Story Excerpt

The Bewilderness of Lions

by Ted Kosmatka

Caitlin was six when she learned the truth of ants.

There were three different kinds in the yard behind her house. Big black ones that crawled amid the woodpile; small brown ones, hardly bigger than fleas, which streamed in formation across the cement patio; and small red ones that scavenged near the great oak.

She surveyed the yard carefully and made a map with crayons and paper, marking out just where each kind lived. Sometimes her brother’s screams interrupted her work, coming from inside the house—the thud of a knocked over chair, the crash of a broken dish. She’d sit in the grass and look up at the big blue house and wait for silence to take hold again.

She imagined the different ants were all neighbors, like the Goldbergs from up the street, and they might call on each other from time to time. The entrance to the red ants’ home was a small mound several inches high through which the tiny crimson insects flowed in constant procession. One day, she found a big black ant on the picnic table and picked it up. Dark and glossy, long as her thumbnail. She could feel its weight on her delicate six-year-old skin, crawling from her palm to the back of her hand. “I’ll name you Anop,” she told it, because it was the first name that rose to mind.

On a whim, she walked to the other side of the yard and placed the black ant near the red ants’ nest. “Time for a visit,” she said.

The response was immediate. Red ants poured out of their nest and swarmed over the intruder. They bit off its antennae. They bit off its legs. They killed it.

When she looked up from the slaughter, she saw her yard with different eyes. Her map took on new meaning as the world seemed to shift beneath her feet. It had been going on for some time, she realized, and she was only just discovering it. It shocked her that such a thing was possible. Silent, invisible.

A secret war right under their noses.

* * *

“These numbers can’t be right.”

“I double-checked them,” Caitlin said. They passed through the second security checkpoint, her sensible heels clicking across the ornate marble floor. These old time Washington buildings had a fetish for marble. She was sweating in her best business suit, trying to keep up with the man who strode beside her. The air conditioner was having trouble keeping up with the D.C. summer, and the halls were stifling. Her contact scowled but didn’t slow his pace.

“Double-check them again,” he said.

“I did.”

“I can’t give them numbers like this.” He barely glanced at her. He was a foot taller. Expensive suit.

“Why not?”

“Because they have no basis in reality.”

She was trying to decide if he despised her, or if this was his general personality. It took energy to actively despise someone, and she wasn’t sure she was worth it to him.

They passed through the final security checkpoint and Caitlin flashed the badge that hung from a lanyard around her neck. They entered the conference room, and a dozen men sat around the table. Men in ties. Men with wild hair who looked like they hadn’t slept. Some with familiar faces, though she couldn’t place the names. Fundraisers, consultants, advisors—all of them talking and gesturing with their hands as they spoke.

The campaign manager stood at the end of the table—a florid, thickset man with a neck like a bull. He was maybe 6’1”, 240, awkwardly big in white shirt and tie, sleeves rolled up. He alone wasn’t talking, and his eyes found hers across the table. She looked away.

“I tested and double tested,” she whispered to her contact, as they took their seats. “The raw data is in the report.”

He gripped the copy of her report in his hand. Squeezed into a fist.

“Say nothing,” he said. “Don’t speak.”

“What if he asks me directly?”

“He won’t.”

He put his hand on top of hers—not a gesture of warmth, but of control. “This isn’t what we hired you for,” he said.

“It is exactly what you hired me for,” she said, and added in her mind, even if you don’t like it.

* * *

Senator Sloan came in with an entourage and took the last remaining seat at the table. His handlers gathered near the door, as if sealing the room off from the world, and here, at last, there were women. Two of them, along with several other men of varying ages and ethnicities, carrying bags, or clipboards, or Blackberries. The senator wore track pants with a gray sweater—like this meeting was just a stop off, not his destination. That was the defining feature of politicians, she found. They were always on their way to somewhere else. To other parties, to speeches, to campaign dinners. To higher offices. Or sometimes out the door. Some elections were lost, after all. And sometimes the leaving was even less stately. Sometimes the end, when it came, came in disgrace.

The campaign manager cleared his throat. “Let’s get started,” he said. The babble quieted around the room.

“We’ll start with the numbers,” he said and pointed across the table.

The young man snapped an answer, “We’re up in Olympia, down in Spokane. Renton is holding steady.”

“Any bounce from the commercial?”

“Negligible.”

“The day’s stories?”

A new face spoke up, an older man a few seats down from Caitlin. “Nothing in the Herald since Monday, but the Examiner has a piece on the bridge projects. Sloan got a mention.”

“Any love this time?”

“The usual Examiner.”

“How are the donations?”

And so it went. They talked money and advertising, as around the table each man disgorged the piece of information he’d been summoned to provide. Finally, as the senator started to look bored, started to look like his mind was on whatever came next, the manager turned to her contact. “And what about the data crunching? Anything interesting come out of that?”

Her contact answered abruptly, “We’re still putting together a report.”

And she would have stayed silent. It was a paycheck after all. They paid her, and she mined the data. What they did with it was their business. She couldn’t care less. The numbers were what mattered to her. So she sat silently until the manager turned to her and snapped, “When will it be done?”

“It shouldn’t be too—” her contact began.

The campaign manager cut him off. “I’m asking her.”

She hesitated only a moment. “It’s done now,” she said.

Her contact’s face went stiff. A band of red formed slowly across the side of his neck.

The manager glanced at her contact, then back at her. “Where is it?”

“There,” she said, gesturing to the stack of papers resting beneath her contact’s folded hands.

“May I?”

Her contact slid the report across the table, and the manager leafed through it briefly as a layman might leaf through a mathematical proof of gravity. Page after page, sixty-four in all, she knew, until he started skipping ahead, and finally flipped the report, irritation showing on his ruddy face. “What’s the gist?”

“His numbers will go down midweek, then rise on the weekend. He’ll increase his chances of winning the election if he wears a red tie. He has a 32 percent chance of dropping out of the race and being driven out of office by scandal.”

“What?”

“He has a 32 percent chance—”

“I heard that. What scandal?”

“Any scandal.”

“What do you mean, any scandal?”

“It’s all in the report,” she said, “If you read it. We’re nearing a pinch point. By June fifteenth, there will be a scandal. Maybe the senator, or maybe someone else. But it’ll be something big. Unexpected. The story will surface early in the news cycle and by end of day, it’ll take over the networks. Someone will be driven out of office.”

“How the hell do you know that?”

“It’s all in the report,” she said. “I found the pattern.”

* * *

The campaign team filed out of the conference room. She followed the suits down the marble hall, walking beside her contact. She glanced at him as she walked, trying to read his face, but there was nothing written there. Tabula rasa. Three weeks ago, when she’d arrived for that first interview, she’d shaken his hand, introduced herself, and all he’d given back was, “I’ll be your contact.” That was as personal as he’d gotten.

The hall opened at the lobby and they filed past the security. He slowed his pace slightly as they entered the long hall leading to the parking garage. Thirty dollars to park for just a few hours. An insane price, but you get used to it. Everything about this town was insane.

“You embarrassed me,” he said.

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” He glanced down at her. “That’s your response?” He was handsome, in a severe, button-up way. Brown hair, glasses. Worn in this day and age mostly as affectation. She might have slept with him if he’d asked, back when she was first put on the project. But there’d only been disinterest coming off him in baking waves. Now there was interest in his eyes—an acute focus, trained on her like a gun sight. She had his attention.

“It wasn’t intentional,” she said. “He asked me a direct question, and—”

“I don’t care. I told you what I wanted you to say, and you disobeyed.”

“I wasn’t going to lie.”

He stopped walking. “You’re fired.”

She stared at him. “We have a contract.”

“Which you voided.”

“How did I—”

“Insubordination,” he said. “You should read your contract more carefully. We’re done here. Don’t expect a reference.”

He’d already made the decision.

Rent, car note, student loans. These flashed through her mind, one after the other. The never-ending litany of bills that she’d never catch up with. Not ever.

Numbers. It was always numbers. The ones you play. The ones that play you.

She thought of a dozen things to say, but only a single word came out. “Please,” she said. And hated herself for saying it. Just that one word.

He shook his head. “Too late for that.”

And it was. He was walking again, already past her, already turning and heading for the garage.

She watched him go.

“Then fuck you,” she said, loud enough for him to hear.

He didn’t bother with a backward glance. Didn’t bother to gloat. Somehow, that was the worst part. He kept walking, like he was stepping over an insect.

* * *

Growing up, her brother often followed her through the house. He had good days and bad. The diagnosis changed through the years, but never his behavior.

When she was nine and he was eleven, they explored the attic together. The house was huge—three stories, and old. A painted lady, built back when they knew how to build them, her father always said. His hobby was remodeling it. Taking the old and making it new again. He was always putting in bookcases, or tearing down bookcases. Sometimes, when he was feeling more ambitious, he tore down whole walls.

Her brother followed her up to the attic, where the dust was thick, and the walls were coated in the fine white powder of their father’s latest construction project.

She might have been thinking of her mother that day. Her mother had left when her brother turned four. Up and left; that’s how her grandmother put it, who’d always had harsh words for her absent daughter-in-law. But her father defended her. “Some people just can’t take it. It’s too hard.”

“It shouldn’t be hard,” came the response.

“It doesn’t make her bad,” her father said. “It just makes her weak. There’s a difference.”

She watched her brother playing in the plaster dust in the attic. Drawing circles with a finger. Losing himself in the shapes. He barely ever spoke, but when he did, he repeated himself. The same words over and over. Like he drew the same shapes over and over in the dust. A mind that couldn’t let go.

He’d draw for hours if she let him. He never grew bored.

Some of the tendencies that existed in him, she knew, existed in her as well, just the slightest touch. Different values on the same spectrum.

As she watched him play in the dust, she intuited something that she’d only later be able to put into words. Autism, at least in part, is a disorder of fascination.

She wondered what it would have been like to have a normal brother. To have a mother. To be like the other girls at her school.

As she watched her brother draw circles, she hated herself for blaming him, but she couldn’t help it.

“Mother would be here if not for you,” she whispered. The words burned her as they slipped out of her mouth. Shame and rage rising up. He only kept drawing without hearing her. Lost in his simple circles. She hated herself even more.

* * *

She was in the shower when the phone rang, coming off another one night stand. The guy’s face a blur already. Robert something, probably married. A man-shaped hole in the darkness pulled from the Capitol Lounge.

The voicemail was polite and suspiciously vague. A pleasant female voice and a phone number to call back.

She called the number.

A receptionist answered. A short hold, and then a new voice. Official sounding. And then the request. “Are you available for a meeting?”

“A meeting. When?”

“Now,” the voice said.

She scribbled the address down on a piece of paper and hung up the phone.

* * *

The conference room seemed empty with only one person in it. The campaign manager rose from his groaning swivel chair and shook her hand.

“Caitlin,” he said.

He sank back into his chair. His face was the same ruddy color as the last time she’d seen him. His tie now loosened around his big bull neck. If he hadn’t already had a coronary or two, you could pencil it on his calendar.

At least he seemed to know her name.

“Please sit,” he said, gesturing to a chair. “I’m sorry that we didn’t get a chance to discuss things further at our last meeting,” he said.

She took a seat across from him. “Things moved pretty quickly that day.”

“Senator Sloan is a busy man.”

“Of course,” she said.

“The reason I’ve called you here is to discuss what you brought up at the meeting.”

He produced the report out of a small folder and laid it out on the table. This time he seemed to know his way around it, flipping through the pages. On certain pages she could see notes scrawled.

“When you said that a scandal was coming, you weren’t kidding around, were you?”

“Why would I kid?”

He closed the report and leveled his eyes on her. “I’m afraid I don’t understand this,” he said. “I don’t understand what you do.”

“It’s all analytics,” she said. “Data mining and cluster analysis. The discernment of non-obvious relationships between variables. The patterns don’t lie. There are—”

He held up his hand to stop her. “I know that part. We’ve had other moneyball people come in preaching statistics to us. All the campaigns use it now, focus-grouping every detail. But you’re different.” He leaned back in his chair, lacing meaty fingers behind his head. “You deal in specifics, and you’re the first person to mention scandals.”

She shrugged. “It’s a neglected variable. The models I use are robust. The analytics actually come out of large-scale system translation.”

“Translation?”

“Data into information. They’re not the same thing.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Information is data that you can use.”

“Why do you do this?”

“It’s an interesting application of mathematics.”

“No, I mean the rest of it. The scandal angle. Why that in particular?”

She stared at him. The pudgy, florid face. An earnest face; or earnest, at least, in this moment. She considered giving him the safe answer. Maybe the answer he expected. Instead she was honest. “I don’t like scandals,” she said.

“Who does?”

“Lots of people.”

“So then why fight it?”

“There’s more to people than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

He nodded. His gaze lingered, like he’d come to a decision about something. “We’d like you to consult for the campaign.”

She blinked. “Will I be working with my former contact?”

“He’s already been fired,” he said. “You’re his replacement, if you want it.”

“Oh.” The news surprised her. She didn’t know what to say. “Why me?”

He pulled out a newspaper from his briefcase and slid it across the table at her. “Seems you were right,” he said. “A scandal, just like you predicted.”

She read the front page. Governor Stapleton, out of Illinois.

“This is it?”

“As of printing,” he said. “But it’s expanded since then. There are some additional nanny issues, it seems. Salvadoran immigrant, from a few years back. Possible tax issues, under the table payments. Some fairly horrible pull quotes that’ll be all over tomorrow’s issue. Friends in media gave us a heads up.”

“Tax issues,” she said. “Stapleton owns businesses all across the Midwest. You think he does his own taxes?”

“Doubt it. But he should have hired better people.”

“This isn’t even a scandal,” she said.

“It’ll be enough; he’s done.”

She skimmed the first few paragraphs of the article. “Yeah,” she said. “I suppose he is.”

“Just like you said.”

She folded the newspaper and slid it back across the table. “So I get offered this job because Stapleton’s losing his.”

He shook his head. “You’re here not because you guessed a scandal. You’re here because you picked the day. We’ll need new NDAs signed. And we’ll want weekly reports. Like last time, only now we’ll read them. You can split time between here and the road. There’ll be meetings in other cities.”

She nodded.

“I need to hear you say it.”

“Say what?”

“That you’re in.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m in.”

“Good,” he said. He smiled. “Let’s make a president.”

* * *

Presidents, she knew, weren’t made. Not by anyone, even themselves. They were just the ones left standing at the end of the gauntlet. They were the survivors.

Corporations, lobbyists, big money—they were all a part of it. Knives out, cutting down those with a chink in their armor.

She spent the better part of a week crunching numbers. There were a lot of new inputs. The data field shifting beneath her.

Part of the original analytics came from climate models. Other parts from a system used to predict migration patterns in birds. Pattern recognition in complex systems. Chaos theory meets regression analysis all wrapped up in higher mathematics of her own making. A once upon a time master’s thesis, before she realized what it could do. And that she could get paid.

She spent five days in her tiny apartment. She ran the graphs, crunched the algorithms. Lost herself. She stumbled across the holes again. The same ones that had been dogging the model since its inception. Like Governor Stapleton. Scandals that weren’t scandals, but which behaved like them in the system. These were the places where the system didn’t work, but she ignored the discrepancies, searching for the trend line.

Nine days later, she gave her report in Colorado, while the manager nodded.

“End of August could get tricky,” she said. “But I’m not seeing anything specific to go on.”

After the meeting, she waited for the others to leave and then pulled the manager aside.

“The more I know about Senator Sloan, the more effective I can be.”

“Google him,” the manager said. “It has everything you could ask.”

“I’ve already been doing that. What I need to know is whether there’s anything else. Past issues. Some bomb that might drop.”

“You think that’s how this works? You ask questions, and suddenly you get answers like that?”

“Maybe,” she said.

“No.” He shook his head.

She paused for a moment. “Good.”

“Good? So you’re gonna tell me that was a test, eh?”

“Practically the SATs of politics.”

“Bullshit.”

She shrugged. “True, but it’s all data.”

Two weeks after that, she was in New York. Another meeting.

She took the subway. A woman with rheumatoid hands caught her eye. Gray hair, lined face. Indeterminate ethnicity—like age itself produced a gradual regression to the mean of all humanity. She wondered where the old woman was going. Not like a politician, always on their way from somewhere to somewhere. This woman gave off the impression that she’d always been there, right in that spot. Even on a train, she seemed to be stationary. Immobile.

Later that afternoon, at the meeting, it was the same group, different tables. Sloan arrived with his entourage.

The data was mushy; she knew that. She could feel it siding in her fingers. Almost a physical sensation.

Sloan came in a tuxedo. On his way to a speech, perhaps. She didn’t need to know.

Sloan sat, and the manager called the meeting to order—a three-minute state of the campaign, ending with a full debrief of Stapleton’s recent meltdown in Illinois. “He’ll likely swing his support to Falkoa, so this doesn’t help us much.”

Next came the poll numbers, given with the air of a history teacher citing the dates of a massacre. When the campaign manager got to her, he called her by name. “Caitlin, any new stats?”

She cleared her throat and slid a folder across the table. “It’s clear sailing for the next several weeks. We don’t run into a hot spot until the second week of August.”

Across the table, she saw eyes roll. The woman who gave the report on the polling.

Caitlin continued, “There’s a 22 percent chance of some kind of scandal that week. It goes up the following week.”

“How do you know?” Voice like chipped ice. It was the eye-roll woman.

Caitlin turned to look at her. “It’s a set of variables that we plug into the algorithm.”

“Certain weeks are historically bad, that kind of thing? So why not just give us the whole calendar all at once, save us time?”

“It’s self-reticulating.”

“What does that mean?”

“The system’s dynamic. The presence of a scandal on one day decreases the odds of a scandal on other days, which is why the next two weeks are safer than usual.”

“The public can only pay attention to so many things,” Sloan broke in. A dozen heads swiveled to look at him. It was the first time he’d spoken at the meeting.

And here’s where politicians are different. The best ones anyway. They had the ability to look at you, and you felt it.

“Yes, and different events have different weight.”

“Weight?” Sloan asked.

“Gravity would be a better analogy.”

“Ah, gravity,” the eye-roller said. “The movement of celestial bodies. I knew this would get around to astrology at some point.”

Caitlin considered her for a moment. Blonde, pretty. Early thirties. She likely had a degree from Yale or Harvard. She’d probably spent years trying to get into this room, and here Caitlin was, a new face who’d been working for the campaign all of five minutes.

“Did you know there is a dearth of Scorpio hockey players?” Caitlin asked.

The eye-roller’s face blanked. “What?”

“In fact, if you want your child to play pro hockey, don’t give birth to him between September and December.”

“What are you talking about?”

“There are theories, of course, about why birth month should matter. Prenatal exposure to vitamin D. Or maybe kids born in those months are just younger than their teammates. The big kids get the coach’s attention.”

“What does this have to do with the election?”

“Absolutely nothing, it turns out. And I can prove that, with data. The correlation between different variables isn’t always clear, but where it exists, it can be found. And that’s the beautiful thing, I don’t have to know why something is; I only have to know that it is. Data mining deals in facts. Like the fact that there’s this big media machine out there, looking for something to latch onto, looking for something to talk about, and it’s going find it. Over and over again. Somewhere. You brought up astrology, so I’m asking, why don’t Scorpios make good hockey players? I have no fucking idea. And more than that, I don’t care. Data is all I care about. You might not like it, but if you’re a hockey coach, or running for president, you’re better off listening.”

* * *

Up in the attic, her brother’s hands were a chalky white.

What had once been two rooms was become one. “Opening up the space,” her father called it. “It will help with resale.” Though in truth, even at ten, she knew her father simply needed to stay busy.

And now the wall was half destroyed—a gaping hole.

To a child, there is something sacrosanct about the walls of a house. A thing inviolate. As permanent as the pyramids. It had never occurred to her until that moment when she stood in the attic that a wall could be broken. That a house could be broken. Maybe a window, sure, or a scratch on the hardwood floors. But to put a hole in a wall—a big hole, a hole big enough to walk through—seemed somehow wrong to her; and she realized that the house she lived in was made of walls, and that each one was as vulnerable as this one wall in the attic, and in this way the entire house was susceptible to ruin.

For days afterward, as she moved around the house, she imagined holes in all the walls. She imagined the bright green wall in the dining room with a gaping void—white dust coating the fine, glossy dining room table.

Later that week she and her brother returned to the attic, and her father had knocked down more of the wall—the slats on which the plaster had been affixed now visible. It was dirty, sharp, brutal work.

She saw something inside. Something inside the wall, poking out. She moved closer, pulled it free, and she saw that it was paper. Newspaper. And she knew then that it had been used as some kind of insulation. Now yellowed and filthy, almost crumbling at the edges. On the front page was the picture of a steamship. A man in strange dress and a large mustache. She read the date, and her eyes widened. 1910, December third. The paper was older than her father. Older than her grandfather. Probably put in the wall when the house was built.

She pulled more newspapers out of the walls. All 1910, but different dates. December fifth. December ninth. October twenty-first. All wadded and crinkled and wedged between the supports.

As she held the pages in her hand, she looked around at the other walls. She imagined the walls in her bedroom. The walls in the kitchen. A whole house of walls, filled with this secret.

The past hidden from the present, buried beneath the surface.

* * *

The manager’s call came later that evening, as Caitlin knew it would.

“There’s something in this report that I don’t understand.”

Caitlin was at her desk. Laptop open in the darkness.

“The trend line discrepancy,” she said. The past was a data field. A smooth surface upon which scandals could be grown, like seeds sown upon a firmament.

“It looks like there are mistakes in the data,” he said.

“Not mistakes,” she said. “Holes. Anomalies.”

“Caused by what?”

“I don’t know.”

“Isn’t that why we pay you? To know these things?”

“It’s like the Flynn effect. We don’t know why it is, only that it is.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“We’re missing scandals.”

“Missing how?”

“Scandals that should have happened, but didn’t.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The severity of political scandals is trending downward. When you get a missing scandal, what happens is that the media machine goes hungry. It wants to latch onto something, but nothing rises up, so it latches onto things that wouldn’t be scandals at other times and in other places.”

“You mean events that wouldn’t normally be scandals.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Something like that.”

“But not that exactly?”

She thought of the walls. Punching through to the past. Bringing it to daylight.

“The scandals can never really be missing.”

“People learn,” he said. “Maybe they’re getting smart.”

“People never learn,” she said. “That’s practically the first law of data mining.”

“Then what? What’s causing the holes?”

“That’s the thing,” she said. “I have no idea.”

* * *

The old woman looked familiar.

She shuffled slowly down the aisle as the train doors closed. Gray hair. Rheumatoid hands. Caitlin could have sworn she’d seen her before. On another train, in another city. Wearing other clothes. She moved slowly and took a seat across from her. Would not have stood out in any way except that her rheumy gray eyes seemed to linger a second longer than they should, catching Caitlin’s gaze.

Caitlin closed her eyes. Felt the train start to move beneath her. For a moment, she might have slept. Might have slept if not for the old woman’s voice.

“You look tired.”

Caitlin’s eyes peeled open. For a moment, she thought she’d dreamed it, or had imagined it altogether, but the old woman was sitting next to her now, looking at her expectantly.

“It’s been a long day.” It was meant to be a brush off, but the old woman continued.

“A long day, yes,” the woman said. “I can see that. And now you’re heading home?”

“Yeah. Another long day tomorrow.”

“My days are short. The older you are, the shorter they get. You have little ones at home? A husband?”

“No, nothing like that.”

“A job then. What do you do?”

“Number crunching. Boring.”

“Ah, I see. I knew an accountant once. Always busy, that one. Always counting.”

The train rocked slightly as it rounded a curve, and the old woman grew quiet. Caitlin closed her eyes again. Time passed.

After a while, the train slowed. She felt it, the subtle tug.

“My stop,” the old woman said.

Caitlin opened her eyes again. She watched the old woman gather her bags.

“Number crunching,” the old woman said. “Boring work, yes. But maybe not so boring in politics?”

For a moment, she thought she must have misheard the old woman.

“Excuse me?”

“Senator Sloan,” the old woman said. “It must be hard to juggle the variables. The special interest groups. The corporate lobyists.”

“Do I know you?”

“No, you don’t. But you will.”

“How do you know about Sloan?” The experience felt surreal. This strange woman on a train in the middle of the day.

The old woman shifted her feet, turning toward the doors. “You’ve been studying him. So now we study you.”

The train doors opened.

“Here’s a name for you, to make this go quicker,” the woman said. “Baxter. A congressman. You go crunch your numbers, see what you see.”

The old woman stepped off the train. The doors closed behind her, and she looked back as the train pulled away. 

 

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Copyright © 2016. The Bewilderness of Lions by Ted Kosmatka

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