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Cotton FBI Collection No. 1

What is COTTON FBI?

Your name is Jeremiah Cotton. You are a small-time cop in the NYPD, a rookie that no one takes seriously. But you want more. You have a score to settle with the world. And anyone who calls you “Jerry” will be sorry.

A new time. A new hero. A new mission. Experience the birth of a digital cult-series: Cotton FBI is the remake of JERRY COTTON, the most successful series of German novels with more than one billion copies sold, and it tells an entirely new story in e-book form.

Cotton FBI is published twice a month, with each episode a self-contained story.

Authors

Mario Giordano, was born 1963 in Munich, studied psychology in Düsseldorf and writes novels for adults old and young as well as screenplays (his credits include Tatort, Schimanski, Polizeiruf 110, Das Experiment). He lives in Cologne.

Peter Mennigen was born in Meckenheim near Bonn. He studied art and design in Cologne before he turned to writing fiction. His novels have been published by Bastei Lübbe, Rowohlt, Ravensburger and other publishing houses. He also writes scripts for graphic novels and audio dramatizations as well as screenplays for TV shows and series.

Jan Gardemann was born in Hamburg in 1961. After receiving his vocational diploma in graphics and design, he worked jobs at the Port of Hamburg and as a fashion designer, amongst others. He traveled extensively through Europe and later through the African desert and to Bali. Since 1991, he has worked as a freelance author. He currently lives with his wife and their three children in a quaint town between Hamburg and Hanover.

Alexander Lohmann was born in 1968 in Munich. He studied computer science, German philology, and history, and has worked as a magazine editor. Reading The Lord of the Rings early on awoke his love of fantasy, which he has employed in several different novels. His penchant for tension-filled conflict led him to COTTON RELOADED. Alexander Lohmann is a freelance author, editor, and translator based in Leichlingen.

COTTON FBI

The Beginning

Mario Giordano

Translated by Frank Keith

Prelude

You are running on and on and on …

This, in particular, is what’s haunting you night after night. Going down the whole length of South Lexington, and then taking a hard right onto 26th Street, into the deep shadows between the closely-spaced brick buildings with their fire escapes.

You remember the tourists taking photos of the fire escapes — as if they didn’t exist in any other place. What’s so great about fire escapes? you ask yourself. And then you’ve forgotten about the brief encounter, the fire escapes, and the tourists, because you run on and have no time to concentrate on anything else. You will remember all that much later, and when you do, you will remember every damned detail of that morning, each and every night from now on.

In that moment, you hardly notice anything else around you. The scenery just whooshes right past you without leaving even a scratch on your memory. The coffee shops, seedy real-estate agencies, and the cockroach-infested delis, too; the closed-down medical-supply businesses, the garbage men hollering something after you, and all the other people you swerved around and bumped into … all this seems like a mere daydream. It is all so trivial to you during those fleeting moments.

You simply keep on running. Your legs hurt and your lungs are burning, but you still have enough strength to run two or three blocks and maybe even more. If you have to, you’ll run all the way to Timbuktu to catch that black dirtbag. So what are a few city blocks?

You will not let this crook get away with that wallet. And when you’ve got him then you’ll still have enough strength left over to beat the shit out of him if you have to.

Four hundred and fifty-three dollars is what it contains — that’s all you have. You wanted to buy some cool clothes, clothes you can only find in New York City; a new pair of pants and some sneakers, a gift for Meg … something really nice … perhaps a ring if there’s enough money.

But maybe there’ll be no spending spree with the money now, because that dirtbag in front of you has it, and he is damned fast. He’ll get away if you don’t catch him soon. So what now? Give up and listen to Dad’s I-told-you-so story?

Never!

You went on a lot of hunting trips with your dad when you were growing up and you always liked it, until it came to the shooting part. Though you can handle a weapon just fine, and you’re actually pretty good with that old Browning, your problem has always been putting yourself in the position of the prey. You always have to try to imagine what it would be like to be hunted down. That’s how you’ve learned to sense that moment when fleeing turns into panic. And it seems like that jerk, barely twenty yards ahead of you, has reached that point. He no longer has a clear plan for where he should run. It is fear alone that is driving him onward. You can tell it from the way he keeps glancing back at you. It is now simply a matter of who is in better shape.

So, onward your feet carry you. The crook veers off to the left onto 2nd Avenue, and then to the right after that, onto 26th, going straight for two blocks, crossing over onto Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. Along the four-lane highway that runs parallel to the East River, the morning traffic crawls like a huge metallic worm, pressing cars and people into the city.

And what does this son-of-a-bitch who has your money do? He simply runs right across the busy strip of concrete. Every night you remember how he weaved between the cars as if it were nothing, and how he bounded over the concrete barrier running down the center of the highway and then sprinted on towards the river. And you go after him, because giving up is not an option — not when the end seems so near.

It is odd, but you remember every detail of this morning. It was a mild late-summer morning with the promise of another hot day. The air was crisp and clear. You were wondering at how clean the New York air was. You had imagined everything differently, but it was your first time in this city that never sleeps.

Gosh, New York City! Two days ago you arrived here from Grinnel, Iowa, with your parents to visit your sister. You are a country boy, a hick from a small town in the Midwest; a flat and empty nothingness that seems to consist of nothing but rows of corn … a place that was just a wild and desolate prairie a hundred and eighty years ago. A land of grass and buffaloes, of untouched nature, and the hunting grounds of the Iowa and Sioux tribes. Today, it is basically nothing but a huge cornfield.

In high school, you are just an average student who fails to meet his full potential — your teachers keep saying. Meg thinks it’s because of your fiery temper, which gets the better of you, like a thunderstorm you cannot avoid. You’ve been dating Meg for a year now. She’s a pretty girl, uncomplicated, and with a laugh that is downright infectious. She’s good for you, your mother told you.

The way things look, you’ll be marrying her after you graduate from high school and take over your father’s outdoor sports store. The store is a sure thing; there’s always fishing and hunting being done. You simply didn’t have Laura’s drive; she wanted to go to college — to get away from Grinnell. Laura, the one who had always striven to accomplish better things. She’s been with the PR section of Brodmann & Campbell for about a year now. You don’t even know what PR stands for. All you know is that your sister works in a fancy office overlooking Lower Manhattan. The sound of this is enough to make you puke.

But, if you are honest with yourself, as you listen to the freight trains rumble by slowly at night — thudadum, thudadum, thudadum — then you feel just like Laura. That there’s something missing. That this isn’t all there is. That your place in life lies elsewhere — anywhere, just not in Grinnell, Iowa. You simply had no idea where this would be, until two days ago.

Now you do. And this is where the problem lies. This is why you had that argument with Dad last night, all the crap with the money, the running …

Just because of Laura.

Laura has a small apartment in Queens, on the corner of 40th Street and 47th Avenue. There are worse neighborhoods. The building is a plain brownstone at the edge of an industrial area. It’s a railroad apartment building, and the apartment itself is merely a hallway with two rooms and a bath — a place in which Uncle Caleb would’ve suffocated. And when your mom saw the kitchen, her eyes teared up.

Well, it doesn’t matter. Nobody has to tell you that New York is an expensive place. At any rate, there are four people living in that apartment for the next few days, which naturally means stress. You spent the first two days simply walking around Manhattan with Mom and Dad. The three of you had been looking at everything, and that’s when it dawned on you: This is it. New York City — your city. Now it seemed crystal clear. Last night you told your parents that you would move to New York after high school. Your decision was made. Of course, this caused problems, especially with Dad. What would become of the store? What about Megan? Your parents told you that this was nothing but one of your hair-brained ideas again … all the usual parent talk …

Of course, you understand your parents, but when they start that sort of talk, you switch to stubborn mode, and then one thing leads to another. You and Dad got into a hefty argument. It was such a bad quarrel that you hardly slept at all that night. When the first signs of daybreak shone through the windows, you couldn’t stand it anymore and had to get out. You walked all the way to Brooklyn, over Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. You wanted to be alone with the city, which was waking up and beckoning you with the promise of an exciting day. You wanted to understand — to make a final decision.

And this city had shown you what it thinks about hicks by sending you that dirtbag.

In the meantime, the guy has slowed down some. He also seems to be running out of breath. You see how he runs through a gate to a parking lot. You don’t hesitate and barge through the honking cars, across FDR Drive to Waterside Plaza, and simply keep on running until you reach the parking lot located beside the piers with the mega-yachts. You only catch a glimpse of the big sign, but it is still enough for you to read “United Nations International School”. A guard is shouting something after you and then joins in on the chase when you don’t stop. No matter. It won’t be much longer until you’ve got the dirtbag and your money, too. Barely twenty minutes have passed since the dude ripped you off in Union Square, when you, idiot that you are, had nothing better to do than to count your money for all to see. But who would think of such a possibility at half past seven in the morning? It was a black youth, barely older than you, wearing a hooded sweatshirt. You saw him out of the corner of your eye, but too late. He simply tore the wallet out of your hands and kept on running. Manhattan has given you the finger.

But now you’ve got the little shit. He tripped, and that clinched it for him. It was behind the International School complex, at the end of the pier, that you grabbed hold of his hood and pulled him down onto the pavement. For a fleeting moment you thought that he might have a knife, but luckily he didn’t. He tries to defend himself, kicks at you, but he has no chance, because you are a strong farm boy. Like a nut you beat him, screaming something, until he finally lets go of the wallet. Only then do you release him, too. It’s at this moment that you see his face for the first time. You see fearful eyes — eyes that also reflect the kid’s despair — and they calm you down on the spot. He’s actually hardly older than you, but it’s the despondency in his eyes that catches you off guard. For a moment, it seems as if the world is standing still — everything is quiet. You’re not running anymore; the two of you are just standing there facing each other, breathing hard.

“What’s your name?” you ask him, surprising yourself by asking such a question in this situation.

“Rashid,” he answers.

That’s when the guard catches up with you both and pulls out a taser. Rashid takes off; you don’t. You stay put. The rays of the morning sun shine into your eyes, and you don’t even notice how the guard has grabbed you hard by the arm and is asking you something.

“What?”

“Your name, boy!”

You mumble your name and show the guard the wallet that you have managed to get back. At first, he doesn’t believe you and wants to call the cops. But after you tell him the exact amount of money in the wallet and about the photo of you and Meg, he finally believes you.

“You ran from Union Square all the way to here?”

“Yeah.”

“Not bad, son. You don’t give up easy, do you?”

“I guess.”

He looks at you as if he is trying to figure out whether you are trying to mess with him. He lets you go. At that moment you think, Gosh, this is the best day of my life.

How wrong can you be?

It is now a quarter after eight. You should call your parents, but you don’t have a cell phone. By now, they will be gone anyhow. Today is a special day: Super Laura will be showing off her big office. But since you’ve got your money back and this is the best day of your life, you don’t want to overdo it. So, off you go to meet her. You take the Z train from East River Park over to Fulton Street, and then walk the rest of the way.

Manhattan gives you a wink; you’ve passed the test. The city purrs, and it belongs to you now. You think about Rashid and the pain in his eyes, and then you think, To hell with him!

Shortly after eight-thirty you walk across the lobby of the North Tower of the WTC and get into the line of people standing in front of the elevators. Every fifteen feet a black dude shows you where to go, even though the area is marked off with yellow tape.

Brodmann & Campbell occupies the entire 94th floor. You’ll have to ask your way through when you get up there. There are different types of elevators. A few go all the way up, others don’t. The line for the direct elevator is long, and the darned elevator takes its time, and time is something you don’t have right now. You are almost bursting with excitement, you want to share your triumph, want to announce it to the world.

You want to apologize to Dad. You don’t want to argue anymore; not today.

So, you leave the line and take the express elevator up to the Skylobby on the 44th floor. There, you want to take another elevator, one that will take you to the 94th, to Laura, Mom, and Dad.

But you’ll never make it that far.

Just as you get out of the elevator on the 44th floor, AA flight 11 slams into the building between the 93rd and 99th floors, killing your parents and your sister on the spot.

But you don’t know this yet. You only hear the thud and then the dull detonation above. And you feel how the whole building trembles, resonating like a giant bell. The people in the hallway are screaming and shouting and trying to understand what is going on.

And you run again. Because you realize one thing: Whatever it was, it happened above where your parents and sister are. You run through the hall in the Skylobby and see smoke, so much smoke. Far too much smoke. And you see debris from the building falling down past the windows, as if it were almost floating. Like a loon you storm into the stairwell where the first wave of people is rushing down the stairs, fleeing with fear and panic in their eyes. In the chaos you ask what happened, but you don’t get any sensible answer.

You fight your way upward, pressing through the crowd, but thick smoke floods the stairwell on the 56th floor and even here you can feel the heat. On the 61st floor, going on becomes impossible. The smoke is too dense and the heat unbearable. A man with cuts on his face grabs hold of you and shouts that everything above is in flames. You desperately want to go to Mom and Dad and Laura, but there’s no chance. You can’t go any further. The only hope you still have is that they made it down some other stairwell, or that they’re not even in the tower at all …

Yes, that’s it! They lollygagged around too long, waiting for you, took the subway too late and are now sitting in a train without a clue as to what’s happened, while you are here, stuck in deep shit.

You hear a totally disturbed woman babble something about an airplane, but you don’t believe it, even though she insists she saw it. You simply can’t believe it. You just imagine Mom, Dad, and Laura in the subway and then you focus on getting back down.

It’s slow going; there’s no panic, only shock and a feeling of vulnerability. One man even has his coffee cup still in his hand. You just want to get out of the building, but then you hear a woman call out. The voice is coming weakly from one of the offices. She’s calling for help, constantly and steadily, just like an automatic SOS signal. But this is no signal; it’s a human voice. Why isn’t anyone helping the woman?

You ponder on it for just a moment, and then you go looking for her. Choking smoke hangs low from the ceiling and billows out into the hallways. Everyone who works here has long since left via the stairwell. Only this woman whose voice keeps calling for help is still here.

She is trapped in an elevator, stuck half-way between the 60th and 61st floors. It’s a miracle that the steel cables are still holding in the intense heat from above.

“Don’t worry, ma’am, I’m here!” you shout out to her through the partially open door. You can see her. She’s roughly mid-forties with short dark hair, wearing an elegant business suit. And she’s sitting in a wheelchair.

Oh, shit!

“Are you hurt?”

“No. Oh, God, finally someone to help me!”

“What’s your name, ma’am?”

“Sarah Granger … Sarah.”

“Just stay calm, Sarah, I’ll get you out of there.”

You pry the elevator doors open far enough for you to crawl inside. You pull the woman out. She is a lot lighter than you would have guessed, but getting her through the opening without hurting her is a chore. The intense heat and smoke-filled air make matters worse. Later, you cannot remember where you got the strength from, but you find it and you pull Sarah Granger out of that damned elevator.

When she is finally out and lying beside you, gasping for air, you hear an ugly sound coming from the elevator shaft. The steel cables have snapped, and the squeak and squeal of metal rubbing against metal screech as the cabin gains speed and races down the shaft. You wonder how this could happen, considering the foolproof safety system in every elevator. You remember the heat and you realize that the high temperatures must have damaged the springs that should have held the elevator brakes tightly shut. Would you have saved the lady had you known this before? You shudder at the thought of how close you came to dropping down that deep, dark hole.

“Thank you so much, son!” Sarah said.

You have to carry her — the whole way — all those stairs — one floor after another. A man crosses your path and helps you. Theo, he introduces himself; a Greek. He is a window-cleaner and was actually on his way up as it happened. Together, you and he carry Sarah down, where the air gradually gets better. But the going is slow. There is a crowd of people in the stairwell now, sluggishly making their way down.

It is on the 11th floor that you see the first firefighters. Down in the lobby, a couple of medics want to take Sarah, but she holds on to you — she holds on tightly. And what do you do? You make her release your hand and tell her that you and Theo will be back soon. You and he want to go back up to see if there is anyone else who needs help. Sarah is afraid for you. You still feel her firm grip as you run back into the building. But you don’t get far.

The whole world is watching live what’s happening next.

102 minutes after the plane slammed into the North Tower, the building collapses.

You hear the noise, as if hell had opened its portals … above you! The tower screams out in agony to you. You stare at Theo, totally perplexed.

Then everything around you goes black.

*

Every night, when your thoughts turn back to that day, you wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better if it had stayed dark. If you had died underneath the rubble. Buried, crushed, and suffocated beneath thousands of tons of concrete, steel, electronic gadgets, contracts, memos, coffee cups, cleaning utensils, sandwiches, and ID cards, mixed with the body parts of your family. Re-united with them amongst the rubble. But what are you driving yourself crazy for? It so happens that you survived.

At some point there is light again, sunlight flooding the small cavern that has miraculously formed above you and protected you. Only you. A dusty face beneath a construction helmet stares at you from above and exclaims, “Shit! I can’t believe it! It’s a miracle … there’s someone alive in here … a boy!”

They pull you out: a dusty ghost with broken legs, half-dead from thirst, blinded by the bright daylight.

One of the firefighters says, “Boy, say something. Please, say something!”

But your mouth is totally dried out from the dust. Only after they give you some water to drink can you finally say something.

“What’s your name?” the firefighter asks you again. “Tell me your name.”

You answer: “Cotton … Jeremiah Cotton.”

11 Years Later

“What do you say, Cotton? Am I right or am I right?” Joe Brandenburg didn’t wait for an answer; he simply went on talking. “This is how I see it, Cotton … err, are you even listening to me? Hey, Cotton, that’s the way it is: When the chief keeps on handing me the shitty jobs, he shouldn’t be surprised that his best man makes an effort to earn something on the side. Do you know what I mean? That’s only fair, isn’t it? A man’s gotta do whatever he must do to survive the best he can. Every day we risk our necks and we could be killed by some crack junkie or other. You know how it is … I don’t have to tell you. That’s why the clever man sees to it that he has a way out. I, for one, don’t have any desire to stay a patrolman till retirement age.

“‘Retirement’ — what a joke! We won’t live to see that anyway. We are just the toilet paper society wipes its sore ass with. What do you say, partner? Dammit, are you sleeping, or what?”

Cotton pretended to be concentrating on the traffic. He took a turn onto Bayard Street. He was used to Joe Brandenburg’s bellyaching.

“There’s one thing we’ll never live to see, Joe,” Cotton finally said, breaking his silence.

“What’s that?”

“You keeping your trap shut even for a minute!”

Brandenburg smirked. “Do you feel like earning a few bucks, partner? Yuki has a friend — a real sweetie.”

“Go to hell, Joe!”

You go to hell, Jerry.”

“I told you before not to call me Jerry. Don’t ever call me Jerry, got it?”

“Why not? Jerry is a decent name — at least when you’re from Iowa. What’s wrong with Jerry, Jerry?”

Cotton ignored the Jerry-game; it was almost a part of their nightly routine when they were on patrol together.

“You’re a geek, Cotton — a damned geek, and a nitpicker, too. Have you realized that? You should feel honored. Do you even know why I’m offering you this chance?”

“Because I’m white and no queer?”

“Because you’re a damned bumpkin — just like me. I might even say redneck.”

“I’m not like you, Joe.”

“Naw, sure you’re not. Obviously you’re something much better, Cotton. Kiss my ass.”

It went on like this for hours. Every day; it never stopped. Joe Brandenburg was forever bitching and nagging, telling dirty jokes, talking down to gays, being prejudiced, relating violent fantasies, crude racial theories, and business ideas that were guaranteed ’no-risk’. All this talk and gibberish inundated Cotton like he was a little boat caught beneath Niagara Falls. At least, as long as they were out together on patrol.

But sadly, there was nothing to be done about it. It was as unchangeable as the weather, and the weather was made by the chief. In the beginning, Cotton had thought about reporting Brandenburg for the dirty little deals he’d been doing. However, a partner is a partner, and you never snitch on your partner. It was an unwritten rule. So Cotton had no other choice but to somehow put up with Joe’s behavior.

Joe Brandenburg may have been a corrupt asshole, but otherwise he was quite an okay guy. You could at least count on him in a pinch.

Cotton had been with the NYPD for five years now. Joining the department had been the clear choice, despite the fact that Sarah had tried to talk him out of it. She wanted him to go to school, become a doctor or a lawyer. He had the brains and the perseverance, she told him, and he shouldn’t waste it being a cop — and so on and so forth …

But Cotton was obstinate about this.

It was on the day in September, 2001, that Jerry had “died” and decided to become a police officer. He had thought about it during those hours trapped beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center. God, save me and I will become a police officer and try to make this world a little better. Something like that. At any rate, he had never returned to Grinnell, Iowa, since then. Megan had come to see him just one more time — she had cried a lot, and that was it.

Sarah took him in and a year later she adopted him. She had no kids of her own, but had a large apartment in Brooklyn. Slope Park — a fine neighborhood indeed, where you can chance upon famous authors and actors in any of the many coffee shops, and graciously ignore them.

Five years ago, Cotton had moved out from Sarah’s place, and now he was living in Williamsburg. There he intermingled with Hassidic Jews, musicians, intellectuals, and artists who had moved out of Manhattan during the nineties due to the high cost of living, and who had in turn caused an increase in the cost of housing in this former blue-collar neighborhood. Cotton liked it there, and as long as he was able to afford the tiny apartment on Hewes Street, he would stay.

“Stop here for a sec,” Brandenburg said suddenly, interrupting Cotton’s thoughts.

“What do you want here?”

“Just pull over!”

Cotton stopped the patrol car alongside a brick building on Mulberry Street. There was a closed Vietnamese restaurant on the first floor, and on one of the upper floors there were three windows with dull light emanating through red curtains.

“I won’t be long,” Brandenburg said.

“What business do you have here, Joe?”

Brandenburg said irritably, “You just don’t listen to me, partner. I’m just looking after things, that’s all. Little Yuki still owes me something.”

Cotton remembered now. Brandenburg had told him of four Chinese girls who operated under the name of “Japanese Jewels”. They offered their services on the web with photos that had nothing to do with the reality of what was going on up there. Except for Nevada, prostitution was illegal in every state, not excluding New York, but here it was more or less tolerated. This was last not least also due to police officers like Brandenburg who were “looking after things”.

Cotton groaned, “Do you have to do this now, so close to the end of our shift?”

“It won’t take long, partner. It’s just business.”

Brandenburg got out of the car and disappeared into the house. Cotton let the engine idle and wondered whether he should smoke a cigarette. He hadn’t touched one in three weeks, but every shift he had to spend together with Joe Brandenburg was simply pure torture, and the nicotine would … He fought the craving by trying to concentrate on other things. He watched the windows with the red curtains, but except for moving shadows, there was nothing to be seen.

Cotton turned off the headlights and engine and looked down Mulberry Street. At this time of night, this small street in the middle of Chinatown was about as lively as a country road in Iowa. Cotton loved this part of the shift, when it seemed as if New York was actually asleep for a little while. He paid attention to the police radio for a spell, but except for some drug raid in the Village, everything seemed quiet. But he still couldn’t get himself to relax. He glanced at his watch; Brandenburg had only been gone for five minutes. Cotton decided to wait another five before going inside to get him out. The last thing he wanted was more trouble with the chief, who was already mad at him for roughing up a coke dealer last week during a routine check-up.

Cotton sunk back into deeper thoughts. He liked being a police officer and had never regretted his decision to become one, despite Sarah’s derogatory comments when he visited her every Sunday. Yet, there was still something missing. The feeling that he was being “called” during those September days eleven years ago had never left him. It wasn’t all wrong to be with the NYPD, but he still wasn’t where he “belonged”; that he knew for sure.

He had first put in an application to the FBI academy at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, but they had practically laughed at him. With no advanced college degree or the minimum required three years of law enforcement experience, he had no chance.

By now he could have applied. Theoretically. The system was as flexible as concrete for simple cops. He should have thought about this sooner. But he hadn’t. Cotton simply kept to the deal he had made with himself under the rubble, which had since become a symbol of America’s vulnerability.

To hell with it!

He lifted his head when a car passed by; it was a cab. It pulled over and stopped some distance ahead. A woman got out and came towards him with quick steps. Cotton wondered why she hadn’t let the taxi drop her right by her building. As she approached, he took a good look at her, as far as he could in the light of the street lamps. She was Asian, in her early thirties, of delicate build, her black hair draped around her shoulders, and walked with deft movements. She wore a well-tailored business suit, but with high-heeled shoes that didn’t really go with the rest of her outfit.

As she passed by, she gave him a glance without slowing her pace. She had a serious-looking face with high cheek bones and full lips. Her gaze was cool and seemed to be capable of examining every detail around her within a few seconds.

Cotton wanted to nod, but her eyes were already fixed elsewhere, as if she had just discounted him as a potential danger. Damn, that gaze! He was more than slightly irritated about being assessed as neither dangerous nor interesting. He watched her in his rear-view mirror and wondered what it was that made her seem so suspicious to him. At first, he thought of her as being a high-class prostitute returning from a job. However, this wasn’t really what made him uneasy. Only as she turned from Mulberry onto Bayard did it dawn on him.

She was armed. He had noticed the typical bulge beneath her jacket, which may well have been a pistol.

Cotton glanced over to the building in which Brandenburg was still doing “business”. He hesitated — deliberated — and then dismissed the idea of giving in to his impulse to follow the woman. But then he got out of the car anyway.

He saw the woman enter a building just as he got to Bayard Street. A short while later, a light came on in one of the windows on the third floor. Cotton sidled up to the building and looked at the doorbell signs, but there were no names — just apartment numbers. He mulled for a second over what he should do. Of course, he should get back to the car and get that damned Brandenburg out of there so that they could go home. There really was no reason to be worried by a pretty woman on her own on the streets at night, armed with a pistol concealed under her jacket. He should get back to the vehicle. Leaving a patrol car without reporting in first wasn’t a good idea. Not good at all.

But Cotton just couldn’t get rid of that odd feeling.

There was a small parking lot next to the building with a chain-link fence around it. Cotton counted five cars, all with New York license plates. There was a side entrance to the building adjoining the lot. Cotton tried to open the parking-lot gate and saw that it wasn’t locked. When he shone his flashlight on the ground, looking around he discovered the busted padlock lying behind the gate. This didn’t have to mean anything suspicious, because there was no room for more than five cars in the lot; so no car had been stolen. Perhaps one of the tenants had lost his key to the lock and got impatient. Patience isn’t really a virtue of New York citizens.

Cotton made a decision: It was, after all, his duty to look after things — and not in the Brandenburg way. He might make a fool of himself, but that was a risk he was willing to take. Maybe something would develop out of all this; New York was always full of surprises.

He entered the lot, squeezed passed the parked cars, and went to the side entrance of the building. It didn’t surprise him to find that the door had a rather old lock. It was a Cisa 02500 Standard. Even in Manhattan, there were many houses and apartments that still weren’t equipped with safety locks. It took him barely a minute to get it open.

He stepped into the building and then snuck up the stairs in the dark stairwell; he didn’t switch the lights on. The stairwell was surprisingly modern-looking, he saw in the flashlight’s beam, and it seemed to have been renovated just recently. There were four apartments on each floor, all with solid doors and modern safety locks.

Just as Cotton reached the second floor, he heard a muffled sound, and then a dull thud. It was a sound much like that of a human body falling to the floor. He pulled his gun and bounded up the last few steps. He saw a door slightly ajar at the end of the hallway. A crack of light shone out into the otherwise dark corridor. The apartment remained quiet.

Silently, he hastened down the hallway with gun in hand; he pushed the door open and stole his way into the apartment, still being as quiet as possible. The room was Spartan but tastefully furnished and decorated. There were replicas of antique Chinese cabinets and chests, and the kitchen was clean and tidy. The corridor had a neat row of family photos hanging on the wall. The only source of light was a small Chinese floor lamp in the living room. Cotton could see it clearly.

“Miz?” he now called out. “Miz, do you hear me? I’m Officer Cotton, NYPD. I’m coming in now, okay?”

Maybe he should have kept his mouth shut, despite the regulations, but the woman was armed, after all, and he didn’t feel like being shot due to something trivial … not so close to getting off duty.

When he entered the living room, he saw that this woman wouldn’t be shooting anyone anymore. She was lying face down on the floor. There was a nasty, bloody wound on the back of her head.

And then something hit him.

Before he could register the movement coming from the side and react to it, the blow had already knocked him down. The man must have been standing right in the dark shadow of the opened door. Cotton twisted around, and the last thing he saw was a man’s hairy fist and something flashing in gold. And then there was darkness all around him.

*

It was Brandenburg’s voice coming from his radio that woke him up again.

“Hey, Cotton, where the hell are you? Say something, dammit!”

Moaning in pain, Cotton slowly became aware of his surroundings. The first thing he noticed was the bloody head of the woman lying directly in front of him. He got up with some effort and touched the sore spot on the side of his head. His hand came away with blood on it, and it wasn’t just a little blood. It had run down his neck and stained his uniform. The blood hadn’t coagulated yet, nor had the woman’s. The pounding in his head made it almost impossible for him to think clearly.

“Dammit, Cotton, if you’re trying to take me for a ride …”

Now the whole precinct knew that the two had screwed up.

Mechanically, he reached for the radio. “Calm down, Joe, I’m here.”

“Fuck — what does that mean? Where are you?”

“I’m in the building on the corner of Bayard and Mulberry, the one beside the parking lot. I’ve got a one eighty-seven. Call back-up.”

“Say that again.”

Cotton took a deep breath. Since all communications went through dispatch anyway, he might as well make it official.

“This is Officer Cotton, I’ve got a one eighty-seven … there’s a dead woman here … suspect fled, need a ten eighty-five.”

“Please repeat that, Officer Cotton,” the dispatcher’s voice squawked through the little speaker.

Cotton repeated his brief report and then told them the address, all the while feeling for the woman’s pulse. But she was dead, which was to be expected from the state of her head. Her body wasn’t cold, and rigor mortis hadn’t set in yet, either.

Come on, you’re not finished yet — concentrate! Cursing under his breath and still groggy, he groped for his weapon. He found it nearby, lying on the floor. It seemed logical to assume that the culprit had been in too much of a hurry to finish Cotton off. As Cotton bent down to pick up his weapon, he saw something else lying beneath the woman’s couch. It was a cell phone — turned off. Without giving the whole matter much thought, he holstered his weapon and pocketed the phone. Then he searched the woman’s purse, which was lying beside the .38 on a chair, for any identification. He made sure not to touch the pistol.

Inside the purse he found a billfold with credit cards, a driver’s license, and an ID card for a company where she presumably was employed. The company card had a magnetic strip and displayed the logo of a firm named “Cyberedge — IT solutions”, an alphanumeric code, and the photo and name of the dead woman. Her name was Maggie Huang, and she was 32 years old. And now she was dead, and he had got there too late, just because he hadn’t followed his instincts right away.

Cotton stuck the credit cards and the driver’s license back into the purse; he kept the company ID card, along with the cell phone. Something was very wrong here, and he wanted to follow up on the matter on his own as far as he could. There were too many Joe Brandenburgs in the NYPD.

“Dammit, partner, what shit did you get yourself in now?”

Cotton turned to look. Brandenburg was standing in the living room doorway, looking around without stepping closer.

“He can’t have gone far,” Cotton said as he got up.

”Who?”

“Her killer, you butthead!”

Brandenburg was still standing by the doorway. He looked at Cotton as if he wasn’t making any sense at all.

It was then that Cotton knew that he was in real trouble indeed.

*

Five minutes later the backup from Manhattan South arrived and arrested Cotton. They followed the usual procedure, and Cotton didn’t even hold it against them.

A doctor, who was also present, confirmed the woman’s death and then took care of Cotton’s head wound. Then, perhaps the most unlikeable officer in the NYPD, Worzcek, put handcuffs on Cotton without saying a word, read him his rights in a monotone, and led him away. He wasn’t taken to his precinct, the 5th, but instead to NYPD headquarters on Park Row.

“Captain’s orders,” Worzcek said grimly. He didn’t offer a single word of comfort to Cotton — a fellow police officer.

“What does this mean, Worzcek?” Cotton asked. “Does everyone really think that I would just go right around the corner to beat a totally unknown woman to death, and then lie down beside her for a little nap?”

Worzcek said nothing. Cotton had never been able to stand the guy.

At headquarters, Cotton was put through almost the same routine as any civilian accused of a serious crime. Then he was taken into an interrogation room, where they left him alone with a cup of coffee, a bad headache, his blood-stained uniform, and the picture of the dead woman in his head. And … with the woman’s cell phone and ID card in his pants pocket. He had not been searched so far. Luckily. He was in it deep enough.

Cotton was certain that he was being watched by a hidden camera, so he kept his hands nice and visible, folded together on top of the table. Only now and then did he pick crusted blood off of his collar as he tried to remember the moment he was knocked unconscious. The whack from nowhere. The hairy fist. The flash of gold. Maybe from a ring?

After what seemed like an eternity, the door finally opened and a young woman came in. Her blond hair was tied up, and she wore a dark suit — like a banker. He could tell by the way she moved that she was a swimmer. She was trim and a bit taller than Cotton, and she was very attractive, with a slender Nordic-looking face. Her eyes were like blue glaciers. She really was very good-looking; she kept one more button on her blouse undone than was necessary, and she knew exactly why. Everything about her radiated a sense of superiority and self-confidence. Her behavior didn’t let any sort of uncertainty through.

As she sat down at the table in front of Cotton and placed a small attaché case upon the tabletop, a whiff of Issey Miyake reached Cotton. That’s a bit too oriental for such a large Nordic type, Cotton thought, and for the FBI, too, especially since the scent wasn’t really in vogue anymore.

“Is there something funny, Officer Cotton, or why are you grinning?” she asked in a somewhat hoarse, pleasant voice.

“I wasn’t grinning.”

“Yes, you were.” She looked at him fixedly and then introduced herself. “I’m Special Agent Philippa Decker. I’m in charge of this investigation.”

“Why is the FBI on this case?”

“I’m the one asking questions around here, Officer Cotton.”

She observed him the whole time. Cotton knew that she was studying his body language, watching for small, subconscious signals. Cotton didn’t even attempt to hide or disguise his behavior, because he knew that it wouldn’t do him any good. He simply made sure that his hands remained casually on the table.

Decker opened a file and took a look at his personal records. Cotton knew the game and felt that he was slowly losing his patience.

“Why don’t you just get started. I’d like to get home and take a shower.”

Special Agent Decker looked up. “How did you do it, Officer Cotton?”

Cotton stayed as calm as he could; as calm as the incriminating evidence in his pockets allowed. “Aw, come on, Agent Decker. I only want to get home. It’s been a shitty shift.”

“How did you kill the woman?”

The pretty one really meant it. She leaned back.

“You’re in deep trouble, Officer Cotton.”

“I didn’t do it. What reason would I have to kill that woman?”

“You tell me; then we’ll be a good step further.”

“It wasn’t me, dammit!”

“Who, then?”

“I didn’t recognize him.”

“Then tell me your story.”

Cotton took a deep breath. “Officer Brandenburg went around the corner for a while to get himself a cup of coffee. That’s when I saw this woman …”

He told her everything that he could remember. Or rather, almost everything. He kept Brandenburg’s visit to the “Japanese Jewels” as much of a secret as the cell phone in his pocket. Decker listened to him attentively without interrupting him or taking notes. She only raised her eyebrows a few times.

“And I’m supposed to believe this story, Officer Cotton?” she finally said. “Do you follow every woman that passes your patrol car?”

Cotton shrugged his shoulders. “Only if she’s packing a pistol underneath her jacket. Who was she, anyway?”

Philippa Decker didn’t go into that. Instead, she wanted to hear his whole story again. And then again. And once more. In between, she would pick at him: Where did Brandenburg get his coffee, since every coffee shop in a half-mile radius of the crime scene was closed, how could Cotton have known in the dark that the woman was armed, where exactly was the broken padlock lying, why didn’t he make a call when he first got out of the vehicle.

Cotton tried to suppress the anger boiling up within him and to concentrate on remembering more important details. However, the more he repeated his story, the more his memory abandoned him. He needed some peace and quiet in order to remember better. Yet, with every new round he went through with Decker, he realized more and more that despite her outward coolness, she was under great pressure. He recognized this by the way she held her shoulders and the way she kneaded her fingers every so often. It was obvious that this was no ordinary murder case, and that he, Cotton, was their only suspect. That made him wide awake again.

“Did you want to add something to that, Officer Cotton?”

“No.”

“It’s really too bad that you can’t remember more about the man who supposedly knocked you out, isn’t it?”

“Yes … too bad.”

“A hairy fist, a flash of light, perhaps from a ring … Where did you get that from, some cheap novel?”

Cotton was about to angrily draw attention to his head wound when he suddenly remembered something. “How many cars were in the parking lot next to the building when you arrived?”

“Four — why? We’ve already checked the owners.”

“When I entered the building, there were five cars; the parking lot was full. The missing car probably belonged to the suspect.”

Without saying a word, Decker left the room, and then returned holding a list with information about the four cars and their owners. There was a Nissan Almera, a Lincoln Navigator, a Hyundai Sonata, and an older VW Jetta. Cotton concentrated and imagined seeing the vehicles again.

“A white Toyota Avalon,” he said. “It was parked between the Nissan and the VW.”

“License plate number?”

Cotton shook his head. “I’m sorry, but it was very dark and my attention was on the woman.”

Philippa Decker’s face had a twisted expression as she mockingly said, “Your attention — of course.” She suddenly seemed tired. “You may leave, Officer. Get out of here.”

Cotton didn’t have to be told twice. But his eyes were focused on the files once again. “What’s wrong with my records?”

“Just go home, Officer.”

*

Brandenburg in his old Mercury Sable was already waiting for him in front of the building.

“You look like shit, partner.”

Cotton dropped himself into the passenger seat without saying anything.

“Did you … I mean, did you tell them about my …”

“Do me a favor, Joe, just this one time, okay? Just keep your mouth shut and take me home.”

After taking a hot shower, Cotton felt a little better. The only thing still bothering him was the vision of the dead woman that kept going through his head. Meggie Huang. He put the cell phone and the company ID card on the small kitchen table and started the investigation. The phone was a brand-new model with no signs of having been used. It had a Verizon SIM card. He was able to turn the thing on, but since he couldn’t get any further than that without a PIN, he turned it off again. He wanted to avoid being located electronically. Now he regretted taking the phone. All traces of fingerprints and DNA might very well have gotten lost in his pants pocket. But there was no turning back now. He would have to think of something else.

Cyberedge was registered on Thomas Street, and for a software company it had an unusually plain-looking internet site that didn’t divulge anything about the company’s products. Oddly, this didn’t surprise Cotton. He assumed that they made specially tailored security software. But that didn’t explain why Maggie walked around armed.

He lay down on his bed and tried to concentrate on the woman’s face, the moment he got knocked out, and the white Toyota. And on the question of why the FBI had taken on the case so quickly.

Maggie Huang; Cotton spoke her name softly. He had seen her only very briefly, but in the last moments of her life. He had arrived too late. He felt that he owed her something.

His own phone rang, tearing him away from his thoughts.

“I just wanted to say thanks, partner, for covering my ass.”

“Forget it, Joe.”

“I did some listening around to find out why the FBI was on the case so fast.”

Cotton sat upright on his bed.

“It seems to be a series of murders,” Brandenburg went on. “Someone’s going around killing young Chinese women.”

Now Cotton remembered. He’d read about it in an internal police memo two weeks ago, but hadn’t taken further note of it, since the murders had been committed in three different states.

“But there haven’t been any killings in New York.”

“Until now, partner. The method and victim profile for this killing matches the other cases.”

“The victims were all prostitutes. Our victim, too?”

“You tell me. Worzcek said that the FBI isn’t letting anyone get close to the case. Even at the crime scene no one but the FBI is allowed.”

“I see. Thanks, Joe.”

“I’ll have to keep a closer watch over Yuki and her sisters.”

“They’re sisters?”

“My offer still stands, partner.”

After he hung up on Brandenburg, Cotton called a close female friend who worked at the FBI in the administrative section whom he had gone out with a few times. He asked her about Agent Decker.

“Don’t say anything else. Is she pretty?”

“Could you find out which section she works for, Sam?”

Samantha let out a sigh. “You know that this could cost me my job, don’t you?”

“I’ll owe you big time, Sam.”

“Yes, I know all that; dinner at Rube’s place, and then you take me home like a good boy, and that’s that. No thanks, Cotton, I’ll pass this time.”

“Please, Sam, this time it’s really important.”

It took him another five minutes of sweet-talking of the finest sort — then he finally had some information that jolted him into action. He holstered his personal Glock 22 and hurriedly left his apartment.

*

Kyle Rickenbach had a small store just two blocks away, where he dealt in used computers and a whole bunch of other electronic hardware that Cotton called junk. For Cotton there was no other description for the items in the store that crowded the aisles and shelves up to the ceiling. But Kyle had some good qualities, too. Kyle could repair just about anything that had to be plugged into an electrical outlet. He repaired his neighbors’ ancient TVs until they had no life left in them anymore. He seemed to have magic hands when it came to electronic devices. He also had the proper software for more complicated matters.

“And I thought it would be a good day,” Kyle groaned as Cotton entered the store, secretly shoving a small carton under a shelf.

“I need you to do me a favor.” Cotton held the cell phone towards him.

Kyle didn’t touch it, saying instead, “And I’m not to ask any questions, right?”

Cotton gave him a thin smile. “How long will it take?”

“Come back this afternoon.” Kyle sighed and reached for the phone, but Cotton didn’t let go of it straight away. “Look — I get it,” Kyle said, “no one will see it but me, okay? Anything else?”

“I’ll need your car for a little while.”

“And what else … my first-born?”

*

As Cotton pulled up to Bayard Street in Kyle’s old junker, he saw that there weren’t any cop cars around anymore, nor was there any police tape cordoning off the crime scene. The parking lot by the building was now empty. A brand-new delivery van, bare of any company logo, was parked in front of the building.

Cotton drove once around the block and found a parking spot within sight of the building’s entrance. There wasn’t much going on there. Life was going about its usual business. A murder didn’t stir New York’s heartbeat. The only thing that caught Cotton’s attention was the black car behind the van. It was a Dodge Challenger with a rare 426 Hemi engine, 425 advertised horsepower, capable of doing a quarter mile in under 13 seconds. A beast of a car; pure bad-ass acceleration. Brandenburg’s mouth would be watering for this car. Cotton’s, too, for that matter. The car stuck out like a spaceship, even in Manhattan. Cotton suspected the car belonged to some triad boss.

After some time had gone by, two men stepped out of the building, looked around, and loaded some packing cases into the delivery van. If they hadn’t been wearing dark suits and sunglasses, the whole thing would have looked totally innocent.

“Boys, why don’t you hang signs around your necks saying, hey, we’re with the FBI,” Cotton muttered to himself, shaking his head as he eyed the building. The two men got into the van but didn’t drive away.

A short while later, Agent Philippa Decker came out of the building. Cotton recognized her right away. She spoke briefly with the driver of the van, and then got into the Challenger. The Dodge was hers! Cotton couldn’t believe it. He peered over to the other side of the street and could hear the eight cylinders of the Dodge rumble into life. It rolled effortlessly into traffic. The delivery van followed close behind. Before Cotton realized what was going on, they had already gone down Mulberry Street, and the traffic light had turned red.

Cursing under his breath, Cotton took up pursuit, still baffled by Decker’s choice of vehicle. The point was that the FBI didn’t use such cars unless a certain situation called for a powerful vehicle. But as a service car? It was simply not possible. But it tallied with the information he had got from Samantha.

Cotton saw the van following the Dodge take a right-hand turn onto Mott Street. It was, after all, in the direction of the FBI’s New York headquarters in Federal Plaza.

Kyle’s car coughed asthmatically as Cotton stepped on the gas pedal, tailing them at a mere 30 miles per hour. Lucky for him, the traffic was fairly heavy. Cotton had caught up with the Dodge and the delivery van again by the time they reached Worth Street. They drove towards the big FBI building, but instead of pulling left into the parking garage, they went straight for about two hundred meters, took a turn onto Broadway, went around the block, and then drove across Thomas Street, heading towards a monolithic building with a parking garage.

As the two vehicles disappeared into the cavernous entrance, Cotton wondered whether he should step on it and follow them, but decided against it. Instead, he parked nearby, went into the building, and then took the elevator down.

The Dodge and the delivery van were parked beside a steel door with a key-card unit attached. Philippa Decker and the two men were nowhere to be seen. Cotton took out Maggie Huang’s card and slid it through the card reader; he wasn’t very surprised when the diode bulb blinked green.

Behind the steel door was a long bunker-like hallway leading straight underneath the building. When Cotton got to the next security door, he guessed that he must now be right beneath the Cyberedge building on Thomas Street.

And behind this security door lay paradise.

Even though Cotton still didn’t know exactly where he was, he saw that he was truly in paradise. His paradise; a place he’d been dreaming about for the past eleven years.

Before his very eyes was a windowless communications center that looked like a diffusely lit hall made of bare concrete; a giant monitor on one wall showed diverse scenes of New York and drone videos of the East Coast. The sounds of low voices talking, brief instructions being given, telephone conversations, and announcements filled the spacious room, all overlaid by the humming of the ventilation system. About two dozen people sat working in front of monitors. Most were wearing comfortable civilian clothing, while a few armed security guys had on uniforms with FBI badges. Cotton realized that he must be in a covert government building. That didn’t make it any less dangerous for him, because no secret government organization would appreciate having its headquarters penetrated by an unauthorized person.

Circling the room above the people working at the monitors was an elevated gallery with glassed-in offices lining its length. Cotton glimpsed Decker inside one of the larger of the glass rooms. It looked like she was delivering an oral report to a tall black man wearing a dark suit.

Keeping Decker in sight, Cotton moved along a wall beneath one of the galleries to avoid standing too long in one spot and raising suspicion. Although no one seemed to have noticed him yet, he desperately needed a plan for how to get out of there again. On the other hand, he didn’t really want to leave this place so soon — who would, after passing the Heavenly Gates?

The main question that Cotton had right now was, what sort of place was this?

To find out, he did something that was actually un-thought of, something not very well thought-out. Probably even very dumb.

He sat down.

A young employee had just stood up to get herself and a colleague some coffee.

“You’re a pal, Pam,” her co-worker said, and without hesitation, Cotton sat down in Pam’s chair.

“I’ll be gone in a jiffy … Pam asked me to check something,” he mumbled, as the man looked at him in confusion. Cotton pulled Maggie’s card through the card reader to get authorization.

Cotton was no computer hacker. He didn’t even know exactly what it was he was looking for, and he sure didn’t have much time before Pam would be back with the coffee. But he wanted to finally know what kind of place this was. He started with the main menu, accessing a file with the promising name of “Administration”. Here he found a seemingly infinite number of data files with cryptic names. He clicked on one at random.

And that was it.

The monitor went black and then displayed a background image that revealed perhaps more than any of those administrative files would have done. It showed the FBI logo along with another one that read “G-Team”, and beneath this, a login bar.

At that moment, Cotton heard a metallic click behind him and felt something cold and hard pressing against the back of his head. Then Philippa Decker’s voice said, “Put your hands on top of the table, Cotton, nice and slow. Otherwise, I’ll have to blow your bird-brain all over Pam’s workstation.”

Cotton had no desire to see whether she was being serious about her threats. Without the slightest resistance, he allowed himself to be handcuffed, and then two security guards took him away.

It was the second time that day that he found himself inside a windowless interrogation room, but this time he had a much worse feeling about it. After some time, Decker came into the room and sat at the table across from him. She seemed somewhat strained.

“Cotton, you have a problem … a very big problem.”

Cotton shrugged his shoulders. “You, too, as far as I can see. What sort of place is this?”

Instead of answering, Decker laid a hypodermic needle on the table, along with a glass ampule filled with a clear liquid. This was enough to create a very uncomfortable feeling in him.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a substance that will turn your pea-brain into mush and turn you into a dumb, drooling helpless mess for the rest of your life. When you’re found tomorrow, you won’t even recognize your own mother. The speech center of your brain — destroyed. Memory — gone. Tabula rasa. If you’re lucky, you will just about manage to go to the toilet on your own.”

“You do realize that this breaks every federal and human rights law, don’t you?”

“If I were you, I’d simply answer every question asked as truthfully as I could. So, where is Maggie’s cell phone?”

“Did you know her well?”

“She was my partner.”

For a moment, Decker seemed vulnerable, even likeable. Her face showed an expression of pain and sorrow that matched her perfume.

“I understand,” Cotton said thoughtfully. “But that would mean that she was trained in man-to-man combat. Besides that, she was armed. How could the killer get her so easily?”

“You tell me.”

“I think that Maggie knew him. He was already in her apartment. That means that you were using her as bait because she fits the profile of the murdered women in the serial killings.”

“Wrong guess, little Jerry. Maggie had nothing to do with that case.”

Cotton didn’t believe her. It simply didn’t make any sense.

“Firstly, don’t ever call me Jerry. Secondly, whether you believe it or not, Maggie’s death bothers me just as much as it does you. I might have been able to prevent her from being murdered. If only I’d stuck my nose into her business a few minutes sooner. But I’ll have to live with that now. What I don’t have to live with is the fact that her murderer is still free. So the two of us are sitting in the same boat, so to speak.”

Philippa Decker’s expression hardened again. “You’re wrong, Cotton. You’re sitting in a sinking ship. You should finally get that into your thick head.”

She played with the ampule. Nice hands, Cotton thought, and tried to ignore the vial.

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