Wiseguy: The Proposal

By Suzinsf

Thriller / Mystery

January 22nd-23rd

Vince lay on his back staring at the ceiling at the wind-whipped shadows cast by the street lamp outside his bedroom window. He felt claustrophobic, trapped in a city and a life that had become suddenly burdensome. He ached for the feel of Tracy's body against his own, longed for a life unencumbered by his own past. He had never thought he would get to the point that walking away from his life would be his only option. Yet in hind-sight, he was at a loss to see any other end to his career. He had been too deeply involved with the East Coast crime families to have any other choice. He needed to get away, both to distance himself from Rudy, and to try to piece together some sort of plan for the future.

Thoughts of Lococco rose unbidden in his mind. It had been months since he'd spoken to Roger and longer since he'd seen him. He hoped the fragile peace Lococco seemed to have found was still in place. The life he had made for himself in the northern California wine country was not one Vince would have predicted for his temperamental friend, but it appeared to suit Lococco like a second skin.

The last time he had seen Roger, it had been during the pursuit of the case he'd worked in Silicon Valley. Lococco had willingly let Vinnie avail himself of the high-powered connections he, Roger, had made in the San Francisco Bay Area to insert himself into the thieves' universe.

Vince had not included Roger in his reports, knowing that while McPike might tolerate the presence of active civilian help, Beckstead would not. The fact that Roger had had more training in covert ops - not to mention the use of deadly force - than any FBI agent ever received would not have factored into Beckstead's refusal to permit an independent into the game. There was also the concern that if any of the C.I.A.'s paid assassins were still gunning for Lococco, having his name turn up in a Federal database would lead them straight to him.

Terranova quelled the urge to pick up the phone. It would be nearly two a.m. in California, and his desire to talk to a friend could wait, however much he needed a dose of Lococco's cynical pragmatism. McPike, Lifeguard and Beckstead each had personal agendas regarding his future. What he wanted was input from someone who had no vested interest in his choice other than that it make him happy.

~*~

"So tell Uncle Roger what sort of mess you're in, this time," came the laconic drawl on the other end of the line.

Vince tried unsuccessfully to squelch a flash of irritation. "Why do you always assume I'm in trouble?" he asked sharply.

"Because I only hear from you when you're in a jam, Buckwheat," was the equally sharp retort.

"I'm leaving the OCB," Vinnie confessed, "but it's taking a while to wrap up the loose ends. I need to clear out of New York in the next week — ten days to let things cool down."

"What, you angling for an invitation? My door is always open, Vince." The statement was unequivocal. "I'll send the Lear for you next week. Friday work for you?"

"Yeah," Vince replied, feeling as if some weight he hadn't known he was carrying had just been lifted from his shoulders, "Friday is great." He paused. "Thanks, Rog," he added quietly. "I could use a reality check about now."

Lococco chuckled. "In that case, you may be paying a visit to the wrong guy. See you Friday."

Vince put the receiver down thoughtfully. He had slightly over a week to publicly break with Aiuppo and the old man's plans for him. He had a feeling it was going to be a very long eight days.


The Federal Grand Jury filed back into the stuffy New York courtroom, it's too-brief lunch recess over.

The Judge, untangling the long robes from around her ankles as she sat, banged her gavel peremptorily on its block. "This court will return to the question before us as it concerns the activities of certain members of the criminal underworld over the last ten years." She peered out into the courtroom at the Federal prosecutor, who stood at her acknowledgement.

"Your honor, we wish to present evidence concerning the false imprisonment of a number of criminal witness whose testimony in exchange for immunity and protection was sought by Federal Law Enforcement Officials. These people provided key evidence in a range of Federal prosecutions and were manipulated into doing so with promises of protection that were not kept."

The testimonies dragged on, a parade of expert witnesses on subjects ranging from legal jurisprudence, to forensics, to psychology, testifying on various fine points of law as it applied to soliciting testimony from convicted felons.

It was not until some hours later that the first of the three criminal witnesses entered the courtroom.

The grand jurors shifted restlessly, hoping for something more entertaining than the dry legalese that had occupied the past several weeks of the investigation.

The first man's testimony was a woeful tale of his duping by some lazy prosecutor into giving up an assortment of associates in the drug trade. Having done his best for law enforcement by testifying in open court, he was supposed to have disappeared into witness protection to begin his life over. Instead, he had found himself in Attica serving a four-year stint on conspiracy charges after the prosecutor failed to convict one of the men he had testified against. It was clearly a case of prosecutorial ‘take what you've got' — and he had been well and truly taken. It was nearly time to adjourn for the week when the second criminal witness of the day was called.

Time had not been kind to Tony Greco. Bald and carrying an extra twenty pounds or so, the only thing that hadn't changed was the meanness in his eyes.

He was sworn in and duly settled in the witness box. The Federal Attorney began his questioning.

"Mr. Greco, please state the charges on which you were convicted."

"Two counts of extortion and a murder rap." Greco replied succinctly.

"Can you relate to the jury the circumstances that led to your arrest, please."

"It was about ten years or so ago. I was working for Sonny and Dave Steelgrave, running their dock operations in Atlantic City. They found out that some extra-curricular weapons deal was going down and shut it down. Sonny and Dave had us confiscate the weapons and hold ‘em for a little grease from the buyers. Then one'a Sonny's new wiseguys got himself a case of ambition and tracked down the manufacturer. Sonny set me and him to work him over." He paused.

"Continue, Mr. Greco,"

Greco shifted restlessly. "How was I supposed to know the guy had a heart condition?" His shoulders tightened defensively, then he began speaking again. "So I ‘questioned' him -"

"That would be Norman Winfield, the gun manufacturer?" the attorney inquired for clarification.

"Yeah. He croaked before Dave and Sonny could talk to him, so I made it look like the new wise guy did it. I figured it was the perfect way to get rid of what was looking to turn into a major pain in my ass. The kid was way too smart for his own good — makin' the rest of us look like we were standin' around holdin' our dicks -"

"The buyers and the Steelgraves had arranged a meet to make a deal for the return of the weapons," the federal attorney interrupted.

"Uh, yeah. Only it went bad. Real bad. Dave got killed and everyone else cept the new guy wound up full'a holes. He went out to check on somethin' in the next room about twenty seconds before it hit the fan." Greco shifted restlessly, then continued.

"So anyway, Terranova is lookin' mighty dirty to Sonny when he wakes up in the hospital with a dead brother and a deal gone south. Only the bastard ratted me out to Sonny, told him that I was skimmin' from the dock takes. Sonny didn't believe him till he told Sonny to check my bank -"

"Had you in fact been stealing from the Steelgraves?" The attorney asked.

Greco shifted uncomfortably. "What — do I look stupid to you? You didn't mess with the Steelgraves and stay alive long."

"So your bank records were examined. What did they show?"

"They found out a hundred thousand had been deposited into the account by some Spanish broad the weapons dealer had workin' for him. Only I never saw a dime of it! I was set up!" Ten years had not cooled Greco's outrage.

"Who would have had the resources to plant false deposit records with your bank on such short notice?" The attorney asked.

Greco laughed. "It had t'be one'a you guys — a Fed. It was Sonny's pet wiseguy, his kid the driver. He was a fucking FBI agent. I made him but the OCB busted me before I could roll him over to Sonny or anyone else. So I looked dirty, Sonny got phony evidence to prove it, and Vinnie was in tight with the big boys."

"Vinnie?" The attorney prompted.

"Vince Terranova. Sonny's driver. The Fed." Greco's reply was calculated for maximum impact.

The stir of interest was unmistakable. The rustle of movement and the murmur of voices made it obvious the implication had not been lost on everyone present.

"I spent six months in stir and Vinnie got close to the big boys. The deal I made was that I would testify on Sonny's operation, and walk with time served and a new life. Only they never got it to court cause Sonny got dead."

The judge's gavel banged sharply. "Bailiff, I want the courtroom cleared immediately!" She turned to the Federal Attorney, her displeasure vividly clear. "And you — in my chambers this instant."


Paul Beckstead disconnected the call and dialed a new number without hanging up, urgency in every move. "Frank?" he queried hurriedly, "I need you in my office. Now."

He got up and began to pace.

McPike burst through the door, his haste demonstrating his instinct that all hell must be breaking lose somewhere in the department. “What the hell, Paul?”

Beckstead paused in his pacing to face McPike. "I just got off the phone with Judge Claire Martins. She's presiding over a Grand Jury investigation into possible misuse of the witness protection program in conjunction with plea bargains." He paused again, running a hand through his hair distractedly, worry coloring his tone. "Tony Greco just testified in open court that Vince Terranova was - is - an FBI agent, formerly undercover in the Steelgrave organization."

"Greco? Where the hell did they find him? We've had him in maximum security for ten years for the Winfield murder. He's lucky he didn't get lethal injection!" McPike snarled, complexion mottling with rage.

"I didn't ask, Frank. But we've got to get Vince off the street within hours or he's a dead man. I've got his Lifeguard onboard, and my assistant is trying every number we have for him. I've even warned Aiuppo to get him to come in. There are units on the way to Ms. Steelgrave's apartment and to her mother's home. They should be there inside an hour. Where else would he go?"

McPike considered the question dazedly. "I don't know, Paul. You've covered every connection I know about." He sank into a chair and buried his face in his hands, fingers pressed hard into his eyes. "God dammit, the timing is un-fucking-believable!" He looked up to meet Beckstead's gaze, distress in every syllable. "He was on short time, dammit! He just pried himself lose from Aiuppo this week! I talked to him last night. He said he was going to leave town. I assumed he was going to see the Steelgrave woman!"

"We'll find him, Frank." Beckstead said grimly, knowing the alternative did not bear thinking about.

"God, I hope so," McPike whispered. "And preferably not in a very large number of very small pieces." He rose, pacing. "I promised Vince that Greco wouldn't pop up while he was still under," the guilt clear in his voice.

"Frank, it wasn't your fault. You couldn't have known Vince would have held his cover almost twice as long as any other agent ever has," Beckstead said. "I will find out how the hell they got to Greco and the loophole will close. On somebody's neck. You have my promise, Frank."

They stared at each other, knowing it would be cold comfort indeed if Terranova turned up dead.


Vince clambered down the little jets' stairway to the tarmac, gritting his teeth against the pins and needles that stabbed at his shins. Six hours on a plane, regardless of how well appointed, was basically nothing but uncomfortable.

Roger Lococco, in grubby jeans and a leather jacket even rattier than Terranova's, sauntered towards him with a grin that reached the jade-gray eyes.

"Nice to see you, Buckwheat," Lococco greeted him with a light punch on the shoulder.

Vince swept him into a bear hug. "Nice to be here," he grinned back. His friendship with Lococco, unlikely though it had been, had evolved into one of those comfortable certainties, resumable in its entirety even after the passage of years. They knew each other with the intimacy common among those who had shared a trauma, and trusted each other completely.

Lococco took one of Terranova's bags and heaved it into the bed of a dusty and scratched newish pickup that looked worse for wear than it should have for its age. Vince tossed the other one in after it and circled the hood, climbing into the passenger seat.

"So what've you been doing?" he asked as Lococco swung the one ton in a tight arc and aimed it at the frontage road that bordered the municipal airfield.

"You mean since the last time you graced me with your presence?" Roger shot him a glance out of the corner of his eye. "We opened the third highest ranked restaurant in the City two months ago. Other than that, not much."

Terranova grinned at the capitals he heard in the local shorthand for San Francisco. To northern Californians, San Francisco was the City. The only City. "You going native on me?" he teased. "Who's we'?"

"The development group I bankroll. I fund the projects, they let me come in and play with all the shiny toys." Lococco was self-deprecating, but Vince had eaten at his table.

"Rog, you cook better than my mother did. I'd ask you to marry me if I thought you'd say yes," Vince grinned.

"Careful what you wish for, Buckwheat. I've been dreamin' of those baby blues of yours," Roger half laughed, then sobered, picking up on the past tense. "How long ago'd she die?"

"First week of December," Vince answered, voice flat, merely reciting the facts of his mother's death.

Lococco glanced at his passenger, whose gaze had focused on the rolling green hills of the passing countryside. "I'm sorry, Vince. I know she meant a lot to you. How's Rudy taking it?"

"We do not want to go there," Vince's laugh was humorless. To Roger's arched eyebrow, he retorted defensively, "It's a long story, Roger," hoping that would end the discussion.

"Nothing's that long a story," Lococco said cynically. "So what's happening with the old man? He puttin' the moves on you?" he grinned as Vince failed to mask his surprise. “A palpable hit, huh?”

"It's complicated, Rog."

"So what about your life - or mine - has ever been simple, Buckwheat?" Lococco grinned, this time the ice in his eyes unreached by humor.

Vince had no answer for that, and turned his attention back to the scrubby woods that passed by anonymously.

He was grateful that Lococco let the silence continue all the way up the ten miles of unpaved road that led to the vaguely Craftsman-style house that he'd built in the middle of nearly a thousand acres of some of the premiere wine growing land in the world. The money he had sunk into the construction was in no way obvious to the untrained eye, something done deliberately. The fact that the place was off the grid and a virtually self-sustaining, self-contained little island was easily lost amid the elegant and understated architecture.

Vince got out of the truck, stretching, and looked over the house and its grounds. "Looks a lot better than when I was here last," he commented.

"Nothing like seeing the place as a hole in the ground to make you appreciate the final results," Roger agreed. "Come on in. I'll give you the grand tour."

Vince appreciated the idle small-talk, not ready to try and describe the last few months of his life. He focused instead on the property. The only other time Vince had seen the house, it had indeed been a hole in the ground, as the multi-million dollar base-isolated foundation had gone in. He had seen the bare bones of Lococco's vision and knew the hi-tech infrastructure that underlay the more conventional skin of the building. With its stone, timber and glass façade, it resembled nothing so much as one of the W.P.A. lodges that had gone up all over the National Park system in the thirties. It had a rustic elegance that spoke uncharacteristically, for Lococco, of permanence, sited as it was on the crest of a hill overlooking beautiful, if pastoral, views. It already seemed a part of the landscape, as though it had in fact been built seventy years before.

In most respects, the site was quintessential Roger, large, empty and vaguely lonely. In key ways, however, it revealed the depth of the changes in the man. It was the first place that Vince had seen Roger in that looked as though he had put down roots. Every small detail revealed far more of Lococco's character than he likely had any idea of, Vince suspected.

This would not be a place he would willingly walk away from, Terranova mused as he followed his host through the ground floor of the house out into the grounds at the back. A small stone and glass outbuilding that stood at the far end of a long lap pool, its wide French doors open to the February sunshine, housed Roger's studio. Therapy, for Lococco, consisted of steel and arc welders rather than long hours of introspective psychoanalysis. He exorcised the demons of his past by giving them form and letting the twisted, dark and perverse figures carry his burdens of guilt and remorse. They were his Mea Culpa.

Lococco led the way past the studio without stopping, making his way toward a barn-like structure several hundred feet down slope. This, it seemed, was the guts of the place. Lococco walked him through the building with matter-of-fact satisfaction. It was roofed with photo-voltaic collectors and filled with storage batteries, controls for wind turbines, satellite uplinks, and diesel generators, all of it designed to keep Roger as independent as possible of the demands and restrictions of the conventional life. Vince, impressed, admired the results of nearly thirty years of paranoia. The place was likely to withstand anything man or nature could throw at it. "So when's the siege?" he teased as they made their way back up the hill.

Lococco clipped him playfully on the ear. "Smart-ass," he responded grumpily. "See if I invite you over to play anymore." He stalked toward the house, fishing in a pocket for something. Vince saw the gleam of steel as Roger rolled the ball bearing in his fingers. With the trademark flick of his wrist, he let it fly at a window. The steel bounced off with a whine, leaving the window unbroken. "It's been about three years since some C.I.A. freelancer last tracked me down. I don't see any need to tempt fate, Buckwheat. If and when they find me again, I wanna be holding the aces."

Vince stared at him, reminded once again of the enormity of Roger's transgressions that still had shoot-on-sight orders attached to his name years after Admiral Walter Strichen's death. The C.I.A. and Strichen's boss, General Leland Masters, now currently inhabiting a cell in a maximum security military stockade, were very, very unhappy with Lococco. "What happened?" he asked, not quite sure he wanted to know.

"He trapped me on a mountain-side outside Vancouver and made my life very unpleasant for about thirty six hours. As far as I know, he's still there. I planted him under a Lodgepole pine fifteen miles from the nearest road." Roger shrugged. He led the way back up the slope to the house and headed for the large open-plan kitchen. "Hey Lucy, I'm home," he called mockingly.

A tiny Hispanic woman of some indeterminate age between thirty five and forty five strolled out of the butler's pantry, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. "Hóla, Roger. Who's your friend?" she inquired with a smile at Vince.

Lococco made the introductions. "Vince Terranova, meet Lucia Hernandez, my vineyard manager's wife. Luce, this is Vinnie. Watch that temper of yours with him, sweet thing, or he may sic the mob on you."

Lucia Hernadez' arch look at her employer spoke volumes, Vince realized. In typical Lococco fashion, he was obviously playing off his bad boy persona. Atypically, though, his housekeeper wasn't buying any of it. Moreover, Lococco knew it — and apparently enjoyed teasing her.

"Roger, you are not the bad-ass you think you are," Lucia said snidely, brushing past him, then aimed a flick of her towel at his flank with pinpoint accuracy.

Vince watched Lococco's silent laughter, surprised at Roger's willingness to accept the rebuke, much less find it funny.

"You just can't find good help these days," was Roger's observation as he turned to follow his housekeeper into the dining room.

Lucia had left them with supper and a bottle of unlabeled red wine. Roger poured a generous measure into a soap bubble-thin wineglass and handed it to Vince. "House wine," he explained. "It's the first vintage from the new vines."

"What happened to the old ones?" Vince inquired. Lococco had owned the vineyards around his home site for well over five years, and they had been producing when he'd bought the place.

"Phyloxera. We've spent years replacing the rootstock all over the vineyards, and this year, the Ag-alert starts going on about Pierce's disease and the Glassy-winged Sharpshooter." Lococco chuckled at the glazed look on Vinnie's face. "The life of a gentleman farmer," he said with irony.

Vince took a tentative sip from his glass, then stared at it in appreciation. "Not bad, Rog," he said, surprised.

"Thanks. We just found out it's been accepted at one of the international wine competitions."

Terranova's speculative look prompted a retort from Lococco. "What? It's not worth doing something if you're not going to do it well, Buckwheat. You should know that about me by now."

Vince nodded after a moment. "You're different, Rog. If I didn't know you were immune, I'd say you're as happy as I've ever seen you."

Roger leaned back in his chair, eyeing the glass in his hand. "You'd be right. If I weren't immune." He smiled faintly and put down his glass. "Lucia's right, you know."

"Huh?" Vince felt as if he had lost track of the conversation suddenly.

"Lucy. She's right."

"About what?" Vince asked, sipping his wine and meeting Roger's contemplative eyes over the rim of the glass.

"I'm not the bad-ass I once was"

Vince struggled to suppress the unbidden grin. "Rog, you've got one of the baddest asses I know," he said with a futile attempt to keep a straight face.

"Nice of you to notice, sweetheart," Lococco said cynically, knowing when he was being tweaked.

Vince sobered, eyeing his friend. Lococco, at forty seven, still had the taught-muscled body of his youth. Only his face showed the passage of time. The razor-edged jaw and cheek bones had blurred and become craggy, softened with time and gravity, and the lines in his face were etched deeper. Though it wasn't there as often, when the ice froze in his gray-green eyes, his past lay over him like a cloak.

"So tell me why you're here, Buckwheat," Roger said breaking the long silence between them.

Vince sighed. "You ever wonder what your life would have been like if things hadn't happened exactly the way they did?"

"All the time," Roger admitted wryly. "So tell me about it. What's the old man up to?"

"It doesn't matter, Rog. I'm not going to play his game."

"Oh, it matters, Vince, you just haven't figured out why," Lococco contradicted.

Vince made no response, sighing into his wineglass. He looked out of the fifteen-foot mullioned windows at the false twilight outside. A storm system was moving in from the west, blocking the last of the evening sunshine.

Roger waited.

"He's gotten it into his head that he can clean up the mess in New York by putting me into his old organization as some kind of point man." Vince began, then faltered again.

Roger continued to wait.

"He promised my mother when he married her that he would help me in my work if I ever asked him to. Only, I never asked - he volunteered. He set up the mob ruling council for McPike and me to take down about eight years ago, though I didn't know he was behind it until afterwards I just couldn't forgive him for meddling in my work, not when it meant he was betraying everything he'd lived his life by for sixty years. After Mom died, I finally realized he'd done it to protect me and my mother, but he's been living with the guilt ever since. So when he came to me with this insane idea of putting me into the operation at the top so that I could help him stabilize the mob from inside, I took it to McPike -"

Lococco's grin was wolf-like. "Oh, I can see it now."

Vince nodded. "It was ugly. Only, the thing is, it might have worked."

"Frank didn't go for it, I take it."

"He finally kicked it up to the director. Beckstead is no fool. He knew there was something Rudy wasn't saying. Something he was hoping to get out of the deal. I didn't even see it coming, Rog."

"So what was behind door number three?"

Vince shook his head. "He's decided that I could be some kind of kingpin to rally the troops. He wants to make things right for rigging the takedown of the Commission, but he doesn't want the mob to get pulled apart into any smaller factions in the process. He wants the mob to run the streets - and he wants the FBI to run the mob. Me, specifically."

Roger's grin showed every tooth. "Beware the sword of Damocles,'" he quoted, voice ironic.

"It's not funny, Roger." Vince rubbed his aching eyes.

"You are so wrong, Buckwheat. Welcome to Isle Pavot." Roger said, deeply amused. "You ever read Machiavelli?"

"Yeah, in college."

"You remember anything about it?"

"Not much. Basically, that a government will always evolve away from its stated intentions. That reasons of state will always take precedence over law or ethics."

"Yeah, but that's only the first course, Buckwheat. Niccolo didn't show up on my dance card until a few years ago. Probably just as well. I'd have missed the point if I'd read him sooner."

Vinnie's eyes narrowed. "I know I'm going to regret this. What point?"

"’The Prince' is a blueprint for revolution, Buckwheat. The general interpretation is that it's a statesman's guide to the exploitation of the masses. But it's a warning, Vince. It's a step-by-step description of the road to revolt. A population will take only so much before it rises up and overthrows the current asshole in charge. Eventually, the governed will figure out that ‘Reasons of State' are not reason enough. Not for the commission of illegal - and just plain evil - acts against citizens or other nations."

"Okay, professor, and how does that apply to me?"

"If you wind up as the ‘asshole in charge', be sure of your reasons. Personal convenience is not reason enough."

Terranova snorted. "Being made king of New York is not convenient!"

~*~

Lococco did not miss the subtext. "Alright, what's the rest of the story?"

"I want a life, not a kingdom. I want a wife, a family, a house payment, a life, Roger." Exhaustion colcored Vince's voice.

This was old baggage, Lococco realized. "You gave up the right to a normal life when you put on the badge, Vince. So why are you beating your head against it now?"

Vince turned and met Lococco's eyes and Roger went on instant alert. He evaluated all the possibilities in seconds, then asked: "Who is she?”

Vinnie licked dry lips. "Tracy Steelgrave."

"Steelgrave." Roger repeated. The word was spoken quietly, yet conveyed his utter outrage." As in the former boss of Atlantic City. As in the family you brought down."

"Yeah."

Roger shut his eyes for a long moment, marshaling his temper. "Are you just stupid, or are you suicidal?" he spat, rising in a fluid movement from his chair at the table and pacing the length of the room and back like an angry cat. "Because, either way, I am not letting you out of my sight until you tell me exactly what the hell you think you are doing, messing with a mob princess!"

Vince slumped against the ladder back of his chair and closed his eyes. "I'm tired, Roger. I want out of the game. McPike is set to process my resignation as soon as we can get mob attention off me. Witness protection is ready to disappear me. But I'm not leaving until I can take Tracy with me, if she'll come."

Lococco sagged back into his chair and leaned elbows on the table, resting his brow against the heels of his hands, pressing hard on the bone. "Start at the beginning," he said simply.

It was well after midnight before Roger was satisfied he'd pried all the details from Terranova's exhaustion-fogged brain. Vince, still on East Coast time, was reeling, hardly able to keep his eyes open. "Get some sleep, Buckwheat," Lococco relented. "Take the room at the top of the stairs on the right. Bathroom's en suite."

He watched Vince stagger up the stairs wearily, knowing he’d likely be asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Roger, on the other hand, was facing a sleepless night. Insomnia had haunted him most of his adult life. Though it had been several years since the last serious bout, he was reasonably certain he was in for another one. He took the rest of the bottle of wine with him to his ground floor office and booted up his computer. There were a multitude of details to iron out before he could walk away from his business, and there was no doubt in his mind that he was not going to send Terranova back home without all the backup he could put together.


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