The Hanging by Lotte & Soren Hammer is the U.S. debut of this Danish brother/sister writing team. (available June 11, 2013).
One morning before school, two children find the naked bodies of five men hanging from the gym ceiling. The case leads detective Konrad Simonsen and his murder squad to the school janitor, who may know more about the killings than he is telling. Soon, Simonsen realizes that each of the five murdered men had a dark and terrible secret in common. And when Simonsen’s own daughter is targeted, he must race to find the culprit before his whole world is destroyed.
Published in twenty countries around the world, with more than 150,000 copies sold in Denmark alone, this book introduces a brother and sister duo who have taken the thriller world by storm. Fast-paced, suspenseful, and brilliantly written, The Hanging is a stunning crime novel from Lotte and Soren Hammer, two Danish authors whose international fame is exploding.
Monday morning, fog rolled in over the land in white woolly waves. The two children could hardly see a meter ahead of them as they crossed onto the school grounds. They had to find their way from memory and soon their steps became hesitant and searching. The boy was slightly behind the girl, his school bag in his arms. All of a sudden he stopped.
“Don’t go on without me.”
The girl stopped as well. The fog particles condensed in her hair, and she wiped the droplets from her brow as she patiently waited for her little brother, who was struggling to wrench his bag onto his back. He had spoken Turkish, which he rarely did, and never to her; now he was occupied with the straps and pulling harder on them, but it didn’t help. When he was finally done, he grabbed her hand. She looked around to see if she could spy the other end of the field through the mist.
She said, “Now see what you’ve done.”
“What have I done?”
He tightened his grip and sounded small.
“Nothing. You don’t understand.”
She picked a direction at random and took a few blind steps before she stopped short again. The boy pressed up against her.
“Have we gone astray?”
“It was light at Mother’s.”
“In a little while it’ll be light here too.”
“What does it mean, astray?”
She didn’t answer him, and tried to convince herself that there was nothing to be afraid of, that the school grounds weren’t particularly large, that they should just keep going.
“We aren’t allowed to go off with strangers. No matter what, we can’t go off with strangers. Isn’t that right?”
She could hear that he was on the verge of tears and she pulled him along behind her in a series of uncertain steps, until she suddenly saw a slight glow diagonally in front of her and steered toward it.
Shortly afterward they were in the corridor in front of the gymnasium. The girl was sitting on a bench, reading, and her brother came running with a ball in his arms.
“Do you want to play ball with me? You’re so good at it.”
“Have you hung your clothes up properly and set your bag down in its place?”
He nodded, wide-eyed, the embodiment of sincerity.
“Come on, go and do it.”
He lumbered off without objection, but was soon back and repeated his desire to play.
“I have something I have to read first. You start and I’ll be there in a bit.”
He glanced skeptically at her book. It was thick.
“Promise you’ll come soon?”
“As soon as I’ve finished this chapter. Go in and play on your own. It won’t be long.”
He ran into the gym and soon she heard the sounds of a bouncing ball. She kept reading. From time to time she closed her eyes and imagined she was a part of the story.
The boy interrupted her.
“There isn’t room to play,” he called out.
“Because some men are hanging up in here.”
“So go around them.”
Suddenly he was in front of her. She hadn’t heard him approach.
“I don’t like the men.”
The girl sniffed the air a couple of times.
“Have you farted?”
“No, but I don’t like the dead men. They’ve been cut up.”
She got up angrily and walked over to the doorway to the gymnasium, her brother at her heels.
Five people were hanging from the ceiling, each suspended by a single rope. They were naked and facing toward her.
“Aren’t they gross?”
“Yes,” she said and closed the door.
She put her arm around the boy.
“Can we play ball now?”
“No, we can’t. We have to find an adult.”
Detective Inspector Konrad Simonsen was enjoying a vacation. He was sitting in a room with a view in the top story of a summer house and was busy having his fourth smoke of the morning and a cup of coffee. He stared out through the oversize windows at a couple of drifting stratus clouds, not thinking of anything in particular.
The athletic young woman who appeared—just back from her morning run—had removed her socks and shoes so he did not hear her steps as she entered the room, and he gave a start when she spoke. Moreover, he was used to being alone.
“For heaven’s sake, Dad. The least you could do is crack a window.”
Her outburst was directed at the cigarette smoke that hung heavy in the air; she opened the french doors all the way so that a fresh sea breeze rushed through the room and tossed her blond curls around, until she decided that the worst of the smell was gone and latched the doors. Then she flopped into one of the armchairs across from him without showing any concern for the fact that she thereby crushed the newspaper tucked into her sweatpants.
He said, “Good morning, have you been all the way to Blokhus? That must have been quite a run.”
“Morning—it’s almost afternoon, sleepyhead. Yes, I’ve been down to Blokhus, and it’s actually not that far.”
He pointed to the newspaper.
“Is that for me?”
She answered with irony, but without an edge, “And thank you, my lovely daughter, for making me coffee.”
“And thank you, my sweet Anna Mia, for making me coffee.”
She took out the newspaper, but then her gaze fell on the ashtray and her steely expression told him what was coming. With a gesture of accusation she pointed to the shutters and her Bornholm dialect grew stronger.
“Four cigarettes before breakfast!”
“You know, I’m on break right now, so it’s a bit different than usual.”
He could have saved himself the lie.
“You smoke far too much, you drink too much, your diet is terrible, and to call you overweight would be an act of kindness.”
He defended himself halfheartedly: “I almost never smoke at work and only moderately in the evenings so surely I can relax occasionally.”
“Well, except for the fact that you’re lying, that sounds very reasonable.”
He didn’t know what to say. He glanced in the direction of the newspaper, which was now very far away. Her already serious voice grew even thornier.
“You know you owe me fifteen more years, don’t you, Dad?”
The number stung his psyche, and awakened the familiar knowledge of having been a terrible parent. It had been lying dormant for three years, since a happy May evening when she suddenly appeared on his doorstep and explained that she had one week in Copenhagen, and that it seemed most practical and economical for her to stay with him. Said it as if nothing could be more natural. Then she invaded his apartment and his life—an unknown sixteen-year-old girl, pretty, vivacious, full of life … his daughter.
There was nothing to do but lie down on his shield and hope for mercy, but the words didn’t really want to come. To apologize seemed silly, and to promise reform and a new, healthy lifestyle was easier said than done. To top it off, he was not the type who found it easy to share his emotions. He launched into a couple of vague promises, until she suddenly shook off her seriousness and changed the subject.
“Let’s get back to that another time, Dad. Tell me, have you gotten used to the digs? This is quite a sophisticated little cottage Nathalie has.”
This topic was also explosive, even though it was slightly less personal, and if he hadn’t known better, he would have suspected that she’d brought it up deliberately now that he was on the defensive. But she wasn’t like that. It was only he who thought of conversations as a form of strategic play with winners and losers—a bad habit that he dismissed somewhat too conveniently as a professional disease and the result of many interrogations. He tried not to let himself be provoked.
“Yes, this is magnificent.”
“Why did you get so sulky the day before yesterday when we arrived?”
“Because the Countess is my subordinate, and the whole thing was somewhat overwhelming.”
“But you knew it was hers.”
“Yes, my lovely girl, I did, but the Lord only knows I was not clear on the standard. This luxury villa would get the euro signs spinning in the eyes of the most exclusive vacation renter, and the fact that we’re getting it for small change is unethical and probably also illegal.”
“She’s rich. So what? Anyway, enough with the ‘girl.’”
“And then the refrigerator is stuffed with enough food to see us through an atomic winter.”
“But we won’t be here for an atomic winter, we’re only going to be here for two weeks. You can just cut back on eating, of course. It certainly wouldn’t hurt you to draw on your reserves for a while.”
“No food, no drink, no smoking; what’s next?”
She heard him and continued her lecture.
“Did you know that the flagstones on the terrace are hand-painted Italian stone and that the marble in the entrance hall is called Ølandsbrud?”
“How do you know that?”
“From Nathalie, of course.”
No one else referred to the Countess as Nathalie, and it sounded strange to his ears. Nathalie von Rosen was admittedly her given name, but everyone, including herself, referred to her as the Countess.
“Have you been here before?”
“As it happens, yes.”
“This gets worse and worse.”
“Then you’ll think this is even worse, because I have brought a gift along for you.”
“A gift? Who is it from?”
“From Nathalie, but I was going to wait a few days before giving it to you.”
There was nothing feigned about his look of bewilderment.
“You know, Dad, sometimes you are simply incredibly dense. This isn’t that hard to understand, and—if you ask me—she’s got a thing for you, and if you just took the slightest care of yourself and dropped fifteen or twenty kilos, you could make a great couple.”
The room filled with the small, sharp sounds of bare feet on the whitewashed Pomeranian pine, and she was gone, before he had a chance to comment on her absurd idea.
The gift from the Countess was brilliant. Like a parrot on its perch, Anna Mia settled onto the armrest of his chair (when she returned) and watched closely as he unwrapped it. Aron Nimzowitsch, Mein System, the first edition from 1925, with a dedication from the master himself—a treasure that transported him into a state akin to ecstasy. Meanwhile, Anna Mia managed to read over his shoulder.
“What does she mean, ‘Thank you for your help’?”
He turned the card over, too late.
“Don’t you have any manners? You don’t read other people’s letters, do you?”
“I do. What did you help her with?”
“That doesn’t concern you!”
They sat for a while in silence, she on the armrest and he in the chair.
“Tell me, how well do you two know each other?” he asked.
“Who? Me and Nathalie?”
Her feigned nonchalance was laughable.
“Yes, of course.”
“That doesn’t concern you.”
They were back to square one.
Shortly thereafter, she became more communicative.
“I don’t know Nathalie particularly well, and we haven’t gone behind your back. Not very much at any rate, and the fact that I have been here before is pure coincidence. We ran into each other in Skagen last summer, and she asked me to lunch. But I already know how you have helped her. It was during her divorce, wasn’t it?”
“We talked a little.”
She stroked him over the crown of the head.
“I believe you’ve earned your book, Dad. So do me a favor and for once don’t let’s talk about price. Nathalie would never expect to get anything in return for her gifts, that’s how she is and you know it.”
“Yes, I do. But it is a matter of principle.”
“Maybe you have the wrong principles.”
She got up and walked over to one of the windows as he gingerly, almost devoutly turned the pages of his book.
“I’m taking a bath. In the meantime you can figure out what we should do today.”
“Yes, yes, that’s fine.”
She had to call him twice before he stirred, and he did not notice that the mood had changed again. He was too far gone in his game of chess.
“Is your cell phone turned on?”
“No. The agreement was that the outside world should be excluded, I think you will recall. Why do you ask?”
He got up with a last long look at a game in the book, then stared out the windows and let his gaze wander along the horizon. The undulating-dune landscape unfolded before him like irregular windswept hills, a shining white where the sun hit them, inky gray and dark on the other side, some invaded by rugosa rose, others anchored by wild rye. In the distance he could see the North Sea with its glittering white-crested waves and above that a flock of wild geese flying south along the coastline. Suddenly he became aware of Anna Mia’s arm around him, and her head heavy against his back. A feeling of shyness and awe overcame him, as if her youthfulness was something sacred. But he remained as he was and after a few seconds of eternity she said softly, “They’re coming to pick you up, Dad.”
Only then did he see it. A disturbingly foreign body slowly snaking its way up along the twisty dune road: a police car.
Some four hours later, Simonsen found himself at Langbæk School in Bagsværd, staring out at the rain that was falling, bleak and silent. A canine unit was working in the bushes behind the playground. The police officer directed the dog with hand signals and shouted commands, occasionally bringing it back to be petted and praised. A young woman with a plastic bag wrapped around her head as a makeshift scarf walked up to the officer and for a while she watched the officers’s gestures before a gust of wind splattered the window with water and greatly reduced the visibility. He turned his gaze back to the corridor. The colors on the wall were bare and dirty, alternating between various shades of yellow. The linoleum floor was pockmarked and looked like an obstacle course. Somewhat-successful artistic creations hung scattered about. The nearest one employed a preponderance of wire and very dusty soda cans.
He made a gesture of futility. “Dammit, Countess.”
The words were intended for the woman behind him, who was talking on a cell phone, and they were said without anger, simply to point out the absurdity of having been transported across the country like an express delivery, only to end up standing around staring out into the dreary October weather. Without knowing much about the investigation, he was expected to take charge, and yet he hadn’t the faintest idea where he should go next.
The woman reacted to his outburst, placing one hand over the phone.
“Hello, Simon, sorry about your vacation, but at least you got a couple of days. I hope Anna Mia wasn’t too upset. Arne will be here in one second, he’ll brief you.” She smiled and returned to her call before he was able to answer. He returned her smile without really wanting to, and thought to himself that she had fine teeth. He let his stomach relax and looked out the window again, where the view was still depressing. The Countess’s conversation went on and on, which he took as a discomfiting sign that the homicide unit would be in excellent shape to continue without its current chief when the day came.
And yet, perhaps not. Simonsen had been half following the conversation—which he pressumed was with one of the forensic specialists—and suddenly he was struck with the thought that something wasn’t right. A slightly elevated tone of voice and questions in which there was a certain discrepancy between the level of detail and the time gave her away. When she launched into a question almost identical to one she had already asked, he grabbed her by the arm in which she held the phone and pulled gently. She hung up without saying goodbye.
“When did you last have something to eat?”
“I don’t know; a while ago. What time is it?”
He was very familiar with this condition and also knew that it was temporary. From time to time, all investigators encountered things that were difficult to deal with and that got under their skin. Unpleasant images that became fixed in the back of the head and could not be erased. This was clearly one of those times for her. He himself found it hardest when the victims were children, but that was something he had in common with most police officers, and he had not yet been inside the gymnasium. He halted his train of thought and came back to the present.
“Drive into town and get yourself something to eat. Be back here in an hour.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“That’s an order, Countess. And turn off your phone.”
She nodded, as if she understood. But he saw in her eyes that she did not. Normally she was the personification of stability. She was the one who pulled back when everyone else was driving off the cliff. She turned around and the dim daylight fell onto her face. And he saw that her face had the same ashen tint as her hair.
“It’s horrible, Simon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.”
“No, I don’t suppose either of us has.”
“Arne and I peeked in from the door and … ugh, it was awful.”
“I’m sure it was. Now off you go. I have other things to do than worry myself about you.”
He accompanied his comment with a smile to take the edge off his words. She appeared not to notice it. She remained where she was and he wondered if he should embrace her or simply place a hand on her shoulder. But he did neither; he wasn’t good at that sort of thing.
Finally she said, “I’ll be fine in a bit.”
“I know you will. See you.”
And then she left.
The special-education clinic had been temporarily transformed into an investigation hub. There were two bookcases whose contents had been emptied onto the windowsill, and on the table in the middle of the room was a stack of paper as well as a box of pencils. A whiteboard stood in front of the dark green chalkboard, so that explanations could be given in marker rather than chalk, and a map of the school had been hung on one wall of the room. It had clearly been posted in haste, and the result was sadly haphazard.
Simonsen studied the plan with a tilted head, while Arne Pedersen used the time to wipe off his chair. His pants were already stained in two places and he did not wish to make matters worse.
“How was your trip?”
“What about the vacation house? Can you get a refund?”
The chairs, which had seen better days, creaked alarmingly when the two men sat down.
Simonsen rested his elbows on the table and asked curtly, “How are you doing?”
Pedersen was not unsettled by the question, which was a good sign.
“Better, but it wasn’t easy in the beginning. I broke down twice, and I haven’t done that in years. On the whole, that is. Not once—or twice—for that matter.”
“But you’re okay now?”
“Usually it’s just children—well, you know.”
“Arne, answer my question. Are you okay now?”
Pedersen gazed back at him steadily.
“Yes, I’m fine now.”
“Good. Then give me an update on chronology, resources, and status.”
This came out sounding more abrupt and imperious than he had intended but his irritation at the wait was still with him and he wanted to get straight to the facts. His words were promptly obeyed. Pedersen went though the events exactingly, starting with the Turkish mother who had dropped her kids off at 6:15 A.M. by the bicycle shed to the right of the school entrance.
He went on. “It was the first day after fall break and the school was already unlocked. The children went to their respective classrooms and hung up their coats, after which they met by the gymnasium in building B in order to play soccer. Inside, they discovered five bodies. The big sister searched in vain for an adult but did not find one. She called 911 from the teachers’ lounge and was transferred to the Gladsaxe police station. The call was clocked at six forty-one. The officer on duty … excuse me…”
He stopped and appeared to reflect on something.
Simonsen said, “The name is not particularly important. But tell me, those two children. Aren’t they a little on the early side? I thought instruction began at eight o’clock.”
“That’s correct, and I wondered about that too, so I asked the headmaster. It turns out that the school has a handful of children that meet up long before lessons begin. All schools are familiar with the problem. For some parents it is simply a matter of wanting to save money on morning care, for others it is a pressure they face each day—”
“Okay, Okay, go on,” Simonsen interrupted.
“Yes, of course … now where was I?… right. The officer on duty instructed the girl to wait until a teacher arrived, and she then contacted her mother’s workplace in Gentofte. The mother could not be located immediately, but the owner—a Danish resident of Lebanese origins who is somewhat familiar with the girl—decided to drive out to her. He arrived at the school a little before seven A.M. At the gymnasium he chased off eight children who had gathered there. He also called the Gladsaxe police again and at seven thirty-eight A.M. a patrol unit arrived—”
“At seven thirty-eight!” Simonsen interrupted sharply.
Pedersen avoided his gaze and adjusted his tie, a movement that his boss was all too familiar with.
“Cough up that name and tell me what happened.”
Additional delays were futile, and the name of the officer on duty was produced. Also the explanation.
“He said that the calls could be deprioritized … since it was clear that they were from ‘Mujafa types.’ Yes, unfortunately that is a direct quote.”
Simonsen was genuinely incensed.
“Why are you protecting a thug like that? Do you know him?”
Pedersen had been blessed with a youthful appearance. Despite his forty years he resembled an overgrown youth, and now he blushed from ear to ear so that his complexion matched his fiery red hair.
“We were at the police academy together. He and I are in a betting pool together.”
Simonsen frowned and closed his eyes, but decided not to ask further questions. Pedersen was a good investigator—creative as well as effective—and it was a distinct possibility that he would eventually become the next division chief. But his passion for gambling was well known and there was more than one story circulating about him. One day they would have to have a talk, but not now, and if Pedersen owed the thug some money, he did not want to know it.
“We’ll drop it. Go on.”
“The patrol officers called for backup, the school was sealed off, and the children were sent home. The staff were assembled in the teachers’ lounge and we were contacted of course. I arrived around nine A.M. and sent for you, whereupon I informed the police chief as well as rounding up Troulsen, Pauline, and the Countess. Then I got the whole thing under way and called in anything that can crawl: investigators, technicians, forensic specialists, canine units—yes, even Elvang is here.”
“Why the dogs? What are we looking for?”
“Ten hands, among other things.”
“Have you been inside the gymnasium?”
“No, just the doorway. On two different occasions. The first time I felt sick, as I told you. They’re running around in space suits and it looks like a science fiction film, and as soon as I as much as breathed in there I got long lectures about contamination of crime scenes. You can guess who from. It’s completely hysterical.”
“The head of our Criminal Forensics Division is paid to get hysterical like that. What about Elvang?”
“Yes, what about Elvang? Obviously he had to wait. And in addition…” He searched for the words.
“He called me a slave to fashion, but that’s not particularly relevant.”
“No, apart from the fact that he evidently still has some spirit in him.”
“You can laugh all you want, it’ll be your turn in a minute. He is waiting for you, once we’re done. The room is probably ready by now. But while we’re on the topic, I know with certainty why he isn’t retired yet. My brother’s new girlfriend works at the Ministry of Education, which oversees the National Health Service. That should count for something, it’s not just idle talk. Do you want to know why?”
Simonsen wondered silently if his subordinate had a surplus of anything but rigorous facts, but he answered with a smile, “I’d love to, when we have the time. How are our resources?”
“It’s not quite clear yet, but looks promising. We’re about to be reorganized into a special unit. They’re making the organizational changes.”
“That sounds ominous. Who are they?”
“I don’t know. I tell you, Simon, the first hour was like a zoo—I’ve never experienced anything like it. The minister of justice called twice and asked to be briefed minute by minute.”
“The minister of justice? Why on earth doesn’t he keep to the proper channels?”
“No idea. I didn’t ask him that.”
“‘Minute by minute,’ did he really say that?”
“Yes, he did actually. Verbatim.”
“You can say that again.”
“On top of that, the national police chief called a couple of times. To underscore the fact that the minister of justice was to be briefed. And the second time he threatened to come in person, but the Countess talked him out of it. Then there was the police director, but that is natural enough. The county commissioner has the mayor of Gladsaxe on his back, so he called in frequently too. Moreover, the attorney general got on the line, distinctly out of sorts.”
“The attorney general? How in the world did he get in the picture?”
“Well, that was what he was asking me about. He didn’t want anything to do with the investigation, I believe he said. He is not completely easy to understand and I could never figure out who it was who involved him in the first place. And the Countess has had her hands full. Both with the chairman and vice chairperson of the parliamentary judiciary committee. Among others.”
“For heaven’s sake, what a mess.”
“You can say that again, and there’s more. Finally I received a call from the head at the Department of State, Helmer Hammer—yes, that is his name—and that was immediately after the minister of justice’s second round, so I was impatient with all the interruptions at this point. I was also a bit shaken, which I can see now in hindsight. Well, I told him in fairly direct terms that unless we had some peace to do our work, there would be absolutely nothing to report on, regardless of whether the queen herself called. Then I hung up or whatever it is you do with a cell phone.”
“Hm, was that wise? What happened after that?”
“He called back.”
“Smart move. Are you going to be directing traffic now?”
“No, he’s reasonable when it comes down to it. He doesn’t know anything about police work, which is something thankfully he volunteered himself, but he promised to stop with the interruptions and he’s kept his word. There have been no VIP calls since.”
Pedersen looked relieved. Simonsen tried to get the conversation back on track without sounding too impatient.
“That all sounds quite positive, but does not actually explain the state of our resources.”
“Yes it does, because he also said that you should take the lead on the investigation.”
“I’m already doing that.”
“Yes, I know. Let me explain. That is, you should lead the investigation and exclusively report back to him. No one else.”
“The usual lines of communication are being silenced?”
“In a manner of speaking, but it gets better. You can proceed freely, and you have no resource constraints whether in regard to man-hours or financials. He will take care of any administrative hurdles so that your time can be completely devoted to investigating.”
“That is quite something.”
“Yes, he is not without power. However, he did make a point of saying that your official mandate has not yet been drawn up, but that is just a matter of paperwork. You should get in touch with him when you have a moment. I have his number. So the sum of all this, Simon, is that you are basically your own boss.”
“Did he say that too?”
“No, that is my own conclusion.”
“Hm, it doesn’t really matter to me that the usual protocol is put aside.”
“It’s better than having all kinds of highly elevated men and women throw us around according to their whims.”
“Maybe, but we’ll have to see about that. Right now we have other things to think about.”
Suddenly the bell went off, high-pitched and piercing. No one had thought about shutting it off since the children had been sent home. It caused Simonsen to jump, and his chair groaned. For a split second he lay outstretched on his desk. Pedersen, whose relationship to school bells was less troubled, waited quietly until the noise ceased, after which he completed his report.
“The current division of labor is that Pauline is trawling the neighbors and the outdoor areas of the school, the Countess is responsible for the interior of the school, Troulsen is debriefing the school staff, and I am free now that you’re here. Our most pressing problem is that the dead are as yet unidentified, and that the janitor is missing. Per Clausen is his name and he was likely the one who unlocked the school this morning, but no one has seen him. It is possible that he’s indisposed due to excessive alcohol consumption—apparently that happens from time to time. As for the task of identifying the victims, I have a dozen experienced people occupied with the task of finding out if the five men have been reported missing anywhere. There are not yet any results.”
Simonsen reflected on this, then stood up, and Pedersen followed suit.
“We’ll meet in half an hour, make sure the others get the message. You can come get me in the gymnasium, but I want to get Elvang alone first. Tell Troulsen that not so much as a flea leaves this place without my permission, and get Pauline inside before she starts to look like a drowned animal. I don’t even know what the hell she’s doing out there—helping the dogs?”
“For Pete’s sake, she doesn’t have much experience yet.”
“And she won’t get it simply by getting wet. Or get her some proper rain gear. The school patrol probably has one hanging on a hook somewhere. And one more thing. There have been ten schoolchildren in the gymnasium. Has a crisis counselor been called in? What about the parents—have they been informed?”
Pedersen banged his fist against the doorframe. He had two children of his own.
“Take care of it, but first lead me to Elvang and tell your story about him on the way. You’ve done a fine job, Arne. Very satisfactory.”
The praise sounded hollow. As if learned in a management seminar.
Copyright ©2013 by Lotte & Soren Hammer
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