The Key to a Woman’s Heart

A Black Spectre Adventure

The Black Spectre: Volume I (Buy Now!)

SPRING was in the air. The time when men and women alike are consumed with thoughts of love and romance. The citizens of Terminal City all walked with an extra bounce in their step, a new twinkle in the eye. L’amour! Its spell was inescapable.

For everyone except Charlie Hecht.

Charlie threw back another swig of bourbon. He let it settle in the back of his throat for just a moment, then swallowed it down slowly to let the alcohol do its magic. It had been a rough day. One of the biggest stories of his career had just fallen apart on him (turned out his source had been lying through her false teeth). But that wasn’t what was really nagging at him. No, this one was a matter of personal pride that just cut him to the heart.

“Thought I’d find you here,” Ben Gelbert, fellow reporter at the Terminal City Standard, muttered through his chomped cigar as he meandered into O’Doule’s Bar, their usual hangout.

Charlie poured himself another drink from the bottle he’d purchased.

Gelbert bellied his squat girth up beside him. Against Charlie’s lean (if oily) good looks, they were the picture of opposites. “What’s eating you, Pal?” Gelbert asked.

“I’ve lost my touch, Benny Boy. Afraid I’m all washed up,” Charlie confessed. “Might as well send me out to pasture. I’m thinkin’ of joinin’ the priesthood.”

Gelbert shook his round head in disbelief. Not this again. Dames. And he knew just the one, too.

“I’ve tried everything — charm, flowers, jewelry, charm. Everything. But can’t seem to turn that doll’s head,” Charlie lamented. “Maybe I just don’t got it no more.”

“Vicky Rose,” Gelbert muttered under his breath. A rose by any other name. And that auburn-haired minx was their top rival over at the Crusader. Who’d have believed it?

“What does she even see in that bookworm she’s been tied to?” Charlie wondered aloud. “How could she turn me down for a guy like that?”

“Charlie, look. You been going about this all wrong.” Gelbert stopped and shook his head at the irony of the situation. “I can’t believe I’m giving advice on dames to a guy like you. You make Casanova look like a rank amateur. But you been going about this all wrong. The rules don’t apply with this doll.”

“Whatd’ya mean?” Charlie asked.

“How many times has this gal shot you down?” Gelbert replied. “She’s one of us. She’s been to college. You gotta know you ain’t gonna turn her head with a flashy smile and some fancy talk. You gotta do more to get this one.”

“Like what?” Charlie asked, thoroughly puzzled.

“You gotta make it about her,” Gelbert explained. “Find out what she likes. This much is true. Every doll has a weak spot. You gotta find out what that is.”

Charlie gave a drunken nod in agreement.

“Not to be too on the nose,” Gelbert continued. “But you’re an investigative reporter for crying out loud. Investigate!”

#

VICKY ROSE, beautiful, auburn-haired reporter for the Daily Crusader, sat down on her favorite stool at the Carousel Ice Cream Parlor. As usual, Jerry, the shop’s tough-as-nails proprietor (another picture in contrasts if there ever was one), was ready with her usual — a double chocolate malt. Jerry knew to let her get a good sip and let the frozen chocolate taste begin to work its magic before he even said a word. Her exhale of satisfaction was the signal that it was okay to speak.

“What’s the scoop today, Vick?” Jerry asked with his usual chuckle. It was his favorite “reporter/ice cream” joke. It never failed to put a smile on her face. Mainly because she loved the big lug like a father.

“See that guy across the street,” she asked with a nod before she took another long sip. “Tall fellow, tan suit. Reading the Standard.”

“You can see that from here?” Jerry asked with amazement.

“Nah, Vicky explained. “He writes for the Standard. Wouldn’t be caught dead reading anything else, even when he’s up to no good.”

“Yeah, I see him,” Jerry replied as he cast a careful, suspicious glance out the front windows. “Want me to take care of him?” He cracked his knuckles for good measure.

“No,” she answered, though the thought was certainly appealing. “Name’s Charlie Hecht. Gives me a pick up line at least twice a week. Been following me around all day.”

“What’s he up to?” Jerry asked. “Think he’s trying to steal a scoop?” This time the pun was unintentional.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “This isn’t his usual playbook. He’s up to something, though. Keep an eye out, will you?”

“You can count on that,” Jerry answered with protective fervor.

Vicky took her time as she finished her shake. Every few minutes, she got an update from Jerry. “Still out there?” she asked matter-of-factly.

“Yep,” he answered.

Vicky had half a mind to just charge across the street and confront him. But, she thought that would kill any potential entertainment value. So, she decided to let things play out to see what might happen.

#

CHARLIE strode into the Carousel after Vicky finally left. He worried she might have seen him, but figured she must not have when she didn’t come over and berate him. She’d spent quite a bit of time talking to the giant bruiser behind the counter. Looked liked he’d just gotten out of the pen. But Charlie was after information and hoped the big palooka would be willing to spill.

“Hiya, Pal!” Charlie sang with a charming smile as he palmed a fiver and slid it across the counter. “How’s about doing me a little favor?”

Jerry loomed over Charlie with a raised eyebrow and a cold stare. “Yeah?”

“That doll that was in here, Vicky Rose.” Charlie tapped on the bill. He had the numbers face down so that it wasn’t obvious how big (or small) it was. “What would a fellow need to know to get on her good side?”

Jerry stared silently back for a moment, then answered, “However many bills you got here, I’m gonna give you that many seconds to get out that door. Then I’m gonna break that many bones in your body. One at a time. Got it?”

Charlie had a good two seconds to spare when he hit the sidewalk.

#

THE next morning, Charlie hustled into City Hall and made a beeline for the press room. He rushed in with arms open wide and greeted the Standard’s two old-timers with a warm smile. “Morty! Higgs! How you old fellows doing?” He was sincerely hoping that old times and journalistic brotherhood would carry the day.

Reporters who covered City Hall were either young, eager pups who hadn’t yet gotten their feet wet (which Vicky’d been until not quite a year ago), or old timers who were counting down the days until retirement. Morty Cohen and Bill Higgs fit into the latter category. And Charlie had helped put them there. But he sincerely hoped they wouldn’t hold that against him. Journalistic camaraderie and all.

“Nyahh!” Higgs hissed and turned back in his chair. Charlie should have known that the wiry old codger was a lost cause.

Charlie grabbed Morty’s hand for a shake and sat down with him. Morty was a kind soul with a fatherly demeanor. “Morty, old pal, I could really use a favor. How about it? For old times’ sake?”

Morty sat back in his chair, not really sure if he should trust Charlie again. “Well, I don’t know,” Morty replied. “It all depends.”

“Don’t do it!” screeched Higgs as he spun back around in his chair. “Probably got to do with some dame!” Higgs knew him all too well.

“Not a chance,” Charlie protested. “I was just hoping for a little fatherly advice.” Charlie hoped he wasn’t pouring it on too thick.

“What kind of advice?” Morty asked, feeling that Higgs’ natural suspicion was rubbing off on him. But with good reason.

“It’s about Vicky Rose,” Charlie admitted.

“See,” Higgs shot back. “Told you it was a dame!”

“No, not just any dame,” Charlie protested. He knew he’d have to sell this one big time. “You know Vicky. She’s one of a kind!” That much was certainly true. “I tell you, she’s stolen my heart, but she won’t give me the time of day. I could really use your help.”

“Nyahh!” Higgs screeched again. He was no fan of gal reporters, but even less of a fan of Charlie Hecht. He didn’t care if they did work for the same paper.

Morty considered his thoughts carefully. Vicky, despite her young years, was one of the best judges of character he knew.

“Well,” Morty answered. “Looks like you’re out of luck then.”

#

“THOSE turncoats!” Charlie grumbled and took another swig of bourbon. “Can you believe it? From our own paper!”

“Well,” commiserated Gelbert in agreement. “Looks like you’re gonna have to venture into enemy territory.”

“Right,” Charlie agreed. “I need someone on the inside. Of course!”

Gelbert lightly tapped his fingers on the bar, understandably anxious about where he was about to go. “You know, the best person to ask about a skirt is another skirt.”

“Right,” Charlie agreed, a little slow on the uptake. It took another moment or two before the light bulb finally lit up.

“No, way!” Charlie protested. “I’m not calling her!”

“Come on,” Gelbert argued. “She’s your best bet. They work at the same paper. Have lunch together all the time. If anyone knows, she knows.”

“I’d rather talk to that bookworm boyfriend of hers,” Charlie shot back.

#

“YOU’RE barking up the wrong tree, believe me!” Dave Reilles warned Charlie as they shared a drink in his office at the Daily Crusader. “Take it from experience, you’re wasting your time on that gal.”

“You, too, huh?” Charlie asked.

“You’re darn right, me too,” he continued. “She’s a cold fish if there ever was one, I tell you. I tried flowers, chocolates. Even sent her a little poem I got out of a greeting card. Course, I changed it up a little. No dice! Turned me down flat every time!”

“You don’t say,” Charlie added, sensing he’d struck a nerve. He could certainly understand. Dave was a near mirror image of himself, though slightly more rugged.

“I mean, why else is she working here if she doesn’t want to find a husband, eh?” Dave asked. “I mean, she’s been going out with that Abercrombie down in the morgue for the longest time. That’s when I figured it.”

“Figured what?” Charlie asked curiously.

Dave leaned in and added secretly, “She ain’t like other gals, you know what I mean? The bookworm is just a front, eh?”

Charlie leaned back in surprise. That was one theory he’d never entertained. He took a moment to consider the thought. It would certainly explain a lot. Then, just as quickly, he dismissed the idea. Vicky was all woman, he was sure of it. Dave’s theory was just a lot of sour grapes. Really sour.

“I wouldn’t waste my time if I was you,” Dave continued. “Think about it logically. Why else would a gal turn down either one of us? Either that or she’s a Nun, and she ain’t no Nun. Know what I’m saying?”

#

“WELL, look what crawled out into the light,” the voice rang out from behind him. Charlie stopped short in his tracks. He was almost out the door. He’d even taken the long way out just to make sure he’d avoid her. So much for that.

He dug down deep to muster a charming smile then turned around to see Lenore Lamonte sauntering towards him in a skin tight black dress that would make a Priest blush. He and Leonore had “a history” as they say, and it wasn’t a good one.

Lenore Lamonte was the Daily Crusader’s Society columnist. As a distant cousin of the prominent Lamonte family, she had the right last name to travel in certain circles. Her job wasn’t highly regarded in those circles, but she knew when to be discreet. It was more what she didn’t report that kept her social calender full.

She looked him over with a disapproving eye. “Hello, Sailor.” It was a moniker she’d pinned on him some time ago because, as she put it, he “acted like he was always on shore leave.” Working at the paper, she’d learned how to be rough around the edges when she needed to be. That was something her hoity-toity cousins could never do.

“Leonore!” Charlie sang out, unable to resist admiring her lethal form. She was a tiger in sheep’s clothing, this one. “I didn’t expect to run into you.”

“Of course not,” she replied. “I only work here. So, what brings you into enemy territory?” She meant that in more ways than one.

“Just in the neighborhood,” he stammered. “Thought I’d drop in and say hello.”

“Oh?” she inquired. “Anyone in particular? I mean, seeing how you didn’t come by my office.”

He wasn’t about to tell her the truth. He knew Leonore was no fan of Vicky — call it professional jealousy, or just plain jealousy. But being the only two women reporters at the Crusader (though Vicky never considered Leonore an actual reporter), they were more or less forced into being friends. Of course, she was the perfect person to ask for advice on Vicky (as Gelbert had pointed out), but considering their own past history, he wasn’t about to.

“Yeah, Dave Reilles. Was just shooting the breeze is all.”

“Cut the bull, Charlie,” she barked, quickly dropping any semblance of nicety in her voice. “I know exactly why you’re here. You’ve been snooping all over town trying to get the goods on Vicky. You slimeball.”

“Who told you?” Charlie asked with surprise.

She did,” Leonore shot back. She swatted his tie out of line and sauntered back down the hall. As much as she irritated him, he couldn’t resist taking in the show.

#

CHARLIE threw his keys on the kitchen table of his cramped, fourth floor apartment. He went straight for the liquor cabinet (okay, kitchen cabinet) and poured himself a drink. So, Vicky knew all about his little “investigation.” He was sure she and Leonore were having a good laugh at his expense. Lord knows what else Leonore had told her.

He plopped down in his easy chair and closed his eyes. If he didn’t start chasing a story soon instead of some skirt, there’d be hell to pay at the paper. It was time to just give up.

Just then, he felt a strange chill in the air. Not to mention the sensation of something looming over him. He opened his eyes and found himself face to face with the gleaming white skull on The Black Spectre’s mask.

“Why are you following Vicky Rose?” The Spectre demanded. Then with a quick wave of his hand, Charlie flew up out of his chair and collided with the ceiling.

Charlie’s whole body felt numb and tingly, just like when your foot goes to sleep, he thought. He dropped his glass which hit the floor and scattered its remaining contents. He could only look down in terror, horrified at the thought of what The Spectre had in store for him. He’d heard stories, but this was the first time he’d ever encountered him in person.

The Spectre himself floated up off the floor, just a foot or so, so that he could look Charlie in the eye once again.

“Why are you following Vicky Rose?” he asked again, this time with much more measured malice.

“I swear,” Charlie stammered, “I didn’t mean nothing by it. I was just trying to get her to go out with me. Just a date. I was only trying to find out what she likes, that’s all.”

The Spectre just stared back silently.

Charlie chuckled nervously. He hoped he could appeal man-to-man (or whatever The Spectre was) “This gal, she plays real hard to get, see? She’s a tough nut to crack, you know?”

Charlie did his best to smile. All he could do was hope that somewhere beneath that black cloak was someone who might feel for his predicament. This was a matter of the heart, after all. Well, not exactly the heart, Charlie knew, but close enough, he thought.

Charlie felt the feeling come back into his body. He wouldn’t have been so relieved if he’d realized sooner what that meant. He plummeted to the hardwood floor and hit the rug with a solid thud that scared the neighbors below. It practically knocked the wind out of him and bloodied his nose.

After catching his breath, he lifted his head and looked around. There was no sign of The Spectre. He rolled over, painfully so, onto his back. Yes, The Spectre was gone. He let out a sigh of relief. That’s when he noticed it. There, on the ceiling, where he’d just been pinned, was drawn an “X.”

#

IT HAD been two days since Charlie’s visit from The Spectre. He’d more or less given up on his amorous pursuit and gotten back to work. He’d already picked up some leads on a couple of stories and was anxious to chase them down. Gelbert had asked a few times why he’d cooled off all of a sudden, but he hadn’t spilled a word of his visit from The Black Spectre. He was too worried about possible repercussions and felt it was just better to keep the whole thing under his hat.

Charlie was just about to dash out when his phone rang. “Hello, Sailor!” sang the voice on the other end. He swallowed hard. Perhaps she’d heard about The Spectre. He answered back happily, doing his best to hide the anxiety in his voice.

“So, you give up on tagging little Red?” Leonore asked. She knew how to be blunt when she had to be.

Charlie let out a silent sigh of relief. Had Leonore known about The Spectre, it would have been the first thing out of her mouth.

He leaned back in his chair and replied, “No, just taking a step back is all.”

“Right,” she replied. It was clear she didn’t believe a word of it. She knew him better than that.

There was a long moment of silence. Charlie was starting to wonder if they’d been disconnected when Leonore finally spoke up. “Look, I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but here’s what you do. She’s got a thing for fine furnishings.”

“Huh?” Charlie asked, completely perplexed.

“Look, you’ve been trying to find her weak spot, right? Well, that’s it. You get her in the penthouse suite at the Lexington for a private dinner, and she’s all yours. I promise you.”

“The penthouse, huh?” Charlie swallowed hard at the thought of how much that would cost him. Was she worth it? Without a doubt.

“That’s the price, Sailor-Boy,” she replied. “And she doesn’t come cheap.” Leonore couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought of Charlie breaking his piggy bank and going through his seat cushions to dig up enough scratch for this night out. It was sweet revenge indeed.

“So, why the change of heart?” he had to ask. “Why tell me?”

“Well,” Leonore replied. “I had to decide who I dislike more, you or Vicky. Congratulations.”

#

VICKY finally made it into the office just before nine. It had been a rough day already and it was just getting started. She’d been chasing a lead all morning on a major bribery story that, so far, hadn’t panned out. Turned out the source had been lying through her false teeth. She returned to find exactly what she expected — a desk full of messages. Mostly from Frank Matson, her editor.

But there was one thing she didn’t expect. An ornate vase with a dozen, perfectly exquisite red roses. Right off the bat, she knew they weren’t from Denny. Unless he had another uncle that was a florist (like the uncle who ran their favorite restaurant), he could never afford such extravagance.

Brent Gregor perhaps? It wasn’t the first time she’d entertained the thought. That would get Denny’s goat, for sure. The only other possibility was Charlie. He’d been quiet for the past few days. Perhaps the roses were the culmination of his research. They would certainly be quite a step up from his usual tactics.

No need to keep guessing. She plucked the card from the vase and opened it up. It contained just a simple message: “Meet me to-night at the Lexington, Penthouse Suite. 7:00pm, sharp.” The lack of a signature told her exactly who it was. The message was more The Black Spectre’s style (funny, she hadn’t thought of him), but the roses most definitely weren’t (probably why). Charlie. He’d even picked a night when she never went out with Denny. She tapped her fingers on her desk for a moment. Charlie had certainly been doing his homework. The Penthouse Suite at the Lexington was irresistible, even if Charlie wasn’t.

He’d at least piqued her curiosity, if nothing else.

#

VICKY wormed her small, two-door coupe past the throng of taxi cabs and up to the front of The Lexington. She wasn’t used to going in through the main entrance. Always willing to do what’s needed in the pursuit of a story, she’d had far more experience sneaking in through the back.

It was nearly five after Seven. She wasn’t “sharp,” but she was there. Emil, the portly, bushy-bearded doorman appeared from out of nowhere and opened her car door.

“Good evening, Miss Rose,” he chimed happily. “So good to have you joining us again this evening. I see we decided to use the front door for a change, yes?”

“Evening, Emil,” she sang back. “You know me. Always full of surprises.” She handed him her car keys and reached inside her purse for a tip.

“No need,” Emil told her, putting his hand up instead of out (for a tip or a bribe). “It’s all been taken care of. Just go right on in. We’ve been expecting you.”

Wow, Vicky thought with an unexpected smile. She wasn’t the only one who was full of surprises. Emil quickly snapped for a valet, then rushed to open the door as she strolled into the elegant lobby.

She was quickly greeted by another familiar face. “Good evening, Miss Rose,” chirped Bellman Laurier. “We’ve been expecting you.” He motioned her towards the elevators.

“Just a moment, Laurier,” she told him as she took a few moments to take in the splendor that surrounded her. Tall, white columns that lifted high to the recessed ceiling. Crystal chandeliers that dazzled the lobby with glittering jewels of light. Lush, finely woven carpets that stretched the length of the entire, vast lobby. She could have stayed there all night, but she knew that greater, luxurious pleasure awaited.

“Right this way, Miss Rose,” Laurier intoned after she indicated that she was ready to move on. He took her straight to a waiting elevator. As she was about to board, she passed the beautiful, young blonde socialite, Constance Van Broman, on her way up as well. She was on the arm of a tuxedoed gentleman twice her age. Vicky knew her, of course, mostly by reputation (thanks to Leonore’s Society column) and had met her casually a couple of times in the company of Brent. It appeared they were both there for the same reason. Vicky was momentarily surprised by the thought. It appeared Constance was too, judging by her surprised expression when she entered her own elevator car. Vicky was even more surprised that Constance even remembered who she was.

“Straight to the top, Ernie,” Laurier instructed the short, young elevator operator. “Penthouse Suite.”

“Yes, Sir!” sang Ernie as he cranked the dial and sent the car traveling skywards. He seemed even more excited than she was. Vicky assumed it wasn’t every day that Ernie got to take the elevator to the topmost floor.

“Nice to see you again, Ernie,” Vicky smiled warmly.

“Nice to see you again, too, Miss Rose,” he replied with a knowing look. She glanced back to Laurier — he had the same look about him. Of course, she thought. They all knew why she was there. She didn’t like the thought at all, but there was no denying that was why she was there. Of course, she had no intention of going through with it. She was only there in an “investigative capacity.” But there was no point in arguing that point with them.

And no time, either. For just as soon as she had come to that conclusion, the bell sounded, indicating the end of their sixteen flight journey.

“Here we are,” Ernie announced happily. “Penthouse Suite.”

The elevator doors opened to a hallway that didn’t look much different from the other floors, except that it was much shorter. And rather than a room number, the lone door at the end was adorned with a “P.”

“Good night, Miss Rose,” Laurier chimed as she stepped out of the elevator.

Vicky quickly turned around, but instead of debating the point, merely answered back, “Good night.” Of course, she was sure that she would see them both again shortly.

Vicky hesitated for a moment as a million thoughts ran through her head. She took a deep breath then knocked softly on the door. She had barely wrapped a second time before the door opened slowly before her. There, sharply dressed in black tie and tails (rented, she assumed), stood Charlie with a debonair smile and not a single hint of his usual lascivious grin.

“Good evening, Vicky,” he said warmly. “I’ve been expecting you.” He stepped aside and motioned for her to enter.

“So I see,” she answered as she strolled in. Her heart skipped only a little as he gently closed the door behind her. Even in these elegant surroundings, she was prepared to fight him off if needed.

And oh, what surroundings they were! The living room nearly rivaled that of most Lakeview Heights mansions, just on a smaller scale. The carpet was lush, the wallpaper ornate, the crystal chandelier elegant, the couches inviting, and she could have easily wrapped herself up in the flowing red draperies. But the one feature that no Lakeview Heights mansion could match was the balcony.

“Come on, have a look,” Charlie beckoned her. “Best view in the whole city.”

He was right. As Vicky stepped out on the Penthouse balcony, the wind swept through her flowing, auburn hair and threatened to carriy her away. Below, like a million glittering jewels in a pillow of black satin, stretched the entire city at her feet. It was like a magical wonderland of teaming lights, bridges, and an endless river that disappeared into the Great Lake beyond. It was truly something to behold. Charlie had certainly outdone himself. He’d discovered her weakness and she could feel herself being swayed by temptation.

“So, you hungry?” he asked, a bit abruptly. Despite the black tie, Charlie could only be so smooth.

“Actually,” she answered, “I think I need to powder my nose.”

She ducked into the nearest bedroom and fought the temptation to roll around on the silk sheets of the King-size bed (she did feel them, however). She locked the bathroom door behind her, stared into the mirror, and took a deep breath.

Leonore. It was the first thing that came to her mind. Leonore must have told him. She’d have to get her back somehow.

She fanned herself. The lush surroundings were certainly having the desired effect. Well, for Charlie, anyway. If only she had been there with someone else. But before she could think of Denny, Brent drifted into her mind again.

She took in her new surroundings. She wanted nothing more than to feel those satin sheets on her bare skin. Now she found herself looking at a marble sink with crystal knobs and more. Escaping to the hallway would probably have been a better idea.

Several minutes later, Vicky re-emerged. She half expected to find Charlie in a state of undress, ready to pounce. Instead, he remained the perfect gentleman and stood when she entered. He never once betrayed the slightest disappointment that she hadn’t “slipped into something more comfortable.”

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Yes, just fine,” she answered in that hushed tone familiar to any man who’s ever had his heart broken.

“Charlie,” she began, “I can’t thank you enough for all the effort you’ve gone to to-night. You really did everything perfectly.”

His smile cracked just a bit. He knew where this was going. He started to answer back, to plead his case, but he knew that anything he said would just lead to her storming out.

“This suite, oh my heavens, it’s just so amazing.” She drifted a moment as she glanced around and let herself get taken in once more by the intoxicating furnishings.

She took another breath and continued. “The tuxedo, and especially this truly wonderful view. I have to admit, it’s all very flattering and yes… very tempting. I can’t believe you went to all this trouble just for me. You’ve shown me a side of you that I’ve never seen before.”

She stopped for a moment to collect her thoughts. She didn’t want to look back at him, but she had to. He stood there still, doing his best to smile, ever the gentleman.

“I really did give it serious consideration,” she continued. “I want you to know that. But the simple fact is, my heart belongs to someone else. And I think I just realized that, too.”

Then, on impulse, she took two quick steps forward and gave him a kiss like he’d never felt before. It wasn’t a kiss of passion, but more of appreciation, and it was one he would treasure for a long time to come.

And with that, she was gone.

#

THE Black Spectre stood tall on the roof of the Lexington, perched just above the Penthouse balcony. He watched as Vicky drove off into the night and the lights from her car disappeared into the teaming bustle of lights that enveloped the city streets far below.

While he could have looked into the room from outside, he didn’t. He could even have gone in unseen. But she would have known he was there. And now that she had left early, he felt relieved.

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