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The cat was snoring. It was a two-tiered affair. A perpetually repeating melancholy wheeze, like an accordion with leaky bellows on the intake, the throaty grumble of a chainsaw marking each downbeat on the exhale.
“Cat, tell me your dream stories so I may write them,” I say.
He answers with a yawn, widens his emerald eyes, glances at the robin hopping about the terrace. From his windowsill perch inside the majestic townhouse, he turns to me as if to say, “That bird has a mustache,” because the mottled white slash in the feathers over the bird’s beak does, in fact, resemble one.
“Scraggly bird, the robin,” I inform the cat. “Some look like they been in an alley fight.”
The cat doesn’t reply, doesn’t follow me down the marble stairs, keeps studying the bird as a tiger might a crane. I snatch a can of boiled quail’s eggs from the pantry, drain the water, take them out to the patio. The cat pretends not to care, sprawled along the window ledge. I make myself comfortable on the lounger and pop the eggs into my mouth one after the other, contemplating the distant rattle of trucks on East 72nd, the mid-morning traffic thinning with the deepening summer.
I deposit the empty can in the kitchen sink, knowing the cleaning crew will pick it up at 3 p.m. as noted in The Activities of the House—posted on the kitchen bulletin board. The routines listed on this timetable are set in stone, and only the baroness could have contrived such a strict schedule. Though I can’t help but wonder what the exacting taskmistress might think if she caught me like this, talking to Mr. Beeks?
“Poor, dear Quincy, you’re such a bother,” she would say with a shrug, one hand on her hip, a carved ebony cigarette holder angled skyward as if sprouting from her neck.
There’s a photo of her highness hanging near the private elevator. In it, the baroness—stunning in her twinkling tiara and Jovani ball gown—clings to her husband’s arm as he clasps the vice-president’s hand, New Years’ Eve 2007, hand-scrawled on the wall tag below the picture. I slide my finger over the glass, pause at the baroness’s refined, sublime face—a true aristocrat—and long to know her. But no one as classy as her could ever fall for a middle-aged fool like me, a watchman. Unless I were some kind of hero, hired to be her watchman. Her Bodyguard. Defender. Protector. That’s rich. The loftiest title I can pin to my chest would be cat-hero, a label that hadn’t been earned but came with the gig.
The list of odd jobs I’ve tried since leaving the rental car company is laughable. Even tried writing a blog, believing at the very least it would prove therapeutic. But my half-baked pseudo-intellectual rants soon grew stale, so I answered an online ad from a private security company. I was bondable and healthy. And I hadn’t caught the virus, so they hired me on the spot. Eight bills a week for twice-a-day visits to this Park Avenue palace where I perform a three-floor sweep of the interior, the terraces, the rooftop, log a report with the security desk. They threw in another hundred for taking care of the family pet, Mr. Beeks: God’s gift to catdom.
At the initial walk-through, Mr. Beeks had spurned his favorite lobster-caviar-quinoa-saffron pâté. My trainer, the building superintendent, said Beeks rejected it because it wasn’t blended correctly. Edwin, the doorman, provided more background. Mrs. Milton had once tried taking the pampered puss on a car trip uptown, but it yakked all over the limo before reaching Central Park. So, unlike the rest of the Miltons, the cat could not flee to East Hampton to ride out the pandemic with the other well-heeled tribal elites. But their cat problems are no skin off my nose. The way I figure, the extra money I’ll earn pandering to this overfed feline will help me get my Broyhill leather recliner out of layaway that much faster.
At nine p.m., the end of my shift, I pick up the kitchen phone, call the concierge for a cab, lock the exterior doors, set the alarm, and leave.
“Your car, sir,” says Edwin, gripping the brass canopy pole and opening the cab door, his tangle of hennaed hair flopping to one side like an abandoned bird’s nest.
“East Village,” I tell the driver, and he takes me to my studio apartment, only blocks from the East River, in Gramercy, a tiny place too small for two that I share with Autumn.
Money’s been tight since Autumn lost her day job. She sits on the edge of the bed, more still than the Joseph Ablow painting that hangs in the Milton family kitchen, doesn’t say hello, leans forward, parts the blinds with her fingers, and peers down through the blades of the window fan to the locust-shaded sidewalk below.
Eight years we’ve been together, and I can’t recall her gloominess locking in like this. I sit beside her and say, “Blue skies out there. We should take a walk after lunch,” holding out a plain brown bag. “I brought you a fish sandwich and fries.” I shake the sack, but she doesn’t respond, so I drop the food, cup her face with my palms and pull it close. She’s been crying again. I wipe the dried tears from her face, kiss each cheek, taste the salt.
“What say you today, Señor Beeks. ¿Cómo estás?” I say, coaxing the imperturbable Bombay cat out from behind the arrangement of potted palms in the corner of the library. He’s been stalking me all afternoon from station to station as I execute my circuit of the Milton townhome, stealthily waiting out of sight, then thudding into the room like a buffalo as I leave.
I pause in the kitchen, pull a bottle of merlot from the wine cooler, find a corkscrew, pour myself a glass. The kitty bounds into the room, tail up, a quizzical trill emanating from his chest.
“What do you suppose has Autumn so glum these days?” I ask the cat as he coils between my ankles. “It’s probably money, don’t you think?”
Mr. Beeks flops to the floor, rolls onto his side, stares up as if to say, “Who worries about such things?”
“True,” I reply with more than a tinge of jealousy. “But—why would you care, exiled like a prince inside this marble palace?” Beeks blinks in rapid succession as though transmitting his innermost thoughts.
“Well—my question was slightly rhetorical,” I tell the cat. “But if you really think I should end my relationship with Autumn, I should hear you out.”
Beeks explains himself with a series of long, loud meows as I hoist the glass of merlot, gulp it down to the chalky dregs, refill it halfway, cork the bottle, and stash it inside the refrigerator door.
“Of course, Autumn’s high maintenance. But you know what?” I say, squatting down to scratch his head.
Everything I tell him is true. At one time, Autumn seemed quite content in her temporary role as a substitute teacher. I wish she’d go back to that, but she won’t hear it. So, I guess part of the reason I took this apartment-sitting job in the first place was to set an example; to show her there’s no shame in returning to your roots, to what you know, because I went back to doing security, something I’d done before, as a bouncer, as keeper of the velvet rope at The Box, an after-hours club in a rough section of the Bronx. But my message of inspiration fizzled. Any lesson Autumn may have gleaned from my overt piece of self-sacrifice failed to dent her despondency.
The cat’s glittering eyes travel the length of my frame. We lock eyes, and I take a step back. “Another man!”
Unmoved by my outburst, Beeks arches his back, meanders across the kitchen, and crouches next to his food bowl.
“Why would you suggest such a thing?” I say accusingly.
The cat swivels one ear toward my voice as he eats.
“How can you remain so blithe, Beeks. I’m begging you, tell me everything you know.”
My face in a pillow, I wake to the patter of bare feet across the linoleum, water pouring into the coffee pot. Autumn totters into the living room and folds herself onto the floor beside the couch. Her hand strokes my head; brushes my hair aside as I open one eye.
“Not like you to nap after work,” she says.
I drag my phone from the end table. “Nine-fifteen, wow. Must’ve been the merlot.”
“Drinking with the cat again?” Autumn tugs at my hair in a playful, sadistic way.
“It was his idea,” I say, rolling onto my back.
“The furniture store called yesterday,” she says. Her smile is strained and effortful.
“Damn,” I mumble under my breath. “Is there something wrong with the chair?”
“They asked to schedule the delivery for Saturday.”
I raise my fists. “Hallelujah.”
“It’s going to be crowded in here.”
I clamber clumsily to my feet, arms windmilling around. “No—no. It’ll work out just like I told you, remember? We’re gonna mount the television on the wall over here, turn the bed this way, squeeze the table into the kitchen corner, you’ll see.”
“All this for a recliner,” she huffs.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted.”
“Well—I’m happy for you,” she says, her face blank and bloodless. “You worked a lot of overtime, taking care of that cat.” She crosses the room, raises the blinds halfway, collapses into the folding chair, and gazes moodily between the blinds. Her body and mind may have parted ways, yet I love her more than ever, even when she’s not there. Within the cramped stillness of the room, a whimper seeps from her lips, hand over her mouth, staring out the window, trying not to burst. After a long silence, she wobbles to her feet, fists at her side, convulsions shaking her body. “His name is Ethan.”
Mr. Beeks wants to share the veggie bacon I took from the deep freeze and warmed in the microwave this morning. His flank presses against my shins, his eight-cylinder purr shuddering my bones from ankle to knee. I place a plate on the kitchen floor next to my chair and scratch the cat between the ears. He takes one sniff and turns away.
“Not good enough, Mr. Picky?” I ask, sopping up egg yolk with my toast.
The cat effortlessly leaps onto the counter and settles beside the refrigerator, licking his paw.
I aim my fork at his nose. “You’ll get your precious pâté, but first, how about we give you a proper name? Something more befitting the task. Mr. Beeks is so—formal. To me, you represent only one thing. My new chair. A place in the corner of my dingy apartment where I can rest my weary bones after a long day of busting my butt. So—Recliner—let’s talk about Autumn? You said she had a boyfriend. Well, you were wrong. Turns out she has a son. His name is Ethan. Had him when she was sixteen. Gave him up for adoption.” The refrigerator puckers open. I pull out the fancy cat food, mix Beeks’s dish, and plunk it next to his water bowl.
“I know. That’s a lot to digest all at once.” I begin to pace. Recliner stops eating to watch; his disbelieving look mirrors my own incredulity. “Here we thought Autumn had somebody on the side when truth-be-known, she’s been dealing with the sudden appearance of a child she discarded twenty-six years ago.” I throw my arms up as if ending a quarrel and stomp out of the kitchen, down the great hall to the photo of the bejeweled baroness dressed in a black, sequined evening gown and matching opera-length gloves, posing majestically at the foot of a curved marble staircase.
“You raised two children,” I say, my nose pressed against the framed glass, “and look at you, so elegant. The epitome of grace and poise. How did you do it? I’ve just discovered I’m a stepfather-type person for the first time, and I’m terrified.”
The cat glides silently up the hall, brushes my leg, climbs onto the sofa, purring.
“Why!” I cry in a half-shout.
Recliner tilts his head.
“Why wasn’t it just another man? Things would have been so much easier.”
Autumn and I prepare lunch together, fried scallops over pasta primavera, our somber silence fractured at random by remarks about the rain, the traffic, the Mets. I want to broach the subject of Ethan, the elephant in the room, to reanimate this woman, to deliver her from this wretched, manic-depressive spiral.
Autumn’s fork clangs inside her bowl, chasing a scallop. “The process was supposed to be blind, you know?” she says meekly. “The hospital paperwork said I would be untraceable to the adoptive parents. At least that’s what mama said.”
“How did he find you?”
A deafening silence ensues. Autumn’s black eyes scan the dreary room, assessing every tacky painting and blemished yard sale knick-knack with disdain; a pair of bronze-colored plastic 3D sailing ships, an alabaster unicorn, a grinning gnome, a black and white photo of a 50’s dancing couple, a rainbow over a speckled background.
“There have got to be laws,” I say, tired of the dead-still, and grab my phone from the sideboard. “Which hospital was it? Washburn Medical? Brookdale? Somebody released that information illegally. We’ll drag ‘em into court.”
Her eyelids descend like a delicate pair of tenement shades, lashes blinking sadly against her pear-shaped cheek. Expressionless, she says, “Nothing can undo what Ethan knows—what I know,” her words marbled with a faultless resignation.
“Still, the recklessness of releasing those birth records,” I say.
“The real recklessness was believing my family when they took Ethan away.”
Her anguished face swells with a pain I could never imagine, for I desire her too much to ever fully understand her. The phone buzzes in my hand. A text from work. The client has decided to return from their self-imposed quarantine—tomorrow. I study her reaction in the mirror as I share the news. Her sad eyes puncture my soul, and I can’t help but say, “Let’s go out tonight.”
Edwin glides to the curb, adjusts his mask, opens our taxi door, glances at Autumn’s willowy stems as she climbs out wearing a knee-length flower-print dress and heels. I’m more proud than jealous of his attention, for she is beautiful. He tips his cap dutifully and ushers us into the townhouse.
“Are you sure this is alright?” Autumn asks as the lift glides silently to a halt. The doors whisk open, and we step into the marble foyer.
“The cleaning company is due here tomorrow afternoon, around two,” I say reassuringly. “It’ll take them about four hours. The infamously decorous Milton family won’t dare return until the entire apartment has been thoroughly scrubbed.”
“Don’t use those uptown words on me,” Autumn says in a sullen, dramatic tone. “Decorous! Egad! Save it for your blog—oh, wait. You don’t have one.”
No bolo knife ever cut like her tongue. She crouches onto the divan for a smoke, ankles crossed, dress strap sliding off one shoulder, bangs in her eyes, and drags on the cigarette. The oval of smoke transforms her face into a sardonic jester from an Edwardian painting. After broiled filet mignon with oyster mushrooms and two bottles of black rooster chianti, we retire to the grand salon with a chardonnay. I loosen the clasp on her anklet, drag the chain up her leg, across her knee, inside her thigh, and lay it on the end table.
“I’ll be right back,” I say and disappear down the hall to the baroness’s powder room, searching for pieces of jewelry left on the dressing table, crystal necklaces, deco brooches, cubic zirconia hairpins. A white leather strap protrudes from among the tangle of bibelots: a watch with a green-red-yellow nylon dial and a gold bee embroidered across the center.
Autumn is at the window when I return, the empty wine goblet steadied against her cheek, more brittle than the glass. I go to her, gather the shattered pieces wherever they may fall, my hand around her waist, and lay the watchband over her wrist. A smile eludes her ashen face, the ivory reflection of her torso transparent in the window. She leans back as I nibble the base of her neck, my thumb sliding down her spine to a familiar pocket, her skin twitching beneath my fingertips. Her hand falls on my shoulder, and she shoves me away with theatrical flair, turns, crosses her arms, and stares out at the iconic park.
“Beautiful view,” I say.
She turns back to me, studying my shoes. “I was a teacher.”
“I know. Fifteen years.”
She sighs as though venting an ancient tomb. “I once subbed for the same class for an entire school year. The teacher was off on maternity leave. This was—before I met you—before I knew his name was Ethan.”
I prop myself up on the couch and shove my hands into my pockets. “All sorts of things happened before you knew Ethan was yours, Autumn. You just found out.”
“No—you don’t understand.” She swallows hard, trying to decode the question mark on my face, her eyes bounding like storm-swept buoys. “Ethan was there, in that class. He was there all year, third desk back, second column from the left, quiet kid, can see his face clear as day.” Her voice trails off inaudibly, and she falls to the carpet, sobbing, face buried in her hands.
My mind struggles for a way to help her break free of her worry. I hear the buzz of my phone and answer.
“Mr. Quincy, Edwin here. From downstairs. Sorry to bother you, sir, but there’s a package. It’s rather large. May I send it up?”
“Sure,” I say and abruptly hang up.
Autumn wipes her eyes with her palm. I help her to her feet. The elevator buzzes, and I scramble to the foyer to unlock the doors.
“I felt it couldn’t wait, with the rain coming and all,” Edwin says, hoisting the gift basket into the kitchen. “It’s from Manhattan Fruitier. One of the best, sir. Otis was on lunch, so I brought it up myself.” Edwin sets the package down, laces his fingers, rocks back and forth on his heels awkwardly. After an uncomfortable silence, I pull out my wallet. Across the room, Autumn dabs her finger absentmindedly at the window. Edwin purses his lips, a question forming, but I press a twenty into his palm, tell him what a great help he’s been, and lead him to the elevator. As we reach the door, there’s a loud pop in the other room. A champagne cork. Autumn has found the gift basket.
“Quin, you’re a sweetheart for sending this,” she sings, reading the attached card. “Who’s your friend? Is he a working man like you? Let’s all have a drink.”
Edwin breezes across the room. “Don’t see what harm there would be. My shift’s over in fifteen.” Autumn fills three champagne glasses to the brim. Edwin loosens his tie and slides onto a stool beside Autumn. They click their glasses and drink.
I begin to try to acclimate myself to this new development. Up the hall dashes the cat. He stampedes across the foyer like a wildebeest and leaps onto the back of the divan, claws out, scratches lightly at the fabric, and settles onto his stomach.
Autumn coaxes her barside stool sideways. “Mr. Beeks,” she says, flashing her wrist, “Thanks for the watch.”
“Recliner,” I say.
“Yes—and that too.”
“A very generous cat,” says Edwin. He gulps the rest of the champagne then straightens his cap. “But soon, kind people, I must go. Have to pick up a few things for the wife at the market on my way home.”
The champagne is good, and by the time Edwin departs to board the elevator, we’re all laughing loudly at nothing in particular.
“Recliner,” I bellow to the cat as I sit, “what do you make of my girl? Isn’t she gorgeous?” The cat drops into my lap, rolls over languidly, stretches his legs one at a time, an interior rumble quaking his torso like the hull of a wooden ship. In the corner of the nearly lightless room, Autumn slips out of her dress, unstraps her shoes, twirls the wristwatch in her hand, and tiptoes toward the bedroom.
“Welcome back, Mr. Quincy, sir,” says Edwin, his musky cologne drifting about my weary crown as he opens his umbrella and leads me silently inside the building to the elevator, and I go up. Mrs. Milton explicitly requested a private audience with me, and as the doors slide open, I secretly wonder about what is coming my way. A bonus, perhaps, for my ceaseless devotion to their townhome, plants, and pet?
A squat, muscular man in a slim-fit iridescent twill jacket introduces himself as Rupert as I step out of the elevator and into the tastefully bleak, flinty room. He hands me a face mask, says he’s Ms. Milton’s personal aide, and signals for me to follow, but I can’t help wonder what badge he’s pinned on me: caretaker, sentinel, spy. The broad-shouldered man trudges ahead, his rugged movements effortless as an ocean wave, leather shoes yelping as though mugged by each bruising step. Even his ankles flex as he glides down the long hall to the office where the baroness awaits.
“Ah, Mr. Quincy, do come in. Sit down,” she says. The words slide from her throat like an arrow from a quiver. She points to a pair of pewter chairs facing her glass desk, puffs on her e-cigarette as Rupert plants himself in a winged armchair near the door. Unlike the black-and-white photo hanging in the hallway, dark circles cradle the baroness’s eyes, yet her genteel nature brightens the room on this gray, rain-shrouded day. She refastens her custom-fit surgical mask with imperturbable poise, unhurried, crossing her legs beneath her robe, her every move languid, emotionless, impossibly lethargic, as though partially drained of blood. “We—appreciate your cooperation with the face mask. The reaction of some people to this harmlessly unintrusive piece of medical advice is positively medieval. Would you like some tea?” she says in a platinum monotone.
“No, thank you,” I say, though she’s already waved for Rupert to bring two cups.
“And here’s Mr. Beeks,” she says, leaning down to greet the oncoming cat. “He’s usually not this affectionate. You must have paid an extravagant amount of attention to my baby.” The baroness scratches his head before nudging him away with her heel.
“We got along,” I say modestly.
“Yes. Well, we’re grateful for that. But—there’s another matter, and I wouldn’t have dragged you in here except for a slight detail in the inventory. Rupert?” She nods at the assistant.
“A watch,” says the suit, “has gone missing, Mr. Quincy.” He shows me a photo of the watch on his phone. “Have you seen it?”
Instincts overcome integrity, and I shake my head.
“It belongs to my grand-niece,” says the baroness. “She’ll be heartbroken when I tell her it’s gone.”
I freeze in place, eyes bouncing between the aide’s phone and the baroness, somehow giving me away. The bee-embroidered wristwatch they speak of had been on Autumn’s wrist last night. She might have worn it home. Who knows? We drank quite a bit before we left around 2 a.m., but I’d been careful to put everything back. Or had I?
I study the photo on Rupert’s phone until confident enough to sell the lie. “I—don’t recall seeing the watch,” I say.
“We heard otherwise.” The words leap from Rupert’s tongue as though sprung from a trap. He saunters to his armchair, folds one leg over his knee, foot twitching maniacally, eyeing the doorway. “Edwin, you may join us now.” The doorman walks into the room, hat in hand. “Tell us again of last night’s revelry,” Rupert asks.
Edwin shuffles in place, a look of remorse across his face as he first glances at me, then the baroness.
“There’s no need to be timid, Edwin,” she says. “Just—tell the truth—about the watch.”
“Let me explain precisely what Mrs. Milton means,” says Rupert, leaning forward in his chair. “Mrs. Milton doesn’t care about Mr. Quincy’s little soiree. Mrs. Milton merely wishes to recover the watch, and nothing more will be said about the matter.” Rupert shows Edwin the photo.
“Yes,” Edwin says softly. “That watch was on the young lady’s wrist when I left the apartment last night.”
Rupert’s eyes flit like jousting hummingbirds between the baroness and me.
“I swear, we didn’t take anything,” I say. “Please, I’m not a thief. I would never jeopardize my job like that. I need this referral for my next gig.”
“Whoever said anything about losing your job?” says the baroness.
“Mrs. Milton believes you performed your job well enough,” adds Rupert. “Mrs. Milton just wants to know about the watch. Do you have it?”
“I’m telling you, I didn’t take it.”
“And the young lady?” ponders the baroness.
“Is she a prostitute?” says Rupert.
“Didn’t seem that way to me, sir,” says Edwin.
“And you would know—because?” Rupert asks Edwin, raising a brow.
The collar of my shirt warms. “Look,” I say, louder than perhaps intended, “I didn’t take the damn watch, and I don’t appreciate your comments. Autumn is no prostitute. Who the fuck gave you that idea?”
“Here—here,” says the baroness, reaching for her vape. “There’s no need for unpleasantries.” The baroness undoes her mask and takes a drag, noticing a noise coming from across the room. “Mr. Beeks, what on earth?” she says, gesturing to the cat who has fallen onto his side and is pawing frantically beneath the couch. “Have you caught a mouse? Oh, dear God, I hope not.”
“Might be an insect, ma’am,” says Rupert.
“Call the exterminator at once.”
“Will that be all?” says Edwin. “I should get back.”
Rupert waves Edwin away, crouching beside the couch, trying to see what Mr. Beeks has cradled between his paws, tight against his belly. The instant Rupert touches his flank, the cat hisses, flips to his feet, and shoots out of the room. And left there on the floor, beneath the sofa, is the baroness’s watch.
“I’m telling you, Autumn, I was shittin’ bricks. I thought Rupert would call the cops,” I say, slowing the car at an intersection and switching my phone to the other hand. “No—I’m on Lexington, a few blocks away.” I lower my window because a man and woman, arm-in-arm, are crossing the road against a flashing red hand. “Hey—I got a green light here,” I holler at the couple. The car behind me honks, and I wave my middle finger in the rearview mirror, waiting, then stomp on the accelerator just as the signal turns yellow, leaving the impatient pinhead stuck at the red light.
“Bunch of damn tourists,” I yell into the phone at Autumn as I motor up to the next stoplight, “They loiter like around that stupid fucking Friends Experience. What? Yeah, I hear what you’re saying, they’re hyper-caffeinated, dispassionate zombies, but the simile doesn’t quite work. Hey—traffic’s picking up. Gotta go. Look forward to hearing all about it. See you in fifteen.”
I turn onto East 22nd, follow it down to 2nd Avenue, hang a right, and the thought pounces like a tiger into my skull. Autumn had cracked a joke. Perhaps the good news I’d shared about my job had lifted her spirits? Maybe now’s a good time to bring up California again. A change of scenery would do us both good. Forget the past. My dream was for the two of us to someday live in the Sierra Nevadas, but she was always teaching a class, even in summertime, so we never vacationed west of the Adirondacks.
Autumn waits on the front stoop of the apartment house, knees bent inward, palms cupping her chin. She stands and brushes the front of her jeans, squinting into the clouds as I walk up. “They delivered your chair about an hour ago,” she says.
“Sweet,” I say as I peck her cheek, listening for a hopeful tune, “That’s—the big news then?”
She swings an arm over my shoulder. “There’s another surprise,” she says. The phantom of silence follows us up the staircase. She opens the apartment door, and we duck inside. She latches it quietly, a hushed look on her face, and crosses the room to a young man in pair of blue jeans and dirt-caked boots, catnapping comfortably in my new chair, recumbent and fully asleep. Autumn caresses my shoulder.
“Is it him?” I ask.
She sighs, her flesh the color of an orchard peach.
I sit on the edge of the bed, grab the manufacturer’s pamphlet from the chair pocket, and pretend to read the warranty, gawking stealthily at Ethan’s gangly, beggar’s figure. Autumn flashes a rare, adoring smile in my direction, and those recently rekindled dreams of California crumble to ruins at my feet as I await my moment in the coveted recliner.
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