What Really Goes On In The Morgue

I invited my buddy, Garry Rodgers, back to TKZ for a fascinating behind-the-scenes trip to the morgue. He’ll hang around for questions/comments, so don’t be shy. Now’s your chance to ask an expert something you might need for your WIP. Enjoy!

Most living people never visit the morgue.

Most never think of the morgue except when watching TV shows like CSI or some new Netflix forensic special. The screen may show in hi-def and tell in surround sound, but it can’t broadcast smell. That’s a good thing because no one would tune in and the actors would be looking for real-life morgue jobs like homicide cops, coroners and forensic pathologists.

I did two of those real-life morgue jobs for a long time. I’m a retired murder cop and field coroner who spent a lot of hours in that windowless place. Now, I’m a crime writer and thought I’d share a bit of what really goes on in the morgue with my crime-writing colleagues.

The morgue is strictly off-limits for anyone not having a specific reason to be there. That’s for a few reasons. One is the place can hold sensitive court evidence. Two is that it’s a somewhat disagreeable place due to the odor, temperature and the continual chance of contracting a contagious disease. The third reason is dignity. Even though the majority of the morgue occupants are no longer alive, they’re still human entities and not some sort of a morbid exhibit.

The morgue is a place of business. It’s a medical environment where the deceased are stored, processed and released to their final disposition. The morgue operates 24/7/365 as death pays no attention to the clock or the calendar. But, the morgue is busiest between 8:00 am and 4:30 pm Monday to Friday—holidays exempted. Morgue workers need time off like anyone else.

A city morgue, like I worked at in Vancouver, British Columbia, is an active environment. It has a dedicated shipping and receiving area with a loading dock much like a typical warehouse. Bodies arrive by black-paneled coroner vans or on sheet-covered gurneys brought down from the wards. They’re booked into a ledger, assigned a crypt and, yes, marked with a personalized toe tag.

Vancouver General Hospital’s morgue is like Costco for the dead. Stainless steel refrigeration crypts, stacked three-high in two rows of nine, have shelving for fifty-four. The freezer unit stores eight and isolation, for the stinkers, can take six sealed aluminum caskets or “tanks” as we called them. These tanks are also used for homicide cases, locked to preserve forensic evidence.

A grindy overhead hoist shifts cadavers from wheeled gurneys that squeak about fluorescent-lit rooms, touring them to and from roll-out metal drawers. Refrigeration temperatures are ideally set at 38-degrees Fahrenheit (4-degrees Celsius) while the ambient range in the autopsy suites is held at a comfortable 65 / 18. The storage rooms, laboratory and administration areas are normal office temperature, and they’re set apart from the main morgue region. Support staff, for the most part, have no sense of being so near to the dead.

Operational personnel in the morgue are highly-trained professionals. The workhorse of the morgue is the autopsy technician or attendant called the “Diener”. It’s a term originating from German that translates to “Servant of the Necromancer”. Dieners have the primary corpse handling and general dissection responsibility. They do most of the cutting.

Hospital pathologists are primarily disease specialists. They spend the majority of their day in the laboratory peering into microscopes and dictating reports. It’s a rare general pathologist who stays with an autopsy procedure from incision to sew-up. Usually, hospital pathologists come down to the morgue once the diener has removed the organs and has them ready for cross-section.

A hospital pathologist takes a good look for what might be the anatomical cause of a sudden or unexplained death. The main culprits are usually myocardial infarctions, or “jammers” as they called in the heart attack word. Aneurisms are another leading cause of dropping dead, and they’re often found in the brain.

Hospital pathologists sometimes do partial autopsies when they want to confirm an antemortem diagnosis. That might be a certain tumor or the extended effects of a runaway respiratory disease like Covid19. Sometimes, there’s no clear cause of death such as in a heart arrhythmia or a case of toxic shock.

Forensic pathologists are an entirely different animal. These are meticulous medical examiners with a tedious touch. It takes years of specialized training and understudy to become a board-certified forensic pathologist qualified to give expert evidence in criminal cases.

Forensic autopsies are peak-of-the-apex procedures inside the morgue. In a setting like Vancouver General Hospital (VGH), there are six autopsy stations in one open room. At any given time, the slabs are occupied and there more in the pipe. Not so with a forensic procedure.

There are two segregated and dedicated suites for forensic autopsies at VGH. Protection of the corpse, which is the best evidence in homicide cases, is paramount. So is maintaining continuity of possession, or the chain of evidence, that ends up in court. In a forensic autopsy, there’s utmost care to ensure the body is not compromised by contaminating it with foreign matter like DNA or losing critical components like bullets or blades.

In a homicide case, the body is taken from the crime scene in a sterilized shroud and locked in a tank. There’s an officer or coroner appointed to maintain continuity from the time the cadaver is bagged until the corpse is laid out on the slab. This is a critical element in forensic cases and one that is treated as gospel.

A forensic pathologist stays with the autopsy from the time the body is unlocked from its tank till the time the pathologist feels there is no more evidentiary value to glean. This is usually a full-day event but sometimes the body is put back in the tank, held overnight, and the process goes on the next day. This completely depends on the case nature such as multiple gunshot or knife wounds.

There are police officers at every forensic autopsy. Those are the crime scene examiners who photograph the procedure and pertinent physical properties. Detectives receive evidentiary exhibits like foreign objects such as fired bullets or organic particulates. There might be semen samples or other questionable biological matter. Then, there are usual suspects for toxicology examination like blood, urine, bile, stomach contents and vitreous fluid.

Radiography is done in almost all forensic autopsy cases. A portable X-ray machine scans the body as it lies on the table. In some situations, MRI / CT technology is helpful.

But, nothing beats the eye and experience of a seasoned forensic pathologist. They observe the slightest details that even a general pathologist would miss. However, don’t dismiss what a good diener can spot. It’s a treat to watch a forensic pathologist and a diener work when they’re in synch.

At day’s end, folks in the morgue are much like anyone else. They have a market to serve and they do it well. They’re also prone to talk shop in a social setting. There’s nothing like having drinks with a diener who’s into black humor.

 

What if six members—three generations—of your family were slain in a monstrous mass murder?

FROM THE SHADOWS is part of Garry’s “Based on True Crime” series. Available on Amazon and Kobo.

 

 

 

 

I couldn’t write a piece about what really goes on in the morgue without a few war stories. In my time as a cop and a coroner, I’ve been around hundreds of cadaver clients. Maybe more like thousands, but I never kept track. There were a few, though, that I’ll never forget.

One was “Mister Red Pepper Paste Man”. My friend Elvira Esikanian, a seasoned forensic pathologist of Bosnian descent who cut her teeth by exhuming mass graves, is a gem. She also has a wicked eye for detail.

I brought this old guy into the morgue after finding him dead in his apartment. Neighbors reported him screaming like someone was skinning a live cat. They rushed in and found him collapsed on the floor. No idea what killed him, but no sign of foul play.

Elvira opened his stomach and it was positively crawling. She knew what it was—botulism. Elvira told me to go back to the scene and look to see what he’d been eating. I found it. It was a jar of red pepper paste that was years past its expiry date, and the inside was a mass of organic activity.

Then, there was Kenny Fenton. He was found dead after being dumped beside a rural road and left to rot for a week in hot weather. I brought him into the morgue as intact as possible but it wasn’t easy. Kenny went into a stinker tank before Dr. Charlesworth could take him on.

As a routine, Kenny had a radiography session before his dissection. It showed a bullet in his gut. Not a run-of-the-mill bullet, of course. It was a .22 short with no rifling engraved on its sides.

Turns out, Kenny was accidentally shot in the neck by a Derringer dueling pistol. The bullet cut his carotid, hit his spinal cord, bounced back to his esophagus and he swallowed the dammed thing before bleeding out and dying fast. The crew he was with thought it was better to dump Kenny than report it.

And I can’t wrap up without a bit of spring foolishness that went on in the morgue. It involved my buddy—Dave the Diener.

Dave had about thirty years in the crypt before he met me. In fact, Dave had something to do with me getting hired by the coroner’s office because he thought I might be a good fit. Dave may, or may not, have been right.

It was the First of April and a Friday morning. Dave liked Fridays because he usually left early once his cutting was done. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and I’ve done it myself.

But this Friday was different—probably had something to do with the date. I snuck into the morgue real early and prepared Dave’s first case. I needed some weight so he wouldn’t suspect anything off the bat. I put a bunch of concrete patio blocks on the crypt’s drawer base. Then, I placed my cadaver inside a shroud and laid it on top. I even attached a toe tag and made the right entries in the ledger.

I wasn’t there but sure heard from the other staff who were in on it. Dave rolled-out his first subject-for-the-day and unzipped the shroud. Smiling at Dave was the puckering face of a blow-up sex doll.

That’s the kind of stuff that really goes on in the morgue.

Garry Rodgers has lived the life he writes about. Garry is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner who also served as a sniper on British SAS-trained Emergency Response Teams. Today, he’s an investigative crime writer and successful author with a popular blog at DyingWords.net as well as the HuffPost.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s west coast where he spends his off-time around the Pacific saltwater. Connect with Garry on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his bi-monthly blog.

 

 

 

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The More The Merrier: J.T. Ellison on Publishing Anthologies

photo by krista lee photography

Author J.T. Ellison doesn’t just write USA Today and New York Times bestselling novels, and short stories. She’s also co-host of an Emmy-winning literary television series called A Word on Words, and is the owner of the independent Two Tales Press.
She’s wearing her publisher/editor hat on her visit here today. In addition to publishing a large number of her own new and backlist short stories at Two Tales Press, she’s edited and published two themed, multi-author, short fiction anthologies–DEAD ENDS and A THOUSAND DOORSthat contain the work of some pretty incredible writers.
J.T. and I debuted at ITW’s Thrillerfest together about a million years ago, and haven’t lost touch since.
Welcome, J.T.!
Given that you’re widely and prolifically published with traditional publishers, what led you to start your own press?
Honestly, you did! I loved what you and your husband, Pinckney Benedict, were doing with your small press anthologies. I was honored to participate in 2 of them, and I saw just how cool the process was. I had a number of short stories, published and unpublished, that I had the rights to. I pulled them together in a small collection, made a cover, and published it on Amazon. It was never really meant to turn into a side project, it was simply a way to monetize some creative. I was surprised by how easy it was, and how quickly it sold. I fear I am an impatient sort, and I greatly dislike rejection, so instead of submitting subsequent stories to the normal channels, I just started popping them up for sale.
Then, I had a standalone novel that didn’t sell, and I had to think long and hard about this process. Indie publishing was taking off, and since I’m the entrepreneurial sort, I decided to publish it myself.  I also began the process of revising my first, unpublished novel to appear in a bundle put together by the divine Brenda Novak, with the express thought that I would eventually publish it myself as a prequel to the Taylor Jackson series. I hired an assistant, knowing it was going to take a lot of effort to put out two novels myself. We started building the major and necessary infrastructure — accounts with Ingram and Baker & Taylor for printing and distribution, online accounts with all the channels, establishing library contacts, finding editors and artists.
Of course, the universe is a funny place. During this process, the standalone received interest from a traditional publisher, then my publisher expressed an interest in the series prequel. I am always going to default to traditional publishing for novels, and so I accepted both offers.
But I had an infrastructure built, and nothing to publish. I debated opening Two Tales for submissions, and quickly walked away from that idea. I know there is awesome work out there that deserves a home, but I want to be a writer, not a publisher.
Anthologies, though, don’t pose the same commitment as being responsible for someone’s livelihood. I knew I could raise awareness for some underrepresented voices as well as share the stage with some major talent. It felt like a good fit, a win-win for all involved.
It’s not about making money for me. It’s about how I can help raise awareness for a multitude of voices at once. It’s my way of giving back.
You’ve done two anthologies, DEAD ENDS and the newly-released A THOUSAND DOORS. Tell us where the ideas for each came from.
DEAD ENDS came out of a class I taught several years ago. I gave my students several photographs as writing prompts, and one was this über creepy house. And I’ve always said you can give ten writers the same concept or photo to write about and get ten different stories. I set out to prove my thesis. Every writer was given the same photo, and there were two rules — the house had to be in the story (the story didn’t have to be in the house) and it had to be set in the south. No story was alike; it was absolutely perfect!
A THOUSAND DOORS was different. Since 2007, I’ve been carrying around the concept of a young woman who is murdered, and as she dies, experiences all the lives she could have led. I’d planned on writing it myself, but something always got in the way. I finally realized I needed help, and the idea for the anthology — which is really a novel — was born.  The structure of the main character living multiple lives lent itself perfectly to having multiple authors on the project. It’s like a TV show — I was the show runner, and the authors my writing room.
I built some parameters for each story (specifically that the character, Mia Jensen, was a certain height, a certain natural hair and eye color, that she had to make a choice in the story, hear a loud noise, and have a ringing phone, all of which tied specifically to the real life she was living), shared the series of lives I’d envisioned but also opened the door to other ideas, and boom goes the dynamite.
Did you consider a traditional route for your anthologies?
For DEAD ENDS, no. It was meant to be a jumping off point for Two Tales, especially if I changed my mind and decided to publish other authors (which I’ve considered several times, but see being responsible for livelihoods, above.)
For A THOUSAND DOORS, I debated it. My assistant had moved to another position and I was left to do all the heavy lifting myself. In retrospect, I probably should have all-stopped and given it to my agent to try and sell, but I’m stubborn, and I thought I could do it. I didn’t realize just how much work it would entail, because the scope of this one is bigger than anything I’ve ever attempted myself, but every time I see the book reviewed, every time I see it on a shelf, every time it pops up in a Twitter feed, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction that I truly made something from scratch. It’s a very powerful feeling.
How did you select contributors for each of your anthologies?
I am blessed to be surrounded by incredibly talented friends. I’m also a big reader, and there are writers I absolutely love who I wanted to participate. For DEAD ENDS, I reached out to some people who’d given me a break when I was first starting out, begged some friends whose profiles were high enough to make an impact, and asked for stories from a couple of new to me authors, too.
For A THOUSAND DOORS, I went top shelf, all the way. It’s such a high concept, I knew I needed exceptional authors  who were also bestsellers to help me realize the goals. The story was so close to my heart, and I wanted it to feel as real and organic as possible. I tapped an all-female team of powerhouse writers and upcoming stars, and I felt like the voices all meshed perfectly.
What do you enjoy about editing anthologies?
Having a concept executed by authors much more talented than I. But it’s more. There is nothing I love more than a reviewer who says they’re going to go try the authors in the anthology, or they hadn’t ever heard of this writer or that one before but plan to fix that. I love introducing my readers to new books by great writers — these are the ultimate sampler albums.
You’ve done audio for both anthologies. How did that work?
I actually wasn’t planning to do audio for DEAD ENDS,  but a narrator who’d read it reached out and offered to work with me on it. She even went so far as to record two stories for me as a sample of her work. We then worked in ACX to get the entire manuscript recorded. It was a lot of fun. I did another project with her through ACX, too. Only one problem. Audio is expensive! Really, really expensive. And ACX sets your price, so the controls you might have with another format are gone. It makes it less-than-cost effective.
Knowing I was going to have a hard time putting together an audio budget that would work for A THOUSAND DOORS, I opened the door with my agent to a traditional audio sale. Happily, Brilliance Audio bought the rights and we will be releasing early next year. I can’t wait to hear Mia come to life.
What is the most challenging part of being a small publisher?
The time it takes to make sure all the details are handled. Every day, something pops up that I need to handle. When there’s a full publishing team, each division has its responsibilities and you can manage those aspects easily. When you’re the publisher, and you’re a one-woman shop, like I am, it’s all up to you. You are all the departments — editing, marketing, advertising, art, sales, distribution, PR, oh, and writer, too. To do this properly–and I refuse to do anything less–means sinking a lot of time and money into the project. I love the control, but I don’t love how much time it takes away from my work.
*Since you’ve been in the driver’s seat on anthologies before, Laura, I’d love to hear your side of this process as well. What do you think worked well for A THOUSAND DOORS? What advice would you give to authors who want to try putting together anthologies?
Thank you for having me back to THE KILL ZONE! It’s always a pleasure.
TKZers! I’ll address J.T.’s question in the comments. Have you contributed to, edited, or published anthologies? What was your experience? As a reader, do you enjoy sampling stories by many writers in one book?
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author J.T. Ellison writes standalone domestic noir and psychological thriller series, the latter starring Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Owens, and pens the international thriller series “A Brit in the FBI” with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Cohost of the EMMY Award-winning literary television series A Word on Words, Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens.
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The Historical Research of Heroic Measures–Guest Jo-Ann Power

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I’m very pleased to have my guest, Jo-Ann Power, at the Kill Zone today. Her new novel involved historical research of WWII that I thought you might find interesting. I’ve bought the book for my mom who always talks about her teens years as “Rosie the riveter” during the war effort. This historical period has been fascinating to me. Enjoy and take it away, Jo-Ann.

Grateful to be a guest here at TKZ, I know the importance of solid research for any kind of fiction. Having written a few mysteries and many historicals, I know the value of fact as the bedrock of any entertainment for readers.

 
For HEROIC MEASURES, my novel about American nurses serving on the front lines in France during the Great War, I did research that led me to many of the same resources that many writers use. First, I read general histories for an overview of the conflict. Then I haunted the stacks of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and the National Archives for weeks on end. Newspapers from those years plus nurses’  letters, diaries and photos gave me tiny facts that provided not only color but an accuracy obscured by general histories.
 
Next I went to Army facilities like Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania where the Army keeps its repositories of memorabilia of soldiers and nurses who served in that first global conflict. I traveled to Cantigny in Wheaton Illinois where curators there pulled primary and secondary documents from their collection of recruits who served in the First Division of the American Expeditionary Forces.
 
My longest  (and most delightful) excursion was to France. For three weeks, I walked the front lines of our American soldiers in northern France. I visited the battle lines, overgrown with moss and grass but many still pock-marked with fox holes and shell holes. I saw the terrain our soldiers fought through. The wide plains of farmland they ran through. The woods where they drew their bayonets and fell into hand-to-hand combat. I saw the territory where peaceful rivers now run and understood by viewing the terrain why keeping control of this river or that mountain was vital to the defense of a town, a section of the land or Paris, itself.
 
I talked with the curators of those museums, the people who live there and tell tales of their ancestors who lived there at the time. I discussed the valor of nurses and YMCA workers, Salvation Army volunteers and ambulance drivers. I walked the pristine rows of American cemeteries where the remains of more than 40,000 of our American men and women lie in testament to their devotion.
 
What did I learn in those trips? I learned about the weather in the spring time in France. Wet and cold. Just as it was so very often during the four years of war. I learned about the fertility of the Champagne and Lorraine regions. The area then was rich: today France grows 20% of the produce for European Union. I saw the importance of the City of Verdun. Nestled in the mountains, this city is the main route for two rivers. Control this city and the victor controls the major water route to Paris. I experienced the diversity of culture in the Alsace where many speak not only French, but English and German. I heard from them how they intermarried, and I could understand how they had to divide their loyalties and how difficult that was one hundred years ago.
 
I also learned from our American directors of our cemeteries that very few Americans come to these hallowed grounds to pay their respects. Most travel to Normandy, remembering the valor of those who took the beach in 1944. But in the coming five years, I hope you will remember the valor of the first group of Americans who went to serve and suffer and fight in Europe. I hope you will rent a car at the Paris airport and head into the Champagne, not merely to drink the best bubbly you will ever enjoy, but to visit these cemeteries, talk to the staff and ask them about the valor of these first American adventurers. They have stories to tell.
 
Mine is fictitious. But based in fact.
 
Here is one woman’s story of her journey from her small hometown to the greater world. I hope you enjoy HEROIC MEASURES.
For more on American nurses, read Jo-Ann’s HEROIC MEASURES blog: http://theyalsofought.blogspot.com


For the purposes of discussion at TKZ, how far have you gone for research and authenticity in your writing? Are any of you writing a period piece involving historical research? If you are, tell us about the challenges.

Synopsis

How heroic are you? Would you volunteer to travel thousands of miles from home with others you don’t know to live in tents, wash your hair in your helmet and work 12-24 hours each day?

In the Great War, thousands of women did. HEROIC MEASURES is the novel that shows you how American nurses went to war, how they lived and served­—and how they loved.
For nurse Gwen Spencer, fighting battles is nothing new. An orphan sent to live with a vengeful aunt, Gwen picked coal and scrubbed floors to earn a living. But when she decides to become a nurse, she steps outside the boundaries of her aunt’s demands…and into a world of her own making.
 
Leaving her hometown for France, she helps doctors mend thousands of brutally injured Doughboys under primitive conditions. Amid the chaos, she volunteers to go ever forward to the front lines. Braving bombings and the madness of men crazed by the hell of war, she is stunned to discover one man she can love. A man she can share her life with.
 
But in the insanity and bloodshed she learns the measures of her own desires. Dare she attempt to become a woman of accomplishment? Or has looking into the face of war and death given her the courage to live her life to the fullest?

HEROIC MEASURES BUY links: Amazon digital, Amazon printBarnes and Noble, Kobo, iTunes,  Allromanceebooks.com, Wild Rose Press 

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Villains Don’t Have to be Evil

Guest Post from: L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers
Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

As my guest today, I have mystery thriller author L. J. Sellers writing about one of my favorite topics: Villains. LJ shares her thoughts and asks you to share your favorite villains at the end of her post. And be sure to check out the great giveaway contests below. Take it away, LJ!

The villains in thrillers are often extraordinary human beings. Super smart, physically indestructible, and/or incredibly powerful because of their money and influence. As a reader/consumer, those characters are fun for me too, especially in a visual medium where we get to watch them be amazing. But as an author, I like to write about antagonists who are everyday people—either caught up in extraordinary circumstances or so wedded to their own belief system and needs that they become delusional in how they see the world.
 
In my Detective Jackson stories, I rarely write from the POV of the antagonists. That would spoil the mystery! But in my thrillers, I get inside those characters’ heads so my readers can get to know them and fully understand their motives. I’ve heard readers complain about being subjected to the “bad guy POV,” but that’s typically when the antagonist is a serial killer or pure evil in some other way.
 
I share their pain. I don’t enjoy the serial-killer POV reading experience either. But when the villain in the story is a fully realized human being, who has good qualities as well as bad, and who’s suffered some type of victimization, and/or has great intentions, then I like see and feel all of that. And I think most readers do too.

Sellers The Trigger_med
In The Trigger, the antagonists are brothers, Spencer and Randall Clayton, founders of an isolated community of survivalists, or preppers, as they’re called today. As with most real-life isolationists/cult leaders, they are intelligent, successful professionals—with a vision for a better society. But these everyday characters decide to mold the world to suit their own objectives and see themselves as saviors—becoming villains in the process.


From a writer’s perspective, they were challenging to craft—likeable and believable enough for readers to identify with, yet edgy enough to be threatening on a grand scale. On the other hand, my protagonist Jamie Dallas, an FBI agent who specializes in undercover work, was such a joy to write that I’m launching a new series based on her.

The first book, The Trigger, releases January 1 in print and ebook formats, with an audiobook coming soon after. To celebrate the new series, the ebook will be on sale for $.99 on launch day. Everyone who buys a copy (print or digital) and forwards their Amazon receipt to lj@ljsellers.com will be entered to win a trip to Left Coast Crime 2015. For more details, check my website.
 
If that weren’t enough, I’m also giving away ten $50 Amazon gift certificates. So there’s a good chance of winning something. But the contest is only valid for January 1 purchases.
 
Who are your favorite villains? Supermen types? Everyday delusionals? Or something else?
 
Sellers LJSellers medL.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery series—a two-time Readers Favorite Award winner—as well as provocative standalone thrillers. Her novels have been highly praised by reviewers, and her Jackson books are the highest-rated crime fiction on Amazon. L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon where most of her novels are set and is an award-winning journalist who earned the Grand Neal. When not plotting murders, she enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.
 
Other social media links for LJ: Website, Blog, Facebook

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