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White lies (Chapter One)

In ranking the worst days of her life, this one probably wasn't number one, but it was definitely in the top three.

Jay Granger had held her temper all day, rigidly controlling herself until her head was throbbing and her stomach burning. Not even during the jolting ride in a succession of crowded buses had she allowed her control to crack. All day long she had forced herself to stay calm despite the pent-up frustration and rage that filled her, and now she felt as if she couldn't relax her own mental restraints. She just wanted to be alone.

So she silently endured having her toes stepped on, her ribs relocated by careless elbows, and her nostrils assailed by close-packed humanity. It began to rain just before she got off the last bus, a slow, cold rain that had chilled her to the bone by the time she walked the two blocks to her apartment building. Naturally she didn't have an umbrella with her; it was supposed to have been a sunny day. The clouds hadn't cleared all day long.

But at last she reached her apartment, where she was safe from curious eyes, either sympathetic or jeering. She was alone, blessedly alone. A sigh of relief broke from her lips as she started to close the door; then her control cracked and she slammed the door with every ounce of strength in her arm. It crashed against the frame with a resounding thud, but the small act of violence didn't release her tension. Trashing her entire office building might help, or choking Farrell Word- law, but both those actions were denied her.

When she thought of the way she had worked for the past five years, the fourteen- and sixteen-hour days, the work she had brought home on the weekends, she wanted to scream. She wanted to throw something. Yes; she definitely wanted to choke Farrell Wordlaw. But that wasn't appropriate behavior for a professional woman, a chic and sophisticated executive in a prestigious investment-banking firm. On the other hand, it was entirely appropriate for someone who had just joined the ranks of the unemployed.

Damn them.

For five years she had dedicated herself to her job, ruthlessly stifling those parts of her personality that didn't fit the image. At first it had been mostly because she needed the job and the money, but Jay was too intense to do anything by half measures. Soon she had become caught up in the teeming rat race–the constant striving for success, for new triumphs, bigger and better deals–and that world had been her life for five years. Today she had been kicked out of it.

It wasn't that she hadn't been successful; she had. Maybe too successful. Some people hadn't liked dealing with her because she was a woman. Realizing that, Jay had tried to be as straightforward and aggressive as any man, to reassure her clients that she would take care of them as well as a man could. To that end she had changed her habits of speech, her wardrobe, never let even a hint of a tear sparkle in her eyes, never giggled, and learned how to drink Scotch, though she had never learned to enjoy it. She had paid for such rigid control with headaches and a constant burning in her stomach, but nevertheless she had thrown herself into the role because, for all its stresses, she had enjoyed the challenge. It was an exciting job, with the lure of a fast trip up the corporate ladder, and for the time being, she had been willing to pay the price.

Well, it was over, by decree of Farrell Wordlaw. He was very sorry, but her style just wasn't "compatible" with the image Wordlaw, Wilson & Trusler wanted to project. He deeply appreciated her efforts, et cetera, et cetera, and would certainly give her a glowing reference, as well as two weeks' notice to get her affairs in order. None of that changed the truth, and she knew it as well as he. She was being pushed out to make room for Duncan Wordlaw, Farrell's son, who had joined the firm the year before and whose performance always ranked second, behind Jay's. She was showing up the senior partner's son, so she had to go. Instead of the promotion she'd been expecting, she'd been handed a pink slip.

She was furious, with no way to express it. It would give her the greatest satisfaction to walk out now and leave Wordlaw scrambling to handle her pending work, but the cold, hard fact was that she needed her salary for those two weeks. If she didn't find another well-paying job immediately, she would lose her apartment.

She had lived within her means, but as her salary had gone up so had her standard of living, and she had very little in savings. She certainly hadn't expected to lose her job because Duncan Wordlaw was an underachiever!

Whenever Steve had lost a job, he'd just shrugged and laughed, telling her not to sweat it, he'd find another. And he always had, too. Jobs hadn't been that important to Steve; neither had security. Jay gave a tight Tittle laugh as she opened a bottle of antacid tablets and shook two of them into her hand. Steve! She hadn't thought about him in years. One thing was certain, she would never be as uncaring about unemployment as he had been. She liked knowing where her next meal was coming from; Steve liked excitement. He'd needed the hot flow of adrenaline more than he'd needed her, and finally that had ended their marriage.

But at least Steve would never be this strung out on nerves, she thought as she chewed the chalky tablets and waited for them to ease the burning in her stomach. Steve would have snapped his fingers at Farrell Word-law and told him what he could do with his two weeks' notice, then walked out whistling. Maybe Steve's attitude was irresponsible, but he would never let a mere job get the best of him.

Well, that was Steve's personality, not hers. He'd been fun, but in the end their differences had been greater than the attraction between them. They had parted on a friendly basis, though she'd been exasperated, as well. Steve would never grow up.

Why was she thinking of him now? Was it because she associated unemployment with his name? She began to laugh, realizing she'd done exactly that. Still chuckling, she ran water into a glass and lifted it in a toast. "To the good times," she said. They'd had a lot of good times, laughing and playing like the two healthy young animals they'd been, but it hadn't lasted.

Then she forgot about him as worry surged into her mind again. She had to find another job immediately, a well-paying job, but she didn't trust Farrell to give her a glowing recommendation. He might praise her to the skies in writing, but then he would spread the word around the New York investment-banking community that she didn't "fit in." Maybe she should try something else. But her experience was in investment banking, and she didn't have the financial reserves to train for another field.

With a sudden feeling of panic, she realized that she was thirty years old and had no idea what she was going to do with her life. She didn't want to spend the rest of it making deals while living on her nerves and an endless supply of antacid tablets, spending all her free time resting in an effort to build up her flagging energy. In reacting against Steve's let-tomorrow-take-care-of-itself- while-I-have-fun-today philosophy, she had gone to the opposite extreme and cut fun out of her life.

She had opened the refrigerator door and was looking at her supply of frozen microwave dinners with an expression of distaste when the doorman buzzed. Deciding to forget about dinner, something she'd done too often lately, she depressed the switch. "Yes, Dennis?"

"Mr. Payne and Mr. McCoy are here to see you, Ms. Granger," Dennis said smoothly. "From the FBI."

"What?" Jay asked, startled, sure she'd misunderstood.

Dennis repeated the message, but the words remained the same.

She was totally dumbfounded. "Send them up," she said, because she didn't know what else to do. FBI? What on earth? Unless slamming your apartment door was somehow against federal law, the worst she could be accused of was tearing the tags off her mattress and pillows. Well, why not? This was a perfectly rotten end to a perfectly rotten day.

The doorbell rang a moment later, and she hurried to open the door, her face still a picture of confusion. The rather nondescript, modestly suited men who stood there both presented badges and identification for her inspection.

"I'm Frank Payne," the older of the two men said. "This is Gilbert McCoy. We'd like to talk to you, if we may."

Jay gestured them into the apartment. "I'm at a total loss," she confessed. "Please sit down. Would you like coffee?"

A look of relief passed over Frank Payne's pleasant face. "Please," he said with heartfelt sincerity. "It's been a long day."

Jay went into the kitchen and hurriedly put on a pot of coffee; then, to be on the safe side, she chewed two more antacid tablets. Finally she took a deep breath and walked out to where the two men were comfortably ensconced on her soft, chic, gray-blue sofa. "What have I done?" she asked, only half-joking.

Both men smiled. "Nothing," McCoy assured her, grinning. "We just want to talk to you about a former acquaintance."

She sank down in the matching gray-blue chair, sighing in relief. The burning in her stomach subsided a little. "Which former acquaintance?" Maybe they were after Farrell Wordlaw; maybe there was justice in the world, after all.

Frank Payne took a small notebook out of his inner coat pocket and opened it, evidently consulting his notes. "Are you Janet Jean Granger, formerly married to Steve Crossfield?"

"Yes." So this had something to do with Steve. She should have known. Still, she was amazed, as if she'd somehow conjured up these two men just by thinking of Steve earlier, something she almost never did. He was so far removed from her life now that she couldn't even form a clear picture in her mind of how he'd looked. But what had he gotten himself into, with his driving need for excitement?

"Does your ex-husband have any relatives? Anyone who might be close to him?" Slowly Jay shook her head. "Steve is an orphan. He was raised in a series of foster homes, and as far as I know, he didn't stay in touch with any of his foster parents. As for any close friends–" she shrugged "–I haven't seen or heard from him since our divorce five years ago, so I don't have any idea who his friends might be."

Payne frowned, rubbing the deep lines between his brows. "Would you remember the name of a dentist he used while you were married, or perhaps a doctor?"

Jay shook her head, staring at him. "No. Steve was disgustingly healthy."

The two men looked at each other, frowning. McCoy said quietly, "Damn, this isn't going to be easy. We're running into one dead end after another."

Payne's face was deeply lined with fatigue, and something else. He looked back at Jay, his eyes worried. "Do you think that coffee's ready yet, Ms. Gran- ger?"

"It should be. I'll be right back." Without knowing why, Jay felt shaken as she went into the kitchen and began putting cups, cream and sugar on a tray. The coffee had finished brewing, and she transferred the pot to the tray, but then just stood there, staring down at the wafting steam. Steve had to be in serious trouble, really serious, and she regretted it even though there was nothing she could do. It had been inevitable, though. He'd always been chasing after adventure, and unfor- tunately adventure often went hand in hand with trouble. It had been only a matter of time before the odds caught up with him.

She carried the tray into the living room and placed it on the low table in front of the sofa, her brow furrowed into a worried frown. "What has Steve done?"

"Nothing illegal, that we know of," Payne said hastily. "It's just that he was involved in a… sensitive situation."

Steve hadn't done anything illegal, but the FBI was investigating him? Jay's frown deepened as she poured three cups of coffee. "What sort of sensitive situa- tion?"

Payne looked at her with a troubled expression, and suddenly she noticed that he had very nice eyes, clear and strangely sympathetic. Gentle eyes. Not at all the kind of eyes she would have expected an FBI agent to possess. He cleared his throat. "Very sensitive. We don't even know why he was there. But we need, very badly, to find someone who can make a positive identification of him."

Jay went white, the ramifications of that quiet, sinister statement burning in her mind. Steve was dead. Even though the love she'd felt for him had long since faded away, she knew a piercing grief for what had been. He'd been so much fun, always laughing, his brown eyes lit with devilish merriment. It was as if part of her own childhood had died, to know that his laughter had been stilled. "He's dead," she said dully, staring at the cup in her hand as it began to shake, sloshing the coffee back and forth.

Payne quickly reached out and took the cup from her, placing it on the tray. "We don't know," he said, his face even more troubled. "There was an explosion; one man survived. We think it's Crossfield, but we aren't certain, and it's critical that we know. I can't explain more than that."

It had been a long, terrible day, and it wasn't getting any better. She put her shaking hands to her temples and pressed hard, trying to make sense of what he'd told her. "Wasn't there any identification on him?"

"No," Payne said. "Then why do you think it's Steve?"

"We know he was there. Part of his driver's license was found."

"Why can't you just look at nun and tell who he is?" she cried. "Why can't you identify the others and find out who he is by process of elimination?"

McCoy looked away. Payne's gentle eyes darkened. "There wasn't enough left to identify. Nothing."

She didn't want to hear any more, didn't want to know any of the details, though she could guess at the horrible carnage. She was suddenly cold, as if her blood had stopped pumping. "Steve?" she asked faintly.

"The man who survived is in critical condition, but the doctors are what they call 'cautiously optimistic.' He has a chance. Two days ago, they were certain he wouldn't last through the night."

"Why is it so important that you know right now who he is? If he lives, you can ask him. If he dies–" She halted abruptly. She couldn't say the words, but she thought them. If he died, it wouldn't matter. There would be no survivors, and they would close their files.

"I can't tell you anything except that we need to know who this man is. We need to know who died, so certain steps can be taken. Ms. Granger, I can tell you that my agency isn't directly involved in the situation. We're merely cooperating with others, because this concerns national security."

Suddenly Jay knew what they wanted from her. They would have been glad if she could have helped them locate any dental or medical records on Steve, but that wasn't their prune objective. They wanted her to go with them, to personally identify the injured man as Steve.

In a dull voice she asked, "Can't they tell if this man matches the general description of any of their own people? Surely they have measurements, fingerprints, that sort of thing?"

She was looking down, so she didn't see the quick wariness in Payne's eyes. He cleared his throat again. "Your husband–ex-husband–and our man are… were.. .the same general size. Fingerprints aren't possible; his hands are burned. But you know more about nun than anyone else we can find. There might be something about him that you recognize, some little birthmark or scar that you remember."

It still confused her; she couldn't understand why they wouldn't be able to recognize their own man, unless he was so horribly mutilated… Shivering, she didn't let herself complete the thought, didn't let the picture form in her mind. What if it was Steve? She didn't hate him, had never hated him. He was a rascal, but he'd never been cruel or meanhearted; even after she had stopped loving him, she had still been fond of him, in an exasperated way.

"You want me to go with you," she said, making it a statement instead of a question.

"Please," Payne replied quietly.

She didn't want to, but he had made it seem like her patriotic duty. "All right. I'll get my coat. Where is he?"

Payne cleared his throat again and Jay tensed. She'd already learned that he did that whenever he had to tell her something awkward or unpleasant. "He's at Bethesda Naval Hospital in D.C. You'll need to pack a small suitcase. We have a private jet waiting for us at Kennedy."

Things were moving too fast for her to understand; she felt as if all she could do was follow the path of least resistance. Too much had happened today. First she had been fired, a brutal blow in itself, and now this. The security she had worked so hard to attain for herself had vanished in a few short minutes in Farrell Wordlaw's office, leaving her spuming helplessly, unable to get her feet back on the ground. Her life had been so quiet for the past five years; how could all this have happened so quickly?

Numbly she packed two dresses that traveled well, then collected her cosmetics from the bathroom. As she shoved what she needed into a small zippered plastic bag, she was stunned by her own reflection in the mirror. She looked so white and strained, and thin. Unhealthily thin. Her eyes were hollow and her cheekbones too prominent, the result of working long hours and living on antacid tablets. As soon as she returned to the city she would have to begin looking for another job, as well as working out her notice, which would mean more skipped meals.

Then she felt ashamed of herself. Why was she worrying about a job when Steve–or someone–was lying in a hospital bed fighting for his life? Steve had always told her that she worried too much about work, that she couldn't enjoy today because she was always worried about tomorrow. Maybe he was right.

Steve! Sudden tears blurred her eyes as she stuffed the cosmetic bag into her small overnighter. She hoped he would be all right.

At the last moment she remembered to pack fresh underwear. She was rattled, oddly disorganized, but finally she zipped the case and got her purse. "I'm ready," she said as she stepped out of the bedroom.

Gratefully she saw that one of the men had carried the coffee things into the kitchen. McCoy took the case from her hand, and she got her coat from the closet; Payne silently helped her into it. She looked around to make certain all the lights were off; then the three of them stepped into the hallway, and she locked the door behind her, wondering why she felt as if she would never be back.

***

She slept on the plane. She hadn't meant to, but almost as soon as they were airborne and she relaxed in the comfortable leather seat, her eyelids became too heavy to keep open. She didn't feel Payne spread a light blanket over her.

Payne sat across from her, watching her broodingly. He wasn't quite comfortable with what he was doing, dragging an innocent woman into this mess. Not even McCoy knew how much of a mess it was, how complicated it had become; as far as the other man knew, the situation was exactly the way he'd outlined it to Jay Granger: a simple matter of identification. Only a handful of people knew that it was more; maybe only two others besides himself. Maybe only one other, but that one carried a lot of power. When he wanted something done, it was done. Payne had known him for years, but had never managed to be comfortable in his presence.

She looked tired and oddly frail. She was too thin. She was about five-six, but he doubted she weighed much over a hundred pounds, and something about her made him think such thinness wasn't normal for her. He wondered if she was strong enough to be used as a shield.

She was probably very pretty when she was rested, and when she had some meat on her bones. Her hair was nice, a kind of honey brown, as thick and sleek as an otter's coat, and her eyes were dark blue. But now she just looked tired. It hadn't been an easy day for her.

Still, she had asked some questions that had made him uncomfortable. If she hadn't been so tired and upset she might have pinned him down on some things he didn't want to discuss, asked questions in front of McCoy that he didn't want raised. It was essential to the plan that everything be taken at face value. There could be no doubt at all.

***

The flight from New York to Bethesda was a short one, but the nap refreshed her, gave her back a sense of balance. The only thing was, the more alert she felt, the more unreal this entire situation seemed. She checked her watch as Payne and McCoy escorted her off the private jet when they landed at Washington National and into a government car waiting on the tarmac for them, and was startled to see that it was only nine o'clock. Only a few hours had passed, yet her life had been turned upside down.

"Why Bethesda?" she murmured to Payne as the car purred down the street, a few flakes of snow drifting down like flower petals on a light breeze. She stared at the snowflakes, wondering absently if an early-winter snowstorm would keep her from getting home. "Why not a civilian hospital?"

"Security." Payne's quiet voice barely reached her ears. "Don't worry. The best trauma experts were called in to work on him, civilian and military. We're doing the best we can for your husband."

"Ex-husband," Jay said faintly.

"Yes. Sorry."

As they turned onto Wisconsin Avenue, which would eventually take them to the Naval Medical Center, the snow became a little heavier. Payne was glad she hadn't asked any more questions about why the man was in a military hospital instead of, say, Georgetown University Hospital. Of course, he'd told her the truth, as far as it went. Security was the reason he was at Bethesda. It just wasn't the only reason. He watched the snow swirling down and wondered if all the loose threads could possibly be woven into a believable whole.

When they reached the medical center, only Payne got out of the car with her; McCoy nodded briefly in farewell and drove away. Snowflakes quickly silvered their hair as Payne took her elbow and hurried her inside, where the welcome warmth just as quickly melted the lacy flakes. No one paid them any attention as they took an elevator upward.

When the elevator doors opened, they stepped out into a quiet corridor. "This is the ICU floor," Payne said. "His room is this way."

They turned to the left, where double doors were guarded by two stern young men in uniform, both of whom wore pistols. Payne must have been known on sight, for one of the guards quickly opened a door for them. "Thank you," Payne said courteously as they passed.

The unit was deserted, except for the nurses who monitored all the life- support systems and continually checked on the patients, but still Jay sensed a quiet hum that pervaded every corner of the unit–the sound of the machines that kept the patients alive or aided in their recovery. For the first time it struck her that Steve must be hooked up to one or more of those machines, unable to move, and her steps faltered. It was just so hard to take in.

Payne's hand remained under her elbow, unobtrusively providing her with support. He stopped before a door and turned to her, his clear gray eyes full of concern. "I want to prepare you a little. He's badly injured. His skull was fractured, and the bones in his face were crushed. He's breathing through a trach tube. Don't expect him to look like the man you remember." He waited a moment, watching her, but she didn't say anything, and finally he opened the door.

Jay stepped into the room, and for a split second both her heart and lungs seemed to stop functioning. Then her heart lurched into rhythm again, and she drew a deep, painful breath. Tears sprang to her eyes as she stared at the inert form on the white hospital bed, and his name trembled soundlessly on her lips. It didn't seem possible that this… this could be Steve.

The man on the bed was almost literally a mummy. Both legs were broken and encased in pristine plaster casts, supported by a network of pulleys and slings. His hands were wrapped in bandages that extended almost to his elbows. His head and face were swathed in gauze, with extra thick pads over his eyes; only his lips, chin and jaw were visible, and they were swollen and discolored. His breath whistled faintly but regularly from the tube in his throat, and various other tubes ran into his body. Monitors overhead recorded every detail of his bodily functions. And he was still. He was so still.

Her throat was so dry that speaking was painful. "How can I possibly identify him?" she asked rawly. "You knew I couldn't. You knew how he looks!"

Payne was watching her with sympathy. "I'm sorry, I know it's a shock. But we need for you to try. You were married to Steve Crossfield. You know him better than any other person on earth. Maybe there's some little detail you remember, a scar or a mole, a birthmark. Anything. Take your time and look at him. I'll be just outside."

He went out and closed the door behind him, leaving her alone in the room with that motionless figure and the quiet beeping of the monitors, the weak whistle of his breathing. Her hands knotted into fists, and tears blurred her eyes again. Whether this man was Steve or not, a pity so acute it was painful filled her.

Somehow her feet carried her closer to the bed. She carefully avoided the tubes and wires while never looking away from his face–or as much of his face as she could see. Steve? Was this really Steve?

She knew what Payne wanted. He hadn't actually spelled it out, but he hadn't needed to. He wanted her to lift the sheet away and study this man while he lay there unconscious and helpless, naked except for the bandages over his wounds. He thought she would have a wife's intimate knowledge of her husband's body, but five years is a long time. She could remember Steve's grin, and the devilish sparkle in his chocolaty brown eyes, but other details had long since faded from her mind.

It wouldn't matter to this man if she stripped back the sheet and looked at him. He was unconscious; he might well die, even now, with all these miracle machines hooked up to his body. He would never know. And as Payne would say, she would be doing her country a service if she could somehow identify this man as Steve Crossfield, or as definitely not.

She couldn't stop looking at him. He was so badly hurt. How could anyone be injured this critically and still live? If he were granted a lucid moment, right now, would he even want to live? Would he be able to walk again? Use his hands? See? Think? Or would he take stock of his injuries and tell the doctors, "Thanks, guys, but I think I'll take my chances at the Pearly Gates."

But perhaps he had a tremendous will to live. Perhaps that was what had kept him alive this long, an unconscious, deep-seated will to be. Fierce determination could move mountains.

Hesitantly she stretched out her hand and touched his right arm, just above the bandages that covered his burns. His skin was hot to the touch, and she jerked her fingers back in surprise. Somehow she had thought he would be cold. This intense heat was another sign of how brightly life still burned inside him, despite his stillness. Slowly her hand returned to his arm, lightly resting on the smooth skin just below the inside of his elbow, taking care not to disturb the IV needle that dripped a clear liquid into a vein.

He was warm. He was alive.

Her heart was pounding in her chest, some intense emotion welling up in her until she thought she would burst from the effort of trying to control it. It stag- gered her to think of what he had been through, yet he was still fighting, defying the odds, his spirit too fierce and proud to just let go. If she could have, she would have suffered the pain in his place.

And his body had been invaded enough. Needles pierced his veins; wire and electrodes picked up and broadcast his every heartbeat. As if he didn't have enough wounds already, the doctors had made more to insert drainage tubes in his chest and side, and there were other tubes, as well. Every day a host of strangers looked at him and treated him as if he were nothing but a slab of meat, all to save his life.

But she wouldn't invade his privacy, not in this manner. Modesty might not mean anything to him, but it was still his choice to make.

All her attention was focused on him; nothing else in the world existed in this moment except the man lying so still in the hospital bed. Was this Steve? Would she feel some sense of familiarity, despite the disfiguring swelling and the bandages that swathed bun? She tried to remember.

Had Steve been this muscular? Had his arms been this thick, his chest this deep? He could have changed, gained weight, done a lot of physical work that would have developed his shoulders and arms more, so she couldn't go by that. Men got heavier in the chest as they matured.

His chest had been shaved. She looked at the dark stubble of body hair. Steve had had chest hair, though not a lot of it.

His beard? She looked at his jaw, what she could see of it, but his face was so swollen that she couldn't find anything familiar. Even his lips were swollen.

Something wet trickled down her cheek, and in surprise she dashed her hand across her face. She hadn't even realized she was crying.

Payne reentered the room and silently offered her his handkerchief. When she had wiped her face he led her away from the bedside, his arm warm and comforting around her waist, letting her lean on him. "I'm sorry," he finally offered. "I know it isn't easy."

She shook her head, feeling like a fool for breaking down like that, especially in light of what she had to tell him. "I don't know. I'm sorry, but I can't tell if he's Steve, or not. I just… can't."

"Do you think he could be?" Payne asked insistently.

Jay rubbed her temples. "I suppose so. I can't tell. There are so many bandages–"

"I understand. I know how difficult it is. But I need something to tell my superiors. Was your husband that tall? Was there anything at all familiar about him?"

If he understood, why did he keep pushing? Her headache was getting worse by the second. "I just don't know!" she cried. "I guess Steve is that tall, but it's hard to tell when he's lying down. Steve has dark hair and brown eyes, but I can't even tell that much about this man!"

Payne looked down at her. "It's on his medical sheet," he said quietly. "Brown hair and brown eyes."

For a moment the import of that didn't register; then her eyes widened. She hadn't felt any sense of recognition for the man at all, but she was still dazed by the storm of emotion he had caused in her: pity, yes, but also awe, that he was still alive and fighting, and an almost staggering respect for the determination and sheer guts he must have.

Very faintly, her face white, she said, "Then he must be Steve, mustn't he?"

A flash of relief crossed Payne's face, then was gone before she could be certain it was there. He nodded. "I'll notify our people that you've verified his identity. He's Steve Crossfield."

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