Chapter Twelve

The storeroom was empty when Jackie opened the door, and for one horrible moment she feared the couple had left, then she heard voices and realized they'd merely moved into the office.

Turning back, she whispered to Vincent to lock the storage room door. The last thing they needed was the saboteur perhaps trying to follow them in and discovering what she'd set up. Despite her dislike of Trevor, she didn't want him dead.

Leaving Vincent to follow when he finished with the door, Jackie scooped up her shoes from where she'd left them and walked around the shelf to enter the office.

"I thought you'd given up on me," Jackie said lightly as she entered. Trevor was seated in his desk chair to her right and Shell was seated on a large leather couch against the wall on her left in the black and gray office.

"No, we just thought this room would be more comfortable," Trevor announced, his eyes traveling over her.

Nodding, Jackie moved past Shell on the couch, sitting on her side furthest from the door to draw her attention away from the storage area. As she'd hoped, Shell shifted on the couch, turning slightly so that they faced each other with her back to the door.

"Well." Jackie forced a smile, her eyes skating from Shell to the doorway and back. Vincent was just approaching, easing carefully forward, his eyes seeking out everyone in the room.

Jackie started wracking her brain, trying to think of something to say that would distract Shell when Trevor stood up. "What are you waiting for, Shell? You?

When he went suddenly silent, Jackie glanced his way, noting his blank face with relief, then she was distracted by Shell, who hadn't noticed Trevor's sudden silence and had taken his first question as instruction. She'd moved up on her knees and was bending toward Jackie as if to lay a kiss on her. That was a little more distraction than she was willing to give. Her panicked eyes shot to Vincent for help just as he glanced their way.

His eyebrows shot up as Shell closed in, then his gaze narrowed on the girl. Jackie turned her attention back to the brunette at the exact same moment as Shell suddenly collapsed forward, against her chest.

Jackie released a slow breath, then glanced from Trevor standing stiff and still behind his desk, to Shell, who lay limp against her. "What did you do to her?"

"Nothing. I just slipped into her mind and blanked it," Vincent said with a shrug.

"Why is she so? Jackie nodded toward the seemingly unconscious girl. "Trevor isn't and neither was the laborer."

"She's easy," Vincent said simply.

"Ha-ha," Jackie said dryly and he bit his lip, probably to keep back a laugh.

"I told you it's been a while. I just used a bit more oomph than needed," he explained, moving further into the room. "She'll be fine."

"Oh, well, good," Jackie said with a sigh. "So go on and bite her."

Vincent caught the limp girl's arm and raised her off Jackie to lean her back against the couch. His gaze skated over her blank face. "She really hit on you, huh?"

"Just feed, Argeneau," Jackie said dryly.

"Hmm. I know I'm in trouble when you start calling me Argeneau." He sounded more amused than worried, but then he hesitated and said, "I can't with you watching."

"What?" she asked with surprise.

"I'm not used to an audience," he explained in pained tones. "Turn your back."

Jackie shook her head, but stood and moved to the door to the storage room. She leaned against the door jamb with her back to the room, slipping her shoes back on as she waited. After a moment of silence, Vincent said, "Make noise."

"What?" She glanced over her shoulder with amazement.

"Hum," he instructed. "I don't want you to hear."

"Oh, for heaven's sake! You're like a woman embarrassed to take a pee with people on the other side of the stall listening. Honestly." She glared at him, but it had no effect. He just waited patiently. Sighing, Jackie turned her back and began to hum, then feeling stupid, she stopped and said, "I'm going to go see if anyone is in the kitchen. Join me after you've finished here."

Slipping into the storage room, she pulled the door mostly closed, then walked around the shelf and crossed to the door leading into the kitchen. She pressed an ear to the door and listened. When she didn't hear any sound from the kitchen, Jackie hesitated, then unlocked the door and eased it open a crack so she could peek out.

The kitchen appeared empty, though she couldn't see all of it. Jackie considered stepping out and actually looking around, but something held her back. Her old hinky feeling was dancing along her spine, making the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. Jackie always listened to her hinky feelings, so instead of stepping out, she held her breath and listened for any sound that might give away the presence of someone standing nearby in a part of the kitchen she couldn't see.

When she couldn't hold her breath anymore and still hadn't heard anything, Jackie eased the door closed again and took a deep breath as she relocked it. Sighing, she leaned her forehead against the door and silently prayed that she hadn't made a mistake. She'd felt sure that Trevor and Shell could be kept safe if Vincent had them lock the door between his office and the storeroom and then leave via the door leading from his office out into the hall, but now was starting to worry again. Her hinky feeling always meant something was going to happen, and she didn't want it to be that these two people died because of one of her bright ideas.

Jackie sighed unhappily at the prospect, then nearly jumped out of her skin when hands slid around her waist from behind.

"I can feel your worry," Vincent said softly. "Everything will be all right."

Jackie turned to peer up at him and asked in a whisper, "Are you done?"

He nodded, allowing his hands to link around her back. "I wiped their minds, instructed Trevor to lock the door behind me, then take Shell and return to the dance floor via the other door in the office. Everything will be all right."

Jackie released her breath on a slow sigh. "Okay. They should be okay."

"Yes, they should," Vincent agreed, then urged her closer, and brushed his lips gently over hers. "Thank you. Again."

Jackie went still as he kissed her properly. Vincent might be easygoing in nature, but he wasn't when it came to kissing. He showed a masterful side, his hand sliding into her hair and tilting her head where he wanted it while his tongue slid in to lash hers. Jackie gasped and then moaned as her senses were overwhelmed. The man smelled good, felt good, tasted good, and kissed like a dream. She was a trembling, wide-eyed mass when he broke the kiss and hugged her close.

"Damn, Jackie, I don't blame Shell for wanting to lick every inch of you. I'd be happy doing that myself."

She closed her eyes on the erotic images that filled her mind, then forced herself to step away and said weakly, "We should go back to the table."

Turning away before he could convince her otherwise, Jackie opened the door and led him out of the storage room.

"Would anyone like coffee?" Tiny asked as they entered the house an hour later.

"That sounds nice." Jackie moved up the hall rather than block the entry as Marguerite, Tiny, and Vincent followed her inside. They had gone to a couple more clubs before returning home, and it was late, but she was reluctant to end the evening. Jackie didn't want to be alone. The thoughts waiting to overwhelm her were not happy ones.

"I'm going to go change into something more relaxing," she announced as Vincent paused to lock the door. "I'll check the answering machine on my way back."

"I'll make a pot of coffee and maybe a snack of some sort," Tiny said as he led Marguerite up the hall. He added, "If anyone's interested?"

"I am," Jackie answered promptly.

"Me too," Vincent said as he moved to the security panel to punch in the code to keep the alarm from going off. "I'm going to change as well and check on Stephano, but I shouldn't be long either."

Jackie started upstairs, hurrying to prevent being caught alone with Vincent. If he started to kiss her again... She shivered at the very idea, but then closed her mind to the possibility. There were far too many complications involved in any possible relationship between them. For one, it wouldn't be professional while she was working for him. And then there was the whole life mate, turning only one business. None of which she wanted to contemplate at the moment.

Jackie kicked off her shoes as she entered her room, removed her stockings and changed quickly into a black jogging suit, then headed back out. She wondered how Stephano was doing as she passed his door, but didn't stop to look in. Vincent could tell her when he got back down to the kitchen.

She had reached the foot of the stairs when Jackie remembered saying she'd check the answering machine. Neil had been home all night, but anyone wishing to get hold of him would have called on his cell phone. Vincent had told him not to worry about the phone and to let the answering machine get it while they were gone. She'd just check and see if there were any messages before heading to the kitchen, she decided.

On that thought, she turned in the direction of the office. Some part of her mind registered surprise when she saw that the door was closed. It was never closed unless someone was inside. When a cool breeze slid over her feet as she paused in front of the panel of wood, Jackie's hand froze on the knob.

Recalling the night the employee lists had gone missing and the fact that one of the French doors had been left open then, Jackie glanced around to the security panel and saw that it wasn't activated. Vincent had apparently punched in the code to prevent the alarm from going off, but not resecured the system. A soft sound from inside the room drew her attention back and Jackie instinctively thrust the door open. She was just in time to see a dark figure slipping out of the room via the same French door that had been opened last time.

"Hey!" Jackie said and rushed forward.

"There we are," Tiny said, turning on the coffeepot. "Coffee will be ready in a few minutes. In the meantime, I'm going to go change into my joggers. These dress pants are too tight."

"Okay." Vincent said, his head half inside the refrigerator as he perused its contents. He'd changed, then glanced into Stephano's room to find the injured man lying still and pale and Neil nodding off in a chair by the bed. Leaving them in peace, he'd come below, surprised to find that he'd beat Jackie back.

"Can you grab me a bag of blood while you're there, please, Vincent?" his aunt asked.

"Sure." Vincent retrieved a bag and straightened just in time to see Tiny slip from the room, then his glance slid to his aunt. "In a glass, or out of the bag?"

"The bag is fine, thank you," Marguerite murmured.

He carried the bag to her, handed it over, then took a seat at the table and shook his head.

"What is it?" Marguerite asked, catching the action.

"I was just thinking, I've owned this house for almost ten years and had never once used the kitchen until this last week or so, and now we seem to use it all the time."

Marguerite smiled faintly. "That's not the only thing that has changed since Jackie got here."

Vincent nodded in agreement, his gaze moving around the cozy room. It had always seemed somewhat cold and utilitarian to him before Jackie and Tiny had arrived. They'd filled it with sound, warmth, and the delightful smell of cooking food. Somehow, they'd made his house a home.

"Have you tried to read Jackie?" Marguerite asked suddenly.

"Yes, I tried to read her tonight and couldn't," he admitted quietly and then lowered his gaze to his clasped hands on the table top, his mind a muddle.

Vincent liked Jackie and enjoyed her company. He even liked her bossiness with him at times. And then there was tonight as they'd danced... Vincent had never felt so at peace in his life. Holding her in his arms, he'd felt like he'd found home.

As for when he'd kissed her... God, he hadn't felt such passion in centuries. His heretofore lack of interest in sex had most definitely been revived this evening. In fact, if he were to be honest with himself, he'd admit it had been revived even before tonight. Since the day in his office when he'd slipped into her dreams, Vincent had wasted hours each morning before going to sleep, just lying in bed, imagining stripping her naked, laying her on various flat surfaces, and feasting on every inch of her body.

But it had all seemed to be happening too fast. He'd delayed trying to read Jackie and finding out if she really was his life mate to allow himself time to adjust to the possibility that he had finally found his life mate, as well as to allow her time to get to know him. Immortals knew that when they found the one they couldn't read, they'd found their life mate. They accepted it and went with it easily. For mortals, it was a little different, they generally needed time to adjust. Their desire was there, and the bonding happened, but the logical part of their mind often insisted on a courtship.

Unfortunately, Vincent's delay had lost him any chance with Jackie. He could never turn her now. If he hadn't been such a coward and delayed, if he'd turned her right away?/p>

Vincent shook his head. If he'd done that, Stephano would now be dead, although he wasn't sure the man might not still die. He frowned to himself as he wondered why the man hadn't yet awoken. They were all starting to become terribly worried.

"Jackie has no family, nothing to hold her to the mortal world," Marguerite said suddenly, drawing his mind back to the topic at hand. "She would do very well as one of us, Vincent. She will be a good life mate to you. She compliments you perfectly."

"We will not be life mates," Vincent said quietly.

"She is your life mate, Vincent. Your missing half."

He shifted with irritation and snapped the truth he hadn't wanted to look at too closely before now. "I cannot turn her."

"But I can," she pointed out.

"You? Vincent paused abruptly and glanced toward the door as it opened, not wanting Jackie to overhear what they were talking about. However, it wasn't Jackie who entered. It wasn't even Tiny. He stared blankly at the man standing in the kitchen doorway. Tall, at least his own height or more, the man had long auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. He was also dressed all in black and eyeing them with cold, grim eyes.

"Who the hell are you?" Vincent asked, getting to his feet.

The stranger remained silent, his gaze sliding over Marguerite, only switching back to Vincent when he stepped protectively in front of her.

"Well?" Vincent asked.

The man arched one eyebrow, looking vaguely amused at his reaction to his presence as he finally said, "Christian Notte."

"Neil and Stephano's cousin from Europe," Vincent realized and his stance relaxed. Obviously, Jackie had let the man in and sent him to the kitchen. "When did you arrive in California?"

"Today," he admitted. "We called when we landed at the airport. There was no answer."

"We were out earlier making the rounds of the clubs and only got home about fifteen minutes ago. I told Neil not to bother answering the phone," Vincent explained. His gaze slid to the door as he wondered where Jackie was, but he supposed she was still in the office and would be along shortly. He glanced around the kitchen, but was at a complete loss as to what to do or say, finally he sighed and offered, "I'm sorry about Stephano. He's a good man. A friend."

Christian Notte nodded slowly, but he was frowning as he asked, "You were out tonight and just got back?"

"Yes." Vincent's eyebrows drew together at his expression. Concerned the man was offended that they appeared to be out partying so soon after Stephano's attack, he said quickly, "It was necessary. We weren't just out having a laugh." He hesitated, then added, "I have to feed off living donors because of a genetic?

"Neil explained about that," Christian interrupted. "He said the last donor you fed off of was murdered after Stephano's attack."

"Yes." Vincent nodded. "Well, I've been avoiding going out to feed for the past several days and have been feeding on delivery guys, but Tiny pointed out tonight that the saboteur would soon realize that was what I was doing if I didn't at least look like I was going to the clubs again. The last thing I want is anyone else killed, so we went out, and went quickly from one club to another in the hopes of losing my saboteur long enough for him to think I'd fed while he was trying to catch up to us."

Christian nodded. "It's probably for the best. If he didn't think you were feeding on the delivery people, he would probably assume you were feeding on your detectives and target them."

Vincent felt Marguerite stand behind him, then she touched his back. "Vincent, he might have thought as much when you slipped into the storage room with Jackie tonight. If he was there watching, he might think you were in there feeding on Jackie."

Vincent frowned at the suggestion. It was something he hadn't considered. He didn't want to mark anyone for death by feeding on them, but he definitely didn't want any harm coming to Jackie... or Tiny, he added as an afterthought. In truth, Jackie was his main concern.

"I'll have to talk to Jackie about this," he muttered, pushing one hand though his hair and then his gaze focused on Christian. He asked, "Did she go back into the office after she let you in?"

"No one let me in."

Vincent blinked. "What?"

"The panel at the end of the driveway was broken so we couldn't buzz you to open the gate. I left my cousin in the car, came over the wall and up to the house to have you open the gate so he could drive in. That's why I was surprised when you said you'd just got home. There's no way you could have driven past the damaged panel without noticing it. It's smashed and the wires pulled out."

Vincent stiffened at this news and frowned. "What did Jackie say when you told her about it?"

Christian tilted his head and asked, "Jackie is one of the private detectives your brother Bastien sent out from New York to help you with this saboteur?"

Vincent nodded. He'd told Neil everything. He'd felt he owed it to him to be honest about why his brother had been attacked.

"I haven't? Christian began, then paused as the kitchen door started to swing open again.

They all glanced toward it, waiting to see if Tiny or Jackie entered. Neither mortal did. Instead, another man paused in the doorway. Fair-haired and also dressed all in black, he peered around the people in the kitchen. His gaze moved with disinterest over Vincent, but flickered briefly with what might have been recognition on Marguerite before finally settling on Christian. One eyebrow rose in question.

"I told you to wait in the car, Marcus," Christian said with irritation.

"You were taking a long time," the man said with a shrug. "I came to nose around and found the French doors open, so I came in and followed the voices."

"The French doors are open?" Vincent asked, the hair on the back of his neck beginning to creep.

Marcus nodded.

"That's how I got in," Christian announced. "As I came up to the house I saw the French doors were open. Between that and the broken front panel, I thought there might be a problem, so I came in and followed your voices to the kitchen."

Marguerite turned and clutched at his arm. "Vincent, if the saboteur does think you fed on Jackie tonight and she is a target... Jackie was going to check messages in the office."

Vincent felt the blood drain from his face. Jackie would never leave the French doors open.

"I'll go see if Jackie is upstairs changing."

Vincent heard his aunt's words and saw her hurry out of the kitchen, but his mind seemed to be in something of a panic. Everything was moving at super slow speed for him. He gave himself a mental shake, glanced from one man to the other in his kitchen, then slowly followed his aunt's path and walked out of the room. She'd already disappeared upstairs, but Tiny was now coming down and his eyebrows flew up at the sight of the two men who had followed Vincent out of the kitchen. He supposed the man was a bit shocked. He doubted Tiny often saw men his own size and to see two now seemed to startle him.

"She's not in her room!" Marguerite didn't bother to hide her alarm as she reappeared at the top of the stairs.

Tiny glanced from Marguerite to Vincent. "Maybe she's still checking the answering machine."

Turning, Vincent continued up the hall to the office. He thrust the door open, his gaze flying around the empty room as papers flew off his desk, blown off by the wind coming from the still-open French doors.

"It was like this when I entered," Marcus announced, making Vincent aware that all of them had followed.

Vincent stared at the darkness beyond the open doors.

His heart seemed to stop dead in his chest as panic claimed him. Images swam before his eyes of Jackie's pale, broken body lying twisted and drained of blood. He'd made her a target without meaning to. He couldn't lose her now. She was his best hope for happiness in the future. And there was still hope for them.

Vincent wasn't sure if he would allow his aunt to turn her and give up her own hope of turning a life mate if she found one in the future, but it had reminded him that Stephano's mother had always wanted to turn her son. Neil's father was her life mate, she might be willing to turn Jackie for him. But even if she didn't, fifty years or so of bliss with Jackie were better than nothing.

Vincent rushed across the room and into the night, silently praying he'd find her in time.

Jackie's feet were cold. It was late enough that dew had formed on the grass and she was creeping barefoot through the damp blades. She wished she'd at least put slippers on. She also wished she'd called out for help before chasing off after the intruder she'd seen slipping from the house. Running after him had been instinct, but it had been a bad instinct. She was a lone, unarmed mortal tearing through the darkness on the heels of a strong, fast immortal. How stupid was that?

She glanced to the side as she ran around the back of the house. Light was spilling out of the kitchen windows in a wide square onto the tiled patio between the house and pool. In that lit room, Vincent, Tiny, and Marguerite were waiting for her to join them for coffee.

Jackie considered shouting out to them, but decided against it. The intruder was already far enough ahead of her that she wasn't likely to catch up. Her best hope at this point was to follow him, discover where he'd come onto the property so that they could perhaps prevent his using it again. And maybe to catch a glimpse of the license plate of his vehicle as he drove away.

If she got there in time to even see what he was driving, Jackie thought grimly as the dark figure ahead of her slipped into the trees and hedges that ran the length of the tall fence that separated the lawn from the sandy beach. These immortals were damned fast. Gritting her teeth, she put on a burst of speed and charged for the narrow line of woods bordering the back of the property.

Branches snapped under foot as she crashed into the trees and Jackie winced, knowing the stealth factor had just disappeared if it had ever been there. The saboteur definitely knew he was being pursued now. Although in truth, he had probably known prior to this, she acknowledged. The hearing of immortals was exceptional.

She paused as she reached the high wall that surrounded Vincent's property and glanced along its length both ways. There was no sign of anyone nearby. Either the saboteur had vaulted the fence, or was hiding.

Jackie hesitated, then glanced sharply up at the trees along the fence as a branch snapped. She'd barely glimpsed the figure in the branches overhead before he swung himself out and over the wall. She barely heard the thud as he landed on the other side. She was already climbing the nearest tree.

She would have someone out the next morning to cut the damned things down and to clear away all the hedges along the fence so that there was nowhere to hide, Jackie decided as she climbed. They might look more attractive than the plain wall, but safety was more important than aesthetics.

Unfortunately, Jackie was a city detective. Running up alleys, jogging up stairs, racing through subways... All of this she could manage without difficulty. However, there wasn't much call for tree climbing in New York. She managed to get herself up the tree and make her way out on the branch, but that was where her luck gave out. She heard the snap one heartbeat before the branch suddenly collapsed beneath her.

Jackie grabbed wildly at passing branches as she fell, but it was no use. She landed on something hard and only realized it was the intruder when she heard an "Oooomph!" as they both crashed to the ground.

Her panic immediately increased.

Jackie had been trained in martial arts since she was a small child, her father had insisted on it, and still she wouldn't take on an immortal unarmed. One, two, or maybe even three mortals? No problem, but immortals? Nah-uh. Not on her own and without a weapon of some sort to back her up. It wasn't just that they were stronger and faster. They didn't seem to feel pain like mortals either, as if the nanos blocked some of it when necessary to allow them to continue to do battle. And they were damned hard to knock out. As for killing them, forget about it. Unless you had something to take their heads off with, say a sword or grenade, you weren't going to win.

However, having fallen on the intruder, she didn't have much choice. Jackie was in the battle now and reacted automatically, her body scrabbling to do whatever was necessary to survive. It was a very short, desperate struggle. Realizing that she wasn't going to survive if she persisted, Jackie managed to take the intruder by surprise and roll away and to her feet in one move.

She had barely become conscious of the cold, gritty sand squishing between her toes when she was jerked around by the hair and into a dark embrace. Jackie grunted as her chest slammed against the intruder's chest, then gasped as her head was suddenly jerked back and to the side, then he struck like a snake, his head swooping forward toward the throat he'd exposed.

Suddenly as paralyzed as a cat caught by the scruff of the neck, she moaned at the rending pain as her throat was ripped open by unseen fangs. She then stared blindly at the stars overhead as the scent of blood drifted up around her, and slurping sounds filled her ears, and knew her life was being sucked away.

Jackie didn't know if it was blood loss, or horror, but after several endless moments, the pain and sounds began to fade to nothingness and even the stars overhead began to twinkle out of view.


She heard the shout with some faint part of her mind, but didn't understand what it meant until her attacker suddenly stilled, head jerking up away from her throat. Jackie's mind struggled back from the hopelessness and shock that had laid claim to it, the smallest flicker of hope sparking to life within her soul.

"Jackie!" This time she recognized Vincent's voice. She also saw blurry movement beyond her attacker, and immediately understood that it was salvation coming. Then she saw the glint of metal as her attacker suddenly released her. Some part of her mind was terribly alert, blindingly so, and instinct made her grab for the arm swinging the weapon in Vincent's direction, clawing at it with both hands, but she was weak with blood loss and couldn't hold on.

It was desperation and instinct that made Jackie sink her teeth into that arm. If she couldn't keep her attacker from wielding the weapon at Vincent, she would force him to drop the damned weapon. That was her only thought. She had to save Vincent.

Blood gushed into her mouth as Jackie chomped down on the wrist, but she merely swallowed the salty liquid to keep from choking and held on like a bulldog, terror and rage giving her the strength to do so.

A curse reached her ears, then her attacker pressed one hand to her forehead and pushed her off. Jackie felt more blood gush into her mouth as her teeth tore through flesh, then her hold slipped and she was tumbling backward to the sand. She moaned as her back slammed to the ground, then rolled weakly onto her side and lay limp, watching helplessly as her attacker turned on Vincent.

Much to her relief, her efforts had helped after all. Vincent had seen the weapon in the hand she'd been struggling to hold onto and now kicked out at it. She saw the knife go flying off into the darkness as the two began to struggle.

Heart pounding and hands clenching around her bleeding throat, Jackie curled into a ball in the cool sand and watched the shifting shapes in the darkness. It was hard to see anything, however, and she was so weak and weary.


Eyes that Jackie hadn't realized had closed, snapped open at that yell. She didn't recognize the man's voice. However, she did recognize Marguerite and Tiny as they called out to the two of them and relief flowed through her as their shouts drew nearer. She wasn't the only one to hear their calls, Jackie noted as the intruder suddenly gave up his fight with Vincent and made a run for it.

Vincent didn't even hesitate; ignoring the quickly disappearing shape, he hurried to her side.

"Jackie?" His voice was deep with worry as he turned her onto her back to check her over.


Jackie saw two shapes burst through the gate behind Vincent. She blinked and tried to focus on the two men. Both were big enough to be Tiny, but she didn't think either man was. Vincent didn't even glance toward them, his attention was wholly on Jackie as he scooped her into his arms.

"He went that way." Vincent jerked his head in the direction her attacker had run. Leaving the two men to pursue the saboteur, he then strode toward the gate through the wall.

"Vincent?" Marguerite rushed forward with Tiny on her heels as Vincent started across the lawn. "Is she going to be all right? Did you find her in time?"

"I don't know." His voice was terse, Jackie noted as she floated on the edge of consciousness.

"Her throat." Tiny's voice was a weak sound of despair.

"Open the door, Tiny," Vincent growled, sounding terribly upset and her mind, growing delirious, thought that was just the sweetest thing. He really liked her, she thought, then released a little sigh and allowed unconsciousness to claim her.

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