olomon, you have no choice. You'll hang otherwise."
Oliver Edwin Leeford sat on a stool by the bed. He was fourteen, perhaps. The room was narrow and hot; the Three Canes afforded little better, and this was its garret.
The aged man on the cot looked away. "They won't know. I'll get s'more lads, and change my face. You'd help me, Tw- I mean, Leeford, my fine fellow?"
"I could go back to making handkerchiefs, Solomon. But I won't. Belton has done better for me, and I'll have schooling-"
"-And forget your old mates, now, will ya? Now you're all rich and fancible." His face twisted. "Go, go on, then, and leave me, or peach on me. Forget you knew me, and mayhap I'll pinch your hanky these days."
"This is the problem, Solomon. If you go back to stealing, you will be caught. Peel's men are good at what they do, and Banks was lucky to escape the gallows as it stands. There is a reason why I 'm no longer "Oliver Twist". That trick of yours, feigning an elf-stroke, was clever. And Comfort was kind enough to hide you." The schoolboy's eyes narrowed. An observer would have thought him far older. "But not forever." He took a deep breath. "Not forever."
"So what'll I do, boy? What'll I do?" The old man seemed on the verge of crying or screaming. "Will I hang, then? Or go to Australia?"
"The ship'd kill you ere you saw Van Dieman's Land, my old mate. Ditchkins feared it so much he 'scaped at the last, I heard."
A knock sounded on the door. "That would be," Leeford said, "a third alternative."
He called "Come in," and the blue-coated bobbie stepped inside. Isaac Solomon screeched and half-jumped from his bed, rapped his head sharply on a rafter and abruptly sat back down. Leeford shook his head and motioned to the policeman to have a seat on the room's one rickety chair. Apart from a small bag of Solomon's possessions, the room held nothing else. Leeford spoke.
"Solomon, this is Officer Tamworth. He knows Mr Belton, and he and I got to talking...well, officer, you explain." No one listening to Leeford would hear the workhouse or the baby-farm in his cultivated speech.
"Isaac Solomon, I am not here," the bobbie said, "to arrest you." The aged man nodded, sitting up more carefully, and rubbing his bruised head. "I know who you are and I give you joy of your...recovery," with a sour smile. "I came because Oliver-young Leeford, here, mentioned your skills at finding and receiving stolen property. He also mentioned a woman-"
"A friend of Mr Belton, a widow, Mrs Dubourg," Leeford broke in. "She could use a man such as you. A man such as you can be, Solomon."
"What's some old woman want with the likes of me, then?" Missing teeth showed as Solomon leered. "Wants jewels and silks on the cheap, or some such?"
Leeford said, "She has come into some money, and some property as well."
fficer Tamworth mopped his sweaty face with a handkerchief; the room stank and three men in it was too many. "She's lost a thing or two, and wishes a detective assigned to her. We can spare none; we are too few for our work as it is. Leeford, here, thought that you could-" The door opened.
Mr Comfort leaned into the room and said, "Didn't dow as ye had guestsh, Mr Sholomon. Would they be wantid anythid, some coffee perhaps for the bobbie, or such?"
Young Leeford stood, paid Comfort for coffee, and nodded at him. Taking his cue, Comfort closed the door. Solomon swung his legs over the edge of the bed, and rested his feet on the floor. He was a short man, his back hunched with age. "I'm no detective, Peeler. You know what I am. Find some other damned fool to dance attendance on the old biddy."
"A detective's card isn't so hard to get. Nor is a weskit and cravat-" old Solomon had neither, "-and, for goodness' sake, a bath." At last, Isaac Solomon nodded.
"Me dear, I'm yours." For the rest of his life, Leeford would wonder whether clothes had, here, made the man.
The coffee arrived, and they drank a pot as they argued over the details. "We'll need Ditchkins, of course, and a couple of fast lads..."
amworth left for his beat. In the front parlor, they saw an old fence haggling with a sly young boy over a packet; a doll, perhaps, gleamed palely from within the rags' folds. "The Eyetalian, what has the poncy place up in Westmin'ster, he'd like it, eh?," asked the dirty lad. The old man nodded and counted coins.
They found Ditchkins in a pub, grown a bit and smoking a claro. "Hey, old Solomon," he called, sticking out his hand, "good t'see ya. Heard you was dead!"
"I got better," said the ugly old man, and shook the improbably dressed boy's hand. Ditchkins wore a striped shirt, a long wasp-waisted coat, and trousers that needed mending. His cravat's stains served as the closest thing he had to a diary. "Got work for you, if you need it."
"Making handkerchiefs, then, old man? I barely 'scaped the boat to Australia."
"No, my dear," said Solomon. "We're thief-taking this time, Ditchkins. There's clothes, and a doss too."
"Me own doss, old man? What dodge is this?" Ditchkins looked at Solomon distrustfully.
Leeford had bought a cigar and lit it from Ditchkins'; he said, "We're to have our own quarters, and Solomon his. Can you get the lads together?"
"I could look'em out. There'd be dosh, of course."
"Dosh, we'll work it out, but you will get paid. We watch thieves, take them when we can. Eight a week, clothes and a steam first."
"Eight? I can take more than that before this smoke is out!"
"And the beak knows you. Don't they, my artful mate?"
The tatterdemalion boy's face grew long. He looked at the shop's filthy floor, and at his boots. "Got nothing better, not now. I'll go along with you, look it over."
They went to the baths.
Hester Stanhope's boasted pools, steam rooms, massage, and private tubs; beer was both available and a good idea, given the heat. Solomon and his new gang drank as they made plans. "You'll live," Leeford said, wrapped in a towel, "in the servants' quarters. Her house is a great pile in Mornington Crescent, half empty. You'll-"
"We will?" said the scrubbed Solomon, who'd turned two tubs grey before he was clean enough for the steam. "What of you, Ol-"
"The Beltons are kind enough. I will stay with you for a while."
"What'll folk think of the lot of us, dossing down with this old biddy?" asked Ditchkins, taking a swig of his porter. "We got a story for them?"
"I had a thought about that." Leeford said. "You've got a right lot of boys, and you've always taught'em making handkerchiefs."
"Right," old Solomon said, dark eyes crinkled.
"So hang out your shingle. We'll be a school. Even hire a teacher or two?"
"Bloody hell!" cried Ditchkins. "Ain't going to school, mate, nohow."
"He means it's a sham, my dear," Solomon said. "No books required."
"Well," Ditchkins said, slurping porter and wiping his mouth with the end of his towel, "that ain't so bad."
Mme Dubourg's house was huge, dark, laden with an incomprehensible mess of things that Solomon had seen only as stolen property and Leeford had read about: stacks and stacks of cased animal specimens, oil paintings in cases, statues of naked gods and goddesses that made Ditchkins call out "cor!", vases and pots and brew-kettles, a room filled with old pianofortes, piles and piles of The Press and Journal tied with string. A maid met them at the door, and led them through the mazes of kipple to a back parlor, swept and dusted, where Mme Dubourg waited in wan afternoon light.
he was a large woman, in a gown with a bell-shaped skirt and a pelerine, with the marks of age on her face and hair beneath a starched linen cap. A prayer book and beads lay on a small deal table beside her divan, the beads spilling from a box decorated with a squirrel in decoupage. "'ello," she said. "You are Mister Solomon, yes?"
"Aye, ma'am, so I am." Isaac Solomon doffed his new hat and bowed, and the boys did the same. "These are Leeford and Ditchkins, two of my assistants."
She gave a little curtsey and motioned to them to sit. "Charlotte, some tea." The maid went off into the Minos-maze of the house. "She is English, so she makes good tea. Sauces, not so much." The woman smiled. "Now, you are the one who can catch the t'ieves, who can find all property stolen, no?"
"We are thief-takers, and we'll keep you safe, ma'am, yes." He nodded. "What do you need us to do, now?"
"I have here come from France, and my family with me-"
"The Revolution," Leeford murmured, too softly to hear. He had been reading history; France had burned only a few years before.
"-because of the Revolution. And now my old grand-mere, she has died, God have mercy, and her t'ings to me have come. And so I fear the t'ieves-" Leeford could hardly keep from laughing and was saved only by the arrival of the tea.
They drank tea and ate the cakes that Dubourg's girl had slapped up, and after the nerve-wracking task of getting Solomon into a suit that morning at their lodging-house, Leeford was grateful for them. "T'e problem," Dubourg said, after Ditchkins had gotten her to laugh by telling her about his cat, "is t'is. I 'ad a madonna, all of ivoire, from my grand-m?re. I had the boys to move all into my home, and I set her up in my boudoir, but s'en she is gone. I ask my maid, and she knows not'ing. Not'ing! I cannot go to the police, for what if I am accused? My own sister, she was accused, in the Revolution, and the police take her away!" Her drawing of a hand across the throat made her meaning unmistakable.
"She's telling the truth, then, y' maid?" Leeford asked cautiously.
"She is a jewel, my Charlotte. She was my mot'er's; for a chateau I would not trade her. No, she is honest, I know."
"When'd it get pinched, then?" Solomon asked.
She said, "It was this Saturday. I had the boys to unpack Mama's things, a wagon in the allee, and carry them into the 'ouse. They did it, and when I went up in the afternoon, my Madonna, she was gone."
"So," Leeford said, "Who were the boys you hired, and how many?" He drew a notebook from his satchel, with a pen and a vial of ink. I am become a bobbie, he thought.
"They were called Jacky and Monty, and I hired them from the corner in front of the Parr's 'ead, the tavern, near to 'ere, in Camden. T'eir last names, I do not know. I paid them cash. T'ree and nine a day, and beer as well. Beer, eugh!"
"How many days did they work for ye, then?" asked Solomon. He's good at this, Leeford realized with a smile. He may scape the gallows yet.
"T'ree days, it took, for all of these t'ings from my rooms, to 'ere." Ditchkins was quiet, watching, listening. "I had the rooms in Euston Street, and I taught the French, you see, to t'e boys from the university. Perhaps I will teach it again, if we are to 'ave a school here, to pay for another Madonna, no?" She smiled.
"Mayhap you will, Mrs Dubourg," Leeford said. "So they went all over this house, then?"
"But no! I did not allow them up the stairs. And not alone in the room with me, certainly not." She frowned, prettily, through more makeup than an Englishwoman of her age would wear, and sipped black tea.
"So the boys never went upstairs, and the madonna was there, yes?" Leeford knew what a Madonna was, but knew no one who owned one, of course.
"Yes, very true. So I do not see how it was done."
"Ah, missus, 'low me." Ditchkins slipped into the conversation. "They was never alone wi'ye in the room, no."
"But was one of'em ever out of y'sight, ma'am?"
"Well, they went outside, for, as you know-" They nodded. "-and my neighbor, Mme Sout'wort, she talked to me for a moment, over the fence, you know, because she knew me, and she knew my mama also."
"She talked to ye? For 'bout 'ow long, then, d'ye think, ma'am?" Ditchkins had insisted on a top hat to go with his waistcoat and trousers, but at least had doffed it in chez Dubourg.
"Eh, uh." A distracted hum. "She ask me 'ow Mama went, and the funeral, who was there, which were the French, you know, most-partly, because she did not speak the English, and did I need any t'ing, but also how to make the daube, with the garlic and the boeuf, and so I told her." The woman patted at her eyes with a kerchief. "She is very kind, Mme Sout'wort."
"So it was a good while y'talked, ma'am?" Ditchkins had a clever mind, his lack of book-learning notwithstanding. "Long enough for-"
"'e went upstairs, one of t'em, and took my madonna, no? But how to find 'im?"
"Leave that," Solomon said, with a cold look, "to us". With a description of the madonna, they were done with tea and the interview.
They were shown to rooms in the garret ("Consider yourselves," Charlotte said, "at home.") and took council.
"Ditchkins, my dear, you take Duke's Place. Leeford, go over to Petticoat Lane, and browse the stalls there. I'll go to Eakin's lodging house, and look for some likely lads." He smiled. "We'll have a right set-up here. Take cases for the old biddy, live high on the hog, eh?"
"Don't come home drunk, old man," warned Ditchkins. "The rags ye're wearing cost us."
"Yah," said Solomon. "And hand it over." He extended a hand to Ditchkins, sitting on a wooden box in the small room.
"Hand over what?"
"You pinched something, boy. I know it." His glare did not falter. "Hand it over. I won't 'ave you steal from her." Grimly Ditchkins extracted a rosary from his coat pocket and handed it to Solomon. The old man nodded with satisfaction. "Now about your work, lads. We've a doss to earn."
eeford left, and murmured, "Or you do."
Oliver Leeford thought. Papists would buy Madonnas. No English Christian wanted such a thing. So it would be a foreigner, most likely, a Spaniard? An Italian?
Bow Bells rang as he sidled into Old Marie's stall, awash in stacked slops and junk jewelry. "Ahoy, miss Marie!" Petticoat Lane smelled of onions and spilled gin this time of day, the shops ending their day's trade, or for some trades, beginning.
"'ello, sonny. Coo! If it ain't Oliver- would y'adam it? Where's yer friend Charley?"
"Charley's gone out o'town," Leeford said, "'ow's the day treatin' ya, Marie?"
"Right as rain," she said, "so, the Beak sent ol' Charlie up, innit?"
"'e went up to work on a farm, not the Beak."
"Well, well, ain't we fancy," said the old woman. "Wot about you, luv? Right nice billy y'got there," she said, smiling and fingering the wool of his jacket. "You've an uncle, then? Or still with that old stick, Solomon?"
"I'm in school too, Marie." He was obscurely shamed. She had missing teeth and sold rags. "I was lookin' to buy somm'in."
"What's it you wants, ducks?" She looked round. "Pants an' a vest, or a 'at?"
"I know this bird, see, and was lookin' for an old Madonna, a little statue, like." He drew breath, entering the lie. "Where could I find one, y' think?"
"Papist rubbish, them images," said Marie, "but Danny Julien, 'e sells'em, them beads, idols and tha'. Now, y'sure y'don' wan' a scarf, or a cravat wi' your fancy suit?" Leeford thought that he had dressed down for the East End. He stood out in his new clothes, didn't he? Uneasily he looked at the time. Belton had nodded to his "helping the police with a rehabilitation case", but he would eventually have to get back to his schoolwork, if he didn't want to end up on the street again.
Julien's shop was open, three balls outside testifying to his trade. The stacks of goods inside were as unsteady as they were disquieting: what was that thing in the jar? "Good day, sir," said Julien. "'ow may I 'elp you?"
"Eh, good day. I'm looking for a statue, a papist statue. Got any o' those?"
"Righ'o, old cock, we go'em 'ere." He showed Leeford a succession of weird religious objects in carved wood, tin, molded pewter, and last, three in bone, stained and finished to mimic ivory. Leeford compared them to Mrs Dubourg's description, and unless she was a great deal more confused than she seemed, none of them could be hers, or would fool her. "Now, mate, these the best you got?" He wore his good clothes, to be a "toff" buying goods for his girl, or for a gift, perhaps. "Me bird, she likes that ol' ivory, she says. Y'got any like that?"
"Ah, crikey! Y'go'a come an' ask now, y'do! Had the dolliest li'le madonna in 'ere the other day, an' I sent a runner to me ma'e wha' buys'em, collector-like, and 'e came in this dawnin' and bought'er from me." His description didn't match Dubourg's, and Leeford told himself this will never work. This was close. Maybe.
Maybe. "Who was it, then, what bought it? Might I know'im?"
"Sorry, guv." Danny's face tightened. "Can' say." Of course. It's stolen property. The business kept its secrets.
"Ah, right. Sorry to trouble ye."
"Sure y'don' want one'a these ladies?" He indicated the images, spread out on a dirty countertop. "Mighty fine for the price, an' I can make ye a good offer." He declined, thanked the shopkeeper, and went his way.
Now, who would buy a stolen ivory Madonna?
e tried three more shops, one near St Patrick's in Soho, and the other two in St Giles, without much success. No one had seen the object or anything much like it, which spoke of a private collector. By the time that the long fall day came to a close in fog, he was footsore and hungry. He made it back to Mrs Dubourg's in time for cold bacon and eggs and toast, and a chance to confer with Solomon and Ditchkins. "I thought that I found the shop where it was sold, but Danny Julien's description didn't match."
"Danny's a fine lad. I know 'is mum. 'e does keep 'is secrets, though. Y'got to, in this trade."
"C'n ye make 'im tell ya, Solomon?", Ditchkins asked. "Y'know'im, an'all."
"I can't, with naught to convince 'im, no. Not by meself."
"Can't you trick it out of him, Solomon?" asked Leesford. "Get him to boast about it?"
"'e does like 'is gin, that's God's truth. I can try. But I'll warrant the little ivory girl won't stay long in the Smoke."
"Who else sells stolen things like that, Solomon?" The old fagin nodded, looked at nothing and smoked for a moment.
He replied. "I don't know, my dear. Almost anyone might, almost anyone. They don't come on the market often."
"What does it look like?" Ditchkins asked suddenly. They repeated Mrs Dubourg's description. "We saw it." Certainty filled his face. "Remember when we were walking out of the Three Canes, and two men were talking in the front parlor, with something on the table between them?" Solomon shook his head.
Leeford tried to remember. "It was a doll, a china doll, wasn't it?"
"No." Ditchkins was sure. "It was the ivory girl. She was wearing a blue-and-white dress and a little tin crown." He drew breath. "We know where it went. Just that once."
"Now what do we do, then?"
Solomon said, "We ask around the Three Canes. Comfort or Tabitha will know the names, or Missy will, if they don't. We ask around." He stood. "As for you two, come with me, come with me. Old Solomon will show you the way around, he will."
ld Comfort told them ""e was David Alroy, 'e was, a real bad lookid mad, bud he bays for 'is beer, so we leabs him alode. Do, I dod't dow where 'e lives, do." Leeford wondered sometimes about Comfort, but it wasn't as though anyone could afford a doctor here.
"Alroy, then. I know him. He likes his gin," Solomon said to them when they had been left alone with stout and had lit pipes from the candle. "I can take a bottle down to him and see if it helps things."
"Good work, Solomon," Leeford replied. "Belton wants me back tonight-" he was, officially, 'helping the police with a criminal case'-and I can get back tomorrow, I think, by noon." "
Comfort came round with a pitcher of shandy, and Oliver said, "Please, sir, I want some more". He got it and laid the money into Comfort's hand, and when the man had left, asked, "Can you get it out of him tonight?"
"I can try," Solomon said, thoughtful. "Gordon's. He likes his Gordon, he likes his Gordon's, yes." He looked at Ditchkins. "You try Saffron, my dear, and I'll start at Seven Dials and work my way down. Easy on the drink, Leeford, easy on the drink." Leeford and Ditchkins nodded. They all wondered what had become of Bet, and Ditchkins swore he'd find her.
"Chances are, after Sikes died, she's wary of us lot." He shook his head. "Pity. She was a good sort. And I always wondered-"
"Drink up, gents. We've got work to do." Solomon was intent now, imagining Leeford knew not what.
When they were done, pipes dotted out, Oliver Leeford said, "I need to go. Noon, right?"
Leeford came back at noon, which had taken lying to Belton, and, when that failed, a dodge. Ditchkins was smoking on a stoop near Mrs Dubourg's and hailed him. "How are you, Leeford, me chum?"
"Just happy to be doing good works, Ditchkins. Hey, made any handkerchiefs yet?"
Ditchkins said, "How was school, then?"
"It's fine. Belton thinks I'll go into trade." He made a face. "I might not."
"Eh! Stay with us, Oliver. We're your family."
"Yah. How was the gin?"
"Me head aches and I'm dizzy as the devil. But we got it."
"We know. His name, we do."
"The man who has-"
"Yeah." He smiled, eyes watery in the thin sun. "The lady. Solly's asleep still." "So can we get it?"
itchkins pulled the three of them into an alley, sat on a crate. "It'll be a second-story, see? In Westminster." He nodded. "I'll case the house-bloke name of Santini, Eytalian. Girl we know, she said he keeps a guard, his own private beak. We gotta take care of him, then into a window. We hit, take the lady, maybe a few pretties for Ditch's fee, we're done." He drew on his cigar, coughed. "So, schoolboy. You in?"
Oliver Leeford, schoolboy, thief, heir to the Leeford fortune, street-arab, hesitated. "I...I want to, Ditchkins. But...can I?"
"Right sure you can, mate. Not a soul I'd rather have with me." Ditchkins dodged Leeford's eyes, looked at the fire of his cigar. "You in on this? Or just playing, poor little rich boy?"
"I, I'm in." He let out a breath. "Tell me what I need to do."
"It's just us three, see? So you and Solly draw the guard out, distract him, like, if he's there, and I'll open a window, like I said. We can go in and get her, then we're done. Right?"
"Right." How am I going to fight a guard? And win? He wasn't even sure he could fight another boy and win. Soft, they would call him now. And they'd be right.
uddenly he knew. The doctor's office and the way they'd made Rose Maylie sleep, for that surgery she'd had. It could be done. He could see it in his mind's eye: a thick green glass bottle on a shelf.
"I know a way...I'll get the guard. I think."
"There y'go, mate. How'll ye do it?"
Leeford explained ether and what it could do. "I'll sham a twisted ankle, playing a game, and they'll take me there. I can pinch it, and be out the window tonight."
"Right. Good on you."
Solomon clamped the rag over the guard's face, and he struggled, then fell limp. Leeford caught him and laid him on the steps, out of sight on the stoop above the Westminster alley. Solomon took cord from his pocket and bound the man. Night silenced all with black fog. Ditchkins had already left to ascend the wall and enter Santini's house by a window; they heard the thump as his feet hit the floor. Presently the house's back door opened and they went inside, closing the door quickly as they heard a late coach coming down the alley.
Inside, the house was cramped, narrow, and hard to navigate: it took a while for their eyes to adjust. How to find the Madonna?
They stood in what seemed a scullery, with smells of garlic and dim shapes of pots and baskets; they moved into a kitchen where they saw the banked glow of the stove through its iron door. "She ain't here," said old Solomon, and they walked on, quiet, into what seemed a back parlor. Piles and piles of boxes, ready to show a buyer in the front parlor? They had to know. Solomon drew a stump of candle, lit it with a lucifer. At first the light blinded them. They saw a huge hoard of goods: silks and pewter work, paintings rolled in tubes or heaped up flat, a box which contained an ape's hand made into an ash-tray, vials of powder.....she was in here. She had to be.
They searched for what seemed like hours, till Leeford was afraid that the sun would rise, stuffy in the room of treasure, Ditchkins filling his pockets with silver until Solomon told him stop, lest they rouse more trouble than they wanted. A table was heaped with packages. They opened them like Christmas presents, closing them at Solomon's bidding to hide their theft, or counter-theft. "Stack'em back, like they was. Make it look like naught was taken." A box, at the very top, decorated with a decoupaged squirrel-he eagerly reached for it, and heard footsteps.
"Who is there? Stop, or I shoot!" A man stood in the door to the hall, carrying a Colt pistol. Solomon reached for a dagger, and the gun sounded bang. Solomon crumpled to the piles of stolen goods. Ditchkins charged him, a knife in his hand, and the two struggled. Leeford rushed to his friend's help and pushed the larger man back, deflecting the gun as bang another shot sounded, going into the ceiling. They heard a female scream. Leeford punched Santini, if it was he, as Ditchkins tried to wrestle him to the ground. Leeford's feet slipped on a spilled mass of silk, and he fell, his wind knocked out. He heard a heavy thock.
The light went out.
hen he could rise, he saw Ditchkins bending over Solomon in the dark. (The candle was lost in the masses of junk). A long body sprawled across the hall floor was Santini. "I knocked his head on the doorframe, put him out for a moment. Solomon's about done for. We need to go." Leefore felt inside the box he had dropped. A doll-shape of smooth...ivory, dressed in a small silken gown?
"I've got the lady."
They managed to haul Solomon out of the house, one under each arm, and into a blind alley. "The bobbies will be out soon. Can he walk?"
"I don't know." They tried walking with him. "Solly, can you hear us? Can you talk?"
"Leave me. It's you now. All you."
"We can't do naught without you, Solomon. We can't-" He held the old man's hand. Fog was quiet around them, quiet as death.
The old man hacked, rattled, was silent. "He's gone. We can't even get him back to Mrs Dubourg." Leeford closed the old man's eyes.
"Unless you want to be caught, we need to leave him here." Oliver Leeford, Oliver Twist, had a thought. "I can do one thing. One." He took pencil and paper from his coat and wrote this man is a Jew; take him to the great synagogue and folded the note into Isaac Solomon's, the fagin's shirt. "He'll get buried right. I owe him that."
Ditchkins held the old man's hand for a while, till Leeford pulled him away. "He was a Jew bugger, but he wasn't all bad."
"He did one thing we didn't think he could do." Leeford took a deep breath and smiled. "He 'scaped the gallows."
"That he did. Hey, Ol."
Ditchkins looked at him. "That goin' to school. What's it like, then?"
They walked into the new day.
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