Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fiction: Past Perfect by Jackie Gamber

“I don’t do that kind of thing anymore, Roger. You of all people should know that.” I leaned back in the booth and waved to catch the attention of the waitress for a refill of my Bud Light.

“I know I shouldn’t be asking. But this girl is going out of her mind. The police have chalked it up to a random burglary gone bad, and she keeps calling to find out if they’ve got any more leads, but they put her on hold or pass her around.” Roger laid down his fork. “Her only sister. And the guy who killed her is going to get away with it.”

He glanced up at the waitress, who appeared at the table with a pitcher and leaned over to refill my glass. He raked his fingers through his thinning hair. When she disappeared again, he leaned forward. “Mick. Come on, man. He’s going to get away with it.”

For a split second, a familiar pang sparked in my stomach. I guzzled my beer to extinguish it.

“All I’m asking you to do is talk with her.” Roger wrapped thick fingers around his own glass. “Maybe you can’t even help, I’m just asking you to find out.”

“I can’t help her, Rog,” I started to say, when a sudden “Oh my gosh” squealed from across the room. We both turned. Our waitress was bouncing toward the table with a book in her hands.

“Duck and cover,” Rog mumbled.

“I can’t believe it,” said the waitress, breathless, as she reached our table. A blonde strand had pulled from her braid to dangle into her eyes, and she brushed it away. “I’ve been serving you all night. I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you. My manager did, though.”

I glanced at Roger, who quietly sipped and laughed at me with his eyes.

“I want to be a writer, too,” the waitress said. “I’m just working here to get through school.” She smiled. She absently turned the book in her hands. “I’ve read all your books, and I’m halfway through this one. I’m taking my time because it’s the last one.”

Now I just wanted to be home, drinking alone in front of the tv. “Look,” I said. “Did you want me to…?” I reached for her book.

She squealed again, and pressed it into my hands. “Oh my gosh, would you? I’m Staci. With an “i”. Can I sit down?”

I fumbled in my pocket for a pen. Staci produced one from somewhere down her shirt.

“You bet you can, Staci-with-an-i,” said Roger, just as I was signing my name on the title page. I glared. He ignored me. “Unless your boyfriend would get jealous. A pretty girl like you must have a boyfriend.”

Staci slid into the booth beside me with a giggle. “Oh, he won’t mind. He’s nobody serious, anyway.” Her hand rested on my thigh.

I shifted, and pushed the book back at her. “Could we get our check, please?”

“So, Staci,” said Rog. “Who got you turned on to Mick’s books?”

“A girlfriend of mine. I never read any true crime stuff before, but she said he writes more like a novelist, really, and she was right.” Staci lowered her chin, and gazed up at me. “I start reading, and I can’t put it down. It’s like I’m right there in the room, watching each murder happen. I know the victim like I know my own friend, and then I have to watch her die.” She sighed, and rested her hand on the book cover. “I grieve, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“The way you write, Mr. Berkley, it’s a gift. I swear, it’s…it’s like, this spiritual thing, or something.” Her hand found my thigh again. I shifted again.

“Call him Mick,” said Roger.

“Mick,” she said, smiling at me. “I wish you’d write another one.”

“No, I’m through with that.”

“Maybe you’ve lost your inspiration. Maybe you need a muse.” Her fingers brushed the top of my knee.

“What I really need right now is the check,” I said.

She looked at Roger, then back at me. She slid out of the booth. “I’ll be right back with that.” Then she breathed my name. “Mick.” She smiled, and casually moved toward the kitchen. In the archway, girls’ faces peered out, watching. As she neared them, she lifted the signed book and waved it in triumph. Giggles broke out, and they all clamored to see it.

“You are something else,” said Roger. “You’re scaring me, man.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about Staci-with-an-i. She’s practically in your lap, and you ask for the check. You’re a freaking zombie.”

I looked where the waitress disappeared into the kitchen. “She’s a kid, Rog. She’s half my age.”

Roger laughed. “You’re not that old yet. You just act like it.” He drained his glass. “She was feeling you up under the table, wasn’t she?”

“Could we just drop it?”

Just then, Staci was there. She slid the bill across the table. “I didn’t charge you for the refills.” She winked, and then slipped away.

When Roger looked over the bill, his face curled into a wide grin. “She’s right, she didn’t charge us. By the way, she gets off at nine. Want her phone number?” He held up the slip of paper for me to see her handwritten note.

“You keep it,” I said.

Roger shook his head. “I’m already meeting someone tonight.” He dug his wallet out of his back pocket, and held it for a minute. “What do I tell her when I see her? Are you going to help?”

“You know I can’t.”

“Come on, Mick. Have I ever asked you for anything, in all the years you’ve known me?”

“You borrowed my golf clubs last week. I haven’t gotten them back yet, by the way.”

“What do you need them for? You haven’t golfed in years. You haven’t bought a new shirt, haven’t seen a movie. You used to hike, remember that? Now I have to bribe you out of the house by buying you dinner.”

“If you buying means I have to listen to a lecture, I’ll gladly pay for my own steak.” I tried to snatch the bill, but Roger dodged.

“You’ve been living in a studio while you pay the mortgage on a house no one lives in, man. The house. Your stuff is still there. Her stuff is still there. That doesn’t tell you something?”

Now the pang was back, smoldering in my ribs, and I didn’t have a beer. “You’re saying this to me? You, Rog?” I slid out of the booth, and dug cash out of my shirt pocket. “Don’t buy me any more steaks. Don’t do me any more favors.”

Roger held up his hands. “Hey, don’t do that. I said I’d pay, I’ll pay. Mick, come on.” He pushed my twenty back toward my pocket. “You know I’m just worried about you. It’s been four years, and you’re still dead to the world. When are you going to let it go? When are you going to live?”

I tossed my twenty onto the table. “I don’t do that kind of thing anymore.”

I woke with a headache. It wasn’t beer; I’d only had two last night. It was just the way I woke up. Always like I hadn’t slept at all. Always with a headache. I reached for the bottle of Excedrin on the floor.

I was chewing four of them when my speaker buzzed. The foot of my bed was six feet from the only door, but I didn’t feel like walking the distance. Besides, it was only Roger checking in, and I didn’t want to talk to him. Last night was a low blow. My best friend, chewing on me like everyone else about how to live.

The speaker buzzed again, and again, and then held the droning note until it bored into the base of skull. I threw myself out of bed and hammered my fist on the button. “Go away, Rog!”

The buzzer sounded again, but I ignored it. Maybe if Roger stood out there in the cold morning, his fingers would get too numb to buzz anymore. I had more important things to do right now, like find coffee. I looked in the cupboard where coffee ought to be, but found only a can with a few, hopeless-looking grounds in the bottom.

A knock sounded on the door. “Mr. Berkley?”

What the…? I stared at the door, frozen.

“Michael Berkley? I’m Annette Caldwell. I’m a friend of Roger Stein.”

What was Roger doing, giving my address to strangers? Had he lost his mind?

“He said you like Starbucks French roast. I’ve got some here. And a bagel.”

Oh, that was downright cunning. I inched toward the door. “Cream cheese?”

“Onion and chive.”

I grumbled. I unlatched the door and swung it open to face the woman. I glared, one hand on my hip, brandishing my morning hair and faded boxers. She didn’t flinch.

“Someone let me in downstairs. I’m really sorry to disturb you at home.” She offered a cardboard carrier, and I reluctantly plucked out my coffee bribe.

“Roger shouldn’t have told you where I live.”

“He didn’t.” As she strode in, her eyes swept the place. The trashcan was so full the lid wouldn’t close. Sticky dishes piled high in the tiny sink. Power bar wrappers littered the carpet, and I couldn’t remember the last time I vacuumed. Funny how you don’t notice things until someone else does.

She took her own coffee, and set the empty carrier and a brown paper bag on the counter. She carried her drink toward a chair, swept a couple of socks and a shirt off the cushion, and sat down. “I was at the restaurant last night. I followed you here.”

Peeling back the lid from my cup, I paused. “You what?”

“Roger didn’t know.”

“He was supposed to tell you I can’t help you.”

“He did.” She gently blew across her coffee, and crossed her legs. She was wearing a blue plaid skirt and knee-high leather boots. Her blue sweater turned her eyes a vivid sapphire, and I moved closer to get a better look. How long had it been since I’d noticed a woman’s eyes?

“Then why are you here?” I asked.

“I don’t take no for an answer,” she said.

“If you were a man, I’d call you cocky.”

“I’m a lawyer.”

“Oh. That explains it.”

She nodded, and took a sip of coffee. “I’ve been hounding the police for weeks now. Every lead they’ve followed has been a dead-end. They say my sister came home to a burglar and he killed her, but left everything she owned behind. Even our mom’s emerald ring she kept in her nightstand.”

“Maybe he knew not to bother hocking anything, for fear of being traced.”

“Maybe. Except my sister told me a couple weeks before she died that someone was following her. A man kept showing up wherever she went, and…”

I drew a bagel out of the bag, and a plastic tub of cream cheese. I popped the lid and smeared onion and chive over the soft bread. “And what?”

“I don’t know. I think he was in her apartment once before. She was getting really freaked out, and I’d told her she needed to talk to the police, but she didn’t. The whole thing is just so unbelievable.” She lowered her coffee, and then her chin. She touched her fingers to her closed eyelids.

I chewed for a while, watching her. I would have sympathized with her if I could, and a part of me wanted to. But then I would have to feel again, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I walked to my bed and hoisted it, messy sheets and all, into the spring-loaded cubby in the wall that held it. I closed the closet doors around it, then pushed the couch back into the middle of the room to sit.

“Roger told me about your wife,” she said quietly. “He said you never went back to being a private eye, and you never wrote another word after she was murdered.”

“You’re right. I don’t investigate anymore, which is why I can’t help you.”

“He said you told the police who did it. You saw him do it. But they’ve never been able to prove it.”

I stood. “You’d better go.”

She didn’t move. “The police say you weren’t there that night, so you couldn’t have seen him.”

“I won’t talk about this with you.” My hands began to shake around my coffee cup.

“How did you see him, Mr. Berkley? If you weren’t there, how could you describe his face so vividly to the cops?”

My lungs tightened like I’d just climbed three flights of stairs. “Annette, I’m warning you. If you don’t leave right now, I’ll pick you up, chair and all, and throw you out.”

She did stand, but she only moved closer, and stared at me with eyes of blue steel. “I’m reading your books. Every one has details you couldn’t possibly know, no matter how brilliant an investigator you are. You even led police to clues they hadn’t found. Every book reads as though I’m standing in the room, watching it happen. As though you’re in the room, Mr. Berkley. As though you’re watching it happen.”

My heart pounded so hard against my chest that it hurt. I clenched my fists, crushing my insulated cup. Hot, wet French roast splattered against my boxers and ran down my knee. “Get out,” I growled.

She reached for the door. “I think club soda will get that coffee out of your carpet.” She closed the door behind herself.

I don’t know how long I stared at the door, trying to get a hold of myself. I’d come so close to grabbing her by her blonde hair and throwing her out into the hall that I’d startled myself. I tried to breathe, tried to slow my heartbeat, tried to remember if I had any beer in the fridge.

Then I noticed she’d left her coffee behind. Fine. She owed it to me, anyway. I just hoped she hadn’t watered it down with cream or sugar. Lifting it from the chair, I saw she’d also left her purse. It was a small bag, woven like macramé, with dangling ivory beads. I groaned. The coffee she wouldn’t return for, but the purse she might. Better to try to catch her before she left the building. I didn’t want her to have any reason to come back.

I grabbed the bag and ran for the door, but suddenly stopped, feeling a dizzy sensation that I hadn’t felt in years. I clutched at the doorknob, but it disappeared in my hand. All around me, the walls melted and dribbled like wax to the floor. Then the floor evaporated, and I was standing at the curb of a busy downtown street.

People bustle all around me. A man stops to check his watch, then folds a newspaper under his arm. He adjusts his tie as he passes. A woman leans out from a storefront. She’s waving to someone I can’t see. I smell hot dogs and mustard, and turn to find a corner vendor open a cart lid and laugh. Steam billows out and obscures his face. Horns honk. A bike bell chimes.

“Taxi!” calls a voice beside me. Somehow, I know her voice, and I don’t want to look, but I must. She’s standing so closely I can smell her Giorgio knock-off perfume, and when her dark hair flutters in a gust of cold wind, I feel it tickle my cheek. She faces me, and calls again for a taxi.

I catch my breath. She has her sister’s chin and cheekbones, but her eyes are dark, and softer. She’s wearing no eye shadow, no liner, no makeup at all on her glowing face, except a shine of raspberry gloss on her round mouth. A strand of her hair blows across the gloss, and sticks there. She tugs it away.

Then she frowns. Her shoulders stiffen. She peers behind herself as though she senses someone watching. She looks to her left, to her right. She looks toward me, but through me, because I’m not seen. I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past. I watch, but cannot be watched. I’m surrounded by the smells and sounds and tastes of life, but it isn’t real. This woman I observe as she nibbles her bottom lip is dead. I remind myself that she’s dead.

She falters at the edge of the curb, and I dart out a hand to steady her anyway. My hand passes right through. She finds her balance, and laughs a little, glancing around to see who noticed. Her eyes catch on a shadowed man near an alley. Her frown returns.

A taxi shrieks to a halt beside her. “Thank you,” she says, and digs around in a small purse over her arm. The bag is woven like macramé, and dangles with ivory beads. “I need to get to Broadway and 6th.”

“So get in,” snaps the driver.

“Wait!” comes a woman’s ragged voice in the distance. “Oh, wait! Please! I need that taxi!”

This woman steps back, and shields her eyes with her hand. “I’m late for something, but we can share.”

“Oh, bless you. Bless you.” An elderly woman staggers into view, and grasps the woman’s hand. “Bless you,” she says again.

The vision crumbled, and I stood again at the door of my apartment. I dropped to my knees, nauseated, tasting bile in my throat. Once I thought I’d gotten used to the sickening feeling of shifting, like a drop on a roller coaster, but I hadn’t done it in so long, I wasn’t used to it anymore.

I clutched the macramé bag in my hand. I turned it over, staring at it. Coincidence? Did Annette use her sister’s purse for her own, and leave it behind in her hurry to leave? Somehow, I didn’t think so. I opened it. Inside, lying against the satin lining was only one item. A business card.

Annette Caldwell’s business card. I flipped it over. It read, “I know you saw her. Call me.”

I shoved the card back into the purse, and threw the purse across the room.

My cell phone blasted its rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth. I let it get to the reprise before I flopped off the couch and crawled to where the phone was clipped to my rumpled jeans, left in a pile where I slid them off last night. I checked the LCD. Rog. I almost didn’t answer.

“Yeah?” I said into the phone.

“Mick, are you sleeping? What’s the deal? It’s three o’clock.”

I yawned. “So?”

“So it’s Thursday. Three o’clock. I’m at the gym, and you’re not.”

“Oh, crap.” I looked at my wrist, but I wasn’t wearing a watch. “Man, I forgot.”

I heard muffled voices through his hand over the mouthpiece, and then he was back. “Ok, I’ve got to get back to work, anyway, so don’t bother coming now. I’ll reschedule again, but if you’re a no-show the third time, we’ll just forget it. We’re supposed to be doing this together.”

“I know, Rog. I’m sorry.”

He was silent for a minute. “Hey, uh…did Annette talk to you about her sister?”

“Yeah. Armed with Starbucks, no less.”

“I didn’t put her up to that, you know,” he said.

“I know. She’s got major kahones. I see why you like her.”

Roger laughed. “Yeah, well. She goes after what she wants.”

“Hey, Rog, did you tell her about me? About what happens when I touch dead people’s stuff?”

“No way. You know I wouldn’t. It’d make me sound crazier than you.”

“Yeah. Okay. I’ll talk to you later.”

I closed the phone. I sat wondering how Annette Caldwell knew to leave her sister’s purse for me. I believed Roger. In all the years I’d known him, he’d never told anyone about my shifts. But Annette knew somehow.

Or did she? Maybe in her mind, she’d put some puzzle pieces together, and took a wild, desperate guess. That would be easy to play off. If I hadn’t had a vision, I wouldn’t have understood the note, and would have no reason to call her back. Her gamble didn’t work, and I was off the hook.

Except that I had a purse she’d left behind. Any decent person would find the business card inside and give her a call, just to let her know. I considered myself a decent person. So by not calling, it was the same as admitting I was hiding something. She’d know I found the note and understood it, and that’s why I wasn’t calling back.

Either way, she had me.

I stewed. I brooded. Finally, I sighed. I crawled to the purse on the floor, dug out the business card again, and flipped open my phone. I would be nonchalant. Just act like I’d found this bag of hers, and did she want it back? No big deal, I’d just pass it on to Rog. Sure, you’re welcome.

“Hello, this is Annette.”

“Hey, Annette. This is Mick Berkley. The other day when you were over—“

“I knew you’d call.” Her voice was soft.

“Yeah? Well, I think you left a purse—“

“You know I did. And you know it’s not mine.”

I shifted the phone against my ear. I cleared my throat to try again. “Anyway, I just thought if you want it back, I could give it to Rog next time I—“

“Are you at home?”

I blinked. “What?”

“I’m actually just around the corner from your apartment. I’ll be there in five.”

She hung up. I stared at the phone, trying to figure out what just happened. Then I bolted up and grabbed my jeans. I splashed some water on my face, ran my wet hands through my hair, and tugged a shirt over my head as I closed the apartment door behind me.

There was a seat in Buford’s Sandwich Shop across the street that had an excellent view of my apartment steps. I’d used it plenty of times to watch for reporters, or fans, or, more often lately, creditors. This time, I’d watch Annette Caldwell try to get inside, find me gone, and then give up. I’d poke at a tuna salad until the coast was clear, and then go back home and finish my afternoon nap.

I made it outside, and realized I’d forgotten my jacket. Cool air crept right through my cotton shirt, and I tucked my hands under my armpits.

“Michael!” I heard her call, but pretended I didn’t. I darted toward the street.

I dodged cars, jumped to avoid a kid on a skateboard, and finally made it to the door of my sandwich shop. Annette was there, glaring at me, her arms crossed. “You look cold.”

“I am.”

She held up my book. “If you don’t give me ten minutes of your time, I’m going to announce a book signing with author Michael Berkley beginning immediately.”

I shrank back. “You wouldn’t.”

She waved the book. “Attention everyone!”

I clutched her elbow, and pushed her into Buford’s. “You’re cold. Downright cold.”

“You’re the one with blue lips,” she said.

We found a small table in the back. I ordered my tuna salad and water, and she ordered a Reuben and iced tea. I’d make sure she paid the bill, for all the trouble she was causing.

“So what did you want to talk to me about?” I asked, trying to open the wrapper around my spork.

She opened a packet of sugar into her iced tea. “What did you see when you touched my sister’s purse?”

I thought I was prepared for the question, but I stabbed myself on plastic tines, anyway. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She narrowed her eyes. Then she pulled out a small locket. “I got this for her 26th birthday present. She was wearing it when she was killed a week later. Look inside it.”

“Why? What’s in it?”

“Find out.”

I regarded the locket. I turned my eyes to Annette. Then I shook my head. “You’re baiting me.”

“Baiting you? By asking you to touch Sarah’s locket? Why should that be a problem?”

Our sandwiches arrived. I was glad for the distraction, and was considering asking to have mine wrapped to go. But Annette put the locket back into her pocket, and silently sliced her Reuben in half.

“That was her name?” I asked. “Sarah?”

She nodded.

“I’d been wondering.”

“I always thought it suited her. It’s such a pretty name, in an innocent kind of way. She always trusted people, and never played the mind games the rest of us are so good at.” She set her plastic knife down. “I was sort of jealous of her for that. I get the things I want by playing the game, you know? But she didn’t.”

I peeled off the top bread from my sandwich and ate a sporkful of tuna.

“She was an artist. She loved spicy chili. We couldn’t have been more different if we tried, but we were close, anyway. You know, she hardly ever wore makeup, except a little lip-gloss, but men noticed her. She didn’t know they did, half the time. She was so beautiful. Don’t you think?”

Like her sister, but softer. Like my Dee, but younger. “Yeah,” I said.

She crossed her arms, and leaned back in her chair.

I realized what I’d just done. “I mean, she sounds—“

She waved her hand. “Oh, please. Don’t.” She leaned forward. “You have a gift. It’s a part of you, Michael, and it won’t go away by denying it.”

“Don’t call me Michael.”

“Fine. Mick. Mickey. Mickey Mouse, more like it.”

“Don’t think you know anything about me,” I said, stabbing at my sandwich. “Call it a gift, if you want, whatever that is you think you’ve figured out about me, but it’s no gift.”

“It could be. You could be using it to help people, like you did before.”

“Don’t you get it?” I spit a hot whisper into her face. “Who did I help? Angela, who they found tied to her ceiling fan? Francine, who they found in the boiler room of her apartment building? All I could do was stare and watch it happen, and I couldn’t do one thing to stop it. I couldn’t even save Dee. I couldn’t even help my own wife.”

I stood up so fast, I knocked over her tea glass. She yelped, and a waitress scuttled over to help, but I stomped toward the door. I didn’t care. Let her drown in it.

I surged toward the street. Dee’s face kept trying to find its way behind my eyes, and I forced it back. I couldn’t look at it anymore. I couldn’t stand to see her mouth, wide open in a scream, and her pale eyes gone wild with terror.

A horn blared, but I barely heard it. Brakes squealed. Hands grabbed my arms, and yanked me hard. I looked up to see a cabdriver lean out his window and holler at me. The front of his car had come to stop at the place where I’d just been standing.

“Mick, come on, get out of the street.” Annette tugged me again, toward the sidewalk. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t even thinking about you in all this, I was only thinking about myself, and my own pain. I’m so sorry.”

I heard her, but all I could see was Dee. “I can’t. Don’t ask me to look again. I can’t stand to watch anymore.”

Her arms wrapped my neck, and I was swallowed by her softness. Her cheek pressed to mine. Her cashmere jacket hugged me front to back, and I shivered. “You’re still cold,” she said.

I nodded, and drew my hands down her sides to bury my chilly fingers into her pockets. Dee’s face began to fade. I could almost breathe again. My left hand touched something round in Annette’s pocket. I ran my thumb over it, trying to figure it out. Then the busy scene around me trickled away, and the city sidewalk became smooth tile beneath my feet.

I’m standing outside a toy store in the mall. A stuffed, mechanical dog yips incessantly, and tries to walk off the end of a display table. A plastic army man crawls on his belly but can’t go anywhere because he’s tied to the table leg. His tiny machine gun rattles gunfire at passing civilians.

I smell the spice of warm gyros, and hear the hot crackle of submerged corn dogs. Someone carries a plastic tray with fries and a bubbling drink to a bench. People surround me, crowd around me, bustle right through me.

I hear her laugh, and turn to find her, but she’s nowhere in the swarm of faces that pass. I try to follow the sound. She laughs again. It’s a rich and throaty sound, unabashed. I spot pink tennis shoes under the curtain of a picture booth, and close in.

The pink shoes scuffle. The curtain moves aside. I see her then, in white shorts and a pink peasant blouse. A brassy locket dangles from her hand. Her dark hair is swept into a ponytail that turns on itself and is tucked again through a pink elastic band.

I creep closer. She bends to poke her finger at the slot where her developed photos will emerge, and my eyes follow the curve of her hamstring. Her skin looks so smooth, it’s like Barbie doll vinyl.

“You have to give it a minute.” Annette’s voice comes from the photo booth, and then her blonde head pokes out and she smiles.

“They can send a robot to Mars, but they can’t get instant pictures from a photo booth?” Sarah turns her back, and leans against the machine. “You seeing Roger again tonight?”

“Maybe. You seeing Kevin?”

Sarah winces. “No. He stood me up at dinner a couple nights ago. Again.”

“He’s been doing a lot of that, lately.” Now Annette bends to poke at the place where the pictures should come out. “Maybe it’s an occupational hazard. No one can get a cable guy to show up when he’s supposed to.”

Sarah smiles, but it fades, and she nibbles her bottom lip. “Well, we’re sort of off for now.”

Annette puts her hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Sarah nods. “Yeah. I’m okay.”

“Hey, look!” Annette points to the black and white strip of photos that have gotten stuck halfway out of the machine. “There they are. Sort of.” She tugs at them, but they don’t give.

Sarah reaches to lend a hand, but pauses. She looks over her shoulder, eyes searching again as though she senses being watched. Her gaze brushes over me, and I feel it as a tickle of air across my face. I get goosebumps.

“Ha!” Annette straightens, holding up the photos in triumph. She spots Sarah’s expression, and frowns. “What’s up?” She looks, too, at the sea of passing faces.

“I don’t know. Just a weird feeling.” Then she shakes her head, and reaches for the pictures. “Let’s see if they fit the locket.” She smiles.

The scene faded to the blackness of my closed eyelids. Nausea swept over me again, and I sucked in a breath. Sounds of the city street swelled in my ears. I stumbled back, and as my hand came out of Annette’s pocket, I felt a cool oval of metal in my hand.

“Mick? You all right?” Annette urged me toward my apartment building. “You’re pale.”

I opened my hand, and showed her the locket. As I climbed the steps, I pried it open. Inside, a black and white photo of two sisters stared back at me, both with silly, cross-eyed smiles.

“You saw her again, didn’t you?” Annette took the locket. “I didn’t do that on purpose. I swear.”

My head was still reeling. The tip of my nose felt numb, like I’d had a gallon of wine. “How did you know I could see your sister if I touched something of hers?”

She slipped the locket inside her coat, and looked far off down the street.

“Annette.” I took her shoulders. “You’re the only one that’s ever figured it out. What are you not telling me?”

She pulled from my hands, and frowned.

“Fine. I didn’t want anything to do with this, anyway.” I climbed the apartment steps, and shoved my key into the lock on the wrought iron door.

“Okay,” she said. She came to stand behind me. “You’re not the first person I’ve known who could see things. Except this other person never saw things that already happened. She saw things that hadn’t happened yet, and spent her life feeling crazy for it.”

I turned to face her. “You mean Sarah.”

She nodded. She hugged the collar of her jacket against her throat. “She’d see things as though she were standing in the room, watching. Most of the time, she didn’t have enough information to find the people in her visions to warn them, but she’d read about them in the paper after, or see them on the news.” She sighed. “She used to say what you did. That if she couldn’t stop it from happening, she wasn’t really helping anyone.” She closed her eyes. “In the end, she couldn’t even help herself.”

“You think she knew she was going to die?” I asked.

She nodded. “I think she knew. That night, we were supposed to go to a party, but she called to say she didn’t think she should. She sounded scared. She said she was going to stay home with the doors locked, and that she’d call me in the morning.”

I watched her eyes as they filled with tears, then had to look away. After a time, I pushed open the apartment doors. “Come on upstairs. I’ve got beer, I think.”

“So you’re going to help me?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know how much help I’ll be, but I think I was involved before you ever asked.”

Her brow wrinkled. “What do you mean?”

I held the door open, and waved her in. “Remember you told me she kept getting the feeling she was being followed? Watched by some guy? Something like that?”

“Yeah.” She eyed me as she stepped inside.

“I think that guy was me.”

In my apartment, I pried the lid off a Michelob left over from Rog’s beer donation, and offered it to Annette. She gulped twice, then pressed the back of her hand to her mouth. “Now explain yourself.”

I snapped open a can of Bud Light. “I’m not sure I can. I don’t get it, myself.”

“Then what makes you think you’re the guy?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. It’s stupid, I guess.”

“No, you said it for a reason. What are you thinking?”

“It’s more a feeling. I mean, usually when I shift, I’m a part of the scene, but I’m a ghost.” I slumped onto the couch. “Both times when I saw your sister, she reacted. She didn’t see me or anything, but when she looked around, it felt like she was looking for me.”

Annette set down her Michelob, and slid onto the couch beside me. “How is that possible? You think it has something to do with her own ability?”

I shrugged. I sucked at my can.

“I’ll pay whatever you normally charge for investigating, plus expenses. Plus whatever else you want,” she said.

I lowered my drink, and regarded her.

Her blue eyes stared hard at my face, pleading. “I know it won’t bring her back, but I’ve got to see that bastard pay for what he did. You must know how that feels.”

“What if what I see doesn’t help you?”

She turned, and looked out across the room. “At least I’ll know I turned over every rock.” She opened her purse. She rummaged through it, lifted a small chain, and offered it toward me. A gold door key dangled against the back of my hand. “Take it. It’s to her apartment.”

“Her apartment?”

Her lips pressed into a flat line. “I’ve been paying the rent so I can keep it just the way it was that night. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe…to always remember. Maybe in case the police ever need to come back.” She sighed. “I know it’s crazy.”

I was quiet for a moment, watching her. Then I shook my head. “It’s not crazy, Annette.”

I took the key.

I stood at the doorway of Sarah’s apartment. Frayed bits of yellow police tape were still stapled to the frame. The door handle and lock were new, obnoxiously shiny against the backdrop of warped, peeling wood. I turned the key. I pushed open the door.

A window at the far end dimly lighted the hallway. From what I could see, one end of a curtain rod was yanked from the wall, and the curtain drooped like a lace waterfall to the floor. A door was ajar to a room on the left, and when I leaned that way, I could see the corner of a wrought-iron bed through the crack.

I didn’t want to go in. I’d be walking on carpet where she’d walked. I’d be looking into mirrors that had reflected her face. No matter how many times I’d done this before, I’d always felt as though I was invading precious privacy. I felt like that now. Not to mention that my shifts tended to control me, instead of the other way around, and I was never sure what would set one off, or what I’d be seeing when I got there.

I took my first step. Nothing dramatic happened, so I shoved my hands into my jeans pockets, and kept walking. I reached the door on the left, and nudged it open with my shoulder.

Her bedroom. The wrought-iron bed was massive, and took up nearly the entire floor space. A quilt stitched with pastels in a wedding ring pattern was rumpled against the foot of the bed. An antique dressing table squatted in the left corner of the room, draped with hair ribbons and colorful glass bottles. A short metal stand to the right held hand weights.

I moved down the hall. It opened to the right into the main room, which blended into the kitchen. The drooping curtain was now on my left, and from that point and around the entire room, frameless paintings were torn and scattered. Artist brushes, some caked with dried paint, some clean but snapped in pieces, littered the mess. Black smears like ghostly tentacles clung to tabletops, edges of paintings, and some broken brushes. The police had done a thorough search for fingerprints.

I followed the trail of brushes to a cabinet against the wall. Inside, the cabinet was crammed with more brushes, tubes of artist tints, and some blank canvases. Her easel was folded and leaned in a corner.

I moved into the kitchen, separated from the main room by a low counter. Dishes were piled in the sink, but they looked clean. More dishes lined a wooden drying rack on top of a gingham dishcloth.

Another door off the main room led to the bathroom. A quick peek inside showed an unkempt pink towel over the shower curtain rod, a fluffy toilet seat cover, and more black smudges around the sink. So far, nothing set off a shift, but I hadn’t touched anything, either.

I worked my way back through the main room. The way the paintings had been destroyed, either before the murder, or after, personalized the violence. Sarah’s attacker knew her, and wanted to destroy her so completely that he couldn’t even leave her paintings intact. So how did she know him?

I came to her bedroom again. I stood for a while in the doorway, deciding what to touch, and then working up my nerve to do it. A person spends so much time in their bed, I was sure to make a connection there. I inched toward it, and rested my hand on a fat knot of metal on her footboard. I felt my stomach twitch.

I’m standing in her bedroom. I think it’s night, because the windows are dark, and the room is full of shadows. A tiffany lamp look-alike casts faint, colored light from her dressing table. Quietly filtering from the next room is Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty ballet. The acrid smell of burned food is in the air. She must have failed at whatever she recently tried to make. I think it’s cookies.

As my eyes adjust, I see her move across the room. She stands in front of the tall mirror of the table. Her hair is up in a ponytail, but damp around her face like she’s just out of a shower. She’s wearing a long tank top that stops at the top of her thighs, and thick, pink slippers. My eyes trail the delicate curve of her throat, and the dip of her skin at her collarbone.

She frowns at her reflection, but I can’t see why she’s disappointed. She leans in and presses the skin around her eyes. She turns her head a little. She pushes at her forehead, smoothing lines I can’t see, then she lowers her hands. “Well. You’ve still got brains, at least,” she tells herself. Then she sticks out her tongue.

She moves away from the mirror and stops. Her eyes scan the room, and then narrow. She spins to face the doorway. “Is someone in here? Kevin?” She’s not answered. She reaches for a hand weight from the rack, and holds it like a baseball bat. She stalks out of the room.

I hear the front door chain rattle. She’s testing it. She passes the doorway, her weight gripped high. Tchaikovsky is clicked off. The bathroom door creaks open. Her slippers scuffle back across the carpet, and she is again in the bedroom, hand on her hip, perplexed. “I could swear…” she says, but she shakes her head, and replaces the hand weight.

Then she turns, very slowly. Her dark eyes focus at the foot of the bed where I’m standing. I startle. Then I remember she isn’t really seeing me, but looking right through me. I feel conspicuous, anyway.

“Is someone there?” she asks in a whisper.

“Yes,” I say, surprised at my own voice.

She doesn’t hear me. She searches the air with her hand, and it passes right through me. Then she makes a frightened little sound, and touches her hand to her head. “Sarah Caldwell, you are losing your mind,” she says.

I can tell by her expression she’s not convinced. She continues to stare through me, and pulls in a deep breath, lifting her chest. She eases toward the foot of the bed. For some reason, I back up.

Her fingers tremble as she reaches to touch the curve of metal at the bedpost. Just before contact, she pulls them back, and frowns. Slowly, her eyes turn to rest on the knot of metal under my hand. She inches forward again.

I’m terrified and fascinated at the same time. I want to let go, but she’s standing right in front of me, smelling of Ivory soap. A loose strand of her hair tickles my chin. She’s staring hard at my hand, her breath shallow and quick. I see the throb of her pulse in her neck. My pulse is racing, too.

Her hand reaches again, hesitates, and then grips the metal under my hand. Then her fingers are on my hand. She sucks in a squeak of air, and lifts her chin. Our eyes meet. She sees me. For a moment, all of time is suspended while we stare at each other, breath held. Then she moans, and spins away to run for the door.

“Sarah!” I yell, and chase after her.

I ran through the bedroom doorway so fast that I slammed against the wall of the hallway. Dazed, I turned to follow her into the main room. “Sarah, wait!”

A snap under my shoe made me look down. I’d broken a green-handled brush. An old, dried brush that was here because of a murderer. I was here because of a murderer. Sarah was dead.

I fell to my knees, and hugged my churning stomach. She was dead, but not for that brief moment she looked into my eyes. Somehow, I’d reached into her world, or she’d reached into mine. We’d touched. If she could touch me, she could hear me. Somehow I had to make her hear me.

My fingers found the broken wood of her artist brush. I fought against the surge of nausea, and gripped it tight.

I’m kneeling in her main room. The lace curtains have been drawn, and sunlight streams through the dusty windows. She’s sitting on a barstool, feet pulled up, balancing her heels and her backside on the small, vinyl seat. One arm hugs her legs, and the other is sweeping strokes across a canvas perched on an easel.

Her hand stops. She looks down. Her eyes glance toward me, then she puts her brush to canvas again, and continues, but her brow is wrinkled.

I push to my feet. I move closer, and try speaking. “Sarah, don’t be afraid.”

She doesn’t respond, but her hand stops again, and sets the brush down. “Are you here?” she asks, and looks to where I’d been kneeling.

Standing behind her, I see what she’s painting. A face. My face. I stumble back.

She slides off the stool, and talks toward the floor. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s really freaking me out, and I wish you’d stop. Maybe it’s supposed to be funny or something. It isn’t.” She nudges a toe at the carpet. “Did you hear me? Go away.”

I stay. I stare at my face on the canvas. It isn’t finished, but I recognize my eyes, and the jut of my chin. I’m wearing a red Old Navy shirt in the portrait, like I’m wearing now. It looks just like me, even without my hair painted in. She’s good. Really good.

She throws a sheet over the easel, covering the painting. She glares through me. “Are you a ghost?”

The Ghost of Christmas Past, I want to say.

There’s a long silence. She nibbles her lip. Her eyes turn toward her windowsill, where a glass jar holds multi-colored brushes. I think she’s looking at the green-handled one.

Her doorbell rings. She startles. She looks toward the door, toward me. Then she huffs, and disappears around the corner. “What the? What’s he doing here?” Her voice is muffled, like she’s talking against the door.

I hear the door swing open. “Kevin? What are you doing here?”

The floor swayed, and I gripped the counter as I went dizzy. My stomach wrenched. I gulped air. No good. I lurched into the bathroom, dropped to my knees at the toilet, and threw up.

I’d gone forward in her time. My shifts usually skipped around, depending on what I was touching, and they rarely made sense strung together. The shifts with Sarah felt different. I recognized that each time I saw her, I was getting closer and closer to the time she died. If I didn’t touch the right object, would I miss my chance?

I arched toward the toilet, and threw up again. Sweat broke out across my forehead, and my armpits. I felt hot and cold at the same time. Somehow, my body was suffering, more than it had ever reacted before.

I had to get my bearings before I tried again. I rested my forehead against the cool porcelain. The shower turned itself on.

I’m kneeling at the toilet, watching steam rise above the plastic shower curtain beside me. She’s singing “You’re So Vain.” Carly Simon has no competition, but I think Sarah knows, and enjoys singing anyway. I can see the faint shadow of her curves through the curtain, and she’s holding a back brush to her mouth like a microphone. I smile, despite my aching head.

Her song stops.

“You are kidding me!” she hollers. “What are you, some sort of pervert ghost?”

The back brush sails over the top of the shower curtain, and passes through me to land in the toilet. “Get out of here! Leave me alone!”

Her hand reaches out, patting for her pink towel. The towel disappears into the shower, and when the water turns off, she hops out and barrels past, wrapped in pink. “Did you hear me? Leave me alone!” She slams the bathroom door behind herself.

I dry heaved at the toilet. I spasmed. I felt like I was coming apart from the inside out. I had to get out of this apartment before it killed me. I tried to stand, but my legs felt like rubber. I had to crawl to the door. My hand shook on the knob. Hadn’t I left it open?

I yanked the door, and fell onto the carpet on the other side. The shag scratched my cheek, and smelled like burned cookies. I grabbed at the leg of the sofa to haul myself forward, but couldn’t move. I just had to rest for a minute. I just had to think.

“I’m not ready yet,” I hear her say. Then she screams. I look up from where I’m laying on the floor to see her staring at me. She’s perched on the arm of the sofa, a cordless phone in her hand. She drops the phone, and leaps to her feet.

Her towel comes loose, and she catches it, and tucks the end in itself. “Sarah?” asks a voice inside the phone. “Sarah, what’s going on?” She watches toward me, and bends to pick up the receiver. Her hand is trembling.

“I’m here.” She swallows hard. “I just thought I saw a…a cockroach. It’s gone, though. Or I was imagining it, I don’t know. I’m having a weird night.”

She walks toward me, and pokes her foot toward my shoulder. I don’t feel it. “No, you go on ahead, I’ll meet you there. I’m going to be so late.”

She kneels, and passes her hand through my head. “Hey, Annette? Do you believe in ghosts?” She sits back on her heels. “Well, if you did, do you think they stick around for a reason? I mean, do you suppose they’re trying to tell someone something?”

She stands, and turns the corner into the hall. I can still hear her talking. “You know, on second thought, I’m not really in the mood for a party tonight. There’s something bizarre going on here, and I’m going to lock myself in until I figure it out.”

I groan. I realize she’s talking about the party that she never goes to. I know tonight is the night she dies, because she stays home. And now I wonder if, somehow, somehow, it’s all because of me.

The suspicion only makes me suffer more. Already, each minute that passes becomes more painful. The carpet scratches like steel wool on my cheek, and I can barely keep my grip on the sofa leg. But I hang on, because I must. I must.

She comes into the room again, dressed in jeans with holes in the knees, and a pink tee shirt. Her wet hair dribbles water down her chest. She draws her bottom lip between her teeth. Then she touches the arm of the sofa.

She gasps. She draws back her hand.

Tentatively, she tries again. This time, she doesn’t run. She looks right at me. “Who are you? How do you keep getting in here?”

“Get out,” I try to say through my throat choked with gravel.

“Are you sick?” She climbs onto the sofa on her knees, and crawls toward me. “Is that how you died?”

“Not a ghost,” I say, and turn my head to see her better. The motion sends a blast of pain down my spine.

“Then what are you?” She leans over the edge of the cushion, and touches my face. Her fingers are cool, and they feel good. “You’re burning up. You are sick.”

“Listen,” I croak. “Get out. Right now.”

She shakes her head. “No. I want to help you, so you can go on to the great beyond, or whatever, and leave me alone.”

“Not a ghost,” I say again. My jaw clenches. I’m having hard time speaking.

“But you are trying to tell me something.”

Pain slices into my gut, and I grunt. I convulse.

“No!” I shouted, feeling my hand jerk away from the sofa leg. Not yet. Not now. I tried to grab the sofa again, but my body wouldn’t let me. I thrashed, feeling the carpet slice into my face, my hands. I felt like I was dying.

My body went rigid, but at least I wasn’t thrashing anymore. I was on my back now, and I stared up at the ceiling, trying to focus. I could move one inch at a time that way, staring hard and concentrating. Twist the shoulders, scoot the feet. It was my chance to creep for the door.

I stopped. If I left now, Sarah would die. Or, she was already dead, so the only person I could save now was me. I didn’t know which was the truth. I didn’t know what I was fighting for.

Just then, something pressed into my side.

I roll over to find Sarah pushing a rubber spatula against my ribs. “There you are,” she says.

I grip the plastic. “Spatula?” I ask, blinking, trying to figure out how she found me.

“It was the first thing I grabbed. I can see you when we both touch the same thing.”

The shifts happen so fast I don’t even see them coming. I’m still trying to orient. I try to sit up. Maybe if I can get my head level, it will stop spinning.

Sarah holds the other end of the spatula, and tries to help me. I reach with my free hand for something to boost me up. I feel cloth, and yank. I hear a curtain rod come out of the plaster, and lace drops over my face.

“Whoa, look out. You’re going to hurt yourself,” she says.

“You have to get out of here,” I say. Hot pain claws inside me again. I jerk, and feel the spatula coming out of my hand. I clutch at the air, trying to keep Sarah near. I grab her shirt. I feel it in my hand, bunched against my palm. She says something I can’t understand. She sounds scared.

I double over, and vomit on her carpet. This time it’s not dry, it’s blood. She fades away, then comes back, fades away, and then comes back. Her hands try to help me, but pass right through me. I clutch the fabric of her shirt even tighter.

I must convince her to leave. Now. I try the first thing that comes into my head. I dip my hand into my blood, and write a message, the only message I can think of that will send her out without a second thought.

She fades again, and doesn’t come back.

I dropped hard on my face. A broken paintbrush stabbed me in the side, and I didn’t have the strength to move it. Light faded around my eyes like I was being sucked into a tunnel, and the last thing I saw was my own bloody message scrawled on the carpet. Save Annette.

Everything went black.

My cell phone blasted its rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth. I let it get to the reprise before I flopped off the couch and crawled to where the phone was clipped to my rumpled jeans, left in a pile where I slid them off last night. I checked the LCD. Rog. I almost didn’t answer.

“Yeah?” I said into the phone.

“Mick, are you sleeping? What’s the deal? It’s three o’clock.”

“So?” I looked at my wrist, but I wasn’t wearing a watch. Suddenly I was gripped by déjà vu. A headache, like the mother of all hangovers, surged behind my eyes. I leaned back against the couch, and tried to think around the pain.

“So I’ve been calling you for hours. It was a wild night last night. You’re going to want to know all about it.”

“Wild night?” I asked. Concentrating only made my head worse, and the patches of fog in my mind refused to pull into a memory.

“What’s up? Are you drunk?” Roger asked.

I ran my hand through my hair. “No. Maybe. I’ve got a jackhammer in my head, and I don’t remember getting home last night.”

“Just like old times, man. But you’ve got to guzzle some coffee and pull yourself together. Meet me at Buford’s in 10 minutes.”

“Why?” I asked, not sure I wanted to bother getting dressed.

“They arrested the guy that killed Dee.”

I was on my feet. “Make it five.”

“Don’t scrimp. You need time to brush your teeth, because you’ll be meeting someone important to me.”

“Five minutes, Rog.” I closed the phone. I grabbed my jeans. I splashed some water on my face, ran my wet hands through my hair, and tugged a shirt over my head as I closed the apartment door behind me.

I made it outside, and realized I’d forgotten my jacket. Cool air crept right through my cotton shirt, and I tucked my hands under my armpits. No matter. I was a man on a mission. I dodged cars, jumped to avoid a kid on a skateboard, and finally made it to the door of my sandwich shop. Roger was there, smiling at me, his arms crossed. “You look cold.”

“I am. Tell me about last night.”

“Let’s get a seat.” We moved to the back of the shop, and Roger ordered some iced tea. I wanted a beer, but settled for water.

“Well?” I said, once we were settled.

“The cops tried to call you last night, too, but you wouldn’t pick up. The guy that killed Dee was Kevin Lanford, your cable guy.”

“Kevin. The cable guy.” A shiver crept my spine.

“You described him to a tee. The cops suspected him all along. They knew he’d been there earlier that day, but forensics couldn’t put him on the scene at the time of death.”

“They told me that four years ago.”

“Yeah, well. Last night he confessed. Seems Dee wasn’t the only one, either. Cops said once the guy got bragging, he wouldn’t shut up.”

I shook my head. It hardly seemed real, after all this time. “How do you know all this?”

Roger opened a packet of sugar into his iced tea. “That’s the wild part. Hold on to your chair, man.”

“I’m holding.”

“Okay, last night I get a call from my girlfriend, Annette. She’s who you’re going to meet today, by the way. I hadn’t really said anything to you about her, because I didn’t want to jinx anything. You know how I am.”

“Annette Caldwell?”

“Yeah.” Roger blinked. “You know her?”

“Well, don’t I? I mean, didn’t I meet her already or something?”

“Nah, I don’t think so. I was waiting to tell you about her once I was sure.”

“Sure about what?”

“That she’s the one, Mick.” He leaned back, and gave me a wide, cheesy grin.

I smiled, too. “That’s great, Rog. Really.” I shifted in my chair. “But about last night?”

“Oh yeah. Okay, so I get this call, right? And it’s Annette, and she’s at the Fifth Precinct, and could I come pick her up? So when I get there, I find out Annette was at a party when her sister showed up, all freaked out about seeing a ghost or something, telling her Annette was in trouble.”

“Her sister? Sarah?”

“Yeah, you know her, too?”

Wispy patches of brain fog were beginning to clear, but what I was trying to get hold of was still deep and irritating, like an unreachable itch. “Maybe. I think so.”

“Well, of course Annette was fine, but her sister was such a basket case that Annette took her home. When they got to her apartment, they found Sarah’s old boyfriend trashing the place. Guess who he was.”

I felt my face go cold. “Kevin, the cable guy.”

“Give the man a Bozo button,” said Roger. “He still had a key to the apartment, I guess, and let himself in. He found some painting of a guy Sarah had been working on, and thought he was the one she broke up with him over, something like that. He gave Annette a black eye, and he broke Sarah’s arm before Annette clocked him with a frying pan.” Roger made a fist. “She’s tough.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Major kahones.”

“Are you guys talking about me?” Annette appeared at the table, and crossed her arms. She was wearing a blue sweater that turned her eyes a bright sapphire, and lit up the swollen bruise on her cheekbone.

Roger stood up, and slid his arm around Annette’s waist. “I was just telling him

how you nailed that guy with a frying pan.”

Annette nodded. “I keep thinking about what might have happened if I hadn’t been there with Sarah.”

“So do I,” came a voice behind Annette.

Now I stood. Sarah Caldwell peered brown eyes around her sister’s shoulder, and my breath caught. She was so beautiful. Like her sister, only softer. Like my Dee, only younger. For a moment, all of time suspended while we stared at each other, breath held. Memories that I’d been scrabbling for blasted at me like a movie on fast forward. I reeled, and had to grab the back of my chair.

Sarah stepped closer to me. Her right arm was in a sling, and her left held something behind her back. “The police let me in my apartment to get this. I thought you should see it.” From behind her back, she withdrew a portrait.

I stared at my face on the canvas. It wasn’t finished, but I recognized my eyes and the jut of my chin. I wore a red Old Navy shirt in the portrait, like I was wearing now. It looked just like me, even without my hair painted in. “You’re good,” I said. “Really good.”

“I had to tape it together. It’s all messy in the back.” She flipped the canvas around to show me how she puzzled the parts back together with duct tape. “Once my arm’s better, I was thinking I’d try again.”

“Uh, how have you two met before?” Roger asked. I turned to find he and Annette staring at the two of us like we’d sprouted dandelions on our heads.

“Actually,” said Sarah. “I was hoping Mick could tell me that.” She smiled up at my face.

My headache disappeared. I smiled, too. “Come on up to my apartment. I think I have beer.”

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