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Diamond Bay (Chapter Two)

He was naked. Her mind barely registered that fact before it was pushed aside by more urgent matters. She was still gasping for air herself, but she forced herself to hold her breath while she put her hand on his chest to detect a heartbeat, or the up and down movement of breathing. He was still, too still. She could find no hint of life in him, and his skin was so cool….

Of course it was cool! She brought herself up sharply, shaking her head to clear it of the cobwebs of fatigue. He'd been in the water for God only knew how long, but he'd been swimming, however weakly, the first time she'd seen him, and she was letting precious seconds tick past when she should be acting.

It took every ounce of strength she had to roll him onto his stomach, because he wasn't a small man, and the bright starlight revealed that he was solid muscle. Panting, she straddled him and began the rhythmic push-pull action that would stimulate his lungs. That was another thing her grandfather had taught her, and taught her well. Her arms and hands were strong from the gardening and swimming she did, and she worked on the man until she was rewarded by a choking cough and a stream of water gushing out of his mouth.

"There you go," she breathed, not ceasing her efforts. He went into a paroxysm of coughing, his body heaving beneath her; then he groaned hoarsely and shuddered before going limp.

Rachel quickly rolled him onto his back again, bending anxiously over him. His breathing was audible now. It was too rapid and too ragged, but he was definitely breathing. His eyes were closed, and his head rolled to the side when she shook him. He was unconscious.

She sank back on her heels, shivering as the ocean breeze went right through the wet shirt she wore, and stared at the dark head that rested on the sand. Only then did she notice the clumsy binding around his shoulder. She reached to pull it away, thinking that perhaps it was the remnants of the shirt he'd been wearing when he suffered whatever accident had cast him into the ocean. But the wet fabric beneath her fingers was denim, too heavy for a shirt in this weather, and it had been tied into a knot. She pulled at it again, and part of the fabric came away. It had been folded into a pad and shoved under the knot, and high on his shoulder was a wound, a round, obscene mouth where there shouldn't have been one, showing black in the colorless light.

Rachel stared at the wound, her mind jolting with realization. He'd been shot! She'd seen too many gunshot wounds not to recognize one, even in the pale light of the stars that reduced everything to silvery gleam and black shadows. Her head whipped around and she stared out to sea, straining her eyes to see the telltale pinpoint of light that would warn of a boat, but there was nothing. All her senses were alert, her nerves tingling, and she was instantly wary. People didn't get shot without reason, and it was logical to assume that whoever had shot him the first time would be willing to do so again.

He had to have help, but there was no way she could throw him over her shoulder and carry him up to the house. She stood, scanning the dark sea again to make certain she hadn't missed anything, but the expanse of water was empty. She would have to leave him here, at least for as long as it would take her to run up to the house and back.

Once the decision was made Rachel didn't vacillate. Bending, she grasped the man under his shoulders and dug her heels into the sand, grunting with the effort as she pulled him far enough out of the water that the incoming tide wouldn't lap around him before she could get back. Even in the depths of unconsciousness he felt the pain she caused him by tugging on his wounded shoulder and gave a low, hoarse moan. Rachel winced and felt her eyes burn momentarily, but it was something she had to do. When she judged that he was far enough up the beach she let his shoulders down on the sand as easily as she could, muttering a breathless apology to him even though she knew he couldn't hear her. "I'll be right back," she assured him, touching his wet face briefly. Then she ran.

Normally the path up the beach and through the stand of, pines seemed like a fairly short one, but tonight it stretched endlessly ahead of her. She ran, not caring about stubbing her bare toes on exposed roots, heedless of the small branches that caught at her shirt. One such limb was strong enough to catch her shirt, halting her flight in mid-step. Rachel threw her entire weight against the fabric, too frantic to pause to untangle it. With a sodden ripping sound the shirt tore, and she was free to resume her wild plunge up the slope.

The welcoming lights of her small house were a beacon in the night, the house an oasis of safety and familiarity, but something had gone very wrong, and she couldn't shut herself inside its refuge. The life of the man on the beach depended on her.

Joe had heard her coming. He stood on the edge of the porch with his hackles raised and a low, rumbling growl issuing from his throat. She could see him silhouetted by the porch light as she sprinted across the yard, but she didn't have time to calm him down. If he bit her, he bit her. She would worry about that later. But Joe didn't even glance at her as she bounded up the steps and slammed the screen door back on its hinges. He remained on guard, facing the pines and the beach, every muscle quivering as he placed himself between Rachel and whatever had sent her flying through the night.

Rachel grabbed the phone, trying to control her breathing so she would be able to talk coherently. Her hands were shaking as she fumbled through the telephone book, looking for an ambulance listing, or a rescue squadmaybe the sheriffs department. Anyone! She dropped the book and swore violently, leaning down to grab it again. Rescue squadthey would have paramedics, and the man needed medical attention more than he needed a police report made out on him.

She found the number and was punching it out, when suddenly her hand froze, and she stared at the phone. A police report. She didn't know why, couldn't logically explain it to herself right then, but abruptly she knew she had to keep this quiet, at least for now. The instincts she had developed during her years as an investigative reporter were sending off steady warning signals, and she obeyed them now as she had obeyed them then. She slammed the receiver back onto its hook, shaking as she stood there and tried to force her thoughts into order.

No police. Not now. The man on the beach was helpless, no threat to her or anyone else. He would have no chance at all if this was more than a simple shooting, an argument that had gotten out of hand. He might be a drug-runner. A terrorist. Anything. But, dear God, he might not be any of those, and she was the only chance he had.

Even as she dragged a quilt from the top of her bedroom closet and bolted from the house again, with Joe right on her heels, jumbled scenes from her past kept skittering through her mind. Scenes of things that weren't quite right, where the glossy surface was accepted and neatly filed away, the real story forever hidden from view. There were other worlds beyond the normal, everyday life that most people lived, layers of danger and deceit and treachery that were never even suspected. Rachel knew about those layers. They had taken B.B.'s life. The man on the beach might be victim or villain, but if he was a villain she would have time to turn him in to the authorities long before he could recover from his wound; on the other hand, if he was a victim, the only time he had was what she could give him.

He was lying just as she'd left him, the tide swirling just inches from his feet. Gasping, Rachel fell to her knees in the sand beside him and put her hand on his chest, shuddering with relief when she felt the steady up and down movement that told her he was still alive. Joe stood beside her, his head lowered and his ears laid back as a low, continuous growl came from his throat, his eyes never leaving the man.

"It's all right, Joe," she said, automatically giving the dog a reassuring pat, and for once he didn't shy away from her touch. She spread the quilt on the sand, then knelt once again to brace her hands against the man's limp body. She rolled him onto the quilt. This time he didn't make a sound, and she was grateful he couldn't feel the pain she had to cause him.

It took her a few minutes to get him positioned; then she had to rest. She stared uneasily at the sea again, but it was still empty. There was no one out there, though it wasn't unusual to see the night lights of passing boats. Joe brushed against her legs, growling again, and she gathered her strength. Then she leaned down, gathered the two corners of the quilt nearest the man's head and dug her heels into the sand. She grunted with the strain; even with her entire weight thrown into the effort, it was all she could do to drag him a few feet. God, he was heavy!

Maybe when she got him off the beach and onto the slippery pine needles it would be easier. If it got much harder she wouldn't be able to budge him at all. She'd known it would be difficult, but she hadn't realized it would be almost beyond her physical capabilities. She was strong and healthy, and his life depended on her. Surely she could drag him up to her house, even if she had to do it an inch at a time!

That was almost what it amounted to. Even when she managed to get him off the beach, although the pine needles were slippery and the quilt slid over them more easily, her path was uphill. The incline wasn't steep, and she normally walked it easily, but it might as well have been vertical for the effort it took her to drag a two-hundred-pound man up it. She couldn't sustain her forward progress for any length of time at all. She lunged and lurched, falling to her knees several times. Her lungs were pumping and wheezing like bellows, and her entire body was one big ache before she had him halfway up the slope. She stopped for a moment and leaned against a pine, fighting the inevitable nausea of overexertion. If it hadn't been for the tree supporting her, she might not have been able to stand at all, because her legs and arms were trembling wildly.

An owl hooted somewhere close by, and the crickets chirped on undisturbed; the events of the night meant nothing to them. Joe hadn't left her side, and every time she stopped to rest he crowded against her legs, which was totally unlike him. But he wasn't pressing against her for protection; rather, he was protecting her, putting himself between her and the man. Rachel took a deep breath and steeled herself for another effort, patting Joe on the side and saying, "Good boy, good boy."

She reached down to take hold of the quilt again, and Joe did something extraordinary; he caught the edge of the quilt between his teeth and growled. Rachel stared at him, wondering if he'd taken it in his head to prevent her from dragging it any farther. Cautiously she braced her shaky legs, then leaned back and pulled with every ounce of strength left in her. Still growling, Joe braced his legs and pulled, too, and with his strength added to hers the quilt slid forward several feet.

Rachel stopped in amazement, staring at the dog. "Good boy," she said again. "Good boy!" Had it been a fluke, or would he do it again? He was a big, strong dog; Honey Mayfield had estimated that he weighed almost eighty pounds. If he could be coaxed into pulling with her, she could have the man up the slope in no time.

"Okay," she whispered, taking a better grip on the quilt. "Let's see if you'll do it one more time." She pulled, and Joe pulled, that low growl still rumbling in his throat, as if he disapproved of what she was doing, but would help her if she was determined to do it.

It was much easier with the dog's help, and soon they were out of the pine thicket, with only the dirt road and the small yard to cross before they reached the house. Rachel straightened and stared at the house, wondering how she would ever get him up the two steps to the porch. Well, she'd gotten him this far; she'd get him in the house, one way or another. Bending, she began tugging again.

He hadn't made a sound since that one groan on the beach, not even when they pulled him across exposed roots or the loose rocks on the dirt road. Rachel let the quilt drop and bent over him again, crouching on the cool, damp grass beside him. He was still breathing; after what she'd put him through, she didn't suppose she could ask for anything more. She stared at the two steps again, a frown puckering her forehead. She needed a conveyor belt to get him up those steps. A growing sense of urgency gnawed at her. Not only did he need attention, but the sooner she got him hidden inside, the better. She was isolated out here at Diamond Bay, so chance visitors weren't likely, but anyone who came looking for the man wouldn't be a chance visitor. Until he was conscious, until she knew more about what was going on, she had to hide him.

The only way she had of getting him up the steps was to catch him under the arms and pull him up them, just as she'd pulled him out of the sea. Joe couldn't help now. She would have to lift the man's head, shoulders and chestthe heaviest part of his body.

She'd gotten her wind back, and sitting there in the grass wasn't going to get anything accomplished. But she was so tired, as if her legs and arms were weighted down with lead; they were sluggish, and she staggered a little when she climbed to her feet. Gently she wrapped the quilt around the man, then positioned herself behind him and slid her hands under his shoulders. Straining, fighting for every bit of leverage, she raised him to a half-sitting position, then quickly propped him up on her legs. He started to fall over, and with a cry Rachel caught him around the chest, looping her arms tightly and locking her hands together. His head fell forward, as limply as a newborn's. Joe worried at her side, growling when he couldn't find a place to catch hold of the quilt.

"It's all right," she panted. "I've got to do it this way now." She wondered if she was talking to the dog or the man. Either was ridiculous, but both seemed important.

The steps were at her back. Keeping her legs under her and her hands tightly locked around the man's chest, Rachel thrust herself backward; her bottom landed on the first step with a jarring thud, and the edge of the top step scraped a raw strip down her back, but she'd managed to lift the man a little. Hot pain seared her back and legs from the strain she was putting on her muscles. "Oh, God," she whispered, "I can't collapse now. In a little while I'll rest, but not now."

Grinding her teeth, she got her feet under her again, using the stronger muscles of her thighs rather than her more vulnerable back muscles. Once more she lunged up and back, pushing with her legs, hauling the man up with her. She was sitting on the top step now, and tears of pain and effort were stinging her eyes. The man's torso was on the steps, his legs still out in the yard, but if she could get his upper body on the porch the rest would be easy. She had to do the agonizing maneuver one more time.

She didn't know how she did it, where she found the strength. She gathered, lunged, pushed. Suddenly her feet went out from under her and she fell heavily on her back on the wooden porch, the man lying on her legs. Stunned, she lay there for a moment, staring up at the yellow porch light with the tiny bugs swarming around it. She could feel her heart pounding wildly inside her rib cage, hear the wheezing sobs as she tried to suck enough oxygen into her lungs to meet the demand being made by overworked muscles. His weight was crushing her legs. But she was lying full-length on the porch, so if he was lying on her legs, that meant she'd done it. She'd gotten him up the steps!

Groaning, crying, she pushed herself into a sitting position, though she thought the planks beneath her made a wonderful bed. It took her a moment to struggle from beneath his confining weight, and then it was more than she could do to stand. She crawled to the screen door and propped it open, then scrambled back to the man. Just a few more feet. Inside the front door, angle to the right, then into her bedroom. Twenty, thirty feet. That was it, all she would ask of herself.

The original method of catching the edge of the quilt and pulling it seemed like a good idea, and Joe was willing to lend his strength again, but Rachel had precious little strength herself, and the dog had to do most of the work. Slowly, laboriously, they inched the man across the porch. She and Joe couldn't get through the door at the same time, so she went first and knelt to reach for a new grip on the quilt. Growling, his husky body braced, Joe pulled back with all his strength, and man and quilt came through the door.

It seemed like a good idea to keep on going while they had him moving; she angled him toward her bedroom, and a scant minute later he was lying on the floor beside her bed. Joe released the quilt as soon as she did and immediately backed away from her, his hackles raised as he reacted to the unfamiliar confines of a house.

Rachel didn't try to pet him now; she'd already asked so much of him, trespassed so far past the set boundaries, that any further overtures would simply be too much. "This way," she said, struggling to her feet and leading him back to the front door. He darted past her, anxious for his freedom again, and disappeared into the darkness beyond the porchlight. Slowly she released the screen door and closed it, slapping at a gnat that had entered the house.

Methodically, her steps slow and faltering, she locked the front and back doors and pulled the curtains over the windows. Her bedroom had old-fashioned Venetian blinds, and she closed them. That done, the house as secure as she could make it, she stared down at the naked man sprawled on her bedroom floor. He needed medical attention, skilled medical attention, but she didn't dare call a doctor. They were required to report all gunshot wounds to the police.

There was really only one person who could help her now, one person she trusted to keep a secret. Going to the kitchen, Rachel dialed Honey Mayfield, keeping her fingers crossed that some emergency hadn't already called Honey out. The telephone was picked up on the third ring, and a distinctly drowsy voice said, "This is Mayfield."

"Honey, this is Rachel. Can you come out?"

"Now?" Honey yawned. "Has something happened to Joe?" "No, the animals are fine. But…can you bring your bag? And put it in a grocery sack or something, so no one can see it."

All traces of drowsiness had left Honey's voice. "Is this a joke?"

"No. Hurry."

"I'll be there as soon as I can."

Two receivers were hung up simultaneously, and Rachel went back to the bedroom, where she crouched beside the man. He was still unconscious, and the handling he had received should have been enough to wake the dead, unless he had lost so much blood that he was in deep shock and near death himself. Sharp, piercing anxiety seized her, and she touched his face with trembling hands, as if she could pass the essence of life to him with her touch. He was warmer now than he had been, and he was breathing with slow, heavy movements of his chest. The wound on his shoulder was sullenly oozing blood, and sand clung to him, even matting his hair, which was still dripping seawater. She tried to brush some of the sand out of his hair and felt something sticky beneath her fingers. Frowning, she looked at the watery redness that stained her hand; then awareness dawned. He had a head injury, as well! And she had dragged him up that slope, then literally manhandled him up the steps and onto the porch! The wonder was that she hadn't killed him!

Her heart pounding, she ran to the kitchen and filled her biggest plastic mixing bowl with warm water, then returned to the bedroom to sit on the floor beside him. As gently as possible, she washed as much blood and sand out of his hair as she could, feeling the thick strands come unmatted between her fingers. Her fingertips found a swelling lump on the right side of his head, just past the hairline at his temple, and she pushed the hair aside to reveal a jagged tear in the skin. Not a gunshot wound, though. It was as if he'd hit his head, or been hit with something. But why was he unconscious now? He had been swimming when she'd first seen him, so he'd been conscious then, coming in on the surge of the tide. He hadn't lost consciousness until he was already inside the mouth of Diamond Bay.

She pressed the cloth to the lump, trying to clean sand out of the cut. Had he hit his head on one of the huge, jagged rocks that lined the mouth of the bay? At low tide they were just under the surface of the water and difficult to avoid unless you knew exactly where they were placed. Knowing what she did about the bay, Rachel decided that that was exactly what had happened, and she bit her lip at the thought of dragging the man around the way she had when he was probably suffering from a concussion. What if her imagination was running wild with her, and she caused the man's death with her fears and hesitation? A concussion was serious, and so was a gunshot wound. Oh, God, was she doing the right thing? Had he been shot by accident and fallen overboard at night, then lost his bearings from pain and confusion? Was someone frantically searching for him right now?

She stared blindly down at him, her hand moving to touch his shoulder as if in apology, her fingers stroking lightly over his warm, darkly tanned skin. What a fool she was! The best thing she could do for this man would be to call the rescue squad immediately and hope that she hadn't done any additional damage to him with her rough handling. She started to get to her feet, to forget her crazy fancies and do the sensible thing, when she realized that she had been staring at his legs, and that the left one had a knotted strip of denim tied around it. Denim. He'd had denim tied around his shoulder, too. Her spine tingled warily, and she left her position by his head to crawl down to his leg, already afraid of what she would find. She couldn't untie the knot; it was pulled too tightly, and the water had only tightened it.

She got a pair of scissors out of her sewing basket and neatly sliced the fabric. The scissors slipped from her suddenly nerveless fingers as she stared down at his thigh, at the ugly wound in the outer muscle. He'd been shot in the leg, too. She examined his leg almost clinically; there were both entry and exit wounds, so at least the bullet wasn't still inside him. He hadn't been so lucky with his shoulder.

No one was shot twice by accident. Someone had deliberately tried to kill him.

"I won't let it happen!" she said fiercely, the sound of her own voice startling her. She didn't know the man who lay on the floor, unmoving and unresponsive, but she crouched over him with all the protectiveness of a lioness for a helpless cub. Until she knew what was going on, no one was going to get a chance to hurt this man.

Her hands gentle, she began washing him as best she could. His nudity didn't embarrass her, under the circumstances she felt it would be silly to flinch from his bare flesh. He was wounded, helpless; had she walked up on him sunbathing in the nude, that would have been a different kettle of fish entirely, but he needed her now, and she wasn't about to let modesty prevent her from helping him. She heard the sound of a car coming down her road and got hastily to her feet. That should be Honey, and though Joe normally wasn't as hostile to women as he was to men, after the unusual events of the night he might be on edge and take it out on the vet. Rachel unlocked the front door and opened it, stepping out on the front porch. She couldn't see Joe, but a low growl issued from beneath the oleander shrub, and she spoke quietly to him as Honey's car turned into the driveway.

Honey got out and reached into the back seat for two grocery sacks, which she clutched to her as she started across the yard. "Thanks for waiting up," she said clearly. "Aunt Audrey wants you to look at these quilting squares for your shops."

"Come on in," Rachel invited, holding open the screen door. Joe growled again as Honey walked up the steps, but remained beneath the oleander.

Honey sat the two grocery sacks on the floor and watched as Rachel carefully locked the front door again. "What's going on?" she demanded, planting her strong, freckled fists on her hips. "Why am I disguising my bag as quilting squares?"

"In here," Rachel said, leading the way to her bedroom. He still wasn't moving, except for the regular motion of his chest as he breathed. "He's been shot," she said, going down on her knees beside him.

The healthy color washed out of Honey's face, leaving her freckles as bright spots on her nose and cheekbones. "My God, what's going on here? Who is he? Have you called the sheriff? Who shot him?"

"I don't know, to answer three of those questions," Rachel said tensely, not looking at Honey. She kept her eyes trained on the man's face, willing him to open his eyes, wishing he could give her the answers to the questions Honey had asked. "And I'm not going to call the sheriff."

"What do you mean, you're not going to call?" Honey fairly shouted, shaken out of her usual calm capability by the sight of a naked man on Rachel's bedroom floor. "Did you shoot him?"

"Of course not! He washed up on the beach!"

"All the more reason to call the sheriff!"

"I can't! Rachel lifted her head, her eyes fierce and strangely calm. "I can't risk his life that way."

"Have you lost your sense of reason? He needs a doctor, and the sheriff needs to investigate why he was shot! He could be an escaped felon, or a drug runner. Anything!"

"I know that." Rachel drew a deep breath. "But the shape he's in, I don't think I'm taking that much of a risk. He's helpless. And if things aren't that…cut and dried…he wouldn't stand a chance in a hospital where someone could get to him."

Honey put her hand to her head. "I don't understand what you're talking about," she said wearily. "What do you mean, 'cut and dried'? And why do you think someone would try to get to him? To finish the job they started?"

"Yes."

"Then it's a job for the sheriff!"

"Listen," Rachel said insistently. "When I was a reporter, I saw some things that were…strange. I was on the scene one night when a body was found. The man had been shot in the back of the head. The sheriff of that county did his report, the body was taken in for identification, but when the one-paragraph report appeared in the newspaper two days later it said that he had died of natural causes! In a way, I suppose it is natural to die of a bullet in the brain, but it made me curious, and I poked around a little, looking for the file. The file had disappeared. The coroner's office had no record of a man who had been shot in the head. Finally the word filtered down to me to stop snooping, that certain people in government had taken care of the matter and wanted it dropped."

"This doesn't make any sense," Honey muttered. "The man was an agent!"

"What sort of agent? DEA? FBI? What?"

"You're on the right track, but go deeper."

"A spy? You're saying he was a spy?"

"He was an agent. I don't know for which side, but the entire thing was hushed up and doctored out of existence. After that I started noticing other things that weren't quite what they seemed. I've seen too much to simply assume that this man will be safe if I turn him over to the authorities!"

"You think he's an agent?" Honey stared down at him, her brown eyes wide.

Rachel willed herself to answer calmly. "I think there's a chance of it, and I think we'd be risking his life to turn him over to the sheriff. It would be a matter of public record then, and anyone hunting for him would be able to find him."

"He could still be a drug runner. You could be risking your life by protecting him."

"That's a possibility," Rachel admitted. "But he's wounded, and I'm not. He doesn't have any chance at all, except what I can give him. If the DEA has busted up a drug ring there'll be something about it on the scanner, or in the newspaper. If he's an escaped felon it'll be on the news. He's not in any condition to hurt anyone, so I'm safe."

"And if a drug deal has gone sour, and some other unsavory characters are after him? You wouldn't be safe then, from either him or the others."

"That's a chance I'll have to take," Rachel said quietly, her gray eyes level as she met Honey's worried gaze. "I know all the possibilities, and I know the risks. I may be seeing shadows where there aren't any, but think how terrible it would be for him if I'm right."

Honey drew a deep breath and tried again. "It just isn't likely that a wounded spy would wash up on your beach. Things like that don't happen to normal people, and you're still within the bounds of normalcy, even if you are a little eccentric."

Rachel couldn't believe what she was hearing, from Honey of all people, who was usually the most logical person in the state. The night's events were rattling everyone. "It isn't likely that a wounded man would wash up on my beach period, regardless of his occupation! But he did! He's here, and he needs help. I've done what I can, but he needs medical attention. He still has a bullet in his shoulder. Honey, please!"

If possible, Honey went even whiter. "You want me to take care of him? He needs a doctor! I'm a veterinarian!"

"I can't call a doctor! Doctors are required to report all gunshot wounds to the police. You can do it. No vital organs are involved. It's his shoulder and his leg, and I think he has a concussion. Please."

Honey glanced down at the naked man and bit her lip. "How did you get him up here?"

"Joe and I pulled him, on this quilt."

"If he has a severe concussion he may need surgery."

"I know. I'll handle that if it's necessary. I'll think of something."

They were both silent for a few minutes, looking down at the man who lay so still and helpless at their feet. "All right," Honey finally said, her voice soft. "I'll do what I can. Let's get him up on the bed."

That was as difficult as getting him up from the beach had been. Because Honey was larger and stronger, she got him under the shoulders, while Rachel slid one arm under his hips and the other under his thighs. As Rachel had noted before, he was a big man, and roped with muscles, which meant that he weighed more for his size than a less muscular man would have. He was also deadweight, and they had to be careful of his injuries. "Good God," Honey panted. "How did you manage to get him up that slope and into the house, even with Joe's help?" "I had to do it," Rachel said, because that was the only explanation she had.

Finally they got him on the bed, and Rachel slumped to the floor, totally exhausted by the night's efforts. Honey bent over the man, her freckled face intent as she examined him.

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