Sweet and Sour

Astrid Amara

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Miles thought he and Itai would make a great team, despite the infidelities haunting their past. After all, Itai is smoking hot, they're both driven entrepreneurs, and they love each other. What else did a person need? Well, a lot...
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Miles thought he and Itai would make a great team, despite the infidelities haunting their past. After all, Itai is smoking hot, they're both driven entrepreneurs, and they love each other. What else did a person need? Well, a lot more, apparently, because not only are they no longer passionate, they don't even share the same passions. Like people, affections change, but Miles wonders if a relationship this broken is truly worth repairing.

Itai's business launch with his ex-boyfriend isn't helping. And Miles himself has a new business to grow over a busy few weeks where Thanksgiving and Hanukkah collide to form either the best holiday season ever, or a kosher caterer's worst nightmare. But help comes in the unexpected, ruggedly handsome form of Detective Dominic Delbene, a pickle aficionado with his own ghosts, who stakes out the deli to capture a dangerous drug dealer.

As Hanukkah's eight days and Miles and Itai's relationship comes to an end, Miles discovers that Nic is not only good with pickling; he's good at everything.

Excerpt
“It’s a disgrace, what you’ve done to this pickle!”

Mr. Frank Elder, a loyal customer of Piekus Pickles for over fifteen years, brandished a sad pickle aloft, as if its very appearance were something so appalling everyone in the establishment would gasp in horror.

As it was, Miles Piekus, owner of Piekus Pickles and the one being verbally accosted, wiped the spatters of pickling liquid from his face and affixed an apologetic smile upon his face.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Elder. Can I get you another one?”

“You try it!” Mr. Elder cried, shoving the offensive vegetable in Miles’s face.

Miles took the small green pickle and bit off the end. It tasted crunchy, garlicky, and tart, just like a pickle should taste.

“It’s very sour!” Mr. Elder complained, and Miles understood the problem.

“This is a full-sour pickle. You usually buy half-sours.” Half-sours were brined in salt and spices only. This pickle had been brined in vinegar and for a longer time. Miles wondered if the old guy had finally lost his sense of smell. “See how dark it is? Half-sours are a lighter green.”

Mr. Elder scratched his temple. “But I thought I got my usual…”

“Did you select pickles from that first barrel by the window?” Miles pointed to one of six large wood barrels lining the wall of the deli. “Because I moved the barrels around when I renovated, and I bet you selected full-sours instead of your regular.”

“Even if that was the case, your mother would have caught the mistake before ringing me up.”

That was likely true and not the first time Miles had heard the complaint. He’d inherited his family’s store when his parents retired and moved to Arizona three months ago, and the transition embittered many of the older, traditional client base that found Miles’s youth and enthusiasm off-putting.

“I’m sorry,” Miles repeated, his smile firmly attached. “Let’s get you half a dozen half-sours on the house.”

“You don’t have to go that far—”

“I insist. You’re right. I should have caught the mistake, and I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Miles gathered a jar and used the tongs in the half-sour barrel to fish out half a dozen small cukes from the brine. He sealed the lid and moved quickly to the cash register to ring up the sale. As he did so, the bells over the front door jingled and two couples hurried in from the rain, talking loudly. Miles smiled at them, then stole a glance back to the closed door behind him. The door opened to a narrow flight of stairs that connected to the second floor of the building, where Miles’s boyfriend currently sat, ostensibly not helping with the business.

Miles sighed.

He handed the jar to Mr. Elder and made a note for his Regular Clients board hidden behind the counter about the man’s tastes.

“Thank you, Miles,” Mr. Elder said in a complaining voice. “I’ll give you one more chance.”

“I’m so relieved.” Miles waved him good-bye, annoyed but also grateful that when he called his mother that night to give her the daily update, he didn’t have to admit losing an old customer.

He’d already lost others. When he took over the store, he’d gotten a loan and renovated what had been a simple kosher pickle storefront into a full-scale deli offering freshly made, exotic, ethnic pickles from all over the world as well as a selection of soups and sandwiches. The traditionalists disliked seeing kimchi and tamarind chutney lining the counters alongside their kosher dills, despite Miles’s staunch adherence to the rules of kashrut.

So some previously loyal customers had not returned. But of course there were new clients, and the store’s location in the center of Northwest Market Street, the heart of the Ballard neighborhood in Seattle, made it a quick and popular lunch venue for the businesses in the area. His sales grew weekly as word spread. He’d done little advertising, yet every lunch crowd surpassed the last. And he’d had a rush that morning on his warmly spiced cranberry chutney that he’d advertised in the window for Thanksgiving.

The store had one staff member, a sweet woman named Chloe who cleaned, ran the register, and made coffees while he cooked and made the sandwiches.

But she went on maternity leave shortly after Miles took over. He assured her she could keep her position and that he’d rely on Itai for the extra help. After all, that had been the plan. Itai was supposed to be working with him.

It was a flawed plan, he now realized, as he tried to do the job of three employees all by himself.

Miles sold the last of his chutney to one of the couples that came in, and had to quickly make four sandwiches to go before helping another older customer with her order. When they all left, he was alone in the deli for the first time since opening at eight that morning, and he realized he really should start prepping another batch of the chutney before the lunch rush. But he’d been on his feet all morning, and the temptation of his stool called to him. After years of office work it was a difficult transition to standing twelve hours every day.

Miles’s boyfriend, Itai, had purchased him fatigue mats for behind the counter and in the kitchen, but they only provided so much relief.

Thinking of Itai, Miles glanced behind him again to the door that led to the staircase connecting the ground-floor store to the upstairs living area.

His parents had purchased the old two-story brick building in 1980 from a bankrupt manufacturing company. The storefront offered an airy space with wide windows overlooking busy Market Street, a deep walk-in refrigerator, and a large commercial kitchen. Upstairs, they’d converted the open space into a quaint three-bedroom apartment where Miles and his brother, Dan, grew up, steeping in the smells of vinegar and pickling spices.

Now that Miles had inherited the apartment above, he’d spent his meager savings from years in accounts payable. He’d renovated his living space and taken out a line of credit to complete the remodels in the store.

Itai had thought it stupid. Ballard was a Scandinavian neighborhood, not known for any impressive percentage of Seattle’s Jewish population, and a poor choice for a kosher deli. But opening in a new spot would have cost a great deal more. Besides, the old brick two-story was the only home Miles remembered.

“Itai?” Miles called loudly. He wasn’t surprised to get no answer. It was Tuesday, and Itai had online conference calls every Tuesday with the venture capitalists that had funded his startup. He rarely left the home office, let alone visited the store itself.

As Miles cleaned the counter, he allowed himself a few moments of self-pity. The plan had been that Itai would sell his share of Fantastic App Engine, the startup he’d founded with an ex-boyfriend, and join Miles full-time in the deli. Miles would teach him the family recipes, as well as the basics of ringing in customers, making the sandwiches, and doing the books at the end of the day.

But as the sale of Fantastic loomed, Itai seemed to further remove himself from their original plans. It was harder to find time to get Itai into the store at all, let alone hold him there long enough for training.

The lunch rush started early that Tuesday, and by ten thirty a line stretched from the counter to the door. The five tables were full. The phone kept ringing. Last-minute advance orders for cranberry chutney stacked up, and he made a mental note to quadruple the usual batch for tomorrow. But would he even be able to find enough fresh cranberries the day before Thanksgiving? He made another mental note to call the produce guy right after lunch.

By one o’clock he’d run out of the daily soup and switched it out for the kosher cauliflower tahini bisque he’d planned on serving the following day. Most customers took their lunches to go, but a few stayed behind and waited impatiently for a free table. He wondered absentmindedly, as he wrote down yet another complex sandwich order, if he removed the pickle barrels from the front entirely, whether a bar along the window could be installed to allow people to sit and look out onto the street as they ate their lunch. It was worth measuring to see how many folks could sit down—although the thought of removing all the barrels made him cringe. The remaining old-school customers would have a hissy fit if they couldn’t pick out their pickles themselves.

He’d already moved some of the lesser-selling pickle barrels behind the counter, so when the next customer ordered a sweet-and-spicy to accompany her sandwich, he had to pull on a glove and reach into the oak barrel to grab one. He shook off the excess liquid and turned to the counter.

“That’s a big pickle you got there,” said the burly-looking man next in line.

Miles realized he was holding the cucumber at crotch level, pointed toward the customer like a ludicrous green erection. He quickly dropped it onto the waiting plate, feeling his face turn red. “Can I help you?”

The man’s dark hair was a lot like Itai’s: thick, black, and cut short to keep it under control. But unlike Itai, who tended to his hair with an army of products to keep it slicked and styled, this man clearly didn’t care about his. It was tousled and wild, and Miles realized he liked the look better. He wondered if he could get Itai to forgo the gel.

“Am I speaking to the owner?” the man asked. He studied the deli wares in the cold case of the counter, his dark, arching eyebrows coming together with an expression like he was examining a virus in a microscope.

Miles generally tried to avoid people who asked for the owner, since they typically wanted to either complain or to sell him something.

“Yes,” Miles said.

The customer made eye contact briefly before glancing down to take in Miles’s body. At once Miles’s insides heated. It was pitiful how a simple look was such a trigger for him. God help the innocent man who just admired Miles’s belt buckle. He reminded himself that not every glance at his body was laden with innuendo.

Whatever the guy was selling, Miles knew he must earn a great commission.

“I came here a few years ago,” the man stated, “and it was just a pickle place. So now you offer a full menu?”

“Mostly sandwiches and soups, but yes, I’ve expanded my parents’ business into a deli and catering service. Would you like to sample something? All ingredients are organic, and I make an effort to seek out sustainable local businesses for my cheeses and breads.”

“No meat?” The man frowned at the deli case.

“No, we’re strictly kosher, so this is a dairy-only facility. But I do have fish and can recommend some great relishes, cheeses, and sauces to go with any meat dishes you might prepare at home.”

The man flashed him a quick, crooked smile, then glanced back down at the deli counter. He scanned the rest of the wares quickly before moving to the barrels. He looked everywhere: the back of the counter, down the corridor that led to the walk-in and kitchen and bathroom, the small seating area to the right of the entrance.

If he didn’t keep glancing back at Miles and offering a devilish smile, Miles would have suspected that he was casing the joint. As it was, he finished his inspection of the food offerings and the walls, floors, and equipment it was all housed in, and returned to the counter.

Really, Miles thought, what is this guy selling? Fire suppression systems? Advertising?

“I’ll take two pickled eggs, two fire-and-ice pickles, and a cup of hot lime relish.”

Miles packed up the man’s order. As he did so, the customer continued to examine the deli, and Miles wondered if the man had anything to do with the call he’d gotten last month from a realtor looking to buy out the old building to knock it down and put a larger office complex in its place. Real estate in Ballard had burgeoned in the last decade, and offers came in regularly for the brick two-story.

But the man didn’t mention his inspection as he collected his paper bag of goods. “May I also get a half-sour?” he asked.

“Sure. Help yourself from the marked barrel along the wall. Do you want a bag for it?”

“Nah, I’ll eat it now.”

“That’s $13 total.”

The man handed Miles fifteen dollars. “Keep the change.”

“Thanks.” Miles put the change into his tip jar. He always felt a little guilty having a tip jar with Chloe on maternity leave, since he owned the store and it seemed ridiculous to tip himself. On the other hand, a lot of customers had asked for it when he installed the espresso machine, since they were used to tipping baristas. Now it became a convenient place to throw the change customers didn’t claim.

“I like the changes you’ve made,” the man told him.

“Thanks.” Miles smiled. “It’s been a lot of work, but I’m happy with it.”

“My parents owned a deli when I was a kid, and this reminds me a lot of their place.”

“Oh?” Miles cursed silently as another four customers came in, all wearing suits. More from the brokerage next door. “It was in Seattle?”

“No, in Portland.” The man seemed to notice the customers behind him and smiled. “Well, thanks. Good luck with the business.”

“Come back soon,” Miles said. What demanding parting words. He shook his head to clear his embarrassment and took the orders of the four men.

As he prepared their sandwiches, he noticed the handsome customer hadn’t left. At first Miles assumed he was waiting for a table, but when one cleared, he didn’t claim it. He was examining the pickling barrels closely. At last he selected his half-sour. Miles watched as the man licked the sides of the pickle with excessive enjoyment before sticking the thing in his mouth and biting it in half.

He chewed and then stuck the rest fully into his mouth, his lips stretching around the wide, thick shape. Its pornographic connotations undoubtedly brought an embarrassing flush to Miles’s face, judging by the way his skin heated.

How much could that man fit in his mouth?

“What are you thinking about?”

Miles spun around at Itai’s voice. “What? Nothing. What are you doing here?” he asked, flustered. He’d been so focused on the customer he hadn’t even heard the upstairs door open.

Itai smirked knowingly. He knew Miles too well—knew that flush on his neck only came when he was thinking something perverted.

“I thought you wanted me to train today.” Itai moved toward the espresso machine and started up a drink for himself. He looked tired but still was attractive enough to take Miles’s breath away. He was more than just ruggedly handsome; he was gorgeous. Miles had always considered someone that good-looking out of his league, but here he was, living with him, planning a future with him.

Itai was tall for an Israeli, a little over six feet. His dark black hair was brushed away from his face to highlight his warm brown eyes and broad lips. He had high cheekbones and a perpetual five o’clock shadow that lent him an air of dangerousness.

And despite the fact that he worked at home and didn’t need to dress for the office, he always appeared stylish, even when he was sporting sweatpants. The designer brand complemented his long, muscular legs and perfectly contrasted with the charcoal-colored T-shirt he wore over his gym-toned frame.

“It’s kind of late now,” Miles whined.

“Hey, I have a job, you know,” Itai countered.

“I know.”

“I had my conference calls, and then Travis couldn’t figure out why the code was acting wonky on Mozilla browsers, so I had to help him sort it out.”

Miles had learned over a year ago not to flinch or frown whenever Itai’s business partner and ex-boyfriend was mentioned, but it still inevitably caused a stab of jealousy when he heard Travis’s name.

“He always needs help,” Miles complained. “He must be a sucky programmer.”

“No he’s not,” Itai countered, right on cue. If there was anything guaranteed with Itai, it was his defensiveness about Travis. “He’s awesome, but he’s exhausted with the launch so he doesn’t have time to problem solve.”

“And you have time?” Miles asked. “You’re as busy as he is.”

Itai blinked at him.

“What?” Miles hated that chastising stare Itai gave him.

“Honey, don’t be petty. It isn’t attractive to me,” Itai said. The words stung, but Itai lessened it with a quick kiss on the cheek. “I’m going upstairs again.”

“Wait, I thought you wanted to train!”

“You said it was too late.”

“Yeah.” Miles wiped a mess off the counter. “But I could use some help cleaning up.”

“Sorry. If you don’t absolutely need me, then I better get back to my wireframe.”

Miles scowled and scrubbed at the counter, listening for the door to shut behind him.

Shit.

Handled inelegantly, like all their interactions these days. It seemed everything Itai did pissed Miles off. And everything Miles asked for was terribly inconvenient to Itai. Maybe it was just that stage in their relationship.

They’d dated for a year, broke up, and were now on month eleven of their second attempt at domesticity. This time round Miles had set several rules, including the one about moving in together. At the time, Itai had agreed to them all. He loved Miles, he’d said, and would do anything to have him back.

But now Miles wondered if they weren’t both stagnating in the forced twenty-four-hour companionship, in a way that made him yearn for more and cause Itai to pull away. He couldn’t remember the last time the two of them had gone out on a date night. Or seen a movie at the theater, or gone to a restaurant instead of simply eating leftovers.

In fact, now that he thought about it, he felt like the only times they didn’t argue were when they discussed completely neutral, pedestrian topics like the laundry or the Seattle Sounders.

At some point in the last year they’d moved from dating to being married, he realized, and without any of the fun stuff that came before it.

The lunch crowd trickled out of the deli, and the line shrank, and no customers came in for the last fifteen minutes before three, so he was able to get most of his cleaning tasks done before turning the sign off, locking the front door, and pulling down the blinds.

Miles made himself a sandwich and did the books and his change order before inventory. He then wrote out his shopping list for the following day.

He spent an hour and a half shopping and making his deposit. When he returned, he headed straight to the kitchen. Of course, the cranberry chutney was first on his list. He’d marketed it for Thanksgiving, but this was an interesting year since Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincided, and he’d sold a lot for those holiday dinners as well.

He also daily restocked his bread-and-butter pickles. He set about scrubbing cucumbers clean, slicing them, and laying them in large platters with layers of salt between them to sit overnight.

He took out those he’d salted the day before and moved them into the kitchen to start the pickling process. For him, it was repetitive but had a meditative quality he appreciated. He’d been making pickles with his mother since he was eight years old, and he knew the recipes and techniques by heart.

The only challenges came from the newer, expanded selection, but he cherished those culinary ventures. His last batch of pickled grapes with cinnamon and pepper had been left in the white-wine vinegar for too long, so he’d ditched them and started over again.

He then chopped soup fixings. He stirred sauces. He added ingredients to his weekly delivery list. By the time he was done in the kitchen, it was nearly seven o’clock. His feet ached, and he wanted nothing more than a shower, a beer, and a night sprawled on the couch in front of the television.

The moment he finally made his way upstairs and opened the second-floor door, Itai called out, “What are we doing for dinner? Are you cooking?”

Miles suppressed his annoyance. It was only a question. “I’m beat. Let’s order in.”

“Okay. Thai food?”

“Sure.” Miles kicked off his shoes and made his way across the weathered gray carpet to the bathroom. He’d wanted to replace the old flooring but it had been too expensive, so he was stuck with it until he started making real revenue from the store.

The bathroom was old as well and had blue linoleum tiles on the counter and cheap plywood doors on the cupboards. But the shower was hot, the water pressure was good, and that was all that mattered at the end of the day. He could enter their home in Architectural Digest someday in the future.

He stepped out of the shower and shaved at the counter naked. There’d been plenty of times in the past that Itai had come in during Miles’s shaving routine and things had gotten quickly amorous. But that hadn’t happened in months now. Miles was stuck with only his reflection for companionship. He’d lost weight in the months since opening the deli, undoubtedly an effect of stress. His brown hair was growing shaggy around his ears and was in desperate need of a cut, but that would have to wait a few weeks, at least until after Hanukkah. To his horror, he discovered the gray patch that had formed at his temples was increasing, not magically converting back to brown. And his hazel eyes were beginning to make him look older, with dark shadows under them from all the late nights working in the kitchen.

It turned out opening one’s own business did not improve one’s physique.

He threw on a pair of sweats and an old shirt, poured himself a beer, and cranked on the television. A few minutes later there was a knock downstairs, and Itai made his way down the back entrance to meet the delivery driver in the alley. He returned with a plastic bag full of noodles and soup. He and Itai sat next to each other on the couch and ate in front of the sports channel, saying nothing.

“I can change it if you want,” Miles offered, knowing the only thing Itai hated more than American football was watching the endless pregame and postgame analysis of football, but Itai shook his head.

“I’m not paying attention anyway. I have to get back to the computer.”

“Did you meet with that marketing team for your launch?” Miles asked. He didn’t particularly care, but he thought it was polite to at least feign interest.

Itai shrugged. “Travis did, and I’m going to go over the strategic plan tomorrow with him. The Saturday night venue is all set, and the media packets are done. I think there will be a good turnout.” Itai shuffled his fork through his noodles, not looking at him. “I’m sorry we didn’t hire you for the catering.”

“That’s fine. I don’t want to do an event that large right now anyway. I’ve got enough to worry about this Friday with thirty guests.”

“Travis didn’t want any ethnic food and got a great discount from La Brie’s.”

“That’s fine,” Miles repeated. He hadn’t been upset, but for some reason now he was. “You know I don’t do only ethnic food.”

Itai looked at him apologetically. “I know.”

“I can cook all sorts of things.” Miles realized he was sulking again and looked away. “But it’s fine.”

“I figured you would be exhausted from the Friday night Hanukkah dinner.”

“I likely will be. Maybe I can do your next launch party.”

Itai laughed at that. “God, I hope there is never another launch party. The whole idea is to get this product sold off and never work on it again.” Itai surprised Miles by putting his food down on the coffee table and scooting closer. He put his arm around Miles. Miles stretched closer, enjoying the brief and unexpected moment of companionship. He leaned his head against Itai’s shoulder, breathing in his cologne. Itai always smelled like products, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; he found the scent of Itai’s shaving cream alluring.

But as he settled into the companionable comfort, Itai shifted away. He gave Miles a brief kiss on the forehead and stood. “I have to get back to work.”

Miles offered up his empty container of soup. Itai took this into the kitchen, leaving Miles to slouch on the sofa, staring like a listless zombie at the men predicting the Thanksgiving Day football game.

At nine o’clock Miles’s mother called, right on time. Since moving to the desert, his mother called every week without fail, at the same time.

“Hi, honey,” she said, sounding thrilled. He wasn’t sure what was more embarrassing: the way his mother still spoke to him with the same level of enthusiasm she had when he was a child, or the fact that after all these years it still filled him with joy.

“Hi, Mom.”

“How’s everything going?”

“It was a good week last week. We beat our sales record again.”

“Oh, honey, I’m so proud of you! How’s Mr. Nedlich?”

“He still hasn’t been in.”

His mother clicked her tongue. “I’m worried about him. Maybe you should call his house and see if he is still alive.”

“Mom, I’m not going to call clients to see if they died because they haven’t bought pickles in three weeks.”

“But it’s highly irregular,” she countered. “Mr. Nedlich would come in every Tuesday morning, at eight o’clock, as—”

“I know. I know. You’ve told me a thousand times. He’d come in right after dropping his grandson off at school. But he hasn’t come by. Maybe he’s fine and doesn’t like the way I make pickles.”

That was the wrong thing to say. There was a long pause. “You changed the recipes?”

Miles rolled his eyes. “No, Mom.”

“Because I made those recipes perfect over thirty years and—”

“I’m kidding, Mom. The pickles are fine. Maybe he doesn’t like me.”

“Well why wouldn’t he like you?” she asked, genuinely baffled in the way only one’s mother could be.

“I’m not you,” Miles reminded her. “I’m young. I’m gay. I’ve changed things. I don’t know. There are a dozen reasons to dislike me.”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. He’s probably dead, that’s all.”

Miles grinned at that. Only his mother would find it more likely that a customer would die than dislike her beloved older son.

“Have you seen Goldie and Len?” his mother asked.

“Yes. They came in on Friday. And Frank Elder showed up today, distraught because he’d picked up full-sours.”

“He only orders half-sours.”

“I know that now. I gave him half a dozen on the house, so hopefully he won’t hunt you down to call and complain.”

His mother laughed. “Let’s hope only old Ira is that crazy. How’s Itai?”

“Busy. The launch is this Saturday.”

“Has he learned how to use the register yet? Make sure to tell him about the broken tax key, because—”

“He hasn’t worked the register yet,” Miles said, hoping she wouldn’t pry too much.

“Oh. I thought he was going to—”

“I’ve got him helping with other things right now.” He didn’t want to have a long discussion about this, because he didn’t want her to be right. She’d expressed concern when they’d gotten back together, so he now worked to paint Itai in only the most favorable light.

“As long as he’s pulling his weight, honey,” she said.

“He is; don’t worry.”

“It’s just that I remember how much he hurt you before, and I don’t want to ever see you like that again.”

Miles expelled a deep sigh. The last thing he needed right now was his mother reminding him of the time Itai had cheated on him, leading to their breakup. Things were better now, but it was still a sore subject.

“Mom, drop it.”

She seemed to sense the tension and gave in. “I’m sorry. You know I worry, that’s all.”

“Itai and I are doing fine,” Miles lied. “And if Fantastic App Engine sells, he’ll make a ton of money.”

“As long as he’s being helpful to you,” she said again.

“Yeah, yeah. Where’s Dad?”

“Out in the pool, of course.”

“At nine at night?”

“It’s the only time its bearable going outside,” his mother said. “The rest of the day it’s too hot to do anything but lay indoors next to the air conditioner.”

“I thought you moved for the heat,” Miles said.

“We did. We love it.”

“But you sit in air-conditioning all day. Isn’t that like living in Seattle?”

His mother laughed like that was crazy talk.

Miles asked after his younger brother, and they chatted briefly about his struggles in grad school back east before she ended the call.

“All right, honey. Call me if you need anything.” She said this every time she called, as if he’d forget.

“I will. Love you.”

“Love you too, honey.” She blew kisses into the phone, and he hung up, feeling his typical mixture of embarrassment and affection for her.

Copyright © Astrid Amara

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