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A cry rang out, sharp with fear and pain.

The three climbers scaling the rock face of Crater Mountain paused, listening. High above the summit, an eagle cruised the hot thermals as it hunted for prey, while a wailing wind roamed the mountainside, its breath pine-scented from the forested slopes below.

Jessica West adjusted the harness cutting into her thighs, and looked down at the town of Crater, sprawled five thousand feet beneath her on the foothills. The town was too far away to be the source of such a loud cry, nor could it have come from Crater’s adjoining lake, an expanse of blue water rimmed by distant canyon walls.

The Californian township straddled the land that sloped from the darkly forested mountain to the glittering lake, its inhabitants choosing this location for its beauty, plus its remoteness from the fast pace and dangers of the world beyond.

A second scream sliced the air, rose to a high pitch, then died away.

Despite the blazing sun, a chill slid down Jessica’s spine. She frowned at the other two climbers. ‘What was that?’

‘I don’t know, but it came from up there.’ Her husband, Steve, gripped the edge of a jutting rock with one hand and pointed upwards with the other.

Sixty feet above their position, a cavern gaped like a black mouth in the rock face.

Clinging to the precipice, their guide squinted at the windborne eagle above the summit. ‘Relax, guys,’ Luke Thorne said. ‘Those cries were probably just birds.’

Probably? Jessica’s skin prickled. The screams had sounded so ... eerie. Unnerving.

Beneath the trio, the rock began to shudder and groan, as though undergoing a painful metamorphosis into living flesh. Gathering strength, the rumbling mountain shook off pebbles that battered the climbers’ helmets and struck their bodies with tiny blows.

‘Tremor!’ Luke yelled. ‘Hang on!’

Pulse racing, Jessica grabbed at a nearby cam. She had to attach her karabiner before—

She fell.

Five, ten, twenty feet passed in a gut-wrenching drop before her belay rope snapped tight and she jerked to a halt, thudding against the granite. Buffeted by a searing updraught, she dangled below Steve, waiting for her heartbeats to decrease from a gallop to a canter. Great, just great. Her second fall today. No matter how often it happened, she always felt a stab of terror each time she plunged through space, followed by overwhelming relief as the nylon rope broke her fall.

When her pulse returned to normal, she climbed back up to her husband. ‘Next vacation, I’m voting for Hawaii.’ For a moment, a vision of palm-fringed beaches blotted out the barren cliff, the image so vivid she could almost smell the salt spray and hear the crash of waves.

‘Sounds perfect for our first anniversary,’ Steve replied, grinning. ‘Hawaii’s got a first-rate disaster management centre, plus an active volcano.’

She sighed. ‘I should’ve married a poet instead of a firefighter.’

Above them, Luke scaled the rock with ease and peered into the cavern. ‘Hey, guys, this is unreal.’

Jessica and Steve joined him, hoisting themselves into the mouth of the opening. Wide enough to accommodate an SUV, a cylindrical passage plunged into the black interior of the mountain. A short distance from the entrance, the dimness solidified into a forbidding darkness that held a peculiar odour, the smell reminiscent of decay and things long-buried.

Silence filled the cavity, a cold stillness that pressed on Jessica with an almost tangible weight. Breathing shallowly, she strained to hear noises from outside—the wind, the birds—but they no longer existed, their faint threads of sound severed by the cavern’s pervading hush.

A shiver swept her body, along with a strange sense of disconnection, a feeling of trespassing in an alien world far removed from everything familiar and safe.

She gave herself a quick mental shake. Okay, so darkness triggered her fear of the unknown. So what? If she could spent a night alone in a cemetery to win a bet, surely she could handle one little cave.

Luke switched on his headlamp and aimed its beam around the immediate area, studying the stone walls, the rough floor. ‘Cool,’ he said, his voice soft with the reverence of an explorer discovering Atlantis. ‘This shaft wasn’t here last week. A tremor must’ve made it.’

‘Not likely,’ Steve said, his words echoing in the gloom. ‘You’d need one mother of all earthquakes to split open a mountain.’ He ran a hand along the rim of the aperture. ‘Besides, these edges aren’t broken. They’ve been chipped by something.’

As her eyes adjusted to the dim interior, Jessica scrutinised the hundreds of small indentations scarring the porous walls. ‘Maybe it’s an old mining tunnel.’ She touched the nicks and grooves, expecting to feel a coating of thick dust. To her surprise, her fingertips came away clean. Dust free.

Steve shook his head. ‘You don’t get mining tunnels five thousand feet up a mountainside.’

Something crunched beneath Jessica’s boot and, jerking back, she saw shattered fragments of bone lying on the floor. She blinked at the jagged pieces, a whisper of unease stirring through her.

Luke pointed to a pinprick of light far off in the darkness. ‘Hey, check that out, guys. I’ll bet this shaft leads straight into the crater. Just think, we could be the first people inside in ten years. We might even make The Gazette’s front page.’

Jessica understood his excitement. In the past, several people had reached the peak of this seven-thousand-foot mountain, but a few dozen had also fallen to their deaths from the treacherous upper slopes. Finally, the authorities had banned all climbers from the top two thousand feet, backed up by threat of a hefty fine. During the previous decade, adventurers had tried other ways of accessing the immense crater hidden in the summit, but its dense forests had ruled out helicopters, while floatplanes were foiled by the boulders that studded its central lake.

Only a few days ago, two women had defied common sense, and the ban, by attempting to reach the peak. When the pair had disappeared, a search had failed to find any trace of them. Some locals speculated that the women had simply abandoned their crazy quest and returned to San Francisco, but—

A faint noise penetrated the cold silence. Something was ticking ... no, dripping.

Jessica tensed.

Seconds later, she noticed a wet sheen on the floor and she drew in a shaky breath, relaxing a little. It was just water trickling from the cave roof.

Another scream rang down the tunnel, weaker than the ones before, yet still edged with that same eerie quality. She rubbed her goose-bumped arms, trying to quash her lingering unease. The cry seemed to be coming from the far end of the tunnel. It had to be a bird call, didn’t it? Since no humans or large animals lived in the crater, what else could it be?

Sensing her apprehension, Steve suggested, ‘Maybe we should go back, Jess. What if there’s another tremor?’

She hesitated, aware that her husband had been looking forward to this climb for weeks.

Luke told them, ‘Man, that was just a baby shake, part of the excitement of living in the Golden State. If I panicked every time the mountain gave a little quiver, I’d never get off the ground. We’re safe up here, guaranteed.’

Jessica shifted her gaze to the view outside. On the fields far below, people would be setting up tents and stands for tomorrow’s annual reptile festival. It would be safer down there.

She peered through the gloom at her oversized watch. The joke gift from her cousin, Matt, usually made her smile, thanks to its cartoon giraffe whose long ears twirled the time. Although she didn’t feel like smiling at the moment, she tried to sound enthusiastic as she said to Steve, ‘Let’s keep going. Luke reckons there’s no danger and he’s the expert. Besides, it’s only eleven-thirty, so we’ll have heaps of time to explore the crater. Since no one’s been in there for a decade, it’ll be like entering a lost world. Matt would love to see the place. In fact, once we’re inside, I’ll call and let him know where we are.’

‘Reality check,’ Luke said. ‘No cell towers up here.’

Jessica gestured to her backpack. ‘My cousin sent me a satellite phone for a wedding gift.’

‘A sat phone, hey? Cool.’

Looking into the tunnel, she thought she saw the darkness stir: a shadow shifting within the deeper shadows. The flicker vanished. Had it even existed?

Luke said, ‘Time to make the local papers, guys.’ He adjusted the coiled rope slung across his chest and set off down the channel, the bright beam of his headlamp illuminating a floor surprisingly clear of debris.

Ignoring the damp chill that clung to the air, Jessica moved a few steps from the entrance ... and stopped. The peculiar odour she had earlier noticed suddenly seemed stronger, as though the porous rock around them had previously breathed in the stench of animal inhabitants, and was now exhaling it at the human trespassers. She scanned the passageway, assailed by an uncanny feeling that something was crouching in the blackness beyond the sweep of Luke’s beam. Watching. Waiting.

‘Are you sure you want to go in, Jess?’

Annoyed at her overactive imagination, she leaned up to kiss Steve, taking comfort from his presence. She had felt safe the day she met him; she would always feel safe with him. ‘I’ll be fine. I’m just worrying about nothing. Let’s catch up with Luke.’

‘Okay, but stay close.’ He headed along the tunnel.

Jessica switched on her helmet lamp. She stared down the long throat of the cavern, hesitated, then followed the two men into the darkness.


The alligator lunged, its gaping jaws revealing rows of rapier-sharp teeth.

Matt Hayden darted behind the female’s nest as the bone-crushing jaws snapped shut, missing his thigh by inches. He circled the nesting mound, alternately watching the hissing alligator and the nearby river. Like most waterways in the Florida Everglades, it was riddled with gators, and he didn’t want any nasty surprises leaping out from those muddy depths.

A satellite phone shrilled from one of the backpacks lying on the bank, its strident notes startling a flock of wading herons into flight.

‘Want me to get that?’ Clancy Ryan called out, his nervous gaze flitting from the alligator to the ringing knapsack.

Matt motioned his assistant back to safety. ‘Later, Clance. Jessica said she’d call today, so it’s probably her. She’ll try again in a few minutes.’ He sidestepped the twelve-foot reptile, addressing it in the soothing tones one uses on a child. ‘Yes, you have a beautiful mouth and such fine teeth. You’re just the loveliest alligator ever, aren’t you?’

The beast hissed and lashed its tail, continuing to stalk the scientist. Matt’s colleagues dismissed gators as primitive feeding machines, but to him these relatives of the dinosaurs were fascinating. However, despite their unique and enthralling physiology, he didn’t fancy being this particular beauty’s main course today.

The ringing stopped.

As he circled the mound, Matt Hayden tilted his battered hat and wiped his forehead. He was a lean man, with sun-streaked brown hair, and muscles hardened from years of trekking through jungles, wrestling animals and lugging around packs of science equipment. On his right cheek, a two-inch scar marked an imprudent investigation into an eagle’s eyrie, while a pair of long-healed punctures on his stubbled chin were mementos from a huge rock python, indignant at being measured for The Guinness Book of Records.

Matt ignored the flies swarming around his legs, the insects drawn by the pungent odour of gator scat splattered across his cargo pants and boots. Reaching beneath his multi-pocketed vest, he pulled his shirt away from his chest, gaining a brief respite from its sweaty dampness. Although it was late afternoon, the temperature was still in the nineties, with dark clouds lingering on the horizon after another day of body-drenching humidity and summer showers. The thick vegetation, swarms of insects and rank smells steaming up from the riverbank reminded him of the jungles in Borneo.

God, he loved this place.

‘She’s tiring,’ he said, jumping aside as the alligator lunged again, its jaws almost snagging his pants.

Clancy waved him back. ‘You’re getting too close, Matt! It nearly got you that time. If you get killed, I swear I’m not lugging your body all the way back to camp. I’ll just dump it in the river for the gators.’

Despite the annoyed tone, Matt heard the concern beneath Clancy’s words. He knew his friend was worried that, lately, he’d been taking too many risks. And maybe he had. Maybe his guilt was making him careless.

‘Blindfold ready?’ he asked, backing away from the advancing reptile.

Clancy hovered nearby, a black cloth held in trembling hands. ‘What if I miss?’


‘Jeez, I thought those Tasmanian Devils were the stuff of nightmares. Horrible, vicious things. But these creatures—’

‘Fill out a complaint form later, Clance. We’ve got work to do.’ He’d been dodging those lethal jaws for several minutes and, while exhilarating, it was also time consuming.

Clancy shuffled forward, still clutching the cloth. His dark hair was slicked to his head with perspiration and he brushed a limp lock from his pale face.

During his first few weeks as Matt’s assistant, Clancy had torn several shirts and jeans, and emptied numerous packets of Band-Aids. Finally, during a brief trip into Brasilia to get a new generator, he’d hurriedly purchased clothes he deemed more suitable for his new job. Tired of bashing his head on the ground during their wrestling matches with animals, he adopted a baseball helmet that not only protected his skull, but also covered his ears, deterring bugs from crawling inside. Next, he swapped his street clothes for camouflage shirts and pants, convinced that if the animals couldn’t see him, they couldn’t attack him. Lastly, he traded his weighty boots for leather sneakers—easier to run in—and topped his army pants with cowboy chaps as an added protection against fangs and claws.

Beneath his baseball helmet’s visor, Clancy eyed the alligator. ‘That’s one savage beast. How on earth will we get its blood without tranquillising it?’

‘You’ll see.’

‘Why can’t we use a harpoon with a tranq tip like other biologists do? Or a noose?’

‘Do you know how badly those things can injure the gator?’

Clancy shot back, ‘Do you know how painful it’d feel to have your arm ripped from your shoulder?’

Matt threw him a grin. During the past year, his assistant had proven to be loyal and resourceful, but he knew Clancy didn’t share his passion for animals, medicine or the outdoors. To Matt, though, the opportunity to combine these three loves was the fulfilment of a long held dream. At thirty-eight, he was one of the world’s leading expeditionary biologists, hired by pharmaceutical companies to collect biological products from wild animals for research purposes. He embraced his profession with a fervour that extended to all areas of nature, and only took jobs that allowed him to gather the material he needed without hurting the animals.

Until last week.

A sour taste filled his throat. The cull had been necessary, he told himself yet again. Quick and virtually painless. Potentially beneficial to thousands of people. But however he justified it, the end result was still the same. For the first time in his life he’d killed animals.

‘Watch out!’ Clancy shouted.

Matt blinked, his blue-grey eyes refocusing just as the gator lunged. He jumped behind the nesting mound as its jaws missed his thighs by an inch. Slipping a little on the mud, he regained his balance, and hurriedly enlarged the gap between himself and his stalker. With a quick grin at Clancy, he said, ‘That was close.’

‘Jeez, Matt, what’s with you? All week you’ve been taking unnecessary risks, first with the rattlers and now with this gator. Have you developed a death wish or something?’

‘Sorry, I was distracted.’ He avoided his friend’s concerned gaze. Unable to tell Clancy about the gator cull, he’d explained his two-day absence last week with lies of a sudden business trip to Miami.

‘Distracted equals dead. Isn’t that what you’ve been telling me for the past year?’

‘Don’t worry, Clance. Today’s not Dying Day.’

‘Colour me relieved.’

‘Let’s roll.’ Matt pulled a length of rope from his pocket. ‘Blindfold. Now!’

Muttering a prayer, Clancy darted forward and threw the black cloth over the alligator’s head.

Disoriented, unable to see, the animal stopped hissing and became still. Matt leaped onto its back, grasped its neck with one hand and clamped its jaws together with the other. Alligators had powerful muscles for snapping their jaws shut on prey, yet the muscles for opening these same jaws were so weak that a man needed only one hand to keep its mouth closed. Once the gator was muzzled, he flipped it onto its back.

Clancy’s brows rose as the creature fell unconscious. ‘Huh?’

‘Her brain’s smaller than her brain cavity,’ Matt explained. ‘When you flip a gator over, the brain shifts position, disrupting the nervous system.’ He picked up one of the reptile’s legs and released it, watching it flop back into position. ‘She’ll only be out for a few minutes, so we need to hurry.’

Clancy scurried forward with a syringe. ‘I can’t believe I gave up managing a McDonald’s restaurant for this.’

Matt carefully inserted the needle between the ventral scales, into the reptile’s leathery belly. ‘Are you still counting the days until your year runs out and you can go back to selling burgers?’

‘One week, five days, eight hours. Not a minute too soon. How do you stand this life?’

As Matt slowly filled the syringe with blood, he looked around. Sunlight flickered through the mangroves that lined the river, the thick-legged trees hosting a fascinating ecosystem of spiders, snakes and scorpions. Snowy egrets and green-backed herons waded through the muddy waters, alert for submerged alligators. Further down the bank, a six-foot eastern diamond rattlesnake slithered through the sawgrass, hunting for oak toads and pig frogs.

Matt Hayden couldn’t believe his luck, working in such a paradise.

His company, Hygea Enterprises—named after the Greek goddess of health—specialised in retrieving rare and unusual biological products. As founder and owner, Matt usually left the administration to his managers, while he and his other two-men teams travelled the world collecting the required material.

Matt’s work took him to a variety of wilderness environments that, although packed with risks and inconveniences, also held daily wonder and excitement. Among their many jobs this past year, he and Clancy had spent three weeks in the scorching Arizona desert, milking black widow spiders for scientists developing an improved anti-venom. In Mexico, they had trooped through dank caves, searching for vampire bats whose saliva could contain an anti-coagulant vital to prevent heart attack sufferers from forming fatal blood clots. And in Africa, they had wrangled green tree mambas whose protein-rich venom could one day benefit people with brain diseases.

‘Anyway,’ Clancy said, passing him an empty vial, ‘I’m not going back to selling burgers. I’m starting my own business, assuming I can decide on something different and interesting—and safe.’

Twelve months ago, Clancy’s prime requisite had been excitement. His sister had been temping at Matt’s company when she’d heard that his regular assistant had contracted glandular fever. Aware of Clancy’s longing to see the world beyond the farms and towns of Ohio, Phoebe had recommended her brother as a replacement.

Matt, caught up in a whirlwind of preparations for his next expedition, had met Clancy briefly, liked the younger man’s enthusiasm, and hired him on the spot.

It had only taken Clancy a few weeks to learn that jungles and deserts looked a lot more appealing on the National Geographic Channel than in real life, and his safe, comfortable job at McDonald’s soon took on a nostalgic glow. But by then he and Matt had become friends which meant, since he’d committed himself to the job for a year, he refused to just walk away and leave Matt scrambling in the wilderness without back-up.

Trying not to sound too eager, Matt said, ‘This work is always different and interesting. Why don’t you extend your contract? We make a great team.’

Despite Clancy being a decade younger than him, the two men had bonded like brothers during the last year. Their relationship had been formed by working daily with lethal creatures, camping in rough conditions, and talking for hours over the glow of late night campfires.

‘Thanks for the offer, but no thanks.’ Clancy shuddered. ‘Not that I don’t appreciate the memorable, life-savouring moments you’ve given me, Matt. Some nights I lie awake in a cold sweat, reviewing the long and hideous list of activities I’ve survived. After much debate and heart palpitations, I’ve picked a winner for my Lifelong Nightmares Award. It’s the time we wrestled that twenty-six-foot, leech-ridden anaconda through piranha-infested waters in South America.’

They had been searching for the eighteen-inch giant Amazon leeches, whose saliva was needed by drug companies wanting a new anti-inflammatory for arthritis sufferers. The leeches had been elusive until they discovered them living on the bodies of the enormous Eunectes murinus.

Matt’s eyes gleamed in memory. ‘Wrestling that anaconda was fun, wasn’t it?’

Clancy shuddered again. ‘You thought so. Have you had a brain scan lately?’

Beneath Matt’s knees, the alligator twitched. Pocketing the last vial of blood, he patted the unconscious reptile’s belly and told it, ‘Okay, sweetheart, almost time to turn over. In a couple of minutes, you can go back to minding your eggs.’

Clancy rolled his eyes. ‘When are you going to learn that the animals can’t understand you?’

‘They understand more than you think.’

‘You wish.’

Matt unlooped the rope from the alligator’s jaws. ‘One down, twenty-nine to go.’

Clancy groaned.

Just as they rolled the reptile onto its feet, the sat phone shrilled again. They glanced around at the knapsack containing their communication equipment—and in that moment the gator regained consciousness with surprising speed. It lunged at Clancy, who yelped, jumped backwards and slipped in the mud on the river bank, landing on his butt.

Matt yelled and waved his arms, wincing as pain seared his left shoulder. Months ago, he’d torn a ligament while moving a huge rock, and it still hadn’t healed.

Distracted by his waving, the gator turned its slitted eyes on him. With it snapping in anger, he led it towards the nesting mound. ‘Are you okay, Clance?’ he asked, popping a painkiller into his mouth.

‘Yeah.’ Standing, his assistant wryly regarded his mud-covered clothes. ‘Just another day at the office.’ He wiped his dirty hands, then withdrew the ringing phone from the pack. ‘Hello ...?’ He listened for a few seconds. ‘Hi, Jessica.’

Matt edged away from the nest. ‘I’ll be there in a minute.’

‘Hurry up, she sounds excited. Something about a slater.’ Clancy frowned at the phone. ‘You’re excited about a creepy insect, Jessica? .... Oh, not a slater.’ He looked at Matt. ‘She’s excited about a crater.’

When Matt had put a large gap between himself and the nest, the alligator settled onto the steaming mound containing its thirty or forty eggs.

Taking the phone from Clancy, he heard his cousin’s voice ring out: ‘Matt! What’s going on?’

‘Nothing much,’ he told her. ‘Just cruising the Everglades, doing a little reptile collecting. Pretty quiet day.’ He ignored Clancy’s disgusted expression.

Jessica West snorted. ‘Since when are alligators quiet? That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it? Rolling around in the mud, collecting their precious blood?’

‘Ingrate,’ he replied, pretending indignation. ‘You’ll thank me when you get a scratch on your thigh one day and, instead of your leg being amputated, it heals.’ For years, doctors had been worried that growing strains of super-bacteria could plunge the world back into a medical Dark Age. Recently, crocodilian blood was found to contain peptides capable of destroying the most virulent bacteria. When told of their latest project, Clancy had enthusiastically opted for a quick trip to the nearest gator farm, but to his dismay, he learned that wild crocodilians had immune systems far superior to farmed gators, which were fed an abnormally fatty diet.

Phone wedged between his ear and shoulder, Matt joined Clancy in gathering their packs. ‘Where are you, Jessica?’

‘In the crater on top of Crater Mountain. And there are some weird things in here.’

Laden with equipment, he followed Clancy to their nearby airboat. ‘Who’s with you? Steve?’

‘Yes. And a guide.’

They climbed onto the airboat and stowed their gear. Taking a seat, Clancy gripped the throttle but didn’t start the engine, aware its roar would drown out Jessica’s words. Around their boat, silvery eyes skimmed the surface of the river as submerged alligators watched the humans with cold calculation.

‘You should see this place,’ Jessica said. ‘It’s—’ A deep rumbling came from her end of the line, and Matt heard her cry out.

He tensed. ‘Jessica?’

The rumbling continued for a few seconds before fading away. ‘I’m okay,’ she said. ‘Just another tremor ... Anyway, this place is incredible. It’s about five miles long, two thousand feet deep, thickly forested, with a lake in its centre. Our guide says the water used to be full of boulders, but they’re gone now.’

‘What happened to them?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe the bottom of the lake has dropped or something, or the water levels have risen.’

His throat turned dry. ‘Jessica, you should get out of there. That place sounds like bad news.’

‘Relax, we’re already heading back. It’s too creepy in here. A few minutes ago we saw some animal carcasses hanging in a tree. They’d been skinned and their heads had been ripped off.’

Matt knew no animal would do that to its kill. But a human would. ‘Do people live in the crater?’

‘Luke swears it’s uninhabited. And yet we saw these unusual tracks—or maybe they were footprints ... Peew! What’s that stench?’ Her voice became softer, as though she had turned away and was speaking to someone else. ‘Do you smell that, honey?’

In the background, Matt heard Steve West reply, ‘Yeah, what a stink.’

Fear threaded her words: ‘Look! Behind those trees. There’s something—’ Terrified screams and shouts rang from her end of the line.

Matt gripped the sat phone, his knuckles turning white. ‘Jessica?’ A thud sounded, as if his cousin had dropped her phone to the ground. ‘Jessica! What’s going on?’

On the other end of the line, a man shrieked in agony.

Matt fell silent, his blood chilling.

He heard a loud snap.

The agonised shrieks suddenly stopped.

Heart thundering, he told Clancy, ‘Get hold of the sheriff in Crater.’ As Clancy grabbed up the pack containing the second sat phone, Matt shouted, ‘Jessica! Steve!’ No response. Just crunching noises. ‘Jessica!’

The crunching stopped. A moment later his cousin’s phone clattered, as though someone had picked it up.


Deep breathing came from the other end. Calm. Regular. This wasn’t Jessica. Whoever—or whatever—was on the other end was listening.

‘Who’s there?’ he demanded.

The heavy breathing continued, slow and measured.

Then, abruptly, the connection was severed.

Matt sat, stunned.

Clancy swore softly and looked up from the second phone. ‘I can’t get through. It keeps going to a recorded message, something about tremors disrupting the network.’

‘Get us out of this place, Clance,’ Matt said, hurriedly redialling Jessica’s number. ‘We need to get to California. To Crater.’

Excerpted from CRATER by Phoenix Connor. Copyright © 2007 by Phoenix Connor. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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