Where Lost Girls Go: A totally addictive mystery and suspense novel
"OMG WHAT A BOOK!!!… A real page-turner and rollercoaster… Hooked from the first page… I literally devoured this book in one sitting. Cancel everything and curl up with this fantastic five star read… I LOVED IT!!!!" 5 starsGoodreads Reviewer
“Help me,” the girl cries, alone in the forest, shivering in her nightgown, her small frame almost lost between the trees. “Please.”
When Detective Casey White discovers the body of a beautiful teenage girl in a white nightgown near the shoreline in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a familiar fear floods through her. Could this be Hannah, her sweet, blue-eyed daughter snatched from home fourteen years ago? But it only takes one look to confirm that the girl with dark bruising around her throat is another family’s tragedy.
Putting her own grief aside, Casey digs into unsolved missing child cases in the area. The victim is Cheryl Parry, one of two little girls taken during a family beach vacation nine years ago. Her sister’s body was found strangled a week later, but someone has been keeping Cheryl alive—until now.
Fearful there may be other innocent lives in danger, Casey and her team work around the clock to trace the material from Cheryl’s nightgown, but hit a dead end and don’t know where to turn. Then, another teenager’s body is found in a nearby pine forest, dressed all in white. It’s suddenly clear that a twisted killer has been hiding in the Outer Banks for years, and he will strike again.
Casey painstakingly combs the forest soil for clues to the killer’s next move, but nothing prepares her for what she finds: a buried charm bracelet exactly matching one that her little Hannah always wore—right down to the broken star charm by the clasp…
An absolutely unputdownable crime thriller with twists and turns that will have you racing through the pages. Fans of Kendra Elliot, Rachel Caine and Robert Dugoni will be completely hooked.
Release date: May 15, 2020
Print pages: 366
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Where Lost Girls Go: A totally addictive mystery and suspense novel
I imagined you riding your bike today. You would have been five years old. Given the date, if I tried really hard, I could say your age to the minute too. I know. Mothers always do.
In my story, your hair has grown to your shoulders like mine, and you look a lot like your father. But sometimes, I can see my mother’s face as well. Your dimples are like charms that everyone enjoys, along with your light-blue eyes, full of joy and bright like starlight. So, yes, you are five and we’ve just put your first bicycle together.
“Training wheels,” I’d insisted.
“No thank you,” you answered politely enough. But I could hear the uncertainty, the hesitation, and offered you a helmet and an are-you-sure look. You took the helmet, adding, “I’ll be fine, Momma.”
It doesn’t take you long to get the hang of riding—just a few tries, your father holding the seat as you pedal and steer. Before I can even finish my coffee, I know you’re on your way, riding a bike for the first time in your life.
“Hold on. Not so fast,” your father yelled. You laughed giddily and then cycled faster. He let go. He let you ride on your own, and shouted after you, “Go, Hannah! Yeah!”
“I got it Daddy,” you’d said, circling him, the front tire shakily guiding you forward. And then you turned too tight, the wheel going sideways, causing you to fall. You didn’t complain though, didn’t even cry. Instead, you picked yourself up, brushed off the street dirt, and asked your father to help you get back onto your bike.
“That’s right, Hannah,” I called from the front porch, steam rising from my coffee. “That’s it. When you fall you get back up and try again.”
“I know, Momma,” you told me. And then you were on your bike and riding without any help from us.
I imagined you loved it. I imagined you felt like a bird venturing from the nest, daring to ride faster and further each time. I imagined you took flight from the safety of our home, just a short one, not too far, nothing out of sight, just enough to spread your wings for a stretch.
I imagined all these things. And despite the crushing reality, I imagined they were real.
The taste of earth. The taste of grit and blood. Soil held her eyelids shut. A sharp jolt brushed a memory and woke her with frightful urgency.
“Bab—,” she whispered, choking on dust. The blindness terrified her. Her pulse boomed in her ears, and every muscle twitched and became alert. Muck held her arms, sticking like thick tar. Her legs were frozen too, locked in the same muddy shackles.
Only these weren’t the leather and metal restraints she’d worn before. Confusion invaded her thoughts like the earth seeping into her pores, slipping into her mouth and her nose and her ears. Suffocating. She squirmed, moving against its force, but helplessly slid deeper.
This can’t be the place he’d promised me. He’d never allow it.
Cleanliness is a virtue, he’d always said. It’s next to godliness.
She was clean for him. Not like some of the others. Since the earliest days, she’d always been clean.
A vicious bite of pain jabbed her side, rippling outward like a stone punching the surface of a still pond. The spasm caused her to push unexpectedly, the pressure forcing her to bear down.
No. Not here!
She could feel another memory, of bearing down before, of the small fist in her belly and the unrelenting sensation of being split into two.
He did this to me. An image flashed like the flick of a spark, fleeting and deadly.
It’s a sinister evil! He’d shouted at the top of his lungs.
He struck her abruptly, bloodying her nose, lights exploding with pain behind her eyelids. She fought him, but his hands were fast and the labor pain overpowering. His fingers clutched her neck, the father of her child choking her to death.
But I am alive, she thought to herself, coughing and spitting the gritty loam. She struggled to touch her belly. We’re alive.
But there was no movement.
“Baby?” she moaned softly, speaking to her stomach, torment scratching her mind, insisting an impossible truth. “Come on, baby.”
They needed help. She wriggled until the ground loosened, her shoulders moving. A bird shouted from somewhere, it’s call muffled by the cushion of earth around her head.
He choked me. And then he buried me? she thought with immense hurt and terror.
The ground shifted, the grave collapsing onto her tiny frame, crushing her as her lungs emptied. Panic eclipsed all other senses. She scooped handfuls of soil, shoving and hurrying to stay ahead of the cave-in. Her chest ached; stars streaked her sight. She clawed at the grave’s abrasive face, a wall of sand and rock, her nails chipping and peeling until they were gone. Razor pain burned the joints of her fingers as exhaustion urged her to quit.
Air. She reached fresh air, fingers first, her lips touching next, her face emerging. The daylight pierced her sight, her hair matted against her skin. A contraction ravaged her abdomen and tightened like a vice. She bit through her lip and filled her mouth with the taste of iron.
“God!” she screamed, sweeping the grave’s blanket from her middle. There were tears, but not for the labor. They were for the hurtful pain of abandonment. Deeper than any surface pain imaginable, she came to understand what he’d done. He’d buried her alive, believing she was dead, believing they were dead. Another jolt knifed her gut, wringing her insides like a damp towel. She cried out, her insides on fire.
A bird replied, telling her life was here, encouraging her to come up out of the ground like a flower in springtime. She did, the grave’s depth proving he’d considered her no threat, considered her a corpse. The earthy walls were packed with stone, enough to grip, and to pull herself up and out until she was over the grave’s lip and able to roll onto her back.
A heavy scent of pine trees mixed with the dank smell of the burial ground. Blue sifted through the treetops, the sky filled with cotton-ball clouds, and the woods she’d emerged in were thick with shades of green, brown, and yellow. The sting of dewy summer coated her head and neck, but the rest of her had gone cold with a chill. Her eyelids heavy, the dusky blue turned gray and threatened to go black.
A warm gush between her bare legs roused her. The baleful sign filled her with fear.
“No,” she cried, daring to check. Even in the forest’s shadow, the wet color on her fingers was unmistakable. Blood pooled around her—too much. “Oh please, no.”
Somewhere distant there were tires crunching stone, a car passing over gravel. She got to her knees with a heinous scream, her mind a mess of dizzying and random thoughts. Cramps came like tidal waves, lifting her enough to chance a few steps, but then taking her to her knees. She was terrified for her baby’s life, terrified for the both of them.
When she stood, blood dripped onto her feet and ran down her legs. She staggered weakly then doubled over and collapsed with a thud. The bird cawed as she managed to stand again and search for the road. She found a mound piled next to the grave, his work incomplete. There was a trail following her, shimmering in the streaky sunlight.
She faded in and out, the woods spinning sideways. When she focused, the first bird had become three. They wore feathered overcoats, their eyes like black beads, their heads bobbing up and down as they watched like spectators sitting in the front row of a prize fight.
This was a fight; her and her baby’s life in the balance. She leaned on a tree, shivering and panting. The tree’s gnarled bark was sticky with sap, the details unfocused and fuzzy. The car she’d heard became three more, like the birds.
I can make it, was the sole thought in her head. I have to.
The road. She could see it. A yellow blur passed with a plume of dust and smoke; the car unlike any she’d seen before. How long had it been? How long since she’d been outside, since she was his?
She whimpered when a contraction began to build, the pain mounting like an ocean swell. She hugged her body, belting out a harsh scream that echoed across the woods. Birds fanned the air, taking flight in a launch from a shrub.
“Help me,” she sobbed, her small frame sitting squat between the trees, unmoving, a ghost in the forest, blood drying on her nightgown and legs. “Please.”
Her heart stuttered and she fell over and took to her hands and knees, finding it the easiest path. The silence broke, her gaze chasing a red car this time, music gaining, a woman singing, her voice warbling as it approached, and disappeared in a puff of road-dust.
One hill, she considered, crawling to the edge of the forest, peering up the steep embankment. She’d have to climb. She was naked beneath her gown. His burying her the way he did, leaving her in the ground like that: it broke her heart. Her mind wandered aimlessly with dark questions asking why. Why our baby?
There was distant music, the song familiar, one of the few he’d allowed her to listen to. It was a gift from him—an hour of music for having been good and clean. And she was good for him, cleaning with the scrub brush twice a day, keeping herself fresh. When he wasn’t with her, she heard the song like a secret, the hour he’d given her staying with her long after.
The music was gone, but she cautiously hummed the tune, distracting herself from the pain. He wasn’t here, wouldn’t hear her anyway. She hummed louder, more defiantly. She rose from the forest, her head peering above the gravel as another car passed, the aftermath pelting her skin and filling her eyes, mouth, and nose with road-dust and exhaust. She batted at the fumes, covering herself until they were gone.
Ignoring the demands of her body to collapse, to give up, she mustered a will and strength from the same place she was humming her song, her secret helping her to stand. She took a step, dragging herself, her sight fading.
The roar of a car engine rushed through our home, and beneath it, I heard my baby girl’s laughter. I flipped the radio, turning it off. There was a second rumble, powerful, breaking with a sharp clap. I heard her laugh again, harder this time, the sound coming from outside the front door. She was the only child I knew who liked noises. The louder the better.
As I realized what I was hearing I shook my head, confused by what shouldn’t be. Surely Hannah was still in front of the television, a cartoon singing in the background, her tiny body pressed against the carpet and her eyes alive with colorful reflections. I told myself I had to have heard something else, something different, the raucous cry of a crow, or a blue jay outside the window.
The air felt still, unnerving, and I could smell car exhaust—its noxious breath filling my nose. Another roar broke the stillness and the deep tones shook our wedding china and rattled my insides. Hannah shrieked as the motor howled over her voice.
A child-proof safety guard for the screen door, I’d told Ronald. It needs to be high enough so Hannah can’t reach it.
My husband, Ronald, had side-eyed the idea and said the small latch on the handle was fine enough. What if he was wrong? I took my finger from the cookbook, the pages fanning the air as it collapsed, like my reasoning. Concerned, I wiped my hands, an unease coming over me like a sickly chill.
“Ms. Hannah White,” I announced in a comical voice and entered the room where I’d put her. I wanted to see her upturned face, her bright smile and her baby-blue eyes. But the carpet in front of the television was bare, save for her sippy cup laying on its side next to a plate of half-chewed apple slices. Nervously, I added, “Hannah, are you playing hide and seek again?”
The motor muscled the air once more, and in the quiet that followed, I heard Hannah scream with delight. A dark notion ticked in my gut and I knew to trust it, to trust my first thoughts of the unlocked porch door and Hannah wandering into the front yard.
I ran to the front of the house, calling out, “Hannah? Baby! Hannah?”
My voice caught in my throat when I reached the porch door and saw the car on the street and my little girl standing next to it. The dish towel fell as my bare feet struck the patio’s hot pavement, a seeming mile of lawn ahead of me. A home should have a big yard, Ronald had insisted. A brief thought of my gun and radio came to me, but could I get to them in time? I chanced it, going back inside, the porch door slamming behind me. It was a single moment I’d never recover.
When I heard the mechanical clacks of a car door, I knew the mistake made, knew I was losing precious steps and moments. I forgot about being a cop then—my police training instantly eclipsed by a powerful instinct to protect my child. I swiveled back toward the porch.
“Momma!” Hannah said to me, seeing me across the yard, laughing and pointing at the candy-red car. The front end heaved up and the passenger door eased open like the jaws of a monster. A woman’s voice inside spoke, garnering my girl’s trust. “Momma, ride! Going for a ride!”
“Hannah! Get away from there!” I yelled sternly, jumping onto the lawn in a run, the distance taking my breath.
Hannah’s face changed, her tiny mouth turning into a pout, frightened by my tone, her dimpled cheeks fading.
“Momma?” she asked. “Momma car?”
“Come here now!” I shouted frantically.
“Hannah, baby,” I said gently, too far to reach her, shoving my hand into the air, gaining on her but not soon enough, the seconds passing too quickly, beckoning. “Momma needs you to come inside!”
The connection was brief and Hannah stepped to me, her toy charm bracelet throwing a glint of sunlight caught in one of the plastic shapes.
The motor growled.
“Ride?” she asked, her brow furrowing with indecision.
“Hannah!” I shouted again. “Come here!”
The red classic car growled like an animal, suffocating my words. Hannah wasn’t afraid though, her laugh returning. Hannah’s attention was drawn inside the car. From the dark interior, a furry shape appeared. It was enough to steal Hannah entirely. The gnawing panic in my gut turned vicious then, biting my insides like a rabid dog, urging the screams and tears to surface. I had to keep it together, had to keep control, keep my composure.
“No! Hannah!” I scolded, becoming breathless in my run. “Hannah, you come to Momma!”
But Hannah’s face had already exploded with excited enchantment, her pudgy arms rising, her pink fingers clutching the air, begging to take hold of the cuddly prize. Mesmerized by the stuffed animal, Hannah crawled into the mouth of the red car, her short legs hanging over the lip of the passenger seat. For the briefest of moments, I froze, the sight of my girl entering the strange car seeming freakishly unreal.
My run became a dive, my body in flight, arms stretching, leaping in desperation. It was enough to grab hold of my girl’s foot, wrapping my fingers around her ankle until I heard her scream. The pain in Hannah’s voice killed me inside, but I tightened my grip even more, knowing it hurt, but knowing it was my only chance. The red car barked at me and lurched forward. The abrupt motion was enough, and Hannah’s foot leapt out of my grasp, leaving behind her tiny shoe.
The passenger door slammed shut. The taillights winked and the rear tires spun into a blur of white smoke, spitting loose asphalt. I screamed as the car sped from the house, screamed until my throat closed, razors stabbing deep inside my middle.
As if hearing my pleas, the car slowed, coming to a stop with traffic entering the intersection at the bottom of our street. I opened into a run, my bare feet slapping against the blacktop. I’d become hysterical, my shrieks filled with nonsensical words while waving fiercely. I was distantly aware of the neighbors who’d collected on their porches and front doors, their eyes filled with morbid curiosity, some with their phones to their ears. The red car was too far though, and I collapsed on the road, my lungs on fire, my chest pounding, and my brain a dizzying mess of emotion.
“Hannah!” I cried. “Someone took my daughter!”
I saw eyes. Starry blue.
Composure had surfaced in my raging mind; the cop I’d been trained to be appearing long enough for me to record what I was seeing. The driver had glared at me through the rearview mirror. There was more. Her brow had been stretched as though she were smiling—a vicious smile.
A car screeched to a sudden stop behind me. Doors opened, and voices came from all directions, asking if I’d been hurt, if I’d been in an accident. The voices were irrelevant, barely noticed, like a wind rustling leaves. I clutched Hannah’s empty shoe and waved toward the red car, locking my gaze on the woman’s blue eyes. I clenched my jaw until it hurt and memorized the details before shifting my focus to the bumper and license plate.
My heart seized, filling my soul with darkness. There was a cover hiding the tags, hiding the numbers and letters. The car’s turn signal gave a final wink—the taillights fading, dousing my hope, taking my child, disappearing with my little girl and vanishing from my life. Nothing would ever be the same.
It was the smell of sea air that told me I was close to the Outer Banks. I slid down my car window and perched my elbow on the sill. A summer breeze rushed through my fingers and blew the city out of my hair. The islands making up the Outer Banks would be new to me, but the briny tang had the same feel on my skin and taste in my mouth I remembered from being a child vacationing along the Jersey coast.
Ahead of me lay the expectations of squishing hot sand between my toes, wading in the cool surf, the cloudless skies an endless blanket of blue. The walks on slanted wood planks, the boardwalk beneath my sandaled feet, the punches of sea air with every breath. And the dazzle of neon signs baiting me to play games and eat pizza delights and fries swimming in cheese. It all awaited me, but none of it was planned.
My drive to the Outer Banks wasn’t exactly a vacation—not any vacation I’d selected to take. The time away from my home in Philadelphia, from my work, was a reprimand. It was forced time off for a mistake I’d made. An almost tragic mistake. When you’re a cop, a detective, an almost tragic mistake is life changing. It can also be a career killer too.
An image of Detective Steve Sholes hit me like a thunder’s rumble, my beachside memories and expectations ditched mercilessly at mile marker one-eighty-two or so. I entered the final stretches of highway with a heavy sentiment for the detective, his terror-struck expression, his life in the balance, all caused by a haunting certainty tricking every part of me into believing something that wasn’t.
My phone interrupted my self-torture, the tinny sound abrupt. “At the next intersection, make a U-turn, and proceed to the route.” I strained my eyes with a squint, trying to find the intersection. There was none.
Annoyed, I drove on, and put the miles behind me, distancing myself from what I’d done as if it would help somehow. I’d left the station with resentment, the bitterness gnawing. Maybe the captain was right. Maybe time away was what I needed. I glanced at my daughter’s case folder, the corner of it sticking out of my bag, more than fourteen years of clues stuffed inside it. With a sigh, I reminded myself that a forced vacation gave me time to work on what was important.
At some point during the drive, I’d made a left when I should have made a right, but the map application was insisting my destination was in front of me, insisting I had arrived. But this wasn’t the garage I’d been heading to. I was in the middle of a forest, on a gravel-filled dirt road with nothing but trees in every direction.
I snagged the index card clipped to the front of the case folder, one of the many old, unpromising and unlikely leads in Hannah’s kidnapping case. On it, there was a name and address, Fitz’s Garage. The map application displayed the same information, the two addresses a match. But there was nothing here. It left me wondering if the clue had been wrong all along. It was old. Maybe too old. The index card was one of the earliest belonging to my daughter’s case and had fallen to the bottom of my priority list, a hundred other more promising notes and pictures surpassing it and slowly covering it in the file.
Back at my place, I maintained a record of my investigations on a wall, the entirety of it covered with leads. It started with a single picture of Hannah, with her chubby dimpled cheeks, at the center, alone, and always in my sight from anywhere in the one-bedroom apartment I called home. Over time, countless other photos and notes were added, joining my daughter’s image. From the newly tacked pictures, I strung yarn, tightly wrapping the dyed wool around every thumbtack, each leading to another clue or case, the colored thread spanning lives lost, lives found, connecting them.
I worked my wall every night like a mother spider tending to her web. Most of the cases, their leads, went cold, went nowhere—dead ends, the yarn thready and frayed, like the broken hopes of those who’d lost a child. There were also the leads I could never follow up, the impossible leads that frustrated me, each rich with suspicion, but lacking the vital clues I’d needed to continue. How many were there? Dozens? Hundreds?
In my haste to leave for my forced vacation, I’d started to pack blindly, and I’d brushed the wall, spilling an index card from beneath one of the other notes. The card, having yellowed with age, falling to my feet like an autumn leaf. Fitz’s Garage was owned by Tommy Fitzgerald. Their specialty was restoring classic cars. There was the smallest, thinnest chance that they could lead me to the classic car that had taken Hannah. It was that card that led me to select the Outer Banks as my vacation destination. It was also the address that got me lost in the woods.
It took everything I had not to throw my phone out of the window. For miles around, there was nothing but heavy woods, the tops of evergreen trees climbing the hilly roadside. I should have heeded the warning signs—the smooth asphalt becoming gravel, the road narrowing to two lanes and then becoming one when I crossed a small creek.
Frustrated, I hit the gas. Stones ticked beneath the tires, striking the car’s underside and feeding my irritation with technology. Sharp sunlight jutted through the high branches, the light flicking in and out of my eyes, causing me to squint until the landscape turned into a washed-out tapestry. It was pretty, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I checked the time, checked my case folder on the passenger seat, anxious to get to where I was going.
The road climbed upward, convincing me I was on a mountain, the elevation high enough to punch air into my ears and make them pop. The forest seemed endless, my car laboring with the steep road. I rolled the radio tuner until I found a song, but even with the music playing, I sensed I’d driven too far off course.
Nervous about the time, I slowed again and stopped. A red car buzzed past while I checked the map, tracing the roads and the turns, my finger crossing the highway and bridge where I should have been. Then I saw it was in the opposite direction. I looked over my shoulder. I’d have to turn the car around, the width of the lanes making it a challenge. The last thing I wanted to do was dump the rear tires off the road’s embankment and get myself stuck in the middle of nowhere.
I chanced a look and peered through the passenger window, where I found a twenty-foot drop from the edge of the road down onto the forest floor. My stomach jumped into my throat as I braced against the car door. I let out a nervous laugh, which ended abruptly when a figure in the woods caught my eye.
I wasn’t alone.
I felt for the outline of my gun, found it in my bag and fished it out, the metal cold, the gun loaded. I was a woman alone in the woods and uncertain of who it was climbing the embankment. A hiker climbing the hills and trekking through the wooded trails? There was something off about their gait though, maybe an injury.
I gripped the door’s handle, uncertain of what to expect as a girl climbed over the embankment’s lip like something out of a movie. She got to her feet, her silhouette brightly lit by the sunshine behind her.
“Hello?” I said as a face appeared. “Oh, my—” I began, but was too choked up, alarmed as more of her came into view.
She had no backpack, no hat, no pants. Not even a pair of shoes. She was tiny, like a spring sapling, straining to stand, her shoulders slumped and her long black hair hanging flat in front of her face. The girl wore nothing but a white nightgown, her frame showing through the fabric, her legs and arms telling me she was underweight, but her middle showing she was pregnant, maybe six or seven months. Every inch of her gown was covered in dirt and stained red, most of it dry and dark. It was the bright, fresh blood on the inside of her thighs that had me opening the door’s handle.
I jumped out of the driver’s seat, waving my hand, my muscles tensed as the road’s gravel teased my legs and threatened to turn my ankles. The smell of her was pungent, like earth or sod or mulch, the loam heavily mixed with body odor and blood. I shaded my face from the sunlight and moved her, placing the sun behind me so I could assess what had happened. I glanced over the road and searched for a steeple of smoke, and then tried to listen for a motor running or anything to indicate if she’d been involved in a car accident, if maybe she’d gone into labor and tried to drive herself to the hospital. There was nothing. The road was clean too, absent of any skid marks or tire tracks rutted into the gravel.
“My name’s Detective Casey White. Can you tell me where you came from?” I asked, my voice shaky and loud. The girl winced and shied away. I’d scared her, but it was a good sign. She was aware of me. I feared she was in shock though, the color of her skin pale like a gray sky.
“Are you having contractions?” I asked, lowering my voice to a whisper.
“Ba—” she tried, grunting, and lifted her face enough for me to see her eyes, round and large and blotted with pooling tears. The color gave me a moment’s pause, golden like honey. Her lips quivered, her expression showing desperation and exhaustion.
My pulse pounded in my brain as I assessed the situation, putting into order everything I’d learned to do. I glanced up and down the road convinced there had to be a car, convinced she couldn’t be alone out here and that someone else might be hurt.
Baby, I thought, questioning the girl’s age in my mind. I couldn’t stop the thought that she was no older than my Hannah would be, no more than sixteen or so.
A rush of panic, of terrible hope filled me, my mind taking me where it always wanted to go—the case of my girl’s kidnapping. Since that day, I’d believed every child crossing my path could be my girl. I’d believed the possibility, anyway. It was torture. Instinctively, I checked my list, but thought of the girl’s eye color, and the uniqueness of them. I dismissed the notion as fast as it came, my training taking over again, the girl’s care and welfare a priority.
I asked, “How far along are you?”
No answer. The woman’s nightgown was the type I’d seen in old movies and on television, the style set long before my time. The cloth was deeply soiled in the same dirt she’d climbed up, the sooty black and brown ground into the threads, littered throughout her hair and covering her skin in a fine dust. I searched for bruising and scratch marks but found nothing to indicate a fall, but I did see the injuries circling the woman’s throat—purple-and-black br. . .
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