Swan song, p.17
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       Swan Song, p.17

           Robert McCammon
 
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Chapter 17

 

  Stop.

  He was looking down from above, and there in the man's hand was. . .

  Forward.

  . . . the circle of glass, glowing with dark red and brown. a room with sawdust on the floor. Glasses. Cards on a table.

  He knew that place. He'd been there before, and he'd sent his searchers there because it was a place where travelers stopped. The Bucket of Blood was about a mile away, just over the next hill.

  His inner eye watched it unfold, from the perspective of a fly. The blast of a gun, a hot shock wave, a body spewing blood and tumbling over tables.

  a woman's voice said, "You want some of iti" Then an order: "Guns on the table. "

  I've found you, he thought.

  He caught a glimpse of her face. Turned out to be a beauty, didn't youi he mused. Was that heri Yes, yes! It had to be her! The glass ring went into a satchel. It had to be her!

  The scene continued. another face: a man with sharp blue eyes and a gray beard. "Leper! Leper!" someone shouted. and then a silver-haired man was there, and he knew that face as belonging to the one everybody called Scumbag. More voices: "Be my guest. . . Derwin's a hunter. . . used to have another leg, too. . . For God's sake, don't go west. . . supposed to be the mark of Satan. . . "

  He smiled.

  ". . . We're heading south. . . that would be Mary's Rest. . . doubt he'll need the gasoline anymore, don't youi"

  The voices grew hazy, the light changed, and there were dark woods and houses below.

  He played the memory-movie over again. It was her, all right. ". . . We're heading south. . . that would be Mary's Rest. . . "

  Mary's Rest, he thought. Fifty miles to the south. I've found you! Going south to Mary's Rest!

  But what was the point of waitingi Sister and the circle of glass might still be over at the Bucket of Blood, only a mile away. There was still time to get over there and -

  "Lesteri I've brought you a bowl of - "

  There was a crash of breaking pottery and a gasp of horror.

  He let his eyes resurface again. at the shed's door stood the woman who'd taken him in three weeks ago as a handyman; she was still very pretty, and it was too bad that a wild animal had chewed up her little girl in the woods one evening two weeks ago, because the child had looked just like her. The woman had dropped his bowl of soup. She was a clumsy bitch, he thought. anybody with two fingers on each hand was bound to be clumsy.

  The claw of her left hand held a lantern, and by its light she'd seen the rippling, fly-swarmed face of Lester the handyman.

  "Howdy, Miz Sperry," he whispered, and the fly-things whirled around his head.

  The woman took a backward step toward the open door. Her face was frozen into a horrified rictus, and he wondered why he'd ever thought she was pretty.

  "You're not afraid, are you, Miz Sperryi" he asked her; he reached out his arms, dug his fingers into the dirt floor and drew himself forward. The wheels squeaked, badly in need of oil.

  "I. . . I. . . " She tried to speak, but she couldn't. Her legs had seized up, too, and he knew that she knew there was nowhere to run except the woods.

  "Surely you're not afraid of me," he said softly. "I'm not much of a man, am Ii I do 'preciate you havin' pity on a poor man like me, I surely do. " The wheels squeaked, squeaked.

  "Stay. . . away from me. . . "

  "This is ol' Lester you're talkin' to, Miz Sperry. Just ol' Lester, that's all. You can tell me anything. "

  She almost broke away then, almost ran, but he said, "Ol' Lester makes the pain go away, don't hei" and she settled back into his grip like warm putty. "Why don't you put that lamp down, Miz Sperryi Let's have us a nice talk. I can fix thangs. "

  The lantern was slowly put on the floor.

  So easy, he thought. This one particularly, because she was already walking dead.

  He was bored with her. "I believe I need to fix that there gun," he said, and he nodded silkily toward the rifle in the corner. "Will you fetch it for mei"

  She picked it up.

  "Miz Sperryi" he said. "I want you to put the barrel in your mouth and your finger on the trigger. Yes'm, go ahead. Just like that. Oh, doin' just fine!"

  Her eyes were bright and shining, and there were tears rolling down her cheeks.

  "Now. . . I need you to test that there gun for me. I want you to pull the trigger and tell me if it works. Okayi"

  She resisted him, just a second of the will to live that she probably didn't even know she had anymore.

  "Lester's gon' fix thangs," he said. "Little tiny pull, now. "

  The rifle went off.

  He pulled himself forward, and the wheels squeaked over her body. The Bucket of Blood! he thought. Got to get over there!

  But then - no, no. Wait. Just wait.

  He knew Sister was on her way to Mary's Rest. It wouldn't take him as long to walk cross-country as it would take her to drive over what was left of the road. He could beat her there and be waiting. There were a lot of people in Mary's Rest, a lot of opportunities; he'd been thinking of traveling down that way in the next few days, anyway. She might already have left the tavern and be on the road right now. This time I won't lose you, he vowed. I'll get to Mary's Rest before you. Ol' Lester's gon' fix thangs for you, too, bitch!

  This was a good disguise, he decided. Some modifications were needed if he was going to walk the distance, but it would do. and by the time the bitch got to Mary's Rest, he'd be set up and ready to Watusi on her bones until she was dust for the pot.

  The rest of the flies were sucked into his face, but they brought information that was of no use to him. He stretched his torso, and after a minute or two he was able to stand.

  Then he rolled down the legs of his trousers, picked up his little red wagon and began walking, his feet bare, through the snow toward the forest. He began to sing, very quietly: "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush. . . "

  The darkness took him.

  Fifty-three

  a tall figure in a long black overcoat with polished silver buttons stalked through the burning ruins of Broken Bow, Nebraska. Corpses lay scattered across what had been Broken Bow's main street, and the tanklike trucks of the army of Excellence ran over those that were in the way. Other soldiers were loading trucks with salvaged sacks of corn, flour, beans and drums of oil and gasoline. a pile of rifles and pistols awaited pickup by the Weapons Brigade. Bodies were being stripped by the Clothing Brigade, and members of the Shelter Brigade were gathering together tents that the dead would no longer need. The Mechanics Brigade was going over a wealth of cars, trailers and trucks that had fallen to the victors; those that could be made to run would become recon and transport vehicles, and the others would be stripped of tires, engines and everything else that could possibly be used.

  But the man in the black overcoat, his polished ebony boots crunching over scorched earth, was only intent on one thing. He stopped before a pile of corpses that were being stripped, their coats and clothes thrown into cardboard boxes, and examined their faces by the light of a nearby bonfire. The soldiers around him stopped their work to salute; he quickly returned the salute and continued his examination, then went on to the next scatter of bodies.

  "Colonel Macklin!" a voice called over the rumble of passing trucks, and the man in the black overcoat turned around. Firelight fell on the black leather mask that covered James B. Macklin's face; the right eyehole had been crudely stitched up, but through the other Macklin's cold blue eye peered at the approaching figure. Under his coat, Macklin wore a gray-green uniform and a pearl-handled . 45 in a holster at his waist. Over his breast pocket was a black circular patch with the letters aOE sewn into it in silver thread. a dark green woolen cap was pulled over the colonel's head.

  Judd Lawry, wearing a similar uniform under a fleece-lined coat, emerged from the smoke. an M-16 was slung over his should
er, and bandoliers of ammunition crisscrossed his chest. Judd Lawry's gray-streaked red beard was closely cropped, and his hair had been clipped almost to the scalp. across his forehead was a deep scar that ran diagonally from his left temple up through his hair. In seven years of following Macklin, Lawry had lost twenty-five pounds of fat and flab, and now his body was hard and muscular; his face had taken on cruel angles, and his eyes had retreated into their sockets.

  "any word, Lieutenant Lawryi" Macklin's voice was distorted, the words slurred, as if something was not right with his mouth.

  "No, sir. Nobody's found him. I checked with Sergeant McCowan over on the northern perimeter, but he can't produce a body either. Sergeant Ulrich took a detail through the southern segment of their defensive trench, but no luck. "

  "What about the reports from the pursuit partiesi"

  "Corporal Winslow's group found six of them about a mile to the east. They tried to fight it out. Sergeant Oldfield's group found four to the north, but they'd already killed themselves. I haven't gotten word yet from the southern patrol. "

  "He can't have gotten away, Lawry," Macklin said forcefully. "We've got to find the sonofabitch - or his corpse. I want him - dead or alive - in my tent within two hours. Do you understand thati"

  "Yes, sir. I'll do my best. "

  "Do more than your best. Find Captain Pogue and tell him he's in charge of bringing me the corpse of Franklin Hayes; he's a good tracker, he'll get the job done. and I want to see the casualty counts and captured weapons list by dawn. I don't want the same kind of fuckup that happened last time. Got iti"

  "Yes, sir. "

  "Good. I'll be in my tent. " Macklin started to move off, then turned back. "Where's Rolandi"

  "I don't know. I saw him about an hour ago, over on the south edge of town. "

  "If you see him, have him report to me. Carry on. " Macklin stalked away toward his headquarters tent.

  Judd Lawry watched him go, and he couldn't suppress a shudder. It had been more than two years since he'd last seen Colonel Macklin's face; the colonel had started wearing that leather mask to protect his skin against "radiation and pollution" - but it seemed to Lawry that Macklin's face was actually changing shape, from the way the mask buckled and strained against the bones. Lawry knew what it was: that damned disease that a lot of others in the army of Excellence had gotten as well - the growths that got on your face and grew together, covering everything but a hole at your mouth. Everyone knew Macklin had it, and Captain Croninger was afflicted with it, too, and that was why the boy wore bandages on his face. The worst cases were rounded up and executed, and to Lawry it was a whole hell of a lot worse than the most sickening keloid he'd ever seen. Thank God, he thought, that he'd never gotten it, because he liked his face just the way it was. But if Colonel Macklin's condition was getting worse, then he wasn't going to be able to lead the aOE very much longer. Which led to a lot of interesting possibilities. . .

  Lawry grunted, got his mind back on his duties and went off through the ruins.

  On the other side of Broken Bow, Colonel Macklin saluted the two armed sentries who stood in front of his large headquarters tent and went in through the flap. It was dark inside, and Macklin thought he remembered leaving a lantern lit on his desk. But there was so much in his mind, so much to remember, that he couldn't be sure. He walked to the desk, reached out with his single hand and found the lantern. The glass was still warm. It blew out somehow, he thought, and he took the glass chimney off, took a lighter from his overcoat pocket and flicked the flame on. Then he lit the lamp, let the flame grow and returned the glass chimney. Dim light began to spread through the tent - and it was only then that Colonel Macklin realized he was not alone.

  Behind Macklin's desk sat a slim man with curly, unkempt, shoulder-length blond hair and a blond beard. His muddy boots were propped up on the various maps, charts and reports that covered the desktop. He'd been cleaning his long fingernails with a knife in the dark, and at the sight of the weapon Macklin instantly drew the . 45 from his holster and aimed the gun at the intruder's head.

  "Hi," the blond-haired man said, and he smiled. He had a pale, cadaverous face - and at the center of it, where his nose had been, was a hole rimmed with scar tissue. "I've been waiting for you. "

  "Put the knife down. Now. "

  The knife's blade thunked through a map of Nebraska and stood upright, quivering. "No sweat," the man said. He lifted his hands to show they were empty.

  Macklin saw that the intruder wore a blood-spattered aOE uniform, but he didn't appear to have any fresh injuries. That grisly wound at the center of his face - through which Macklin could see the sinus passages and gray cartilage - had healed as much as it ever would. "Who are you and how did you get past the sentriesi"

  "I came in through the servants' entrance. " He motioned toward the rear of the tent, and Macklin saw where the fabric had been slashed enough for the man to crawl through. "My name's alvin. " His muddy green eyes fixed on Colonel Macklin, and his teeth showed when he grinned. "alvin Mangrim. You ought to have better security, Colonel. Somebody crazy could get in here and kill you if they wanted to. "

  "Like you, maybei"

  "Naw, not me. " He laughed, and air made a shrill whistling sound through the hole where his nose had been. "I've brought you a couple of presents. "

  "I could have you executed for breaking into my headquarters. "

  alvin Mangrim's grin didn't waver. "I didn't break in, man. I cut in. See, I'm real good with knives. Oh, yes - knives know my name. They speak to me, and I do what they say to do. "

  Macklin was about a half ounce of trigger pressure away from blowing the man's head off, but he didn't want to get blood and brains all over his papers.

  "Welli Don't you want to see your presentsi"

  "No. I want you to stand up, very carefully, and start walking - " But suddenly alvin Mangrim leaned over beside the chair to pick up something from the floor. "Easy!" Macklin warned him, and he was about to call for the sentries when alvin Mangrim straightened up and set the severed head of Franklin Hayes on the desktop.

  The face had turned blue, and the eyes had rolled back to show the whites. "There you go," Mangrim said. "ain't he prettyi" He leaned forward and rapped his knuckles on the skull. "Knock, knock!" He laughed, the air whistling through the crater at the center of his face. "Uh-oh, nobody's home!"

  "Where'd you get thati" Macklin asked him.

  "Off the fucker's neck, Colonel! Where'd you think I got it fromi I came across that wall and there was old Franklin himself, standing right in front of me - and me with my axe, too. That's what I call Fate. So I just chopped his head off and brought it here to you. I would've been here sooner, but I wanted him to finish bleeding so he wouldn't mess up your tent. You've got a real nice, neat place here. "

  Colonel Macklin approached the head, reached out and touched it with the . 45's barrel. "You killed himi"

  "Naw. I tickled him to death. Colonel Macklin, for such a smart man you sure are slow to figure things out. "

  Macklin lifted the upper lip with the gun barrel. The teeth were white and even.

  "You want to knock those outi" Mangrim asked. "They'd make a nice necklace for that black-haired woman I've seen you with. "

  He let the lip fall back into place. "Who the hell are youi How come I haven't seen you beforei"

  "I've been around. Been following the aOE for about two months, I guess. Me and some friends of mine have our own camp. I got this uniform off a dead soldier. Fits me pretty good, don't you thinki"

  Macklin sensed motion to his left and turned to see Roland Croninger coming into the tent. The young man was wearing a long gray coat with a hood pulled up over his head; at barely twenty years of age, Captain Roland Croninger, at six foot one, stood an inch shorter than Macklin, and he was scarecrow-thin, his aOE uniform and coat hanging off his bony frame. His wrists jutted from the sleeves, his hands like white spiders. He'd bee
n in charge of the attack that had crushed Broken Bow's defenses, and it had been his suggestion to pursue Franklin Hayes to the death. Now he stopped abruptly, and beneath the hood he squinted through his thick-lensed goggles at the head that adorned Colonel Macklin's desk.

  "You're Captain Croninger, aren't youi" Mangrim asked. "I've seen you around, too. "

  "What's going on herei" Roland's voice was still high-pitched. He looked at Macklin, the lamplight glinting off his goggles.

  "This man brought me a present. He killed Franklin Hayes, or so he says. "

  "Sure I did. Whack! Whack!" Mangrim pounded the table with the edge of his hand. "Off went his head!"

  "This tent is off limits," Roland said coldly. "You could be shot for coming in here. "

  "I wanted to surprise the colonel. "

  Macklin lowered his pistol. alvin Mangrim hadn't come to do him harm, he decided. The man had violated one of the strictest rules of the aOE, but the severed head was indeed a good present. Now that the mission was accomplished - Hayes was dead, the aOE had captured a bounty of vehicles, weapons and gasoline and had taken about a hundred more soldiers into the ranks - Macklin felt a letdown, just as he did after every battle. It was like wanting a woman so bad your balls ached for release, and once you'd taken her and could do with her what you pleased, she was tiresome. It was not having the woman that counted; it was the taking - of women, land or life - that stirred Macklin's blood to a boil.

  "I can't breathe," he said suddenly. "I can't get my breath. " He drew in air, couldn't seem to get enough of it. He thought he saw the Shadow Soldier standing just behind alvin Mangrim, but then he blinked and the ghostly image was gone. "I can't breathe," he repeated, and he took off his cap.

  He had no hair; his scalp was a ravaged dome of growths, like barnacles clinging to rotten pilings. He reached behind his head and found the mask's zipper. The mask fell away, and Macklin inhaled through what was left of his nose.

  His face was a misshapen mass of thick, scablike growths that completely enclosed his features except for the single staring blue eye, a nostril hole and a slit over his mouth. Beneath the growths, Macklin's face burned and itched fiercely, and the bones ached as if they were being bent into new shapes. He couldn't bear to look at himself in the mirror anymore, and when he rutted with Sheila Fontana, she - like any number of other women who followed the aOE - squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head away. But Sheila Fontana was out of her mind anyway, Macklin knew; all she was good for was screwing, and she was always screaming in the night about somebody named Rudy crawling into her bed with a dead baby in his arms.

  alvin Mangrim was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Well, whatever it is, you've got a bad dose of it. "

  "You've brought your present," Macklin told him. "Now get the hell out of my tent. "

  "I said I brought you two presents. Don't you want the other onei"

  "Colonel Macklin said he wants you to leave. " Roland didn't like this blond-haired sonofabitch, and he wouldn't mind killing him. He was still high on killing, the smell of blood in his nostrils like a delicious perfume. Over the past seven years, Roland Croninger had become a scholar of killing, mutilation and torture; when the King wanted information from a prisoner, he knew to summon Sir Roland, who had a black-painted trailer where many songs had been sung to the accompaniment of chains, grindstones, hammers and saws.

  alvin Mangrim leaned down to the floor again. Macklin aimed his . 45 - but the blond-haired man brought up a small box, tied with a bright blue ribbon. "Here," Mangrim said, offering the box. "Take it. It's just for you. "

  The colonel paused, glanced quickly at Roland and then laid the pistol down within reach and took the box. With his nimble left hand, he tore the ribbon off and lifted the lid.

  "I made it for you. How do you like iti"

  Macklin reached into the box - and brought out a right hand, covered with a black leather glove. Piercing the hand and glove were fifteen or twenty nails, driven through the back of the hand so their sharp points emerged from the palm.

  "I carved it," Mangrim said. "I'm a good carpenter. Did you know that Jesus was a carpenteri"

  Colonel Macklin stared in disbelief at the lifelike wooden hand. "Is this supposed to be a jokei"

  Mangrim looked wounded. "Man, it took me three days to get that just right! See, it weighs about as much as a real hand does, and it's balanced so well you'd never know it's made out of wood. I don't know what happened to your real hand, but I kinda figured you'd appreciate this one. "

  The colonel hesitated; he'd never seen anything quite like this before. The wooden hand, securely tucked into a tight glove, bristled with nails like the hide of a porcupine. "What's it supposed to bei a paperweighti"

  "Naw. You're supposed to wear it," Mangrim explained. "On your wrist. Just like a real hand. See, somebody takes a look at that hand with those nails sticking right through it, and they say, 'Whoa, that motherfucker just don't even know what pain is!' You wear that and somebody gives you backtalk, you give them a whack across the face and they won't have lips anymore. " Mangrim grinned merrily. "I made it just for you. "

  "You're crazy," Macklin said. "You're out of your goddamned mind! Why the hell would I want to wear - "

  "Coloneli" Roland interrupted. "He may be crazy, but I think he's got a good idea. "

  "Whati"

  Roland pushed his hood back. His face and head were covered with dirty gauze bandages secured with adhesive strips. Where the windings didn't exactly meet, there were gray growths as hard as armor plate. The bandages were thickly plastered over his forehead, chin and cheeks and came right up to the edges of his goggles. He pulled loose one of the adhesive strips, unwound about twelve inches of gauze and tore it off. He offered it to Macklin. "Here," he said. "Put it on your wrist with this. "

  Macklin stared at him as if he thought Roland had lost his mind as well, then he took the gauze and the strip of adhesive and worked at taping the counterfeit hand to the stump of his right wrist. He finally got it in place, so the nail-studded palm was turned inward. "It feels funny," he said. "Feels like it weighs ten pounds. " But other than the weird sensation of suddenly having a new right hand, he realized that it looked very real; to someone who didn't know the truth, his gloved hand with its palmful of nails might well be attached by flesh to the wrist. He held his arm out and slowly swung it through the air. Of course, the hand's attachment to the wrist was still fragile; if he was going to wear it, he'd have to bind it tightly to the stump with a thick wrapping of strong adhesive. He liked the look of it, and he suddenly knew why: It was a perfect symbol of discipline and control. If a man could endure such pain - even symbolically - then he had supreme discipline over his own body; he was a man to be feared, a man to be followed.

  "You should wear that all the time," Roland suggested. "Especially when we have to negotiate for supplies. I don't think the leader of any settlement would hold out very long after he saw that. "

  Macklin was spellbound by the sight of his new hand. It would be a devastating psychological weapon, and a damned dangerous close-quarters weapon as well. He'd just have to be real careful when he scratched what was left of his nose.

  "I knew you'd like it," Mangrim said, satisfied by the colonel's response. "Looks like you were born with it. "

  "That still doesn't excuse you from being in this tent, mister," Roland told him. "You're asking to be shot. "

  "No, I'm not, Captain. I'm asking to be made a sergeant on the Mechanical Brigade. " His green eyes slid from Roland back to Colonel Macklin. "I'm real good with machines, too. I can fix just about anything. You give me the parts, I can put it together. and I can build things, too. Yes, sir, you make me a Mechanical Brigade sergeant and I'll show you what I can do for the army of Excellence. "

  Macklin paused, his eye examining alvin Mangrim's noseless face. This was the kind of man the aOE needed, Macklin thought; this man had courage, and he wasn't afraid to ta
ke risks to get what he wanted. "I'll make you a corporal," he replied. "If you do your work well and show leadership, I'll make you a sergeant in the Mechanical Brigade one month from today. Do you agree to thati"

  The other man shrugged and stood up. "I guess so. Corporal's better than private, isn't iti I can tell the privates what to do now, can't Ii"

  "and a captain can put your ass before a firing squad. " Roland stepped in front of him. They stared at each other face to face like two hostile animals. a thin smile crept across alvin Mangrim's mouth. Roland's bandaged, grotesque face remained impassive. Finally, he said, "You step in this tent without permission again, and I'll personally shoot you - or maybe you'd like a guided tour of the interrogation traileri"

  "Some other time. Sir. "

  "Report to Sergeant Draeger at the MB tent. Move it!"

  Mangrim plucked his knife from the desktop. He walked to the slit he'd cut in the tent, then bent down; but before he crawled through, he looked back at Roland. "Captaini" he said in a soft voice. "I'd be careful walking around in the dark, if I were you. Lots of broken glass out there. You could fall down and maybe cut your head right off. Know what I meani" Before Roland could respond, he'd crawled through the slit and was gone.

  "Bastard!" Roland seethed. "He'll end up in front of the firing squad!"

  Macklin laughed. He enjoyed seeing Roland, who was usually as controlled and emotionless as a machine, caught off balance for once. It made Macklin feel more in control. "He'll make lieutenant in six months," Macklin said. "He's got the kind of imagination the aOE thrives on. " He walked to the desk and stood looking down at the head of Franklin Hayes; with a finger of his left hand, he traced one of the brown keloids that marred the cold blue flesh. "Damned by the mark of Cain," he said. "The sooner we get rid of that filth, the sooner we can build things back like they were. No. Better than they were. " He reached out with his new hand and brought it down on the map of Nebraska, impaling it with the nails; he dragged it across the desk to him.

  "Send recon patrols out to the east and southeast at first light," he told Roland. "Tell them to search until dark before they start back. "

  "How long are we staying herei"

  "Until the aOE's rested and up to full strength. I want all the vehicles serviced and ready to move. " The main body of trucks, cars and trailers - including Macklin's own airstream command trailer - was eight miles west of Broken Bow, and it would be moved to connect with the advance war battalion at daylight. Starting with Freddie Kempka's encampment, Macklin had built a traveling army where everyone had a duty to perform, including footsoldiers, officers, mechanics, cooks, blacksmiths, tailors, two doctors and even camp prostitutes like Sheila Fontana. all of them were linked by Macklin's leadership, the need for food, water and shelter - and a belief that those survivors who bore the mark of Cain had to be exterminated. It was common knowledge that those with the mark of Cain were infecting the human race with radiation-poisoned genes, and if america was ever going to be strong enough to strike back at the Russians, the mark of Cain had to be erased.

  Macklin studied the Nebraska map. His eye moved eastward, along the red line of Highway 2, through Grand Island and aurora and Lincoln, to the blue line of the Missouri River. From Nebraska City, the aOE could march into either Iowa or Missouri - virgin land, with new settlements and supply centers to take. and then there would be the broad expanse of the Mississippi River, and the entire eastern part of the country would lie ahead of the aOE, to be taken and cleansed just as they had cleansed large sections of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. But there was always the next settlement, and the next, and Macklin was restless. He'd heard reports of Troop Hydra, Nolan's Raiders and the so-called american allegiance. He looked forward to meeting those "armies. " The aOE would crush them, just as they'd destroyed the People's Freedom Party during months of warfare in the Rocky Mountains.

  "We're heading east," he told Roland. "across the Missouri River. " His eye in the growth-stricken face gleamed with the excitement of the hunt. He lifted his right arm and swung the gloved hand through the air. Then faster. and faster still.

  The nails made a high, eerie whistling sound, like the noise of human screams.

  Fifty-four

  "Hey! Hey, come look at this!"

  The barn door flew open, and Sly Moody tumbled in with the morning wind at his heels. Instantly, Killer jumped up from underneath the wagon and began rapid-fire barking.

  "Come look at this!" Moody shouted, his face ruddy with excitement, flakes of snow melting in his hair and beard. He had dressed hurriedly, throwing on a brown coat over his long Johns, and he still wore slippers on his feet. "You gotta come look!"

  "What the hell are you jabberin' about, misteri" Rusty had sat up from the pile of hay in which he'd slept, and now he rubbed his bloodshot eyes. He could only make out the faintest light coming through the barn doorway. "Christ a'mighty! It's not even dawn yet!"

  Josh was on his feet, arranging the mask he'd just pulled over his head so he could see through the eyehole. He'd slept next to the wagon, and over the years he'd learned that waking up alert was a good way to stay alive. "What is iti" he asked Moody.

  "Out there!" The old man pointed through the doorway with a shaking finger. "You gotta come see! Where's the girli Is she awakei" He looked toward the closed folds of the wagon's tent.

  "What's this all abouti" Josh asked. Last night, Sly Moody had told Josh and Rusty to keep Swan in the barn; they'd taken their bowls of stew and beans and eaten in the barn with her, and she'd been nervous and silent as a sphinx. Now it made no sense to Josh that Sly Moody was wanting to see Swan.

  "Just get her!" Moody said. "Bring her and come see!" and then he sprinted through the doorway, out into the cold wind with Killer yapping right behind him.

  "Who pulled that fella's stringi" Rusty muttered to himself as he shrugged into his coat and pulled his boots on.

  "Swani" Josh called. "Swan, are you a - "

  and then the tent opened and Swan stood there, tall and slim and disfigured, her face and head like a gnarled helmet. She wore blue jeans, a heavy yellow sweater and a corduroy coat, and on her feet were hiker's boots. She held Crybaby in one hand, but today she'd made no effort to hide her face. Feeling her way with the dowsing rod, Swan came down the stepladder and angled her head so she could see Josh through the narrow slit of her vision. Her head was getting heavier, harder to control. Sometimes she was afraid her neck was about to snap, and whatever was beneath the growths burned so savagely that she often couldn't hold back a scream. Once she'd taken a knife to the ugly, deformed thing that her head had become, and she'd started slashing away in a frenzy. But the growths were too tough to cut, as unyielding as armor plate.

  She'd stopped looking into the magic mirror several months before. She just couldn't stand it anymore, though the figure carrying the glowing circle had seemed to be getting nearer - but then again, the hideous moonlike face with its drifting, monstrous features had looked to be drawing closer as well.

  "Come on!" Sly Moody was urging from the front of the house. "Hurry!"

  "What does he want us to seei" Swan asked Josh in her mangled voice.

  "I don't know. Why don't we go find outi"

  Rusty put on his cowboy hat and followed Josh and Swan out of the barn. Swan walked slowly, her shoulders stooped by the weight of her head.

  and then, abruptly, Josh stopped. "My God," he said softly, wonderingly.

  "You see iti" Sly Moody crowed. "Look at it! Just look!"

  Swan angled her head in a different direction so she could see in front of her. She wasn't sure what she was seeing at first, because of the blowing snow, but her heart had begun pounding as she walked toward Sly Moody. Behind her, Rusty had stopped as well; he couldn't believe what he was looking at, thought he must surely still be asleep and dreaming. His mouth opened to release a small, awed whisper.

  "I told you, didn't Ii" Moody shoute
d, and he began laughing. Carla stood near him, bundled up in a coat and white woolen cap, her expression stunned. "I told you!" and then Moody started dancing a jig, kicking up whorls of snow as he cavorted amid the stumps where apple trees had been.

  The single remaining apple tree was no longer bare. Hundreds of white blossoms had burst open on the scraggly limbs, and as the wind carried them spinning away like tiny ivory umbrellas small, bright green leaves were exposed underneath.

  "It's alive!" Sly Moody shouted joyously, kicking his heels, stumbling and falling and getting up again with snow all over his face. "My tree's come back to life!"

  "Oh," Swan whispered. apple blossoms blew past her. She could smell their fragrance in the wind - the sweet perfume of life. She tilted her head forward, looking at the trunk of the apple tree. and there, as if burned into the wood, were the marks of her palm, and the finger-drawn letters S. . . W. . . a. . . N.

  a hand touched her shoulder. It was Carla, and the woman stepped back when Swan finally got her deformed face and head turned. Through the narrow field of her vision, Swan saw the horror in Carla's eyes - but there were tears in them, too, and Carte was trying to speak but was unable to summon the words. Carla's fingers clutched at Swan's shoulders, and at last the woman said, "You did this. You put life back into that tree, didn't youi"

  "I don't know," Swan said. "I think I just. . . woke it up. "

  "It's blossomed overnight!" Sly Moody danced around the tree as if it were a maypole festooned with bright streamers. He stopped, reached up and grabbed a lower limb, pulling it down for all to see. "It's got buds on it already! Lord God, we're gonna have a bucket full of apples by the first of May! I never seen a tree go so wild before!" He shook the limb and laughed like a child as the white blossoms whirled off. and then his gaze fell upon Swan, and his grin faded. He released the limb and stared at her for a silent moment as the snowflakes and apple blossoms blew between them and the air was filled with the fragrant promise of fruit and cider.

  "If I hadn't seen this with my own eyes," Sly Moody said, his voice choked with emotion, "I never would've believed it. There ain't no natural way a tree can be bare one day and covered with blossoms the next. Hell, that tree's got new leaves on it! It's growing like it used to, back when april was a warm month and you could hear summer knockin' at the door!" His voice cracked, and he had to wait before he spoke again. "I know that's your name on that tree. I don't know how it got there, or why this tree's blossomed all of a sudden - but if this is a dream, I don't want to wake up. Smell the air! Just smell it!" and suddenly he walked forward and took Swan's hand, pressing it against his cheek. He gave a muffled sob and sank down to his knees in the snow. "Thank you," he said. "Thank you, thank you so much. "

  Josh recalled the green shoots that had been growing through the dirt in the shape of Swan's body, back in the basement of PawPaw's grocery. He remembered what she'd told him about the hurting sound, about the earth being alive and everything alive having its own language and way of understanding. Swan had spoken often of the flowers and plants she'd once grown in trailer lots and behind motel rooms, and both Josh and Rusty knew that she couldn't stand looking at dead trees where a forest used to stand. But nothing had prepared them for this. Josh walked to the tree and ran his fingers over the letters of Swan's name; they were burned into the wood as if by a blowtorch. Whatever power or energy or force Swan had summoned last night, here was the physical evidence of it. "How did you do thisi" he asked her, not knowing any other way to put it.

  "I just touched it," she answered. "I felt like it wasn't dead, and I touched it because I wanted it to keep living. " She was embarrassed that the old man was down on his knees beside her, and she wished he'd get up and stop crying. His wife was looking at Swan with a mixture of revulsion and wonder, as one might regard a toadfrog with golden wings. all this attention was making Swan more nervous than when she'd frightened the old man and woman last night. "Please," she said, tugging at his coat. "Please get up, mister. "

  "It's a miracle," Carla murmured, watching the blossoms blow. Nearby, Killer ran through the snow trying to catch them between his teeth. "She's made a miracle happen!" Two tears crept down her cheeks, freezing like diamonds before they reached her jawline.

  Swan was jittery and cold, afraid that her misshapen head might tilt over too far to one side and break her neck. She could endure the stinging wind no longer, and she pulled away from Sly Moody's grip; she turned and walked toward the barn, probing in the snow before her with Crybaby as the old man and the others watched her go. Killer ran circles around her with an apple blossom in his mouth.

  It was Rusty who got his tongue unstuck first. "What's the nearest town from herei" he asked Sly Moody, who was still on his knees. "We're heading north. "

  The old man blinked heavily and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "Richland," he said. Then he shook his head. "No, no; Richland's dead. Everybody either left Richland or died from the typhoid fever last year. " He struggled to his feet. "Mary's Rest," he said finally. "That would be the next settlement of any size. It's about sixty miles north of here, across I-44. I've never been there, but I hear Mary's Rest is a real city. "

  "I guess it's Mary's Rest, then," Josh said to Rusty. "Sounds like as good a place as any. "

  Moody suddenly snapped out of his daze. "You don't have to leave here! You can stay with us! We've got plenty of food, and we'll find room in the house for you! Lord, I wouldn't have that girl sleepin' in the barn another night for anything!"

  "Thank you," Josh said, "but we've got to go on. You need your food for yourself. and like Rusty said, we're entertainers. That's how we get by. "

  Sly Moody gripped Josh's arm. "Listen, you don't know what you've got, mister! That girl's a miracle worker! Look at that tree! It was dead yesterday, and now you can smell the blossoms! Mister, that girl's special. You don't know what she could do, if she was to set her mind to it!"

  "What could she doi" Rusty was puzzled by the whole thing and feeling definitely out of his depth, the same as he had whenever he'd picked up Fabrioso's mirror and seen nothing but murk in the glass.

  "Look at that tree and think of an orchard!" Sly Moody said excitedly. "Think of a cornfield, or a field of beans or squash or anything else! I don't know what's inside that girl, but she's got the power of life! Don't you see thati She touched that tree and brought it back! Mister, that Swan could wake the whole land up again!"

  "It's just one tree," Josh reminded him. "How do you know she could do the same thing to a whole orchardi"

  "You dumb fool, what's an orchard but one tree after anotheri" he growled. "I don't know how she did it or anything about her, but if she can start apples growin' again, she can start orchards and crop fields, too! You're crazy to take somebody with a God's gift like that out on the road! The country out there's full of killers, highwaymen, lunatics and only the Devil knows what all! If you stay here, she can start workin' on the fields, doin' whatever she has to do to wake 'em up again!"

  Josh glanced at Rusty, who shook his head, then gently pulled free of Sly Moody. "We've got to go on. "

  "Whyi Where toi What are you lookin' for that's worth findin'i"

  "I don't know," Josh admitted. In seven years of wandering from settlement to settlement, the point of life had become wandering instead of settling. Still, Josh hoped that someday they'd find a place that would be suitable to live in for more than a few months at a time - and possibly he might someday make his way south to Mobile in search of Rose and his sons. "We'll know it when we find it, I guess. "

  Moody started to protest again, but his wife said, "Sylvesteri It's getting very cold out here. I think they've made up their minds, and I think they should do what they feel is best. "

  The old man hesitated, then looked at his tree again and finally nodded. "all right," he muttered. "You have to go your own way, I reckon. " He fixed a hard gaze on Josh, who stood at least four inches taller than himself. "
Now you listen to me, mister," he warned. "You protect that girl, you hear mei Maybe someday she'll see her way clear to do what I've said she can do. You protect her, heari"

  "Yes," Josh said. "I hear. "

  "Then go on," Sly Moody said. Josh and Rusty started walking toward the barn, and Moody said, "God go with you!" He picked up a handful of blossoms from the snow, held them to his nose and inhaled.

  an hour or so after the Travelin' Show wagon had rumbled off northward along the road, Sly Moody put his heaviest coat and boots on and told Carla that he couldn't stand to sit still a minute longer. He was going to walk through the woods to Bill McHenry's place and tell him the story of the girl who could put life back into a tree with her touch, he said. Bill McHenry had a pickup truck and some gasoline, and Sly Moody said that he was going to tell everybody within shouting distance about that girl, because he had witnessed a miracle and all hope was not yet dead in the world. He was going to find a hilltop to stand on and shout that girl's name, and when those apples came he was going to cook an apple stew and invite everybody who lived on the desolate farms for miles around to come partake of a miracle.

  and then he put his arms around the woman he had taken as his wife and kissed her, and her eyes sparkled like stars.

  NINE

  The Fountain and the Fire

  Fifty-five

  The Jeep rumbled over a rutted, snow-covered road, passing wrecks and derelict vehicles that had been pulled to both sides. Here and there a frozen corpse lay in a gray snowdrift, and Sister saw one whose arms were lifted as if in a final appeal for mercy.

  They came to an unmarked crossroads, and Paul slowed down. He looked over his shoulder at Hugh Ryan, who had jammed himself into the rear compartment with the luggage. Hugh was gripping his crutch with both hands and snoring. "Hey!" Paul said, and he nudged the sleeping man. "Wake up!"

  Hugh snorted, finally opened his heavy-lidded eyes. "What is iti are we there yeti"

  "Hell, no! I think we must've taken the wrong road about five miles back! There's not a sign of life out here!" He glanced up through the windshield and saw the threat of new snow in the clouds. The light was just beginning to fade, and Paul didn't want to look at the gas gauge because he knew they were traveling on fumes. "I thought you knew the way!"

  "I do," Hugh assured him. "But it's been a while since I've ventured very far from Moberly. " He gazed around at the bleak landscape. "We're at a crossroads," he announced.

  "We know that. Now which road do we takei"

  "There should be a sign. Maybe the wind's blown it down. " He shifted position, trying to find a familiar landmark. The truth - which he had not told Paul and Sister - was that he'd never been this way before, but he'd wanted to get out of Moberly because he feared he'd be murdered in the night for his cache of blankets. "Let's see, now: I think I remember a big grove of old oak trees that we turned right at. "

  Paul rolled his eyes. On both sides of the narrow road stood thick forests. "Look," he said. "Read my lips: We're out in the middle of nowhere, and we're running out of gasoline - and this time there are no fuel tanks around for me to siphon. It's going to be dark soon, and I think we're on the wrong road. Now tell me why I shouldn't wring your damned skinny neck!"

  Hugh looked wounded. "Because," he said with great dignity, "you're a decent human being. " He glanced quickly at Sister, who had turned to deliver a scathing gaze. "I do know the way. I really do. I got us around that broken bridge, didn't Ii"

  "Which wayi" Sister asked pointedly. "Left or righti"

  "Left," Hugh said - and immediately wished that he'd said "right," but now it was too late and he didn't want to appear a fool.

  "Mary's Rest better be around the next bend," Paul told them grimly, "or we're going to be walking real soon. " He put the Jeep into gear and turned left. The road wound through a corridor of dead trees with branches that interlocked and closed off the sky.

  Hugh settled back to await judgment, and Sister reached down to the floorboard for her satchel. She unzipped it, felt inside for the glass ring and drew it out. Then she held it in her lap as the trapped jewels sparkled, and she stared into its shimmering depths.

  "What do you seei" Paul asked. "anythingi"

  Sister shook her head. The colors pulsed, but they had not yet formed pictures. How the glass ring worked, and exactly what it was, had remained a puzzle. Paul had said that he thought the radiation had melded the glass, jewels and precious metals into some kind of supersensitive antenna, but what it was tuned to neither of them could say. But they had come to the agreement that the glass circle was leading them to someone, and that to follow it meant giving up that part of yourself that refused to believe in miracles. Using the glass ring was like a leap in the dark, a surrendering of doubt, fear and all other impurities that clouded the mind; using it was the ultimate act of faith.

  are we closer to the answer, or further awayi Sister asked mentally as she peered into the ring. Who are we searching for, and whyi Her questions, she knew, would be answered with symbols and pictures, sights and shadows and sounds that might have been distant human voices, the creaking of wheels, or the barking of a dog.

  a diamond flared like a meteor, and light sizzled along threads of silver and platinum. More diamonds burst with light, like a chain reaction. Sister felt the power of the glass circle reaching for her, drawing her inward, deeper, deeper still, and all her being was fixed on the bursts of light as they flared in a hypnotic rhythm.

  She was no longer in the Jeep with Paul Thorson and the one-legged doctor from amarillo. She was standing in what looked to be a snow-covered field stubbled with the stumps of trees. But there was one tree remaining, and that one was covered with diamond-white blossoms blowing before the wind. On the tree's trunk were palm prints, as if seared into the wood - slim long fingers, the hands of a young person.

  and across the trunk were letters, as if fingerpainted in fire: S. . . W. . . a. . . N.

  Sister tried to turn her head, to see more of where she was standing, but the dreamwalk scene began to fade; she was aware of shadowy figures, distant voices, a moment perhaps trapped in time and somehow transmitted to Sister like a photograph through spectral wires. and then, abruptly, the dreamwalk was over, and she was back in the Jeep again with the glass ring between her hands.

  She released the breath she'd been holding. "It was there again," she told Paul. "I saw it again - the single tree in a field of stumps, the palm prints and the word 'swan' burned on the trunk. But it was clearer than last night, and this time. . . I think I could smell apples. " They'd traveled all day yesterday, heading for Mary's Rest, and had spent last night in the ruins of a farmhouse; it was there that Sister had looked into the glass ring and first seen that tree with the blowing blossoms. The vision was clearer than it had been; she'd been able to see every detail of the tree, every scraggly branch and even the tiny green buds that peeked out from under the blossoms. "I think we're getting closer," she said, and her heart was racing. "The image was stronger. We must be getting closer!"

  "But all the trees are dead," Paul reminded her. "Just look around. Nothing's in bloom - and nothing's going to be. Why should that thing show you the image of a tree in bloomi"

  "I don't know. If I did, I'd tell you. " She concentrated on the glass ring again; it pulsated with her quickened heartbeat but did not invite her to go dreamwalking. The message had been delivered and, at least for now, would not be repeated.

  "Swan. " Paul shook his head. "That doesn't make a damned bit of sense. "

  "Yes, it does. Somehow it does. We've just got to put the pieces together. "

  Paul's hands gripped the steering wheel. "Sister," he said, with a trace of pity, "you've been saying the same thing for a long time. You've been looking into that glass ring like you were a gypsy trying to read tea leaves. and here we are, going back and forth, following signs and symbols that might not mean a damned thing. " He glanced sharply at her.
"Have you ever thought about that possibilityi"

  "We found Matheson, didn't wei We found the tarot cards and the doll. " She kept her voice firm, but there had been many days and nights when she'd let herself fear the same thing - but only for a moment or two, and then her resolve returned. "I believe this is leading us to someone - someone very important. "

  "You mean you want to believe it. "

  "I mean I do believe it!" she snapped. "How could I go on if I didn'ti"

  Paul sighed deeply; he was tired, his beard itched and he knew he smelled like a cage of monkeys in a zoo. How long had it been, he wondered, since he'd had a bathi The best he'd been able to do in the last few weeks was scrub himself halfheartedly with ashes and snow. For the past two years, they had danced around the subject of the glass ring's fallibility like a couple of wary boxers. Paul himself could see nothing in the ring but colors, and he'd asked himself many times if the woman he was traveling with - indeed, had come to love and respect - wasn't making the signs up, interpreting them as she saw fit in order to keep them on this lunatic quest.

  "I believe," she told him, "that this is a gift. I believe I found it for a reason. I believe it's leading us for a reason. and everything it shows us is a clue to where we need to go. Don't you under - "

  "Bullshit!" Paul said, and he almost stomped on the brake, but he was afraid the Jeep would skid right off the road. Sister looked at him, her face with its hideous growths mirroring shock, anger and disillusion. "You saw a fucking clown's face in that damned thing, remember thati You saw a beat-up old Conestoga wagon or something; and you saw a thousand other things that just don't make any sense! You said go east because you thought the visions or dreamwalk pictures or whatever the shit they are were getting stronger; and then you said go back west again, because the visions started fading and you were trying to focus in on the direction. after that you said go north, and then south - and then north and south again. Sister, you're seeing what you want to see in that damned thing! So we found Matheson, Kansas! So whati Maybe you heard something about that town when you were a kid! Have you ever considered thati"

  She was silent, clasping the glass circle closer to her, and finally she said what she'd wanted to say for a long, long time. "I believe," she told him, "that this is a gift from God. "

  "Right. " He smiled bitterly. "Well, look around. Just look. Have you ever considered the possibility that God might be insanei"

  Tears burned her eyes, and she looked away from him because she'd be damned if she'd let him see her cry.

  "This whole thing is you, don't you see thati" he continued. "It's what you see. It's what you feel, and what you decide. If the damned thing is leading you somewhere - or to somebody - why doesn't it show you right out where you're supposed to goi Why's it playing tricks with your mindi Why does it give you these 'clues' in bits and piecesi"

  "Because," Sister answered, with just a slight waver in her voice, "just getting a gift doesn't mean you know how to use it. The fault's not with the glass ring - it's with me, because there's a limit to what I can understand. I'm doing the best I can, and maybe. . . maybe the person I'm looking for isn't ready to be found yet, either. "

  "Whati Come on!"

  "Maybe the circumstances aren't right yet. Maybe the picture's not complete, and that's why - "

  "Oh, Jesus!" Paul said wearily. "You're raving, do you know thati You're making up things that aren't true, because you want them so much to be true. You don't want to admit that we've wasted seven years of our lives searching for ghosts. "

  Sister watched the road unfolding before them, leading the Jeep into a dark, dead forest. "If you feel that way," she finally asked, "then why have you been traveling with me all this timei"

  "I don't know. Maybe because I wanted to believe as much as you do. I wanted to think there was some method to this madness - but there's not, and there never was. "

  "I remember a shortwave radio," Sister said.

  "Whati"

  "a shortwave radio," she repeated. "The one you used to keep those people in your cabin from killing themselves. You kept them going and gave them hope. Rememberi"

  "Okay. So whati"

  "Didn't you yourself at least hope there'd be a human voice on that radioi Didn't you tell yourself that maybe the next day, or the next, there'd be a signal from some other survivorsi You didn't go through all that just to keep a handful of strangers alive. You did it to keep yourself alive, too. and you hoped that maybe one day there'd be something more than static on that radio. Well, this is my shortwave radio. " She ran her hands over the smooth glass. "and I believe it's tuned to a force that I can't even begin to understand - but I'm not going to doubt it. No. I'm going to keep on going, one step at a time. With you or without - "

  "What the hell. . . i" Paul interrupted as they came around a curve. Standing in the middle of the road, beneath the overhanging trees, were three large snowmen, all wearing caps and mufflers, with stones for their eyes and noses. One of them appeared to be smoking a corncob pipe. Instantly Paul realized that he could not stop in time, and though he put his foot on the brake the wheels skidded through the snow and the Jeep's front fender banged into one of the snowmen.

  The jolt almost threw Paul and Sister through the windshield, and Hugh made a croaking sound in the back as the collision rattled his teeth. The Jeep's engine stuttered and died. Sister and Paul saw that where the snowman had been was now a pile of snow around a disguised roadblock of scrap metal, pieces of wood and stones.

  "Shit!" Paul said when he could find his voice. "Some fool's put a damned - "

  a pair of legs and scuffed brown boots slammed down on the Jeep's hood from above.

  Sister looked up and saw a hooded figure in a long, tattered brown coat with one hand wrapped around a rope that was tied in tree branches over the road. In the figure's other hand was a . 38 pistol, aimed through the windshield at Paul Thorson.

  More figures, scurrying from the woods on all sides, were converging on the Jeep. "Bandits!" Hugh bleated, his eyes wide with terror. "They'll rob us and cut our throats!"

  "Like hell they will," Sister said calmly, and she put her hand on the butt of the shotgun that was wedged beside her seat. She pulled it up, aiming it at the figure on the hood, and was about to fire when both of the Jeep's doors were wrenched open.

  a dozen pistols, three rifles and seven sharpened wooden spears thrust into the Jeep at Sister, and an equal number of weapons threatened Paul. "Don't kill us!" Hugh shouted. "Please don't kill us! We'll give you anything you want!"

  Fine for you to say, since you don't own a damned thing! Sister thought as she stared into the bristling wall of firearms and spears. She calculated how long it would take her to turn the shotgun and fire at the bandits - and she knew she'd be history as soon as she made a sudden movement. She froze, one hand on the shotgun and the other trying to protect the glass ring.

  "Out of the Jeep," the figure on the hood commanded. It was a young voice - the voice of a boy. The pistol shifted toward Sister. "Get your finger off that trigger if you want to keep it. "

  She hesitated, peering up at the boy's face, though she couldn't make out any features because of the coat's cowl. The pistol was aimed as steadily as if the boy's arm was stone, and the tone of his voice was all deadly business.

  She blinked and removed her finger from the trigger.

  Paul knew they had no choice. He muttered a curse, longing to get his hands around Hugh Ryan's neck, and got out.

  "Some guide you are," Sister told Hugh. She took a deep breath, exhaled and stepped out.

 
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