THE ONE UPON HER DEMON BEAST
by SCOTT BOWEN
he valley was a great yellow space cut by lines of low green trees. Far in the distance, to the east, the hills blended into the blue sheen of the horizon. The afternoon sun made clear the group of buildings in the valley: a ranch house, stables, and a great barn. Everything rippled in the heat. Somewhere across the valley, the witch and her horse hid in the trees, waiting for nightfall.
Jordan began to get dizzy, staring through the binoculars, and she pulled them away. She sat on the gate of her pick-up truck. She had driven with her trailer into a grove of oak trees atop a low hill. She was sure no one below could see her, and she knew she was not so close to the ranch that the two vile creatures out there could sense her. She guessed the distance to the ranch was nearly three miles. The topographic map showed an easy downward slope between her position and the valley floor. She had no idea upon whose land she trespassed, and she did not care.
She dialed her cell phone, and Javier answered. She told him where she was, and he knew how to find the spot.
“Do you have the birds?” she said.
“God help me, yes, I have them in a cage,” he shouted over the roar of the highway.
“I am ready. I am on my way.”
They hung up.
Jordan lay on her back in the bed of the pickup, lit a cigarette, and thought about the past four years. She tallied everything she had lost in this endless hunt: Two good horses. A husband. A pregnancy. A house. Tens of thousands of dollars. She imagined how she appeared from the sky: A small, lean woman in old denim and worn-out cowboy boots; gray in her blond hair; dark circles around dark eyes; freckles; a body in the back of a truck.
If I die tonight, she thought, I want to be buried just like this, in exactly what I have on. She began to doze.
In his trailer, her horse snorted, and Jordan bolted upright, reaching for her pistol. She looked around, and then she looked in the trailer and saw the mellow, confident quarter horse staring back at her through the slats. She knew he had woken her intentionally, and she thanked him. His name was Bud.
Jordan had learned how a person does not realize what quantities of sanity are gone until long after one’s behavior is well into the lunatic. She had lost chunks of it after staring at the carcasses of half-eaten horses to learn that the chiseled cuts in the flesh were the mark of another horse’s teeth. She lost some sanity after slowly leafing through photographs of the bodies of riders and stablehands that had been stomped flat, their remains spread across torn-up soil. Gaps of sanity opened up after she understood what had happened to the man she had loved: hung by his ankles, skinned alive, quartered, partially eaten, and then crushed under the terrible hooves.
Old folk tales across the Central Valley told of the strange woman who rode alone in the night. People disinclined to believe such things laughed at the idea and attributed the continuing series of strange deaths to a serial killer. People who lived closer to the land, who were day and night with their animals, had heard and seen enough to accept the possibility of something much worse. A very small majority recited to themselves as gospel a poem that Jordan had translated from Spanish:
Beware the bruja, Amallia;
Jordan had actually seen the evil thing upon that wicked horse, and in her most lonely and stressful times she dreamed that the witch came crashing through the hotel-room wall, and the massive horse—a reanimated, spellbound monster under the witch’s control—tried to bring its front hooves crashing down on Jordan. At the last second, Jordan flung herself aside, and she would wake up on the floor, where she would scream into the sheet balled up in her hands.
Over four years, sixteen men from ranches along the east side of the Central Valley, from Sonora to Oakhurst to Three Rivers, had disappeared or turned up dead, the bodies butchered and crushed. Often, their horses died, too, and were partially eaten. Law-enforcement theories abounded. But certain facts connected all the dead men: They were all under the age of 45; they were all white, they all owned horses, and they all liked to ride at night.
Jordan had known enough from the beginning of the mystery that she hunted on her own. She knew no one would believe her, at least no one in the California State Police would believe her. She desired revenge too keenly to give away any her plans.
She knew the witch moved south in hot weather, though she did not know why. She somehow understood intuitively the kind of terrain the witch preferred. Jordan miscalculated in the early summer and staked out the wrong ranch. Then she moved farther south, down Route 65, to Bakersfield, and then east on Route 178. She sorted through a directory of local homes and ranches along the Kern River until she located the one owned by a man she did not know but who fit the type of the previous victims: a good horseman, widely liked, with a decent soul worth taking. She easily made Facebook friends with this man to get a closer look at his home, so she could locate the place. She trusted her guess that this man was next.
Years before, Jordan had thought she understood the inevitable trouble of desiring the man she had truly loved. His name was Hoke. He lived a life among horses that she longed to have with someone like him, inhabiting the horses’ space as if the animals were equals, seeing the world with them; relaxed, and detached from human meanness. She had fallen in love with him quickly, falling for him so much more every time she saw him ride, or saw the way he walked with his horses in the meadow next to his home as if conversing with them. When she first learned his name, she learned that he was not in the horse business the way she was. She had married a business.
Those years ago, Jordan fell asleep at night picturing the way Hoke rode: light and at ease, his expression that of a man dreaming. He was not much bigger than her, lean and nimble, and he moved as naturally in the saddle as a person could, the horse always relaxed. His ranch hand, Javier, called him el niño dado a los caballos.
In their first secret rides, Jordan did not think Hoke was truly interested. He had an abstracted way about him, the natural character of a loner. They both had it, and their internal layers formed a barrier. Then after one moonlit ride across fields and roads, Hoke stopped on a rise overlooking a highway and dismounted.
“Sorry. I always have to stop here,” he said. “I had to kill one of my horses down there, down the hill. He slipped in some rocks and broke his knee. So, I killed him. There wasn’t any other way. I know the landowner, and he let me bury my horse here.”
He reached out and took Jordan’s hand. “You’ve had to do that, too, haven’t you?” he said.
“When I was a girl,” she said. “I ran back to find my dad. But he made me do the shooting. He said I had to.”
Hoke nodded. “That was right of him. You have to have, as much as you can, a sense of the danger and the consequence the horse always faces. They know.”
They stood in silence for a time, and then he pulled her to him and kissed her. She had never kissed someone so hard. They undressed each other in a lemon grove.
After that, they rode the hills and valleys whenever Jordan had a night to herself. Her spread-out neighborhood was a group of ranches and big country homes wrapped around a low, curved hill that projected into the American River valley. Atop the winding ridge was a wide, grassy plateau, hundreds of acres of state land—coulees, groves of oaks, and hidden ponds. No one was supposed to go out there at night without a permit, but locals on horseback knew every trail up and over the ridge.
On a warm night in October, Jordan sat atop her Appaloosa while she waited for Hoke at their usual meeting place, a flat, shadowed spot under some small oaks in the protruding bend of the hillside. From there she could see the whole valley in front of her, and the hollows of the hillside, left and right. She saw her house and the lights of several others. Hoke’s house was distant and not visible.
The half-moon light was bright enough that Jordan could see two riders approaching, the first a strange, glimmering form of white and black, the big horse moving astonishingly fast. As the rider passed directly below Jordan, she saw clearly a woman sitting side-saddle in a white dress, with long, waving white hair, clutching with one hand the mane of a monstrous silver dapple, her other hand waving back at the second rider. The horse had a massive, bone-white head, black legs, and a great, dark body covered with a graffiti of silvery stars. Jordan had never seen such a thing.
Then Hoke came flying after this stranger. He rode his best quarter horse, pushing the animal harder than Jordan had ever seen. His face was stretched in an expression of mad delight.
The riders disappeared into the murk of the valley. For a moment, Jordan could not process what she had seen.
She twitched and set her horse moving down the hillside, and then she chased the trail of hooves in the trampled grass. The trail turned into the hill and went up. Jordan switched on a headlamp so she could duck branches as she climbed. Atop the plateau, she could find no sign of the other riders. She coursed back and forth, looking for hoof prints, and found none.
Hurt and confused, Jordan rode home. She wiped down her horse and watered him, shutting him in his stall. Then she showered off the dust and crawled into bed. Her husband was asleep.
She never slept. Before dawn, she slipped out of bed angry and put her riding clothes back on. She left a note on the dresser. Then she rode across the valley straight toward Hoke’s house, wondering what she would do if she caught him with this strange woman. She rode onto the property just as the sun came over the tops of the hills. Her horse jogged along the fence line and then she turned him down the gravel driveway.
As Jordan rode past the front of the house, she looked ahead, following the driveway, and first saw the old truck belonging to Javier, parked just short of the old stables. She saw the man’s legs just beyond the front of the truck, and as she rode closer, she saw that he was bent down on one knee, his body bowed over, head in his hands. He heard Jordan and stood quickly. She halted.
“Where is he?” Jordan shouted. “Is he in there?” She pointed at the house. She knew being so blatant with a man like Javier was insulting to him, but the old fellow knew everything.
“Jordan,” Javier said, “please go home.”
Jordan looked at him, and, seeing him more clearly, was startled by his expression. He was pallid and sickly, his eyes wet and darkened from crying. He seemed haggard in his old jeans and jacket. His brown cowboy hat sat far back on his head. She dismounted and walked up to him.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“You must go. There will be trouble.”
Javier shook his head, and began crying again. He appeared to be in shock.
Something moved in the murky light. Jordan looked ahead and saw a raven dropping down from a cottonwood to land in front of the stable. The bird stood over something dark and misshapen on the ground. Jordan had never seen a raven beyond the Sierras. She began walking toward the bird. Javier grabbed her.
“You must go home,” he said, looking into her eyes. “Go home. Say nothing. I will say nothing of the two of you.”
“What is going on, Javier?”
The man stared at her. “It is not for you to see,” he said quietly.
“Is that woman here?”
Javier crossed himself.
“Where is Hoke?”
Javier shook his head.
“What is that over there?” she said.
The ranch hand shook from head to toe and began coughing. He sputtered tears and turned away from Jordan, slumping across the hood of his truck.
Jordan turned away and walked quickly toward the dark spot where the large raven hopped and poked. She began to think that what she saw was an animal that Javier had accidentally run over. But it was big.
She landed on her knees when she saw Hoke’s hair. The scalp had been stripped away like wet paper, and the skull smashed flat. Everything was flattened, the ribs, pelvis, shoulders in small, broken pieces; the viscera pounded into the soil so that a layer of greasy mud held everything together. The penetrating sunlight slowly revealed the reds, browns, and whites of the man’s remains, the low light gleaming on the edges of the raven’s body as it silently judged the situation.
When Jordan regained consciousness, she was looking up at the empty sky. Then she saw Javier. He helped her to her feet and led her to a chair on the porch of the house, and helped her sit down. Neither of them spoke for some time, and then Javier tried to talk but made small, meaningless sounds.
Finally, Jordan mumbled, “I should go home,” but it was not what she meant to say.
“Go home,” Javier whispered. “I won’t say you were here.”
“I should go home.”
“There will be trouble,” he said. “Don’t be here for it.”
Jordan stood and wobbled, then began to walk, forcing herself to look out to the fence where her horse had wandered, not allowing herself to look back. She managed to pull herself into the saddle and let the horse find his way home.
The late afternoon was very hot. Swirling columns of heat threaded across the valley, ghosts of some sort. The draught was unwavering, and Jordan worried that the essential part of her plan, the fire, would get out of control. But she often decided against small worries.
The slight hum of an engine came through the trees. Javier was driving slowly along the hill, careful not to raise a plume of tan dust that could be seen from other hilltops. He eased his truck close, pulling tight into the brush, and then he shut off the engine. Jordan climbed out of the back of her truck and waited for him. The man emerged from the trees and approached her. He nodded, and smiled, but he showed the weight of their task in his eyes. Jordan thanked him for coming. Javier shook his head.
“I dedicated myself to it as much as you,” he said. “Dedicated my soul—because this thing, this bruja, cannot be allowed to exist.”
“Where are the birds?”
“In cages in the truck,” he said. “I’ve got both their heads covered, but their beaks are free so they can drink water. But I put a rubber band around the base of their beaks so they cannot squawk.”
“Ok. Let’s get to work.”
Jordan knew only one certain way to kill a witch: Fill the wretched creature full of silver, to cripple her, and then blast her heart, to kill her body. Then skin the body and cut off the head, to prevent reanimation. And then burn it all—body, skin, and head—and crush the ashy bones to destroy her wicked soul. To have a decent chance to shoot her, the witch had to be trapped. To be trapped, she had to be tricked.
The two of them took machetes and Pulaskis out of the bed of Jordan’s truck. First, they chopped down the dead grass and cut a large square into the soil, making the square as big as the outline for a barn. Then, carefully following a diagram on paper, they cut a wide pentagram into the soil, its curve running just inside the square. The pentagram was big enough for a horse and rider to run tight rings inside it. They filled in the shallow trenches they made with cuttings of the parched grass.
Jordan looked at her watch and saw that she had an hour of sunlight left. She took Bud out of his trailer and watered and groomed him, and then saddled him. He read her nervousness, but instead of getting nervous himself, he eyed her intently and nudged her with his head. She kissed his nose and said, “Don’t let me down tonight.” The horse tossed his head and quivered.
She and Javier checked through the rest of the equipment: the bullhorn, the torches, and the shotguns. Then they reviewed their plan, and Javier poured lantern oil throughout the pentagram.
This was the third time that they had done this, the first two times resulting in a long, uneventful night. Twice before, Javier had caught, bound, and then released both raven and rooster. Now, for a third time, he carefully bound the black bird to the red bird, back-to-back, wings tied, heads covered, to form an antagonizing union that no witch could tolerate. Jordan had no idea how or where he caught ravens and did not ask him. When he had decided to join her in the quest to avenge Hoke, she didn’t ask why or ask anything more of him than he could give. He had been the one who dealt with the police investigating Hoke’s death. The elderly man had endured relentless interrogations, the police having chosen him as the new suspect in the killings. He never told them that Jordan had been at the house that morning. The collapse and dismantling of her marriage had been her own project.
Javier returned with the canvas duffle bag containing the birds. Jordan looked at her watch and decided to go. She put on her riding helmet and vest, and tucked the pistol into a Kydex holster inside her waistband. The hand-loaded .45 cartridges were tipped with heavy hollow-nosed silver bullets, so heavy that the bullet would lose momentum quickly as it spread open on impact and would stay in the witch’s body where it would cause her flesh to boil. Javier’s shotgun fired shells that were just the same, the result of Jordan’s self-taught manufacture.
Javier stepped close to Jordan. He put a short, heavy silver necklace around her neck, an ornate silver cross dangling from the chain. Then he wrapped a wide leather choker around her neck as well. It was adorned with small, woven god’s eyes in silver and red thread. Lastly, he pulled an old glass bottle from his pocket, wet his thumb, and painted a cross on Jordan’s forehead, then he splashed her with the holy water, saying over and over in Spanish, “God the Father, Our Protector, preserve this woman and guide her as she battles the Devil’s servant. Protect her and speed her horse from evil.”
Jordan mounted Bud and hung the bullhorn by its strap from the pommel. Then she rode slowly toward Javier. The horse balked, sensing the unnatural union in the sack, and Jordan walked him around until he calmed, and she reached out and took the duffle bag from the old horseman. She put the strap over her shoulder and nodded at Javier. Then she smiled at him.
“I don’t know anyone who has ever done anything like we do,” she said.
Javier shook his head. “No. I don’t either. I don’t associate with crazy people.”
Jordan laughed and rode away slowly, picking her way down the hillside in the fading light. She had seen through the binoculars the place where she wanted to be when she started the process. She thought, You’re going to call out a witch tonight. Bring that bitch right into the fire or die trying.
When she found the spot, she could see the ranch. She reached into her pocket, and pulled out a black thread and a red thread, knowing she had to time this exactly right, because somewhere near the bruja was following her ways. And the witch could not come to full power and go on the move until true dark—when the eye cannot tell the difference between a red thread and a black thread. Slowly, the threads eventually appeared the same.
In the dark, Jordan stood in the stirrups, took up the bullhorn and screamed into it, “Aillama!”
She let the sound die away as Bud shivered under her. Then she screamed again, “Aillama!”
The reversed name carried across the valley, over the roofs of the ranch house and stables, and bounced off the opposite hills.
Jordan took a deep breath, her heart pounding, and put all she had into one last, great screeching howl: “Aillama!”
Then she sat in the saddle and reached into the bag with a gloved hand and found the wrapped talons, and pulled out both birds. With her free hand shaking, she yanked the rubber bands off their bills and pulled the cowls off their heads, holding them at arm’s length when they came madly alive, the two birds together creating a horrifying screech that cut through the night air. Jordan stood again and swung the birds over her head in a circle. The spinning rooster and raven formed a siren that maddened every living thing in earshot.
Jordan listened. She heard nothing. No sound came across the valley. The thicket of olive trees and mesquite below whispered in the warm night breeze. She wondered if she again had the wrong place, or the witch had already killed and moved on. Jordan waited, and then began to raise her arm to spin the birds again.
Bud suddenly twitched and sidestepped. Then he froze, twisting his ears. Jordan felt him rumbling inside, and took the reins with her free hand, but before she could tap him he turned and blasted into full speed, flying up the hill. Jordan held tight, her right hand trailing the screaming birds behind her, the shrieking raven and rooster flapping madly at each other.
From behind her came a sickening wail that terrified Jordan. She cried out to Bud, urging him, steering him straight toward the top of the hill. Not far behind her came a loud crash of underbrush, and then a great pounding of hooves.
As Jordan broke over the rounded hilltop she heard a loud, sickening buzzing, the growl of a furious witch, and she spun the birds over her head again, taunting the bruja one last time as she sped straight for the center of pentagram. Just as she flew across the star-shape, something slammed across her ribs and yanked her out of the saddle.
Jordan landed hard, feeling bones break, and when she rolled over, she looked up the length of the whip that held her, staring straight into Amallia’s empty black eyes. The creature seethed with anger and hunger, her purple tongue waggling over jagged teeth.
Javier fired the first round, and the witch roared with fury as the silver burned inside her. Then he set fire to the trench, and the flames leaped in the air, illuminating the huge horse and satanic rider.
Amallia looked down at the wide, burning outline of the pentagram and cackled. She nudged her horse to the outer edge of the fire and looked down at Javier, speaking to him through a lascivious, throaty muck: “Te quiero, hombre. Te amo, te amo. Me amas, sí?” Amallia pulled open the front of her dress, and then stretched down a long, bony arm, her scaly fingers waving like a fan.
Javier shook with the effort not to look at her, but slowly his head tipped up until his mind began to spin, the woman on the horse a hypnotic vision of sexual beauty. He dropped to his knees, the shotgun landing on the grass.
“Don’t look at her!” Jordan yelled. She pulled on the taut whip to get to her feet and flung the mad-squawking raven and rooster into the witch’s face. Amallia batted the birds away and yanked Jordan back to the ground.
The demon horse reared up over Jordan, her nightmare coming true, and for just a moment she feared she could not move, as the front hooves came down to crush her. But at the last second, she rolled and rolled again, rolling out of the whip and over the flames until she was outside of the pentagram.
As the devil horse surged forward for another stomp, Amallia hauled on the reins with all her might. She groaned and bellowed in the saddle as she turned the beast in circles, looking for any spot of the pentagram that wasn’t completely closed.
Jordan pulled out her pistol and fired a round into the horse’s nose, and the terrible animal reared on its hind legs so far that it began to fall back, and for the first time in her long, savage existence, Amallia felt herself thrown from the saddle. Jordan fired wildly at the horse and the witch. The horse bucked and leaped, screaming and howling, as Amallia struggled on her feet to hold the horse inside the pentagram.
Jordan staggered to Javier and slapped him in the head, knocking him off his knees, and then she holstered her pistol and took up the shotgun. She fired at Amallia, hitting the witch, and pumped the gun and fired again.
Something hit Jordan in her chest, just under her collarbone, and knocked her off her feet. A horrendous pain shot through her, and she screamed, kicking the ground with her heels. She begged Javier to take the shotgun. He was crawling on the ground, patting the grass with his hands like a blind man.
Jordan sat up. Something was sticking out of her upper chest. Gone past terror, in an acceptance of death, Jordan glared at Amallia, feeling the hypnotic grip of the empty eyes while watching how the witch’s face shifted and distorted, a writhing mix of rotted beauty and horror, the panting mouth open, tongue waggling.
The witch stood with her back pressed against the horse’s chest, one arm wrapped around its head. “Why,” she said, “do you want to kill my pretty horse?”
“Why did you kill my man?” Jordan said, feeling her body tightening with pain.
“Because men are so tasty.”
Jordan took a deep breath and lunged for the shotgun, and ducked her head against the flicker of steel, sending a second dagger bouncing off her helmet. The witch came rushing across the wide space of the pentagram, another knife raised, as Jordan fired the shotgun upside down, from the ground. The blast hit Amallia squarely in the gut, knocking her off her feet, the big slug of silver burning its way deeper into her body. For just a second, Amallia let go of the trailing rein, and the huge horse leaped for Jordan, the hooves coming through the air.
Jordan threw herself over Javier. The lunging beast crossed the ring of the pentagram, and then pulled up short, screaming in pain, just as Amallia grabbed its tail to try to stop it. The creature’s momentum carried the witch out of the circle, and Amallia flung herself away as her monster burst into flames.
The fiery horse ran off into the trees, leaving a long streak of burning grass and limbs. Amallia rolled herself repeated away from the pentagram until her burning dress was stripped away and her scorched, naked body lay supine in the burning grass.
Jordan’s first shot missed, and so did her second shot. The pain of the broken bones and knife blade threw off her aim. She felt sick and scared to die.
The witch hissed and scampered sideways. She looked like a roasted, ancient woman thrashing drunkenly in the grass.
“Javier!” Jordan shouted. “Javier, please shoot her.”
The cowboy was quickly coming back to his senses, and he took the pistol from Jordan and began to fire rapidly at the escaping fiend. The sound of the witch's screaming carried down the hill and into the darkness.
Javier turned to Jordan and immediately saw the dagger protruding from her upper chest. He ran to his truck, and then came back with a bottle of whiskey. He unbuttoned Jordan’s vest, and then her shirt, and quickly pulled the vest away so the tip of the dagger came out. He put the butt of Jordan’s hand in her mouth, telling her to bite, and then he took the bottle from inside his coat and filled the bloody gap with holy water. Jordan convulsed and then spat up bile. Javier did it again until he had made a lot of blood run from the hole, and then he poured in the whiskey. He looked at the dagger blade. It appeared clean.
“I don’t think she poisoned the blade,” he said. “She didn’t think she would have to tonight.”
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Jordan said.
A nearby stand of oaks was burning, and large sections of grass had caught fire. Javier saw Bud standing near Jordan’s truck, and he carefully eased the lathered, panting horse into the trailer. Then he drove Jordan’s truck down the hillside to the access road. He ran back and found Jordan leaning against the fender of his truck.
“She let the horse take the brunt of the explosion,” Jordan said. “Crafty bitch. We didn’t kill her.”
“But she left the pentagram. Her demonic spirit was broken. She has no power.”
“She’ll find a way to get it back.”
Javier saw the hapless birds inside the scorched star. They had been trampled. He shook his head, grabbed them, and then tossed them in the back of his truck, and he drove with Jordan down to the road. They left Javier’s truck parked nearby and took off in Jordan’s before the police and fire trucks arrived.
Days later, Jordan sat on the balcony of a hotel in Three Rivers smoking a joint the size of her thumb. Her body burned with pain. She had an unfilled prescription for Oxycodone that she had left in her jacket pocket. She also had a magnum of cheap Washington state Cabernet that she struggled to open with her arm in a sling. Her broken left shoulder and collarbone were set and braced in plaster and plastic that wrapped under both arms. She also had the phone number of the cute doctor who had examined the deep whip burns across her breasts. She debated calling him and asking him to come over to her room and rub the medicated salve into her skin, but the wine, weed, and pain overruled, and she really didn’t want to listen to another person talk, breathe, or grunt. Her head hurt, but the concussion was mild.
Jordan called Javier. “Hombre, cómo estás?”
“Bien, bien, Y tú?”
They spoke briefly about what to do next. Neither one had any clear idea. They said they would speak again soon, and hung up.
Bud was sleeping in his trailer, parked outside. Jordan wondered how to pay back a horse that had saved her life. Bud had started running up the hill sooner than Jordan would have turned him. The extra two seconds had saved both her and Javier.
She reached over to the small table and took up her wine glass. She drank and set it back down, and picked up the dagger. It was etched with runic symbols from the point to the butt of the flat handle. She debated throwing it in the first river or reservoir she found.
Jordan worked her way through half the joint and three glasses of wine before she could no longer resist thinking about Hoke, and she moved slowly back into the hotel room, closing the balcony door. She turned off the lights and eased herself down onto the pillows, on her back.
The pistol sat on the bed stand, loaded the same way as ever. In the years to come, Jordan knew, a witch would be hunting her.
She remembered the odor of the lemon grove, and let her body go limp.
Scott Bowen lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His recent horror fiction appeared in HorrorZine.com. He is the author of The Vampire Survival Guide and a short story collection, The Midnight Fish.
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