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BLUEROAD3

 

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CHAPTER 29

Frank drove home in a fog with the edge of anticipation ticking in his gut. His limbs were heavy. His mind was wasted and filled with things he hoped didn’t become clear until he was long gone from Zenith. Going into his little rental house for the last time was weird, only a single kitchen chair and a mattress on the living room floor, his footsteps echoing in the empty rooms of what had been his home for many years.

And now all the memories were coming back to haunt him and he knew he’d never get to sleep, the bare walls closing in on him one last time.

He sat in the chair and opened Waverly’s going away gift. On top was a little note. Figured you’d never be able to wait until you were on the road, Frank. Was I right? Best of luck and I hope these items make your journey a real trip.

Underneath a wadded up hunk of newspaper, Frank discovered a plastic pill vial with three large black capsules inside, the original label on the vial peeled off, Stay Awake Pills scratched on the cap with a ballpoint pen. There was also a cassette tape labeled Travelin’ Tunes, which Frank didn’t know how he’d play because Betty’s old Ford wagon didn’t have a tape player, two wrinkled, dog-eared paperbacks, On the Road by Jack Kerouac and The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler, and, Waverly being Waverly, a joint as big as your thumb. At the bottom of the box was a sheet of paper containing names, addresses and phone numbers, all from Phoenix, Arizona. At the top of the list Waverly had scrawled, “In case you wander south of Route 66, man, these old college friends of mine will show you a good time.”

Frank smiled to himself and was again hit with a surge of sentimentality and fondness for a past that he hadn’t liked that much in the first place. Fearing that he might sink into nostalgia and change his mind, he opened the pill vial, took out one of the black Dexedrine caps, went into the kitchen and put water in a plastic coffee cup and swallowed the capsule.

Hell, if he was lucky, he could be out of the state by the time the sun came up.    

 

(The Real End of Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry)

 

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enger 3

 

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CHAPTER 28, EXCERPT 2

The next few days went by slowly, Frank constantly looking over his shoulder or anticipating a phone call from the police. There were some nights that sleep didn’t come easy, but the cops never gave him so much as a sniff, the Zenith Police Department evidently overburdened by the massive onslaught of national media pouring into the Twin Ports to cover the Pillsbury murders, as the press was calling them.

One national tabloid ran the headline: Diabolical duo does dirty deeds to pharmaceutical heir, pays price.

Another: Down and dirty double team does in pharmaceutical tycoon.

Frank, taking a little something from Keith Waverly’s bag of tricks, had one of his own: Drug douchebag dies from dope dose. Demonic dames did it.

From what Frank could ascertain from the newspapers and the television news, the ZPD had pieced together a scenario remarkably close to what he’d hoped for. The cops theorizing that Richard Pillsbury somehow became aware that his new bride, the former Judy Bruton, and her twin sister, Lisa Semke—previously unknown to Pillsbury, the girls separated shortly after birth—had conspired to gain his affection, trust and matrimonial bond in order to carry out an elaborate masquerade designed to make him dependent on drugs and sex and thus create the opportunity for his eventual overdose death. His death in this manner would have cleared the way for the wife (Bruton) to inherit the massive Pillsbury fortune, as she was listed in Richard’s recently revised will as the principal heir, as well as a partner in Pillsbury Enterprises, the family corporation. And continuing, that Richard became so enraged and distraught upon his discovery, already emotionally unstable from intravenous drug use and sexual excess, that he killed both sisters and then fell into despondency, committing suicide by drug overdose and completing the sisters’ “destructive drug and death spiral,” the police department showing that it too, could alliterate.

Frank thought they had it just right enough.

Sitting at his kitchen table gazing out at the rain, he quickly switched gears to fantasize about California sunshine and California girls and California everything, not wanting to think about his approaching return to the Metro tonight. Jesus, it was going to feel weird. He could already see the looks on their faces, the lushes thinking they knew something about Frank Ford.

*   *   *

In his temporary return to the Metropole, Frank worked day shift, afternoon shift, late shift, Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays—whatever he could get. And three weeks in he asked Betty for two additional weeks because he needed more money to buy a car for his trip. Not only did Betty agree, but she also offered to sell him her ’71 Ford station wagon at a nice price, an offer Frank couldn’t refuse, a station wagon the perfect vehicle for hauling things out West.

Things had changed at the Metro. The Underground Lounge, the downstairs bar, was closed do to declining business, the DJ thing Betty introduced as a last-ditch effort to bring in customers having failed miserably. Now Tom Meagher was working upstairs and he and Frank were the only tenders on the payroll. Betty had fired Ron, the guy who replaced Frank, for beating up too many customers, and Sack, of course, had already been sacked.

Meagher and Frank ran the bar with just enough control to keep it tolerable and also profitable. Frank enjoyed the time but realized that a big part of his enjoyment came from knowing he’d soon be leaving.

Time moved along, and soon Frank’s final week at the Metro arrived. He was working the day shift on a Monday when Waverly walked in the bar at four in the afternoon, Keith smiling and looking fit and healthy. Frank had put in some time practicing positive thinking and visualization—even some yoga moves—in preparation for his future immersion in California culture, but as Waverly related the latest buzz on the street concerning the Pillsbury murders—what Keith referred to as The demise of Pills and his pussies—Frank was getting little jolts of fear in his gut. According to Waverly, the murmur currently making the rounds was that the cops had determined Pillsbury Manor to be abnormally clean of fingerprints, which had lead them to consider the possibility of an as yet unidentified fourth party involved in the murders. And although most everyone believed that fourth person was either Doughboy Loy or Artie Autry, the cops, Waverly said, were seeking input from the local barroom denizens, with a possible reward if any information led to an arrest of this unknown suspect.

This, of course, ramped up Frank’s anxiety level and got him back to walking on pins and needles—bed of nails—broken glass, you name it. The time wouldn’t go fast enough. He’d seen the cops in the bar a few times applying their manipulative, good-cop-bad-cop methods on the vulnerable types (those they had something on or snitches) but so far they hadn’t confronted him. But how long could it be?

He soldiered on and tried to stay busy. He had a rummage sale at his house. He took the stuff that didn’t sell to the dump and Goodwill. He had his newly acquired Ford Station wagon tuned up. He changed the oil. He paid the hospital bill for his concussion stay, the exorbitant amount eating at him, but mostly he just worked the bar and worried, the time dragging on slower than those last days of school before summer vacation when he was a kid. But he endured and persevered and finally his final day at the Metropole dawned.

His friends and loyal customers were throwing him a Bon Voyage party after close, and Betty had offered the use of the shuttered downstairs bar for the occasion. Betty saying it wasn’t a time to mourn but more a time to celebrate Frank’s contribution to the “Metropole family.”

Jesus.

Coming into the Underground for the party, Frank was surprised how many people showed up, even though a good third of them had only come for the free beer, Betty letting them drain the taps of the recently closed saloon as a gesture of gratitude for Frank’s years of service to the “Family.” Frank thought it was a backhanded gesture—the beer in the lines borderline stale—but about as good as you were going to get from Betty, the woman getting even tighter with the bucks the older she got.

One of those free-beer drinkers was Daniel Moran, who acted uncomfortable and nervous in Frank’s presence and couldn’t stop talking about the murders while giving Frank the evil eye. In spite of that, the party was fun. And surprisingly emotional. Somewhere around two a.m. Frank got hit with second thoughts and feelings of regret, because, shit, what guarantee was there he’d ever find a bunch like this, a group that genuinely liked and appreciated him? You just couldn’t predict the future. Who knew, California might be too crowded for his liking? He might be too impatient for driving in heavy traffic. He’d probably miss the changing of the seasons. And goddamnit, man, three different women came up to him at the party and got physical, touching and rubbing up against him and letting him know in not uncertain terms that he missed out on their bounty.

But it was too late for that kind of regret. It was just separation anxiety, as Nikki might say. And speaking of the blond, blue-eyed one, Frank had seen her on the street driving in her little red Honda, bringing to mind a line from an old Velvet Underground song.

What he had but couldn’t keep—linger on your pale blue eyes.

.And now he conceded that his heart was broken.

But what better treatment for a broken heart than California sunshine?

The going-away bash careened on until after three in the morning. Watching his old friends wander out, Frank had a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye. But at least the cops weren’t waiting out there for him. Then he was about to leave, thinking he wouldn’t sleep tonight with tomorrow’s drive on his mind, when Waverly called to him from the back office, Meagher and Keith the only partiers left in the building. Frank went back there and of course there were lines of coke on the desk and of course they offered him some. He declined. But then Waverly lit a bomber and passed it to him and he partook. It just seemed appropriate to break the law on his last day as part of the “Metropole family.” So he and Keith shared the joint, Meagher abstaining, and Waverly said the weed was just like they had out in Cali these days and Frank was sure lucky to be going there. As the joint hit the halfway mark, Frank felt a shroud drop over his head and the weight of the last few months come down on his shoulders. He was exhausted and anxious, excited and just a little bit scared, all at the same time. “I got a long day ahead of me, gentlemen,” he said, “ so I’m afraid I have to mosey. You guys have been great. It was a great party. But I gotta split before I sink into nostalgia and sentimentality and beg Betty for my job back.”

“No, you sure as hell don’t want to do that, Frank,” Meagher said with a big grin as he rose from behind the desk and extended his hand. Frank shook his hand and then turned to Waverly. Keith was holding out a shoebox wrapped in a piece of the comic section of the Sunday paper. Very colorful, even had a little red bow stuck on the top. “Got a little going away gift for you, Franko, as a token of my appreciation for all the fun you’ve let me in on. How dull my life’s gonna be without you around, man. But I wish you the best of luck wherever you land, and I must admit I’m a little jealous. Going somewhere that doesn’t have winter sounds pretty good to me. Drop me a line when you get settled and maybe I’ll come out and visit. And don’t open the box until your on the road, man, stuff in there will make your journey a little more enjoyable, I think. At least I hope. Really, man, I don’t have a fuckin’ clue.”

Frank took the box and felt compelled to give Keith a hug. And then found himself on the verge of tears, months of suppressed emotion seemingly ready to come slamming out of him at any moment. But he held it together and soon all three of the men were standing and grinning and Frank knew it was time. He turned away and walked out on his Metropole family for the last time.

Probably.

On his way to the door, stumbling by the stage in a state of anticipatory excitement and sentimental longing, Frank glanced down at a couple stacks of albums the former record spinner had yet to haul out. On top of one of the stacks was a Led Zeppelin record, “Physical Graffiti,” lying loose and out of its cover. Frank glanced down at the label and saw his old companion and tormentor—the winged beast. There it was, the inspiration for his nightmare, the image of a naked human with large white wings— the logo for Swan Song Records. Only had one head though.

He couldn’t help but smile. So that’s where it came from. What drugs’ll do for you, eh?

(End of Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry)

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DIVE SHADOW 7

 

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CHAPTER 28, EXCERPT 1

On Tuesday it was on the front page of the morning paper.

Pillsbury pharmaceutical heir, wife and mystery sister-in-law found dead in alleged murder-suicide scenario.

In a constant state of fearful anticipation waiting for this moment, Frank had learned firsthand the meaning of the phrase on pins and needles. But now, sitting at his kitchen table reading the News Tribune and eating corn flakes, he was feeling pretty damn good. Yeah, there was still the regret eating at him—but that went back to his initial involvement, Frank knowing that if he’d stayed away from Judy in the first place his nightmare would never have happened. But hell, things had turned out for the better and you could make a case for Frank Ford as somewhat of a hero. He hadn’t saved anybody but he had rid the world of two festering cancers. If it weren’t for Frank Ford, Judy and Lisa would still be out there spreading their insidious seeds upon the world.

Okay, that was a bit over the top. Suffice to say he wasn’t destroying himself with guilt. He was, however, worrying about Artie Autry and Doughboy Loy. Shit, how long could it be before the Zenith cops picked up on the pair’s association with Judy? And following that, how long before the two dirtbags flapped their gums about Frank fucking Ford and his own interactions with Judy Bruton? Not to mention Frank’s usage of a .38 caliber revolver, which, obviously, matched the caliber of the identified murder weapon from the front-page story.

He shot Autry’s goddamn earlobe off for Christ sake…

So now Frank was fast becoming adverse to the Zenith City. Always a tough place to make a buck, the economy was still mired in depression—or at least recession—without much optimism for the future of the rustbelt port city—so it seemed like a good time to leave.

Early the next morning Frank was at the kitchen table biting his nails—a newly acquired habit—when another shocking headline greeted him.

Body of Zenith man found near Enger Tower.

Biting faster now Frank anxiously read the story of Arthur John Autry’s body being discovered—throat cut from ear to ear— beneath some tree branches and other debris in the foliage surrounding Zenith’s historical bluestone tower.

Man, Doughboy Loy finally gave it to Artie. Fat man had to be long gone by now.

Two days later Frank was greeted with another world-rocking headline.

Overdose death linked to Zenith man’s murder, it said at the top of page one of the News Tribune.

Poor Maynard, Frank thought, reading the story. He could never get things right. Christ, they found him with the syringe still in his arm, the Doughboy never much for originality. Either Maynard got too excited after coming into possession of Autry’s drug stash and fired up too heavy a load, or he couldn’t deal with the guilt of slitting his old running mate’s throat and overdosed on purpose.

Frank’s money was on the former, but you never know.

The story went on to say that the police found Autry’s car keys in Loy’s jacket pocket, and Artie’s GTO was discovered parked a half block away from Loy’s rundown residence in Piedmont Heights.

Jesus, with those two drug-soaks dead and gone, it was hard to believe, but it looked like Frank was home free. At the very least, he had a little more breathing room.

And, yeah, sure, that kind of shit gets you thinking. Like maybe Ray-Ray was somewhere out there in the ether pulling the strings, the powers that be giving him one last shot at making things right.

If you believe in that kind of thing.

And even if you don’t, sometimes you wonder….

So right then and there he decided he was going to California. They had to need bartenders out there, didn’t they? Californiashit, manwhere it was happening, where it was going on. Had to be tons of good-looking women out there. Get to a nice quiet town on the coast somewhere and find a small, clean, well-lighted place where all the customers are tan and smiling, perfect white teeth glistening….

That sounded nice. And as guilty as he felt about leaving his mother with her grief, he knew Anne was always better with her. But he had to admit that he was also running away from telling Joan that he now believed Ray had committed suicide. He just couldn’t face that one. He’d have to write her a letter once he got settled and explain his conclusion, feeling strongly that his mother would never accept it, no matter how it was presented.

So it was settled, he was heading for the West Coast. But he needed money for the trip, so later that day he swallowed his pride and called Betty Brown. After he begged and pleaded with her to put him back on the payroll for a month, Betty showed her forgiving side and agreed, telling Frank he was the best bartender she’d ever had at the Metropole—and by the way, she’d just fired Doug Sackberger.

About goddamn time, Frank was thinking as the universe came through for him once again.

(To be continued)

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DIVE SHADOW 1

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CHAPTER 27

Doughboy’s Dodge was still where Frank left it, but no sign of the terrible twosome. Wasn’t even a cop car on the block for a change. But Frank was hoping there was at least someone around to see him going into Judy’s building, preferably someone drunk or high, which covered pretty much anyone in the neighborhood. He parked in front of the Asiata in the No Parking Loading Zone area, left the Caddy running with the lights on, turned up the collar on the trench coat, pulled down the brim of the hat, got out and hurried along the sidewalk to the entranceway, leaving the Cadillac’s door open with the interior light throwing a bright square on the sidewalk. He used Judy’s keys to get through the security door and didn’t bother to tread lightly going up the stairs. At the door of apartment number eight he banged hard, saying in a gruff voice he hoped sounded like Pillsbury, “Judy, open up, I know you’re in there.”

He turned the key and went in fast. She was still in the same spot, of course, a dark pond of blood spread out on the floor beneath her. He averted his gaze. Was having a hard time remembering what he’d touched. He lifted the empty purse off the kitchen table and used his forearm to scrape Judy’s stuff back into the beaded black bag. He put the purse on the chair, took out the towel and wiped down everything he might have touched, approaching frantic by the time he was satisfied.

Frank took one last look around the room. He had one more touch to add to the paint by numbers scenario.

Using the dish towel he bent down and dabbed some of the blood off the floor. Then he crumpled up the towel and stuffed it back in the pocket of the trench coat.

He went down the stairs as fast as he could, not having too much of a stretch impersonating a man running away from a murder. At the bottom of the stairs he crunched his neck down behind the coat collar and readjusted the porkpie hat, his reflection in the glass door looking ridiculous. Hunching over, he went outside and hustled to the Caddy, blew the hell away.

Arriving back at Pills Manor, Frank pushed the garage door opener, drove the Caddy inside and pushed the Close button. He dropped the bloody towel on the floor of the garage, returned the hat, coat and gloves to the front hall and left the house through the side door, covering his hand with his jacket sleeve when he turned the doorknob.

He had a long walk home ahead of him, but an excess of adrenaline to push him along. He went straight up the hill for several blocks and then headed west, Go West young man going round and round in his head in a feverish loop.

By false dawn he was back at the syrup can, place looking desolate in the dim gray light. He was shaky with a mix of anticipation and apprehension and his knee throbbed. He went inside, climbed the stairs and filled the bathtub with hot water—pouring in some shampoo for bubbles—and promptly fell asleep in the tub.

It’s all right Ma, I’m only sleeping.

He woke up two hours later in cold water, wrinkled like a prune and feeling nervous with a chaser of dread. And somewhere in the distant reaches of his mind or soul or whatever the hell, there were tears that needed to be cried.

(End of Chapter 27)

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DIVE SHADOW 5

 

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CHAPTER 26, EXCERPT 2

She narrowed her eyes, made a quick glance past his shoulder toward the side door and then shrugged. “All right, I’ll show you,” she said, a touch of impatience pushing through. “Everything’s exactly as it’s supposed to be. Everything’s wiped down. Richard’s prints are on the syringe…  I don’t know why Judy doesn’t trust me to take care of things. She’s always worrying about nothing. If it wasn’t for me, this whole thing would have fallen apart months ago.”

“I’m sure you’re right. But you know how Judy can get—we both do. If we just tread lightly for a little while longer, everything will be just fine.”

She didn’t look very convinced. “All right, come on then,” she said. “He’s in here.”

Frank followed her into the living room, and, fuck, there was Old Sport stretched out on a shiny black leather recliner to the right of the huge fireplace, the man’s lifeless right arm dangling down, an empty syringe on the floor below it. On the other side of the recliner was a small oval table with three pill vials lying on it. Frank went over and had a closer look, being careful not to touch anything.

Dilaudid, Valium, Seconal.

Three tickets for a one-way ride.

You see,” Lisa said with a trace of a sneer. “All done according to plan. No sign of any foul play. Just an addict making a mistake with dangerous and powerful drugs. Follows the script to a fucking T. Judy needs to have a little faith in her beloved sister.”

Third dead body Frank’d seen this year. You go your whole life without seeing even one and then…

Fuck.

Pills eyes were closed but Frank thought he looked bemused and surprised. But maybe I’m projecting, Frank thought, more of Nikki’s psychobabble slipping in. And then the corpse was filling him with dread and a vast emptiness. A void. Cold, like outer space.

After searching Pillsbury’s neck for a pulse and finding none, Frank tried to make his mind settle down. He still didn’t know what to do. Lisa would want to leave now. Should he let her go? Let her out there with all the secrets? Chances were she was headed back to the apartment for the night and there was no way she wouldn’t figure Frank for the killing of her sister.

Goddamnit.

“Satisfied?” Lisa snapped it out with a cold emptiness that matched the air in the room, the woman seemingly efficient to the end.

And then—shit—it fell right out of the air to him, the universe sending down a busload of contempt for these people and their sleazy schemes and nasty machinations. And with it came a sliver of hope, a window of opportunity perhaps creeping open.

Turning to face her, Frank said, “Yeah, I’m satisfied.” Then he pulled the pistol from his jacket and shot her in the middle of the chest.

Standing above her body looking down, blood pooling on the shiny hardwood floor, Frank had the curious sensation that his brother Ray was watching—and laughing his goddamn ass off. Yes sir, here was big brother cleaning up little brother’s mess one last time.

But certainly the world was a better place now.

And it sure did seem like Ray-Ray was sending some of his skills along to big brother Frank, passing down the ability to skate out of tight situations with a lie or a trick or a vast manipulative scheme. Shit, Frank had some skills of his own it that area. And now it seemed the Ford men were like the Three Musketeers, All for one and one for all.

Standing there in the emptiness, his ears ringing from the gun blast and his nose wrinkling from the cordite in the air, urgency and fear grabbed a hold and got him moving. He went into the kitchen and got a dishtowel from a drawer, an upscale white linen thing with RXP monogrammed inside a dark blue diamond pattern on the front. He brought the towel to the brand-new recliner and wiped his prints off the .38. Then he reached down and took Richard’s right hand and put it around the grip of the revolver, struggling with the stiffening digits. Lifting the oddly heavy, lifeless arm, Frank wrapped his right hand around Pillsbury’s hand and squeezed the trigger, putting a slug into the wall on a direct line from where Lisa was standing just a few moments ago. Angle might not be quite right but hopefully close enough. Then, with his ears ringing like there were banshees in his auditory canals, Frank lowered Richard’s hand and allowed the revolver to drop onto the small circular table with the pill bottles on it.

Looking around now, scanning the room, things started to slow down. A clear path was opening up. What had he touched? Fingerprints had to be wiped and he had to create some kind of scenario to explain for the cops how Judy got killed. How this whole terrible mess could have happened.

Wrapping the towel around his hand for the doorknobs, Frank went through the kitchen to the front vestibule, took Richard’s London Fog trench coat off a hanger and put it on. Saw one of those jaunty pork pie hats on a shelf and put that on too, thing had a little red feather in the band. There was a pair of leather driving gloves in the trench coat pockets. He slipped them over his hands and went back down to the hall to the corkboard by the side door where the Pillsbury’s kept their keys. There were hooks with labels under them and it was no problem finding the Cadillac keys with the ritzy logo. He wiped down the handles on the side door of the house then went outside and wiped down the Buick. He re-entered the house, stepped into the garage and started the Caddy. Pushed the button on the garage door opener on the key ring, backed out and hit the Close button.

He had one more scene to create before the fantasy was complete.

(End of Chapter 26)

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Dive shadow 6

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CHAPTER 26, EXCERPT 1

Somewhere along the line the girls figured out they needed to wear the same perfume, hairspray and deodorant, Frank was thinking as he headed east on London Road in Judy’s Buick Electra, the all-too-familiar scent twisting up his gut. Any trace of the unfamiliar olfactory aura that was in here before—Lisa’s probably—was gone, overwhelmed by the musk of another sister. The girls had needed to be extremely disciplined to pull this deception off, and if it weren’t for Ray-Ray, their scam could’ve been immaculate. But once Autry and Loy heard about the deal, things began to unravel. But the sisters had stuck with the game plan and now here we were, one, possibly two, people dead, and a piss pot full of trouble for everyone else involved. 

Frank was trying his damnedest to climb out of the piss pot. Traffic was light but watch out for the hammered guys coming home from the bars. Betty’s dram-shop-law fears were popping inappropriately into his head as he tried to focus on the task ahead. He had the Buick at the speed limit but his mind was doing a hundred and five.

Should he just walk in the house? Use Judy’s keys and just waltz right in? What if sister Lisa was still there? Christ. But likely she was long gone by now, having already set the scene for Judy’s heartbreaking discovery of her new husband’s overdosed body. But what if Pills was still alive and well—some unforeseen circumstance bringing on a last second change of plans? Well, that would be awkward, to say the least, and Frank would have a hard time explaining why he was coming into Pills’ Manor with Judy’s keys in his hand. A tough sell, indeed. And then there was the matter of a possible murder charge with Frank’s name at the top of the warrant. Man, he just had to get inside and make things right, find a way to divert attention away from Frank Ford. But he couldn’t escape the feeling that he was missing something, and his brain was spinning like the inside of a kaleidoscope.

He drove past the big house, swung a U-turn, drove back and parked across London Road from the looming Pills Manor. There was a light on above the front door and a dim yellow glow showing through the curtains on the front windows. No cars in the driveway, new Caddy probably in the garage. Place looked quiet and peaceful. Seemed to be saying that sister Lisa was gone and everything had transpired according to plan.

Frank scanned the area. Nearest parked car was a block away. Lisa had to get here somehow. Cab? No, traceable. They weren’t that stupid. Or were they?

Fuck it, he couldn’t take it anymore. Too many questions, not enough answers. He was going in. Didn’t know what he was going to do but he was going in. He threw the shifter arm in drive and putted slowly across London Road into the long driveway, shut off the lights and the ignition, took the keys and got out of the Buick. He crept along the edge of the house to the side entrance. Took him three tries to find the right key but now the door was sliding open and he could see soft light seeping from the living room. Down the hallway on his right, a wisp of light was bleeding through the glass on the front door.

Shit.

Voices.

Quiet.

But it was only a television set, old-movie droning.

Putting his hand in his jacket pocket, he felt his friends Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson. The murder weapon. If all else fails just cut loose, he thought, concluding then that he was definitely nuts. Now like the rest of the Ford men.

And the only way to be, given the circumstances…

He stood still and waited. Ran his hands through his hair and tried to make his face look normal. But then thought, Shit, at a moment like this, why should he look anything but distraught and disheveled, which he figured he had a pretty good lock on. Lisa was going to freak anyway when she saw him, so what the hell.

He saw her shadow first, stretching along the hardwood floor ahead of her. Then she was coming into the dining area in a simple shift dress with a blue floral pattern, her face ashen gray. But she still had the propriety, the look of sober efficiency and control. At least until it registered that Frank Ford was standing in front of her and it wasn’t in the plan and where the hell was her goddamn sister?

Thinking he’d better dispel the panic before it happened—you never know, she might have a gun—he tried to sound reassuring, like the many times at the Metro he’d tried to talk down a drunken chick stuck in the self-pitying phase of a binge. “Don’t panic, Lisa,” everything’s cool,” he said in a whisper. “It’s Frank Ford, Judy called me in to help out. She didn’t want—”

She uttered an involuntary yelp, a look of terror grabbing her face, started to turn and run but he leapt forward and grabbed her by the arms and spun her around. When she didn’t scream he knew he had a chance. “Relax, Lisa,” he said, gripping her arms just hard enough to keep her from running. “Judy called me in on this to get Autry and Loy off her back. They were trying to horn in on the deal, in case you weren’t aware. I got rid of them for her and she told me the whole thing, the whole plan. She was scared. She asked me to come out here and make sure her husband was all taken care of.” Not knowing for sure if Pills was dead, Frank had to watch his words.

Christ, he couldn’t believe it, it looked like she was buying it, the tension and fear slipping down a notch or two. “It’s all taken care of,” Lisa said, looking him in the eyes with a steely gaze of her own. “I was just leaving, why isn’t she here?”

“She wanted to take a cab so there was a record of her arrival. Also wanted me to bring the Buick out here so she could say that Richard drove her to the art auction and then came home by himself. Cutting a few of the loose ends before they fray, you know?”

Lisa was all the way back on the ground now. Back to normal, prim, proper and in control. “I’ll be leaving then,” she said, jerking her arms free and giving Frank a hard look, a tiny bit of doubt seemingly flickering on the edge of it.

“That’s cool,” Frank said, “But first let’s go in and check things out, see if there’s anything you missed.” He didn’t know what to do next, but was thinking when he saw the scene, something would come to him.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 25, EXCERPT 4

Staring at her, trying to get a read, Frank said, “This is all getting too confusing. Now I’m thinking it really would be best if I did the right thing and turned this in to the cops, let them sort it out—see what happens.”

“Oh, God—the right thing…” glaring at him, defiance and hatred pouring from her red-streaked eyes. “You’re a self-righteous dick is what you are, Frank. With a twisted sense of morality. You’re perfectly willing to do the drugs and the booze and share my bed, but the light of day comes around and you turn into a simpering fucking do-gooder that’s gonna do the right thing?” She howled with laughter that slammed Frank’s ears like a gunshot.

He felt his knees buckling. He was searching for something to get him back in charge. “Maybe I’ll just tell my new friend Richard of his wife’s schemes. How his wife and a previously unknown sister-in-law are planning to kill him and takeover the dynasty. Doughboy and Artie might even be tempted to talk to him for the right price.”

She was laughing harder now. “Richard loves me deeply, Frank. He’d never believe anything from those two—or you either, you moron—you’re a fucking Ford. And now I really must be leaving,” glancing at her watch again.

“What’s the hurry, dear?” Frank was sensing something, a possible opening. “So where’ve you been tonight, all dressed up in your fancy new clothes? Somewhere the whole town could check out the new Judy?”

“I was at a charity art auction, Frank. Drinking white wine with some of Zenith’s most upstanding citizens.”

“And now you’re bringing champagne home for a celebration? What’s the occasion?”

“Another day in a joyous marriage, Frank. It’s what newlyweds do.”

“Jesus fuckin’ Christ, tonight’s the night, isn’t it? Mr. Pills gets whacked tonight. You got the alibi… and now you’re anxious to leave so the time gap between the art thing and you discovering the lifeless body of your poor overdosed husband is not too great.”

He moved around her, blocking the path to the door. She frowned, her eyes turning inward, shoulders tensing up. “I just don’t want to be so late I’ll make him worry, Frank. I’m leaving, and you need to leave, too.”

“Relax, honey, now I’m thinking we should stay and fool around a little. Whattaya say? Or will that throw off your alibi? But you did offer, remember? Or was that just more of your cock teasing ways?”

“Stop the bullshit, Frank. And be a good boy. I need to get home to my husband.” She tried to get past him but he grabbed her arm and jerked her toward him, leaning in close to her face.

“Come on, Judy, where’s the fun-loving girl we Ford’s came to know and love? Where’s Goodtime Judy, always ready for a little fooling around? He tightened his grip on her arm. She winced but shook it off, glaring into his eyes and pushing at his chest with her free hand. He grabbed the pushing wrist from his chest and squeezed it tight. Feeling himself grinning now, he said, “Yes, ma’am, I can be a hero tonight, get my name in the papers. Former bartender saves pharmaceutical tycoon from murderous scam. Yes, I do believe that’s what I’m gonna do.”

She jerked and pulled on her arms. He laughed and let them go. Glaring at her wrists, rubbing them each in turn, she said, “You assshole. You’re dumb and pig headed just like your fuckin’ pissant brother. And, typically, you’re too fuckin’ late. Richard is already on his way to the big drug store in the sky and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Jesus.

“I’m gonna be rich, Frank. Rich and single. Why not join the party? Think of the possibilities.”

He was.

Then he felt his body relax, his shoulders go down. He smiled a little and reached out his left hand very gently and placed it on the back of her lovely neck, her eyes wide and inviting now. Then he pulled her in close, jerked the gun from his jacket pocket, jammed it into her solar plexus and pulled the trigger. He felt her body jerk and saw her eyes staring at him as he let her fall softly to the floor. He watched the dark blood soaking through her frilly blouse and she didn’t have anything more to say, just some garbled moans. Definitely out of the ordinary.

But there was no time to savor it. Mr. Pills was in danger. And for some reason—exactly what he wasn’t quite sure—Frank cared, guessing it was just a primitive desire for revenge on Judy and her plans.

Scanning the room, he spotted Judy’s small black purse on a kitchen chair. He got the purse and dumped the contents out on the kitchen table, Judy behind him bleeding out on the hardwood, her breathing shallow and strained. He grabbed the ring of keys from the pile—Christ, three different pill vials in there—and seeing a small red leather billfold picked it up and flipped it open.

Smiling up at him from her Minnesota driver’s license photo was Judith Marie Bruton. Not a bad picture for a license photo, Frank was thinking as he thumbed through the nearly two hundred bucks of cash in the billfold and discovered another driver’s license stuffed behind the bills. Picture on the North Dakota-issued card was a sober, more serious and severe version of Judy Bruton. But the name on the card was Lisa Louise Semke. Address: 1417 McFarlane Road, Bismarck, North Dakota. And like almost everyone else in the country that moved somewhere new, Lisa had neglected to renew her driver’s license within the prescribed time period.

Hoping sister Lisa would still be at the mansion when he arrived, Frank stuck the license cards back where they came from, took Judy’s keys and left the apartment, hearing the lock click behind him as he skulked down the hall to the stairs.

(End of Chapter 25)

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CHAPTER 25, EXCERPT 3

She swayed into the living room, took a seat on the couch and crossed her legs, sexy shoe dangling off one toe. Images and feelings were rising in Frank’s head and bringing to the forefront the self-hatred he believed lived at the core of all Ford family men. He stood there stiffly, unsure of himself, watching her take a sip of champagne. She turned those eyes on him again. “Sure you won’t join me?” she said, setting the champagne flute down on the coffee table and picking up a metallic blue cigarette pack. Smiling up at him, she shook out a Benson and Hedges.

This wasn’t going well. The way she was looking at him… the goddamn way she had of laughing at him behind her eyes… that little smirk… bitch impenetrable there on the couch…. “So what if I decide to take what I know to the cops, Judy? The two cops working on Ray’s case got to know me pretty well. You think they’d listen if I brought them this story? Think they’d take a look at the birth records and find out you have a sister, maybe start to wonder what you’re up to?”

“They’d never find anything, Frank. Little town in North Dakota where we were born had a tragic fire recently. All the public records were destroyed. Kept them all in cardboard boxes in the old town hall, which was an ancient building. Stuff burned real hot, I heard. Bring them that story and the cops’ll think you finally went over the edge, Frank. Far-fetched shit like that—who’d believe it?”

“I’m sure there’d be someone around that little town that would remember two tow-headed twin girls, has to be someone.”

“I doubt it, Frank, but nice try. Thing was, as my father told me a long time ago, my mother didn’t like me from the giddy-up. Thought I fussed too much, I guess. So the loving woman took my sister and split for Bismarck when I was just a few months old, leaving Dad and I to fend for ourselves. So those towheaded girls were never really together for anyone to see, Frankie, but you get an A for effort. The old man took me to Moorhead and we lived there until the lung cancer got him. My sister saw the obituary in the newspaper and looked me up. Turns out that my sweet mother was already dead from cirrhosis. Appropriate, huh? When I moved here to Zenith, Lisa and I stayed in touch and now we’ve become quite close.” Frowning, Judy stubbed her cigarette in a large ceramic ashtray shaped like a clamshell.

Frank couldn’t take it anymore. His head was spinning and he couldn’t think straight. Couldn’t stop the pain, the images rushing in: Ray, Nikki, naked woman with wings, Mr. Pills, Doughboy, Artie Autry… it was all swirling… thrashing… and he put his hands to his temples and squeezed. Judy still had that look—that face. It was saying Come to me, Frank, forget about the pain. Drown in my soft, sweet flesh and forget….

But nah, she was doing it to him again. More of her tricks. Getting in his head and making him think her way.

“I always knew you had something special, Frankie. Ray-Ray was fun to play with, but you’re a real man. Come and show me.”

He started toward her, confusing emotions pulling and tugging, mingling and spinning. Her lips and eyes taunting him… inviting him…

That goddamn overconfident grin….

He moved in closer and slapped her hard across the face. “I need to know about my goddamn little brother, Judy. Shit is tearing me up inside and you’re gonna tell me what happened, one way or another.”

She jerked herself up off the couch and pushed him away, one hand on her reddening cheek, muscles in her face fighting with rage, a defiant smirk holding on. “That hit in the head affecting your memory, Frank? We’ve been over that before. I thought I told you—”

He slapped her again, harder this time. Now, finally, the smirk was gone. Her eyes smoldered with a familiar, timeworn hatred, Frank just the current recipient of what had likely dwelled there for a long time.

“You fucking asshole. Lay off the physical shit, and I’ll tell you. But I’m not sure you’re man enough to take it.”

“Try me.”

“Okay, smart guy,” she said, a cold light in her eyes. “After Ray ran away from me at the Cottage, I had Lew drive around to look for him. We found him walking along the street on the way to the Arrowhead Bridge and we pulled over. By that time he was a little more subdued, you know, sniffling and stuff—his face was kinda banged up—and it seemed like he was starting to accept things. I remember thinking he was probably reconsidering my offer of free drugs. So I—“

“Once a junky, always a junky, right Judy? Maybe if you’d shown Ray a little respect, treated him like a human being instead of another one of your pill pushers—”

She flat out laughed, superiority back flickering in her eyes. “Really, Frank? You have much success with that approach? Ray respond like a ‘human being’ to you?”

She was right. Ray didn’t often act like a normal human being. He was a shit, a dick, and an asshole. And a junky, besides. You could never count on Ray to act decent or reasonable. Least not for the last five, six years.

Frank’s voice was solemn. “Go on,” he said.

She went around Frank and moved toward the door, stopped at the edge of the kitchen and turned. “I got out of the car and talked to him. Offered to give him a ride back to Zenith, just like I told you before. But he didn’t run away like I told you, he just said Okay and got in. I don’t think he wanted to walk all the way over the bridge and everything, you know, so he got in the back and we started up the bridge. We’re halfway across, going through the old tollbooths, when Ray leans over the seat and starts kissing my neck and squeezing my tits—that part was true. He’s going, ‘I love you, I’ll always love you,’ and he’s got his arms around my neck and I’m thinking he’s gonna choke me out—his arms are like steel rods—so I start yelling and trying to pull his arms off me and Lew jams on the brakes and turns around and smacks Ray in the face. That got Ray off of me but then he starts punching on Lew and I get elbowed in the jaw. The two of them are throwing punches and blood is flying and Ray is fucking laughing and saying “you can’t hurt me you big ox, you must be a fag’ and shit like that, but Lew just keeps smacking away. I couldn’t believe how many punches Ray took. I mean I was thinking he must have gotten hold of some PCP or something. But then Lew pulls away all of a sudden and jumps out of the car. He’s going around to the back seat when Ray yells, ‘Fuck you, you goddamn bitch, I hate you,’ jumps out and runs to the edge of the bridge. Then he stops at the rail and starts yelling at me, ‘This is what you did to me, Judy, this is on you.’ He’s fucking crying—fucking blubbering—and then he just turns around and jumps right the fuck off the goddamn bridge. We ran over, but he was gone. I think he yelled ‘I love you’ as he was falling, but I can’t be sure.”

Franks heart fell into his gut. “Of course you’d think that. It fits right into your belief that you’re an irresistible woman, a femme fatale for the ages. Ray would love you forever, why? Because you treated him like warmed-over dog shit, threw him over for a rich douchebag and then demeaned him by offering drugs as a substitute? A substitute for someone he could no longer have? Someone who Ray evidently wanted more than life itself, which says right there how fucked up he was.”

She looked at her watch again, acting casual, indifferent. Frank didn’t want to believe what she’d said but something in it sounded right, sounded just like something Ray would do. Shit, he could almost hear the little dick’s voice getting higher and sharper as he’s screaming Fuck you like a goddamn love-struck adolescent.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 25, EXCERPT 2

He was a little uncomfortable going in. Okay, a lot uncomfortable. Felt like his head was about to explode or he might pass out. Gritting his teeth, he tried not to look too closely at anything. Time to rid himself of this poison. He stood to the side and watched her close the apartment door and slide the deadbolt across. She wore designer jeans below the custom blazer, and had new open-toed, high-heeled shoes on her feet. Her hair looked brighter than he remembered, had a sheen to it.

She turned to face him, switching on those bedroom eyes. Man, that face—it was all still there: the cunning, the aggressive sexuality, the drug lust, the self-serving greed, the lack of—shit, that was it, her face was lacking more than it possessed. No sense of humanity, no human feel, no kindness or empathy—it was a mask. And, Christ, it had to be Nikki’s psychology crap coming through or maybe the effects of his concussion—perhaps lingering effects from the LSD— but he thought he saw a hurt and frightened child hiding behind that mask.

But, man, it just had to be more of her tricks. She was a shapeshifter with otherworldly skills and she was making him see that hurt child. Just another of her illusions. The winged creature had enchanted Ray, and now wanted Frank to join his little brother in the graveyard.

“Care for a drink, Frank? Pills? Powder? Me?” She put her hand on her hip and flashed that crooked grin meant to charm.

“What’s your sister’s name, Judy?”

“What sister is that, Frank?”

“The one that’s working with you to scam Mr. Pills.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about, Frank. That’s some pretty nutso stuff you’re spouting.”

“You really going to play this game, Judy? Give me a fuckin’ break. Doughboy and Autry told me all about your scam. How you two got Pillsbury so fucked up on drugs and sex he doesn’t know if he’s coming or going. How you’re going to kill the bastard and make it look like he overdosed. How you’ll have an alibi while sis does the dirty work and disappears.”

“And you believe those two lowlife junky losers? You’re smarter than that, Frank. The only thing those two are involved in is selling the drugs I give them. And that is over now because Ray is gone and I sure as hell don’t need the cash. Autry and Loy are just pissed that I’m cutting them off and they’re throwing me a little payback. Two scumbags seeking some kind of numb-headed revenge—that’s all it is, Frank.” She started toward the kitchen. “Sure I can’t get you something? I’m gonna have some champagne, I do feel like celebrating. Care to join me? I’ve got time for just a splash before I have to go.”

“Look, Judy, I really don’t care what you people do to each other. Guys like Pillsbury deserve all the shit that falls on them as far as I’m concerned. But you were the last person to see Ray alive, near as I could find out, and I think you had Pillsbury’s goon throw him off the bridge.”

She chortled through her nose. “Oh, fucking please… I already told you about that.”

“Tell me again, my memory’s not so good lately.”

“You really want to go back over that depressing shit when we can party like rock stars, all paid for by Richard Xavier Pillsbury?”

“Depressingly, I do. But first, tell me this. Was it Pillsbury who sent those two goons in the white pickup after me on the day of Ray’s funeral? I always thought Autry was behind that but I can see now that it’s beyond his capabilities.”

“You got that right, Frank. When I saw you down there on the street that night talking to the angel dust twins, I got a little paranoid and called Richard. I thought you might have some weird ideas about what happened to Ray and want to get back at me. Crazy, huh? So Ritchie sent them after you. But then when I saw you working with the crew out at the house, you seemed to be more of a lover than a fighter—I sure got that right—and I told him to lay off. You should thank me.”

Thank her? Was she fuckin’ serious?

Could be.

“And one of those goons was with you at The Cottage the night you saw Ray—the night he disappeared?”

“Richard can always find somebody to do the heavy lifting. There’s plenty willing to take his money.” She shrugged. “But now I’m gonna relax for a few minutes.” Glancing at a delicate gold watch on her wrist, another seemingly new accessory. “Sure I can’t get you something, Frankie? It’s excellent champagne….”

She stepped into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and brought out two dark magnums of Bollinger champagne, seemed like a top shelf pour, real French stuff, never had it at the Metropole.

Frank stood there transfixed, wondering why she brought out two bottles, as Judy got a corkscrew from a kitchen drawer and popped the cork on one of the magnums of bubbly, smiling as it overflowed into the sink. Then she got herself a crystal champagne flute from a cupboard, splashed in the juice and walked past him on her way to the living room, leaving a scent trail he wanted to follow.

Jesus Christ, ten minutes ago he wanted to strangle her and now he was letting her play him. She was in control and on top and he was getting nice and pliant like a hunk of putty in her hands.

Fuck.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 25, EXCERPT 1

Frank didn’t really like guns that much—he’d said it before—but now it seemed the snub-nosed .38 was his only ally. Parked across the avenue from Judy’s building, he was wiping Autry’s blood from the Smith and Wesson with a rag he found on the floor among the crumpled Burger King and House of Doughnuts bags, and periodically glancing up at Judy’s apartment window. Window was dark now and the big Buick was nowhere in sight and that was fueling his impatience. Had him itching to blow out to London Road and check on Pillsbury Manor.

He fought the urge.

Would Judy show up before the cockroach and the mantis got here? That was the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. They had to be coming. Where else would they go? Take Autry to a hospital? Doubtful. Call the cops and report a stolen rust-bucket Dodge? Wasn’t gonna happen. But shit, man, would Judy show up at all? Maybe it was all going down out on London Road.

And then, mulling things over—Was he, Frank Ford, fucking crazy?

Having no answer for that, Frank continued to gaze out the dirty, streaked windshield. Neighborhood seemed even darker than the last time he was here. He had a weightless feeling in his gut, a head full of swirling confusion and a burning urgency that was tearing him a new asshole. Man—two sisters, possibly twins, working a scam on a wealthy douchebag—this was a story as timeless and American as they come. And it seemed the perpetrators were having an easy time of it. Evil woman Judy had brushed Frank off the table like a half-dead fly and tried to pull his wings off, but she failed, man, and now here he was.

Ten minutes later he was still waiting, his stomach roiling and a voice in his head demanding that he leave and stop acting crazy, go home and start thinking of ways to get Nikki back, best thing that ever happened to him.

Little brother Ray never gave you anything but heartache, Frank. Little shit isn’t worth the suffering. Mom will get over it eventually…

But then he saw the big Electra pulling in front of the apartment building. And when the interior light came on, all his pain seemed to come together behind his eyes, because there was Judy, cigarette dangling from her red lips, stepping out to the pavement dressed in an expensive looking dark velvet blazer with some kind of brocaded designs on it, a frilly white shirt underneath.

Frank stuck the pistol in his jacket and watched Mrs. Pillsbury taking her time up the steps, chick walking a bit unsteadily but scanning the surroundings with a caution not shown in her loose body language, Judy’s survival instincts seemingly trumping her fanatical, alcohol-induced confidence.

Frank was cringing at the memories, old images flooding his head as he stepped out of Doughboy’s Dodge and started down the sidewalk. He wanted to get to her before she went through the security door but now it seemed that all his pain had joined together for a party in his bad knee. Pushing himself along, he got to the vestibule just as Judy was putting her key in the lock of the inner door.

Christ, was that the sound of wings rustling up there on the roof?

Frank limped up behind her knowing she sensed his presence. “Which one are you?” he said to her back and watched her turn, her face going from annoyed to bitter and then to wary and smirking in a heartbeat, that gallingly confident, you-can’t-stop-me-I’m-smarter-than-you look returning to front her eternally damned soul. And now Frank knew only too well which one she was by the way his gut was jumping with the scent of her and how his hands seemed to have a life of their own dedicated to getting around that lovely neck and squeezing the diseased life out of it.

“Well, Frank Ford thinks he knows something,” Judy said. “Or are you just here for round two, Frankie? We did get in on, didn’t we? You rocked me like my back had no bone, honey. Hoping for more, dear?”

Frank had the feeling she was looking down at him again even though he was half a foot taller. He straightened himself and puffed out his chest. “How about we dispense with the regurgitated song lyrics and go up to your apartment for a little talk? I’ve been socializing with your good pals Maynard Loy and Art Autry tonight, and now I’m afraid they’re a little upset with me because I didn’t play nice. And it’s possible they might be arriving here real soon. I know how much you enjoy your peace and quiet—so perhaps we should go upstairs.”

She hooded her eyes and looked at the floor and Frank saw her Adam’s Apple bounce up and down once before she smiled and went back to turning the key in the lock. She opened the door and stepped through without looking at him and Frank followed behind, feeling small.

Going up the stairs Frank was painfully reliving the night that changed his life forever. But by the time he’d huffed up to the top floor and was breathing hard going down the hall toward Judy’s apartment, he’d had a change of attitude.

Cut the shit, Frank. Dispense with the drama. Just about every night since Ray died has changed your life forever. That’s the way it goes, man. Stop the self-pitying garbage and get to work. This is what you’ve been waiting for. This is your chance to make things right.

He watched her put the key in the apartment door. He could smell the sweet scent of alcohol mixing with her familiar perfume. It never failed to give him a rise, the combo of oxidizing booze and perfume a heady mix he used to call barroom aphrodisiac back in his tending days.

(To be continued)

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