station later today, let's say at noon."
"How... how will I...?"
"What, find your way to me? Oh, just follow the pleasant tune in the air."
And indeed, Cole now heard the merchant's song, clear as day, as it echoed and jangled for blocks around, through a neighborhood just starting to stir with life. Before anyone came to spot the grisly scene, he turned and hurried on his way, the merchant's life-giving treasure in hand. The merchant, meanwhile, extinguished his lantern. From there he went swiftly about stowing his goods, disassembling his little street stall, getting it back up on its wheels. He put his hat back on. With a spry grunt, he lifted one end of the wagon and shoved it back into motion. As he wheeled it on along the street, he again whistled his happy little tune, so the echo picked up again and spread a bit further through the morning mist.
For some time yet, nothing moved on Petticoat Lane... nothing save a great black rat -- still crusted in its own dried blood from an ordeal it no longer remembered -- who skittered out of the shadows to sniff and nibble at the three bloody heaps.
© 2012 Matt Spencer
Bio: Matt Spencer is the author of numerous novellas and short stories (most recently in Aphelion: The Crystal Ghost, October 2012), the collection Shadow Ballads, the stage play Gathering in Gratitude: Going With The Flow (with Darren Mark), and the novels The Drifting Soul (illustrated by award-winning artist Stephen R. Bissette) and Cult of the Stars (also featuring the Artifactition) (illustrated by Deirdre Burke). Matt has recently started to make some of his work available on Amazon.com as Kindle singles -- the first entry being Formal Dinner and Demon Dreams. Mr. Spencer has been a journalist, New Orleans restaurant cook, factory worker, radio DJ, and a no-good ramblin’ bum. He’s also a song lyricist, actor, and martial artist. He lives and writes in Vermont.
E-mail: Matt Spencer
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