Fiction — From the January 2009 issue
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My trip of January 17—one of my monthly visitations to a Cincinnati-based subsidiary research outfit, during which I spend two days observing the general activities of the subsidiary outfit, filling out forms on a Lucite clipboard and stressing, via my maniacal focus, their subsidiariness—was plagued by the usual inconveniences.
My seatmate on the commuter leg brought with him a meatball sub of such capaciousness that three meatballs dropped from the butt end of his hero roll and landed on my sandstone Hush Puppy, permanently staining it a greasy orange. My connecting flight was late. Exiting the airport, I chose a taxi driver whose heater was on the fritz, and who handed me a plastic-baggie boot heater, instructing me to knead the baggie and apply it to my solar plexus. Unfortunately the baggie was torn, and the chemical blue ooze seeped through my suit coat and sweater and shirt, burning my chest and forcing me to jury-rig a dressing from the random castoffs in my carry-on, essentially a stolen motel washcloth slathered in hand cream and affixed to my skin with corn pads.
But these inconveniences—which were, as I said, classified as usual—were eradicated by the unusual pleasure of checking into an unusual hotel. Usually on these visitations I’d stay at the Tuck Inn, the one with the kitchenettes and the rooms that smelled of vomit and microwave popcorn and Febreze—but this Tuck Inn had been bought by a hospice organization, possibly because it felt like the absolutely ideal place to expire. Subsequently, I’d been booked into a quaintly museumy Victorian hotel, patronized by nearly no one because of its lack of microwaves and satellite televisions and its surfeit of hundred-year-old bellhops incapable of carrying anything heavier than a dop kit. But I found the place charming, or at least unusual, and this made my January trip to the subsidiary research outfit seem to promise discomforts of an unexpected nature.
I arrived with my insulated travel mug filled with clearly superior off-site coffee, I stood against the sheetrock perimeter of the wall-less playpen of an office, and, at moments when the action seemed most unworthy of note, jicked my ballpoint and started writing. I’d perfected the timing of my jick, and without thinking now could sense the most innocuous moment to employ the jick, thereby creating, amidst the outfit staff, a Chinese water torture kind of expectant dread. I refused to take a lunch break, ingesting instead a few tubes of cashews from the vending machine, the sort that can be poured into the mouth, Pixie stick–like. At 3 p.m., I energized the staff by loudly getting into it with the mustache-and-sunglasses guy who sat near the south-facing plate-glass windows. I asked him about the appropriateness of wearing sunglasses at work, and he said that his glasses weren’t sunglasses, they were regular glasses with light-sensitive lenses, and it was utterly beyond his power to prevent them from going dark. I nodded compassionately and jicked him anyway.
I stayed until 6:30, even though the staff dismissal time was 5:45.
Without speaking to anyone, I left.
Because of the expiration vibe at the Tuck Inn, I tended to spend much of my spare time away from it. Thursdays I ate Cincinnati chili at a restaurant housed in an old brick building that came to a point at a five-way intersection, and was called The Point, and sold souvenir aprons and mugs that read, “What’s The Point?” This perfectly suited my usual Thursday post-jicking moods.
But on January 18, the unusual Thursday, I decided to return to my hotel room, which, although lacking a television, did feature a clawfoot enamel bathtub, enamel being less porous than plastic and thus easier to sterilize, even by a half-hearted chambermaid. I lounged against the inflatable headrest and read a local tourism magazine called The ’Natti, which I’d found under the faux-leather stationery ledger and whose unwritten masthead slogan was, “What’s So Bad About Here?” What’s the rub of living in Cincinnati, save the fact that you’ll always be working for subsidiary outfits and forced to pay top dollar for a parmesan of middling quality? We’ve got competing mix-in ice-cream franchises. We’ve got local silversmiths of some talent. We’ve got something that mall developers call “Frontier Spirit.” We’ve got Thai-bo, and can, for a medium-sized urban center, boast the country’s lowest percentage chance that you’ll be killed by a suicide bomber. Cincinnati was, in other words, a place commendably low on zeal.
I called the concierge to ask if the hotel had a restaurant.
Not only a restaurant, he told me, but a famous cocktail lounge called the Cruise Room, where one could also grab a light repast. A person I’d never heard of named Ruben D’Angelo considered the Cruise Room to be the best cocktail lounge in the Midwest, and this was back in the Forties, said the concierge, when people were much more serious about their cocktails. Quite unlike today, said the concierge, a cocktail era defined by an overdependence on vodka, an alcohol he demeaned as a “blunting elixir.”
I took the elevator to the basement, as instructed, and followed the woggly black line someone had painted on the wall. It concluded at a door with a large porthole from which emanated a lipsticky pink glow.
The bar inside was horseshoe-shaped; the pink glow came from the light box behind the liquor bottles. The effect of the bottles in front of the pink lightbox was that of leftover skyscrapers silhouetted against the twilight ruins of a prettily bombed city. The rest of the room was in shadow, or in what might be termed “declining pinkness.”
The bartender—a tiny-headed man wearing a white tuxedo shirt—gestured me toward a booth and produced a book that resembled, in its squatness and its thickness, a Gideon bible.
“Cocktail menu,” he said, placing it on the table. “Unless, of course, you already know what you want.”
“I’ll have a blunting elixir on the rocks,” I said.
The bartender, a standoffish fellow, refused to get the joke. I opened the bible.
The cocktails were organized into three categories: Mellifluidies, Revigorators, and Amnesiacals. I narrowed my search to the Revigorator category, then hovered between the Grinning Necrophiliac and the Vengeful Subsidiary (there really was such a cocktail; it featured, among other mysterious ingredients, a liquid to be administered with a dropper, called Hercules). I signaled the bartender.
“I’ll have the Vengeful Subsidiary,” I said. “Is that served on the rocks?”
“I’m afraid my dropper’s missing,” said the bartender.
“Not a problem,” I said. “You have my permission to wing it.”
“You’ll have to order something else,” the bartender said.
“What is Hercules, by the way?” I asked, attempting a runaround. “I’m dying to try it.”
“Hercules is a substance that must be administered via dropper,” the bartender said. “If you’re dead set on Hercules, you might think about a cocktail that has Gluden in it.”
“Sure,” I said. “Why?”
“Because Hercules is derived from the Swedish wormwood shrub. Gluden is also derived from the wormwood shrub. Not the Swedish wormwood shrub, of course.”
“Of course,” I said.
“The Gludenites begin on page 476,” the bartender said.
I turned to page 476.
“The Nagasaki, then,” I said, showcasing my decisiveness.
“Dropper,” the bartender said.
“I need my dropper for that one.”
“As the name implies,” I said.
No smile from the bartender.
“Fine,” I said. “Bring me The Santosbrazzi Killer.”
The bartender nodded. “Would you care for some food?”
“Just the drink,” I said, having lost my appetite. “And nuts, if you have them.”
“Nuts,” he said.
“Nuts,” I said.
My nuts arrived quickly—they were mixed, and someone had looted them of the almonds and the cashews, leaving only some pecan shards and those albino roach-sized nuts that taste more like a bloated cannellini bean than a nut. My drink, however, was very long in coming. More perplexing still, the bartender wasn’t visibly engaged in making it. Instead he was rewashing, for the fourth time, his stirrer and his shaker and his shot glass, like a surgeon sterilizing his equipment repeatedly while his patient dies on the table.
I approached the bar.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m still waiting for my cocktail.”
“Oh,” he said. “What was it you ordered?”
“The Salomone Killer,” I said.
“We don’t have a cocktail by that name.”
“The Santogori Killer,” I said. “It’s Glutinous.”
“Ah,” he said. “The Santosbrazzi Killer.”
“That’s it,” I said.
“Coming,” he said, and started drying his utensils with a chamois.
Although I wasn’t wearing a watch, and the Cruise Room, like some kind of subterranean casino, boasted no clocks, I’m certain I waited twenty-five minutes for my cocktail before giving up. I’d just lodged a dollar bill under the nut dish when a man slid into my booth.
I recognized him, or thought I did, from the subsidiary research outfit. It was the mustache-and-sunglasses guy, sans sunglasses and apparently desiring a follow-up. After our tense exchange that afternoon, he’d treated me with glaring (I could tell he was glaring, even behind the dark lenses) hostility; he was also, I was pretty certain, the person who’d slipped into my clipboard, while I was in the loo, a business article about a workplace phenomenon called “asshole poisoning.”
Vengeful subsidiary, indeed.
“Hello,” I said, noting again that he was not wearing glasses, which meant that he was wearing contact lenses, which meant that he could have worn contact lenses to work to prevent the “going dark” phenomenon he claimed was out of his control. Jick, I thought.
“What brings you here?” I said.
“You asked for me,” he said.
He nodded solemnly from his shadowy booth patch.
“Well then,” I said. “Welcome. I’d encourage you to order a drink, but drinks don’t seem to be a strong point of this bar.”
“I don’t drink,” he said. “In my line of work, it’s frowned upon.”
Your line of work, I thought, receiving, loudly and clearly, the slight.
“Huh,” I said coolly. “Your judgmental abstemiousness jibes completely with your less-than-optimal work attitude.”
He signaled the bartender, who, instantaneously it seemed, appeared with a tall glass filled with cola so carbonated I felt the bubbles misting my forearm as he set it on the table.
“So you’re a regular,” I observed.
“Not so regular,” he said. “You’d be surprised how little work I get these days.”
“You’re employed here as well?” I said. I wanted to remind him of the no-moonlighting clause in his contract.
“I meet clients,” he said. “Such as yourself.”
“I’m your client?” I said. “How is that?”
“You ordered me,” he said. “I’m the Santosbrazzi Killer.”
I laughed. I tried to catch the eye of the bartender. Good one, my friend. But the bartender was busily origami-folding his chamois.
The so-called Santosbrazzi Killer pulled a clipboard from his briefcase, and in doing so leaned his face into a dust-twinkling swathe of pinker airspace. He was not, despite the near-twinny similarities, the mustache-and-sunglasses guy from the subsidiary research outfit.
This unsettled me. Suddenly I was talking to a stranger in whom I’d engendered no prior animus toward me. I thrived on prior animus to render unsurprising all human interactions.
“I’ll need you to fill out this form,” he said, rotating the clipboard toward me.
“And this is?”
“Legal requires it.”
I inspected the form. It asked for the standard information: name, address, DOB, employer, insurance, etc.
“And why do you need a reference?” I asked.
“Here,” I said, showing him the form.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s the job,” he said.
“The person you want me to work on.”
“Kill,” he said.
I laughed again.
“But I don’t want you to kill anybody,” I said.
“Then you shouldn’t have ordered me.”
“You weren’t my first choice,” I said, reaching for a roach nut. “I wanted the Vengeful Subsidiary, but, due to a dropper mishap, he was unavailable. Who is Santosbrazzi?”
“It’s a place. A little fishing village on the coast of the former Yugoslavia.”
“You were born there?” I ate a second roach nut. Then a third roach nut. Then I felt very thirsty.
The Killer pulled a ballpoint from his overcoat pocket. He jicked it six times. Jick-jick. Jick-jick-jick-jick.
“Please stop that,” I said.
“My grandfather,” he said. “We’ve been in this line of work for generations.”
“A family business, then. Do you think I could get a drink?” I called to the bartender.
The bartender approached with the bible.
“No, no,” I said nervously, “I’ll just have what he’s having. Generations,” I said, returning to the Killer. He’d placed his pen hand in his lap; I could hear the muted sub-booth sounds of jicking.
“Since the 1600s,” he said. “The first of the Santosbrazzi Killers could be summoned by carving an X into the corner of a certain church pew.”
“How appropriate,” I said. “And what if a man asks you to kill another man just because he thinks he’s an asshole?”
“It’s not my job to evaluate motive,” he said.
“You’ll just kill anyone,” I said.
“Not anyone,” he said cryptically. “But let me ask you. Would it be so terrible if an asshole died? Think of how little sense it makes when generous, lovely people die. But when an asshole dies, we think, well, hmmmm. An asshole is dead.”
Our conversation lagged. Usually a conversation lag is a man’s social escape hatch, but this lag had a more sinister feel to it. The less I talked, the more trapped I became.
The Killer sipped his cola and used his Cruise Room cocktail napkin to blot his mustache. I hadn’t previously noticed, but now I saw with some alarm that the Cruise Room’s insignia was a piece of nautical rope coiled into a noose.
“So. An asshole killer,” I said. “You must be swamped.”
“Actually, I’ve suffered five straight years of negative growth,” the Killer said. “People are loath to take direct responsibility for killing anyone these days. That’s why we’ve partnered with the service industry. We wanted, in this culture of no responsibility, to emphasize responsibility. To emphasize the prison of choice. A menu provides the most direct access to a person’s primitive and unmediated desires; i.e., I want this thing. Bring it to me. The average person won’t take it upon himself to put a hit out on his son’s faux- beleaguered kindergarten teacher, but he’ll order a panino or a protein smoothie called The Santosbrazzi Killer.”
He seemed a little bleak on humanity, the Killer.
“And what if the average person, after ordering you, tries to send you back?”
“In the restaurant of life, there are no returns. And believe me, the average person is relieved when I show up. By the way,” he added, “I’ve recently cemented a deal with two local Orange Julius franchises. Also a Panera.”
He handed me his ballpoint.
“But I’ve told you already,” I said. “I don’t know anyone who needs killing.”
“As I just explained,” the Killer said. “I cannot be unordered. There are some loopholes, but they’re too rare to be counted upon.”
“That’s unfortunate,” I said. “Because there’s nobody that I want dead.”
“Everybody wants somebody dead,” he said.
“Metaphorically, of course. I’ve wished many a metaphorical death on people. But dead-actually-dead-dead? That’s another matter.”
“Apparently you haven’t heard,” the Killer said. “Metaphor is dead. Metaphor is the asshole of language. I killed it.”
“Okay, but . . .”
“We live in literal times,” he said.
I peered paranoiacally over my shoulder. Surely this was all a big gotcha joke choreographed by the staff of the subsidiary research outfit, clearly a craftier and more creative bunch than I’d credited them with being. But the lounge was almost empty.
“So let me get this straight,” I said to the Killer.
“Let me get you straight,” said the Killer. “Before there are dictators there are the sadistic nobodies who spread daily misery and make it possible for someone with a perspective problem, like a Mobutu Sese Seko, to respond out of all proportion to the little cruelties perpetrated by one asshole, and kill millions of people.”
“One asshole created Mobutu Sese Seko,” I said. This was a new theory to me.
“My family has been responsible for arresting the development of countless evil people,” the Killer said. “Our motto is ‘Crimes for Humanity.’”
He pulled his swizzle stick between his clamped lips, squeegeeing it dry.
“Without civilians to steer us in the proper direction, we’re a useless service. You ordered a Santosbrazzi Killer. Your subconscious is telling you that you know someone who should be killed. It is your duty to tell me the name of this person.”
I nodded understandingly, perhaps too understandingly. Because I’ll admit it—I was intrigued. The situation was a crazy one, yes, but not entirely unappealing. This was a checks-and-
balances system, after all, that may have kept the burgeoning tide of hurtful human jerkiness to a bearable minimum for four hundred years.
I contemplatively jicked his ballpoint. It had a very nice action to it, what I liked to call “jickback.”
“I really think I need to sleep on this,” I said to the Killer.
He tugged at his mustache tips; clearly my indecision further contributed to his sense of a greater cultural decline.
“I can give you until tomorrow,
8 p.m.,” he said.
“I’d appreciate that,” I said.
“We’ll meet here,” he said, indicating this booth.
I arrived at the subsidiary research outfit and inquired if there were a desk I might borrow. The receptionist put me at a centrally located conference table, assuming I’d be interested in the activities of the staff. I wasn’t. The night before I had amassed, on a piece of hotel stationery, a list of thirty names—none of which, worrisomely, possessed any real assholey resonance for me. Although I’d hated these people intensely at the time, I couldn’t access that hate from across a distance of years and decades. Maybe, too, my hate had been mediated by my own descent into quasi-assholedom. Life, the pure unceasing grind of it, can shear you into crueller shapes. That’s not an excuse. I’m just offering the observation that there’s an inevitable wear pattern necessitated by certain situations. The people in those situations are like the industrial carpet tiles at the front door of the office; they are more prone to abuse than those tiles protected, say, underneath the copy machine.
By 9:30 a.m. I’d rearranged my assholes in a series of interlocking circles drawn from the outermost perimeters of the page and working inward, some circles bigger than others, some circles swallowing whole circles inside of them. It was a Venn diagram of assholiness, spiraling out from a single core asshole. Who was this person? Who was the biggest asshole I knew? At lunchtime I ordered pizza for the staff and we all ate together, somewhat stiffly, in the break room. I excused everyone at 3:30; sensing a trap, no one left. As the sky darkened behind the plate-glass windows, I found myself staring at my Lucite clipboard, the chrome arm of which still pinioned the article on asshole poisoning. Suddenly, I felt that delicious telltale tightening in my viscera—maybe due to the abundance of slickery pizza and rat-pellet coffee I’d consumed, but I preferred to attribute the tightening to something more meaningful.
I returned to my hotel, eager to soak in my tub and read through the documents I’d compiled quickly before leaving—basically a few pages of Web printouts, a performance review I extracted from a locked filing cabinet, some damning emails from a certain ex—which I planned to organize in a folder and present to the Killer. The Killer would be bolstered by the knowledge that he was killing an exemplar of assholitude, and this would possibly lift him out of his career funk. Maybe I’d even invite him to The Point for some chili, and buy him a “What’s The Point?” mug on the condition that he enjoy it as a satirical gift, and not take the question it posed too seriously.
But when I unlocked my hotel room door, the Killer was already in my room, sitting in the velvet armchair and paging through The ’Natti.
I smelled beer.
“I’ve never read this before,” he said. “How ironic is that? I’ve lived here for twenty years and I’ve never read The ’Natti.”
“Don’t beat yourself up,” I said. “You’re not the intended demographic.”
“I didn’t even know we had Thai-bo,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like I could be living anywhere. Do you mind?” He gestured toward my minibar.
The Killer helped himself to five small bottles of vodka and a Cadbury Fruit & Nut bar.
He returned to the velvet armchair.
“I thought you didn’t drink,” I said.
He chugged two consecutive bottles.
“Vodka is a blunting elixir,” I warned.
“Good,” he said. “Today I hate
“Well then,” I said, “I have something to cheer you up.”
I pulled the folder out of my briefcase.
“What’s this?” he asked.
He accepted the folder and balanced it, unread, on the edge of a stupid coffee table that had a standing lamp coming up through the center.
“I don’t want to know about your asshole,” he said.
“But he’s a good one,” I said. “I’d wager you’ve rarely killed better.”
“It’s too late,” he said. “Our business relationship has changed. You’re no longer my client.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because now you’re my job.”
“Me?” I said.
The Killer hamfisted another tiny bottle.
“Well, that’s ironic,” I began, “because . . .”
I couldn’t continue. Trembly-kneed, I sat on the edge of my bed, which was covered by a bedspread scattered symmetrically with little white pompoms I could feel mushrooming beneath the thin gabardine seat of my pants. Many tangential thoughts and words (including mushrooming) competed for my attention, but amidst this head chaos, what most engulfed me was a slow-burning siege of happy surprise. Yes. Happy. Surprise. I knew I was a jerk—I was, according to the folder, the most death-worthy jerk I knew—but I’d never realized I was considered by my peers to be such an exceptional one, influential enough to create a tyrant on the order of a Mobutu Sese Seko.
A person coughed outside my room, then knocked. The Killer kicked his chin doorward, giving me permission to answer.
It was the bartender, holding a cork tray.
“I found my dropper,” he said, smiling.
He set the tray on the desk and shook out a cloth napkin, which he draped over his forearm. He held the silver shaker parallel to his shoulder and vibrated it elegantly, then popped the cap and strained the contents into a martini glass.
“Your Vengeful Subsidiary,” he said. “I think you’ll find Hercules to be a memorable elixir.”
The bartender left.
“Cheers,” the Killer said, holding up his tiny vodka bottle.
“Cheers,” I said.
We drank in silence. I felt nervousness rise in my throat like a fist, but maybe it was just the numbing effect of the Hercules, which had a eucalpytusy taste. I pushed past my anxiety to my nobly efficient, asshole core. I’d planned to accept death as I’d accepted my recent demotion—with a sense of proud responsibility.
“So where do we do this?” I asked.
He pointed to the bathtub.
“In there. You can leave your clothes on.”
I stepped into the tub. The surface was grainy—apparently the chamber maid had Cometted it today when she’d made my bed. I wished that I could leave her a large tip.
“Go ahead and finish your drink. I’m just going to get a few things ready out here.”
“Knock first,” I joked.
The Killer shut the door. I sat in the tub, sipping my Vengeful Subsidiary. I felt intoxicated by calm. I finished my drink and re-inflated the rubber headrest. I waited for the knock on the door. I waited to announce, gamely and bravely, “Come in.”
After an hour I had a leg cramp and my bottom was numb. I opened the bathroom door to find my hotel room empty, and a note written on hotel stationery, folded around a twenty. It said, “For the minibar.” To the side was the folder containing proof of my killability; on it the Killer had written, “Congratulations, you found the loophole.” Beneath an empty vodka bottle he’d secured a torn-out page of text explaining a Santosbrazzian bylaw wherein a person became ineligible for killing if both he and another person selected him to be killed.
For further reading, it was uselessly suggested I consult the Double Indemnity Loophole of 1953, described on page 345.
I put the twenty in my wallet and left the hotel. I walked through a neighborhood that might be considered dangerous in another city but here seemed benignly abandoned by all life-forms. Multi-block-size lots had been cleared of old warehouses and filled with the beginnings of shopping centers, though in the dark these rebar skeletons appeared unpromisingly like the symbolic remains of a long-dead culture after a nuclear bomb has been dropped. Without meaning to, I ended up at The Point. I ordered my usual chili and root beer and watched a news special about suicide bombers. A rogue academic meant to provide saucy counterpoint called suicide bombers “pioneers of change”; tenting his fingers, seated in an office chair before a wall of books, he accused Americans of losing their frontier abilities to take matters of injustice into their own hands, preferring instead to hide behind legal proceedings and government-
Next to me, a table of men booed the rogue academic and asked the bartender to change the channel. Soon we were watching a hockey game, with no fights.
I finished every last noodle and purchased a “What’s The Point?” souvenir mug. I returned to the empty streets, not watching or caring where I was going. In a dark stretch of sidewalk lit by a single pinkish streetlamp, I collided tooth-knockingly with a fellow lone pedestrian.
“Sorry,” I offered.
“Asshole,” the pedestrian said.
He kept walking. I peered at his shambling, overcoated form.
“You’re right,” I called after him. “I am an asshole.”
“I am an asshole,” I repeated. “You should kill me.”
He paused underneath the streetlamp, in the cone of pinkish light. My shoulders and neck tensed. From within the streetlamp’s convex bulb cover came an erratic buzzing sound. Jick. Jick-jick-jick-jick.
“There was a loophole,” I said to him. “I’m ineligible to be killed—some double indemnity crap—so the duty falls to you.”
“Duty,” he said.
“It’s your civilian duty to kill me and prevent the rise of a future Mobutu Sese Seko,” I said.
The man coughed. He scrabbled at his overcoat—for a knife, I hoped. But no. From his pocket he pulled a mouse-sized oblong of Kleenex.
“Go kill yourself,” the man said, daubing at his nose. “I don’t have the energy.”
“But you could be a pioneer!” I yelled.
The man kept walking.
As I watched his overcoat disappear in the gloom, I contemplated my own shortcomings in the pioneer department. When faced with the prospect of killing myself—as suggested, and as was shaping up to be the only option left to me—I found that I lacked conviction. I lacked zeal. What I’d wanted was to be nobly executed, not to die. The world didn’t particularly need me dead.
Oddly, I found my shoulders de- tensing, as if the jicks from the shorted-out streetlamp were little fingers kneading my stress away. To either side of me teetered the rebarred and generically portentous ruins of new buildings, and the unwritten motto of The ’Natti came back to me, as if from on high: “What’s So Bad About Here?” Here was a zeal-free place where people jicked your manufactured failures, sure, but otherwise left you to your Thai-bo. Here was where I, and all the assholes, belonged. With a dawn-cracking sense of hopefulness, I considered how easy it would be to buy a criminally cheap Craftsman bungalow and fulfill an old, vague publishing dream by getting a job at The ’Natti. My first order of business would be to change the unwritten motto. Where else but in Cincinnati, I’d intone during my interview, and when I said “Cincinnati” I’d make it clear, even though metaphor was dead, that “Cincinnati” was a stand-in for “America.” Where else but in Cincinnati could an asshole stand in the middle of such a prettily bombed city, begging to be killed, and be left so entirely alone?
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