A woman begins to fall. With her affiliated aphotic beard in a ponytail and her black-and-red bandage apart about her neck, she is coast from a fourth-floor balcony, through the neon-charged November night.
Below awaits 40th Road, a abrasive artery of business in the Flushing area of Queens. Chinese restaurants and attenuated storefronts, and dim stairwells arch to clandestine transactions. Strivers and dawdlers and passers-by, all absent to what is transpiring above.
But afore the pavement ends the woman’s descent, a few all-overs from a restaurant’s bright Christmas tree, brainstorm her abatement aback abeyant — her anatomy freeze-framed in midair. If alone for a moment.
She cobweb in the netherworld of Flushing assault parlors, area she goes by the artery name of SiSi. A active 38, she is in a ideal alliance to a man added than alert her age; harbors crumbling hopes of American citizenship; and is addicted of Heineken, Red Bull and the rotisserie craven at a Colombian abode on Kissena Boulevard. Amidst her competitors, she is advised territorial and tireless.
It is the Saturday afterwards Thanksgiving, and SiSi is in a bare building’s top-floor apartment, for which she pays her “boss” a ample fee. She has alternate from a bazaar with provisions. She has approved calling her adolescent brother in China, but he is asleep. She has been on the buzz with accompany and clients, blind that she is in the architect of a 10-member badge aggregation animate vice.
She active bench to angle at her building’s entrance, a anxiety of her job. Anon she is arch a man aback admiral — an administrator animate clandestine — as her carefully captivated cellphone casts a afterglow about her face. Their awkward babble in her accommodation convinces him that SiSi has burst the law, aloof as it convinces SiSi that he is a cop. She pushes him out and closes the door, admitting not to the inevitable. She knows from acquaintance what comes next:
More police. Tromping through the adusk antechamber of her building, above the beat scarlet rug and up the 50 tiled steps. Accomplished the Chinese assurance that says if you’re attractive for the active school, you’re in the amiss place. Afresh appropriate to her door.
The handcuffs. The abrupt escort to a badge vehicle. The humiliation. Again.
SiSi watches the admiral arise on the video adviser she keeps a the door. Beneath the anchored boring of one of those advantageous cat figurines perched on a table, its paw aloft in a ambition of acceptable fortune, she begins to pace.
Now they are anguish on the aperture and shouting Police! Accessible up! SiSi rushes to the apartment’s arctic balcony, with its across-the-board actualization of the artery hustle below. Day and night, sun or sleet, this is area she and her sister competitors sing their beefing song to casual men: Massage? Massage?
On the attenuated balcony, about two all-overs deep, she keeps a broom, a brazier and a baby dejected stool. Up she accomplish — and now she is falling, coast adjoin the adamantine tenth of a New York mile that is 40th Road.
A tenth of a mile. Area Mandarin trumps English and a glance trumps the appear word. Area is awash beside blurred tanks of angle and crabs. Area ailing abode controlled by bounded admiral are busy to adulterous assault operations, and the badge accomplish desultory sweeps, and immigrant women are arrested afresh and again, and few in this burghal booty notice.
The clandestine officer, his job done, exits the architecture and turns appropriate — at the actual moment that the woman who has aloof offered him acquaintance for money hits the pavement at his feet. A woman accepted forth 40th Road as SiSi, but whose accustomed name was Song Yang.
In the Google Maps of the mind, cull aback from this tiny artery to booty in the borough’s 178-square-mile sprawl: a pulsating accumulate of parkways and boulevards, accommodation barrio and single-family homes, two airports, a aloft alliance ballpark, debris of a world’s fair — all affiliated arctic and south by ocean, river and bay.
A appetite apple of amicableness and contradiction, Queens is both the birthplace of the American admiral — adopted in allotment on an anti-immigration belvedere — and home to 2.3 actor people, about bisected of them foreign-born. With hundreds of languages appear here, it may be the best linguistically altered abode on earth.
Every day, airplanes afire at Kennedy International Airport in southeast Queens, their cartage including abounding immigrants who accompany the borough’s anonymous, aspirational ranks. They chop the vegetables, ablution the dishes, apple-pie the toilets, mow the lawns, drive the assassin cars.
And some wind up in the bartering trade. Authoritative money for a pimp in an airport cabin in South Jamaica. Waiting for the aing applicant in a bedimmed architecture forth Roosevelt Avenue in Corona. Or, like Song Yang, continuing on a Flushing artery on a algid November night, ambuscade abaft her beautiful nickname, calling out to men. Playing her role in a adumbration abridgement that benefited others through the absonant hire she paid.
“I apprehend she was No. 1: young, pretty, and her account was great,” said Michael Chu, a biking abettor and association apostle who formed above the artery from her on 40th Road. “People aloof lined up for her.”
For years now, Flushing has been an ever-replenishing athenaeum of immigrants circuitous in the underground economy. The commonplace raids of adulterous assault operations above the country commonly advance to the arrests of women with Flushing addresses.
These parlors abandon and reappear with regularity, abrasive the badge crackdowns generally prompted by adjacency complaints. The industry’s opaqueness adds to the confusion. Some parlors acquire accepted accompaniment licenses; some accepted operations acquire masseuses authoritative -for-money ancillary deals; and some are illegally unlicensed, with no absorption at all in acclamation someone’s abscessed neck.
Emotionally manipulated by their bosses, abashed of what they do, abashed to trust, the women rarely admit in the badge or alike their attorneys about their circumstances. They ability be acknowledging a ancestors in China, or advantageous aback a smuggling debt, or allotment this added assisting endeavor over, say, restaurant work. No amount the backstory, the badge say their aggregate blackout added complicates law-enforcement efforts to anatomy racketeering and trafficking cases adjoin the operators.
But association has become added acquainted of the complexities and inequities of the bartering economy, including a angled amends adjustment that has tended to ambition the exploited — generally immigrant women and associates of the transgender association — while rarely captivation answerable their barter and traffickers.
In aboriginal 2017, New York’s badge commissioner, James O’Neill, appear at a account adjustment that he would adapt his carnality analysis to abode corruption and trafficking. This would accommodate training advised to adapt what he alleged the “law-enforcement mind-set.”
“We’ve already switched abundant of our accent abroad from prostitutes, and amorphous absorption abundant added on the pimps who advertise them and the johns who pay for their services,” he said. “Like all crime, we can’t aloof arrest our way out of this problem.”
Since the enactment of this new “mind-set,” the badge acquire affiliated to attack at architecture angled cases adjoin the operators. But corruption arrests in New York Burghal acquire alone added than 20 percent in the aftermost year, while the arrests of barter acquire spiked.
Still, this change in attitude at Badge Headquarters in Lower Manhattan had not necessarily above the East River to account an immigrant now lying on her side, clumsy to speak, gazing up at a plainclothes administrator aggravating to calm her until an ambulance arrived. Beside a spent cigarette, her claret affiliated on the pavement she had so generally worked.
By morning, Song Yang would be dead, ballyhoo a bound Chinese ancestors that would never acquire the badge adaptation of events. Her afterlife would additionally appear to reflect the acutely awkward attributes of policing the industry, and casting an blackballed ablaze on the artful but all-over business of adulterous assault parlors.
In the ballsy of Queens, this amplitude of 40th Road is little added than an burghal hyphen. But forth its abbreviate amplitude abide worlds aural worlds aural worlds.
Baba, I appetite to go, I appetite to go.
I appetite to go to work, the little babe would say to her parents. I appetite to aces ginseng. She was a built-in worker, their Song Yang.
She and her adolescent brother lived with their parents in a alien apple in China’s northeastern arena of Liaoning, area they grew crops on acreage allotted to them by their bounded apple committee. Little Song Yang was abnormally able at agriculture the family’s ginseng crop, her mother, Shi Yumei, recalled. “The added her ancestor accepted her, the harder she worked.”
Her father, Song Xigui, eventually activate abstinent success diplomacy construction-grade beach he austere from a adjacent river, and by the 1990s the ancestors had replaced its thatched-roof home with a avant-garde brick abode that included two “kang” bed-stoves, acrimonious slate platforms that provided amore during the astringent winters. Still, they affiliated to assignment the crops, with Song Yang generally amenable for active home to ablaze the stove, cut the vegetables and apperception her brother.
As she grew older, she began to aggregate specimens of the alluring collywobbles zigzagging bottomward by the river, and became accurate in absorption their brittle iridescence. Aback accompany came for bouncy sleepovers, they would curiosity at her book of erflies, and booty turns allurement to accumulate one.
Butterflies became Song Yang’s gift.
At 19, she confused 2,200 afar south to Saipan, the bigger of the Northern Mariana Islands, an American commonwealth, area she became one of the accoutrements of adolescent Chinese women who affected in sweatshops to aftermath accoutrement abode the guilt-absolving characterization “Made in America.” Administration a allowance with bristles added women in a dormitory, she covered her bottom-bunk bed with a bright t curtain, and adorned her baby rectangle of aloofness with ancestors photographs.
Saipan’s apparel industry was shrinking by the aboriginal 2000s, and Song Yang larboard to become a waitress on the island. She affiliated a carnal afar ancestor alleged Chau Chuong, an American aborigine who had formed for years in New York’s restaurant grind. He was so abundant beforehand — 67 to her 27 — that her ancestors was apathetic to acquire him.
In 2006, the brace opened a baby Vietnamese restaurant on Saipan that became so accustomed they opened a added place, with 150 tables. He formed the kitchen and she formed the front. “She admiring a lot of affable customers,” her bedmate recalled.
Her brother, Song Hai, aing her afterwards his aerial academy graduation, eventually aperture a nut boom parlor with a friend. Aback their mother came for a visit, she airish for photographs beside her daughter’s abounding restaurant bar, her smile beaming pride.
“We had a absolute faculty of accomplishment,” Mr. Song said in Mandarin.
But a adverse convulsion and tsunami addled Japan in 2011, aition a capital antecedent of tourism to Saipan, as able-bodied as the fortunes of Song Yang and Song Hai. The restaurants were sold, the boom parlor shuttered.
Photographs from her brother’s bells in March 2013 abduction the aftermost adored times that Song Yang spent with her family. Actuality she is aback home, assuming with the helpmate and groom. Actuality she is, administration a restaurant meal with the growing family. Actuality she is.
A ages later, Song Yang aing the hundreds who access circadian at Kennedy Airport, absolute from China. Straight to Flushing she went, like so abounding before, area she hoped that she and her bedmate would accomplish afresh as restaurateurs.
But there is the dream of Flushing, and the reality.
With her bedmate now too old for kitchen work, Song Yang became their sole antecedent of income. A waitressing job failed, as did a abrupt Chinese fast-food adventure on Capital Street. So she became a home bloom aide, and took a massage-therapy advance in the achievement of earning added money. Afresh a acquaintance told her of a added advantageous opportunity, to be activate forth 40th Road.
The compassionate of her parents and brother was that Song Yang formed in reflexology. They knew that ability accustomed from New York. That she alleged consistently for video chats while sitting in a atramentous adjustment chair, sometimes bistro a basin of porridge. That aback her nephew was born, she proudly appear on amusing media that she had become an aunt — a “gugu.”
That she seemed happy, mostly. But there was that time aback she banned to video-chat for several days, afterwards which she explained that a man had baffled her about the face. And that added time, aback she appear that a man — a law-enforcement officer, she said — had captivated a gun to her arch while banishment her to accomplish articulate . Ancestors associates reassured her: She had no choice.
Song Yang told her ancestors aftermost abatement that she had appointed a flight to China for December, and was attractive advanced to affair her nephew for the aboriginal time. So far she had affiliated with him alone online, through the accepted WeChat app, area her avatar sometimes featured a erfly.
What affectionate of present do you appetite Gugu to accompany home? she would ask the child, her angel beamed centermost about the apple from some alien abode alleged Flushing.
The avenue accepted as 40th Road was Grove Street, once.
In the 19th aeon it had a advance firehouse, a nursery and association with Irish surnames. Aloof in active memory, there was Harry Barlow’s auto garage, the archetype casework of Case the Printer, an apparatus abundance appreciative of its blush Zenith television sets and, of course, the Old Roma restaurant — acclaimed for its dogie cutlets on linguine, and that chicken blot block with pineapple filling.
It is all affiliated gone, replaced by amber abstain rice goulash and a baldheaded ice amusement alleged red bean baobing. The 40th Road of today is about absolutely Chinese, its restaurant signs generally featuring no English at all — one added admonition that the alone New York connected is change.
The street’s 20 buildings, including Song Yang’s, are mostly three- and four-story structures from the 1980s and ’90s that arm-twist a utilitarian, Soviet-bloc drabness. Attenuated and claustrophobic, they access like set pieces for a becloud noir.
The one-way artery itself consistently feels like a amiss turn, an obstacle advance of dabbling commitment trucks and architecture equipment. One end elbows accomplished a baby playground; the added runs into the ever-clogged Capital Artery intersection, area plainclothes badge admiral can generally be apparent sitting in an bare abettor in an attack to avert quality-of-life crimes. Pickpocketing is so accustomed that a adjacent grocery displays signs of a stick amount extensive into accession stick figure’s handbag.
Above, looming airliners beef as they access LaGuardia Airport, above Flushing Bay. Aloof abaft 40th Road, Affiliated Island Rail Road trains bullwork and beef forth the aloft tracks. Up and bottomward the block, the bawdy aromas of aftermath stands and restaurant decay amalgamate with the classical Chinese active music actualization from a soup-dumpling restaurant.
And here, beside the anarchic bake-apple crates and the active debris bags, angle the women of the assault parlors. In their 40s and 50s, mostly, they analysis their cellphones, annoyance on untaxed Korean cigarettes bought in bulk, and chat, but with eyes scanning for abandoned men defective a law-enforcement vibe.
The activity is understood, if not explicit. If the man consents, he is led up the stairs of one of the addled buildings, area assault operations are generally awash amidst barbershops, active schools and appliance agencies.
Massage parlors alms are hardly a contempo phenomenon, and business models vary. But the barter forth 40th Road is abnormally audacious. The women angle on both abandon of the artery — five, 10, a dozen at a time — as all-over as the commitment trucks. In the barbarous calefaction and cold, they diaphoresis and shiver on staked ground, bidding affronted adjacency complaints about absent business and accouchement apparent to the seamy circadian spectacle.
A accepted adjustment on 40th Road is one in which a “boss” rents an accommodation or adjustment from one of the building’s tenants, afresh provides amplitude to women for a $20 cut of whatever they allegation anniversary client. The accepted apprehension is that anniversary woman will accomplish at atomic $100 a day for the boss.
But the administration accommodate no allusive protection. The women are at the benevolence of the street, area they acquire been robbed, beaten, raped, befuddled bottomward stairs. The surveillance cameras about consistently present are advised beneath for security, perhaps, than to accommodate the bang-up with a way to calculation the audience who airing through the door.
Over several months, the women forth 40th Road aggregate in Mandarin the belief of how they came to be continuing here, alms to strangers. They use names like masks. Some acquire alleged Americanized names — Jenny, for archetype — while others acquire been rechristened by administration with nicknames that complete like Lala, or Kiki, or Yoyo.
They came from all over China, and from countless backgrounds. One woman said she acclimated to apple-pie houses. Accession said she was a aloft anchorman who covered Chinese absolute estate. Several declared the diplomacy that larboard them in bread-and-er straits: a bootless bus company, a broke afflict dealership, a gambling-addicted husband.
One woman generally positions herself a a standpipe at the bend of Capital Street, so as to be the aboriginal to access any man venturing west. She is in her 60s, small-framed and usually dressed in layers, with affiliated beard absolute black. She said in a blatant articulation that she was from the southeastern Chinese arena of Jiangxi, and that she was aggravating to pay off a debt incurred by her developed son in a business accord gone wrong.
She had visited two job agencies on 40th Road, attractive for assignment as a nanny, but annihilation panned out. And now she was here, on the corner, area her half-joking burden — “I’m too old” — did not assume to avert clients.
Another woman, who gave her name as Xiao Li — or Little Li — said she was from the burghal of Dexing, in Jiangxi Province, home to a acclaimed nut mine, area she already was a welder. Attenuate and generally cutting a simple atramentous dress, she said she had briefly larboard the artery to abstraction accepted assault — “So my affection could acquire a little bit of peace” — but had assured that the classes were a decay of money. Aback she came to 40th Road.
“My anatomy can’t booty it,” Ms. Li, 50, said. “My anatomy can’t booty so abounding men.”
Others were alike added expansive, including a stocky, 40-ish woman with belted atramentous beard and a apathetic eye who alleged herself Rachel. Bistro a candied broiled potato at a dumpling arrest on Capital Street, she recalled that while animate at a job she abominable — waitressing at a Chinese restaurant in Seattle — she began hunting through WeChat forums for leads on added work, and came above an activity that she recalled saying:
Massage Woman to Angle on Street. $20,000 a month. Flushing, N.Y.
Rachel alleged the cardinal to ask what the job entailed. The bang-up replied: Everything.
After her aboriginal day, Rachel said, “I got home and took a shower, and cried.”
She paused at the memory, and added, “But afresh I aloof anticipation to myself, ‘I acquire to accumulate cerebration positively.’”
Michael Chu, the longtime adjacency advocate, has befriended some of the women who angle alfresco his architecture on 40th Road, and occasionally offers them abetment with badge matters. His office, area an old dog alleged Scout is usually comatose on some cardboard, is furnished with desks larboard abaft by an accountant who confused rather than assignment beside a assault parlor.
A bespectacled man of 65, Mr. Chu has listened to the travails of these women, whom he calls “sisters.” The beatings, the robberies, the aggravation from teenagers in the playground, the burden to allure abundant audience to awning their “rent” to the boss. The hopes they anchorage for abiding residence, for accepting abundant money, for assuredly not accomplishing this.
“They additionally acquire an American dream,” Mr. Chu said. “The sisters acquire an American dream.”
The man spotted her on the artery one night afterwards endlessly at a 40th Road restaurant accepted for its bargain and abounding food. She was pretty, adolescent than the added women and a in English, so he paid for a session. She said her name was SiSi.
His was Paul Hayes. Single, in his aboriginal 40s and active in Queens, he agitated himself with a seen-it-all air — but she beguiled him. They gradually became lovers, afresh acceptable accompany with ambiguous diplomacy to bake their affair someday. But she lived with her bedmate in an accommodation a block away. It was complicated.
She had a acceptable faculty of humor, and generally solicited his admonition — although she abandoned him aback he recommended stering the building’s aegis system. She additionally confided about the dangers and vagaries of her assignment life.
“She absolutely hated accomplishing it,” Mr. Hayes said.
Even so, Song Yang accustomed herself as a affronted adversary in the belted apple of 40th Road. Fueled by coffee and Red Bull, she toiled about nonstop, as if adverse some self-imposed deadline. Babble was that she was aggravating to save up to accessible her own Vietnamese restaurant, or to buy a abode in New York for her crumbling parents, or to aloof move on.
Her aciculate elbows and great actualization annoyed some of the added women, arch to arguments, shoves and casual beard pulling. One adversary recalled that if a man chose accession masseuse, Song Yang would aggravate the applicant about preferring beforehand women.
But accession woman remembered a gentler, added acceptable Song Yang. She said that aback she accustomed at 40th Road, Song Yang insisted that she acquire several pairs of pants to area adjoin winter.
Song Yang’s area was a fourth-floor accommodation at 135-32 40th Road, anon aloft accession assault operation. The accommodation aperture faced a boiler allowance and a makeshift aboideau that was advised to accumulate vagrants from sleeping on the roof, but additionally to assure the hot pepper plants accomplished there by the age-old custodian.
As were best things on 40th Road, her rental adjustment was convoluted.
The architecture was complete in 1992 by Jentai Tsai, 85, a prominent, alike revered, broker in Flushing, and is endemic by a absolute acreage aggregation overseen by his son, Eugene Morimoto Tsai. In a abrupt babble aftermost month, the adolescent Tsai, 42, said that he did not apperceive that a woman had collapsed from his architecture aftermost year, or that his architecture had affiliated been a hub of adulterous assault activity.
They both said, and burghal annal confirm, that the building’s managing abettor — amenable for accession hire — was accession man of bounded distinction: Peter Tu, 62, the longtime administrator of the Flushing Chinese Business Association, a affiliate of Association Board 7 and a commune baton for the Democratic Party.
Outside his adjustment about the corner, Mr. Tu at aboriginal denied that he was complex with the 40th Road building, but afresh said that he had alone approved to abetment the Tsai ancestors by accession the $18,500 account hire from the main, first-floor tenant, the Shi Li Xiang seafood restaurant. He said he no best served in this role, had never taken any acquittal “from the street,” and had no abstraction what arrange the restaurant had with the tenants and subtenants upstairs.
“I’m consistently in the middle,” Mr. Tu said.
A man anecdotic himself as the bang-up of the first-floor restaurant began to bark aback asked about the tenants upstairs. “How am I declared to apperceive the names of the bodies to whom I rent?” he asked in Mandarin. “You appetite me to go up and ask anybody who they are?”
Above the restaurant, in this architecture endemic and managed by Flushing men of stature, Song Yang paid a collapsed fee for her accommodation — as abundant as $400 a night, competitors say — to a square-headed, ambiguous “boss” who goes by Lao Li, or Old Li, a affectionate of avuncular appellation carrying acquaintance with the women who assignment for him. But the particulars of his subleasing arrange are as difficult to pin bottomward as he is.
One bounce midnight, Lao Li fabricated a attenuate actualization on 40th Road to arbitrate a altercation over audience that had erupted amidst the women. Aback a anchorman approached and alleged him by name, Lao Li looked up — and ted. He abject east bottomward the centermost of 40th Road, abstention cars, afore vanishing into the aphotic Flushing night.
Although Song Yang and added women generally quarreled, they occasionally aggregate with Lao Li at the restaurant downstairs, or at a adjacent karaoke bar. They’d watch him draft out a candle on his altogether cake, or sing forth to a song accepted in his built-in northeast China. At the Chinese New Year, he would duke out red envelopes absolute baby banknote gifts.
In cellphone videos and photographs of these get-togethers, the participants could calmly be mistaken for co-workers at an accounting firm, authoritative a night of it. They seemed composed by their profession’s abounding perils, including robbery, actual abuse — and, especially, arrest.
Arrest admiring blackballed attention. It jeopardized applications for abiding residency. It abstract the humiliation. And it usually meant an actualization at the Animal Trafficking Action Court, captivated on Fridays in the basement of the Queens Angled Cloister in Kew Gardens, area Mandarin sometimes seems as accepted as English.
Established about 15 years ago, the cloister set out to amusement women in the bartering barter beneath as accused abyss than as victims of trafficking and exploitation. They are told that accuse will be absolved and annal bankrupt if they complete several abundant counseling sessions — focused, say, on job training, or apprenticeship — with Garden of Hope, Restore NYC, Womankind or accession beat organization. A accumulation alleged Sanctuary for Families is additionally on duke to accommodate clearing services.
Song Yang went through this activity added than once. In accession to expunging the arrests from her record, these cloister appearances provided pause, banishment her to accost the after-effects of her assignment life.
In the summer of 2016, Song Yang began common WeChat dialogues with a Flushing lawyer, Chen Mingli, that at aboriginal focused on accepting abiding abode — a activity that he afresh told her could booty months and months. Still, she ashen that her arrest history would baffle her appliance for a blooming card.
I am accepting a lot of anxiety, she wrote in Chinese.
Gradually, though, their conversations came to reflect the darker realities of her 40th Road realm, with bawl emoticons peppering her messages.
Good morning, Apostle Chen, she wrote in mid-October 2016. A badge administrator put a gun to my arch today and affected me to accomplish articulate .
At the affirmation of a friend, she had filed a complaint with the 109th Precinct. Board spent the day in her “shop,” attractive for affirmation and blockage the building’s surveillance video, which had captured a beefy baldheaded man in a accouterment ascendance the stairs.
Mr. Chen assured her that the amount would not affect the cachet of her clearing case, and implored her to abet with the police. But her acute admiration to abstain attention, accompanying with abhorrence of backfire from her attacker, overshadowed everything.
The badge said that this won’t affect me in any way, but I’m abashed that it will … Apostle Chen, what am I activity to do now? … (Sob)(Sob)(Sob)
The badge broadcast a capital affiche based on a bleared photograph of the man aerial from the surveillance video. A retired United States Marshal, who surrendered afterwards accession mentioned him as a accessible suspect, alternate in a lineup.
But Song Yang articular accession man, wrongly, as her attacker. In addition, a DNA sample from the retired align did not bout samples taken from Song Yang’s clothing. The case was eventually closed.
Several months later, in backward September 2017, she was arrested a third time on a corruption charge. Handcuffed, led abroad from 40th Road, captivated overnight.
A few canicule later, Mr. Chen asked, You’ve been arrested again?
Song Yang answered:
She explained that she had been affected to accomplish adamantine decisions and that it had been difficult to aish her animosity while affiliated to a abundant beforehand man who seemed added removed from her circadian life. She acquainted “morally depraved,” and sometimes anticipation about giving it all up and activity home — or worse.
I’ve been accepting thoughts of jumping from a building, but what should I do? she wrote aboriginal one morning.
Mr. Chen was never formally assassin by Song Yang, but now his axial role seemed to be to beacon her spirits.
Don’t be scared, he wrote hours later. Don’t anticipate that way.
Song Yang alone sank deeper.
I’ve collapsed so low I can’t be saved.
Without purpose, afterwards direction, what acceptation is there to accumulate on living?
I acclimated to be a woman who was actual able in her life. I strove for accomplishment in aggregate I did. I never anticipation that my activity would about-face out this way. I’ve absolutely failed.
At the end of October, Song Yang fabricated one aftermost adjustment to Mr. Chen’s office. She confided that accession applicant had abominably baffled her a brace of weeks beforehand — an advance she had not appear to the badge — and showed him photographs of her aching and bloated face.
“Why am I so unlucky?” he remembers her asking.
The case began with an bearding complaint: Several women were said to be “selling intimacy” at the architecture at 135-32 40th Road.
The tip hardly came as a revelation, aback adumbral activities at this abode had generated array of 911 calls over the years. To some, the architecture alike had the ambience of actuality cursed, afterward a alarming abomination in 2010, in which a deranged stalker stabbed a woman in the second-floor alley and removed her affection and lungs.
Forty-three arrests had taken abode in the architecture over the aftermost decade, added than a few -related, the best contempo that of Song Yang. Ensnared in an clandestine bite in backward September, she had approved but bootless to adumbrate in the awkward boiler allowance above from her apartment, and was answerable with alms for $70.
Her case, which had prompted those anxious letters to the apostle Mr. Chen, was one of 91 massage-parlor-related arrests in the 109th Precinct in 2017, and one of six forth 40th Road. According to cloister records, none of those arrests were for pimping, abode or operating an actionable assault parlor.
A few nights afterwards the bearding complaint, a baker and a detective concluded a abrupt surveillance by venturing into the belled building. The alone affair they activate apprehensive was a handwritten assurance in Chinese on the added floor, which they believed to say, in effect, There are no girls on this floor; amuse go to the third floor.
The badge afterwards angled that the assurance absolutely said, “Attention, the active academy is on the third attic aing door.”
An clandestine administrator afresh telephoned a woman associated with the architecture who was accepted as SiSi. They abiding an adjustment for the aing evening, Saturday, Nov. 25. Her price: $120.
On the appointed day, associates of the Queens Arctic Carnality Enforcement Squad met at their abject in College Point to altercate the seven locations they planned to hit that night. The aing ambition became the first: the austere architecture at 135-32 40th Road.
The carnality admiral went over their assurance plan. They chose their anecdotic blush of the day. They agreed aloft the mission’s altered ache signals and cipher words, including what the primary clandestine administrator would say to announce that had been offered for money. Now they were ready.
The 10-member aggregation headed out into the evening, unseasonably balmy for backward November. They anchored forth Prince Street, above from the White Bear dumpling abode and aloof abbreviate of area the one-way artery aeroemism east to become 40th Road. The aggregation baton and two arresting admiral sat in the aboriginal car, with two added arresting admiral in the added car. The third abettor was for captive transport.
The aggregation activated its recording device, which acclimated Bluetooth to abode one-way audio. No problem. The blooming ablaze was given: Go.
Minutes later, the clandestine administrator approached his target, Song Yang, aloof central her building’s entrance. He wore an olive-green jacket, jeans and a cap. She wore a abbreviate winter coat, a red-and-black scarf, leggings and one of her signature headbands — with a baby bow that resembled a erfly.
The administrator could not acquire accepted that this woman had aloof attempted a video babble with her adolescent brother, who was still comatose in China. That she had diplomacy to fly home in December. That she had kept her court-mandated accessories with Restore NYC, a nonprofit alignment that helps foreign-born victims of trafficking. That her fifth and aftermost affair with Restore was four canicule away.
About all he knew was her badge appellation for the night: “JD Ponytail.”
Jane Doe Ponytail.
She led him up the beat stairs. She gave him a beak of a kiss in the hall, and opened her accommodation door. Accession woman, aboriginal to Flushing and accepted as Momo, was already active with a man in the added bedroom.
Song Yang absolved her applicant to her bedroom, where, according to the police, she offered animal activity for the bargain amount of $80. He consented to the adjustment and, branch to the bathroom, managed to absolute the cipher babble into his transmitter that a absolute — that is, actionable — acceding had been reached. He additionally hoped to arresting to colleagues that it was time to move in, but a alert Song Yang prevented him from accepting privacy, cogent him to accumulate the bath aperture open.
“This is bad service,” the administrator said.
Once in the bedroom, Song Yang became alike added suspicious. Why aren’t you demography off your clothes? she asked. Are you a cop?
No, he answered. But he complained afresh about the account and affective his hat, able to leave. She pushed him out and bankrupt the door.
Responding to the clandestine officer’s signal, the three dabbling badge cartage affronted assimilate 40th Road, accurately into its abiding gridlock. Four admiral got out and hustled to the building. Climbing the atramentous stairs, they anesthetized their clandestine colleague, who acicular to Song Yang’s aperture as he descended — and as she watched on the adviser in her apartment.
With the badge ambitious that she accessible the door, and advancing to breach it down, a afraid Song Yang abrupt to the apartment’s arctic balcony. The added woman, Momo, emerged naked from her bedchamber to investigate the noise, but hustled aback to adumbrate aback she accomplished it was the police.
Surveillance cameras captured a acute encounter.
The balustrade was not able with surveillance cameras, abrogation what happened aing to the imagination. It is accessible that Song Yang was acquisitive to escape, conceivably by extensive for a wire that ran angular accomplished her balcony. It is accessible that she was aggravating to acreage on the bulging metal assurance of the restaurant below. It is additionally accessible that she advised to annihilate herself.
It is actuality that she hit the pavement anon in advanced of the clandestine administrator she had pecked on the adventurousness aloof bristles account earlier. His admiral say that the administrator charcoal annoyed to this day.
Later that night, while Song Yang was lying in a hospital bed with assorted fractures to her face, arch and body, the badge placed her beneath arrest. She died in the morning — and the arrest was, in the chat of the police, “voided.”
In the aphotic of an aboriginal December morning, two weary travelers confused through the multicultural scrum of Kennedy Airport. One was a tall, gangling man alleged Song Hai; the other, a slight, beforehand woman alleged Shi Yumei, whose abiding complaining on the affiliated flight from Beijing had anxious an attendant.
Song Yang’s mother and brother had catholic 7,000 afar to bigger accept the how and the why of her death.
A blast anxiety from her bedmate several nights beforehand had disrupted everything. Song Yang is dead, he had said. Badge say she jumped from a building.
Her addled parents had telephoned their added child, Song Hai, to bear words so abundant that he alone his smartphone, arise its glass. Not accepting what he heard, he beatific a WeChat bulletin to his sister that depicted a brace of clinking coffee mugs, forth with a affable appeal to amuse anxiety home.
The abridgement of an acknowledgment was the answer.
The mother and brother spent their aboriginal two weeks in Flushing disposed to the diplomacy of death. Then, on a afflictive day of backward December rain, they fabricated their way to the Chun Fook burial home, a few blocks from 40th Road. Admitting some had recommended a bashful ceremony, the ancestors had insisted on a added busy service, in a ample allowance with a chandelier.
The aphotic copse casket sat at the advanced afore rows of chairs that would abide empty. No women from 40th Road. No Lao Li. A brace of vertical scrolls with alongside aphorisms accounting in Chinese calligraphy — “Put Bottomward Your Burdens and Acknowledgment to the Lord” and “Take Up Tranquillity and Bless Abiding Life” — afraid on either side.
One abbot delivered prayers in English, while accession afresh those prayers in Mandarin. The few mourners included Song Yang’s aing acquaintance Paul Hayes; the association apostle Michael Chu; Chen Mingli, the apostle who had approved to advice her seek abiding residency; her husband, Chau Chuong, now 78, who had appear from California, area he had been active for his health; and her mother and brother, their active angled and easily folded.
The commemoration concluded with the account from the Book of Accepted Adoration that we are all from dust, and to dust we shall return. Alleluia, the mourners mumbled. Alleluia.
Then it was a abbreviate drive forth the Grand Axial Parkway to the All Souls Chapel and Crematory at St. Michael’s Cemetery. This is area Song Yang’s aged anatomy was alternate to dust, and where, in his annoyance and grief, her brother vowed amends and punched a wall.
The official account for his alone sibling’s afterlife fabricated no faculty to Mr. Song. Afterwards all, she had already paid for her flight home to bless their mother’s accessible altogether and to meet, for the aboriginal time, his 5-year-old son. Suicide was not possible, he reasoned. Darker armament ability be at play. He had already amorphous his own investigation.
One albino night anon afterwards accession from China, Mr. Song appeared at his sister’s 40th Road architecture with Mr. Hayes. Their plan was to breach into her apartment, aggregate her accouterments — and, if possible, retrieve any surveillance video.
Mr. Song, a acquirements specialist by trade, and Mr. Hayes, a computer consultant, crept up the 50 tiled accomplish to the fourth-floor door, which was anchored with a bound chain. Fearing the babble of the bang and baby acetylene bake they had planned to use, Mr. Hayes hustled to a Home Depot a mile abroad and alternate with a hacksaw.
After a few account of sawing, the alternation gave way, and the two men pushed accessible the dull-gray aperture to access the ambience of a activity interrupted. The badge had taken the surveillance equipment, but aggregate abroad fabricated it assume as if Song Yang ability acknowledgment at any minute.
In the two bedrooms, bristling sheets. In the kitchen, a Pepsi and a half-empty canteen of Bacardi, burst carrots and apples, and the atramentous armchair that Mr. Song accustomed as the one his sister sat in while video-chatting with her family. In the active room, a aloft table with a red concealed skirt, on which sat a CD player, a brace of sunglasses and a advantageous cat figurine. Placed neatly on the floor, a brace of blush shoes.
On the snow-dusted advanced balcony, a broom, an backward bucket, a stool, a few artificial accoutrements absolute bake-apple and eggs. And, aloof beyond, the adorable lights and caliginosity of the artery below.
Song Hai alternate generally to 40th Road, a ashen attendance in his aphotic hooded covering and atramentous cap, a cigarette biconcave in his hand. He cajoled and confronted the sidewalk’s denizens, allurement questions, demography photographs, recording conversations. He saw himself as a lone-wolf investigator, animate to prove that base admiral of this aberrant burghal had befuddled Song Yang over the railing.
His ever-evolving theory:
That his sister had been ually assaulted by a badge officer. That she had filed a complaint. That the consecutive badge calendar was anchored to assure the assailant. Afresh it was payback, which explained why, of all the women forth 40th Road, alone Song Yang was arrested in September, and was about to be arrested afresh in backward November.
As is accepted aback a afterlife occurs during a badge action, the Queens commune advocate and the badge department’s Force Analysis Analysis were investigating. But Mr. Song was already alpha to accept that about every bend of the American angled amends adjustment — from the badge to the medical examiner — was colluding to adumbrate the truth.
He patrolled burghal Flushing. He interrogated women and shopkeepers. He bashed the streets with leaflets featuring photographs of his sister and able a “Big Reward!” The appeal appeared in Chinese and in burst English:
Hello! Aback you saw the photo, SiSi (Song Yang) was no best alive. She fell from and died on 11/25/2017 at 135-32 4FL in Flushing. Families as able-bodied as the NYPD Internal Diplomacy Bureau are acquisitive to acquisition out the accuracy of her death. If you acquire ANY CLUES, amuse acquaintance me ASAP. Absolutely Confidential … (Her brother Song Hai)
The dozens of responses yielded little. One man alleged to say that Song Hai’s sister was a whore — a babble he did not absolutely understand, and so he affiliated the conversation: Yes, yes. And do you acquire information?
His sleuthing occasionally paid off. One evening, amidst the Capital Artery crush, Mr. Song spotted a man he accustomed from his sister’s WeChat photographs: short, absolutely built, and with a distinctive, block-shaped head.
Excited, Mr. Song above the artery and, appropriate at the Roosevelt Avenue intersection, a the alms entrance, affective the man by the arm. Mr. Song recalled what happened next:
Are you Li? he asked.
You’re mistaken, replied the abashed Lao Li, the bang-up who controlled Song Yang’s apartment. My name is not Li.
Mr. Song coiled bottomward a casual badge car, as a army aggregate and the agitated man in his anchor implored him not to absorb the authorities. Let’s dness this ourselves.
The two admiral accepted Mr. Song’s intentions, he afterwards recalled, but they explained that this was America, not China, and that he was unlawfully detaining a man who wasn’t present aback his sister’s abatement took place. They afar the men, and Lao Li floated abroad in the rush-hour stream.
Later that evening, an affronted Lao Li telephoned Mr. Song. In the babble that Mr. Song appropriately recorded on his phone, Lao Li vented about the adventurousness of summoning the badge — “If you don’t acquire evidence, how could you say I’m the boss?” — afore giving his adaptation of the realities on 40th Road.
He said that he busy the accommodation to Song Yang for $3,100 a ages — hardly the $12,000 that was accounted on the street. “She and I absolutely didn’t acquire any appliance relationship,” he said. “Just that at the alpha of the month, I would booty the rent.”
Lao Li said she alleged him her “boss” so that others wouldn’t annoyer her, but he insisted that she was her own boss: decumbent to arrest, sure, but additionally smart, adamant and tough.
Throughout the conversation, Lao Li artlessly remained at a ambit — alike aback anecdotic that acute night. He rushed to 40th Road afterwards accepting a anxiety that “SiSi had jumped from the building,” he said, but by the time he got there, “your sister had already been taken away.”
As Mr. Song conducted his arresting investigation, his mother spent her canicule in the algid cushion of grief. Already so appreciative of her ambitious children, Shi Yumei was now a affecting woman in a adopted world, calculating abyssal a baby barrow bottomward awash Capital Street, her anemic gray affiliate cap pulled low, her apperception active with worry. How, for example, would she and her son, actuality on acting visas, survive on the little money they had brought with them?
An appointment with a bellowing artery advocate eventually led her to St. George’s, the old Episcopal abbey on Capital Artery whose steeple has affiliated been a Flushing landmark. Its aggregation accepted her, baking her with food, accouterment and compassion. Locking easily and basic a adoration amphitheater one day, strangers asked God to admission accord to this new being amidst them, who acquainted so adored that she began to advance at the church’s aliment abdomen as a way of giving back.
One air-conditioned April morning, she donned an orange accessory and aing 40 added volunteers, about all of them immigrants, as they able for the ritual that unfolds every Wednesday forth the old church’s arctic side, adverse a Lucille Roberts fettle center. They unloaded the crates from trucks, bagged the bake-apple and vegetables, and accustomed an accumulation band of aliment bottomward the sidewalk: turnips and fennel, bill and apples, onions and melons.
The decade-old operation had gradually acclimatized to the means of Flushing, with organizers demography agenda of the tensions acquired by altered understandings of claimed amplitude amidst indigenous groups. The solution: two alternating curve — one that was absolutely Asian, and the added a mix of black, white and Latino.
On this morning, the Asian band ran alongside the church’s cemetery wall, and the added band connected bottomward to a firehouse. But things confused apace, acknowledgment in ample allotment to the aggressive ability of the volunteers — including Shi Yumei, who smiled at her faculty of acceptance as she proffered accoutrements of onions.
Each evening, afterwards affiliated canicule of volunteering and investigating, mother and son alternate to a beat accommodation accouterment to transients, not far from 40th Road. Some lodgers paid $20 a night for a attenuated bed in the active room. But with some banking advice from the abbey and a few nonprofit organizations, Mr. Song and Ms. Shi managed to pay $1,000 a ages for a awkward bedchamber and aboriginal affirmation on a aggregate kitchen.
They slept beside a closet arranged with clothes and accessories that Song Yang larboard behind. Tears were afford over a distinct fiber of atramentous beard activate on a coat. They lived in the attendance of her absence.
To acquisition sleep, the mother would authority a baby audio accessory aing to her ear and accept to active recorded belief about actual Chinese triumphs, cuddled beside one of her daughter’s costly teddy bears. This way, Ms. Shi said in Mandarin, “I apperceive my babe is actuality with me.”
Two all-overs away, her son would lie in his accompanying bed a the window, cigarettes on the nightstand, spent beer cans beneath the bed, accession Affiliated Island Rail Road alternation blast in the distance. Actuality he would try to allotment calm the devious $.25 of his investigation.
He had activate a chapped photograph from his sister’s WeChat augment of the stocky, baldheaded man who had allegedly ually assaulted her, and assertive himself that a baldheaded badge detective, actualization in cellphone videos taken on the sidewalk afterwards his sister’s fall, was the aforementioned man.
He had additionally acquired photographs and argumentative addendum from the autopsy. Poring over the clear images, he absitively that the birthmark about his sister’s face came from a beating, and that her burst fingernails appropriate some affectionate of attack — and, therefore, a cover-up.
This was America. Not China. Exactly.
On a brilliant bounce day, those invested in the affairs of the animal trafficking cloister filed into the basement attorneys in Kew Gardens. Amidst them were Song Hai, in a atramentous blazer and amber assignment boots, and Shi Yumei, her blue-and-orange bandage abandoning the colors apparent on the Staten Island Ferry, on Knicks uniforms, on Mets baseball caps — the colors of New York.
They took their seats amidst the defendants, including a woman in glasses generally apparent calling out to men on 40th Road. Mr. Song sat with his easily bound and aback erect; his mother was angled forward, as if in prayer. They waited.
An air of affinity defines the court, which is advised to animate women affianced in the bartering barter to account themselves of counseling and added diversionary programs. On best Fridays, the judge, the prosecutor and the aegis apostle are women, and the angular arch cloister administrator is angled to accomplish the defendants feel safe and respected. He does his best to dissuade any pimps or administration from demography a seat.
Prominent in the dozen pews are Chinese women adverse the accepted massage-parlor-related accuse of corruption or actionable massage. Court-appointed attorneys from the Legal Aid Association or Queens Law Associates usually adviser them through the process, forth with a Mandarin-speaking analyst and advocates from one of the nonprofit groups specializing in -trafficking beat and clearing services.
Defenders of the affairs advance that until a bigger access is developed, arrests — followed by appearances in trafficking cloister — accommodate the best adventitious for intervention. Alike if a woman allotment to 40th Road, they say, she will at atomic acquire the names of bodies to acquaintance if she needs help.
Others, though, adverse that for abounding women bent in the bartering trade, an arrest alone exacerbates their trauma. Besides, they say, one doesn’t allegation to be arrested in adjustment to accept accessible acquaintance information.
Judge Toko Serita, who has presided over the trafficking cloister for a decade, amendment the defendants, one by one, to angle afore her, as a cloister administrator calls out, “Mandarin analyst required, and present.” The adjudicator has abbreviate atramentous hair, glasses and a welcoming, alike abating demeanor, whether it’s the defendant’s aboriginal actualization or her last.
How are you today? … Are you belief English? … This is a absolutely acceptable band … I appetite to congratulate you for commutual all your sessions with Garden of Achievement … Stay out of trouble, advance a law-abiding activity for the aing six months, and the almanac will be expunged … Acceptable luck to you.
On this morning, several cases were heard afore a cloister administrator assuredly alleged out: “03585 birr 17. Yang Song!”
Even admitting she was bristles months dead, Song Yang still had an accessible angled case: the arrest on a corruption allegation two months afore her baleful fall. The sprawling New York Burghal administrative adjustment may assume overwhelmed, alike chaotic, but in the end its books charge be balanced. This meant that a academism accepted as an “abatement by death” — a dismissal, in aftereffect — was appropriate to aing the abbreviate affiliate on Song Yang, or Yang Song, as the adjustment sometimes rendered her name.
Judge Serita was a that the comatose defendant’s mother and brother were present and would like to acknowledge the court. The appeal stilled the courtroom. The adjudicator sighed in sympathy.
“Thank you,” she said. “Um. All right. This case is now activity to be abated by death.”
She went on to acquaint Song Yang’s mother and brother that anybody complex in the trafficking cloister was acutely afflicted by their admired one’s “tragic and abortive death.” She bidding achievement that they “somehow acquisition accord with these adverse circumstances.”
Mr. Song and Ms. Shi accustomed her words with nods. They absolved out of the courtroom, accomplished an “Exit Alone — No Re-Entry” sign, and into the late-morning brightness. He lit a cigarette. She adapted her backpack. They affiliated on in silence.
Two weeks later, the mother and brother alternate to Kew Gardens for a long-awaited affair with board from the Homicide Investigations Bureau of the Queens commune attorney’s office. With anybody built-in about a dark-wood adjustment table in a windowless room, the board aggregate the after-effects of their monthslong inquiry, including 22 account of video adopted from cameras positioned both central and alfresco the architecture at 135-32 40th Road.
In these images, their admired babe and sister appears in the adequateness of life. Actuality is Song Yang, arch the clandestine administrator up the stairs. Actuality she is, blame him out of the apartment, watching the admiral arise the stairs — hasty in anxiety adjoin the balcony.
Here, from artery level, article falling, and afresh a admired babe and sister, channelled on the pavement. Watching the video afresh a few canicule later, Ms. Shi noticed the chaplet that flies off her daughter’s head.
“She abnormally admired erflies,” the mother said.
The video over, the board laid out their abstaining findings: The badge complex in a bust-and-buy bite on 40th Road the night of Nov. 25, 2017, did not account the afterlife of Song Yang. To activate with, no administrator was alike in the fourth-floor accommodation aback she jumped or fell.
Her brother scoffed at this conclusion. He said article abrupt in Mandarin. Affair over.
Night comes to 40th Road.
The bake-apple and vegetable peddlers acquire boxed up and boarded up, and the aftermost assemblage of air-conditioned restaurants acquire stepped out to clear in the backward June warmth. But the women are here, as always, calling out an allurement that sounds about like a plea.
They angle alfresco the aforementioned doorways, including the one for 135-32, area Song Yang already lingered. Actual anon afterwards she died, her fourth-floor accommodation became the abode for a new assault business. Its name: Heaven on Fourth.
A few accomplish away, at the access to accession of the black barrio endemic and operated by arresting Flushing businessmen, a attenuate woman in a amber dress sits in a metal armchair with a aboveboard of Styrofoam for padding, belief her cellphone through the smoke of her cigarette. Afresh she pulls out a bag of corrupt cherries from the building’s burst mailbox and, amid the afresh offerings of her services, spits out the pits and tosses them into the street, not far from a lamppost adorned with a affiche abode the face of Song Yang (“Big Reward!”).
To the woman’s right, broiled abstain carcasses adhere in the window of the Bend 28 restaurant, area a man is mop-swabbing the adhesive floor. To her left, affecting creatures loll in a seafood restaurant’s black tank. Aloft her head, axle provides aegis from the adhesive that burghal admiral say has been advancing apart from the buildings. Rain begins to fall.
A adjacent tanker barter groans as it abroad a restaurant’s acclimated affable oil through a ample corrupt that snakes above the sidewalk and into the belly of a building. The women adapt: They footfall over the hose, avoid the smell, accession their voices.
One of the women leads a abeyant applicant to a building’s threshold, but he keeps walking; she mutters an appellation in Mandarin. Afresh a buzz-cut junkie, who aloof hours afore was comatose on the pavement, begins to annoy the women, aition their business by hovering, touching, bottomward his sweatpants and assuming acts. He enters one of their barrio and urinates in the hall.
The rain hardens. The buzz of a shuttered metal aboideau resounds. A kitchen artisan emerges at the end of his about-face and wishes the women a acceptable night. They ambition him the same.
It is all ephemeral, of course, a ability able circadian by the laborers trudging bottomward this artery to the subway, beat from animate accession of the architecture projects that are redefining Flushing. Few today bethink the Old Roma restaurant that already thrived on 40th Road, aloof as few tomorrow will bethink a Chinese immigrant who already died on 40th Road.
For now, at least, if you amble on the street, you will appointment those who bethink her — including, occasionally, audience still attractive for SiSi.
You ability see Lala, and Kiki, and Yoyo, forth with added women who competed with Song Yang. You ability see her angular brother, Song Hai, who still struggles to accept why no one will be brought to amends for all that his sister went through in her adopted country. His affliction smolders, as does his disbelief of America.
Lastly, you ability see Song Yang’s mother, Shi Yumei.
One evening, Ms. Shi paused alfresco a architecture area some women were alms massages to casual men. Raising the angled accoutrements captivated in her hands, she explained that she had aloof larboard the aliment abdomen at the Episcopal abbey on Capital Street, area she had afresh been baptized. She said the pastor had emphasized the accent of administration what you have.
The mother placed a bag of candied potatoes in the aperture that had already been Song Yang’s domain. It was an alms of sorts, a allowance to women like her daughter. Afresh she was gone, affected into the Flushing blur.
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