When Senior Constable Alan Dodd transfers to a small country police station on the Darling Downs, he is soon confronted with the charred body of a murdered girl in a burnt out stolen vehicle near a creek   crossing. While waiting for city investigators he has a weird  experience at the isolated site, which leads him to discover that an early homestead on the site had been burnt down, and that another girl had been  murdered there fifty years before. 

What family secrets connect these two murders? And are the events on a ley line? - a Fire Line? - that links other mysterious events and fires that have occurred in the area over the past century? Alan comes to believe they are, especially after the daughter of the current owners is kidnapped and left bound in a remote quarry office that has been set alight.

Can Alan rescue Rowena in time, and can the murderer escape the retribution of the ley line?

In Store Price: $AU24.95 
Online Price:   $AU19.95

ISBN:   978-1-921406-87-4    
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 208
Genre: Fiction

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Author: Arn Winter
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2009
Language: English


Author Biography 

Arn Winter is a retired civil engineer and teacher who has worked in various places around Queensland. A qualified theologian, he also has a deep affinity with the spirituality of the plains and scrubland west of the Great Divide and an interest in the experiences and stories of long-time residents. 

Fire Line is the first of a series of crime stories he has written centred around the psychically-sensitive Senior Constable Alan Dodd.

Chapter One - Tuesday Morning   


    When the phone rang, Alan Dodd was in a dream state, halfway between sleeping and waking. He jerked fully awake and wondered for a moment where he was. As the phone rang again, he heard an echoing ring from outside and realised it came from the bell on the veranda of the police office next door.

He threw the blankets back and glanced at the bedside clock. 5:38. Calls to a country police station at that time of the morning were never good news.

Probably a road accident.

Alan swung out of bed, gasped at the sudden chill, and hurried to get to the lounge-room handset before the office answering machine cut in. As he left the bedroom, he thumbed the light switch so the sudden glare reflected along the short hallway to only dimly illuminate the lounge. He snatched up the handset.

“Cambooya Police.”

His voice was husky from sleep. He coughed to clear his throat.

“That you, Greg?” The male voice sounded unsure, obviously not recognising Alan’s voice.

“Senior Constable Alan Dodd, sir,” Alan replied. “I’m relieving for a couple of months while Greg Traille is on long-service leave with his family. Can I help you?”

“I hope so, mate,” the voice said. “I’ve just come across a burning vehicle off the Karara road. I thought you should know.”

Although it was only Alan’s fourth morning in Cambooya, he knew the Karara road. It was a main road heading south-west from the village, presumably to some place called Karara. It was an alternative route to Goondiwindi, over 200 kilometres away on the Queensland-New South Wales border.

“That’s a long road, sir,” Alan said impatiently, shivering in the cold. “Could you tell me who you are, and exactly where this burning vehicle is located.”

He wasn’t overly concerned. Burnt-out stolen vehicles had been one of the local problems he’d been alerted to at his briefing. Apparently, half a dozen had been torched in the district over the past couple of months.

“I’m Glen Storm,” the voice replied. “I’ve a poultry farm at Felton. I also fatten a few steers and was taking three into Harristown saleyards for today’s market. I seen a sudden flare of fire glow to the north as I came around Mt Rubieslaw, so I drove over to investigate. Came across this fawn-coloured Volvo, blazin’ like it’s been doused in petrol. I didn’t pass anyone on the track comin’ in and there’s no one around. But I don’t know if there’s anyone in the car as I can’t get near it.”

“I don’t know Mt Rubieslaw,” Alan said. “About how far do you reckon the fire is from Cambooya?”

“Ah, maybe three or four clicks south, then about two clicks west along a dirt track to the old stockyards swimmin’ hole. Burnin’ car is on the southern bank of Hodgson Creek, on the flood plain.”

Alan hadn’t heard of the ‘old stockyards swimmin’ hole’, but he could visualise where it must be - about four kilometres downstream along the creek that flowed past the police station.

“Okay, Glen,” Alan said. “You stay there til I arrive. Half an hour at the most.”

“I can’t wait longer,” Glen Storm retorted irritably. “I’ve got to get these steers into Harristown market.”

But the policeman had already hung up.

Alan ran into the bedroom, the chill of the August morning forgotten. His single bed was in the centre of the room, the bed-head under a short section of wall with glass louvres on both sides. The louvres were slightly open and the lace curtains fluttered in a light breeze. Alan’s clothes were on a chair by the dressing table and he quickly changed into blue police trousers and shirt. He could hear birds in the trees along Hodgson Creek and a lone cow bellowing in the distance. He donned his leather jacket, elastic-sided boots and broad-brimmed Akubra hat and snatched his utility belt from the back of the bedside chair before hurrying out the back door and slamming it behind him. He unlocked and opened the tilt-a-door, and reversed the near-new police Falcon out onto the tarmacked road. He ran back to close and lock the garage door to protect his personal motorcycle, then gunned the car along Quarry Street as he turned the headlights on and cleared the trip meter with his left hand.

Five minutes later, he turned across a cattle grid onto the dirt track. Against the lightening sky, now yellow-orange along the eastern horizon, he could see a tower of black smoke drifting towards the west. The track was deeply eroded and he drove slowly, trying to keep out of the deepest grooves. A barbed-wire fence headed north-west along the left side of the track, while a fallow field of dead sunflower stalks extended away on the right. The only trees were a few stunted gums and scrub wattles, mostly ahead, nearer the creek. The field ended after half a kilometre to be replaced by long grass and thin scrub, as the track crossed a couple of low stony ridges with eroded gullies in the hollows. The grassland beyond the fence glistened under five or six degrees of frost.

It was a further five minutes before Alan crossed the final low ridge and the track veered away from the fence towards Hodgson Creek. He could see the burning vehicle ahead. Black smoke still spiralled upwards, mostly from the tyres. A white Rodeo utility was parked fifty metres this side of the fire. A stocky man in a bright yellow parka and a Bronco’s beanie stood alongside, talking quietly to the three steers milling nervously within the wire enclosure on the back of the utility.

Alan stopped beside the Rodeo and got out, extending a hand to the farmer.

“Senior Constable Alan Dodd,” he said as they shook hands. “I guess you’re Glen Storm.”

The poultry farmer nodded. He was in his early forties, medium height and solid build, with wisps of brown hair visible under the beanie. He had brown eyes and a pleasant, open face.

“Another torched stolen car,” Glen said. “There’s been a lot of ’em around the district lately.”

Alan turned his attention to the smouldering vehicle, now almost burnt out. The rising smoke was thinning rapidly as the tyres were consumed. The fire had burned the brown grass to black ash for a couple of metres around the vehicle. The original colour of the Volvo was now indeterminate, every panel of glass gone and the boot gaping open. The smell of burnt rubber and plastic was heavy in the air, with another, sweeter smell that Alan couldn’t identify. The four doors of the car were closed and the fire continued to burn brightly inside the cabin, especially in the front seat area.

Alan went closer to the vehicle and peered through the back window space. The vinyl covers and seat stuffing were gone, revealing bare, black springs. He walked to the side and peered more closely at the burning bundle in the front passenger seat.

“Jesus Christ!” he shouted, jumping back. “There’s someone in there! Have you got a fire extinguisher?”

He ran to the police car and returned with his own extinguisher. He sprayed its fire-smothering powder inside the vehicle as Glen came running up with a five-litre can of water and an empty plastic bucket. He passed the can to Alan, who splashed the water into the vehicle while the farmer ran to the creek to fill the bucket.

Alan dropped the can and sprinted to the police car. He took off his utility belt and dropped it into the open boot, retrieving a pair of leather gloves and a steel jemmy instead. He ran back to the Volvo and tried to jemmy open the front passenger door. Glen arrived and poured the bucket of creek water over the door in a sizzling cloud of smoke and steam. He took over on the jemmy while Alan wrenched at the door. He could feel its heat through the leather gloves. The door burst open. Glen pushed the jemmy under the body as Alan clasped the burning remains of the coarse material under the body, and both heaved.

The body, smaller and lighter than either man had expected, came out easily and Alan fell backwards onto the scorched grass with the body on top of him. He scrambled aside and jumped to his feet, frantically brushing the amber body fluids off his leather jacket and seeing with annoyance the ugly stains on his shirt. But at least the jacket and gloves had protected him from any but the most minor scorching.

“Ugh!” he said, as the stocky man ran back to the creek for another bucket of water.

The farmer returned with the water and Alan extinguished the edges of the burning blanket under the body and used the remaining water to wash the worst of the contamination off his clothes. He looked up to see the farmer staring down at the body with distaste.

“What was that supposed to prove?” Glen Storm said, looking up at the policeman. “There was nothing we could have done for her.”

“There’s more for forensics to work on,” Alan replied. “And what makes you think it’s a ‘her’?”

He stepped closer to look down at the small body, curled up into the foetal position and lying on its right side. The exposed left side was burned to the bone, hair scorched completely from the skull, ribs and hip bone exposed, skeletal left arm and left femur. However, on the underneath right side, partly protected by the car seat and the right arm, he could see the burnt and misshapen remains of a female breast.

Glen shuddered and reluctantly lifted his eyes from the body to Alan.

“What a dreadful sight,” he said, and turned away.

“Emergency workers see as bad or worse every day at road accidents,” Alan said callously. He regretted the brutal tone immediately as he realised it was his own way of coping with the horror. “Come on,” he added more gently, propelling Glen around the wreck and out of sight of the body. “Let’s get away from here.”

On returning to the police car, Alan used his mobile phone rather than the radio to contact Toowoomba station and report the situation. Too many people eavesdropped on the radio frequency. He didn’t ask for uniformed back-up and said neither fire nor ambulance services were required at this stage. He told Toowoomba he’d remain at the scene until homicide and Scene-of-Crime officers arrived.

As he folded the phone shut and tossed it onto the front seat, Glen said from close behind him, “I really must go. I was supposed to be at the sale yards by six-thirty.”

Alan glanced at his watch – twenty-five past six. It was daylight now, the sun rising as an orange ball over the eastern range. He realised he should get a statement before he let the farmer go. He turned to him, saw the shock and horror in his eyes.

“Will you be okay?”

“Sure. Long’s I keep busy.” Glen forced a weak grin.

“Okay. But I’ll have to get a statement from you later.”

Alan followed the farmer to the driver’s door of the utility, speaking as they went. “Your name is Glen Storm and you’re a poultry farmer from Felton.” Glen nodded his agreement. “And you saw the glow of the fire from the road. About what time was that?”

“About five-thirty, I think,” Glen hesitated, before continuing. “I nearly didn’t come over. Thought it might be a UFO. Then I thought it might be a grass fire, and I wouldn’t have wanted to see it in Pat’s barley. So I drove down the track. Took me eight or ten minutes with the steers bumping around in the back. As soon as I got here and saw it was a burning car I rang you.” He turned the ignition and the engine came alive. “Look, I really must go. I’ll call into the police station on my way home this afternoon and give you any further statement you want.”

Alan knew he was within his rights to hold the poultry farmer as a material witness. He glanced at the nervous cattle and shrugged.

“Okay, off you go,” he said, knowing he could easily find the farmer again. “You do that. Drop into the station on your way back.” As the utility began to move away, he slapped the side to stop it. “What’s your mobile number?”

Glen called it out and Alan jotted it into his notebook as the utility eased away again, turning in a large circle around the police Falcon. The three steers bounced about and one let out a piteous bellow, but none fell over. Alan watched the vehicle climb the slope and returned Glen’s wave as it crossed the rise and disappeared from his sight.

The policeman walked slowly back to the burnt-out Volvo. It was a 245 sedan, probably about fifteen years old. The numberplate was burnt but legible. He went over to the Falcon and radioed the number to Toowoomba Communications Centre. The duty officer could check its owner and see if it was stolen.

Alan walked around to the driver’s door. It seemed an unusual car for kids to steal, especially if they wanted it for burnouts on the bitumen. But perhaps it was a theft of opportunity – keys left in the ignition. He peered in through the window space, but there were no keys visible. He walked on around the front of the wreckage and stared down at the pathetic little heap that had once been a young woman.

Why young? No hair, no unburned skin. Admittedly, what remained of the right breast seemed high and youthful. And why a woman? The body was small enough to be a young teen. Thirteen? Fourteen? Yet Alan felt she had been in her late teens, though he realised that might only be an association with the idea of teenage joy riders.

So why had she died? Suicide?  Accident? Not likely, not with all that accelerant about. Drug overdose? If so, why had her associates – you could hardly call them her friends – abandoned her body? Or probably tried to destroy it? Or was it a deliberate murder, trying to masquerade behind the current spate of burnt-out stolen vehicles? If so, the body might not be that of a teenager, but of someone older.

He peered more closely at the body, his eyes travelling along it to the head, seeing the exposed jawbone, the empty eye socket. He noticed a dent in the skull behind where the left ear would have been. It was about two centimetres across and half a centimetre deep. It looked like the girl had been bludgeoned unconscious, perhaps to death, before she was set alight.

Alan sighed and straightened up. Homicide and SOCO would not be impressed if he tampered with the body, or even if he trampled too much around the scene. Nevertheless, he could take a cursory look around the area. He walked to the bank of the creek, about twenty metres away, and looked out over the water. If there had been a key for the car, it was probably somewhere out there now.

He turned to face downstream. West. The flood plain was maybe fifty metres wide before the ground began to rise in a gentle slope to the south. The plain was covered with long, straw-coloured grass for eighty metres or so, then the barbed-wire fence and, beyond it, thin scrub into the distance. Several blackened posts rose out of the grass, suggesting there had once been a building there. Further around, beyond where Glen’s utility had been parked, were the remains of a high post-and-rail fence, no doubt the ‘old stockyards’ Glen had referred to. Several of the rails had rotted and fallen, either completely or at one end. The stockyards themselves were overgrown with long brown grass. Scrub trees and gnarled eucalypts dotted the slope beyond.

Alan’s eyes traced the line of the stockyard fence east to the remains of a large shed about sixty or seventy metres upstream. The sun had risen in the north-east, a ball of bright liquid fire.  In the glare, out of the corner of his eye, Alan detected movement. He turned to see what it was and saw that to the left of the rising sun and on the bank of Hodgson Creek stood a large eucalypt whose northern branches extended out over the creek. At the foot of the tree, no more than seventy metres away, a woman wearing a bright white and red frock was squatting. The woman was young, perhaps mid-teens, and she seemed to be aboriginal. She was staring straight at him.

From her squatting position, Alan suddenly thought she must be urinating, and he looked away in embarrassment. His reason immediately told him that was unlikely and he looked back. But she was gone.

He began to run along the creek bank towards the spot shouting, “Hey, wait! Come back! I want to talk to you!”

As he sprinted towards the tree he became engulfed by sound - a moaning wind, the throb of drumming like a heavy stick against a hollow log, shrill voices chanting and crying out, stamping feet. He reached the tree and bent forward, breathless, one hand on a knee and the other leaning against the trunk. He could still hear the throbbing, shrill voices, pounding feet. He wondered if he was having a heart attack. He felt no pain, only the breathlessness and the noise filling his head. He stayed bent forward, breathing deeply, and the sounds began to fade until they were gone.

 Alan looked around. Where was the girl? His eyes roved along the creek and up towards the dilapidated shed. Nothing. He straightened and walked around the tree. Ahead, along the flood plain, where the grass was shorter and had a tinge of green, was crisp, white frost. No fleeing footprints. Had he imagined her? Were the pounding and cries an hallucination from the exertion of the sprint?

There was an eroded cow-path along the creek bank where someone could possibly have run without leaving footprints, and overgrown wheel tracks crossed the floodplain to disappear up the slope behind the shed. Alan turned to look back towards the burnt-out wreck. Again he saw a smooth expanse of bare soil and sparse, frosted grass. The only footprints visible were those he’d left as he ran to the tree.

He looked down at the creek, its water smooth and undisturbed.  He must have imagined the girl. He saw that beyond the tree, the steep bank flattened out for twenty or thirty metres. At the far end was a creek-crossing, where the creek was only five or six metres wide. The approaches on both sides had been flattened and paved with stones to a width of about two metres. There was another paved area of a couple of metres width near the tree, but Alan could not see its purpose as the creek was wider, and obviously deeper, at this end. The eucalypt itself was unusually large for the area, which was only sparsely wooded with thin copses of straggling scrub and black wattles. Two crows landed on the very top branch and cawed raucously.

Alan turned his attention to the structure near the stockyard. It stood slightly up the slope that rose from the floodplain and must once have been at least twenty metres square. Some of the roof, rusting sheets of corrugated iron, was still in place, supported on rafters resting on five rows of tall posts. Some sheets had fallen to the ground; others hung from broken rafters. The posts nearest the creek were slanted towards the west as if by the weight of past flood debris. The posts were of different heights to give the roof its slight fall towards east and west.

 He walked over to the structure, giving the roof a careful look in case it should decide, after all the years it must have been standing, to suddenly collapse when he was under it. The floor was bare earth, except for one corner which had been concreted. Along one edge of the concrete stood the remains of a timber slab wall between the centre posts. He came to a feed trough with a pivoting bar next to it that he recognised as a cow bail. Three similar bails in line made him realise the shed had once been a dairy. He stepped over a broken rail into the stockyard and made his way back to the Falcon.

Sitting in the driving seat, shivering, he felt the pulse at his wrist. It was slow and strong, normal for him. He considered raising Toowoomba on the radio but decided against it. A squad from Toowoomba CIB would be here soon enough. Still feeling cold, he moved the Falcon slightly so the rising sun shone through the windscreen. It increased the glare, but made no noticeable difference to the temperature. He got out of the car and walked briskly around the Volvo, ignoring the pitiful bundle beyond it. He picked up the fire extinguisher, gloves and jemmy and returned them to the boot of the Falcon, then returned for the poultry farmer’s water drum and bucket. Finally, he retrieved his utility belt before slamming the boot shut.

He strolled back to the creek, strapping the belt around his waist as he went. He stood on the bank and stared across at the thin scrub beyond. The creek was about fifteen metres wide at this point, with the water a metre below the top of the bank. He glanced up at the tree, half expecting to see the girl or hear the sound again. There was less glare now, the sun having risen to be behind the tree’s upper foliage.

Alan glanced back at the burnt out Volvo and the bundle beside it. He wondered about the perpetrators, the person or persons who had brought the car here and set it alight. If Glen had seen a sudden flare of light, he probably saw it the moment it was ignited. Within a minute he would have been on the only track in, yet he hadn’t passed anyone on the way.

Why not? How had they got away? On foot? It was kilometres in any direction to a road. Perhaps they had driven overland in a 4WD? But there were no marks on the frosted grass. Unless their escape vehicle, car or motorcycle, had already been waiting on the other side of the creek, and they waded across the ford to reach it.

Alan decided to cross the creek and see where the track led on the other side. But not now, as he couldn’t leave the scene until someone else arrived. He remembered there was a map of the district in the glove box of the Falcon.

He returned to the car and sat in the front passenger seat to peruse the map. The track across the creek wasn’t marked, nor the track he had driven in on. The nearest road on the far side of the creek was the Old Felton Road, almost three kilometres to the north.

No, it seemed the perpetrators - or perpetrator if there was only one, which seemed most probable - had to have gone out on the road where Glen came in. If he was on foot, he could have left the track and hidden behind scrub or in the long grass when he saw the headlights approaching. If so, there should still be evidence in the frost, which would soon be melted. Alan decided to walk a short distance along the track to check.

He folded the map and returned it to the glove box. Putting the mobile phone in his jacket pocket, he set off up the track, carefully scanning the grass on both sides as he walked. He had reached the crest of the first rise when the phone rang.

Alan answered and a belligerent voice said, “This is Inspector Crase. I’ve been trying to raise you. Where are you? Why aren’t you by the car radio?”

“I’m walking back along the track towards the road, sir,” Alan said, “looking for signs in the frost that someone might have passed here earlier.”

“You get back to the crime scene,” the inspector snapped, “and leave the detective work to us. Your job is to secure the scene and preserve it intact until we arrive.”

The line went dead. Alan shrugged and sighed as he closed the mobile and returned it to his pocket. Inspector Julian Crase. ‘Crazy’ Crase. He’d heard of him, although not met him before. Thirty years ago, he’d played Rugby Union for Australia. Probably one of the old-school bullyboys whose reputation had been built on verballing and violence. With a last rueful glance ahead along the sides of the track, Alan turned and began to stroll back to the car.

The mobile rang again.

“Alan Dodd.”

“We’ve just crossed the bridge over Hodgson Creek,” there was annoyance rather than apology in the tone, “and stopped beside some concrete silos. How do we get to the scene from here?”

Alan gave precise instructions and snapped the phone shut, giving a grin of satisfaction as he did so. Nevertheless, he felt nervous that an inspector should be coming to the scene, and before eight in the morning. He thought most inspectors weren’t even out of bed before then. Toowoomba was headquarters for the Southern Police Region, an area that extended from Ipswich near Brisbane west to the Northern Territory border and south to the New South Wales border. Inspector Crase would be in charge of half a dozen detective sergeants and over a dozen detective constables. Why would he be attending the death of a teenager in a stolen car?

Ten minutes later a dark blue unmarked police Commodore came over the ridge, closely followed by a white Toyota 4WD twin cab with a closed canopy on the back. Alan stood loosely to attention beside the Falcon as the Commodore drew to a stop beside him.

A heavy-set man with shaved head and a flat, pugnacious face climbed out of the passenger seat. He was wearing a stylish brown suit and polished tan shoes.

“Senior Dodd!” he said, in the gravely voice of a heavy smoker or ex-smoker. Alan gave a sloppy salute. “I’m Inspector Crase, Toowoomba CIB.”

A Chinese woman of small, thin stature and in her mid-thirties had stepped out of the rear door. Dark, almond eyes appraised Alan out of a symmetrical olive face framed in shoulder-length, straight hair. She wore a neat, pale blue trouser suit and medium height shoes. She carried a black parka, which she began putting on as she stood close behind the inspector.

“This is Detective Senior Constable Susan Choi,” Inspector Crase introduced the shivering woman. She extended a small hand and smiled faintly at the uniformed officer before zipping the parka up to her chin against the chill.

Alan glanced at the driver, now approaching around the front of the vehicle. He was a tall man of about forty, ruggedly handsome with an angular face, broad shoulders and snake hips. He wore dark trousers and a maroon shirt and dark tie, but no jacket in spite of the cold.

“Detective Sergeant Kevin Watling,” Inspector Crase said. The driver nodded curtly and he and Alan shook hands. The inspector apparently didn’t feel it necessary to give Alan’s name as he wore a name badge on the left side of his open jacket.

The twin cab stopped a short distance away and three men in police overalls emerged to secure the crime scene. One began snapping photographs while the others went around to open the back of the canopy.

“So what’s happened here?” demanded the inspector, turning to survey the burnt-out vehicle. A few wraiths of smoke rose from the engine bay and from one of the tyres. The smell of burnt rubber still hung in the air. A noisy flight of Corella parrots flew towards them along the creek and veered north-east towards Wyreema.

Alan told his story, beginning with the five-forty phone call and ending with the departure of Glen Storm. He didn’t mention the young woman he thought he’d seen, or the strange noises he heard.

“Whose property is this?” Inspector Crase demanded.

“Er... I’m not sure.” Alan blushed with embarrassment, then remembered Glen saying something about the fire not getting to Pat’s barley. “I think it’s someone called Pat, sir.”

Inspector Crase gave him a withering look. Susan Choi and Kevin Watling looked away from Alan’s embarrassment. Both wandered away towards the remains of the Volvo and the tiny body beyond.

“Er, I’ve only been here four days, sir,” Alan said, feeling he needed to offer an excuse. “Relieving officer for three months while Greg Traille and his family are in Europe.”

“What about the man who phoned you? Searle! Didn’t you ask him?”

“Storm. Glen Storm, sir.” Alan fidgeted uncomfortably. “Er, no, sir. I forgot.”

“And where is Mr Storm?” The inspector looked affectedly around, knowing full well Alan had said in his report that he’d let him go on about his business. “You were supposed to keep him here until we arrived.”

“He was on his way to market, sir,” Alan said weakly. “He had live cattle in the back of his truck.”

“Fuck the cattle.” Crase scowled at the uniformed officer. “I don’t care if he was on his way to his mother’s funeral. He was a material witness and should have been kept here until he’d been questioned by us. He could well have murdered this girl himself and be halfway to Melbourne by now. Or out picking up another victim.”

“I have his mobile number, sir.”

“Okay,” Inspector Crase sighed, “that’s something. Give the number to Sergeant Watling. Then get back to your station, write up a report and e-mail it to my office in Toowoomba. We’ll take over here.” He turned away as he added sharply, “And give yourself a shave and change that shirt. You’re a disgrace to the uniform.”

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