A birthday death and a church with secrets are a nightmare in the making for LAPD rookie Darcy Walker in this nail-biting crime thriller by A.J. Lape.
Darcy Walker isn’t making enough bank to pay her bills. But delivering pizzas as a side hustle hits a snag when she finds her customer without a pulse. Problem is, the victim is Ugly Pizza’s biggest competitor, and her boss, Rollo, becomes a prime suspect.
Determined to clear his name when crimes from his past surface, life as a rookie goes high octane when she dodges gunfire in an active shooter incident at the Church to the Stars. Going against direct orders to leave the interrogation to the suits, Darcy uncovers shocking revelations that unearth a Hollywood scoop that's anything but holy. While chasing the truth in both investigations, she fends off a bounty on her own head, and the feeling somebody is trying to kill her too.
Is it someone connected to Rollo’s case? The church seeking payback? Or does a third party have an end game she doesn’t yet understand?
For fans of Stephanie Plum, Veronica Mars, Fortune Redding, and other mystery-thriller heroines, Medusa Effect will leave you laughing one minute…then hiding under your bed the next.
Release date: August 3, 2021
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Chapter 1: Messenger of God
Every saint has a past…and every sinner has a future.
Oscar Wilde’s words popped into my mind when I stared down the end of Flint Oakley’s 9mm barrel, realizing he was still deep in sin, despite the fact he’d just graduated from seminary. Dressed like a cowboy in a ten-gallon hat with a tarnished brass cross above the brim, he had smoker’s breath. I couldn’t tell if it was of the cigarette, cigar, or e-cig variety.
“Maybe you should get that gun out of my face,” I hissed, “and then we’ll talk.”
I didn’t want to talk to Flint Oakley. In fact, I’d rather knee him in the balls.
“Just put the pizza down, Walker, and we can head back to Vegas.”
My name’s Darcy Walker, and I’m a rookie police officer working the night shift with the Los Angeles Police Department. My side hustle, however, is still delivering pizzas.
I was due to clock in at the precinct in a couple of hours, but my old boss, Rollo Earls, phoned and requested I deliver an Ugly Pizza Surprise. I needed cash—blah, blah, blah and I’m-broke blah—but pizza delivery was bound to kill me before walking a beat did.
One of three things was in play here. One, Oakley was having a really bad day; two, he was the Old Testament retribution type and wanted to walk his crazy; or three, his employer, Fat Tony Falco, had sent him to kidnap me again. I’d become acquainted with Oakley when I beat Fat Tony in a game of poker. Fat Tony became a wee bit obsessed and not only sent two of his men to abduct me but had recently set a bounty on my head via the dark web.
The price was ten grand. Honestly, the lowball number was insulting.
“So you’re after the bounty?” I asked.
He lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “It’s business, darlin’. Nothin’ personal.”
Everything’s personal when someone jumps me.
“How exactly does the bounty work?”
Oakley’s face was wrinkled from the sun. He scrunched it up, his crystal-blue eyes squinting together like he tried to recall the exact verbiage in the dark web ad. “There’s a number we call to get information. Whoever answers our call requests proof of previous work. We’re then vetted to prove we can do the job.”
“You’re on Fat Tony’s payroll. Why would he need to vet you?”
His eyes twinkled. “I might’ve sent him a dummy résumé and had someone call in my place. Falco thinks I’m on vacation in Wyoming.”
I cocked a brow. He made a move to touch my long blond hair I’d twisted up in a bun. I backed out of his way. “So you’re double-dipping? Getting vacation pay plus the bounty?”
Cue shrug number two. “Seminary ain’t cheap. It’s complicated.”
“It always is.”
Nothing surprised me what came out of people’s mouths anymore. Be a LEO—or law enforcement officer—for just one day, and all those preconceived notions a person had concerning right and wrong, logical and illogical, went out the door. In my mere two months on the job, I’d had more than my fair share of LA’s craziest. I’d been attacked with a baseball bat, called the B-word countless times, pulled a family out of a burning car, and used Narcan too many times to count. I’d also arrested over a dozen suspects I prayed stayed behind bars. And that was just on the job. That didn’t take into account the FUBAR that was my personal life.
Unfortunately, that FUBAR most usually was constructed because of the way I rolled in my downtown. I lived like a verb. Here was the down and dirty with verbs—living on the edge came with a price. I had a jagged bullet scar on my arm to prove it.
We were in an alley two streets down from the pizza’s ultimate destination at the intersection of Broxton and Weyburn. Dressed in my navy uniform, I’d parked here because spaces were scarce, but it was a good part of town. Unfortunately, even good parts came with back alleys, and I’d dumbly taken the route because it was shorter. My eyes landed on trash, dumpsters, cigarette butts, and a flock of ravens—staring like they wondered how I planned to shake Oakley. I was five foot ten and one hundred and thirty pounds, give or take on a bloated day. Not a lot of backup in poundage, but I was a woman who was mad. Since Oakley was slightly chauvinistic, I took a breath, steeled my spine, and gave him the knee-to-the-balls treatment while snagging his gun. I could fire mine—even the backup gun at my ankle—but there was something poetic about stealing the man’s firearm.
When my knee connected with Oakley’s baby maker, he fell like snow in Tahoe—his hands grabbing his crotch like his nuts were the only thing left to populate the Earth. Snagging his nine in one hand while his head was down, I used my other knee to uppercut him in the chin. Oakley had a better pain tolerance than I’d expected because he grabbed one of my ankles, and I fell back on my rear end. His nine bounced out of my hand and out to the side. I could’ve fought better, but I protected that pizza like he protected his balls. Reluctantly frisbee-slinging the box to my right, it wasn’t fast enough before he had one knee on my chest, his hands circling my throat.
White dots flashed before me—a precursor to passing out.
I’d been choked by a suspect before. That incident had gotten really, reallllyyyyy close to ending my life. I’d thought the assailant would run out of gas—he didn’t until a shotgun blast ripped through his chest.
Inspiration hit. “Please,” I begged. “I’ll go.”
Oakley immediately backed off, his crystal-blues softening while he got that chivalry-ain’t-dead look about him. Extending a beefy hand, he pulled me to my feet. The moment I found vertical, I dived for his gun—rolling in an impressive show of gymnastics and turning mid-air, pointing his nine in his face while I was flat on my back.
His hands shot up. “Don’t.”
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t.” Mother-trucker.
“Jesus loves me.”
I jumped to a stand, flipped the gun around in my hand, and struck him on the side of the head with the grip—just because he was sacrilegious.
His head snapped back, and when he shook off the haze, he grabbed his jaw and wiggled it around like the tail on a dog. “You are very impulsive.”
“And you and Fat Tony will probably be shaking hands with Satan by the end of the year.”
“Fat Tony will have a heart attack before then.”
I didn’t dignify that statement with a verbal rubberstamp although I wholeheartedly agreed. Fat Tony was the size of a pregnant blue whale carrying octuplets.
“I could’ve already killed you, Walker,” Oakley said.
True, and I wondered why he hadn’t. “So why didn’t you?”
“I feel like you need to learn how to fight. Plus, I consider it God’s work. If you can outfight me, you can outfight someone else.”
“So you’re a messenger of God.”
He grinned big. “Just like the archangel, Gabriel.” He paused, and a dark and eerie expression slowly seeped into his face that reminded me of a demon spirit possessing human skin. It was haunting yet mesmerizing at the same time. This man had two personalities, which told me I hadn’t been introduced to the other. Heaven help me if and when that ever happened.
“If you don’t mind, I’m going to keep your gun.”
“Consider her yours. Her name’s Jane three-thirty-six.”
With that parting gift, Oakley bowed and tipped his hat like a gentleman, cleaning small pebbles from his all-jeans ensemble. He sauntered off into the night—his boots cling-clanging on the alley floor. I could’ve attempted an arrest, but to be honest, I wanted to draw Fat Tony out into the open. Oakley behind bars wouldn’t do that.
Lifting the hem of my shirt, I quickly shoved Jane in the back of my pants and stooped down to pick up the pizza. Walking toward Olive Eye, I felt eyes on me and pitched a hard stare over my shoulder. Two males lurked in the shadows, watching. One was taller than the other. He wore a hoodie, shading his face. The shorter had a bowler hat on his head. Both sported baggie pants, which told me they were concealing firearms. In the dark, it was hard to make out colors, but I thought I saw a flash of red.
The taller one made a step toward me, but the shorter placed a hand on his chest, halting any progress.
Here was the thing—they’d seen what happened and merely observed, soaking it all in.
“Thanks for the help, a-holes,” I whisper-shouted their way.
Wrapping my fingers around my GLOCK, I purposely stayed in the light, so it was apparent my appearance showed an officer of the law. My phone rang several minutes later when I had my hand on the door to Olive Eye.
“Did you drop it off yet?” Rollo asked.
Rollo had given me a chance when no one else had in the city, but the man micromanaged more than the IRS.
“Ran into a little bit of a snag, but I’m walking inside now.”
“Walker, it’s Fey’s birthday. I’m trying to foster better community relations since a new year is upon us. Now that Olive Eye’s rolling 24/7, he’s been blasting me around town. Maybe this pizza will put him in a good mood.”
Neil Fey, owner of OE, had been laying the negative PR on thick. He took out an ad at the beginning of last week that said OE pizzas were prettier than everyone else’s. Rollo’s Ugly Pizza had carved its own niche out of the market by making pizzas in requested shapes. Some were pretty. Some were ugly. Some were weird for the sake of being weird. Since Rollo was the brains behind the Ugly Pizza brand, only a moron wouldn’t pick up on the dig.
“I’ll do my best.”
“That’s why you’re my favorite, but I’ll throw in an extra hundred bucks if you lean back and let him see your gun.”
“Done.” I laughed. So it wasn’t all for goodwill. And it was sad I could be bought.
The doorbell rang with a ding-ding when I entered, but one step onto the bright yellow tiles of the Italian restaurant, and the only thing louder than the silence were my thoughts. Olive Eye had always reminded me of the sports bar, Hooters. Waitresses wore short-shorts and plunging T-shirts and push-up bras. Problem was, Olive Eye was more barren than the leaves on a tree during winter.
My brain said, All hands on deck…losing control…the storm is about to kill us.
Every cop instinct I had started beeping. “Hello? Anyone here? Mr. Fey? It’s Officer Darcy Walker with the Los Angeles Police Department. I’ve come bearing a gift from Ugly Pizza.”
When no one answered, I laid the pizza on the black table of an empty booth, striding across the floor and heading for the bar area. My heart galloped as I peered around the big silver cash register. Feet were sticking out behind the counter—like the Wicked Witch of the East’s underneath that house in Oz.
Except these were upside down.
I locked on the black sneakers, willing them to move.
Get up. Breathe. Make a crappy pizza.
When the body did neither after I addressed it again, I pulled my gun and made my way behind the counter, discovering it to be a man. Squatting down and checking for a pulse, I found nothing—not a blip, not a racing or shallow beat, nothing but a still warm body.
On closer observation, I found it was Neil Fey…deceased. Dannnng.
Fey hadn’t been dead long. His coloring was still good—although a whitish marble—but the side of his head had landed in a white birthday cake. Its rainbow-colored balloons decorated his hair. Weapon of death? A knife to the back.
I did the inhale-exhale deal slowly, trying to convince my stomach not to evacuate its contents. I’d seen many bodies in various stages of death, but a corpse with a bunch of buttercream frosting coming from the mouth was just too sad.
There’s a legacy for you. I died in my birthday cake.
Fey was skinny for working in food services with a long neck and beaky nose like Toucan Sam. His bony hand still held a plastic fork in it, and his black goatee was smattered with frosting.
Leaving the body, I did a quick sweep of the rest of the restaurant. When I made it to the supply room, I found some syringes with a gold fluid inside stashed behind industrial-sized cans of tomato sauce. By no means was I a pharmacist, but my opinion was that I was looking at a new designer drug on the market called pot of gold or POG. The high of POG kicked in quickly and users could be over the rainbow in sixty seconds or less. It could be smoked, snorted, injected, or ingested. Someone had already converted this into a liquid because the syringes were filled. POG worked similar to crystal meth with its instant euphoria. Also like meth, the high wore off quickly, and users upped their dosage to maintain a buzz. Unlike meth? It made its users sex-crazed and stayed in your system for years. Good luck getting a job working for the government. You would never pass a drug test.
Other than the drugs, there were no other victims. Who else had been celebrating? And where were they now? With a heavy sigh, I reholstered my gun and spoke into my Apple watch, dialing 911.
* * *
Forty minutes later, I stood in the middle of the crime scene with two employees—a waitress and delivery driver—and Detectives Guy Adler and Nathaniel Mayfield. Adler worked RHD, or Robbery-Homicide Division, on the day shift. Mayfield, however, worked the night shift—the place where detective dreams went to die because you’d ticked someone off higher than you on the totem pole. A detective for close to two decades, Mayfield did the grunt work and then turned cases over to the day shift to solve. A hit to the ego, but regardless, Mayfield was thought of more highly than most and had a longer leash than some of his counterparts.
Skinny Waitress went up on her tiptoes, trying to catch a glimpse of Fey’s body behind the counter. “That looks like it hurt,” she said.
Around my height, Mayfield was Black and sported jeans, a white shirt, and a green tie. His dark hair was battling gray, and his eyes were as stormy and turbulent as a rain cloud. “I’m sure it did,” he said. “So who was celebrating with him?”
“Anyone else? Wife? Girlfriend?” he added.
She didn’t try to mask a shiver. “Honey, no one wanted a piece of Fey…if you know what I mean.”
Actually, I didn’t. And to be frank, the nosy in me wished she would spell it out.
“Do you know anyone who would want to stab your boss?” Mayfield asked.
She turned around, chomping gum and totally unaffected. “I mean, me, but I didn’t. He told me he would buy me a boob job. I said ‘hell no,’ that I was happy with my tits. We’ve not really been getting along since.”
Fey had offered me the same package deal back in the spring when he tried to poach me from Rollo. In her defense, it hadn’t sat well with me either. I didn’t say eff-no, but her verbiage was a little impressive.
“What about you?” Detective Adler asked the driver. “What was your relationship?”
Guy Adler was as thick and brawny as a wrestler and a brown-eyed ginger. We’d first met when I discovered one of my customers with half his face on his TV screen while I delivered his Hawaiian pizza. We’d had several run-ins since, and each time I was left with the feeling I was subpar in every facet of my life. Not surprising since he had a reputation of being the precinct’s biggest a-hole.
“I just deliver, man,” the driver answered. The driver was balding and had eaten one too many pizzas. His stomach hung over his jeans, causing his pants to be more like hip huggers.
Adler explained POG was discovered. The waitress claimed she’d wondered what it was but didn’t ask. The driver, however, said he rarely went into the storage room. That wasn’t implausible. Unless he occasionally cooked, he theoretically could’ve just gone to the counter, packaged up his deliveries, and hit the road.
“Did anyone strange or new start hanging around the store?” I asked them.
Mayfield continued writing in his detective book, but Adler’s head shot up, reminding me with a frown questioning people was outside my job description.
“Fey was in an argument with some guy about three weeks ago,” Skinny Waitress said.
“Was the man just a regular from the street? Or dressed like a businessman?” I tacked on.
Adler pointed his ink pen at me in a non-verbal reprimand, reminding me I was a mere boot. Cop slang for a rookie.
Skinny Waitress flipped her hair out of her face. “He was dressed like he’d just come from the gym. Blond hair. Square jaw. Really thick. Like that’s all I know, but that gold stuff showed up afterward.”
The waitress and driver were excused right around the time Rollo thundered through the door. I’d phoned him earlier with the death announcement. A CSI stopped him, but when I told Mayfield who he was, Mayfield, Adler, and I met Rollo halfway.
“Are you blaming my driver?” Rollo bellowed. “Because let me tell you, if Walker or I were going to kill Fey, all we had to do was feed him one of his pizzas. They’re like a bioweapon. Rest his soul.”
Rollo wasn’t Catholic, but he made some sign of the cross that resembled a square.
With Rollo’s vomited out venom, the mental gaslight started, especially since it was just discovered he had me deliver a pizza in the shape of a banned assault weapon. Only in Rollo’s world would that be a good move.
“Mr. Earls, your pizza was in the shape of an Uzi,” Detective Mayfield reminded him.
Rollo had brown eyes, black bushy brows, and a large boxy head that matched his overweight body. He wiped sweaty hands down the sides of his white chef’s jacket that had pizza stains all over the front. The irony was hard to miss—like he was stained in blood.
“Probably not a good idea.” He grunted. “But if he harassed me, then I was going to harass him back. You can’t let people run you over. You gotta make a statement.” Rollo then espoused the woes of pizza drama.
“Were you aware of the Uzi, Officer Walker?” Detective Guy Adler asked. “The drama?”
Like Rollo, I didn’t need to extol the virtues of Ugly Pizza versus Olive Eye because I knew we were superior. Knife, Uzi, and/or pot of gold aside, Fey honest to God could’ve died because he ate his own crappy food.
“I was not,” I said, “but I don’t make a habit of looking at a customer’s pizza. It violates health code.”
Both Mayfield and Adler dictated notes in their respective notebooks. When Adler excused Rollo, Rollo pulled me into a big bear hug before he exited. “I’m gonna get you a good lawyer. Call me later, and let me know if you’re in jail.”
“Don’t worry. It’s gonna be okay.” When Rollo left Olive Eye in a huff, I asked, “So who’s going to work this case? Homicide or Gang and Narcotics?”
Adler made sure to flex his muscles, ignoring my question. “That’s all we need for now, Officer Walker. Go to work.”
“You don’t even know if this is your case yet or not, Adler.” My way of saying to shut up.
“She has a point,” Mayfield said with a smile. “Captain Taylor will want to weigh in. He may float it to GND because of the pot of gold.”
Adler dug in his heels. “Officer Walker doesn’t need to know that regardless.” He gazed at me like I was guilty of some facet of Neil Fey’s demise. And that gaze drifted to the center of my chest and lack of a bodycam.
The bodycam on my chest buffered, but if I pulled my taser or gun, it started recording immediately—protecting me from false claims. Unfortunately, it was on a charging rack at the station, where all the other electronic devices were I picked up before a shift.
I took a minuscule step toward him. “Listen, I obviously hadn’t picked up my bodycam yet, but even if I had, it would reveal the same thing. You act as if you’re accusing me of something, and if civilians weren’t around, I’d probably punch you in the face.”
“No one is accusing anyone,” Mayfield muttered.
Maybe, maybe not, but I received the gist of Adler’s argument anyway. Darcy was supposed to stay in her lane. Well, guess what? I rarely stayed in my lane and wanted to be fast tracked, making detective by tomorrow.
“I found the deceased,” I said to Adler. “I would simply like an answer. Respectfully requested, of course.” I blinked and smiled, not above emotional manipulation.
As expected, it got me nowhere.
Nathaniel Mayfield spoke over his shoulder, finding my eyes as he strolled back to the body. “I’ll let you know personally, Walker. As I said, final word will be made by Captain Taylor. He told me to collect everything and then give him a call. Turf wars of any kind,” he said, glancing Adler’s way, “will have to wait.”
* * *
Pulling out my phone, I returned a quick text to my friend, Bodhi Kessler and poured a drink of stale coffee for a travel mug. I attempted to screw the lid back on my fake YETI when I got all clumsy-thumbsy and tipped it over. “Dammit,” I hissed.
I allowed myself one curse word a day at twenty-one years old. Sometimes that bled into two or three dependent upon how much I hated the day and/or people with whom I was dealing. Quickly snagging a rumpled-up napkin, I dabbed up the stream but not before some of the liquid struck me in the thighs. I wore a navy uniform with silver buttons. The shirt was a size too large because underneath were a sports bra, tank top, and body armor. The sleeves were slick, and I had two buttoned pockets over each side of my chest. A nameplate with “Walker” was pinned over my right pocket. My badge rested above my heart with a bodycam above the clip that held my necktie in place. On my left shoulder was a two-way radio, and around my waist was a utility belt that held a taser, stun gun, handcuffs, ticket writer, baton, OC spray, and spare magazines of bullets. To round out the look, on my feet were ugly, black cop shoes that were slip-resistant.
When I saturated one napkin, someone handed me another. “Thanks,” I said. Turning to see who it was, I found Sergeant Cameron Pope, my direct boss and watch commander for the graveyard shift. We’d just finished roll call and a debriefing of everything that had gone down on the previous shift. Nothing substantial other than the murder at Olive Eye.
I snapped the lid on my mug, toasting it in his direction. “Sir,” I said.
“Walker, how’s everything going? Other than finding Neil Fey in some buttercream frosting.”
Pope was Black, had a bald spot on his head in the shape of Florida, and biked like he was training for the Tour de France. He was married with two kids. All indications led me to believe he was faithful.
“Fine and dandy. Got to see my family and Dylan for a few days at Christmas. That was a needed shot of adrenaline, but honestly it was like a teaser, and you were denied the real thing. How ’bout you?”
“The baby has colic. So other than she screams all the time, my life couldn’t be better.”
I detected a trace of sarcasm but killed the urge to bite down on it.
Sergeants were the first level of review for those of us in the field. Their role was to be the level head when officers could be tempted to rush to judgment. They checked our reports, which most usually were done digitally, to ensure procedures had been followed and that incidents were properly documented should we ever land in court. Where my sleeves were slick, Sergeant Pope had three silver hashmarks or service marks worn above the left cuff on his shirt with each stripe representing five years of service. On his sleeves were an additional three silver chevrons above a rocker, signifying the role of sergeant.
“You’re on through the new year,” he said. “Life of a rookie, but pay is time and a half since it’s the holidays.”
“I’ll take it.”
“And your review is tomorrow. Be here an hour and a half before roll call.”
I cocked my head to the side. “Is that the normal amount of time allotted? Besides, tomorrow is Tuesday. I’d expected my review to be on a Friday.”
He squinted. “Why Friday?”
“My father told me people were always let go on Fridays, so they had the weekend to decompress and not shoot up the workplace the next day.”
Pope raised an inquiring-minds-want-to-know brow. “Do you plan on shooting up your workplace?”
“Depends on the marks you give me, but I might key some cars.”
He licked his lips. “Just come in an hour early. We need to discuss Falco and Ray Donn Knight.”
Ray Donn Knight had been a star on the reality docudrama sweeping the world known as Redneck Ranch. Ray Donn didn’t exactly have one horse in the stable, having several women he dated on the sly. He’d gone Ariana Grande on one of his many lovers and pulled the wrong thank-you-next and got murdered because of it.
When my partner and I performed a welfare check when he didn’t show for work, we found him dead, and I didn’t exactly turn the case over to the detectives to which it had been assigned. I’d been instrumental in bringing his murderer to justice, but apparently, Pope planned to remind me of the org chart and my placement on it.
“Be there with bells on, sir,” I said, offering a cheesy smile. “I’m assuming I’m up for a promotion?”
My partner, Barron Ramsey, sidled up next to me and chuckled under his breath. Ramsey was a PO3, or police officer 3, and my field training officer. He was also the son of the Chief of Police of the entire Los Angeles Police Department. It remained to be seen who was crazier—Ramsey or me. Ramsey was at top speed in the field. In his personal life, however, he had two gears when it came to women. Can I have your number, and Sorry if I gave you an impression our one-night stand meant something more.
I understood why the opposite sex found him irresistible. At six foot one, his body was hard in all the right places, and his rich mahogany hair and navy-blue eyes were stats straight out of a romance novel. Add a deep dimple in his right cheek, and a rocker snarl for a smile and women tripped all over themselves when he walked into a room.
Despite the fact he was a manwhore, he and I worked. We lived by the simple credo: ride or die, baby. Ride or die.
Ramsey filled his mug to the brim and chose a flat jelly-filled doughnut that the blueberry goop had mostly drained out of.
“Ramsey,” Sergeant Pope said, ignoring my statement regarding a promotion. “You might want to remove the pink lipstick from your bottom lip. And make sure Walker lives to make it to her review.”
Ramsey took a bite of doughnut, speaking with his mouth full, leaving the pink lipstick in place. “On it, sir. Don’t worry.”
Pope paused and lifted the glass pitcher from the coffee maker, pouring himself a drink in a nearby Styrofoam cup. “Walker,” he said, spearing me with his eyes. “Something feels off here. Have you had more visits from Falco’s emissaries?”
I steeled my face, shaking my head. “Nope,” I sort of lied. “Falco has not commissioned anyone on his personal payroll to take me back to Vegas.”
That wasn’t exactly a lie. Oakley was not expressly tapped by Falco. Oakley had tricked Falco. There was a difference.
Pope headed for the door. “Good to know,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder. “Because lying in all its various forms will be discussed. But just so you know, I still have that tail on you to ensure you live.”
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