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The Crime Fiction Lounge Podcast
Episode #14 – Alison Belsham, Author of The Tattoo Thief
January 21, 2019 Paul Stretton-Stephens

Today’s guest is Alison Belsham who initially started writing with the ambition of becoming a screenwriter, In 2000 she was commended for her visual storytelling in the Orange Prize for Screenwriting. 

In 2001 she was shortlisted in a BBC Drama Writer competition. Then life and children intervened but, switching to fiction, in 2009 her novel Domino was selected for the prestigious Adventures in Fiction mentoring scheme. In 2016 she pitched her first crime novel, The Tattoo Thief, at the Pitch Perfect event at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival and was judged the winner

Today’s guest is Alison Belsham who initially started writing with the ambition of becoming a screenwriter, In 2000 she was commended for her visual storytelling in the Orange Prize for Screenwriting. 

In 2001 she was shortlisted in a BBC Drama Writer competition. Then life and children intervened but, switching to fiction, in 2009 her novel Domino was selected for the prestigious Adventures in Fiction mentoring scheme. In 2016 she pitched her first crime novel, The Tattoo Thief, at the Pitch Perfect event at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival and was judged the winner

Episode Transcript

Speaker 1:0:01Hello and welcome to the crime fiction lounge. You're listening to episode 14 with Allison Belsham, author of the tattoo thief.

Speaker 2:0:10Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce to you the crime fiction lounge, the place for crime fiction levers. Sit back, relax and unwind. You listened to some of your favorite crime fiction thriller authors, and here's your host, Paul Stretton Stevens.

Speaker 1:0:36We're really lucky today. Today's guest is from Belgium, who initially started writing, but the ambition of becoming a screenwriter in year 2000. She was commended for visual storytelling and the Orange Prize for screenwriting in the following year. She was shortlisted in a BBC drama, right to competition and then life and children intervened, but she switched to fiction in 2009 with her novel domino, which also was selected for the prestigious adventures in fiction mentoring scheme. In 2016, she pitched for her first crime novel, the tattoo thief at the pitch perfect event in the bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival where she was judged to be the winner. Hi Allison, welcome to the crime fiction lounge.

Speaker 3:1:23Hello. It's lovely to be here. Thank you very much for inviting me along.

Speaker 1:1:27No, thanks for that. Thanks for being on the show is really, really an honored to have you here. Thank you. Can you tell our listeners a little, a little bit about you and about your background?

Speaker 3:1:39Uh, yes. Um, I'm a writer. My debut novel came out in September, it's called the two thief and I'm, this is the first in a trilogy and the next book will be out next year and the third book the following year, um, as I said, that was my debut and I've always been a writer. I've written several novels and before that I tried to write screenplays, but this is, this is the first book that's been picked up by a publisher and so it's really a very exciting time for me.

Speaker 1:2:12So I believe you've recently moved to Edinburgh?

Speaker 3:2:15Yes, I have. Yes. I wanted a fresh start and Edinburgh has a huge tradition of crime writing and a sort of great literary scene. You can literally go to book launches any day of the week and book discussions and everything. So when I wanted somewhere new to live, I thought as a writer, Edinburgh had to be the place and it's beautiful city as well. So,

Speaker 1:2:42so having lived in London for quite a while,

Speaker 3:2:45um, it's very, it's quite compared to them, I wouldn't say it's totally quiet because when the festival on of course it gets extremely busy, but um, things like the, the levels of traffic and the sort of like the London underground and things like that and is just much, much quieter, much more civilized in that respect. So I'm really loving it, but it, it has as much culture as London, great restaurants, great shopping and night light, everything. So it's like a kind of mini London and much more relaxed for it.

Speaker 1:3:20Haven't been there for a long, long time.

Speaker 3:3:22It's beautiful. Really beautiful.

Speaker 1:3:25No. Have you have a tattoo? And that's featured quite a lot. The publicity of your book, the tattoo thief. When did you get your tattoo before or after you wrote the book?

Speaker 3:3:37This thought just just before what happened was I decided about three and three and a half years ago. I thought I wanted to get it to, why am I waiting so long? I'd been fascinated by twos all my life because my grandfather had some Jews that were done in China, some Chinese dragons on his arms and they always fascinated me and I wanted to do for a long, long time and I, you know, and I've been kind of held back because uh, when I was much younger it wasn't seen as, you know, women having to choose. It was frowned upon and in particular my mother frowned upon it and I suddenly thought about three years ago I thought, right, I'm going to do it because if I don't do it, I'll kind of miss the chance. I'll be a really old woman before I get round to it.

Speaker 3:4:24So I just thought I've got to go for it now. So I found it to artist. I liked who is based out in Berlin. And I flew out to have my first two tutoring session and that night I was, I was so excited to have my two annise lying in bed and I couldn't sleep. And there was sort of black tatooing was stating all the sheets and I just lay there and I thought, thank goodness I've got my two to now no one can take that away from me. And um, because my writer brain sprung into action and say yes, but what if someone did take it away? And then I thought, right, that's a crime novel that's novel and say, well, so that very night when I first had my two down that I thought I'm going to write about this. And so after that, when I saw my two artists the next day and for quite a few subsequent sessions, I was then picking his brains through all my research for, for learning about the world of tunes and the two in community. So that's how the book, the idea for the book came about.

Speaker 1:5:26Did you tell him?

Speaker 3:5:28Uh, she knows about the too, but she hasn't seen it. She, she doesn't really want to see it so often. I wear long sleeves when I see her.

Speaker 1:5:38Can we ask what the Tattoo is off?

Speaker 3:5:40It's a, it's an octopus. So it's a three quarter length sleeve. And so it covers my whole arm and goes right round the back of my arm and it's a, it's a huge swirling octopus.

Speaker 1:5:53I have to admit, when I first saw that book and heard the title of the Tattoo, it really sparked it. It, it was intriguing for me because my son and daughter and my son, my Sony Law, a rooms, a tattoo studio.

Speaker 3:6:08Oh, right.

Speaker 1:6:10A fair amount with. It just intrigued me, the title of it. Oh, okay. Yeah. Because I couldn't studio. I don't know what the clients he has. And you know what I mean, that they're as varied. You know, all walks of life have talked to. I think not everybody really appreciates that.

Speaker 3:6:30Yes. That was one of the points I wanted to make in the book was that anyone can have it too. And all sorts of different people do have to choose for different reasons. And it's not actually a kind of small. I think some people think it's just to. People are like a tribe or something, but no, there's everyone. It, all walks of life. All types of people have tattoos.

Speaker 1:6:57Absolutely. They do. Yeah. Yeah. Okay, so I mean you said you've always been writing, I mean, why, why do you write?

Speaker 3:7:04Um, why did I write there's a sort of urge to write. I don't know, I think a lot of writers feel this, that, that it's, you kind of need to splurge, you need to get something out, putting words on the page, it kind of helps you make sense of things and it's worth exploring things and its way of exploring what you feel about life and about things in general. So you know, you pick subjects that intrigue you and then it gives you a way of exploring them I think. I think that's what drives a lot of writers.

Speaker 1:7:38Okay. And how, what was your path to publication like?

Speaker 3:7:42Um, it was, it's been an absolute rollercoaster really because it's happened very quickly with this book. As I said, I'd written previous books, they weren't crime novels and they didn't get picked up. But then when I, um, had the idea for the two thief, I started to kind of work out the plot and work out the characters and at this point I saw that bloody Scotland Writing Festival, uh, we're doing a call for people to enter their pitch perfect event and the pitch perfect event happens every year and the asked unpublished novelists to stand up in front of the panel of publishers, editors, agents, what have you, and an audience as well, and you get up and you pitch your book. And I thought to myself, well, I'll enter that because if I got the chance to pitch my book, getting some professional feedback at this very early stage would be really useful.

Speaker 3:8:37So I sent off my entry form telling them a little bit about this book. And they wrote back and said, yes, would you please come and pitch up in sterling? And for me that I felt like this was the big win because I thought, right, I'm getting some professional feedback and that's like gold dust for writers. So I went up to sterling and pitched my unwritten novel and won the pitch, which absolutely stunned me. I mean, you know, for me it was just, I just thought I'd be kind of tagging along at the end sort of thing. Uh, hopefully get some, some pointers to the way ahead. And in fact, I won the pitch and a few days later, Jenny Brown who was chair of the panel rang me up and we met up and she said, I'd like to represent you. I think you've got a great story idea here.

Speaker 3:9:24And then I started to write it and a few months after that, Sam needs of Arabian, um, read some of it and then offered me a contract for the book's fantastic story. It was amazing. It was, you know, and, and even, even when I got the contract for the book, I was any about four or five chapters in, which is quite unusual, but I think it's because it's such a sort of strong concept and that people are fascinated by this idea of someone stealing two tunes. So, um, I, I was very, very lucky. It's every writer's dream actually.

Speaker 1:10:00Wonderful sort of good inspiration for everybody else.

Speaker 3:10:03Absolutely. And I say to any aspiring writer into pitching competitions because a pitching competition and puts you face to face with the people who who have the power to say yes or no to your book and it's, you know, if you have a passion for your book, there's no better way than putting that across. Then being able to tell someone about it face to face. So I think pitching is, is a more effective way of getting an editor or an agent pay attention to you. They see you, they see you as a person, the writer as well as your work. And, and I just think, yeah, it's better than being on the slush pile. I think. Definitely more effective. So yeah.

Speaker 1:10:44What were you nervous? Were you nervous? Yes.

Speaker 3:10:50It was absolutely terrifying. I practiced so much, which I think is a really important point to make me. I now teach a master class on pitching and the really important thing is to practice and to do your pitch uber and over and over again. And that means that even if the nerves kick in, you'll still quite fluent when you do it. So. But yeah, it's, it's a frightening thing to get up and present your work to an audience. It's very nerve wracking.

Speaker 1:11:20Oh, well done. You think you know what, what's your process of writing? And we do. Do you outline a heavily or.

Speaker 3:11:28Yes, I'm very much. I think, I think particularly when you're writing crime, I think you didn't. I know there are writers who, who don't know their plots beforehand, but I think most crime writers probably have to have a rough idea of the plot because you've got to scatter the appropriate clues and of course you can always go back and I had clues in and stuff, but it always strikes me that if I work out the story first and who needs to know what and when the clues come up and what information they need to, it's going to save more work in the long run. So I'm, I'm very much a plotter. I, um, have a big excel document for each book. And then I put in the each scene who's in the scene, what happens, and then when I'm satisfied that the whole plot is working in that form, then I start to write the book.

Speaker 1:12:20Okay. Now talking about the book. Yeah. That's our little chat about the tattoo thief. I mean, one of the review quotes here was, well, if you'd like your crime dark and graphic, then this is the book for you. Does that sum it up?

Speaker 3:12:34Yes, it does. I think that's part of it is it is very dark. It's obviously a horrible, horrible crime to steal someone's attitude from their bodies is of course. Right. Gloria and I do describe that and and there are a lot of quite horrible graphic gory scenes, but I think it's also quite a character driven book because the, the two main protagonists, a detective inspector Francis Sullivan, who's a young uni promoted detective working his first murder case and he teams up with an older woman who is a tattoo artist and there's a great spot between the two of them. And I find that for me, that's the really interesting part of the writing is writing that that sort of start off with a very prickly relationship. Money has a very dark, difficult pasts. That means that she absolutely hates the police and distrusts them trance. This is a very naive young man and that she doesn't have very good opinion of people who is when the book opens. And so from this position of being absolute polar opposites, they then have to come together and work together to try and catch the killer unserved course. They're very prickly together at first. And I think that's, that's, uh, the kind of human interest angle that, that kind of balances out the glory side to the book.

Speaker 1:14:03I see. I see. And there's a rural remote pies in there as well as me.

Speaker 3:14:08Yes. So the, um, sergeant, the deputy rory MCI is an older and much more experienced detective and he was hoping to get the promotion and was passed over by this great young man. And so again, we have at the start, I'm, Francis is of course terrified on his first case that he's going to mess it up and rory absolutely believes he's going to mess it up and has no time for them at all and it's rather patronizing to him and Francis has to work to win him around and the rest of the team. So he, you know, he has his work cut out, thrown in at the deep end with a serial killer case with a team who don't necessarily support him and his own lack of experience. So it's, it's a struggle for him.

Speaker 1:14:58That's an interesting mix, isn't it? How much research did you have to do for the tougher the thief?

Speaker 3:15:05Um, I did. I think I did, I did quite a lot of research talking to artists about the community and about how to choose a diamond. So like that. And then I had, um, I, I have a friend who's a retired police superintendent who was a murdered detective. And so I get him to read each draft to check whether the police procedural part of it is, is accurate and that I haven't made any massive clangers and I quite often go and spend a few days in Brighton when I'm writing to check out the various locations because Brighton is another big part of the book. The fact that they're located in Brighton, the whole series is located in Brighton and it's a very beloved city. Um, you know, it's beautiful. It has the pavilion, it has so many landmarks and I actually loved going there. And so it's great to set up a series of books there.

Speaker 1:16:06What comes out from looking at some of the reviews of the book is how well researched everything was. I mean that, that has said multiple times in multiple reviews.

Speaker 3:16:15Well, I'm pleased with that because of course every writer's fear is that someone's someone in a review, we'll say, by the way, you know, you've got x, Y, zed wrong. And of course you're always terrified that that might happen. But I'm so fascinated by two twos and doing. And I read about them and, and you know, I just have my one to two and I'm constantly tempted to get more, but I'm trying to hold off and just keep it at one

Speaker 1:16:42wonderful artwork I have to say. I mean it's just amazing what they can do.

Speaker 3:16:47It is stunning and there's nothing I love more than going to convention because you see the best two to artists at work and the just that some of the Tuesday just so beautiful and I'm forever seeing something and thinking, Oh I wish that was my two two. I wish I had that to, to, you know, I love the one I've got, but there are so many that you see and you think that is just stunning. So

Speaker 1:17:10yeah. Now you said that the tattoo thief is the first of a trilogy. Can you tell us a little bit about the other two books as well?

Speaker 3:17:18Yes, I can. I'm just a working hard at the moment on book two, which is called poison inc. And the clue is very much in the title. There's Another killer on the loose in brighton and this killer is, um, to, to doing girls, quite young girls, uh, with ink that is poison so they don't die immediately, but they, um, they died subsequently a few days later. And so of course the terrible thing is when, when this successively, the girl, first of all the police realize it's happening in the that these girls are going to die. And then of course the girls hear about it in the newspapers as well. So there's this sort of ramping up of absolute fear and terror and you know, that, that some girl has been attacked as been to today and she knows then that she's going to die in a few days. So it's, it's a really, it's another really horrible crime. Um, and once again, francis and barney are on the case and trying to track down the killer and there's more in book two, we have a little bit more about martin. I mentioned bonnie has a very dark past, um, a horrible things happened in her past and there's a little bit more. We learn a little bit more about marnie's past and it seems that the past is going to come back and bite her, so there's that element as well, which is quite interesting.

Speaker 1:18:45Same characters appear in mci and mullins.

Speaker 3:18:51Yup. Yup. Absolutely it is. I'm marnie and her ex husband terry and her son alex. There's francis rory and the rest of the police team and his horrible boss bradshaw is martin bradshaw, the boss from hell. They're all back in the book, so I'm.

Speaker 1:19:11You must have written off really, really well because what I do remember, one of the reviews, I was looking at this the other day and somebody said, you've got to get rid of the boss. He's a real pain.

Speaker 3:19:25I think people are a Bit irritated by him because he's so unsupportive. But again, he's another one who is, doesn't really trust the fact that promises has been promoted so young and he's, um, he's the sort of boss. He said, well, this is how we did it in my day and, and so on and, and just has no time for. He wants immediate results. Of course, he's under pressure to get results, so he wants arrests and results and he doesn't really care what the team has to do to get them. So there's a francis and him a constantly loggerheads.

Speaker 1:20:03It must really. Well, I mean, I haven't, I haven't read the whole story yet, but I mean it must come over really well for the review is to pick that up and say, look, you know, this guy's such a pay. You've got to get rid of them as a pocket. You've got to get rid of him.

Speaker 3:20:16I know, but of course as a writer, I've never going to get rid of the, uh, the thorn in mon side.

Speaker 1:20:20You're not.

Speaker 3:20:22He's one of the main sources of conflict. And, um, again, this is more about him in book two and certainly will be very much more about him in book three.

Speaker 1:20:32Oh, interesting. Now I understand the tattoo thief has been optioned.

Speaker 3:20:37It has to tell us anything. Well, there's not much detail yet. It's incredibly exciting. It's been optioned for television by a called dlt and independent production company and they're at the stage of talking to a scriptwriter and after that will be a matter of, of raising the finance or it. So, um, I, I know that quite a lot of those get option for television, so I'm just, I've got my fingers crossed that this one can, can make it the whole way onto the screen. It will be a massively exciting thing and I think the tatooing world lends itself very much that it's a very visual, um, community, you know, because of the twos and tuning studios and I don't think we've really seen that in a television drama, actually seeing stories set in that world. And so I think it could be a really interesting drama and something a bit different.

Speaker 1:21:40I can't recall anything. So in that world either. No,

Speaker 3:21:43no, I can't. I mean, obviously there was the girl with the dragon to huge series, um, she has a two but it's not actually set within the two in community. So, um, I think this gives it something that's a bit fresh and new. So hopefully the powers that be in the large television companies will give it the thumbs up. The. Go ahead. No, I definitely will. You'll hear about it all over twitter. I guess, you know, I'll be. I will be so thrilled.

Speaker 1:22:17We've come to the part of the chat where I like to ask for rapid fire questions and answers. Right. So are you ready for this? Okay. So if you could chat with any crime fiction author, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Speaker 3:22:35Oh, that's, that's quite hard. John mcdonald, who wrote the travis mcgee books.

Speaker 1:22:45Okay. And why would that be?

Speaker 3:22:48I love those books. I love his writing and I just think actually if his writing kind of reflects him, I bet he was quite fun and interesting character.

Speaker 1:22:58Okay. Can you name a tool, app or product you can't live without? And why?

Speaker 3:23:04To a product? I'd have to say, I have to say this is not very exciting, but it is my laptop and I'm chained to my laptop at all times. Uh, you know, I do my writing on it. I, if I'm not writing, I'm on social media. And I spend far too much time on it. So, um, yeah, I would be bereft if I didn't have it.

Speaker 1:23:31Can you tell us something unique and interesting about you that not many people may know?

Speaker 3:23:36Oh, everyone knows about my too. Obviously I'm a really. The career I really wanted to have and what I really would have liked to been is a tap dancer. But I, I think first of all I come dance. I've got no sense of rhythm so it was never going to happen. And secondly, it's, it's not really, I don't think there's a lot of mileage and being a professional tap dancer in this day and age, so it wasn't going to happen, but I just, that's what I really wanted to be when I was younger. But I had failed. I had tap dancing lessons for not very long because it was absolutely evident from the start that he was not going to manage. So

Speaker 1:24:24what's a typical day like for you in your writing life?

Speaker 3:24:32Uh, so I'm still, I still do. I'm a professional copywriter. That's what my career has been. And I still continued to do some copywriting, so I split my day. I normally do copywriting in the mornings and then in the afternoons fiction writing, um, I work from home and I am, I will either be working at home or I go and work in the national library in edinburgh because it gives me, it's a very quiet place and everyone's working and then I sort of, it's free from the distractions of home and I sit there and everyone is working so hard and I think oh, I better get on and do some work. So it's a, it's kind of quite good for my work discipline when I go and work in the library.

Speaker 1:25:13Do you like that quiet atmosphere or do you have like music and headphones or can you write a cafe or.

Speaker 3:25:18No, I actually like it to be absolutely silent when I write. So if you follow me on twitter, you will sometimes see me tweeting about people in the library, her clattering their keyboards and sniffing loudly and I'm afraid I've known about it. I like absolute silence. Although having said that, I do sometimes go and work in cafes and evening cafes with music playing, which, um, it surprises me that I get work done because when I'm at home I'm like, nope, no music or anything. But then sometimes sometimes the change is good, isn't it?

Speaker 1:25:54The environment? Sometimes it's preferable. Now you've probably been interviewed a thousand times. What one question that you would like to have been asked in an interview but have yet to be asked?

Speaker 3:26:05Oh, um, I haven't been interviewed a thousand times, just a handful of times, but even so, what would I like to be? Um, uh, no one has asked me. Well, she's the book I wish I had written the they, you know, what the famous book do I wish I had written?

Speaker 1:26:30What would he be?

Speaker 3:26:31Uh, it would have to be either rebecca by definitely tomorrow a, which is just the most fabulous book or cold comfort farm by stellar gibbons. Those two books, funnily enough, dAting back to. I think they were probably both written in the thirties and I love both of those books. One for one because it's, I suppose the, the absolute prototype of the psychological thriller and the other one because it's massively funny. It's so humorous. Um, and if I could write like either of those women, I'd be very satisfied.

Speaker 1:27:06So all one of those two. Your favorite books?

Speaker 3:27:10Um, yeah, probably rebecca is my favorite book, but cold comfort farm is pretty close, you know?

Speaker 1:27:19Yeah. Yeah. And the movies. Have you got any favorite movie?

Speaker 3:27:25How am I going to favorite movie? I always love watching white christmas at christmas time

Speaker 3:27:32and she, in fact my son was born on christmas day and um, I was, when I was in labor I was watching white christmas and I'd had an epidural and every time I watch white christmas I cry and the nurse came in and said, why are you crying? Are you all right? Do you need any more pain killers and stuff? No, I'm absolutely fine. It's just the fill in film that makes me cry. Always a favorite. I'm sure I have other favorites, um, that a bit more intellectual, but I can't think of them at the moment. It is a good film, it's a lovely film and it's a, it's kind of. I used to watch every year through my childhood, so it's got that huge nostalgic feeling for me.

Speaker 1:28:18Yeah. Same here. So did I. What, what's your favorite piece of music and why?

Speaker 3:28:25Um, oh, that changes. Actually I get, I get slightly obsessed with um, bits of music or albums and listen to them over and over again and then stopped listening to them and start listening to something else I should say that probably I it out a favorite piece of music that I listened to most as leonard cohen. I listened to a lot of leonard cohen album is everyone. Everyone says he's so miserable and whatever, but I don't find his music depressing I think. Yeah. And particularly his more recent albums, the ones that he's done in the last few years. Absolutely stunning. So I listened to those a lot.

Speaker 1:29:04Hmm.

Speaker 3:29:07Oh, absolutely. Superb.

Speaker 1:29:10Now, how can listeners connect with you and your books?

Speaker 3:29:13Um, I'm, I, I have a website which is www dot allyson, All lower case. And I'm on all the social media channels, so I'm on twitter. I'm at allison belshe. I'm on facebook. I'm allison belsham. Go to an author's page, which is allison belsham, author, instagram. I'm alison boucher. It's very easy. Whatever social platform you're on, if you search for allison bell should I should come up. So.

Speaker 1:29:45Okay. And your book at the moment, is it, or what format is it available in?

Speaker 3:29:50It's available as an ebook and a paperback. And it's, uh, it's always, it's on amazon and kobo and those main platforms and in most good bookshops

Speaker 1:30:03have you found for audio?

Speaker 3:30:05Oh, sorry. Yes, it is out on audio as well. It's, it's available on.

Speaker 1:30:10Okay. Brilliant. Brilliant. No, now allison, I'm afraid we're up to time now. Thank you so much for chatting with me on the crime fiction matters today. I've really enjoyed our time together. Thank you for being here.

Speaker 3:30:21Thank you very much for having me. I've enjoyed it too.

Speaker 1:30:23No, you're welcome. Yeah. For all our listeners out there, allison's details and the details of her books are on our website too, at the Thank you for listening. Our next podcast will be with all the ls hawker.

Speaker 2:30:41Okay.

Speaker 1:30:42Wasn't that a great chat with our lesson? We wish you well with her books and if you found some winning a paperback copy of the tattoo thief, you can get your chance at www. Dot prime fiction Where allison is. Connie donated a copy. Before I go, I've got a couple of notices for you. Firstly, if you're looking for somebody to post your reviews, don't forget you can do that here on the crime fiction lounge and if you have a review for a book that we haven't yet this did, please do let us know. If you're an author, publicist, or event organizer, I'd like to remind you that we have several promotional opportunities available on the crime fiction lounge, the details of which can be found in the footer of the home page. Lastly, if you have any crime fiction, thriller, or mystery press releases, we'd love to hear from you. That's all for now.

Speaker 2:31:29if you've enjoyed this episode, why not subscribe now? Leave a review and share with your friends and don't forget to tune in for the next thrilling episode. Until then, stAy safe.

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