Perfect Sins: New Excerpt

Perfect Sins by Jo Bannister is the 2nd book to feature Gabriel Ash, a British government investigator whose wife and sons were believed killed by Somalian pirates until new information comes to light (available December 9, 2014).

Four years ago, Gabriel Ash was working with the British government investigating hijackings in Somalia. But when his wife and sons disappeared, presumably taken—and probably killed—by pirates, his life fell apart. He has sudden reason to hope when a senior policeman suggests that his sons might still be alive—until that policeman is murdered. Still, there seems to be some link to a local operation, and Ash, no longer a government agent, is determined to find it.

Meanwhile, his friend Hazel Best has been having a tough time of her own. A police constable whose last case ended with her shooting someone dead, she is just beginning to regain her balance. Hazel and Ash are both beginning to take more of an interest in the outside world, when a neighboring archaeologist decides to dig up a curious mound of earth near the ice house on his land. It might be a burial mound, he thinks. It is, but not the ancient one he expects; it holds the bones of a little boy from perhaps thirty years ago, carefully laid to rest with twentieth-century toys. As Hazel is slowly drawn back into police work, Ash finds himself under threat from someone who must think his investigation into his family's disappearance is finally getting somewhere…

Chapter 1

STEPHEN GRAVES REMEMBERED the name well enough. But he wouldn’t have recognized Gabriel Ash if they’d passed in the street. He’d struck Graves as a big man when they first met: tall, big-boned, powerful of build and of intellect. The man before him now seemed entirely shrunken. He even seemed shorter, thanks to a slight apologetic stoop.

Graves ushered him to a chair, quickly, as if afraid he might fall down. But his anxiety was unwarranted. Ash was in better shape than he looked. He was in better shape than he’d been for years.

With his visitor safely seated, Graves called his PA and asked for coffee. Ash waited politely, aware that these days his host’s time was more important, or certainly more expensive, than his own.

Finally Graves overcame his surprise enough to open the conversation. It wasn’t difficult to guess why Ash was here—there was only one issue that concerned them both. “I imagine it’s the same matter you want to discuss.”

Ash nodded. Thick black curls fell in his eyes. Graves doubted he’d spent proper money on a haircut since they’d last met. Only the suit was the same, and though clean and pressed, it now hung from Ash’s cadaverous frame. “Some things have come up. Queries. I hoped you could cast some light…” Graves didn’t interrupt him. The sentence just petered out, as if he’d lost interest in it.

The CEO of Bertram Castings took a moment to realize he’d finished. “Yes,” he said. Then, keenly, “Yes, of course. Anything. If I can. If there’s anything I haven’t already told you. But first”—he bit his lip—“can I say how sorry I am about what happened? When I heard … I couldn’t help feeling … guilty, I suppose. If you hadn’t been trying to help us, perhaps … none of it…” It was his turn to run out of words.

Ash smiled. It was an oddly innocent smile for a man of forty, apparently without bitterness. “I was just doing my job. If I hadn’t been doing it here, I’d have been doing it somewhere else. The consequences would very probably have been the same.”

Whether or not it was true, the manufacturer appreciated him saying it. He’d assumed that Ash had been hating his guts for the last four years. It would have been understandable. “Has there been some news?”

“No,” said Ash quickly. “At least, nothing”—he sought an appropriate adjective—“reliable. But someone said something, in a different context, and he was probably just winding me up, but I didn’t feel I could let it go without at least trying to be sure.”

“Who?” asked Graves, almost holding his breath. “Said what?”

“It was a policeman. A senior policeman, who might well have heard things that weren’t public knowledge. But who also had a good reason for wanting me to think he could help me.” Ash swallowed. “He said—he gave me to understand—that he knew what had happened to my family. And I think—I think—he was saying that my sons are still alive.”

Graves took a steadying breath and let it out slowly. “That would be wonderful.”

“Yes, it would,” agreed Ash. His voice was gossamer-thin. “If it’s true.”

“You said a policeman?”

“But not a very good one.”

“You mean, you think he’s lying?”

“He could have lied.”

Graves frowned. “How can I help? Surely the one you need to be talking to, or someone needs to be talking to, is this policeman—to establish whether he actually knows anything or not.”

“You’re right, of course.” Ash nodded. “Unfortunately, he’s dead.”

The man across the desk froze. “Who killed him?”

“A criminal. It’s a long story,” said Ash tiredly. “Before he died, when he was anxious for my help, he said he knew where my boys are. He might have meant where they were buried, but that’s not what he said. Before I could ask him to explain, he died in front of me. And now I don’t know, and don’t know how to find out, if he was telling the truth.”

It was a much abbreviated version of that desperate day’s events, but it was accurate and it was as full an account as a peripheral player like Graves would need. Being a weapons manufacturer didn’t make him an expert on gang culture. The whole of the arms trade is so ringed about by regulations that he couldn’t have sold weapons to gangsters if he’d wanted to. He was an engineer by training, a businessman by choice, a pen pusher by necessity. The government inspectors cast such long shadows over his trade that he’d once found himself photocopying his wife’s birthday card, just in case.

“Gabriel, I don’t know what to say.” The use of his visitor’s first name didn’t come naturally—they’d never been on first name terms—but it felt more awkward still to call him Mr. Ash when the man had stripped his soul in front of him. “Tell me how you think I can help.”

Ash smiled again, gratefully. “In all honesty, I’m not sure you can. I just couldn’t think where else to go. The thing is, this policeman had been working in Norbold, where I live, for the last eight years. Before that he was up north somewhere. He was never in Africa. If he knew anything about Somali piracy, he heard about it while living and working in England. And that’s what he said—that he heard it from a local criminal. In fact, the one who shot him.

“And if he really did know something, if it wasn’t just a bait he was dangling in front of me, I think that had to be true. I’m pretty sure he didn’t get it from an official source. I’ve been to Whitehall—I still know people there—and what they told me is that they’ve learned nothing new about my family in the last four years. I believe them. If there’d been anything to report, my old boss would have told me, with or without his minister’s approval.”

Ash had worked for Philip Welbeck for five years. He’d known he was a good boss. He hadn’t known how good a friend he was until his world fell apart. Admittedly, Ash had broken Welbeck’s nose in a highly public brawl in Parliament Street, and Welbeck had had him committed to a psychiatric institution, but both these acts had long ago been forgiven. Ash had been far from rational when he took a swing at his superior. And Welbeck had been absolutely rational, as cool and clinical as always, and totally focused on the safety of Ash’s family, when he called the men in white coats.

There was no knowing if Cathy and the boys were still alive when Ash, insane with worry, stormed down to London, demanding to know what was being done to find them. But if they were alive, it was to keep Ash from returning to his job in national security and hunting down those responsible for the hijacking of British-made munitions. This was what he was good at, what he was perhaps better at than anyone else. It had taken the pirates some time to recognize the fact. But when they did, they had moved quickly to neutralize the threat he posed. Holding his family hostage gave them control of Gabriel Ash.

After the scene in Parliament Street it was impossible to pretend he hadn’t disobeyed Welbeck’s instructions by returning to London. All Welbeck could do to salvage the situation was make it clear that Ash wasn’t working, on his family’s abduction or the acts of piracy that preceded it, because he wasn’t fit to work, and quite possibly never would be again.

That was then. This was now. Ash couldn’t use official channels to pursue the search anymore. This was what he was doing instead: picking up the threads of the investigation that had cost him everything and trying to find out if they still led anywhere.

He was grateful Graves had agreed to see him. Ash wanted him to understand that, though he had little in the way of new evidence, he wasn’t just raking over the same old coals. “If this policeman was telling the truth, he learned what happened to my family from a Norbold drug dealer. And that means that everyone involved in these hijackings isn’t half a world away in Somalia. There’s a local dimension. Someone here is involved.”

“Here?” Graves’s eyebrows shot toward his hairline. Although he was no older than Ash, his hair was gray and he kept it clipped short to teach it a lesson. He did spend proper money on haircuts.

“Sorry,” said Ash hastily, “I don’t mean here at Bertrams. I mean here in England. And I found myself wondering—you’re going to think I’m crazy,” Ash interjected with the painful wryness of someone who knew what it was like to be thought crazy—“if there was any chance that someone you work with could be selling information on your shipments. Not necessarily one of your employees—it could be an auditor or a tax inspector, or someone from Health & Safety, someone who comes and goes without exciting much interest. But someone who has access to your shipping details, so the pirates know when you’re sending munitions in their direction, what aircraft you’ll be using, and which airfields you’ll be putting down at.”

Graves was obviously taken aback. His company had lost a small fortune in goods hijacked en route to their end users in Africa, but the general understanding had been that that was where the problem lay—in Africa, with the customers’ security arrangements. Five times in four years it had happened, and it wasn’t just the munitions that had disappeared each time but also the aircraft and the crew. People had died trying to deliver his goods, and the only consolation was that the British police had looked at Bertrams’s security protocols and told the CEO there was nothing more he could have done to protect them.

Now Gabriel Ash seemed to be telling him something different. “How would I know?” he asked, concerned.

“Maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe there was nothing to notice. But maybe there was someone who showed just a bit more interest in your shipping arrangements than seemed natural. Who asked where aircraft would be refueled, or which carrier was carrying which shipment, or how crew were recruited. Something like that. Or something quite different, but still not quite what you’d expect. Not quite right.”

Graves was trying to think, but this had been sprung on him. He’d had a couple of hours’ notice that Ash wanted to call, none at all that this was the reason. His face creased with the effort to remember. Finally, regretfully, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, nothing’s coming to mind. But can I have some time to think about it? I’ll go through the records, see who was in the office in the days before each hijacking. See if any pattern emerges. Give me your number. I’ll call you if I come up with anything.”

Ash gave him the number of his new mobile. “Call me anyway. It doesn’t need to be a concrete suspicion. If you think of anyone with access to the relevant information, I’ll talk to the other firms that lost shipments and see if the same name comes up again.”

Graves pulled over a notebook and wrote some names and numbers from memory. “Talk to Bob Simpson at Gaskins. I know they lost a shipment of assault rifles not long ago. And Sandy Pierson at Viking. That’s Ms. Pierson, incidentally,” he added with a nervous grin, “don’t get off on the wrong foot by asking for Mr. Pierson. They’ve both become involved since you…” Another unfinished sentence. This time the missing words were Went doolally.

Ash nodded his thanks and folded the paper carefully into his breast pocket. “I suppose it’s a pretty small world, arms manufacture—that you all know one another?” “In some ways,” agreed Graves. “In others, of course, it’s global. But anyone in the industry will help you if they can. We need to get on top of these hijackings. Somali pirates are making a quarter of the world almost a no-go area for weapons exports.” “Which begs the question why you continue selling a sensitive product to such a volatile region.” Graves shrugged. “Because it’s our business. Because volatile regions are where arms are needed. We couldn’t stay solvent by selling what we make to the Isle of Man. And then, don’t we have an obligation to support Third World countries that are trying to make a go of the democratic model? They wouldn’t get far if all the demagogues and tyrants around them could march over their undefended borders.” It was a valid point. Besides, Ash wasn’t here to do battle with the arms industry. His mission was much more tightly focused than that. “I need to be candid with you, Mr. Graves. Tackling piracy against British citizens, British carriers, and British goods is the job of the British government. It used to be my job, but it isn’t anymore. My only interest now is in finding out what happened to my wife and my sons. “They disappeared because, when Iwas part of the government investigation, I got close enough to the pirates to worry them.” Ash’s deep, dark eyes were hot with the memory: at how clever he’d been, and how stupid. “For four years I believed my family were dead. Now there seems just a small chance that they aren’t—that if I can work it out, I can find them. I may be fooling myself. But I don’t want to mislead you. If finding my family means destroying these people—in Somalia, in England, wherever they are—then I will if I can. But that’s not my priority. If you help me, you have to understand that I may not be able to help you much in return. If the pirates offer to buy my silence with the only currency I’m interested in, nothing—not honor, not duty, nothing—will stop me from taking it. Nothing matters to me as much as finding my wife and sons.” “I understand that,” said Graves, rising and offering his hand. “Bertrams will help in any way we can.”

 

Chapter 2

THERE WERE two people waiting outside for him. Using the term liberally. Hazel Best was behind the wheel of what was, after all, her car. The white dog beside her moved obligingly into the backseat when Ash returned.

“Any luck?” Hazel glanced at him and then quickly away again. It was plain from his face that he’d learned nothing. She wouldn’t have dreamed of saying “I told you so,” and he knew her better by now than to expect it. But she didn’t want him thinking she was thinking it, either.

“He said he’d give it some more thought, get in touch if anything occurred to him. He gave me a couple more names—firms that have been hit while I was off the scene.” He looked at her. “He thinks I’m on a fool’s mission.”

Hazel gave a tiny nod. She was a lot younger than Ash, and she wasn’t his girlfriend, but she was honest with him. “You always knew the odds were against you. You knew before we came here. It was just something to try. It might have led somewhere. It still might.”

“But probably not,” admitted Ash.

He made an effort to put the disappointment behind him. It wasn’t that he’d been expecting a miracle. Most crimes get solved within the first forty-eight hours or not at all. This one was four years old. In his heart, where he didn’t allow himself the comfort of irrational hope, he knew it was too long. That anything Chief Superintendent Fountain had known—if he’d known anything, if he wasn’t just dangling bait—had died with him. Cathy and the boys were gone, and there was no longer a trail to take him to their killers. But that was also true yesterday. Today’s failure added little to the sum of his unhappiness.

He looked at his watch. “Almost twelve. Do you want to stop for lunch, or shall we press on and take your dad out for a late one?”

Hazel had called her father while she was waiting for Ash. “He’s got something in the oven for us. Don’t get your hopes up—he’s not much of a cook. All I can promise is that it’ll be nice and brown.”

Ash managed a smile. He hadn’t done much cooking recently, either. “A bit of gravy covers a multitude of sins.” Two months ago he hadn’t even done much eating. Now he found himself sufficiently cheered by the prospect of a proper sit-down meal at his friend’s home to be tolerant of a piece of overdone meat.

“Not on fish, it doesn’t,” said Hazel grimly, starting the car.

* * *

Alfred Best had been a color sergeant in the British army, and the ability to make tomato water lilies is not a significant survival skill. Such cooking as he had done in those days was of the one pot, open fire, “If it doesn’t kill you, it was a success” variety. And then, Hazel’s mother had been a good cook. It was only since her death that he’d had to teach himself about such things as oven temperatures and timings. Anyway, he’d always rather liked food that bit back.

As Hazel turned through the wrought-iron gates and he glimpsed Byrfield House down the avenue of sycamores, Ash wondered if there was something she hadn’t told him. He tried to remember what she had told him. Her father was in the army—she’d grown up in the country—she’d had a pony and dogs and climbed trees.… She hadn’t said she was a daughter of the aristocracy, but perhaps that was more a second date sort of conversation.

But then he saw the man standing at the open door of the gate lodge, wearing an apron that bore the legend Soldiers do it AGAIN and AGAIN until they GET IT RIGHT, and the world settled quietly back into place. There was nothing wrong with being a daughter of the nobility. But if she had been and hadn’t said, he’d have wondered why not.

And that was silly, too, because they hadn’t known each other very long and they didn’t know each other very well. She’d saved his life a couple of times, but apart from that … She didn’t owe him any confidences. The fact that he’d had to share most of his life story with her, including—no, especially—the grim bits, didn’t put her under the obligation to reciprocate.

The man in the apron raised a hand, and as soon as Hazel had parked she was out of the car and throwing her arms around him. He wasn’t a big man—Hazel was taller—and where she was fair, he was faintly ginger. But he radiated that quiet capability that doesn’t need to be shouted about. There are two kinds of soldier: those who yell “Charge!” and those who say “Follow me.” Alfred Best was the latter kind.

Hazel disengaged from the hug and introduced them. The two men shook hands. “Come inside,” said Best, “have a beer while dinner’s finishing off.”

Hazel went to the cupboard under the stairs. “Home brew or the real stuff?” she asked Ash.

Gabriel Ash wasn’t a serious drinker, but he knew there was only one answer to that which wouldn’t make a man an implacable enemy. “Can I try your home brew?”

During lunch—the cod, despite Hazel’s misgivings, had developed only a thin layer of crackling—Best asked how long the drive had taken. Hazel flicked Ash a glance before answering. “We came the scenic route. Gabriel had some business in Grantham.”

Best was too straightforward a man to pretend not to know what she was talking about. Of course Hazel had told her father about the events of the last two months. Of course both Gabriel Ash’s part in them and the history it sprang from were known to him.

He regarded Ash levelly. “I was sorry to hear about your family, Mr. Ash,” he said somberly. “Are you getting anywhere with your inquiries?”

Before he met Hazel, for years the only one who had spoken to Ash about his tragedy was his therapist. It still felt strange to have it discussed in the course of a normal conversation. Strange, but better.

“Thank you,” he said. “No, I don’t really think so. I’m not sure there’s anything new to find. I thought so—at least I thought there was a chance—but the harder I look, the more I feel Hazel was probably right. That what I thought was a clue was only a diversion, something to channel me in a way that suited the man who dropped it. I’m going through the motions mainly so that I don’t wonder later if I missed something.”

“If that’s all that comes of it,” said Best, “it’ll have been worth your time.”

Over what Ash thought was crème brûlée but turned out to be blancmange, Best said to his daughter, “Pete says will you drop by his place before you leave. I told him you were coming. He’s been digging again—got something to show you.”

Hazel saw the slightly puzzled look on Ash’s face and grinned. “Not vegetables—archaeology. He’s putting together a history of the big house.”

“Pete is,” Ash said carefully.

“Lord Byrfield. But if your name was Peregrine,” said Hazel, “wouldn’t you try to keep it a secret?”

“Nearly as much as if it was Gabriel,” said Ash glumly.

They walked up the long drive after lunch. In the June sunshine the white lurcher flashed among the giant trees like a ghost on speed.

“It’s the rabbits,” explained Ash. “It’s in her blood.”

As she passed them, the dog paused just long enough to give Hazel a slightly embarrassed look, as if she knew chasing rabbits was less than cool but she just couldn’t resist.

Ash said, “I hope your father doesn’t mind having me and Patience to stay. It’s asking a lot, when your daughter turns up for a visit with not only a strange man but also his dog in tow.”

Hazel chuckled. She was wearing her thick fair hair in a loose ponytail, which together with the jeans and oversized shirt gave her a casual look, in marked contrast to the police uniform she’d been wearing when they first met. He thought she was also more relaxed than she had been. She’d had a rough time. It had ended with her shooting someone dead. You don’t put that behind you with a stiff drink and an early night. But Ash thought she was finding her balance again. He was relieved. He’d felt guilty for what he’d involved her in. It hadn’t been his fault, but that hadn’t stopped him from feeling guilty. Guilty was his default position.

“He’s used to it. Not strange men so much,” she added hastily, “but friends staying over. When you live miles from anywhere and there’s no last bus for people to catch, you’re used to making up a spare bed on the sofa. I think the record was seven twenty-year-old undergraduates. There were bodies everywhere—on the kitchen table, in the bath, and two of them slept in the greenhouse.”

A bend in the drive brought the building Ash had glimpsed from the gate lodge into full view. The beauty of it made him catch his breath. Hazel, covertly watching for his reaction, gave a faint, satisfied smile.

It wasn’t what most people mean by a stately home. It was too small, too—if it isn’t an absurd way to describe a house with nine bedrooms—homely. It would be more helpful to think of it as a manor house, a two-story, plus attics, stone building, the severity of its classical Georgian lines softened by Virginia creeper. The stones glowed with two hundred sunny summers, the sixteen-pane windows sparkled because none of the glass squares lined up precisely with any of its neighbors, and at the top of a modest fan of stone steps one of the heavy double doors stood open because a man in washing-up gloves was polishing the brass knocker.

Hazel shouted, “Hi, Pete!” and Lord Byrfield shaded his eyes with one yellow hand and waved.

“Hi, Hazel. Come to help?”

“You think I don’t have brass work at home I could polish?” she said, grinning as they met. “If the urge took me. Pete, I want you to meet a friend of mine. Gabriel Ash, Peregrine Byrfield. And this is Patience.”

The earl and the lurcher regarded one another solemnly for a moment. “Delighted, I’m sure,” said Byrfield, and Patience waved her tail.

Ash saw a man taller than himself, and narrower, and maybe ten years younger; unremarkable-looking, with fair hair and blue-gray eyes and a rather weak chin. A man you could have ridden the 8:10 to Paddington with every weekday for a year and not recognized if you’d seen him in the supermarket on a Saturday. But he did have a nice smile. “Gabriel, hm?”

Ash nodded long-sufferingly. “Peregrine?”

“I know.” Byrfield sighed. “Still, I suppose there are worse things to be called after than either an angel or a hawk. I’d hate to be called after a nut.”

Hazel thumped his arm hard enough to make him wince.

Byrfield left the brasses half polished and took them inside.

As with most houses, big and small, life at Byrfield revolved around the kitchen. There was a collection of leather armchairs and an overstuffed sofa arranged around a low oak table, an oak dresser black with age, and a television on a chest in a corner. Hazel flung herself into one of the armchairs as if she’d been coming here all her life. Ash took the sofa, and hoped Byrfield wouldn’t notice that Patience had jumped up beside him, so that they were now sitting side by side like a married couple.

“Dad says you’re digging again.”

Byrfield brought the coffee over. You could tell he was aristocracy by the plainness of the biscuits. “David Sperrin’s working on the far side of the lake. You remember David? His mother’s the artist, she lives at Wool Row. He left for university while you were still a child, but he’s been back at intervals.”

“I remember. He did history at Reading.”

“Archaeology,” said Byrfield, nodding so the correction seemed more like an elaboration. “Then he worked abroad for several years. I caught up with him last time he was home and asked him to come and do a survey for me.”

“Anything interesting turned up?”

Byrfield gave a self-deprecating grin. “It’sall interesting. You know how I feel about this place. If you mean Saxon gold or Roman mosaics, then no, nothing like that. The footings of some walls we didn’t know about. Some medieval pottery. Oh—and this.” He was rummaging in a drawer of the dresser, unfolded a cotton-wool parcel in front of her.

“What is it?”

“It’s Romano-British—third, fourth century. It’s bronze, probably the handle of a tankard. But look—it’s a horse.”

Ash peered closer, too. “It’s the Uffington White Horse.”

Hazel looked at him in surprise, Byrfield in approval. “Exactly. David thinks whoever made it must have been to Uffington.”

“It’s a long way from here.”

“Where’s Uffington?” asked Hazel.

“Oxfordshire, I think,” said Ash. “A hundred and fifty miles? It’s a long way on foot.”

Byrfield shrugged. “People got around more than you’d think two thousand years ago. After all, the Romans came from Rome. Some of the artifacts we find came from farther afield. It would have taken a lot longer than a budget airline—well, a bit longer than a budget airline—but sailing ships only need wind, and horses can go long distances on not much more than grass. If you could plan for journeys lasting years rather than hours or days, you could travel until you met something you couldn’t cross. The Atlantic Ocean, for instance. The Himalayas. The Sahara. Lots of people died doing it. But others got through, or at least completed one stage of the journey. Artifacts are durable. If needs be, they can lie half buried in the sand until the next caravan comes along to carry them another hundred miles.”

“Pete!” said Hazel, mischievous with delight. “You’re a romantic!”

He looked bashful. “No, I’m a farmer. But I do find this stuff fascinating. Listen, stay for dinner. We’ll prime David with half a bottle of burgundy and he’ll talk till the cows come home. The places he’s been, the things he’s dug up.” Suddenly his face clouded. “I’m sorry. Just because I love this stuff doesn’t mean everyone has to listen. There are probably better topics of conversation for a sophisticated dinner party.”

“Sophisticated?” echoed Hazel. “Us? I haven’t even brought a posh frock.” She looked down at herself critically. “I’ve got this shirt and another one just like it.”

“You’ll still be overdressed for my dinner table.” Byrfield chuckled, relieved. “David leaves his overalls on the boot room radiator, and I try to remember to kick my wellies off, but that’s about it. My mother refuses to eat with us. She has a tray in her room. Short of some major disaster like the maid’s day off, she still does the whole changing-for-dinner thing. Then she eats alone in her sitting room.”

“How the other half lives,” remarked Hazel, the note of wonder in her voice only slightly tempered by the desire not to appear rude.

“I am the other half,” said Pete Byrfield grimly, “andI think it’s bizarre.”

Copyright ©2014 Jo Bannister.

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Jo Bannister began her career as a journalist after leaving school at sixteen to work on a weekly newspaper. She was shortlisted for several prestigious awards and worked as an editor for some years before leaving to pursue her writing full time. She lives in Northern Ireland and spends most her spare time with her horse and dog, or clambering over archaeological sites. Her thriller, Death in High Places, was nominated for the RT Reviewers’ Choice Best Book Award.

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