Death in Paint
"Hi, Peter," I called out as I came in through the door, as I did every day on returning home. "I'm back."
There was the familiar smell of the flat, a mixture of furniture polish and air freshener it had been one of Mrs Craven's days who came round twice a week 'To do the basic cleaning, Kevin dear,' as she used to say. I think she liked me well, liked both of us, but me especially.
There was not, however, an answering shout from Peter, usually something to the effect that he had his trousers off and was waiting a reply which had rather stunned my mother once when she had come to visit and Peter had forgotten.
In fact everything about the flat suggested emptiness no radio or TV switched on sometimes both Peter was notoriously profligate with his entertainment as he went from room to room. Nor were there any smells of food cooking, or perhaps even singeing at the edges, and it was after all Peter's turn to prepare the evening meal.
"Peter," I said, as I checked the kitchen, pristine in its tidiness and obviously just how Mrs Craven had left it. Nor was there a note on the green laminate work top which was where Peter would have left it if, for some reason, he had had to go out.
I went into the living room. It was so neat that I knew Peter hadn't been in there either. I always used to say, with a faint air of critical amusement, that Peter had only to look into a room for books to fall, magazines to open spontaneously and things to be scattered around so that it looked as if children had been having a vigourous game of tag. Clearly this also was Mrs Craven's work undisturbed.
I went along the corridor towards the bedroom, on the way passing the bathroom, the door to which was open and clearly no one inside. Could Peter be playing a trick, waiting on our double bed in a seductive pose for my arrival? "Come and get me, Kevin," he'd say. Waiting to be pounced upon and soundly ravished with expressions of laughter and glee, and finally lust and excitement? I almost convinced myself that this was the case and as I opened the door I had a smile of anticipation on my face. It faded as I saw the room was empty, the coverlet undisturbed.
Damn it, I thought. If Peter had been delayed at work surely he would have given me a call on his mobile. I took out mine from my jacket pocket to make sure it was switched on. Then I went back to the living room to see if there had been any messages sent to the phone but there was no winking red light.
I wasn't exactly worried, just slightly annoyed that Peter hadn't told me what was happening. I went back into the kitchen and looked into the cupboards and fridge. There were eggs, cheese and tomatoes so an omelette was possible but there was no point in starting it until Peter actually arrived as it would spoil if not eaten immediately. I felt hungry so I made himself a sandwich. The kitchen was painted white with the light green work tops. To save it from blandness, Peter had imbued the room with his personality with the bright coloured water colours he had painted, framed and put on the walls.
I made some coffee and took it and the sandwich into the living room. I wondered whether Peter had been detained at work and for some reason had failed to let me know, so I rang the art shop where he had his own business.
The phone at the other end rang for a while and then was cut off by a recorded voice. 'I'm afraid there's no one in the office at the moment. At the tone, please leave a message and we'll get back to you as soon as possible.' It was Peter's voice but made strangely impersonal by the fact that it was recorded.
I didn't bother to leave a message. Presumably Peter was on his way home and perhaps had become involved in heavy traffic. It was after all Friday evening but in that case why hadn't he used his mobile. I got out my own and punched in Peter's number but a message said his phone was switched off.
I drank the coffee but suddenly I wasn't hungry and the sandwich remained on the plate untouched. I tried the TV but the idle witterings of nonentities remodelling their houses, trying to remodel their bloated figures, digging their remodelled gardens apparently on all five channels (we didn't have digital) pissed me off so much that I switched the set off.
I thought of phoning my friend, Ross, who was always amusing but whose anecdotes always involved his relationships with dangerously butch and supposedly straight artisans and realised this would only depress me more.
Instead I thought back to my own relationship with Peter, Peter whom I loved more than anything, Peter who was my reason for existing or so I thought and with whom I had been living for the past three years.
Our partnership hadn't been all hearts and roses of course, what one ever is? Peter though had the sort of sunny nature which more often than not ignored minor quarrels and disagreements and put up with the sulks into which I occasionally fell if things didn't go exactly as I wanted. Not that we'd had fallen out recently. In fact we had been planning our holiday together, a trip to Italy. Plans were not exactly in the 'getting the tickets' stage but we'd certainly worked out the details, where we'd like to go, how we'd travel, when we'd take time off from work.
I kept listening for the sound of his key in the door but as the evening wore on and Peter didn't appear, I grew more and more worried. I kept telling myself that nothing could have happened, that, if he had been in an accident, the hospital or the police would have contacted me his name and address and phone number were in his wallet after all. I could have phoned his parents but I didn't want to start them worrying as well. They weren't anyway all that keen on our relationship, kept telling Peter that he'd find a nice young girl to settle down with once this phase was over. I think they thought I had some sort of baleful influence over him and that he was being kept here almost against his will.
As it got later and later, I did phone the local hospital feeling rather foolish and asked whether a Peter Curtis had been admitted, but they checked and said not.
Eventually I couldn't stand the waiting and, leaving a note as to where I was going, I went down to the local pub, the Fag and Fishmonger. It was full; it was after all Friday night and people were laughing and joking, a buzz of convivial noise that didn't do a lot to make my spirits rise. The Fag and Fishmonger wasn't a gay pub but Peter and I had visited it so often together that we were accepted by some of the regulars almost as a 'couple' and the fact that he wasn't with me gave rise to comment.
A middle-aged guy with a moustache and a fruit cake accent asked where he was. I was forced to admit that I didn't really know. "Out on the town, pulling the birds," he suggested in his rather old-fashioned way.
I sincerely hoped he was not but it sounded extremely unlikely knowing Peter's sexual tastes.
"I must pop in some time and see what your friend has on offer at his shop," the man said.
A couple of others offered me drinks but I didn't really want to start on a drinking spree. I knew if I accepted, I'd obviously have to buy the next round
and so on. I grabbed a pie and had a half of bitter and, when they were finished, decided I'd prefer to be back at home, waiting, rather than out here wondering whether he might have returned and there'd be a perfectly rational explanation of the whole thing.
But when I got back, the flat was still in darkness and there were no messages on the answer phone, nor had my mobile buzzed.
There was nothing I could do but go to bed where I tossed and turned, snatched odd periods of restless sleep, waking to listen to non-existent sounds of the key in the door.
Morning eventually came, grey and depressing just how I felt. I was still alone.
As soon as I could, I went down to the shop. It wasn't open and I stared morosely at the window with its tasteful arrangement of pictures by local artists and reproductions of more famous works. The really expensive stuff I knew would be locked away at the back and only brought out when dealers were expected.
The notice on the door said 'Closed' and gave the opening time on Saturdays at 9.30 am. There was still a few minutes to go and I waited while the traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular passed busily by. I don't know if I thought Peter would turn up but, on the dot of half past his assistant, a thirty-something woman called Maureen arrived. She was dressed in a brown tweed skirt, a white blouse and a sort of ochre top. Her hair was brown and tossed about in the breeze but she looked efficient. I'd met her a couple of times before and knew that Peter trusted her.
She looked surprised to see me but after greeting me she unlocked the door and we went in. The familiar smell of linseed oil and turpentine greeted us. Sometimes painters brought their newly finished works and Peter did some renovating and cleaning.
"I seem to have mislaid Peter," I said, trying to sound light-hearted.
Again there was the look of surprise. "I'm not expecting him," she said. "He told me yesterday he'd be away for a couple of weeks and I was in charge in the meantime."
"Peter told you this?" I asked.
"Yes. It was a phone call. I don't know where he was calling from; he didn't say and it was a bad line."
"Are you sure it was Peter?" I asked.
She looked at me strangely. "Well, who else could it have been? I didn't really recognise the voice but he said he had a cold. At the time I thought it a bit odd but there was no problem with my taking over. I'd done it before, buying and selling."
"And he hadn't mentioned this before?"
"No, that was why I thought it a little strange but I assumed something had cropped up unexpectedly so he'd had to make arrangements on the spur of the moment."
"Did he say where he was going?" I asked.
"I think he said Taunton."
"Taunton, in Devon?"
She nodded. "What was also a bit odd was that he didn't say how he could be reached, an address or something, should there be some sort of a crisis. Not that I expected there to be one but you never know. I've got his mobile number of course."
So had I but it hadn't done me much good when I'd tried it last night or this morning in fact.
There was something distinctly odd about all this. Peter hadn't had a cold when he'd left me the day before. He wouldn't have left me just like that whatever the circumstances, not without telling me. I felt a tinge of premonition. Something was seriously wrong and I didn't know what to do.
I'm twenty seven. I decided I should be able to sort out my own problems. So, having thought that, I made a great mistake. On my way back to the flat I passed the Police Station. I suppose my addled mind went something like: Peter Missing Missing Person Report to Police.
So up the steps I tripped, pushed open the swing doors and went in. Inside was a cold, blank lobby with a counter at the other end. There were some posters on the wall warning about pickpockets, wanted criminals, mobile phone mugging. A door with a frosted glass (presumably strengthened) panel to the right. No one appeared behind the counter so I rapped on the board and waited. In fact I waited some time but still no one arrived. "Hello," I called out. "Anyone there?"
Eventually there were sounds of movement from somewhere round the corner and a policeman in uniform clutching a mug of something appeared. He was young, smooth faced but he wouldn't look me in the eye.
"Can I help you?" he asked looking somewhere to the right of my ear. I noticed the non-existent 'sir' and assumed he reserved that for people somewhat older than me.
"I've come to report a missing person," I said. I'd rehearsed that on the way in and thought it sounded pretty official.
The policeman got out a book from under the counter and opened it. He entered today's date and, glancing up at the clock behind him on the wall also noted the time.
"Name?" he asked rather curtly.
"His name is Peter Curtis," I said.
"Your name," he said with what sounded almost like a sigh of resignation.
"Sorry," I said, fighting back an urge to tell him that I (and others of course) paid his wages and perhaps deserved a bit more deference and respect. "My name is Kevin Clarke." I spelled it out so that he would include the 'e' at the end. Before he could ask I also gave my address.
"And the missing person is?"
Patiently I gave Peter's name again and added, "Same Address."
"We're partners," I said. "Life partners."
"We haven't got that far but thinking about it."
"How old is Mr Curtis?"
"I don't see what . . . He's twenty nine."
"And how long has Mr Curtis been missing?"
Suddenly I saw danger or at least noncooperation ahead. "He didn't come home last night."
"So he's been missing, what, some twelve hours approximately?"
"Yes, but it's not like him, just to not come home without telling me."
I could see from the policeman's sardonic raising of his eyebrow that he suspected we'd had some sort of lovers' tiff. This was confirmed when he asked, "Had you had a quarrel recently?"
"No," I protested. "We were making plans to go on holiday together." I paused and then added inconsequentially, "To Italy."
"And you haven't heard anything from him since, what, yesterday morning?"
"No," I said and then remembered Maureen. "Well, not exactly."
The policeman waited.
"There was a telephone call to his work, His assistant took it. Something about he'd gone to Taunton on business for a couple of weeks and she was to take over."
"Well, that's all right, then," said the policeman preparing to close the book. "Mystery solved."
"But she said it didn't sound like him at all, and anyway he hasn't taken any of his clothes."
"I expect he'll be back to collect them in due course. Perhaps you'd let us know when that happens so I can sign off this entry." He closed the book and replaced it under the counter.
Obviously he considered everything as good as over.
I could think of nothing to say. I turned and went towards the door. As I reached it I swear I heard him say, "Bloody poofs," but when I turned to face him, his face was bland. "Thank you, sir," he said and the 'sir' came out like an insult.
I made the omelette which I'd thought about yesterday evening for lunch but when it was done, I didn't feel like eating it. I told myself that I'd got to eat something so I forced half of it down and drank some more coffee. I was just finishing the second cup when the telephone in the living room rang.
It was such a sudden sound that I spilled coffee down my shirt and onto the floor but that wasn't important. I rushed in, grabbed the receiver and said, "Peter."
But it wasn't Peter's long awaited voice that I heard but the rather effete tones of my old friend, Ross, he with the penchant never satisfied for rough trade, the rougher the better.
"I hear your friend's gone AWOL," he said.
"How did you know?" Even as I said this I knew he wouldn't tell. Ross was an incredible guy. He always knew what was going on though where he got his information from I could never understand. He'd have been a Godsend to MI5 or any intelligence organisation. Perhaps he was.
"Oh I heard," he said vaguely. "But tell me the details. No, better still, meet me for lunch. You haven't had lunch yet have you?"
"To tell the truth I don't feel particularly hungry," I said.
"Must be serious then. Right, you can watch me eating lunch and I'll feed you delicious titbits off the end of my fork. Then you can tell me all." His voice changed from the flippant tone to one of genuine concern. "We'll work it out, doll."
I agreed to meet him at Silvano's, the Italian Restaurant, an unpretentious little place with plastic flower decorations but food which tasted pure Tuscan.
As I went in, I saw him seated at a table in the far corner, a youngish man with short blond hair and a thin, almost ascetic face. Only his lips, which were wide and full, showed his sensual nature. I told him all and presented with a sympathetic ear and moral support, I found I could eat something.
"There's not the slightest chance that he could have skipped off for a little fuck dalliance of his own," he said when I'd finished.
"Not a chance," I said. "We were planning the holiday. Everything was fine. Relations were lovely. Sex was satisfying."
Ross raised his eyebrows, "Satisfying?" he said.
"Exciting. No problems at all."
Ross sighed. "You heavily married couples," he said. "What do you do for variety?" His gaze wandered to a heavily built waiter with five o'clock shadow and muscles who had just come out of the kitchen.
"We made plenty of variety," I said indignantly.
"Of course you did," said Ross as he watched the tightly-trousered buttocks of the waiter disappear back into the kitchen. Then he returned his attention to me. "Right. You've told me what happened, or at least what didn't happen. Now tell me how Peter behaved in the last couple of days."
"Behaved?" I said vaguely. "Just the same as usual."
"Don't be shy. Tell me all the lurid details, and no I'm not just being lubricious. You never know it may be important."
"OK. Thursday night, which was the last time he came home." I stopped as I said this and the food in my mouth seemed to dry into sawdust. I swallowed hard and tried to go on. "He was just the same as always. He had got in first and was preparing the meal in the kitchen. I came in. He was in high spirits. In fact we . . ." I paused.
"You," said Ross encouragingly.
"We had it off over the kitchen work tops."
I imagined the scene. It came back with starling clarity. He'd been busy in the kitchen when I went over to him and stood behind him.
He'd pushed himself against me so that his buttocks fitted round my groin. Suddenly my appetite wasn't for food.
"What do you want to do?" I'd whispered into his dark curls, then kissed him behind his ear and down into the nape of his neck.
Teasing, his fingers had stroked up the sensitive inside of my thighs to find and gently cup my ballsack and finally to clasp the erection. I gasped.
"This is what I want," said Peter. "I want you inside me."
"Let's go into the bedroom."
"No here. Take me here." He undid the belt of his trousers and pushed them and his underwear down exposing himself, an invitation, an entry, a command.
I put my hand on Peter's invitation.
I felt Peter's instinctive tension as I slid inside him and then the relaxation as I paused and then started my rhythm, thrusting in and nearly pulling out. At each thrust Peter groaned but when I, fearing that I was hurting him, tried to stop and pull out, he would not let me.
I held him by his narrow hips and fucked him, my thrusts growing more urgent as my lust took over. The cries of Peter under me became inarticulate cries. It was as if each rammed propulsion forced out a sound. The climax came in five shuddering roars.
I shut my eyes, panting. I felt drained and exhausted - but happy. I looked at the work surfaces, stained with the evidence of our lovemaking.
"I'll never feel the same about making welsh rarebit out here again," I'd said.
Of course I only gave the outline to Ross but I couldn't hide the passion, the complete way Peter had given himself to me.
"Was that usual?"
"Well," I said "not unusual. Often when things were going particularly well or we'd had good news or he was particularly excited." Immediately I said that I realised there was something amiss.
"And were you?" asked Ross, picking it up straight away."
"Were we what?" I said, pretending not to understand.
"Were you excited or did you have good news or something?"
"We were going on holiday but we'd known that for some time."
"So, was there anything to be particularly excited about?"
"No," I admitted. "Not that I knew."
"That's interesting," said Ross. "And did Peter say that anything exciting had happened?"
"No. I just assumed I was looking particularly sexy."
"Hm." Ross looked at me in a calculating way. "It's possible but perhaps there was more to it than that. Perhaps something had happened to make him excited."
"Something at work?"
"You mentioned his assistant, Maureen. Will she be there this afternoon?"
"Until five," I said.
"Right, let's go." We stood and Ross left some money on the table with a generous tip. "Oh, just wait a minute."
I watched him go over to the brawny waiter with the big thighs and have a short whispered conversation, then he passed him a piece of paper, a card, smiled and joined me at the door. "Just taking care of later on," he said.
"How do you do it?" I asked. "He barely looked at you."
"One knows," said Ross. "There are times when one knows."
The clouds of the morning had cleared and the sun was out. Everything was bright and summery and I should have been feeling fine if only Peter had been at my side or if I had known that Peter was back at the flat waiting for me or even if Peter was still in his shop talking art with sophistication and wit to his dealers.
The shop had a couple of customers inside when we arrived. One was plainly browsing, going from one picture to the next, but the other was in earnest conversation with Maureen at the desk in the middle of the room.
We waited and I attempted to interest Ross in a couple of pictures, water colours that I liked. He, though, was not interested, except to peer at the price label and give a gasp of simulated horror when he saw what was asked. "If that's what amateurs can get, what can the real pictures, by famous artists expect?"
"Millions," I said. "Serious money. Not that Peter would ever be likely to get a really important picture here."
Ross nodded. "That's what I thought," he said.
The man talking to Maureen seemed to have finished. He was obviously not satisfied with the result of their conversation as he flounced out of the shop and would have banged the door behind him if it hadn't been the sort that closes softly on its own. As it was he pulled it behind him and the door gave a sort of complaining wheeze.
Maureen came over and I introduced Ross. When he wants to, Ross can assume almost any character and I saw him, in front of my eyes, become a serious art connoisseur. He was a chameleon as well as a spy and I thanked God that he was on my side.
"We wondered," I said, "whether Peter had had some particularly interesting purchases recently. Ones that he was quite excited about."
"Excited?" said Maureen. "What would make you think that?"
I could not, of course, tell her and the evidence was hardly conclusive anyway.
"Funny you should ask though," she said. "That man who just went out said he'd heard that we had a supposedly undiscovered Canaletto from the London period."
"Canaletto?" I said, though I knew the name.
Ross said, "Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto. The Venetian painter lived in England for nine years with a brief interruption, from May 1746 to December 1755."
Ross showing off? I think not; he was just entering into his character as art expert. I was suitably impressed though.
Maureen, though, was quite taken in. "If only we had and it turned out not to be a fake. It would make our fortune."
"How was Peter on Thursday?" asked Ross.
"I don't know. Thursday's my day off. That's why I work on Saturday."
"Does he have an office diary, a book of appointments, something like that?" I asked.
"You're really worried about him, aren't you?" said Maureen. "He must be all right or he'd have got in touch." I thought she'd got that the wrong way round but I said nothing.
She opened the drawer in her desk and took out a black bound book. Ross and I crowded round. She opened it to Thursday. There were only three entries. The first was:
10.00 am John Spokes.
"That's the local artist, Maureen explained. "There are some of his pictures." She pointed to the wall. "He brings more round every week either to replace those that haven't been sold or to fill in for those that have." They were the ones I'd rather liked and Ross had expressed amazement at the prices asked.
Further down: 10.30 am Partners
"They're our dealers, well, the ones that come round most often. The man who just left belongs to their firm. The one that didn't seem to believe me when I said we hadn't heard of a Canaletto. These rumours get round, though, usually without any foundation at all."
The third and last entry read: 1.30 pm CP PR JW
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"I've no idea. It's odd because it's right in the middle of the lunch break. We're shut from 1 to 2 every day. Peter doesn't usually make appointments during this break. But who or what 'CP', 'PR' and 'JW' are I don't know."
There were no appointments for Friday or today but I riffled through the pages for next week. There was another entry for John Spokes on the Thursday and some other names in the early part of the week. I recognised Peter's writing.
"Seems strange he made those appointments if he knew he'd be away for some weeks," I said. "Did he tell you to cancel then when he phoned you?"
Maureen shook her head, having no explanation and we left.
"So, where do we go from here?" I asked. "Have we learned anything?"
"I don't know," said Ross which surprised me as I'd never heard him admit to ignorance of anything before. "But . . ." he paused.
"It may be nothing but I'm interested in that Canaletto thing."
"Maureen said it was just a rumour."
"Rumours generally have some sort of basis in truth." He glanced at his watch and quickened his pace. "I want to check the Internet before . . ."
I didn't ask before what.
As soon as we got in and I checked the answer phone no messages Ross tapped away at the computer and I made some coffee. Taking it in, I found Ross in front of the screen.
"Listen to this." he said. "During his London years, Canaletto lodged with a cabinet maker named Jacob Wiggins at what is now 41 Beak St, Soho. He painted many scenes of 18th Century London. While not his very greatest pictures, his pictures of London - and elsewhere in England - are remarkable. The best of them give you the feeling that you've opened the window and looked out to see St James's Park, Whitehall, or Somerset House just as they were some 250 years ago."
"Yes," I said. "Very interesting but I don't see what it's got to do with anything."
Ross was about to answer when a mobile phone rang. I thought at first it was mine but that fact that Ross was fumbling in his pocket and the strange ring tone made me realise that it was his, not mine.
"Hello," he said. He listened, then said, "Yes it is." Another pause. "You are free now?" He covered the mouthpiece and asked me. "Do you really need me here this evening. There doesn't seem much we can do until tomorrow."
"Who is it?"
"The waiter from Silvano's."
How does he do it, I wondered. "No problem," I said. "Enjoy yourself."
He uncovered the speaker. "I'll meet you outside the restaurant, Luigi. It's not far to my place." A final pause. "Look forward to it."
And so he left me for my second night without Peter. Before I went to bed I looked through the whole article on Canaletto. It explained how, back in his home city of Venice, he'd been very popular with the English aristocracy doing 'the Grand Tour', but with the outbreak of hostilities something called the War of the Austrian Succession (whatever that was), the trade had died off, travel being a bit too dangerous I supposed, and Canaletto had come to London to paint and sell to his old client base.
People were at first a bit suspicious because. being rather shy, he wouldn't allow anyone to watch him painting. In fact the rumour went round that this wasn't the real Canaletto, some faker trading on his name and reputation, but then, as the pictures were seen, he was accepted and bought. There were reproduction of some of the 'London' pictures but the only thing I could tell was that the air looked too sparkling, too Mediterranean for smoky old London Town.
I took a printout of the site and went to bed.
Again I spent a lonely and nearly sleepless night wondering where Peter could possibly be, missing the warmth of his body, his tender caresses and the exuberance of his love. Occasionally I thought of Ross being speared on the prong of his Italian waiter and felt envious.
I must have dropped off some time before dawn because it was the sound of the telephone that woke me. Blearily I peered at the clock and found it was after nine before rushing to the phone.
This time I didn't shout 'Peter' into the receiver. A man's voice, reserved and deferential, said, "Mr Clarke? Mr Kevin Clarke?"
"Yes," I said feeling a twinge of panic.
"This is Detective Inspector Simpson. You reported yesterday that a Peter Curtis had gone missing."
"Your constable said I wasn't to waste police time," I said rather bitterly.
"I'm sorry you thought that, sir. But it was due to the same constable's quick wittedness that we've linked a discovery with you. I'm sending a car round to fetch you to the station. If you could be ready in half an hour."
"What's happened?" I said panicking. "Have you found Peter?"
"I think it would be better to wait until you got here. I'll give you all the details then."
"Don't bother with the car," I said. "I'll get down there now."
I paused only to do the barest essentials before jumping into my own car and driving down to the station, breaking,as I did so, the speed limit and jumping at least two traffic lights. Luckily the Sunday morning traffic was very thin and I reached there safely.
The same P.C. was behind the counter and for a moment I felt sorry for him having to work Sundays. His manner though had changed. "D.I. Simpson wants to see me," I said.
"Ah yes, sir," he said. "Just come this way". He unlocked the door to the right of the counter and I followed him down a corridor to a door with Simpson's name on it, black paint on a brown wooden strip. He knocked and a voice said "Come in."
Simpson was probably in his forties, hair greying and a trifle jowelly. He was dressed in a dark blue suit with a brighter blue tie fastening his white shirt. He stood up from his chair behind a desk as we entered. There were some filing cabinets on the side and a couple of other chairs, upright and not particularly comfortable looking. On the floor was a rather worn carpet, faded red and gold.
"Constable, see if you can rustle up some tea or perhaps coffee." He looked at me enquiringly.
I wanted to get on with the essentials but I was thirsty so I chose tea. "Very wise, sir. Two cups of our best tea, please."
The constable went out.
"Please sit down, Mr Clarke."
I sat. The chair was hard and uncomfortable.
Simpson opened a folder on his desk. "Yesterday," he said, "you reported that your friend " he didn't put any emphasis on the word, but it did have redolences " Peter Curtis was missing. As an adult male, presumably able to make his own decisions, our constable, perhaps understandably, thought you might have been making too much of it."
"He thought (and said) that we were bloody poofs and that we'd had some lovers' tiff and Peter had swept out in a hissy fit," I said angrily/
"I'm sorry you thought that, sir. And if the constable gave that impression, he had no right to. But it did sound a bit extreme considering how recently Mr Curtis had gone. It's not as if he was a child or someone dependant."
"So what's changed?" I asked, not wishing to be mollified so easily.
Simpson looked grave. "Yesterday evening a body was discovered in a patch of woodland just outside town. With the body was a jacket in which we found a wallet. Inside the wallet were business cards and a letter and photograph all suggesting that the owner was Peter Curtis."
Ever since Simpson had mentioned the word 'body' perhaps even from his first phone call to me at the flat, I had been preparing myself for the worst. Even so at his last words I felt something clutch at my heart like a hand squeezing me so that I felt physical pain.
I gasped. As I did so, the door opened and the constable entered with two mugs of steaming brew. I grasped mine between my two hands and raised it to my lips.
"When the report came in, the constable here was bright enough to remember the name and of course we were able to contact you. There were no other names or addresses of other, closer relatives."
I sipped the hot liquid. It didn't exactly taste of tea but it was sweet. I gulped, almost burning my tonsils and the blockage in my throat eased.
"Peter's parents are not exactly sympathetic to our relationship," I said.
The inspector nodded and the constable went out.
"Here's the wallet and the contents." He produced them in separate clear plastic folders. "We haven't given them full forensic examination yet but can you identify any of these."
I could, of course. The wallet I had given him for his birthday two years ago. I had even had it embossed with his initials, P.C., in gold. The cards were his business cards. The letter was from me and contained, in this context, rather embarrassing endearments, but they were sincerely meant and I didn't regret them. The photo was of me. I didn't know he'd carried it around with him all the time. I blinked back some tears.
"They are Peter's," I said.
"You say his parents didn't approve of your relationship. Perhaps, therefore, to spare them immediate grief, you would be able to identify the body."
"Is there any doubt?"
"It's necessary that we have an official identification by someone who knows him well," said Simpson.
"Where is he?"
"I'll take you to him." He led the way out of the office, along corridors, out across a courtyard and into a long low building. I blindly followed. Peter dead? How could I live without him? I just couldn't believe that this was happening.
Simpson was talking to a man with a white coat and he led me to a small room where a trolley was waiting on which a shape lay covered by a green sheet.
"Are you OK?" asked Simpson.
Wordlessly I nodded.
The man in the white coat uncovered his head and I stared at the face. Unbelieving! Was this a joke? The man lying there was nothing like Peter. He was older, possibly in his forties. He had a moustache and was almost bald.
"That's not him," I said. "That's not Peter."
"Are you absolutely sure?"
"Of course I'm sure. Peter's twenty-seven, this guy's much older. Peter has dark curly hair. Peter's beautiful," I finished on a high note, almost hysteria. Then I blushed.
"We'd better go back to the office," said Simpson.
Back in that claustrophobic space which smelled of cigarette smoke barely disguised by air freshener, the conversation took on a different turn.
It seemed that Peter was no longer a potential (or actual) victim but now a possible suspect for murder. With another officer in attendance, I had to repeat exactly what had happened that Friday morning, what Maureen had told us about the phone call. She would herself be interviewed later. My flat would be tested for fingerprints, my own, Peter's, the unidentified dead man. Ross's would also appear of course so I told them about him. Peter's shop would be checked.
It was more than two hours later before I was allowed to leave with strict instructions that if I heard anything more, I was to get in touch straight away.
As soon as I could I phoned Ross who at first sounded a bit down but cheered up (cheered up!) when I told him of the further developments in the case. He said he'd come round immediately and I made yet more coffee.
As I waited, I remembered Luigi and asked after him as soon as Ross arrived.
"Don't talk of him," said Ross. "It was a total disaster. I thought he'd be big and butch and would fuck me rotten. As soon as we got down to things, though, he turned out to be a complete bottom, turned over and stuck his arse in the air waiting."
"What did you do?"
"I performed adequately but I didn't enjoy it much." He sipped his coffee with a pained expression on his face.
Had things been less fraught I might have laughed. Ross was seldom fooled in this way. As it was I smiled inwardly. I told him exactly what had happened that morning at the police station and Ross listened with interest.
"Did you mention the Canaletto aspect?" he asked.
"Did I want them to think I was an idiot? Surely there's no connection."
"Didn't you spot the link? Between the odd appointment in Peter's diary and the guy whom Canaletto stayed with?"
I looked blank.
"The appointment was with CP PR JW. Now who did Canaletto stay with?"
"A cabinet maker called " I checked on my printout from the web site " Jacob Wiggins."
"JW - Jacob Wiggins," said Ross triumphantly.
"Coincidence," I said. "Complete coincidence. Could just as easily be Josiah Wedgewood."
"Did Peter go in for ceramics?"
"No," I admitted.
Ross gave me a silent look which clearly said There you are then.
There was a pause then Ross said, "It's the only clue we have. We can't do what the police can, i.e. test the body, do fingerprints etc. But we have a head start in the Canaletto painting."
"If it exists."
"As a real one or a fake. And the place to start is Number 41, Beak Street."
I objected. "We don't even know who lives there or what it is."
"The best way we can find out is to go and see."
Beak Street is in Soho, that most cosmopolitan part of cosmopolitan London. All the things that make the capital what it is, good and bad, are encapsulated into this lively little neighbourhood in the middle of the city.
It's scruffy, busy both by day and by night, with its maze of narrow streets sometimes difficult to navigate and home to a multitude of shops and services that would make your maiden aunt blush. On the other hand, it remains the epitome of London style, the bars and restaurants are some of the best in the world and it's as near as you'll get to twenty-four hour living in the UK.
Soho is Gay London, Chinese London, Red Light London, French London and Media London. While its seedy reputation is rather out-of-date these days, the area has a definite edgy nature that adds to its allure. Any city district with a late night drinking culture is bound to attract a few undesirables, and Soho is no exception. Ross knew it of old.
It's interesting then that it remains one of the most highly prized residential addresses in the capital.
We took the Underground to Oxford Circus and walked down Regent Street avoiding the shoppers, tourists, people of all religions, colours and costumes before turning left into Beak Street. The buildings, some elegant, some dowdy, some modern and some Regency have largely shops underneath, or coffee bars, or sex shops. Number 41 was smartly painted white for the two stories above while at ground level was a shop selling curios and framed pictures. The name over the shop front baldly stated 'Digby'.
I was somewhat surprised to find it open but perhaps, in these material times, the antiques world, like supermarkets, furniture stores, newsagents and garden nurseries, does do its business on Sundays. A bell clanged as we pushed open the door, one of those old-fashioned sorts that are worked by the actual push of the door itself. It wasn't exactly an antique 'junk shop' but not far off and I wondered how it had stayed in existence in the face of all the high-tech consumer premises around it.
A man, Mr Digby presumably, of indeterminate age but impeccably dressed in a suit which would have cost me three months wages appeared. "Can I help you, gentlemen?"
I rather wished we'd discussed what we were going to say, but, as always Ross was equal to the occasion. "If I were to ask you what the position was with regard to a Canaletto, what would you say?" he came out with.
"We don't do prints," said the man shortly. We'd obviously disappointed him.
"I wasn't talking about prints," said Ross. "I meant a real Canaletto, perhaps a new, previously unknown one from the London period."
"It sounds very unlikely. All his pictures have been recorded and their whereabouts are well-known."
"But if there was."
The man's eyes moved shiftily. "We'd be talking hundreds of thousands of pounds, probably millions."
"Naturally," said Ross airily, as if sums of money like that were peanuts. Even though he wasn't wearing anything as 'designer' as the shop owner, Ross's casual elegance gave him an air of command, perhaps even of wealth and importance.
Suddenly the man looked crafty. "Have you heard of anything like that, sir?" he asked.
"It was just a rumour," said Ross, "but as this address was of course once associated with Canaletto's stay in London, I thought I'd check. The Wiggins connection."
"That would be only too exciting, but I'm afraid I haven't heard the rumour myself."
"It came through 'Partners'," said Ross giving the name of the dealers who, Maureen had told us, dealt with Peter.
"Did it? Did it?" He obviously knew of them.
"If you do hear of anything," said Ross, "perhaps you could give me a ring." He handed over a card. "That's my mobile number." He headed for the door and I obediently followed.
The bell accompanied our exit.
Back on the pavement we headed for the station but, on an impulse, I doubled back and peered through the window. I saw in the back of the shop the man speaking into a phone. He looked a little harassed but it could have meant something or nothing.
"Did we learn anything from that?" I asked.
"Would you buy a used car from that man?" asked Ross.
I assumed he meant that he wouldn't trust him implicitly, but then who would trust a dealer.
"Yet you gave him your card."
"False name, just a mobile number. 'Jonathan Hoskins' my nom de anything."
I sometimes wondered whether Ross was always to be trusted. Hopefully he was on my side.
"What we want to know is what the police have found out."
"They're not likely to tell us that."
We were on the underground train, rumbling noisily home. Ross, as always, had his eyes peeled and was observing every other (male) passenger in the carriage, especially any who looked working class, grubby, or slightly dangerous. Situation as per usual.
"I wouldn't be too sure about that," said Ross when he'd clocked anyone who might be of interest and found no response. "I've a 'friend' in the force who, given the right conditions, might divulge a few secrets."
That seemed to me to be stretching things to an alarmingly dangerous extent. "I wouldn't want you to get into trouble," I said.
"He's a sergeant and very 'helpful' if you know what I mean, especially in a horizontal situation. There's not much 'pillow talk', more pillow action, but I'm sure a few judiciously placed questions would get some results, especially if I withheld my favours for a little while."
"Mata Hari," I suggested and he smiled. "You know what happened to her," I said.
Ross didn't, but then neither did I, but I was sure it wasn't anything good.
We went to the Fag and Fishmonger for lunch. With the doubt about Peter's situation a constant worry, I didn't fancy more prolonged time in the empty flat.
The middle-aged man with the moustache and the starched accent was there when was he ever not? "Got yourself a new friend?" he asked without malice.
"This is Ross," I said. "We've known each other for years."
"Course you have," said the man. He held out his hand. "Piers Rathbone. Can I get you both a drink?"
It would have been churlish to refuse so I had half of bitter and Ross had a vodka and tonic. We ordered a steak and onion pie and chips each. Not exactly healthy food but sustaining.
Piers hung around so we couldn't even talk about our visit to central London, or the police or indeed Peter's disappearance. Instead he launched into talk of Peter's business dangerous ground, asking what sort of pictures Peter sold, or bought, saying that he was looking for some pictures himself. (Was everyone in the art trade, I wondered). Once or twice we tried to chat about Beak Street, about Digby, even about the presumed Canaletto, but Piers presence he didn't really seem to be listening, but we could never be sure made the conversation fragmentary. Soon, though, a couple of other regulars turned up whose interest was football and Piers drifted off.
"That man has things on his mind," said Ross under cover of a vehement discussion of the relative merits of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspurs.
We bought some drinks for practically everyone and they bought us drinks back, so that by the time we erupted from the pub, the afternoon had become somewhat blurred and my worry had lost some of its intense rawness. Who says alcohol doesn't help?
I don't know who it was, but I had to keep topping it up for the rest of the day. Ross went home promising he'd get in touch with his Sergeant and find out how the police investigations were going. Out of interest I looked up reproductions of Canaletto's London pictures on the Internet. One in particular stood out, a representation of Greenwich Hospital from the other side of the Thames. The building was in fantastic detail and the river was full of boats. One, on the right hand side looked like a wreck, on its left side with the mast pointing at an acute angle. Later I settled down for a long afternoon and evening with a bottle of vodka.
I'll tell you alcohol may help temporarily but it's no use in the long run. Monday morning I woke up feeling like I was in urgent need of cranial trepanning, had depression worthy of October 1929 (the GREAT Depression) and a bout of S and D which convinced me that going to work was NOT a good idea. I rang up and made convincing excuses. Luckily I'm not the sort of person who takes regular Mondays off so they were quite sympathetic.
I had just managed to get under control the stomach problems with doses of AlkaSeltzer, Milk of Magnesia and Imodium when the front door bell went and my head fell off.
Snivelling, I opened the door to find Inspector Simpson outside with a detective constable this time. He seemed to sympathise with my condition and instructed the D.C. to make coffee hot and strong. I wasn't sure how this would agree with my other medications but it seemed not to make anything worse which at least was something.
"What do you want?" I croaked, when eventually I could manage to produce recognisable talk.
"Fingerprints," said Simpson and the D.C., who I even managed to notice was quite good-looking, did things with brushes and powder around the flat. Unfortunately for them, Mrs Craven, conscientious as always, had probably removed all of Peter's prints from the flat, or if not completely would have smudged them out of recognition. All that remained were mine and of course Ross's. This I explained, though somewhat falteringly and I don't know how much got through.
"Has Mr Curtis a car?" Simpson asked.
"He had a van used for work but that packed up a couple of weeks ago and he got rid of it. He uses my car if he needs to."
"Has he used it in the past week?"
"No," I said.
"We'd like to fingerprint it, if you don't mind."
"It's was valeted inside and out last Monday."
Nevertheless they did it and even snipped a bit from the carpet which was in the boot.
"What's that for?" I asked.
"Sorry, sir I'm not at liberty to say."
"Can you tell me anything about the man who you found dead? The one you thought was Peter."
"I'm sorry, sir."
So much for police information transparency. But I suppose I was the partner of a murder suspect and that made them wary.
I was to learn more when Ross phoned a bit later. He sounded as worn out as I did though for a different reason.
"Christ," I said, "that vodka's murder."
He came back with. "God, that sergeant's insatiable and so big."
"Are you coming round?"
"I don't think I can move."
"Did he tell you anything?"
"Apart from the fact that he loved my arse?"
"Yes," I said, "that's a given."
"Lots," he said. "One, the dead guy was poisoned by carbon monoxide."
"What's that? Something in his drink?"
Ross sighed at my ignorance. "Leaky gas fires," he said, "and vehicle exhausts are the two main sources of death by carbon monoxide poisoning."
"So that means," I thought about it, "probably accident or suicide. Does that help us in any way?"
"You haven't heard the best. The man's been identified. His fingerprints are on the police database . . ." He paused.
"Yes," I said encouragingly.
"His name is George Sligo."
"I'm supposed to learn something from that?"
"And he's been in trouble with the police, in fact been to gaol for . . ." Pausing. He did it on purpose of course. ". . . for forgery. Forging pictures."
"So there could be a Canaletto connection," I breathed.
"O ye of little faith."
"I'm never going to drink again."
"I'm not going to have sex again until at least Thursday."
I couldn't laugh. As the days had gone by and there had been no news of Peter, I was getting more and more depressed. The temporary lifting of my spirits when the body turned out not to be his had sunk again. If one person was dead, what chance was there of my lover still being alive? But I couldn't just leave things. Should I tell the police about the Canaletto connection? Refer them to Beak Street and 'Digby'? But our 'evidence' was weak to say the least.
"What are we going to do?" I asked.
Ross groaned. "I noticed something else. You won't think much of it but then you weren't very enthusiastic about JW standing for Jacob Wiggins the Beak Street connection."
"OK. What is it?"
"You remember the other part of that appointment entry?"
To be honest I couldn't remember much at the moment so Ross provided it. "CP PR JW PR Piers Rathbone?"
"Our friend with the moustache from the Fag and Fishmonger? Impossible."
"He seems very interested in painting, and also in Peter."
"If being interested in Peter were really the case, I'd be prime suspect."
"Are you up to seeing Piers again? He's nearly always in the pub at lunchtime."
"Are you?" I asked. "I'll bring round the car and fetch you, if it'll help."
"Bring a cushion. No. Make that two."
Ross indeed did look fragile and was walking with a curious, almost sideways gait. I didn't comment on it, I suspect I looked pale too. We made our way to the Fag and Fishmonger and I was pulling into the car park when Ross said, "There he is."
Piers Rathbone was getting out of his car, a rather battered grey/green Land Rover but when he saw us, he turned and was about to get back in, though we managed to reach him, using our delicate separate means of locomotion, to get to him before he drove off as was his obvious intention.
"Piers," said Ross. "Not leaving straight away?"
"Forgot something," said Piers. "I'll be back later." He opened the door and climbed in. Once in he tried to pull the door shut but Ross held it open. From inside the car there came a strong smell of exhaust.
"You've got a leak," I said. "You want to get that seen to."
"Yes, that's where I meant to be going first. The garage. Must have forgotten."
"You could forget about it with that foul smell?" asked Ross.
"I guess I get used to it."
Ross let go of the door and Piers closed it, put the car into gear and drove off.
"Sligo was poisoned by carbon monoxide," I said.
"My sergeant said that he'd been held by duct tape round his ankles, wrists and mouth. Also they'd found bits of carpet stuck to the tape."
"That's why they took a snippet from the one in my boot," I said. "We should have had a look in Piers'."
"Lots of people keep a piece of carpet in the back of their cars. It would need forensic investigation to prove it was the same one. Police again. We'll have to share our information with them." He sounded disappointed.
We walked slowly towards the pub where I settled on a fruit juice and Ross decided that a brandy might go a little way to deadening his discomfort. I noticed that he positioned himself very carefully on the bar stool, and then only with a grimace. We waited for a while but Piers didn't return.
"Do you think he ever intended to?" I asked.
"If he thinks we're on to him, then he won't."
"I suppose . . ." Ross started but was interrupted by the ringing of his mobile. He took it out and said. "Yes." There was a short pause and then he nodded to me as if it was something significant. "Hello, Digby," he said.
It's frustrating only hearing one side of a conversation, and this one was particularly intriguing. There were lots of 'yes's' and one 'Now that's really interesting' and a final 'as soon as we can' before he rang off.
"Guess who that was," he said.
"I know who it was," I said impatiently. "You called him Digby. What did he want?"
"He says now listen to this that the rumour wasn't a rumour after all. He's got a new Canaletto."
"Why did he tell you?"
"He thinks I'm a rich dealer. He thinks I'll make an offer to buy it."
I remembered how, at Digby's shop, Ross had spoken casually of the hundreds of thousands of pounds that such a painting would fetch, implying that he had such resources. "It's a trap."
"Why should Digby suspect anything? Now if it was Piers who was inviting us to his place, I might worry."
"So you want to go now?" I asked. "Cost us £8 congestion charges." Which was true as it was a weekday between 7.00 am and 6.00 pm.
"Worth it if we get some news of Peter."
On the way back to me car, Ross dropped behind. Turning I saw he was talking into his phone. When he finished and we had started driving, I asked him. It was nothing to do with me but I was curious.
"I phoned Luigi," said Ross. "Thought I'd prepare things for later on." He looked a little shifty.
"What about your pledge to keep off sex until at least Thursday. Something to do with the painful arse."
"This won't count. Luigi takes not gives."
"I thought you said you didn't enjoy it."
"Perhaps I'm beginning to anyway Luigi was particularly grateful and I don't want to have to give up going to Silvano's."
"Incorrigible," I said.
Soon we were aware of the dreaded bright red signs with the white C's warning us that we were about to enter the congestion zone. Immediately inside my registration number would be photographed and I'd be debited with the charge. The system, supposed to relieve the traffic congestion in central London, didn't seem to be working very effectively. As we reached Oxford Street, we were behind a long queue of buses, taxis and private cars. The only things which seemed to be moving were delivery men on motorbikes which roared by us, sometimes going on the wrong side of the road to overtake.
Eventually we turned into Beak Street and actually found a parking space beside a meter more cost. And then we were outside Digby's for the second time in two days. The afternoon was dull and cloudy and there were no lights on in the shop, though one window on the first floor was lit, so it was almost impossible to see anything inside but the sign said 'OPEN' and when we pushed our way in, the bell rang audibly.
It was eerily empty inside, shadowy lumps of furniture looming up out of the deeper and darker shadows of the shop itself.
"Hallo," I called. "Mr Digby, are you there?" though if he was around he would surely have heard the bell. My words died and there was silence. The only sounds were those of traffic from the street outside. I suddenly felt the need to hold on to someone, Ross perhaps, but my pride stopped me from actually putting out a hand and grabbing hold of him.
Then, from somewhere in the back, perhaps even from above it was difficult to tell, footsteps sounded, coming closer. Then a light was switched on, a single low-wattage safety light hung at the back casting long shadows over the floor. My voice sounded weak and somehow lonely. "Mr Digby."
The sound of my voice died away and there was silence again. I felt as if we was being observed yet could see no one. I took one more step towards the light and then almost jumped as a voice said, "Mr Hoskins and friend, I was expecting you. Come on in."
He appeared in the doorway and motioned us towards a small room on the side. Once there he switched on the light and I saw it was a viewing room with an easel set up on which was placed a painting. Another strip light illumined it from above. I recognised it immediately Greenwich Hospital from the north side of the Thames. I had seen reproductions when I looked through on the Internet last night. But there were differences. The building wasn't exactly seen from the same angle and there were fewer boats on the river, the large one I had noticed on its side, for example, was missing.
"I think it's an earlier version of the more famous one," said Digby. "What do you think?" He was talking to Ross who gave the painting a 'professional' look.
"Where was it found?"
"Here," said Digby. "In one of the attics."
"But last time we talked about it, you denied all knowledge of a Canaletto painting," I said.
"I didn't want to talk about it until I'd done some tests and examined it more carefully."
Ross nodded. "Have you a magnifying glass?"
Digby produced one and Ross went down on one knee (with a bit of a grimace) and started to examine the surface.
"If you think it's genuine, what will you offer?" asked Digby. For some reason he seemed to be in a hurry.
We were suddenly startled by a thumping sound from above, then by the bell announcing a visitor. Digby looked annoyed. "I should have locked it," he said. "Just carry on examining."
"No point," said a familiar voice. "That's no art expert." Piers Rathbone stepped into the light. "You should have checked on his credentials, Digby."
There were more thumps from upstairs.
Two against two, I thought, even though our side was fragile. Then Piers took the advantage. He produced a pistol from his pocket.
"There are two of us," said Ross, "He can only shoot one of us."
"Three," said another voice and a burly man hurtled in and brought a truncheon down on Piers' arm. The pistol fell and skidded across the floor.
"Sergeant Wallace," said Ross. "About time too."
Piers let out a scream. "Jesus," he said, clutching his wrist. "You've broken my fucking arm."
There was a positive volley of thumps.
"What the hell's going on up there?"
"It's Curtis," said Digby. He seemed to have given up. All was lost.
"Peter," I called and made for the stairs, racing up the flight to the first floor, three steps at a time. The room at the top was small and scruffy. There was a threadbare carpet on the floor and a bed against the opposite wall. On the bed mouth covered by duct tape, wrists and ankles also fastened with the same stuff.
I ripped off the tape from his mouth and he screamed in protest.
"Now what's going on up there," asked Wallace.
"Just lust," said Ross.
And so, some time later, the whole story came out.
Digby talked. Piers, through his groans, talked. Peter, in front of whom Digby and Piers had discussed what was going on, talked.
It all of course started with the Canaletto, the fake Canaletto, painted very competently by George Sligo. Piers had taken it to Peter's shop on the Thursday and Peter had been very excited hence his behaviour in the evening. But he'd spotted an elementary mistake. On the back, in supposedly Canaletto's handwriting was the superscription, to Jacob Wiggins, Beak Street, but Peter had realised that, in the 18th Century it hadn't been called Beak Street. Suspicious, he told Piers on Friday morning that he thought it might possibly be a fake. Piers of course didn't want this broadcast around so he, in effect, kidnapped Peter, took him in his smelly car to Beak Street. Luckily Peter wasn't killed by the monoxide though he might well have been.
In fact Sligo, who was starting to get greedy also needed to be taking out of circulation until the picture could be sold and Digby and Piers had got the money and left the country. Unfortunately Sligo hadn't been so lucky and had died. Piers had panicked, horrified that he had killed his accomplice, but Digby had persuaded him to dump the body and carry on with the plan.
Digby thought he had been fortunate in finding Ross/Hodgkins but of course had got the wrong guy.
And Ross well, it wasn't Luigi whom he had phoned, but Wallace, telling him his suspicions so that he turned up in the nick of time, in true TV crime story tradition to save us. Actually of course the gun had been a replica so we weren't exactly in any danger, but who was to know that at the time.
Peter and I celebrated in the best of all possible ways.
In fact we wouldn't have got out of bed on Tuesday except that Mrs Craven arrived with her armed panoply of dusters, brushes, hoover and cleaning agents and we had to get up.
Date started: Saturday, February 10, 2007
Date Finished: Wednesday, February 21, 2007
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