Public stories, Private lives
Victoria Merrick woke to the sound of the alarm clock ringing loudly in her ear. She struggled out of the depths of sleep to see the wind and rain pounding against the bedroom window. She looked at the time. Seven o'clock was a time that no sensible person should even contemplate, never mind consider getting up at. But she couldn't let herself drift off back to sleep this morning. The first day of her new job as a junior crime reporter on the Lark City Post. It was her first job since she'd graduated with a 2/1 in English from University college London and even though it was ridiculously early for her, she was excited. Her first real job. Victoria had wanted to become a reporter ever since she could remember. Writing was what she loved. She might be completely scatty and disorganized most of the time but when it came to writing, she was as dedicated as it was possible to be.
As she showered, she wondered about the people she would be working with. Would she get on with them? Would she come up to their expectations of a reporter? She could remember her interview. Three people had been interviewing her: the one who'd had made the biggest impression on her was a man with brown hair and eyes and with an olive coloured skin. She remembered thinking, as he was asking her questions, that she would do everything possible to keep out of his way if she got the job. He didn't exactly scare her but she certainly didn't want to come under his glaring eye any time soon. The other man present was very tall and he would be her immediate boss. He was the crime Editor and Victoria thought he'd probably be okay to work for. The only woman who'd been there was blonde, blue-eyed, and Victoria surprised herself by thinking how attractive this woman was. There was one problem with all this, she couldn't remember any of their names to save her life.
At a quarter to nine, as Victoria walked down the high street, she rummaged through her handbag for the scrap of paper which held the name of the person she was to report to first. She glanced down at it, Mike Barrett. She had a feeling he'd been one of the people who'd interviewed her but she couldn't be certain. As she strolled through the main doors of the Lark City Post, she could see two women standing at the reception desk talking to the woman sitting behind it. As she approached they turned toward her.
"Are you new here love?"
"Yes, how did you guess?"
"Well, you don't look all that sure of yourself to me."
"No," chimed in her companion. "look like you could do with some help to me."
"It's my first day here," Victoria said with some trepidation. "I've been told to see a Mr. Mike Barrett?"
"Oh you'll be all right with him," Said the first woman.
"Yeah, he's lovely!" Victoria was beginning to feel a little like she was umpiring a tennis match the way she had to keep switching her gaze from one to the other.
"I'm Julie Saunders and this is Julie Johnson. What department are you in?"
"Crime, and I'm Victoria Merrick."
"Oh you'll be working with Nikki," Julie J chipped in.
"Yeah," said Julie S. "Nikki Wade. You'll get on all right with her. Now, if you need anything while you're working here, you come to us."
"Yeah, you just ask," echoed Julie Johnson.
"Oh, right, thank you." Victoria found herself wishing that everyone would be as nice to her. Then she leaned towards the woman sitting behind reception. Her name badge said Crystal Gordon.
"Hi, I'm here to see Mr. Barrett." Crystal smiled.
"I've just phoned him. He said to look out for you."
As Victoria waited she looked round the entrance lobby of the Lark City Post. For a small town newspaper, the offices were clearly the paper's pride and joy. Then she heard a voice behind her.
"Victoria, good to see you." She turned round and saw the very tall man who'd been at her interview. She held out a hand.
"Hi." Mike looked to where the Julies were still talking to Crystal.
"You've met our resident gossips I see. It's a shame those two aren't reporters, they know more about the goings on round here than any of us professionals."
"Yeah, I gathered that. They were very complementary about you." There was a smile in her voice and Mike laughed.
"They never miss an ounce of male charm. Now, I'm going to take you and introduce you to Nikki. You'll be working with her mainly and I'll get her to give you a tour of the office. I hear you got a 2/1 in English, well done."
"Thanks. Getting the job kind of depended on my result."
"I don't doubt it. Anton's a stickler for standards. He says he only likes reporters with "real degrees." The day they brought out a degree in media studies, Anton vowed he'd never have anyone with that degree on his paper."
"Anton Meyer, our boss. So just make sure you're good at your job."
Mike led Victoria upstairs to a large open plan office.
"This is where all the reporters from all four departments work." Victoria was impressed. The office appeared to take up the whole of one floor and was light and airy. A desk had been assigned to her and she was pleased to see that every reporter had access to their own computer. She could see a couple of the men looking her up and down as if she were the favourite in the Derby. Victoria knew she was good looking but she didn't like the way one of the men was staring at her. He almost made her feel like she'd forgotten to dress. Then she saw a tall dark-haired woman walking towards them. Mike turned to her.
"Victoria, this is Nikki, your immediate senior, she'll be showing you the ropes."
"Hi. Would you like to come and get a coffee while I tell you what we're doing at the moment and show you around?"
"Yeah, that'd be great."
"I'll leave you in Nikki's capable hands then," Mike said with a smile. "And if you need anything, Nikki will show you where my office is." Mike strolled away towards the stairs and Nikki led Victoria over to an empty desk.
"This is where you'll be working. On your left is Cassie and on your right, well, some total bastard's put you next to Fenner." Hearing his name Jim Fenner, the man who'd been ogling her assets, approached. Victoria wasn't amused to see that he still couldn't lift his gaze above chest height.
"Nice to meet you love," He said and Victoria found herself cringing at the oily tone that addressed her.
"Fenner, this is Victoria Merrick and she's our new crime reporter, which means I'll be keeping an eye on her."
"Oh I'm sure you'll get on fine here, Victoria. You need anything, just ask."
"That won't be necessary Fenner," Said Nikki in an icy tone. "The day I need you too look after anyone, is the day they give your job to a chimp."
Nikki led Victoria to the staff coffee lounge where people only usually went in their breaks so at nine in the morning it was completely empty. As Nikki brewed the coffee, Victoria asked,
"Why the tension between you and Jim Fenner?" Nikki turned an looked at her with slight pity in her eyes.
"Not to put to fine a point on it, you're a very pretty woman and Fenner will waste no time in trying to pull you."
"Hmmm. I did wonder. The way he looks at you, I felt like I'd forgotten to do up my blouse." "I wish," Thought Nikki silently.
"So, who do I avoid and who's who?"
"Well, it'll help that everyone round here wears name badges. Avoid Fenner like the plague and don't tell Cassie anything you'd rather not have broadcasted to all and sundry. But otherwise, everyone's pretty much okay. Where we were just now is where all reporters work no matter their department or level of seniority. The editors offices are on the second floor and most of them have secretaries. On the top floor is Meyer's office and personnel. I'll take you up and introduce you to Kirstie. With Fenner on staff, she has her work cut out."
As the coffee lounge was on the ground floor, Nikki led the way to the only other area that Victoria would need access to. Nikki threw open the door to a very cluttered but still huge office. All around the walls were boxes of film, rolls of cable and numerous tripods and camera cases.
"This," said Nikki. "Is photography. All four photographers are at your disposal at any time. They all work for all of us. Denny, Shaz, Danny and Ray. They're all brilliant and always in demand so if you need the services of any of them, you'll probably need to get in quick. Denny," She called to a little woman with tattoos on both arms. "Are you busy this morning?"
"No, don't think so. Why?"
"I need you to come with us to that suspected arson. A young mother with a ten months old baby. There's got to be a story in that one."
"Yeah, I'm free till one," Said Denny consulting a battered looking diary.
"Denny's so easy, she's always free," A cold voice said from the door. Nikki turned round and glared at Fenner.
"There's no need for that is there?"
"Danny, can I borrow you for the same story?" Danny, looking excited at the possibility of two departments fighting over the same story turned to Fenner and said,
"Can News and crime publish the same story?"
"No," Said Fenner with glee. "So it's up to us to come up with the better pictures and the snappier headline." For all Nikki hated Fenner, he was good at his job. He always seemed to know the best story to be had from a situation.
After Nikki had shown Victoria where Personnel was and where Mike's office was if ever she would need it, they met Denny out front by Nikki's car and on the drive, Nikki began telling Victoria what they were going to see.
"Rachel Hicks, 19, single mum of a ten months old daughter,. Her house caught fire in the middle of last night. The fire service got there in time to get Rachel and her baby out but they're both under observation in hospital which is where we'll be going after this. The fireman in charge has opened an investigation because he thinks it may be arson. So, let's hope that some of them are there now. But we need to get all we can on this, or Fenner or someone else from the news department will scoop the story and if it's arson, I want this coming from crime."
"Any reason why it should be arson?" asked Victoria.
"We don't know as yet, that's why we'll go and see Rachel Hicks as soon as we've finished here. I certainly don't want Fenner going to see her. A single mum in distress is a sitting target to someone like Fenner."
When they arrived at the house, it was to see a fire engine parked outside and two men slowly going through the burnt out interior. Nikki was pleased to see that Fenner hadn't arrived yet, though this could have meant that he had gone to the hospital to interview Rachel Hicks. All three of them got out of the car and Denny began assembling her camera equipment. One of the fireman turned to Nikki.
"There ain't gonna be no stories written till we've done our stuff."
"Are you saying there's a story to be had?" Asked Nikki.
"Well, we don't know yet do we."
"So why get on the defensive? We're only looking."
"Yeah, well, I know you journalists don't I. My girlfriend's your receptionist."
"Oh," Said Nikki. "So you must be Josh."
"Yeah, Josh Mitchell. But you can't go in there yet. We're still trying to make sure it's safe to start the investigation."
"What are your findings so far?" Asked Victoria.
"Well, we think the fire started in the front room downstairs. That's the room with the most damage. That and the one above it." Denny was already busy taking picture after picture.
"You just be careful where you stick that flash bulb," Warned Josh. Denny moved away and walked round to the side of the house to try and see what had taken place with the rooms at the back. In a minute she was back and jerking at Nikki's arm.
"What?" Said Nikki realising that Denny was on to something.
"Don't know how he can say the front took the most damage. It's all friggin gutted man!"
"Stay here," Nikki said to Victoria. "I want to take a look at this."
As Nikki followed Denny round to the back of the house, it became very obvious that the entire house was pretty much damaged. The air was filled with the acrid smell of petrol.
"There's no doubt this is arson," Said Nikki. "Take as many pictures as you can of all of this. Frankly, I'm amazed she got out alive."
"So," Asked Victoria when Nikki returned. "What's the story?"
"Definitely arson. The whole place took a beating. What I want to know is, how the bloody hell did she and her baby get out of here alive."
"Are we going to the hospital?"
"Yeah, when I've had another word with Josh."
Nikki walked over to where the fireman was standing raking through a pile of indeterminable debris.
"So, where did the fire start, and how did it start?"
"We think it started in the lounge but we don't know how it started yet."
"Oh come on! You can smell the petrol everywhere. I'd say it was perfectly obvious myself."
"Well, don't go printing anything until we know for certain."
"Will you do something for me?"
"Why should I do anything for you?"
"Look, it's bloody obvious that this is arson, no matter how or why. I want this story coming from crime, not from news and Jim Fenner from news will be here soon looking for exactly the same info as me. When you do find out what's happened here, will you tell me and not him?"
"Maybe. I don't like that Fenner arse-hole. He's always making eyes at Crystal ain't he, and I don't like nobody looking that way at my girlfriend. So yeah, we might be able to do a deal."
"Okay, I want Denny to have as many pics of this as possible and when you do know the score, you let me know."
"So, what's in it for me?"
"I could try and get Crystal a promotion to one of the editor's PA's. Mike Barrett's been looking for someone since Shell Dockley left. I could try and persuade him to give the job to Crystal. I'm not promising anything, but I'll give it a go."
"Sorted. I'll let you know when we get a result."
Nikki turned to Victoria.
"I'm off to the hospital to see what I can get out of Rachel Hicks. I want you to stay here with Denny and try and find out as much as you can. Try the neighbours, the other firemen anyone who might have seen anything. The police will be on to this soon enough but I want to get anything out of anyone before they get sick of telling it. Do you think you'll be okay with that?"
"Fine. How long do you think you'll be at the hospital."
"I don't know. If I'm not back before lunchtime, Denny will probably show you to the little pub that's about 5 minutes walk from here."
"Okay. See you later, then." Victoria was flattered that Nikki had left the job of questioning neighbours and anyone else to her. It showed that already Nikki had faith in her ability to get information out of people.
When Nikki pulled up in the hospital car park, she could see Fenner's Audi parked not far away from her.
"Shit," She thought. "He's got to her already."
When she eventually located the ward where Rachel Hicks was being kept for observation, she saw Fenner leaning over the young woman's bed staring right in to her face. As she approached on quiet feet she overheard the last sentence of what Fenner had been saying to Rachel.
"So you know what to do, keep that pretty little mouth of yours shut because you don't want anything else to happen to your baby, do you." Nikki just stood staring at Fenner. She couldn't believe what she was hearing but she knew that now was not the time to deal with it. Fenner seemed to sense someone behind him because he turned and a look of scorn crept over his face.
"Sorry, Wade, looks like this story's coming from my department, not yours."
"In your dreams, Fenner. Now piss off so I can talk to Rachel." She leaned towards him. "Because it looks like you've already done enough talking from where I'm standing." Fenner began to look a little apprehensive but Nikki didn't push the point.
Once Fenner had left, Nikki sat down beside the bed and leaned towards Rachel.
"Would you like to tell me what happened?"
"Are you another journalist? I've already had about as much as I can take from you lot this morning. I just want to see my baby and get out of here."
"What's so bad about being in here?"
"they won't let me be with my baby. They took her away and they won't let me look after her."
"That's probably because you need to rest after the fire last night." The word fire seemed to make Rachel shudder.
"Would you like to tell me what happened?" repeated Nikki.
"Like I told the police, I woke up in the middle of last night and could smell burning. It was so hot. I managed to get Maddy, that's my baby, and get out before the fire really got going."
"Bollocks!" Thought Nikki. She could see no way for Rachel and her baby to get out alive once that inferno had got going. It's not as if petrol smoulders. Set a match to that stuff and a place could go up in seconds.
"Are you sure that's what happened?"
"Of course I'm sure. Anyway, why are you so interested?"
"Rachel, someone set fire to your house while you were still in it. And there's no way that what you're telling me is true. If you'd really been asleep when your house was torched, you and your baby wouldn't be here now. I'm just trying to find out the truth that's all."
"Only because it'll make a good story."
"Maybe, but there seems to be something going on here that smells as rotten as your house does. For instance, why was Fenner telling you to keep your mouth shut?" Rachel looked terrified.
"Hey, don't worry. I'm not going to tell him I heard him say that. I just wondered why. Is he mixed up in what's happened to you?"
"I can't tell you anything. I don't want to talk to you any more. Please go away." Nikki stood up. She handed Rachel a card with her mobile number on it.
"Okay, you don't want to talk now but you might at some point in the future. If you do, you can always get me on that number. You can't put up with intimidation like that, Rachel. If you need my help, you know where I am."
It was nearly eleven o'clock so Nikki drove back to the house to pick up Victoria and Denny. She decided not to mention what she'd heard Fenner saying to Rachel. This wasn't something she wanted the new girl to get mixed up in and Denny couldn't keep her trap shut to save her life. On the drive back to the office, Victoria asked,
"So, did you get anywhere with what's her name, Rachel?"
"No," Said Nikki, careful to keep looking straight ahead. "She doesn't know anything."
"Yeah, right," muttered Denny. Victoria turned an enquiring look on her. "Well, you don't wake up half way through a fire that big and get out alive, man. I mean, it just doesn't happen. And you say she wasn't really burnt, Nik?"
"No, I'd forgotten about that. Her hair was singed and she didn't have any eyebrows left but she seemed comparatively unharmed."
"Something stinks about this," Said Denny.
"Yeah, well, whatever you think about this, Denny, for god's sake keep it to yourself. I don't want any of this getting back to Fenner."
"why Fenner?" asked Denny.
"Because he'll use it to get out a better story than us." It was a pretty lame excuse but Nikki needed some reason for keeping what she knew from Fenner. She didn't want Rachel Hicks being murdered before she could get the truth out of her.
Half way back to the office, Nikki's mobile rang. She dropped it in to Victoria's lap and asked her to answer it as she was driving.
"Oh, is that Victoria?" Asked Julie Johnson. "I was looking for Nikki."
"She's driving so she asked me to take the call."
"Oh right. Well, I'm filling out the list for sandwich orders and I need to know what I'm supposed to be getting for you three." Victoria repeated the message to Nikki with a slightly bemused look on her face.
"Oh yeah. don't worry, just tell Julie what you'd like. And tell her mine's a ham and tomato."
"And mine's a cheese and pickle," Came Denny's voice from the back seat.
Victoria repeated the order to Julie adding her own of a tuna salad. When she switched the phone off she turned to Nikki.
"Is that normal?"
"Oh yeah. Part of the Julies' job is to get our sandwiches every day. They come round the office or phone us if we're not in. they get them from this bloody gorgeous bakery just down the road. If you ever don't want them to get you one, just say."
"Oh no. That's fine by me. Saves me having to worry about remembering to eat."
"Jesus!" Said Denny in complete disgust. "You wouldn't ever catch me forgetting to eat. A morning on this job and you're starving by dinner time, innit."
Victoria laughed. She liked Nikki and Denny and knew she would enjoy working with them. They were both very easy going and willing to accept her for who she was.
When they arrived back at the office, Nikki said,
"right. I have to go and bring Mike up to speed on last night's fire. I suggest we spend this afternoon writing it up together. I'd like to see your writing style in progress. Don't worry, I'm sure it's fine. In the meantime, would you like to go with Denny and watch her developing this morning's pictures. It's always a good thing if you know how to develop your own if you ever take any. Denny will show you the ropes but that's only in case one of the very talented four isn't available to do it for you."
"Yeah, that sounds fine."
"Great. I'll see you in the coffee lounge at about twelve thirty then."
Victoria helped Denny retrieve all the camera equipment from the car and followed her inside, whilst Nikki took the stairs to mike Barrett's office on the second floor. She knew she had to tell Mike about what she'd heard Fenner say to Rachel Hicks. There were a lot of unanswered questions which needed exploring and at least Nikki knew that Mike would take her seriously. She was sure as hell lucky she didn't have Karen Betts for an immediate boss. Karen was going out with Fenner rather too openly for the office staff's liking and Nikki knew that she would never be able to persuade Karen that her other half was quite obviously involved in something dodgy.
She knocked on the open door of Mike's office and walked in.
"Hi. How're you getting on with Victoria?"
"Oh, she's fine. Denny's in the process of showing her how to develop photographs. Listen, we need to talk, are you busy?"
"No. Shut the door. This sounds serious." Nikki closed the office door and took the available chair.
"It is. It's about as serious as you can get."
"Is this off the record?"
"I don't know that it can be. When I went to the hospital to see the victim of last night's fire, Rachel Hicks, I walked in to find Fenner leaning over her and threatening her."
"Threatening her how?"
"He was telling her to keep her mouth shut because she didn't want anything else to happen to her baby."
"Okay. Who else knows about this?"
"No-one. I think Fenner might know I heard him but that's all. I'd left Victoria at the house with Denny. I'm glad I did now."
"What do you think we should do about this?"
"I think, yes that's the only way. I'll have a word with Karen."
"Oh come on, Mike. You know she won't listen. She's shagging Fenner twice a night from what I've heard so she certainly isn't going to listen to anything like this."
"Perhaps not. But she may tell him that other people do know and that might be enough to persuade him to stay out of whatever he's got himself in to."
"Some hope! But what if he keeps his threat to Rachel?"
"I'll tell Karen what you heard. That way it won't have come from Rachel. You say she's in hospital. Well, let's hope they keep her there for a little while."
"Okay. So we keep this fairly quiet unless he does anything else."
"Yes, for now. We have to go in delicately on something like this."
"Jesus! I always thought that being a journalist was more like being a bloody detective."
"Why do you think most of us do it?"
"Yeah, I see what you mean. I'm going to spend the afternoon writing the story of last nights' fire with Victoria."
"Good. You know, I think she'll get on really well here. I was in on her interview and saw the article she submitted beforehand. She's pretty good. I think you'll enjoy working with her."
Downstairs in the dark room, Victoria was watching Denny put picture after picture through the developing process.
"So, how long have you been working here?"
"About two years. Then Shaz, my bird, she joined a few months ago." Victoria smiled.
"I wondered why you had the name Shaz tattooed on your hand?"
"Yeah," Denny giggled. "She's got a Denny one an' all."
"That's sweet," Said Victoria.
"Well, we love each other innit."
"I've never found a bloke who would do that for me."
"Ah well, that's why women are better. You should give it a try."
"No, not really my thing," Victoria said with a grin. "So, who's with who around here?"
"You see, that's where you get to hear all the goss, being a photographer cos everyone assumes you won't remember nothing. And it's more like who's shagging who in this place."
"Really? Now you've got me interested."
"Well, Nikki, who we were with this morning, she's going out with Tash, she's the main health reporter. And you know about Crystal, we met her boyfriend at the house. The Julies are always making a crack at some bloke. Zandra, she's Karen Betts' secretary and she's hanging about with Alex Adams at the moment, but she doesn't stick to one bloke for long either."
"And Jim Fenner?"
"Christ! He doesn't take long does he. When did you meet him?"
"This morning. he looked me up and down like I was a suit he was buying."
"Yeah, Fenner's an evil bastard really."
"Yeah, he did over a friend of mine. She used to work here. Shell Dockley. He really messed her up. She couldn't stick working here after he dumped her."
"So who's he with at the moment?"
"His latest conquest is Karen Betts. She's the senior news editor. He'll drop her soon enough, he always does."
At twelve thirty, Victoria followed Denny back to the coffee lounge which was somewhat fuller than earlier that morning. A minor argument was going on in the corner between the blonde woman who'd been at Victoria's interview and a red haired woman who's name badge said Yvonne Atkins.
"You can't seriously tell me that the local vicar going bankrupt shouldn't come from the finance department. It's bleeding obvious. I mean what is bankruptcy but financial news." This came from the red head who's red hot temper had clearly just got going.
"It's local community news, Yvonne, not some financial scoop that'll make the national headlines."
"No, you dozy cow, but it will make the local headlines. I mean, everyone trusts their vicar don't they. They're not gonna like it when they read how he's been made insolvent because he's been supporting a second family on the sly."
"there's far more of the thing about the local community in that story than there is of the finance issue. You know that! You've obviously just not got enough to fill your front page this week."
"Bollocks! You're only saying that because Nikki's right in line to take that arson story off you."
Nikki approached Victoria and looking at her face said,
"Oh, just ignore those two. They're always at each other's throats over something." She took Victoria over to where the two women were sitting.
"Karen, Yvonne, this is Victoria."
"Hi love, come and sit down," Said Yvonne looking pleased at the diversion of the conversation.
"When am I going to make you see that you can't twist the headline of every story to suit you, Yvonne?" Continued Karen.
"Never, Darling, Never," Yvonne replied with a sly grin on her face. Karen stood up, nodded to Victoria and Nikki and walked away.
"Jesus!" Said Yvonne. "She's got so tight arced since she started shagging Fenner."
"Yeah, we all know that," answered Nikki before turning to Victoria. "I'll get your sandwiches if you like. Would you like a coffee?"
"Please, but do you want me to do it. I feel like everyone's been looking after me today."
"That's how it's supposed to be on your first day," Said Yvonne. "It's the new girl's perk, to have everyone waiting on her. Don't worry, it won't last longer than tomorrow." Nikki came back with packets of sandwiches and coffee for the three of them.
"What did you get today?" Asked Nikki with a grin, then looking at Victoria's questioning gaze she said, "Yvonne always gets really weird sandwiches. Once she ordered peanut butter and strawberry jam."
"That is not weird," Said Victoria. "Try banana and lemon curd."
"Do you know something," said Yvonne, "I'm gonna like having you around." Then turning to Nikki, "Only chicken bacon and mayonnaise today, sweetheart, so no, nothing too outlandish this time."
"So how did you get on with Denny," Asked Nikki.
"Oh, great," Said Victoria through a mouthful of sandwich. "She was telling me who's partnered up with who around here."
"Oh god," Said Yvonne. "That would take forever with this place." Just at that point, a longhaired Asian woman approached also carrying sandwiches and a coffee.
"This is Tash," Said Nikki. "Tash, Victoria, our new junior."
"Good to meet you," Said Tash sitting down next to Nikki.
"Did Denny also tell you that I have the pleasure of living with this gorgeous woman here?" Victoria smiled at the puppy-like gaze that had come over Nikki.
"yes, she did."
"so, what're you up to this afternoon?" Asked Yvonne as the other two appeared to be too interested in each other to keep track of anyone else.
"We're going to be writing the story on last night's fire."
"Oh yeah, I heard about that. What happened?"
"They're pretty sure it's arson but Nikki went to the hospital to see the victim so she'll probably know more than me."
"I wouldn't bet on it right now," said Yvonne with a grin. She leaned closer to Victoria. "As soon as she sees Tash, she completely forgets anyone else exists."
"It's sweet really," Said Victoria in an undertone.
"Yeah, in a pass me the bucket kind of way. But I don't think I've ever seen Nikki this happy."
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