Fiction: The Artist
By Jack Moody
“Here at Captain Bluebeard’s Pizzeria, consistency is paramount. Families come to our locations expecting familiarity. The ingredients for all our food is purchased from the same distributor, the menu in our Des Moines restaurant is a carbon copy of the menu in our Boca Raton restaurant. No exceptions. Do you know why that is? Because people don’t like change. They want to escape the headlines and nine-to-fives and the hustle and bustle for a couple hours, and they rest easy knowing that no matter when or where, the moment they step into any of our twenty-five locations, they’ll be getting the exact same experience every single time. So it’s no coincidence that that same consistency extends to our aesthetic. Now, you’re an artist, and I respect that. Society needs people like you—outside-the-box thinkers and free spirits. Bohemians and such. So we want to make sure you have fun and get to put your spin on it. But not too much. Not too much fun. Consistency is stability. And stability is important. You understand? Look around you. To the untrained eye, every detail of the wall murals is the same as any other location. But that’s the beauty of it. You understand; you’re an artist. You know. The theme is preplanned, and cannot deviate from that plan—Nautical. Pirates. Tropical. Erm. Mermaids. You see? But ah, look here. Come closer. Look: The shade of blue in the Captain’s beard? That’s more of a cerulean, I’d say. No other location has that shade of blue in the Captain’s beard. Not one. That’s where you get to really let your artistic side shine. We are all about fun here, after all. And that goes for our Captain Bluebeard’s family too. That’s what we call our subordinates. We’re a business, but we’re a family. A family business. So what do you say, Pete? Think you’re up to it? Would you like to join the Captain Bluebeard’s Pizzeria family?”
Pete stared at the man’s mouth. Bits of froth had built up at the edges of his lips. He didn’t seem to notice or care. Teeth like corroded metal, dripping viscous saliva. Wafting from his body like a demonic aura, layers and layers of cheap cologne battled with the lingering ghost of chain-smoked cigarettes. His fingertips were tinged yellow and the nails were black, caked with dirt or shit. His words were meaningless and devoid of passion. He showed that himself, in his shoulders; his stooped, defeated posture. He would be dead within a decade and there would be nothing worth noting about his footprint on the world but the sickening and sweet miasma that followed him from room to room. The stench would last longer than the memory of the man. Once a strong breeze passed through, and the stench wisped away, that would be the final echo any person would acknowledge of his nothing existence.
“Yes,” said Pete. “When do I start?”
“It’s Evel, with an ‘e’. E-V-E-L. Not Evil.” The stripper spoke into the curtain of the private room, her bare back sliding against Pete’s chest. “It’s like an homage. I’m not into that satanic stuff. I’m a Christian.”
“An homage to what?” Pete held his whiskey away from the woman, contorting himself to take a drink without her gyrations knocking the glass out of his hand. Under the black lights the maple-tinged liquid appeared purple and luminescent. Even more like a poison.
Evel turned to shoot a glance like he’d sneezed on her. “You must not be from around here.”
Her eyes were neon. White and glowing like the pupils had never formed. Everything was black or purple or burning white. The club music hurt his ears and strobe lights scattered colors in beams across the ceiling like gunfire through night vision goggles. The overstimulation manifested as a heavy stone of nausea at the center of his stomach.
“No. I’m here on business.”
“Business? Shit, there ain’t much business to be done here. What kinda work you in?”
“HISTORY. I’m an historian.”
“Oh, got it. Got it. You gotta speak up in here, honey. What kinda history?”
“Death. The history of death. You know about the Speculator Mine disaster?”
The song ended. Before Evel could ask, Pete handed her more money. She stuffed it into her G-string, sat down in the booth beside him, and reached into her high heel boot to retrieve the small, plastic baggie. “Shit yeah, everybody here knows about that. How you know that and you don’t know Evel Knievel was born here?” She poured out some of the white powder on the table, separated two uneven lines with the end of her sharpened fake nail, and snorted the longest of the couple with a rolled up dollar bill before handing it to Pete.
Pete inhaled the coke and threw back his head, blunting the rush with a sip of liquor. “‘Cause he didn’t die here.” He could feel immediately his heart screaming, his blood vibrating. He wanted to spill it onto the table and see if it sang to him. “Out of all the ways he could have died, he went out like anyone else. He had an unextraordinary death. It cheapened his life’s work.”
“I wouldn’t talk like that around here.”
Pete rubbed his nose with the back of his hand and blood leaked onto his knuckle. It gleamed like a star system beneath the black lights. “Who gives a fuck—Those miners had a beautiful death. Choking on smoke, lit up by a sea of fire. Trapped together. 168 trapped, engulfed rats. That’s a death worth living for. A single shared, final exhalation.”
“What’s that, baby?” Evel was preoccupied with separating more lines, like a child organizing M&Ms by color.
“Nothing. I feel sick.”
“What kinda sick? Like you’re sleepy or your jaw’s all tight?”
Pete massaged his chin, digging his bloodied knuckle into the grooves of his molars. “Second one.”
“That’s good. Everything you get here is either cut with crank or fentanyl. If you’re grinding your teeth, that means I bought the shit that won’t kill you.”
“I need something that will slow me back down. It’s too loud in here. There’s too much happening.”
Evel kept snorting the laced drug. “I don’t have anything like that on me.”
“I do,” said Pete. “At my hotel.” He stared at the crucifix dangling between Evel’s breasts. “Out of any image people like you could have chosen, you picked the circumstances of his death. That’s how it all began. A death so perfect it changed the world. He was in so much pain. So much agony—that it became art.”
The cross glinted black like a diamond at the bottom of an oil spill. It was beautiful. It was everything to which he aspired. His inspiration. He reached out to touch the necklace.
“The fuck you think you’re doing?” Evel slapped his hand away, the white powder mixing with blood, caking around her nostril to appear crystalline. Everything about her shimmered. A still life, incomplete.
“How much do I need to pay you to leave with me?”
“Fuck that. You’re fuckin’ weird, dude. Time’s up.”
Evel gummed what remained on the table, stood, and disappeared behind the curtain.
Rivulets of crimson across the brim of his cap. Deep blue clashing with olive greens forcing movement in the sea’s waves. Thin brushstrokes of black and brown, shadows inside the pockets of his eyes, the weathered and sun-struck leather skin revealing his age and demeanor. He’s lost. He’s been lost, searching for a treasure that will finally fill the hole in his heart. Nothing has come, and in the blood-red veins protruding from the whites of his eyes the burden of this knowledge weighs heavy on his soul. He is tired but he can’t show that to the crew. They’ve felt his weakness for months on the open ocean. Murmurs of mutiny have echoed beneath the hull in the dead of night, in between emptied bottles of pilfered rum. Their faces are obscured by the glaring orange light of the western sun, their scimitars glinting gold, faint tinges of crusted black blood along the serrated edges and at the bottoms of hilts where heads have caved in beneath their mercy. The woman of wood stands at the mast, arms out towards the promise of better tomorrows, of plunder and sex and alcohol and tropical fruits on the shores of an untapped island. Her tail a vision of turquoise chipped tan by the whitewash of gale winds and waves, purple barnacles attached unnaturally to hide her supple oak breasts that the crew so yearns to be real after days and days of hallucinations, scurvy, and isolation. Traces of indiscernible grays and dull bronze linger just beneath the water’s surface, a hint at the reality that the terrible, volatile depths may as well be a desert at the horn of Africa, a place they once knew well and celebrated when it proved to be a bounty of proportions they seldom had ever seen, and may never see again. Hope born from exhaustion and decay. Exploration intermingling with the agony of a vast and empty landscape. Beauty in death, and death in a life untapped. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But you have to, the Captain says in the crease of his brow, the determined emerald green in his eyes that shimmer as they stare out towards possibilities both limitless and void.
“You know what you should do? Add a parrot on Bluebeard’s shoulder. Kids will love that.”
The man stood an inch behind him, breath acrid and warm on the nape of his neck. Pete felt the overwhelming urge to stab the paintbrush into his right eyeball.
“I need to be alone when I work. I’ll let you know when it’s finished.”
The man leaned over his shoulder as if about to lay his chin down upon it like a cooing lover. “And maybe make him smile. Captain Bluebeard’s Pizzeria—it’s a happy place. Happy. He looks depressed. Can you fix that? A big smile.” Miming a grin, the man grimaced like a child getting his 2nd grade school picture taken. A layer of yellow plaque coated his two front teeth. “Oh! You know what else you could do? Give him a gold tooth. They’ll love that. A big smile with a gold tooth.”
Pete swallowed the rage like regurgitated bile, refusing to turn away from his artwork. “I will let you know when it’s finished.”
The sound of wet smacks penetrated his ears without consent each time the man spoke: “Right, right. Of course. You, uh—I’ll let you get back to it.”
The footsteps grew quieter across the plastic tarp until disappearing behind the latching and locking of the office door.
Pete closed his eyes and exhaled. Again. Exhale. Again.
He stepped back and looked at his creation. It was an abomination. Something was missing. Its heart beat through dried veins.
Pine Bluff, Arkansas
“The FBI estimates there are twenty-five to fifty serial killers operating in the United States at any given time. Odds are you have a friend who was—or will be—killed by one. Drifters tend to target sex workers.”
Mercedes the stripper stared with her mouth agape as Pete told her this. He gave off the energy of someone not worth the money, and his words were that of a human predator, but since being knocked down to the weekday afternoon shifts at The Devil’s Den she was desperate for income. The owner, Manuel, had upped her fee to perform by seventy-five dollars when she refused him sexual favors. Each minute that passed without pulling coins from Pete’s lizard brain was more money she would owe Manuel simply for being there.
“Why do you know things like that?” she asked. He’d bought her a vodka-cranberry, and she drank deep to separate herself from her pulsating survival instinct. If he could afford to buy her a drink, he could afford a lap dance.
“Because I’m the guy who came up with the statistic.” He held out a hand. “Special Agent Peter M. I can’t give you my last name. National security—you understand.”
Mercedes reciprocated, and pulled away with the sweat that coated his palm glistening across her own. “We’re even then. I can’t tell you mine either. Personal security.” She pivoted and scanned the inside of the strip club. Karma was asleep on the pool table with a glass still in her hand, her half-naked form bathed in darkness but backlit by the sun creeping in through the crack in the bolted front door. Pete turned to see what had distracted Mercedes, and was struck with unspeakable inspiration. It was like witnessing Pythia collapse and seize at the Temple of Delphi. She was the image of a lost Edward Hopper painting. Genius. Remarkable.
“Who is that?”
She was going to lose him. “That’s just Karma. She’s fine.” Mercedes faced Pete with exaggerated bedroom eyes and slid her hand across his thigh. “How about a dance?”
“She doesn’t seem fine.” He couldn’t look away. The image was arresting. Perfect. The seed of something beautiful waiting to bloom. To be molded into a masterpiece. “I’m gonna need to check on her.”
Pete stood and Mercedes felt the money slipping through her fingers. Another lost day.
“Hey.” Pete shook the woman until she opened her eyes. Brilliant shades of turquoise held together by a rim of auburn-gold. “Do you need help?”
Karma stirred and sat up on the pool table. “Mmmm. Nope. I’m fine, baby.” She watched his face sink into the shadows as he realized her long and red hair was a wig. “You want me?”
“Yes. But not here.”
“What you mean?”
“I have ten grand if you come back with me to my hotel.”
“Shit, you must think I’m stupid.”
Pete reached into his pocket and showed the green edges of the concealed lump of bills. “I can give you five now. Five after.”
Her eyes widened and became glittering crystal balls. “Aight. Fine. Not here though, put that away. I’ll go out the back and meet you in the parking lot.”
As they drove Pete watched her through the corner of his eye. It was all a trick of the lighting. Outside, the image had faded. As if a marble statue had turned to dust once introduced to the sun.
“Your wig is poor quality. You should take better care with how you present yourself.”
Karma didn’t care what the stranger had to say. She held the wad of cash tight in her fist, hidden away within her jacket pocket. Five now, five later. He’d made good on the deal so far.
“I feel duped, you know. I thought it was real.” Pete reached his hand into the mess of sunburst-red locks. “I’ll still pay ten. But I might not have if I’d known.”
The inspiration was fading from his mind, the spark that had been lit at the sight of her perfectly framed body now flickering in the winds of uncertainty, but he was a professional. He would work with what he had. Any medium, any tools—a professional can create with nothing if need be.
Karma remained silent, looking out the window to watch the neighborhoods regress into disrepair and poverty the farther they went.
“This town is a shithole.” Pete flourished a hand across the windshield. “I read you have one of the worst crime rates in the country. Unsolved murders and disappearances every day. There’s no need to be creative here. Unextraordinary places breed unextraordinary acts. There’s no reason to take pride in what you do when the place you live gives you no inspiration to try. That’s no way to live.”
The car turned and slowed inside the lot of a Motel 8. Pete parked and looked into Karma’s eyes as if appraising a gem. “I think you’ll be different though. What I saw in you—I’m never wrong about these things. I have an eye for it.”
Together they walked into the single-bed room. Beer bottles and paint supplies littered the carpeted floor. Beyond that, Karma could make out few other details through the lone, hospital-yellow florescent light and drawn blinds. She sat down on the bed.
“Are you a talent agent or somethin’?”
Pete opened the mini-fridge and pulled out two beers, popping off the caps using the rim of the center table. “No.”
He handed her the bottle and took a long pull from his own. They sat together on the bed in silence until he reached out and brushed his fingers along her leg.
“This lighting is a detriment but I was right. I can see it.” He traced the blue veins running up her calves, feeling the goose bumps and thin hairs rise upon his touch. “I almost… hear it. Can you?”
Karma froze, trying to swallow her own rapid heartbeat. It felt like a bad dream. That was it. Just a bad dream. She wanted to move away but the accumulating fear acted as a form of hypnosis. She was out of body. “Hear what?”
Pete leaned in closer, pressing his ear against her chest. Exhaling. Inhaling. Exhaling. “A symphony.”
The moment she pulled away, Pete leapt on top of her. His hand squeezing her throat, he could feel the firmness of the trachea, and through the choked grunts she tried to scream, and he brandished the knife concealed in his jacket and plunged it into her chest like a wooden stake through a vampire’s heart. A spurt of blood launched onto his face when the knife dislodged. Pollock unleashing the first brushstroke upon a clean canvas. It was warm on his face and her eyes bulged with terror and it was so beautiful, it was so beautiful. The blood leaked down her chest and it vibrated and then he heard them—he heard the first notes. Faint, distant, but they echoed, beckoned to be let free and sing. She slapped away his hand but he smiled so wide, the sound drowned out her scream and he stabbed again, in the stomach, again, and the blood pooled and poured and it was so red it gleamed under the light and it grew. It grew from one note to two, from a section of violins to woodwinds melding together and they sang. They sang! The room was alive, and she was dying, and the blood shook the earth beneath the bed, and she screamed and screamed, and Pete smiled, and Pete laughed, and he said, “Do you hear it? I was right about you! You’re magnificent!” And the orchestra bloomed and filled the room and created acoustics in pockets of empty air as if the hotel had become a grand arena, and each note touched the next, and they swirled into a crescendo, and Pete was the conductor, Pete was the conductor, the knife his baton, and she shouted again, drowned out by the masterpiece that came forth from her wounds, but still the words were there and he heard: “PLEASE. PLEASE. PLEASE. I DON’T WANNA DIE. WHO ARE YOU?” And Pete could no longer contain his euphoria for he knew what song she played with the organs within her body that spilled bloody chords, angelic and harmonious, and it was Mozart, it was Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, and how perfect it was, how perfect it was that it was the master’s final piece ever created, and Pete listened and crooned and swayed and grinned, and he stabbed again, again, again, and the screams became lilting flutes, and the blood covered his body and hers as if they together had been born anew, and spurned by the perfection, and reminded of her final ask, he cried out with pleasure: “I’M A FUCKING ARTIST,” and the knife, the conductor’s baton, the instrument of death and rebirth, sliced her throat from ear to ear.
Tragedy has struck. The crew has been at sea for eleven months, steered into the deepest reaches of the ocean after finding themselves in the center of an apocalyptic storm. The sky is black, jet-black. They haven’t seen the sun. They’ve forgotten the feeling of natural warmth on their skin. The stars are choked and dead behind the veil of ash and sulfur and clouds like the omnipotent, expansive eye of a demon. Food and rum and clean drinking water ran dry far too long ago. The days meld together into a seamless and unending nightmare. The crew picked straws. An unnamed deckhand chose the shortest. The captain watches the ocean swell and become darker and darker to match the sky, unable to face what’s become of the boy. He has chosen to starve and die with what little strength and dignity that remains. His skin is ashen and gray, and his lips scarred with scrapes and cuts that never healed after dehydration peeled away the soft layer of once healthy pink.
Behind him it’s happening: The final feast. Take this and eat it, my flesh and blood. The men kneel together in a circle, dipping hands into the boy’s open stomach, pulling his entrails and sucking out the blood and flesh, their hands stained crimson, crimson, crimson, their mouths dripping like feral dogs, their eyes black, their pupils dilated until the humanity no longer exists within. Like buzzards they eat and drink and kneel and growl together as they fight over the best pieces of raw meat. Crimson, crimson, crimson. It glitters and sings and howls and it’s the ingredient that’s been missing all along. She has helped create a masterpiece. It dries black and coagulates unlike the rest of the paint but it sings. The mural awakens and you hear the men grunt, and you hear the snapping of bones and the sucking of marrow, and the symphony plays to the rhythm of the boy’s still-beating heart. His mouth is agape as if screaming but he makes no sound, shock strangling his throat like the hand of God. The emerald-green eyes are held open by morbid curiosity, gazing down in removed fascination at the mutilated and exposed innards. In his mind he floats through the ashes, a moment of divine clarity achieved through that final, supreme horror.
Pete dipped his brush into the bucket of her offering and hurled the blood across the scene, again, again, crimson, crimson, crimson. It is everywhere, washing the deck and staining the wood, and even when the great wave that approaches finally strikes, and the ship sinks to the ocean floor, the stains will remain, for they cannot be undone. What the men do here can never be undone, and so they eat and drink and the captain watches the horizon like staring into the abyss, but the abyss stares back only in the hearts of the crew.
Genius. It’s fucking genius.
Pete stepped back and looked in awe at his creation, swaying and humming to the music it played for him, that she played for him. He turned and briefly pitied the man who lay dead upon the plastic tarp in the empty restaurant. Pete pitied him not for his death, but for his inability to behold what he had made. But the audience would come. Soon, they all would see his genius. And they would marvel at the work. There was still one more to finish. His greatest piece yet. A beautiful finale.
A twinge of guilt tugged at Pete’s chest. He stared at the man’s body and sighed. “For you,” he said, and washed his brush, dipped it into the cerulean acrylic paint, and put the finishing touch to his canvas.
His fucking beard is blue.
“He told me his name was Peter. That he worked for the FBI or something. She left with him, and that was the last time I heard from her. I don’t know anything else about him.”
Pete watched Mercedes speak on the television as he sat drinking at The Bloated Fish Tavern. She wore civilian clothes and looked as though she’d been crying.
The reporter feigned professional horror and turned to the camera: “Two days ago the body of Carmella Roosevelt was found in a Motel 8 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, paid for in cash by a man named Ralph Hodges. Authorities tell us this is a fake name, and that he is presumed armed and dangerous. The FBI and Arkansas State Police are offering a $10,000 reward for anyone who has information on the identity or current whereabouts of the suspect. The FBI also denies any knowledge of a man matching the suspect’s description working for the Bureau.”
“They’re leaving out the best part,” he mumbled. “Hey, turn it up will ya?”
The bartender obliged and pivoted to see what Pete was so interested in watching.
“We’ve gotten unconfirmed reports that the body was found drained of blood and staged in some kind of sacrilegious position. Authorities have not ruled out the possibility that this was the work of… a satanic cult or something similar. Chilling stuff. Back to you, Jim.”
“Thanks, Jennifer. Awful. Just awful. In other news the Cardinals snagged their first victory of the season with—”
Pete scoffed, and let the whiskey cool the flames spreading in his gut. “Satanic cult. What a load of shit.” He swiveled around in his barstool after realizing no one was listening. “People are scared to recognize art when they see it.”
The bartender eyed him before looking away, letting the television blare to drown out the odd stranger. There were a dozen creeps like Pete in the bar on any given day. Ugly, manic faces with ugly, manic souls. You just pour their drinks and let them talk to themselves. You leave people like him alone.
“These days you have to fucking spell it out for ‘em. You gotta spoon-feed everything to these idiots. They don’t recognize genius when it’s staring them right in the fuckin’ eyes.”
As he said this, Jennifer appeared back on the screen with a bright red banner across the bottom: BREAKING NEWS.
“Sorry, Jim, but I’m getting word now that another body has been found in Pine Bluff. Details are scarce but authorities are already connecting this to the murder of Carmella Roosevelt. At the scene a massive, disturbing mural was found painted on the wall. This building was slated to become a new Captain Bluebeard’s Pizzeria location, and we’re hearing that the only two people who were given access to the unfinished restaurant were the victim and a freelance painter commissioned by the company named Peter Mahoney. So far the beloved national restaurant chain has issued no official statement. Make sure you stay tuned, as we’ll be bringing you live updates as they come in. Again, if you have any information regarding Peter Mahoney, the FBI is urging citizens to—”
Pete stood, threw twenty dollars on the bar counter, and walked outside.
“Disturbing. Fuck. Shit. Fuck you, disturbing. Gotta fucking spell it out for ‘em. Idiots. Dumb it down, clean it up, always gotta make it accessible. Fuck you, accessible. I’m a fucking artist. ‘It’s cerulean, Pete.’ Fucking cerulean. Christ.”
He weaved across congested roads, blowing through red lights as loose paint supplies and a black canvas bag bounced across the backseat of his car like rocks in a tumbler. There wasn’t much time, but it wouldn’t take long. It wouldn’t take long at all. Great art didn’t have to take time; it needed to make a statement, and Pete’s statement would be succinct. A single note will elicit the same response as a full concerto if played to perfection. One drop of oil that pollutes an entire ocean. It can be done. It can be done.
The car careened into a lamppost guarding the entrance to the building, and Pete opened the mangled door and spilled onto the concrete with the canvas bag over his shoulder, pulling shards of glass from his arms. Under the yellow light the glass twinkled and the blood came, warm and red, and ran down his limbs like raindrops, and the notes played—dim, muffled, but they played, and he knew. He knew then it was to be his defining piece. His sliver of immortality.
Stepping inside the cavernous space already lined with plastic tarp and walled by thick, dull white plaster, Pete felt as if he’d entered the hollow soul of a dead giant. The blood dripped from his arms and became life like flowers sprouting from salted earth.
“I called the cops! You just—you stay away from me, alright?”
Pete turned and saw a man standing rigid against the far corner. He hadn’t even noticed. The man was wallpaper, without soul, nothing more than another imperfection in the lifeless environment. An abandoned universe of empty matter.
“Hey. I’m supposed to talk to you,” said Pete. “I’m the artist.”
“I know who you are! You’re a criminal! Don’t come any closer!”
Pete stared at the man’s eyes, searching for fire, and proved his assumption. “You don’t know what you’re missing. I see it, though. You’re missing a piece.”
The man remained planted to the floor as Pete walked towards him. A single, horrifying glimpse of divinity. The closest he would ever come.
The knife plunged through his left ear; its blade buried inside his head. The man collapsed. Blood spurted forth from around the hilt like water from a clogged faucet. There was no sound but the soft gurgling at the back of his throat. No music. Not one note. It was the saddest thing Pete had ever seen. He hoped that final glimpse had lasted longer in the man’s mind than it had in the room. He hoped it carried over into the last synaptic flashes and became an eternity. For a brief moment, he really did.
Then came the sirens. One turned to two. And two turned to many.
That’s okay. There’s still time.
Pete zipped open the canvas bag and pulled out his tools. He stepped towards the blank wall, crimson dripping close behind like scattered inkblots.
Terrible excitement blended with fear, and born from the adrenaline it created Pete felt the need to speak, and what he said was this: “Maybe it’s too on the nose.”
But as he placed the back of his right hand against the wall, and the sirens grew loud and close, and their lights burned blue and red behind the windows, and the trail of blood played mournful, solitary notes like a dying maestro’s final concert, and he stabbed the first rusted nail through his palm, and he raised the hammer high above his head, Pete thought,
“Nah. They still won’t get it.”
Jack Moody is the author of the novel Crooked Smile, the short story collection Dancing to Broken Records, and the novella The Monotony of Everlasting. He is a contributor to the literary newspaper The Bel Esprit Project and Return Magazine. His stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Expat Press, Misery Tourism, Maudlin House, Scatter of Ashes, Punk Noir Magazine, Bear Creek Gazette, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, and many others.
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