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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER EIGHT)

HERE'S HOW THE NEXT excruciating hour broke down:

After we'd driven a sufficient distance from Rome (leaving him scowling in the street) and Pretty Boy (leaving him to hopefully choke on his dart gun), I asked my punked-out driver to take me to a cheap motel-a suggestion he loved.

I mean, the kid was all smiles. And why wouldn't he be? I'd offered to sex him up hard core. Someone should lock me up in a padded room and burn the key. But I had to go to a random location, as planned, or risk being found, and a cheap motel was the best my stressed-out brain could think up. How I would have loved to go to my dad's, instead, to throw myself in his arms and let him sing me to sleep like he'd done for me as a child. But I didn't want to involve him.

Sunlight poured through the car windows, but the air inside was ice-cold. Not my fault. The kid-what the hell was his name?-had the AC cranked up, blasting it from the vents. I couldn't get warm. My nipples were hard enough to cut glass.

As the scenery whizzed past, I saw a few scattered flower patches and multiple gas stations before the entire landscape was consumed by pine trees. Constantly I cataloged the traffic around and behind us. No one careened toward us or followed-that I could see. To be honest, the only people who seemed to care about us were the angry drivers who didn't appreciate our weaving in and out of lanes.

"Eyes straight ahead," I said when I noticed the kid was staring at my chest.

His cheeks colored. "My little pony needs the road to open up so she can run." He patted the dashboard.

Run. Yes. Forever? How long would I be hunted?

He glanced at me-at my face, this time. "Hey, you all right? You're putting out some seriously funky vibes."

"I'm great." Considering I'm marked for death. "What's your name?"

"Tanner, but my friends call me Crazy Bones."

"Uh, that's an… interesting nickname."

"I know. I got it from the ladies." His young chest puffed up. "It's for all the wicked-mad bones I give the girls that make them crazy for more."

I almost choked. "Bones… as in sex?"

"Fo sheezie." He chuckled, a sound of pure adolescent glee. "No one's ever jumped in front of my car like that."

No more "get out, bitch" from this one.

Tanner-I refused to refer to him as Crazy Bones-was cute in a bad boy sort of way. Silver rings winked from his eyebrow, blue hair fell over his forehead and a colorful python tattoo wrapped around the base of his neck. He was a little thin, and his clothes were baggy and ripped. He looked anything but poor, however.

"My dad said the Viper would be a babe magnet, but fuck if I had any idea how much."

"Your dad sounds great," I said drily.

His lips dipped into a frown, and his hands clenched over the wheel. Had I said something wrong? Before I had a chance to ask, he changed the subject. "Who was shooting darts at you, and who was that man chasing you? You were, like, getting it from every angle."

"The dart man is the devil." And I didn't know what Rome was to me. Potential savior? Potential downfall? Potential lover? A combination of all three? "I wish I knew about the one chasing me," I finally answered, choosing honesty.

"He looked pi-issed. I've never seen a scowl that mean."

"Unfortunately, that scowl is not false advertising." Rome 's face flashed before my mind. Oh, yes. He'd been pissed. His pupils had been dilated dramatically. His teeth had been bared in a sharp snarl, his nostrils flared. If he had been blessed/cursed with power over the four elements, there would have been a spontaneous Belle BBQ there in the street.

Before today, I never would have believed something like this was possible. Anyone who said superpowers truly existed would have been filed in the folders of my mind under "Freaking Insane."

Tanner sneezed once, twice. He rubbed his nose and cut a narrowed glance in my direction. "Those ashes are potent."

"Are they? I hadn't noticed," I said drily, turning toward him. For the first time, our gazes met. His eyes were completely black, as if his pupils had swallowed his irises and-I shook my head, certain my eyesight must be compromised. "Are those eight balls?"

"Hell, yeah." He grinned, appearing younger and slightly wicked. "I could have gone for the tiger eye contacts, but this way the girls know right up front that I've got lucky balls."

O-kay. Too much (creepy) information. I needed to find a happy place inside my mind and forget I'd ever heard that. Happy place. Happy place.

"So, uh, you never told me your name, baby," he said. He leaned back in his seat and stretched out one arm, draping it over my headrest.

I didn't want to give him the real thing. The less he knew about me and my circumstances, the better. "My friends call me… " Crap. Except for the names Hunted and Dead, my mind was completely blank. Surely I could come up with something. My gaze slid over the car, onto the dashboard, and-I grinned. "Viper. My friends call me Viper."

Tanner's brow furrowed. "Like my car?"

"That's right." I didn't try to explain. Whatever explanation he created in his mind was sure to trump any lie I could weave.

"That's not your name," he said, his brow furrowing deeper. "I thought I heard that man call you Elle. Or Belle. Or Nell."

Thinking quickly (and not altogether intelligently), I said, "He was Spanish, obviously, and was trying to say el stoppo." Okay, so that sucked major ass. You try almost dying, being chased, then hopping in a car with a complete (horny) stranger and see what kind of lies you can come up with. Jeez.

A car honked and we swerved, tilting me to the side. I barely managed to hold back my scream. I gasped instead, hand poised over my heart as if such a puny action could slow it down. No emotion, Belle. Feel nothing. "Is someone trying to run us off the road?"

"Oops. My bad," Tanner said. He realigned the car, nearly swiping the bumper of a Jeep. "I got distracted."

Did I have to ask what distracted him?

He decided to answer, though I hadn't asked aloud. "Your shirt is so thin." There was a hint of accusation in his tone.

God save me from teenagers. Please. I didn't remember them acting this blatant about their arousal. Maybe that was because I'd been an ugly duckling in high school (and junior high and elementary school) and they hadn't been turned on around me. I'd been too skinny, had a mouthful of silver braces and had been taller than most of the boys (not that I'm a giant or anything). Yes, I'd even had pimples. But I'd been the best dressed, by God!

And just so you know, I wasn't the only voter in that poll.

Finally, the vehicle eased into a smoothly paved parking lot of an elegant motel, and stopped under the covered entrance. Magnolia trees in full bloom surrounded the sprawling structure, their pink tones giving the place a gentle, welcoming ambiance. A patch of wildflowers separated the parkway from the foyer, a rainbow of colors.

"This isn't a cheap motel," I said, frowning.

"Well, it is a motel and it's the cheapest one in the area." He cut the engine and unfastened his seat belt.

I released my belt, as well, and bit my bottom lip. The kid wanted to come inside. He expected to have sex with me. How was I going to get out of this one?

Tanner's gaze shifted from the immaculate building to me. "We can keep driving, I guess, and find someplace trashier."

"No." I sighed. My shoulders slumped. I'd be out of cash before the end of the day, and had no way of getting more. Silver lining: the people after me would probably assume I'd conserve my money and stay in a real dump. They wouldn't look for me here. Right? Right. "This will be fine," I said with forced ease.

"Don't worry about money." He wriggled his eyebrows at me. "I'll pay."

I pursed my lips. He thought I planned to rock his world; of course he wanted to pay. While that disturbed me on one level, it overjoyed me on another, solving several problems. One, I'd keep my anonymity. And two, I'd save what little (stolen) cash I had in my possession. I was, as usual, a girl on a budget.

"Okay, thanks," I said, fighting a wave of guilt. "Why don't you get the room? I'll wait here."

He shook his head, causing blue locks of hair to fall over his eyes. "Hell, no. I'm not going in there by myself."

"Why not?"

"Just because." His cheeks burned bright red.

Confused, I blinked at him. "Are you eighteen or older?"

"Yeah, but I'm not doing it alone. That's… embarrassing. Like buying condoms by myself or something. The motel people might think I'm getting a room to pleasure myself."

O-kay. There was no arguing with that kind of dumb-ass logic. I opened the passenger door and eased outside. Humidity instantly wrapped around me, dampening my skin and chasing away the chill. There were more gnats here, but the air was cleaner, fresher than in the city, and layered with the scents of flowers and honey. I inhaled deeply.

Tanner emerged, too, and sauntered to my side. He was a lot taller than me, taller than I'd realized. His pants were so baggy they hung past his waist and revealed the line of his tightie whities. Grinning, he draped his arm over my shoulder.

You had to give the kid points for pretending to be solicitous while covertly groping.

I fought another wave of guilt for lying to him as I pushed his arm off my shoulder. Thankfully, I didn't cause a national disaster-no telling what reaction guilt might bring. Tornado? Tsunami? No way would I sleep with the boy, though. Only one man heated my blood right now and I'd left him panting. And not from satisfaction.

Tanner deserved the truth, but I couldn't tell him yet. I still needed him. If someone managed to track me here, they would be less likely to suspect the gal with the teenager of being, well, me.

"This is so cool," Tanner said.

Our word choices were a wee bit different. What he thought of as cool, I thought of as horrifying. My heart raced as I realized how exposed I was outside, so I picked up speed and rushed to the doors. Tanner stayed close on my heels.

"Try not to stand out," I told him, gaze darting in every direction. "We don't want people to remember us."

"Uh, have you seen me?" he asked, a smile curling the corners of his lips. "I'm unforgettable."

Good point. "Just try not to say anything outrageous. Or do anything shocking."

He snorted, sounding amused and exasperated at the same time. "What can I do in a motel?"

I should have known those words would only lead to trouble.

Glass double doors slid open, and a cool breeze kissed me. The lobby boasted thick, violet carpet, a purple couch and glass table. A kitchen area claimed the right side, complete with sink, microwave and toasters. Several dining tables and chairs were scattered throughout. A long white counter curved in three directions, forming a complete M, and blocked the sitting area and kitchen from the offices.

Thankfully, the man behind the counter was the only person inside. He was in his late fifties, with thinning hair and a tall, lanky body. He appeared snobbish rather than menacing.

"How may I help you?" he asked, all business.

The phone rang, but he ignored it.

"We need a room," I said between rings. I tried to keep my face half-hidden with my hands.

Tanner gave the guy a chin nod and eyebrow lift. "That's right. We need a room. The two of us. Together."

I barely restrained myself from punching him in the stomach. Where was his embarrassment now?

The man frowned with nearly palpable condemnation, and asked for Tanner's name, ID and credit card, all the while clicking away on his computer. As he activated a room key, he said, "I hope you and your… mom have a nice stay."

"Very subtle," I said drily. I knew I didn't look old enough to have a child Tanner's age. At least, I better not. That might be reason enough to kill myself. "Let's go, son o' mine."

Turning, I grabbed Tanner's arm. My momentum spun him. "She's my lover," the kid called over his shoulder. "And I'm totally not her son."

I groaned and whispered fiercely, "We don't want people to remember us. Remember?"

"He could totally feel the sexual sparks we were generating, and I couldn't let him think I planned to let my mom play with my magic stick. That's just gross."

Outside, I was once again swathed in heat and humidity. I'd lived here all my life, but the oppressive temperatures never failed to shock my system, like stepping from a Frigidaire into an oven.

Birds chirped as we veered right, heading toward room 18. When a young couple emerged from one of the units, I kept my head down, not wanting them to get a good look at me as I passed. After the dart incident, I wasn't taking any chances.

At our room, I unlocked the door and hurried inside. Tanner followed right behind me. The lights were dim, the air a little stale, but at least the place was clean. A queen-size bed pushed against the far white wall consumed most of the space. Dark purple blankets draped the mattress and blended prettily with the light purple carpet. Two floral pictures dotted the walls, hanging directly over two nightstands.

A pang of homesickness took me by surprise. I suddenly craved my own bed, my own apartment. My dad.

"Let's get this party started," Tanner said.

I glanced over at him, and my jaw dropped. While I'd been studying the room, he'd been removing his T-shirt, revealing a tanned, lean chest. In a few years, he'd probably bulk up like a warrior and the girls would find him irresistible. Skinny as he was now, with blue hair and eyebrow rings, the kid still managed to radiate a certain kind of sex appeal.

Now he was in the process of unsnapping his jeans.

"Uh, Tanner," I said.

"Yeah?" He didn't pause, but gave me a come-hither grin. His jeans fell to his ankles.

I reached out and wrapped my fingers around his wrists before he could discard his underwear. "When I said you'd get sex tonight, I, uh, didn't mean with me."

He stiffened, and his lips descended into a frown. "I don't understand."

"I, well… " I reached into my pocket and withdrew several precious bills, already mourning their loss. "Here's fifty dollars. It's my pleasure to treat you to a hooker."

Twin circles of color bloomed on his cheeks. He hastily pulled up his jeans and began resnapping them. "I knew you were lying when you said you wanted to have sex with me. I knew it."

I didn't try to deny it. "I'm sorry." With my eyes, I pleaded with him to understand. "I was desperate."

He bent down and retrieved his T-shirt. He jerked the material over his head. "I knew you were lying, but I thought just this once I'd take a chance. Stupid me, huh?"

He sounded sad and angry at the same time, and the combination was like a punch in the gut. "How old are you?" I asked.

A muscle ticked in his jaw. "Nineteen. Why?"

"I just wondered." He wasn't much younger than me, yet in this moment he seemed infinitely so. "If you get the hooker, make sure to wear a condom. Maybe two of them."

"I'm not getting a hooker. Just keep your goddamn money. You'll probably need it." His shoulders slumped ever so slightly. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and simply stared over at me. "So you want me to go or what?"

"You want to stay?" I asked, surprised.

"It's not like I have anywhere else to go," he said, his tone bitter. His jaw clenched.

I flopped on the edge of the bed with a sigh. The kid had been so nice to me, and his expression was so forlorn. My guilt intensified, threading a thick web inside me. "Tanner," I began.

"Stop. Just stop. You're about to go all girlie on me and explain that I can't stay because I'd see it as an opportunity to try and sleep with you."

"Yes. We're strangers and I-" How did you politely tell someone you weren't attracted to him? Sure, men had told me that all the time. Albeit silently. The way they looked right through me said plenty. But it hurt nonetheless, and I didn't want to hurt this boy. "What do you mean, you have no place to go?"

"Forget I said anything, okay?" He turned away from me, but didn't move toward the door. He remained in place, his shoulders hunched. A long while passed in silence, before he softly said, "When you got into my car, you were the first girl to pay attention to me in a long, long time, and I liked it. I don't want it to end."

"What?" I jolted upright, my back straighter than a board. "I thought you were Crazy Bones, the sexual boy wonder."

"I made it up." He faced me again, his jaw tight, his expression defiant. "I wanted to impress you."

Rather than hearing this, I think I would have preferred being kicked in the stomach and having all my money stolen. With a sigh, I patted the space beside me on the bed. "Have you ever had a girlfriend, Tanner?"

His jaw tightened further. He shook his head.

"Maybe… maybe I could give you some pointers or something."

Another blanket of silence fell between us. "Really?" he finally said, his voice dripping with innocent need.

I nodded. Sherridan-a gal who apparently had an affinity for leather pants and riding crops-had once projected this kind of neediness, and still did at times, desperate for someone to love her, to show her attention. I vividly remember the way her parents had ignored her, indifferent to her wild, notice-me antics. She'd calmed down considerably over the years, but the void had never left her.

I wouldn't doubt if Tanner had experienced that kind of childhood, and my heart ached for him.

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Okay." His expression brightened slightly, and he walked toward me. The bed squeaked as he eased onto the mattress.

"What do you think is the problem? You're a cute kid-uh, guy. Man. You're a cute man."

"I don't know." He shrugged. "I see a girl I like, I approach her and lay my smack down, and she gets all pissy and leaves."

This was worse than I'd thought. "What do you mean by laying your smack down?"

"I mean, I show a woman my best moves and give her my best lines."

"Give me an example of your best line."

He spoke without hesitation. "Hey, baby. You want to take a ride on the Tanner Express?" He did a chin tilt, gave a wicked grin and held out his arms.

Dear God. I tented my hands over my mouth and blinked at him. "You honestly say that?"

"Well, yeah." He lost his smile, and his arms fell to his sides. "It lets the ladies know I'll provide a nonstop pleasure train."

"Uh, no, it doesn't. It lets the ladies know you're a moron and you don't respect them, will only be using them, and you couldn't care less if they have a brain as long as they have breasts and thighs."

"Fine," he snapped. "What should I say?"

"For one, I'd mention nothing about taking a ride on any kind of express." I should not have offered to help him. Even an artist needed something to work with. "You need to compliment women. Tell them how pretty they are. And don't mention that you really love how their nipples poke through their shirt or anything like that."

"I've tried compliments, and that doesn't work." He tumbled onto the bed with a sigh. "It's hopeless. I'm hopeless."

I nearly nodded in agreement, but stopped myself in time. "We just need to work on your game a little, that's all. I'm kind of on the run, as you probably guessed, or I'd take you out and show you the ropes."

He turned toward me, his face flickering with genuine concern. "Why are you running?"

"I can't say." I wished I could tell him, though. How nice it would be to confide in someone. "The less you know, the safer you are."

"Are you safe?"

"Of course," I lied, with a wave of my hand.

Doubt darkened his expression, but he didn't press me. "Do you want to help me, like, after you're done running?"

"Absolutely." And I did, I realized. He was endearing.

"Promise? You owe me, remember?"

"I promise."

He bounded up and strode to the nightstand, finding a pen and tiny notebook in the drawer. "Here's my number. Call me when you're safe." He paused, looked over at me and frowned. "Actually, call me if you need another ride. I don't like leaving you alone."

"I will," I said, but I knew I wouldn't no matter how desperately I needed him. I'd put him in enough danger already.

"Do me another favor. Promise me you'll be careful and won't talk to strangers or hang out in dark alleys."

"Okay, now you are acting like my mom."

"I'm serious. What if I've put your life in danger?"

"I need a little danger in my life. Think how much it will impress the ladies."

I anchored one hand on my waist and wagged a finger at him with the other. "It won't impress them if you're dead."

"I can't die," he said, his eyes lowering and lingering on my chest. "I'm invincible."

Spoken like a true teenager. "Get out of here, Tanner, and don't tell anyone you met me."

"I won't." He gave me one of those slow, wicked grins of his. Lord, in a few years the ladies really would not be able to resist him. No matter what he said to them. "I know you told me not to tell potential girlfriends this, but you really do have pretty nipples poking through your shirt."

I slapped his arm, but I was grinning, too. "The girls and I thank you." I got to my feet, clasped his shoulders in my hands and kissed him softly on the mouth. "I think you're a fantastic guy."

He reached around me and pinched my butt. "Don't forget to call if you need me. I'll see ya around, Viper. Stay safe."

ALL ALONE, I locked the door and jumped in the shower, luxuriating in the hot water as it washed away ash, soot and the image of the beast monster I'd been. I washed my clothes, too, and hung them up to dry on the shower rod. Since I had torched my spare clothing, I had to wrap the bedsheet around me toga-style.

Exhaustion settled deep in my bones, and I plopped onto the bed. For half an hour I debated whether or not to call my dad. Would I put him in danger by calling him? What if someone had gone in and tapped his phone, hoping to get my location?

Before today, the most exciting incident in my life had been the bathroom funeral I'd held for Martin, my bastard of a betta fish. Oh, to time-travel back to the good old days. A sigh slipped from me as I stared at the phone. My dad would expect to hear from me sometime soon. If he didn't, he'd worry, and worry wasn't good for his heart.

That convinced me. Decision made. I'd do it. I'd call. Better to potentially give away my location than to cause my dad stress. If he had a heart attack because of me, I'd never forgive myself.

Fighting a yawn, I clutched the phone in one hand and dialed with the other. He answered on the fourth ring, and he sounded out of breath.

"Hey, Daddy. It's me." I strove to keep my tone casual. Breezy.

He coughed and a stream of sizzling static cracked over the line. "Baby doll. Hiya, sweetie. I didn't expect you to call. With your new man and all I thought you'd be busy."

I ignored the comment about my "new man." "Are you smoking again?"

"No, no. Uh-" Cough. Crackle. "I went for a little jog. That's why I'm out of breath."

"Daddy," I said warningly. "I do not support your silver fox habit just so you can put yourself in an early grave with cigarettes and cigars."

He sighed. "All right, you caught me. But I had to smoke the cigar, baby. Mary has been giving me the cold shoulder, so I had to find something to do with my hands. You know how twitchy I am."

"Is she refusing to talk to you now?" Their on-again, off-again romance kept me vastly entertained. Truly, I loved that he had a girlfriend. Or two. After my mom died, he hadn't dated anyone. He'd been too busy working and raising me, trying to give me a balanced childhood, acting as both mother and father.

With that thought, I suddenly wondered about Rome 's relationship with his daughter. I wondered, too, about his relationship with his wife. Or girlfriend. Or whatever the mother of his child was. Did he love her? Did he crave her with every ounce of his being?

"I tried to tell her Janet forced me to kiss her," my dad said, breaking into my thoughts. "But Mary doesn't believe me."

"Janet forced you, huh?" I twirled the cord around my finger and felt my eyelids sink shut, too heavy to hold up. Knowing my dad, he'd probably grabbed Janet by the shoulders and planted a big one on her before she knew what was going on.

"Okay, okay," he said. "Maybe I asked Janet for a kiss. It's not my fault she looked like she needed one. What kind of man would I be to ignore a woman in need?"

I chuckled. "You are an incurable flirt."

"Mary tossed her breakfast bowl at me yesterday morning, and I've been washing oatmeal out of my hair ever since."

Such an exaggerator, I thought with a smile. The man had lost his hair years ago. "Other than the oatmeal incident, how are you feeling? How's your health? Are you taking all your medication? Are you popping Viagra again?"

"Good. Fine. Yes. No. Lord have mercy, my own daughter is questioning me as if I'm a criminal."

Yawning-it was unstoppable at this point-I released the cord. I couldn't pry my eyelids apart to watch it bounce and twist free. "Don't try that wounded routine on me. You know it doesn't work."

"You sound tired, girl," he said. "How are things with my baby?"

"Good," I lied. Today was the day for lies, it seemed.

"I don't mind telling you that I'm a little upset with you, young lady. You didn't tell me you were dating someone." Exasperation and happiness layered his voice. " Rome seems like a nice guy."

"We only… dated-" any second I'd be hit with a lightning bolt for that whopper "-for a little while, but he wasn't right for me. I dumped him." Hard core. "Listen, Daddy," I said, quickly changing the subject. God, I was tired. "I've decided to take a vacation. You know, get some R and R. So don't worry about me if you call the apartment and I don't answer."

"Like I'd worry." He snorted.

Oh, he'd worry. He loved me as much as I loved him, and he was always looking out for me. I yawned again, this one longer, deeper. My limbs were beginning to shake, my mind forming more mush than thought. "I'm… going… "

"Get some rest, angel, and call me when you get back from your vacation."

"I love you, Daddy."

"Love you, too, doll."

We hung up. I rolled to my side and blindly replaced the receiver in its cradle. My arm flopped on the mattress and I stayed exactly where I was, too exhausted to move anymore. In the span of one day, I'd kissed a (supposed) government agent, developed superpowers, propositioned a teenage virgin and lied to my dad.

"Anything else you want to make me do?" I muttered to the heavens, pulling my knees to my stomach.

Don't fall asleep yet, Jamison. I had a lot to sort through, beginning with whom to trust. Not Pretty Boy, the bogus CIA agent who had tried to pump me full of darts. What a bastard. He tortured people. Killed them. I didn't doubt the truth of that. When Rome spoke of Vincent and his experiments, I could practically hear people screaming.

More than that, I remembered the deadness in Vincent's eyes.

Should I go to the police?

If I did, would they just hand me over to the government? To Rome? Hell, would they believe me? I almost didn't believe myself. Para-agencies, for God's sake. What about Rome? I was out of my league with him. He knew it and I knew it. Still, the question remained: could I trust him?

Rome had promised to help me find Dr. Roberts (and maybe an antidote) and make Vincent leave me alone. All I had to do in return was help him hide his daughter. Sounded like a great trade-off. Too good, actually. I guess what bothered me about the situation was that I was just, well, me. No training for this sort of thing. Unpredictable. I didn't know how to hide people, so what help could I ultimately give him?

Obviously, there was something he wasn't telling me. And if he wasn't telling me about it, it couldn't bode well for me.

"Shit." I had no clothes, hardly any money. Maybe I would call Tanner in the morning, have him take me shopping, and forget, if only for a little while, all of my troubles. I could give him more date tips and feel normal again.

And you can put him in more danger.

A sense of dejection filled me. I'd never felt more alone. More helpless. More tired. I moaned and covered my eyes with my arm, blocking out any hint of light. The hypnotic sound of the air conditioner wafted to my ears.

Lord, the stress of the day had zapped all my energy. Besides that, I hadn't yet fully rebuilt my strength from the effects of the formula. It was clear I wouldn't be making a decision on what to do anytime soon, so there was no reason to force myself to stay awake any longer.

When I woke up, everything would seem clearer.

Yeah, who did I think I was fooling?

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