by A. C. Koch || Author's Links
Who doesn't love reading a smalltown newspaper with its Rotary Club meeting reports, comprehensive T-ball league coverage and front page exposés on hooligan vandalism of county road signs? But imagine picking up the Marthasville (MO) Courier, fresh off the presses on a Wednesday afternoon in March, 1998, and finding this item on page 6 between the wedding announcements and classified ads: "American Tube Using Untested Technology to Transport People Around the Globe." Readers of this article discovered that sources had reported eye-witness accounts of "human beings transported instantaneously from one place to another," and that this had been observed "right here in Marthasville." It was also stated in the article that documents had been uncovered linking a heating duct manufacturer called American Tube, Inc. of Tulsa, OK to each of the locations of alleged transport. That no mention of this spectacular news item reached the rest of the world beyond the borders of Franklin County, Missouri is testament to the insularity of small towns everywhere - or, alternately, to a very large coverup. While the New York Times and Washington Post and every other news organization in the country was awash in Monica Lewinsky, Bob Marquart was breaking possibly the biggest story ever to see print. He was the editor, reporter and indeed sole editorial staffer of the Marthasville Courier. And he had already started writing his Pulitzer acceptance speech.
Marthasville sits in the rolling hills at the edge of the floodplain of the Missouri River. The main industry is still agriculture, including vineyards which produce some of the finest Concord and Cynthiana grapes in North America. A good deal of business also comes from the Katy bike trail which runs through the verdant hills of central Missouri and right through downtown Marthasville. The street that makes up the downtown was once the heart of the community where people would gather and chat on the porch of the post office or at the picnic tables in front of the Mom and Pop grocery. Today the post office has moved to a modern brick annex on the highway and the grocery went out of business; it is now a bicycle shop that caters to weekend cyclists passing through on the Katy Trail. The population is 674 and shrinking as more and more families move to Washington, the county seat. Washington boasts a Wal-Mart and Blockbuster Video and a strip of fast food places, i.e., jobs and a middle class aesthetic. Meanwhile the old town center and neighboring communities like Marthasville empty out and dry up.
The Marthasville Courier, claiming a circulation of 500, had been published by the Reinhardt family of nearby New Haven since 1941, and was for a decade after the Second World War the largest newspaper in Franklin County. Today the Washington Missourian and the New Haven Leader have eclipsed the readership the Courier once enjoyed. "I'm not sure if anyone was reading that paper anymore," said Wally Obermeyer, manager of the Tri-County Lumberyard. "I had a stack of them every week in the lobby but I think people just skimmed through looking for their names. And I guess they read Mabel´s column." Mabel Yoder, a resident of the local nursing home, contributed a Society column every week.
Is it possible, then, that not a single person read that first article about American Tube? There was no mention of it the following week, neither were there any letters to the editor commenting on the unsettling events apparently unfolding right there in Marthasville.
The story came to me a year after it first broke when I was contacted by a Spencer Clayburne who said he was Robert Marquart´s lawyer. It had been several years since Bob Marquart and I had written or communicated but I had no trouble remembering him. Ten years ago we had both been students at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, getting our Masters in Poetry. Neither of us ever finished the program or got the degree, though it always seemed to me that Bob should have: he was a much better poet than I was. Years later, people still remember lines and fragments of the poems he recited on Open Mike Night at the Penny Lane Coffeehouse: "We've all been duped into a singalong!"
After Naropa, Marquart moved back to Warren County, Missouri, where he had been born, but he had no family left there anymore. He put his wordsmithing talents to good use first reporting for and then editing the Marthasville Courier. When the publisher Hal Reinhardt informed his staff that the paper was no longer making money, everyone gave up and left for jobs at papers in neighboring communities - everyone, that is, except for Bob Marquart, who offered to stay on and put out the paper himself, just on his reporter's salary. That was something perfectly in line with what I knew of Marquart's character. All he wanted to do was write, and for him there was something righteous about the idea of giving a voice to the community.
Now Spencer Clayburne wanted to know what I knew about Marquart's "conspiracy exposé." My name, it was explained to me, had been found at the top of a list written in Marquart´s hand and titled "Conspirators?" I was something of a disappointment for Clayburne, however, not having been in touch with Marquart in years. So Clayburne gave me an encapsulated version of the events of the last year which had culminated in his calling me. What he told me went something like this: Marquart had started publishing small articles in the Courier detailing what he presented as a conspiracy taking place in Marthasville but extending all over the globe. Implicated as the prime mover of this plot was American Tube, Inc., the heating duct manufacturer, which did in fact exist and had declined all of Marquart´s requests for interviews. According to Marquart, American Tube, Inc. was a subsidiary of the Netwerk Corporation, which could not actually be confirmed to exist, and it was this Netwerk which became the main target of Marquart's aggressive journalistic attack on a "vast conspiracy to transport people around the globe." Here's how he put it in that first article: "Evidence points to an underground plot to control the movements and transport of goods, services and even human beings across a global grid of interlocking nodes and waystations. This network is powered primarily through a complex system of compressors, tubes, vacuums and heretofore unknown technology. Far from being clandestine, this plot is assisted by the overt and total subordination of the news media to its own self-serving ends."
Never addressed in the Courier articles were questions such as: Do the people being transported know what's happening to them? Have they consented? Has anyone talked to them about it? Can any of this be proven or even documented? And where and how did it all begin?
To answer this last question I drove to New Haven, just a few miles across the green hills of Warren County along the banks of the slate-grey and slow-moving Missouri River. The young editor of the New Haven Leader, Steve Roth, had briefly worked with Marquart at the Courier several years earlier, and had been closely observing the evolution of the Courier ever since. Roth, dressed like a college student in flannel and blue jeans with a Cardinals ballcap pulled on backwards, showed me into the Leader´s newsroom on a muggy Wednesday afternoon. The newsroom was a small office with one desk, a layout table, two computers and a rotary-dial telephone. Roth had just "put the paper to bed" that morning, and looked exhausted as he kicked his feet up on the desk and laced his fingers behind his head. Like Marquart at the Courier, Roth was the editor, reporter, photographer and sole editorial staffer of the New Haven Leader, aside from the secretary that worked three days a week handling ad sales. "There are times," Roth said, "about four o'clock Wednesday morning when you've got five thousand words to write and print and lay-out, and that 10 AM deadline is just looming. You're alone, and all you're running on is fumes....Times like that, anyone can go a little crazy."
Hallucinations, I asked? Delusions?
Roth shrugged. "Marquart's good people, and he's a good writer. He can't help putting a little of his personality into everything he writes. I mean, his T-ball roundup is poetry. But that Netwerk stuff...." He shook his head, grinning. "I don't even know what to call that. Who's to say? He could be onto something big for all I know. But one thing's for sure: I started reading the Courier front to back again, every week, like some kind of serial novel. That shit was good."
The fact that Marquart never reported an interview anyone who actually claimed to have been transported by the Netwerk didn't dampen his certainty that he was onto something big. So big, in fact, that a month after the first article appeared buried on page six, the town found the latest edition of the paper with the blazing headline "American Tube Denies Complicity in Netwerk Plot." This article shared the front page with a report on a local militia meeting at a truckstop and a photo of the new sculpture outside the elementary school. It was revealed that the Netwerk was an organization made up of the CEOs of various legitimate companies like McDonnell-Douglas, Dow Chemical, Wal-Mart and AT&T. Operating as the Netwerk, they had apparently developed a powerful system for "de-atomizing" human beings, beaming them across great distances, then "re-atomizing" them, safe and sound. This sounds suspiciously similar to the device the Starship Enterprise uses to transport Captain Kirk and company from their ship to the surface of a planet and back again. But Marquart never alluded to Star Trek in his articles, nor let on in any way that this was anything less than solid, serious journalism.
The truly remarkable aspect of the story, however, is that no one in Marthasville spoke up about it. Why had no word of this story gotten out? Why hadn't I read about it, even in the random wire service notes? It wasn't until six months later, when Marquart had started publishing schematic diagrams of the Washington Wal-Mart's ventilation system, that the first letter to the editor appeared from an Ivan Iverson, saying simply, "Enough about this Netwerk! Get back to reporting the news of Warren County." Notice that Iverson doesn't mention any skepticism about what he had been reading on the Netwerk - he just didn't want to hear about it anymore.
Meanwhile, the Netwerk Conspiracy had become a regular feature of the Marthasville Courier. Every week there was a boxed column on the front page detailing new developments that had been uncovered by Marquart's own muckracking jounalism. In keeping with conventions of the form, all speculation was limited to quoted sources - seldom identified - and each of the articles maintained a neutral tone of skepticism, i.e:
"A Marthasville resident who requested anonymity reported seeing city councilman Ben Mathers with his family shopping at the Washington Wal-Mart on Tuesday evening at around 6:10 pm. The anonymous source then returned to Marthasville directly, at which point he happened to see councilman Mathers in the middle of eating dinner at Loretta's Restaurant. Fewer than five minutes had elapsed, and at no time did any cars pass the anonymous source on the road. Representatives of American Tube, Inc. insisted that none of their products or technology - present in the form of heating ductwork in both the Wal-Mart and Loretta's Restaurant - were capable of transporting a live human being instantaneously from one point to another..."
Why weren't the citizens of Marthasville catching on that something strange was happening at the Courier? "I just figured it was another goddamn conglomerate coming to town," said Ira Stoltz, owner of Loretta's Café. "I read through the first couple of stories on it but it just started to look like another depressing story on big business snuffing out the little guy. First Wal-Mart, then this Netwerk thing. I frankly wasn't interested. Besides, nobody reads the paper for the news anyway."
If people don't read the paper for the news, what do they read it for?
"The Society page," answered Beatrice Allen, one of two teachers at the elementary school. "If you have a garage sale, or if you come back from vacation and have a slide show at your house, or if you organize a singing group at the church, you get in Mabel's Society page. And you got to read it every week to know what everybody's up to."
If the Society column was the heart of the Marthasville Courier, it is now a heart without a body. Three months after Bob Marquart first broke the story on the Netwerk, publisher Hal Reinhardt pulled the plug on the paper. Declaring bankruptcy, he auctioned off the computer and the photo archives and the printing presses and cancelled the lease on the office space, and that was that.
"Marquart went nuts," Reinhardt told me over coffee in Loretta's. He wore a white cowboy hat with a grey polyester suit and snakeskin boots: he looked more like a wealthy rancher than a newspaper publisher. "Maybe he was trying to pump up circulation and all, get a little scandal going. But when I found out he was barking up Wal-Mart's tree, I pulled the plug on him. How is a little paper like the Courier going to stand up to Wal-Mart? And if it's such a big goddamn story like he says it is, then how come I'm not reading about it in the New York Times?" Reinhardt sent two of his accountants (Marquart claims it was three) to close up the newsroom in the middle of the night. They found Marquart at the computer, typing furiously for the 10 AM deadline and, according to Reinhardt, they had to physically remove him from the premises. "He was kicking and screaming," said Reinhardt with a smile on his face, "like a little kid when you take his toys away. And you know what he had on-screen when they pulled him away from the computer?" Reinhardt tipped the brim of his hat forward, delivering a punchline. "His Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech."
That last issue of the Marthasville Courier that Bob Marquart was writing when he was interrupted never got printed. But Marquart kept duplicate copies of all his issues on computer disc, and his final installment on the Netwerk survives. It includes an interview with a former American Tube janitor, as well as notes for Marquart's anticipated Pulitzer speech:
"We live in an age of corporate monstrosity. The dollar you give to the chain-store or the national franchise will never return to you. The illusion of community is meant to comfort us, but it exists only as a consumer breeding ground. The next time you're in line at Wal-Mart, turn around and see if you know the person standing in line behind you. See if you recognize the cashier, or the Customer Service Specialist by the doors. These are supposedly people from your community. They are not. They have been beamed in from random points all across the country, and will be beamed out as soon as they're done shopping or their shift is over. They may not even know it themselves. The Netwerk is purposely creating a decentralized society. At the same time they create the myth that they are serving the community. But there is no community. There is only the Netwerk."
Everything that once made up the Courier, including all of Marquart's files on the Netwerk, was purchased by the increasingly dominant Washington daily, the Missourian. Today the only remaining vestige of the Marthasville Courier is Mabel Yoder's "Society Page" which still lives on. She types it up herself every week and has her grandson make mimeograph copies at the fire station. Circulation: 500.
In the course of my own muckraking I came across a mention in the Missourian of city councilman Ben Mathers, whom Marquart had reported as transporting via Netwerk between Wal-Mart and Marthasville. The tidbit noted that the bi-monthly city council meetings were no longer taking place in the rec room of the Marthasville nursing home, but were instead adjourning in the Wal-Mart cafeteria in Washington. "It's more convenient for everyone," Mathers told me over coffee in that very cafeteria. The ceiling high over our heads was a mess of bright blue painted tubes. "We were just in the way over at the old folks' home, and here we can do our shopping and check prices and inventory on anything we might need for special projects, like putting that picket fence around the outfield at the baseball diamond."
I mentioned that one of Marquart's concerns with Wal-Mart was that it was harming the community by draining business from Marthasville. This clearly irritated Mathers. "Since when are lower prices and greater convenience bad for the community? Let me tell you something: Bob Marquart is a goddamn loon, and everybody knows it. He says he speaks for the community but all he speaks for is himself. Anyone in this town will tell you that."
I went further. "Are you aware of what Marquart has alleged about you?"
Mathers fixed me with a smouldering gaze. "That I transport magically between Marthasville and Wal-Mart? Yes, I'm quite aware of Bob's little fantasy, but let me tell you something else: If such a thing really did exist, and it really was possible to, to transport myself across the valley to do my shopping - well, hell, I'd be the first to sign up. Can't beat that for convenience." He watched me defiantly. "You can go ahead and print that if you want. See what Bob has to say about it."
But nobody knows what Bob Marquart has to say about anything these days. The day after the Courier was shut down, he quietly left town and no one has heard from him since.
No one, that is, but for the people who turned up on his "Conspirators?" list. That included me and councilman Mathers and Ira Stoltz and Wally Overmeyer and Ivan Iverson, the man who wrote the letter to the editor. It would seem that these names make up a list of Marquart's potential witnesses, or enemies. The only thing that puzzled me about this list, in fact, was my own name. I hadn't communicated with Marquart in nearly three years, I had never been to Marthasville, and I certainly wasn't aware of any connection I might have with American Tube, Inc. or the Netwerk. So were we conspirators with him? Or conspirators against him?
Through his lawyer I contacted Marquart and arranged an interview. The secrecy he insisted upon prevents me from revealing even a general description of the location of our meeting. Suffice to say it was in a Denny's near an interstate and Marquart sat in a corner booth facing the rest of the dining area and both exits. He wore an old black leather jacket over a flowery summer shirt and his long black hair was combed straight back over his head. He stirred five packets of non-dairy creamer into his coffee and watched me through the dark lenses of aviator sunglasses. "The Netwerk's goons shut me down," he said.
"I was ready to put the paper to bed early on a Wednesday morning when these three suits show up and tell me they're confiscating everything and they want me out. They weren't CIA or FBI or any of those guys. These guys were serious. And you should have seen the issue I was about to print: an interview with this dude from Tulsa, used to work at American Tube as a janitor." Marquart leaned across the table and peered over the tops of his sunglasses. "Graveyard shift. The guy had architectural drawings of the buildings. Tubes everywhere. Copies of inter-office memos, stuff he pulled out of the trash. Names of mid- and high-level personnel. Phone numbers. Client lists."
I asked my question straight: "Did he provide any proof of your suspicions about American Tube?"
"If he had any solid proof," said Marquart, "he would already be dead. That's the kind of game we're playing here."
We had breakfast, the Grand Slam platter for us both, and he kept his mouth shut whenever the waitress was within earshot. If he felt any urge to reminisce about our old days at Naropa, he didn't let on. He was all business. "I put you on the list," he said, "because I saw your article in the New Yorker last year, the one about the Indian reservations. I said to myself, 'This is the guy I need to tell this story for me.' I knew it was only a matter of time before they shut me down. I'm amazed it lasted so long, to tell the truth."
How did that first story get written, I wanted to know. Was it a four in the morning hallucination, powered by "fumes?"
Marquart nodded, but it wasn't an affirmation of my question; he had the look of a man who was confirming suspicions in his own mind. "Been talking to Roth, have you? He calls it 'fumes.' I call it muckraking. That means when you smell a story you don't just write about the smell, you follow it as far as it goes and you don't stop until you get two handfuls of it. And you write it all down, no matter how filthy it is. That's muckraking." He took a bite of eggs and spoke with his mouth full. "Everyone around here is uptight about the Wal-Mart over in Washington. It dominates the commercial landscape. All the small businesses are going belly up. Check out downtown Washington. The places that used to be general stores and bookshops and hardware stores are all closed up. Either that, or they're shitty little year-round Christmas trinket shops or artsy-crafty joints that no one ever goes into. It's not a town anymore, because Wal-Mart sucked all that away." Marquart leaned in. "Now, if you were a newspaper writer with a nose for a story, you might smell one right there. But that's only the smell. It goes a hell of a lot deeper."
So deep, in fact, that Marquart claimed he had been onto the story for at least a year before running that first article. In the course of planning a series of columns about the effect of Wal-Mart on the commercial landscape, he had come across a piece of information mentioned peripherally in the 1996 Wal-Mart annual report: that all Wal-Mart stores in the country were outfitted with ventilation systems manufactured by American Tube, Inc of Tulsa. The factoid stuck in Marquart's brain and it began to smell distinctly sinister. To wit: "You walk into any cafeteria, gas station, public library, fast food joint in this part of the state and you look up and check out the name on the ventilation system: American Tube. When I say they're everywhere, I mean there's nowhere that isn't 'ventilated' by American Tube. Now that's bigger than even Wal-Mart."
So what if some Oklahoma heating duct manufacturer has a monopoly on the local market? "It's more than the local market," Marquart said a little impatiently. "I said it's everywhere. Check out all the big companies. Microsoft. AT&T. Hell, even the Missiourian. They all got one thing in common. American Tube. And business is booming.
"Maybe it's a government thing. Maybe this insane economic boom we're supposedly experiencing during the Clinton presidency is really just a product of the Netwerk. Maybe all those customers in Wal-Mart, dropping their dollars and pumping up the revenue, maybe they're just the same people, being beamed all around the country. Maybe no one actually shops there."
He pushed aside his half-eaten breakfast and leaned in close. "I can't speculate on the motivations or the underlying implications. All I can do is report on what I've seen. These things going on in Marthasville, like councilman Mathers zapping himself across town, maybe it's just a side effect of the Netwerk. Like hobos on a train. You could observe the movements of hobos across the country, traveling here and there, but just from that data you could never extrapolate or even imagine the immensity of the railroad as an industry.
"So I knew I had to start with the small pieces, even as I was getting glimpses of the big picture. Let me tell you something. After a while I started to see how it was all interconnected. I mean, come on, we're talking about Marthasville here, a little burg in the middle of nowhere, but I was hearing about this weird stuff and when I started to look into it I was getting stonewalled by everyone around. So I looked deeper. Pretty soon everything that went into the paper seemed somehow part of the same story.
"Think about it: the Missouri militia holds a meeting at the Four Corners truckstop. That's the Netwerk right there, recruiting goons for their paramilitary units. How about that new sculpture in front of the elementary school, that granite carving of an eagle? You think some local Marthasville sculptor whipped that out one afternoon? I sent a slide to a dealer in Saint Louis and had it appraised. You know what she told me? Fifty grand. That sculpture's worth fifty grand on the art market. You think the Warren County School District dropped fifty G's on a piece of lawn art? Forget about it. That's the Netwerk. Buying the schools, buying the kids. Is that sick or what? And when I asked the school board about it, it was all zipped lips, everyone staring at me like I was crazy for even asking. And the T-ball league, sponsored by Hingiss Plumbing Supply. Little pictures of pipeworks on the backs of all the jerseys." He raised his eyebrows and peered over his tented fingers. "Pipeworks."
Marquart leaned forward and put his hand over the tape recorder I had going on the table, but I remember well enough what he said next. "They run the city council and they run the school board. They bought out Reinhardt, and I have the documents to prove it. Hell, they bought out Mabel Yoder and her fricking Society page. So change the names," he said, "change the places, change little details, but tell the story. I can't print another word because they'll come for me, and they're quick. But if you have an ounce of integrity in you - and I think you do - you'll tell the story. And stand behind it."
So at least one of my questions had been answered: I was meant to be a conspirator with Marquart. The waitress appeared and asked if we wanted more coffee. Marquart ignored her and went on talking. "You know, maybe Woodward and Bernstein could be persuaded to recant their whole Watergate thing and maybe Jay Gatsby could be pressured into saying that Daisy never really existed. But I'll never take back a single word of the Netwerk story."
The waitress was still waiting for the verdict on the coffee. I nodded at Marquart. I didn't point out that while one of his examples was an actual historical event, the other was entirely the product of a writer's imagination.
The most baffling part of the story, in my mind at least, remained: Even if Marquart truly believed in the Netwerk conspiracy, why had he sacrificed his career to print it? Where had his passion come from?
I took another look at the stack of last year's Couriers that Marquart had sent me as material for this story. The New Haven Leader editor Steve Roth's comment about Marquart's T-ball roundup being 'poetry' had stuck with me. Was the Netwerk into T-ball too, as Marquart had suggested? This time, instead of trying to read between the lines of his Netwerk articles, I turned to the sports page and found the lead article with a photo of a little girl in a pinstriped uniform blowing kisses to a handful of folks in the bleachers. She was in mid-lope, rounding third base for home, and the oversized batting helmet still on her head suggested that she had just hit a home run. I hadn't even realized that home runs were possible in T-ball. The 18 point headline read, "Magpie Homer Snuffs Out Knights!"
The Marthasville Magpies destroyed the New Haven Knights on Sunday afternoon. That hasn't happened in three seasons but I was there and I saw it. Jake Schloss, 7, of the Magpies, possibly the best short stop Marthasville has ever seen, stopped a line drive by the Knights' Bill Hollingsworth, 8, in the top of the ninth. Then the Magpies' Tracy Ritter, 7, hit a bouncing grounder that slipped through the hands of no less than three hapless Knights to roll through the fence and qualify as a homer.
The first Marthasville homer of the season, brothers and sisters.
This Magpie don't need no school to dance. She strolled the bases, blowing kisses, and sat right down on home plate. Score: 9-8, Magpies. Marty Hingiss, who sponsors the Magpies, repeatedly denied that Hingiss Plumbing Supply was in any way affiliated with American Tube, Inc or the Netwerk. This could not be confirmed or denied at press time.
So when you see Jake or Tracy or any of the other Magpies on the street, blow them a kiss. Shake their hands. They are the community, growing up right in front of your eyes.
Steve Roth took me on a walking tour of Marthasville on my last day in town. He had something special he wanted to show me. It turned out that Roth had his own theory about Marquart, and it was all about T-ball. We strolled onto the infield dirt of the ball diamond and slowly walked the bases.
"The only thing that Bob Marquart was more passionate about than the Netwerk was T-ball. He went to every game and wrote it up like these little six and seven year old kids were the sports idols of our time. I mean, every issue during the season he'd run twenty column inches and a couple photos of a little girl taking a swing or some kid clearing first base with a batting helmet on his head four times too big for him. And the rest of the sports news, like the high school basketball team going to State, that made a paragraph at the bottom in small print."
According to Roth, when Marquart had returned from the hedonistic and commercial culture of Boulder, Colorado to take over the Courier in his old hometown, he had been seized with community spirit. That meant that the goings-on at the Rotary Club meetings really were important, and that people really should be interested in what was happening to Main Street with the grocery closing and the folks from St. Louis opening up a yuppie cycle shop for weekenders. And it meant that the local T-ball team really was something to get excited about. But what Marquart had found when he returned was that his hometown had in effect become a suburb of Wal-Mart. Roth shrugged. "Hell, I don't like it either, but I drive twenty minutes there and back all the time when I could probably just get what I need at the corner store. Of course, at the corner store, a couple double-AA batteries cost twenty-five cents more than at Wal-Mart." Roth nodded with a sarcastic smirk on his face. "A whole quarter."
Now, of course, Marthasville doesn't have a corner store anymore. It's a cycle shop. Roth crossed the pitcher's mound and waved his arm at the scattering of buildings visible beyond the trees of the park, all of downtown Marthasville. "What nobody around here got was that Marquart was doing it for them. He was speaking for the community, standing up to Wal-Mart and fastfood and all that corporate power that's sucking the life out of the little towns like Marthasville and New Haven and Washington. I don't know if he truly believed in that tube thing or not - maybe he was just trying to get noticed - but I do think he believed that this town was being bled dry, and he was determined to do something about it." Roth wound up and tossed a phantom pitch at home plate then turned and peered into the empty bleachers with a grin on his face. "Because those tubes, if they do exist, are not there to help us."
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