Chapter no 15

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

His head still reeling from his sudden and dramatic change of fate, Pino rose early on August 8, 1944. He ironed his uniform and ate breakfast before his father was even out of bed. As he sipped coffee and ate toast, he remembered that Uncle Albert had decided that no one but he and Aunt Greta should know Pino’s covert role as driver for Major General Hans Leyers.

“Don’t tell anyone,” Uncle Albert said. “Not your father, mother, Mimo. Carletto. Anyone. Telling someone could lead to someone else knowing, and then a third someone else, and soon you’ll have the Gestapo at your door, taking you away for torture. Do you understand?”

“You’ve got to be careful,” Aunt Greta said. “Being a spy is beyond dangerous.”

“Just ask Tullio,” Uncle Albert said.

“How is he?” Pino said, trying to get his mind off getting caught and tortured.

“The Nazis let his sister see him last week,” his aunt said. “She said he’d been beaten, but never talked. He was thin and sick with some stomach thing, but she said his spirits were high, and he spoke of escaping to fight with the partisans.”

Tullio will escape and fight, Pino thought as he hurried through the streets as San Babila began to awaken. And I am a spy. So I am kind of in the resistance now, aren’t I?

Pino was at the German House near the Porta Romana by 6:25 a.m. He was directed to the motor pool, where he caught a mechanic under the hood of Leyers’s Daimler-Benz staff car.

“What are you doing there?” Pino demanded.

The mechanic, an Italian in his forties, scowled. “My work.”

“I’m General Leyers’s new driver,” Pino said, looking at the carburetor settings. Two had been moved. “Stop messing with the carburetor.”

The mechanic, taken aback, sputtered, “I did no such thing.”

“You did,” Pino said, taking a screwdriver from the mechanic’s box and making several readjustments. “There, she’ll purr like a lioness now.”

The mechanic stared at him as Pino opened the driver’s door, stepped up on the running board, climbed into the seat, and looked around. Convertible roof. Leather seats. Buckets up front, bench in the back. The G4 was easily the biggest vehicle Pino had ever tried to drive. With six wheels and a high ground clearance, it could go virtually anywhere, which was the point, Pino guessed.

Where does a Plenipotentiary General for War Production go? With this car and total authority, anywhere he wants to.

Remembering his orders, Pino looked in the glove compartment and found an address on Via Dante, easy to find. He didn’t want to aggravate his wounds, so he played with the shifter to get his hand position and grip right. Then he tested the clutch and found every gear. He used his ring finger and the thumb of his right hand to turn the key. The raw power of the engine vibrated through the steering wheel.

Pino eased out the clutch. It had a hard release. His hand slipped off the shifter. The Daimler lurched forward and stalled. He glanced at the mechanic, who gave him a sneering grin.

Ignoring him, Pino started the car again and teased the clutch out this time. He rolled through the motor-pool yard in first and then second gear. The roads at Milan’s center, laid out in horse-and-carriage times, were narrow at best. At the wheel of the Daimler, Pino felt as if he were driving a minitank down the twisting lanes.

The drivers of the two cars he encountered looked at the red Nazi general’s flags fluttering on either front fender of the Daimler and immediately backed out of the way. Pino parked the staff car on the sidewalk just beyond the address on Via Dante Leyers left for him.

Pino got looks from several pedestrians, but no one dared protest with those Nazi general’s flags flying. He took the keys, climbed out, and went into the lobby of a small apartment building. Sitting on a stool by a closed door near the staircase, an old woman, a crone with thick-lensed glasses, peered his way as if barely seeing him.

“I’m going to three-B,” Pino said.

The crone said nothing, just nodded and blinked at him through her spectacles. She was creepy, he decided as he climbed to the third floor. He checked his watch. It was exactly 6:40 a.m. when he rapped sharply on the door.

He heard footsteps. The door opened inward, and his entire life changed.

Flashing her slate-blue eyes at him and smiling, the maid said, “You are the general’s new driver?”

Pino wanted to reply, but he was so stunned that he couldn’t. His heart boomed in his chest. He tried to speak, but no sound came out. His face felt hot. He ran a finger in his collar. Finally, he just nodded.

“I hope you don’t drive like you talk,” she laughed, playing with the braid of her tawny-blond hair with one hand and gesturing him inside with the other.

Pino stepped past her, smelled her, and felt so dizzy he thought he might fall.

“I’m Dolly’s maid,” she said behind him. “You can call me—” “Anna,” Pino said.



When he turned to look back at her, the door was closed, her smile had fallen, and she was regarding him as if he were some form of threat.

“How did you know my name?” she said. “Who are you?”

“Pino,” he stammered. “Pino Lella. My parents own a purse store in San Babila. I asked you to go the movies with me outside the bakery near La Scala last year, and you asked how old I was.”

Anna’s eyes unscrewed as if she were retrieving some vague, buried memory. Then she laughed, covered her mouth, and studied him anew. “You don’t look like that crazy boy.”

“A lot can change in fourteen months.”

“I can see that,” she said. “Is that how long it’s been?” “A lifetime ago,” Pino said. “You Were Never Lovelier.” Anna’s eyebrows shot up, annoyed. “Excuse me?”

“The movie,” he said. “Fred Astaire. Rita Hayworth. You stood me


Her chin dropped; so did her shoulders. “I did, didn’t I?”

There was an uncomfortable moment before Pino said, “It’s a good thing you did. That theater was bombed that night. My brother and I were inside, but we both made it out.”

Anna looked up at him. “True?” “One hundred percent.”

“What’s wrong with your hand?” she said.

He looked at his bandaged hand and said, “Just some stitches.”

An unseen woman with a thick accent called, “Anna! Anna, I need you, please!”

“Coming, Dolly,” Anna cried. She pointed to a bench in the hallway. “You can sit there until General Leyers is ready for you.”

He stood aside. The maid passed him close in the narrow hallway. It took his breath away, and he stared after her swinging hips as she disappeared deeper into the apartment. When he sat and remembered to breathe, Anna’s female-and-jasmine scent lingered in the air. He considered getting up and wandering through the apartment, just to see and smell her again. He decided he had to take the risk, and his heart began to pound wildly.

Then Pino heard approaching voices, a man and a woman talking and laughing in German. Pino sprang to attention. A woman in her early forties appeared at the other end of the short hall. She sashayed toward him wearing an ivory lace-and-satin robe and beaded gold slippers. She was leggy and pretty in a showgirl way with pendulous breasts, green eyes, and a riot of auburn hair that fell artfully about her shoulders and face. She wore makeup even at this early hour. She eyed Pino while smoking a cigarette.

“You are tall for a driver, and good-looking, too,” she said in Italian with a heavy German accent. “Too bad. Tall men are always the ones who die in war. Easy targets.”

“Guess I’ll have to keep my head down.”

“Mmmm,” she said, and took a drag. “I am Dolly, Dolly Stottlemeyer.”

“Vorarbeiter Lella, Pino Lella,” he said with none of the earlier stammering.

Dolly seemed unimpressed, and called out, “Anna? Do you have the general’s coffee ready?”

“Coming, Dolly,” Anna yelled back.

The maid and General Leyers converged on the short hallway at the same time. Pino snapped to attention, saluted, his eyes darting to Anna as she came over to him, her smell all around him as she held out a thermos. He looked at her hands and fingers, how perfect they were, how—

“Take the thermos,” Anna whispered. Pino startled, and took it.

“And the general’s valise,” she muttered.

Pino flushed and awkwardly bowed to Leyers, then picked up the large leather valise, which felt full.

“Where is the car?” the general asked in French. “Out front, mon général,” Pino replied.

Dolly said something to the general in German; he nodded and replied. Then Leyers fixed his eyes on Pino and snarled, “What are you doing there, staring at me like a Dummkopf? Take my bag to the car. Backseat.

Center. I’ll be down soon.”

Flustered, Pino said, “Oui, mon général. Backseat center.”

Before leaving, he dared a last glance at Anna and was discouraged to see that she was looking at him as if he had mental problems. He left the apartment and lugged the general’s valise down the stairs, trying to remember the last time he’d thought of Anna. Five, six months ago? The truth was he’d stopped believing he’d ever see her again, and now here she was.

Anna was all he could think about as he passed the blinking old crone in the lobby and went outside. The maid’s smell. Her smile. Her laugh.

Anna, Pino thought. What a beautiful name. Rolls right off the tongue.

Did General Leyers always spend the nights with Dolly? He desperately hoped so. Or was it an unusual thing? Once a week or something? He desperately hoped not.

Then Pino realized he’d better focus if he wanted to see Anna again. He had to be the perfect driver, he decided, one that Leyers would never dismiss.

He reached the Daimler. It was only then, as he was lifting the valise into the backseat, that he thought about what might be inside. He almost tried to open it right there, but then realized that foot traffic was building and there were German soldiers about.

Pino set the briefcase down, shut the door, and came around to the driver’s side of the staff car, so he could see back toward the apartment

building. He opened the rear door and moved the valise closer. He looked at the hasp, which had a keyhole. He looked up at the fourth floor, wondering how long it took the general to eat.

Less time with every second, Pino thought, and tried the hasp. Locked. He looked up at the fourth-floor window and thought he saw the drapes flutter as if someone had let them go. Pino shut the back door. A few moments later, the door to Dolly’s building opened. General Leyers exited.

Pino sprinted around the car and opened the other side.

The Nazis’ Plenipotentiary General for War Production barely gave him a glance before climbing in next to his case. Leyers immediately checked the hasp.



Pino shut the door behind the general, his heart hammering. What if he’d been looking inside the valise when the Nazi came out? That thought made his heart hammer all the more as he slid behind the wheel and looked in the rearview mirror. Leyers had set his peaked hat aside and was digging out a thin silver chain from beneath his collar. There was a key on it.

“Where are we going, mon général?” Pino asked.

“Don’t talk unless spoken to,” Leyers said sharply, using the key to unlock his case. “Are we clear, Vorarbeiter?”

“Ouimon général,” Pino said. “Very clear.” “Can you read a map?”


“Good, then. Drive on toward Como. When you cross out of Milan, stop and drop my flags. Store them in the glove compartment. In the meantime, be quiet. I have to concentrate.”

After they were moving, General Leyers put on reading glasses and began intently working on a thick stack of papers in his lap. Yesterday at Albanese Luggage and this morning at Dolly Stottlemeyer’s, Pino had been too flustered to look at Leyers in any great detail. Now he drove and kept taking glances at the general, really studying the man.

Pino figured Leyers was in his midfifties. Powerfully built, especially through the shoulders, the general had a bull neck that strained against his crisp white shirt and jacket. His forehead, broader than most, was defined by receding salt-and-pepper hair slicked back and glistening with pomade.

His thick, dark brows seemed to throw shadows across his eyes as he scanned reports, scribbled on them, and then set them aside in a separate pile on the backseat.

Leyers’s concentration seemed total. In the time it took for Pino to drive the Daimler out of Milan proper, he never once saw him raise his head off the work before him. Even when Pino stopped to take down the general’s flags, Leyers stayed on task. He had a blueprint spread out across his lap and was studying it when Pino said, “Como, mon général.”

Leyers adjusted his glasses. “The stadium. Around back.”



A few minutes later, Pino drove along the long west side of the football stadium on Viale Giuseppe Sinigaglia. Seeing the staff car, four armed guards at an entrance snapped to attention.

“Park it in the shade,” General Leyers said. “Wait with the car.”

“Ouimon général.

Pino parked, shot out of the car, and had the back door open in seconds. Leyers seemed not to notice, got out with his valise, and walked by Pino as if he did not exist. Leyers treated the guards the same way as he disappeared inside the stadium.

It was early in the day, and already the August heat was building. Pino could smell Lake Como on the other side of the stadium, and he longed to go down and look up the western arm toward the Alps and Casa Alpina. He wondered how Father Re was, and Mimo.

He thought about his mother, and what her latest purse designs might look like, and whether she knew what had happened to him. He felt melancholy, realized he missed Porzia, especially the way she charged into everything in her life. Nothing had ever frightened his mother, as far as he knew, until the bombing had started. Since then, she and Cicci had been living in Rapallo, listening to the war on the radio, and praying for it all to be over.

It was passive, hiding out, and for that Pino was glad he wasn’t with her. He was not hiding out. He was a spy at the heart of Nazi power in Italy. A thrill went through him, and for the first time, he really thought about being a spy, not espionage as a boy’s game but as an act of war.

What was he trying to find or see? And where was he trying to find or see it? There was the valise and its contents, to be sure. And General Leyers had offices here in Como, and in Milan, Pino supposed. But would he ever be allowed inside them?

He couldn’t see that happening, and realizing there was little for him to do now but wait for the general, he let his thoughts drift to Anna. He’d thought for sure he’d never see her again, but here she was, the maid of the general’s mistress! What were the odds of that? Didn’t it all seem like it was


German lorries, better than a dozen, rumbled past him blowing black diesel smoke, and ground to a halt at the north end of the street. Armed Organization Todt soldiers leaped out of one vehicle and fanned out, training their weapons on the rears of the other lorries.

“Raus!” they shouted, and dropped the gate. Throwing back the canvas, they revealed forty men looking around in bewilderment. “Raus!”

They were all emaciated, filthy, with scraggly beards and long tangled hair. Many of them had vacant, dead eyes and wore ragged gray trousers and tops. There were letters on their chests he couldn’t make out. Manacled, they moved at no better than a shuffle until the guards tore into them, hitting a few with the butts of their rifles. As lorry after lorry emptied, there were soon three hundred of the men, maybe more, moving en masse to the stadium’s north end.

Pino recalled the similar men in the central rail yard in Milan clearing the streets of bomb debris. Were they Jews? Where had they come from?



The gray men, as he’d taken to calling them, rounded the northwest corner of the stadium and headed east toward the lake and out of view. He thought about General Leyers’s order to wait by the Daimler, and then Uncle Albert’s wish that he become a spy. Pino started walking at a quick pace past the four guards at the near entrance. One said something in German he didn’t understand. He nodded, laughed, and kept moving, figuring that acting confident was as good as being confident.

He rounded the corner. The gray men were gone. How was that possible?

Then Pino saw that an overhead door on the north end of the stadium had been rolled up. Two armed guards appeared outside. He thought of Tullio Galimberti, how he used to say that the trick to doing almost anything difficult was to act like someone else, someone who belonged.

Pino saluted the guards and took a right inside a tunnel that led out toward the pitch. He figured if he was going to be stopped, it would be now, but his gamble paid off, and they didn’t say a word. He quickly saw why. The tunnel had side hallways in which many men in OT uniforms like his own were stacking boxes and crates. The guards must have figured Pino was just one more in the bunch.

He walked almost to the mouth of the tunnel, then hung back in the shadows and looked out, seeing the gray men lining up in rows on the near side. Beyond them, at the southern end of the stadium, camouflage netting had been raised and lashed in place. There were howitzer cannons on trailers beneath the netting, six of them by Pino’s count, dozens of heavy machine guns, and too many wooden crates to ponder. It was a supply depot. Maybe an ammo dump.

Pino turned his attention to the OT soldiers prodding the last few gray men into position just before General Leyers appeared from another tunnel perhaps fifty meters away and down the length of the stadium. An OT captain and a sergeant trailed him.

Pino pressed himself tight to the tunnel wall, only then truly considering what might happen if he were caught snooping about. He’d be questioned, certainly. Maybe punched up. Maybe worse. He thought about walking confidently right back out the way he’d come in, waiting however long it took for Leyers to return, and going on with his day.

But then, ramrod straight and with the full authority of a Nazi Reich Minister, General Leyers strode to a stop in front of the gray men, who were assembled in thirty rows, ten deep, with close to a meter gap between each man, and a three-meter gap between each row. Leyers studied the first man a moment, and then made some kind of pronouncement that Pino couldn’t hear.

The captain scribbled on a notepad. The sergeant pointed with the muzzle of his rifle, and the first gray man broke formation. He trudged across the field, turned, and stood looking back at Leyers, who’d moved on to the next man, and the next. Each time Leyers would study the man before him, and then make his pronouncement. The captain would write it down,

and the sergeant would point his gun. Some went with the first man. Others were assigned to one of two other groups.

He’s grading themSorting them.

Indeed, the biggest and strongest of the prisoners stood in a cluster smaller than the other two. The men in the second and larger group looked more beaten up, but they were still grasping at dignity. The third and largest bunch looked like men at their limits, skeletal, and about to drop dead in the building heat.

Leyers was a model of German efficiency in the sorting process. He gave no man more than a five-second appraisal, rendered his verdict, and moved on. He reached the three-hundredth man in less than fifteen minutes, said something to the captain and the sergeant, who snapped into a Sieg heil salute. General Leyers returned the Nazi salute with vigor and then strode toward the exit.



He’s heading to the car!

Pino spun around, swallowing at the metal taste on his tongue, wanting to run but forcing himself to model the general in his purposeful, authoritative stride. When he walked out the north gate, one of the guards asked him something in German. Before he could answer, their attention moved to the sound of the gray men shuffling into the tunnel behind Pino, who kept moving as if he were leading the parade at a distance.

He rounded the corner. Midway down the stadium, Leyers exited, heading toward the Daimler. Pino exploded into a full sprint.

They’d been seventy-five meters apart when Leyers came out the door. But twelve steps from the staff car, Pino caught up, went by the general, and came to a skidding halt. He saluted, tried to calm his breath, and opened the door. A dribble of sweat left his hairline and ran down between his eyes onto the bridge of his nose.

General Leyers must have seen it, because he stopped before getting in and looked closely at Pino. More sweat beads appeared and dribbled.

“I told you to wait with the car,” Leyers said.

“Oui, mon général,” Pino gasped. “But I had to piss.”

The general showed slight disgust, and climbed inside. Pino shut the door behind him, feeling like he’d taken a steam bath. He wiped both

sleeves across his face and got into the driver’s seat. “Varenna,” General Leyers said. “Do you know it?”

“East shore of the east arm of the lake, mon général,” Pino said, and threw the staff car in gear.

They were stopped at four checkpoints as they made their way to Varenna, but every time, the sentry saw Leyers in the back of the staff car and quickly waved them through. The general had Pino stop at a small café in Lecco for an espresso and a pastry, which Leyers ate and drank as they drove on.

On the outskirts of Varenna, General Leyers gave directions that led out of town and up into the foothills of the southern Alps. The road quickly became a two-track that led to a gated pasture. Leyers told Pino to go through the gate and across the field.

“Are you sure the car will make it?” Pino asked.

The general looked at him like he was a fool. “It is a six-wheel drive.

It will go anywhere I tell it to go.”

Pino dropped the transmission into full-low gear, and they went through the gate, cruising like a small tank across the uneven terrain with surprising ease. General Leyers told him to park in the far corner of the field near six empty lorries and a pair of OT soldiers guarding them.

Pino pulled in and shut off the staff car.

Before he could get out, the general said, “Can you take notes, too?”

“Ouimon général.

Leyers rooted in his valise, came up with a stenographer’s notepad and a pen. Then he retrieved the chain and key beneath his shirt and locked the case.

“Follow me,” he said. “Write down what I tell you.”

Pino snatched up the notepad and pen and climbed out. He opened the rear door, and Leyers exited, walking briskly past the lorries to a path that entered woods.

It was nearly eleven o’clock in the morning. Crickets sawed in the heat. The air in the forest smelled good and green and reminded Pino of that grassy hillside where he and Carletto had slept during the bombardment. The trail began to angle steeply downhill, with lots of exposed tree roots and ledges.

A few minutes later, they emerged from the trees onto a railroad track that curved into a tunnel. General Leyers marched toward it. Only then did

Pino hear the din of steel on rock, hundreds of hammers striking stone inside the tunnel. The air reeked of spent explosives.

Sentries outside the tunnel snapped to attention and saluted as Leyers passed. Pino followed, feeling their eyes on him. It was gloomy and got gloomier the deeper they walked into the tunnel. With every step, the hammering got closer and turned more painful to the ear.

The general stopped, dug in his pocket, and came out with cotton balls. He handed one to Pino, motioned to him to tear it in half and stuff the pieces in his ear canals. Pino did, and it helped enough that only if the general shouted right next to him could he hear what he was saying.

They rounded a curve in the tunnel. Bright electric bulbs hung from the ceiling ahead, casting a garish light that revealed the silhouettes of a small army of gray men using picks and sledge hammers to attack the walls on both sides of the tunnel, which stank of detonation. Chunks of rock yielded to the onslaught, broke off, and fell at the men’s feet. They kicked the rocks behind them to other men loading the debris into ore cars on the rail tracks.

It was hellish, Pino thought, and he wanted to leave immediately. But General Leyers continued on without pause, stopping by an OT guard who handed him a flashlight. The general shone it into the excavations on either side of the track. The gray men had cut a solid meter into the wall in places, and were hollowing out a space that Pino judged at two and a half meters high and twenty-four meters long.

They walked on past the excavations. Fifteen meters on, the walls on either side of the track had already been dug out four and a half meters deep, two and a half meters high, and another thirty meters long. Large wooden crates filled much of the space on both sides of the track. Several were open, revealing bands of ammunition.

General Leyers inspected samples from each of the crates and then asked the sergeant there something in German. The sergeant handed Leyers a clipboard of documents. Leyers scanned several pages and then looked up at Pino.

“Write, Vorarbeiter,” he commanded. “Seven point nine two by fifty- seven millimeter Mauser: six point four million rounds ready for shipment south.”

Pino scribbled, looked up.

“Nine by nineteen millimeter Parabellum,” Leyers said. “Two hundred twenty-five thousand rounds to Waffen-SS Milan. Four hundred thousand rounds to Modena south. Two hundred and fifty thousand rounds to Genoa SS.”

Pino was writing as fast as he could and barely keeping pace. When he looked up, the general said, “Read it back to me.”

Pino did, and Leyers nodded curtly. He walked on, looking at the printing on some of the crates and barking out notes and orders.

“Panzerfaust,” Leyers said. “Six—”

“Sorry, mon général,” Pino said. “I do not know this word Panzer—” “One hundred millimeter rocket grenade,” General Leyers said

impatiently. “Seventy-five crates to the Gothic Line, per Field Marshal Kesselring’s ask. Eighty-eight millimeter tank-wreckers. Forty launchers and one thousand rockets to the Gothic Line, also per Kesselring’s ask.”

It went on like this for another twenty minutes, with the general barking out orders and destinations of everything from machine pistols to Karabiner 98ks, the Wehrmacht’s standard infantry rifle, to Solothurn long- range rifles and the stout 20 x 138 mm ammunition that fed it.

An officer appeared from farther up the tunnel, saluted, and spoke to Leyers, who turned and started back in the other direction. The officer, a colonel, ran to stay abreast with the general, still speaking crisply. Pino lagged a short distance behind.

At last the colonel stopped talking. General Leyers dropped his head slightly, pivoted with military precision, and began to verbally tear into the junior officer in German. The colonel tried to respond, but Leyers went on with his tirade. The colonel took a step back. That seemed to infuriate Leyers all the more.

He looked around, saw Pino standing there, and scowled. “You, Vorarbeiter,” he said. “Go wait by the rock pile.”

Pino dropped his head and hurried past them, hearing the general shouting once more. The hammers and the stone cracking ahead made him want to wait for Leyers there. He’d no sooner had that thought than the clamor died, replaced by the sound of tools falling to the ground. By the time he reached the excavation site, the men with the picks and shovels were sitting with their backs to the walls. Many held their heads in their hands. Others looked blankly at the tunnel’s ceiling.

Pino did not think he’d ever seen men like this. It was almost unbearable to look at them: how they panted, how they gushed sweat, and how they rolled their tongues along the inside of their parched lips. He looked around. There was a big milk can of water by the near wall and beside it a bucket with a ladle.

None of the guards watching over the men had moved to offer them any water. Whoever they were, whatever they’d done to be here, they deserved water, Pino thought, growing angry. He went to the milk can, tipped it over, and filled the bucket.

One guard protested, but Pino said, “General Leyers,” and the protest


He walked over to the closest man, ladled him out some water. He was

so drawn down his cheekbones and jaw stood out, making his face look like a skull. But he cocked back his head, opened his mouth, and Pino poured the water straight down his throat. When he was finished, Pino moved to the next man, and the next.

Few of them looked at him at all. As Pino was dipping for water, the seventh man stared at the rocks at his feet and muttered curses in Italian, calling him vile names.

“I’m Italian, jackass,” Pino said. “Do you want the water or not?”

The man looked up. Pino saw how young he was. They could have been the same age, though he was twisted and aged beyond what Pino could fathom.

“You speak like a Milanese, but you wear a Nazi uniform,” he croaked.

“It’s complicated,” Pino said. “Drink the water.”

He drank a sip, and then gulped it down just as eagerly as the other seven had.

“Who are you?” Pino said when he’d finished. “Who are these others?”

The man looked at Pino as if he were studying a bug. “My name is Antonio,” he said. “And we’re slaves. Every last one of us.”

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