Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst (2010)

The map at the start shows the ‘Balkan escape route 1941’, highlighting the train track from Berlin to Salonika on the Greek coast. So we have a possible subject matter, and date, before we’ve read a word.

Like all Furst’s novels the text follows the adventures of one manly man, a good man, in this case the Greek detective Constantine ‘Costa’ Zannis who enjoys smooth, sophisticated sex with his English girlfriend. As in all Furst’s novels, events are very precisely dated, so as to embed them in the troubled events of war – this one taking place between 5 October 1940 and 5 April 1941, giving a powerful sense of the historical events the characters are caught up in, as well as a dynamic sense of movement to the story, pace, at times rising to genuine tension.

Like all Furst’s historical spy stories, the text is divided into a handful of parts or ‘acts’, in this novel, four:

1. Dying in Byzantium – 5 to 27 October 1940

Introducing us to Costa Zannakis, senior detective in the port town of Salonika, to his staff in his office on the Via Egnatia, to his family and girlfriend, the succulent English woman Roxanne (‘content, feline and sleepy, her damp middle clamped to his thigh as they lay facing each other,’ p.46), to his beloved dog Melissa, and other characters such as Elias, the venerable poet who remembers fighting with the partisans in the Balkan Wars before the Great War, Vangelis, the ancient head of the police department, and so on.

Roxanne introduces Costa to Francis Escovar, a posh English travel writer who he immediately suspects of being a spy. More importantly he meets Emelia Krebs who begs him to help her set up an ‘escape route’ for the harassed Jews of Berlin. Costa’s role is to manage their transfer on through Bulgaria, into Greece, and then on to Turkey. Being a good chap he agrees. He can use his contacts in the Bulgarian police to smooth the way, and also pull in favours with the Turkish consul to facilitate ongoing journeys into Turkey.

2. The Back Door To Hell – November 1940 to mid-January 1941

Mounting political threats finally solidify as Mussolini’s Italian Army invades Greece from Albania (which it had invaded in April 1939) on 28 October 1940. Costa is called up and moved north to the village of Trikkala, along with detachments of the Greek Army. His unit are housed in a school which becomes the main radio contact for the area, and here he is met by a liaison officer from Yugoslavia, Marko Pavlic.

A local criminal is suborned by threatening foreigners to locate the building with a radio mast and to place a white blanket on the roof. This acts as a marker for the Italian dive bombers which appear and bomb the schoolohuse. Costa only just survives because he happens to have been standing in the doorway, the frame of which protects him. He pulls Pavlic from the wreckage and is himself taken to hospital with cuts to leg, damaged wrist, one eardrum punctured. And eventually patched up and sent back to Salonika, having made his military contribution.

Alas, at the first sign of trouble his English lovely, Roxanne, suddenly needs to leave. She gets Costa to drive her to an airfield where she is being met by an RAF plane, no less. Costa realises, sadly, that Roxanne was always a British spy, ‘not on you, my darling,’ she insists, but still. Deception.

Ho hum, but every cloud has a silver lining and back into his life comes Anastasia ‘Tasia’ Loukas, who he’d had a fling with previously, and who now wants to test out some of the tricks she’s learned from being an enthusiastic bisexual during their period apart. Lucky old Costa.

Back in his office, Costa continues working through the plans to set up the escape route. He and Emilia settle into a routine of sending innocent-looking letters about business to fictional companies requesting fictional orders, in which are concealed coded details of the people being sent down from Berlin.

Costa uses his underworld contacts in Salonika (Sami Pal) to identify a leading underworld figure in Budapest, Gypsy Gus, who he flies up to meet and concludes a deal with to smooth the refugees’ passage through Hungary.

We follow the fraught journey across Europe of the Gruens, renamed the Hartmanns, who encounter various problems but overcome them, in Budapest thanks to the enthusiastic stewardship of Akos, the white falcon’, a teenage psychopath who Gypsy Gus puts in charge of ensuring the ‘packages’ safety.

At every step, Furst makes us aware of the threat, the permanent threat from the Nazis, SS, Gestapo spy machinery, designed to keep watch on everyone. And we are introduced to Haupsturmführer Albert Hauser, a tidy-minded Gestapo official who had been instructed to arrest the Gruens and is irked to find them disappeared. And so starts to keep tabs on their social contacts, including one Frau Krebs. — Thus giving the story an ominous threatening sense of a net closing in on Emilia.

Back in Salonika Costa’s boss in the police, Vangelis, then brokers a meeting with Nikolas Vasilou, the richest man in Salonika, who is persuaded to donate money to fund the escape route. The quid pro quo is that Vangelis has assured Vasilou that Costa might one day end up Head of Police in Salonika: a good man to have in your debt. OK. Here’s your money, Zannakis, spend it well.

As Vasilou’s Rolls Royce purrs away Costa catches a glimpse of Vasilou’s (third) wife, the matchlessly beautiful Demetria, and it is love at first sight!

3. A French King – mid-January to 9 February 1941

British SIS officers tell Escovil he has to manage the escape of an airman, Harry Byer, from Paris. Byer is an important scientist who rashly enlisted in the RAF, was shot down in France, rescued and transported to a safe house in Paris by the Resistance. Escovil has an uncomfortable meeting with Costa in which he forces him to take the mission. Costa travels to Paris, meets the French people guarding Byer, but there is a complication. When one of the French resisters takes him to the Brasserie Heininger for dinner, Costa nearly gets into an argument with a drunk SS man who, unfortunately, follows them to the secret hotel where Byer is being kept. In getting away, Costa is forced to shoot the SS man as he approaches their car.

So, Plan B, which is Costa goes to track down his uncle, old Uncle Anasta, who moved to Paris all those years ago. Amazed to see him, Anasta calls on contacts until Costa meets an amazingly smooth man who is obviously doing very well out of the occupation (the French king of the title) who arranges for them to join an illicit cargo flight which is carrying machine guns to Bulgaria, departing from a foggy field somewhere north of Paris.

Arriving at Sofia airport Costa and Byer are nearly put under arrest until he persuades the captain unloading the crates to phone his old friend, Ivan Lazareff, chief of detectives in Sofia. What it is to have friends! Lazareff takes him and Byer for a tasty restaurant lunch, arranges exit visas and later the same day, Costa is back in Salonika, greeted like a hero by his family, handing over Byer to a suspicious Escovil,  before collapsing exhausted onto his bed.

4. Escape from Salonika – 10 February to 5 April 1941

10 February 1941. Back in his office Costa has to deal with some petty cases, then Escovil phones and irritates him by demanding a meeting and then demanding to know exactly how he got Byer out of Paris which – as it involved his uncle and Costa promised the rich Frenchman complete silence – he refuses to do.

Then he plucks up the courage to call Demetria, who he is completely besotted by – but she has gone, left with Vasilou for Athens. But then he opens one among the many letters waiting on his desk to read that she has escaped Athens on the pretext of visiting her mother and is a hotel in a village not 10 miles away. Costa takes a taxi there. They rendezvous in the place’s one shabby hotel. They sit on the bed, sad adulterers. If this was Graham Greene, just this adultery would give rise to hundreds of pages of suicidally-wracked guilt. Being Furst it only takes a glass of retsina before she’s slipping her silk panties over her garter belt and Costa makes the important discovery that her bottom is fuller and rounder than it appeared when she was dressed – and then that she is an ‘avid and eager lover without any inhibitions whatsoever’ with a fondness for fellatio. Lucky Costa. But she is another man’s wife, and not just any man, the richest man in town. This is all a very bad idea.

Next day a phone call out the blue for Roxanne, his former English lover. She drives round to his apartment. No romance, she is all business, every inch the hardened SIS agent. She describes the deteriorating situation in the Balkan countries which, one by one, are being forced to ally with Nazi Germany or will be invaded. One hope is to mount a coup in Belgrade against the pro-Nazi government. If a vehemently anti-Nazi regime can be put in place, the British will support it and that will hold up the Germans. Roxanne has come to ask Costa if he can pull strings, and contribute in a small way to the success of the coup. A wistful farewell and… she is gone!

1 March. King Boris of Bulgaria signs a pact with the Axis Powers and allows German troops to swarm into Bulgaria, not to occupy, to ensure ‘stability’ elsewhere in the Balkans. The border between Greece and Bulgaria is 475 km long.

As March proceeds Hitler threatens Yugoslavia and Costa makes arrangements for his friends and family to flee Greece. He secures visas for his lieutenant Gabi Saltiel and his family, and tells his own family they must go to Alexandria. Without him. He will stay and fight.

Costa takes a train to Belgrade where he meets up with the friend, Pavlic, who he pulled to safety from the bombed schoolhouse all those months previously and, along with a squad of hand-picked Serbian detectives, they carry out the British orders which are to arrest 27 senior Army officers and hold them in preventative custody while the Serb Air Force can carry out a coup, replacing the pro-Nazi government with an anti-Nazi one. Which is what – despite one or two hairy moments – happens.

Emilia is visited by the Gestapo man Hauser who adopts a polite tone but she is not fooled. When her husband returns home they realise they must part. She drives to see her grandfather (very rich) who has secured exit visas. Their chauffeur drives them all the way to the Swiss border which they cross with ease. Well, that was simple.

Costa’s office seems empty without Saltiel. Costa helps his family pack – even his beloved Melissa – then sees them off on a ship bound for Alexandria. Goodbye my beloved family.

A phone call from Demetria. She has finally left Vasilou. She is in a luxury hotel in Salonika. He takes a fast taxi there, runs up to her room, they order champagne, and in a few seconds she is just wearing bra and panties. And so on. It does seem to be a kind of law in these novels, that the men hold guns and the women hold penises.

The end is a sudden clot of plot. An anonymous letter, clearly from Escovil, includes one ticket on the last steamer heading to Alexandria, the Bakir. They go to board but the captain says, trouble with the engines, come back tomorrow. They’re lying in bed in the hotel next morning when the Germans begin bombing the city. The first hits are the ships in the port including the Bakir. They take what they can carry and trot to the train station. It is mayhem but they just about squeeze Demetria on the last train out of town. Costa plans to stay but has to hit a few surly men to get them to let Demetria get a tiny space on the jam-packed steps, so she implores him to stay. Thus it is that Costa ends up hanging onto the handrail by the door, one foot on the platform, almost swinging off at the bends. But instead of stopping at the next stop, the train accelerates through it and the next one, until it reaches the Turkish border. Without wanting to, he has fled Greece.

But Costa and Demetria have no visas and are just being turned away by an unimpressed Turkish official when a weedy little man pops up with Costa’s name on some list which he puts in front of the Turk – who jumps to his feet and salutes Costa! ‘Certainly he and his wife may enter Turkey!’ The little man is an agent of the British and tells an amazed Costa that he is now a captain in the British army! They will be taken to Izmir where they will help to co-ordinate the Greek resistance. They are safe. They will live!

And the little man who saved them? Is none other than the shabby little agent S. Kolb who has cropped up in numerous other Furst novels, helping out various protagonists. When his name is given on the penultimate page, I burst out laughing. It’s like the moment at the end of the movie Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves when the tall knight takes off his helmet to reveal it is – Sean Connery!

Although they deal with terrible events, there is a kind of Steven Spielberg sentimentality to Furst’s novels which means you are never really threatened, upset or afraid.


The political and strategic backgrounds

The timelines in Furst’s novels keep you on your toes regarding your World War Two knowledge and their depth of research into – here – the fast-moving political situation in the Balkans over a six month time period is fascinating.

Above all, the novels make you realise what it felt like day to day to live through the changing and generally grim events of these years. The story we on the British side are told is always very monolithic – Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, Blitz, the Desert War, D-Day, Victory.

Furst’s novels are very well-researched attempts to take you into the maze, the extremely complex mesh, of political developments on the continent, showing the reader the wide range of attitudes or opinions which were available for people to hold. Every European nation had to consider its position vis-a-vis not only the Nazis, but the likelihood of help from the Allies (Britain alone, before the Americans joined in December 1941) or the risk of entanglement with communist Russia. And every individual in those nations had to decide whose side they were on, how long they could delay making a decision, how things would pan out and affect them and their loved ones.

In Salonika, in the morning papers and on the radio, the news was like a drum, a marching drum, a war drum. (p.224)

Shucks, it was nothing

Something that places Furst’s novels a little on the simple side, psychologically, is that in all of them the protagonist is a hero: they may have foreign names but beneath the foreign clothes and foreign food and foreign languages, you can make out the lineaments of a clean-cut, all-American liberal fighting for Truth and Justice. Furst’s heroes abhor Hitler and his bully boys, they instinctively sympathise with the Jews or any other refugees. They are all decent men.

But if there is one thing we know about WW2 it is that it unleashed a very large amount of horrific indecency – betrayal, violence, torture, mass murder. Furst’s heroes not only never really see this, but even if they have minor adventures ‘in the field’, you can rely on them always returning to the healing presence of a round-bottomed young lady in their bed, trailing a winsome finger over lovely female contours, before making inventive love.

The carefree, problem-free sex (no periods, no pregnancy, no venereal disease) are symptomatic of fictions in which the hero encounters various problems, but has no inner problems or complexity. There is an untouchable innocence about the novels which is what makes them so easy and enjoyable to read. The Second World War without tears.

Style

Furst has developed a relaxed easygoing style which easily incorporates the thoughts of the main characters. In the last two novels, however, I’ve noticed the characters starting to say ‘fuck’ quite a lot. I dare say lots of people did say ‘fuck’ or its equivalent during the war, but it is such an Anglo word that rather undermines the effort of setting the stories among foreigners, among Greeks and Turks and Hungarians. Once they all start saying ‘fuck’, they all sound like they’re in an American action movie.

Zannis walked back to the office. Fucking war, he thought. (p.172)

Shut your fucking mouth before I shut it for you. (p.183)

Go fuck Germans and see where it gets you, Zannis said to himself. (p.192)

They start to sound like Rambo or Bruce Willis or anyone out of The Godfather. The advent of ‘fuck’ also made me notice the way other aspects of Furst’s style have also become more unbelted, more American. This is a Gestapo officer reviewing his card index of suspects:

He returned to his list and flipped over to the Ks: KREBS, EMILIA and KREBS, HUGO. The latter was marked with a triangle which meant, in Hauser’s system, something like uh-oh. (p.177)

Uh-oh? This makes the supposedly fearsome Gestapo officer sound like a character in Scooby-Doo or The Brady Bunch. And here is Costa, trying to decide whether to phone his mistress at her home, given the risk her husband might be there and might answer the phone:

Zannis’s eye inevitably fell on the telephone. He didn’t dare. Umm, maybe he did. Oh no he didn’t! Oh but yes, he did. (p.175)

The blurbs on the cover talk about Furst’s sophistication but I think they’re confusing descriptions of exotic locations, nice meals in fancy restaurants and women slipping out of their cami-knickers with psychological depth or acuity. In moments like these Furst’s characters come perilously close to being pantomime figures.


Dramatis personae

As always, it’s only when listing them that you realise the scale and breadth of Furst’s imagination in creating such a multiplicity of characters whose paths cross and recross in fascinating webs of intrigue.

  • Constantine ‘Costa’ Zannis, detective in Salonika, a sea port in northern Greece.
  • Gabriel – Gabi – Saltiel, his assistant.
  • Vangelis, head of the Salonika police force.
  • Spiraki, head of the local office of the Geniki Asphakia, the State Security Bureau (p.21).
  • K.L. Stacho, Bulgarian undertaker, somehow mixed up with the mystery German in the first part of the book (p.22).
  • Roxanne Brown, Costa’s sexy English girlfriend, ostensibly head of the Mount Olympus School of Ballet (p.24) though when the Italians invade she is exfiltrated by RAF plane, suggesting she was always some kind of British agent.
  • Laurette, Costa’s lover from way back, from his early years growing up in Paris.
  • Balthazar, owner of a popular restaurant in Vardar Square (p.24).
  • Sibylla, the stern clerk in Costa’s office (p.27).
  • Ivan Lazareff, chief of detectives up in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria (p.28).
  • Emilia ‘Emmi’ Krebs, née Adler, rich Jewess from Berlin, who entreats Costa to smuggle into Turkey two Jewish children (Nathaniel and Paula) she’s brought with her all the way from Berlin (p.30).
  • Ahmet Celebi the Turkish consul (p.35).
  • Madam Urglu, ‘in her fifties, pigeon-chested and stout’, Celebi’s secretary (p.37), in reality the Turkish legation’s intelligence officer (p.142).
  • Elias, king of Salonika’s poets (p.41).
  • Francis Escovil, English travel writer Roxanne introduces to Costa, pretty obviously a spy (p.44).
  • Captain Marko Pavlic, Costa’s liaison counterpart from the Yugoslav General Staff (p.74).
  • Behar, young illiterate Greek thief, bribed to place a white sheet on the roof of the schoolhouse which has been commandeered by Greek soldiers after the invasion, which acts as a marker for dive bombers who score a direct hit on it, wounding Costa and Pavlic, and killing many others (p.80).
  • Anastasia ‘Tasia’ Loukas, who works at Salonika city hall, former lover with a bisexual twist (p.94).
  • Sami Pal, Hungarian crook in Salonika, dealing in forged passports among other things (p.103)
  • Gustav Husar aka Gypsy Gus, head of Sami’s gang in Budapest (p.107).
  • Ilka, once beautiful, still sexy, owner of the bar where Gypsy Gus does business (p.119)
  • Nikolaus Vasilou, richest man in Salonika (p.120).
  • Demetria, Vasilou’s stunning goddess wife (p.122).
  • Herr and Frau Gruen, rich Jews helped by Emmi Krebs to flee Berlin, given the names Herr and Frau Hartmann (p.123).
  • The vindictive woman who picks up on the fact the Hartmanns lied when they said they were going to Frau H’s mother’s funeral, and confronts them on the boat to Hungary (p.127).
  • Man wearing a maroon tie who follows Akos and the Hartmanns to their cheap hotel and who Akos scares off by slicing the tie with his razor sharp knife (p.131).
  • Akos (Hungarian for white falcon), psychotic young fixer for Gypsy Gus (p.119).
  • Haupsturmführer Albert Hauser, dutiful officer in the Gestapo sent to arrest the Gruen / Hartmanns a few days after they arrive safely in Salonika (p.135).
  • Traudl, Hauser’s departmental secretary, a ‘fading blonde’, ‘something of a dragon’ (p.177)
  • Untersturmführer Matzig, Hauser’s devoted Nazi assistant (p.136).
  • Colonel Simonides, of the Royal Hellenic Army General Staff, gives a speech to the top 50 people in Salonika, including Costa, explaining that sooner or later the Germans will intervene to support the Italians and will win and occupy Greece. Everyone in the room should prepare for that event (p.148).
  • Jones and Wilkins, two British Secret Intelligence Service operatives who arrive in a yacht from Alexandria, compel a meeting with Francis Escovil, and surprise him by handing him a mission to smuggle a British scientist out of Paris (p.160).
  • Harry Byer, British scientist, pioneer of location finding radio beams who foolishly enlisted in the RAF and got shot down over France. Smuggled by the resistance to a safe house in Paris. Jones and Wilkins want Escovil to use Costa to smuggle him out (p.161).
  • Moises, ancient Sephardic Jew who owns the best gunshop in Salonika (p.171)
  • Didi, French aristocratic woman who is Costa’s contact in Paris, and takes him to dinner at the Brasserie Heininger, then onto the hotel where Byer is being hidden (p.180).
  • The Brasserie Heininger. Like the Fonz saying Heeeeey or Captain Kirk saying ‘Beam me up Scotty’, this is the scene the audience waits for in every Furst novel, the appearance of this fictional up-market restaurant. Here Costa is taken to lunch there by his contact in the French Resistance and, as always, they are seated at table 14, the one with the bullet hole from the shootout which featured in the first novel in the series, Night Soldiers.
  • The drunken SS officer who nearly picks a fight with Costa at the Heininger.
  • French aristocrat guarding Byer at the Paris hotel (p.185). Typically, Costa guesses that Didi and this officer are lovers.
  • Uncle Anastas, Costa’s uncle who stayed on in Paris minding a second hand store in the vast flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt (p.194). He is astonished to see his nephew, then earnestly sets about using his contacts to get him smuggled out of Paris.
  • The unnamed friend of a friend who looks like a French king, smoothly accepts the $4,000 Costa gives him, and explains the process for being flown out of France (p.197).
  • An emigre Greek who drives them up to a field north of Paris (p.199).
  • The Serbian (?) pilot of the plane which flies them to Sofia (p.200).
  • Vlatko, a bulky pale-haired Serb detective who Pavlic elects his number two when he and Costa set about rounding up potential Army opponents of the Yugoslav coup (p.239).

Credit

Spies of The Balkans by Alan Furst was published in 2010 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2011 Phoenix paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
2006 The Foreign Correspondent – The adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile from Mussolini living in Paris in 1938 and 1939, as Europe heads towards war. He is a journalist working for Reuters and co-editor of an anti-fascist freesheet, Liberazione, and we see him return from Civil War Spain, resume his love affair with a beautiful German countess in Nazi Berlin, and back in Paris juggle conflicting requests from the French Sûreté and British Secret Intelligence Service, while dodging threats from Mussolini’s secret police.
2008 The Spies of Warsaw The adventures of Jean Mercier, French military attaché in Warsaw between autumn 1937 and spring 1938, during which he has an affair with sexy young Anna Szarbek, helps two Russian defectors flee to France, is nearly murdered by German agents and, finally, though daring initiative secures priceless documents indicating german plans to invade France through the Ardennes – which his criminally obtuse superiors in the French High Command choose to ignore!
2010 Spies of the Balkans The adventures of Costa Zannis, senior detective in the north Greek port of Salonika, who is instrumental in setting up an escape route for Jews from Berlin through Eastern Europe down into Greece and then on into neutral Turkey. The story is set against the attempted Italian invasion of Greece (28 October 1940) through to the German invasion (23 April 1941).
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

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