Transcript: 53. The Monster of Cinkota (Béla Kiss) | Hungary

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Margaret Tóth was a beautiful young talented woman who left her home in rural Austria-Hungary in 1906 to look for a job in the larger city of Pest. It didn’t take her too long to find employment. She worked as a cook at the Bristol Hotel, a nice place with a view all the way down to the Danube back in those days. 

It also wasn’t long before Margaret found love. She was eager to introduce her new beau to her family and wrote her mother, inviting her to visit. During the visit, Margaret’s mother met Margaret’s handsome and well-spoken boyfriend. He was evidently quite serious about the relationship and even hinted at marriage.

Margaret’s mother was happy for her daughter, as she had not been very lucky in love up until this point. And the prospect of marriage would mean that Margaret could settle down, something her mother had wanted her to do. Margaret confided to her mother that she intended to marry the very eligible bachelor. But, to help them in preparation for their marriage, they needed some money. Margaret convinced her mother to send money to the man who lived just outside of the city in a town called Cinkota, which her mother did. 

But after, Margaret became withdrawn and her family grew concerned as she was not writing as often as she used to do. One day, a letter arrived. Margaret told her mother that her fiancé went back on his word – he didn’t want to marry her after all. She was heartbroken and embarrassed after the affair went sour. She decided to go to America to look for love. She promised to be in touch and told her family not to worry about her.

Margaret was never seen alive again. 

>>Intro Music

Béla Kiss was born on the 28th of July 1877 in Iszák, a town South of Budapest, in what was then Austria-Hungary. His parents were Janos Kiss and Verona Varga. Other than that, very little is known about his childhood and upbringing. 

Kiss trained as a tinsmith – a trade that he excelled in. Around the turn of the century, the young and handsome tradesman moved between Budapest and Vienna. In those days, the two cities were about a three to four hour train ride apart. 

Kiss had an apartment in Vienna, which he shared with a 20-year-old woman called Julianne Paschak. Julianne also came from Budapest and the couple had a passionate relationship. They met in 1905 when Julianne was working as a cook on Rottenbiller Street in Budapest. Some sources refer to her as his first wife. They had two daughters together, Aranka and Illonka. 

However, Kiss decided to settle back in Budapest. More precisely, a town about 7 miles or 11 kilometres outside of town, called Cinkota. Today, it is a neighbourhood within Budapest city limits. Around this time, Kiss worked in and around the city, in tin and assembly shops.

He was regarded as a handsome man with his blonde hair and blue eyes. In accordance with the style of the time, he sported a fetching, silky-smooth moustache.

People around town knew him to be amiable and he liked throwing parties at the village hotel. Dr Aladár Kágyi, a royal rider, was a neighbour of the tinsmith around this time and remembered that Béla Kiss always seemed to be shrouded in mystery. There was something about him that always seemed strange. Sure, he was friendly and jovial to the outside world, but there was something behind the eyes of the handsome man. He was an amateur astrologer and charmed women by telling them their fortunes. It was also rumoured that he dabbled in occult practices.

Kiss was good at his job and his handiwork could be seen on many homes in the Cinkota area. He also made a cross for the Roman Catholic Church in Cinkota. Even so, he was not known to be a particularly hard worker. Yet he always seemed to have money – enough to lavish it on friends and parties. 

In 1911, the 34-year-old Kiss married a woman 15 years younger than him, called Marie. In February 1912, the couple rented a house at number 40 Kossuth Street in Cinkota. Neighbours liked Kiss and said he was easy to get on with.

But behind closed doors, things were not what they seemed. Marie had taken a lover, a musician called Paul Bikari. So, after only one year of marriage, Béla Kiss was single yet again. Kiss told neighbours that Marie and Paul had run off together to America. But he was not going to settle for being the town cuckold. On the contrary. He hired a housekeeper, Mrs Jánosné Jakubec to help him take care of his property, while all his attention could be focussed on sexual conquests. 

Kiss pursued many women in this time. Around Cinkota, Kiss became known as the most eligible bachelor. But as the variety of female companions were limited in the small town of Cinkota, he made sure to have an apartment in Budapest where he could consummate his affairs. 

None of his women lived in Cinkota, so nobody knew them. Kiss would sometimes take them to his home. The women would typically stay for a couple of days, then go away. Mrs Jakubec never got to know too many of them. It was the one well-dressed city girl after the next and she felt it best to turn a blind eye to her employer’s indiscretions. 

The property at 40 Kossuth Street was ideally set-up for Kiss’ lifestyle. There was a workshop and living quarters. His apartment was set at the back of a courtyard. It had a small kitchenette and a sparsely furnished living room. His bedroom was spacious and led to another room. It was the perfect bachelor’s pad.

Men in Cinkota envied Kiss, who always had a beautiful woman on his arm, and never the same woman more than once. He was seen as the ultimate womaniser. What his neighbours didn’t know, was that Kiss did not meet these women by chance, but he had placed an ad in the romance column of a number of newspapers in Budapest. 

Around the same time, the charming tinsmith was collecting large metal drums, which he stored on his property. There were so many, it caused enough suspicion for neighbours to report it to police. They suspected he was storing illegal liquor, perhaps even making his own moonshine. When a constable visited the home on Kossuth Street, Kiss told him that he had filled the drums with gasoline. With war brewing on the horizon, he wanted to be prepared when rationing kicked in. The constable saw that the drums had been soldered shut, but he found Kiss’ story believable so didn’t ask to look inside. 

Back in Budapest, police were working around the clock to solve two missing person’s cases. They felt that the disappearances of two widows, within a matter of months were related. These widows: a Mrs. Schmeidak and a Katherine Varga, were last seen with a man called Hoffman. They met him near the Margaret Bridge in Budapest. But there was no trace of a Hoffman.

Sadly these cases had to be shelved, as there were other concerns at the time. Hungary, like the rest of Europe was thrown into a state of disarray after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June of 1914. It was the beginning of World War I and many Hungarian men were drafted into military service. Because Béla Kiss was at the mature age of 37, he would not have been called, but he volunteered to serve his country. He left his home in the care of Mrs. Jakubec to go and fight in Serbia, not knowing if he would ever return.

18 months later, in the spring of 1916, officials in Cinkota were informed that Kiss had been killed in combat. His was just another name on their growing list of casualties.

The landlord of 40 Kossuth Street realised that his tenant was never coming back, so he made arrangements to put the property on the market for a new tenant. He went to the property on the 9th of May 1916, to see if any repairs needed to be done before he rented it out again. 

The property had become rather dilapidated. Mrs. Jakubec kept it spotless inside, but the yard had become overgrown with grass and shrubs. The landlord was puzzled about the large metal drums that were on the property. Some were in a shed, others next to the home. He called a neighbour, a local chemist, to help him move the drums. The men accidentally punctured one of the drums and a terrible smell emerged. 

As a chemist, the neighbour knew exactly what it was. The odour was the undeniable smell of a decomposing body. The landlord immediately called police and voiced his concerns. 

Another version of this story is that soldiers arrived in Cinkota and were in need of supplies. The constable remembered Béla Kiss’ plan to stockpile gas, so they went to the property to retrieve the drums. When they pried open the first drum, they realised that the content was definitely not gasoline. The dark-reddish brown fluid seeped into the ground and as it drained away, they saw the body of a woman inside. 

Whatever the circumstances were in the discovery of these drums, the point is, in May 1916, police swarmed to the home of Béla Kiss to examine the contents of the seven large metal drums. And by this time, Mrs. Jakubec had also been summoned to the scene. She tried her best to stop them from opening the drums, which raised even more suspicion.

The first constable at the scene, thought it would be better if a more senior officer came to investigate and called for Chief Detective Dr. Charles Nagy. In the presence of the Chief Detective, all seven drums were opened. It took quite a bit of force, as all the drums had been soldered shut. The woman in the first drum was naked and her body was preserved in alcohol, well methanol or wood alcohol to be more precise. It had served as a preservative and it was difficult to tell how long she had been inside the drum. There was a rope around her neck, evidence that she had been strangled. 

Dr. Nagy looked at the seven drums and feared about what they would find next. Each of the seven drums contained the body of another woman. Then the bodies of Kiss’ wife, Marie and her lover Paul were found. Béla Kiss had lied: they never went to America, instead, they were in is backyard, slowly decomposing in alcohol.

The constable remembered his visit to Kiss in the years before and recalled that there were actually many more drums to be found, not just seven. It was a chilling revelation: how many more victims could there be?

Police searched the town and the countryside near Kiss’ home and uncovered another 17 drums, all with the bodies of women inside. Not all of these women were strangled, though. Some were poisoned before being placed into their alcohol-filled time capsule. In total, the bodies of 24 women were found – and only one male – that of his romantic rival, Paul Bikari. The bodies were well preserved, so identification was possible, although a difficult task. 

Police went back to missing person’s cases and tried to link names to corpses. They took fingerprints from each body, but in those days, fingerprinting was a limited resource. All they could prove was that none of the women had criminal records. Police appealed to the public for help – any information would be welcome.

The story hit the newspapers in one of the most sensational scoops in Hungarian media history.

Kiss’ housekeeper, Mrs. Jakubec was arrested, as they suspected she was an accomplice. She could even have been the perpetrator. Either way, they could not risk her running away.

A local shoemaker who was fighting in the War, heard about the case and reported some relevant information to police. Before he went off to war, he was a neighbour of Béla Kiss. 

According to him, back in 1906, within the space of a couple of months, he heard strange noises emanating from the tinsmith’s home, usually late at night. It sounded like exaggerated yawning or bronchial coughing. It was so unsettling that both the shoemaker and his wife remembered it years later. The suspicious sounds were first heard in the spring of 1906, and then the second time around Christmas, then much later, in the spring of 1907. The neighbour distinctly remembered that, in the days following such nights, Kiss was not seen during daylight hours and only surfaced at night time.

Some of his victims had two puncture marks on their necks. Kiss had inflicted these wounds to drain the bodies of blood before he placed them in the drums. Rumours spread that he also drank the blood, which gave him the notorious nickname "The Vampire of Cinkota". However, there was no way to prove that he actually drank the blood. The marks are also described as ‘puncture holes’ and not bite marks, so they were most likely inflicted with tools from his workshop. Labelling Kiss as a vampire, was probably done because it was more sensational than, say “The Body Pickler of Cinkota”

The autopsies were performed the day after the bodies were discovered.

Well-known journalist Frigyes Karinthy wrote an on-site report that was published on the 12th of May: 

“I stood there in the Cinkota cemetery, in front of the drums, and I looked at how the contents of the opened drums were pulled out onto the table. The rest of the content was the same, unimaginably terrible.”

Karinthy continued, explaining how they managed to get the bodies out of the drums:

“After a while we knew how to turn the drum, how deep we should reach in, and where the twine should be caught in the neck of the upcoming female head, where the loop is, where it leads to the legs, and how they were folded... 

This killer was someone who understood his craft and loved order… One man collects insects, the other collects stamps… Béla Kiss collected female bodies.”

The barrels were marked with Latin numerals. In a barrel marked with the number I, police officials pulled out a female body, crouching in a sack filled with alcohol. She still had her shoes on and a handkerchief was stuffed into her mouth. The initials KV were embroidered onto the handkerchief and police concluded that the victim was Katherine Varga. She owned a profitable dressmaking business in Budapest, which she sold for a handsome sum of money so she could start her new life with her husband Mr. Hoffmann. She was a missing person, and police could not find any trace of her, until the metal drum in Kiss’ yard was opened.

Inside the second drum were the remains of Julianne Peschad, the mother of Kiss’ children. When Julianne left Vienna, she moved back to Cinkota to be with Kiss. She entrusted her two children to the White Cross, as Kiss did not want kids. She often wrote letters to Gáborné Csaplár, her children’s guardian, in which she complained about her decision to choose Kiss over her children. She said that Béla Kiss wanted to get rid of her, and that living with him was torture. In one letter Julianne even wrote: 

"The only suffering worse than mine, was that of Christ when he was crucified." 

The accompanying letter, which was not written in Julianne’s handwriting, said that she had left Kiss and moved to America.

One of Julianne’s friends were able to identify her body, mainly because of the clothes. The friend recognised the red blouse and the skirt as the outfit Julianne wore at her daughters’ baptism.  

Sadly, Julianne and Béla’s youngest daughter, Aranka, died while she was in the care of her foster family. Ilonka was a resident of a Bratislava shelter by the time the bodies were discovered on her estranged father’s property.

In the third barrel was a young woman who was buried and preserved in alcohol along with her clothes. There were two pairs of shoes and her shirt and apron had the monogram RV embroidered onto them. The question was: could this be the victim’s initials, or perhaps the initials of her place of work. Her apron suggested that she was perhaps a cook or a cleaner, very much the type of victim Kiss sought out. Who she was, however, remained a mystery.

Investigators found the body of a well-dressed woman in the fourth barrel. She was dressed in a dark brown skirt-suit with a beautifully tailored corset. She also wore buttoned shoes. A mother looking for her missing daughter was able to identify the clothing. It belonged to a young woman by the name of Eszter Fekete. Eszter suddenly disappeared a few years prior, seemingly without a trace. But among the letters found in Kiss’ study, there was a letter from Eszter – her mother was also able to confirm that the handwriting was her daughter’s. 

In the fifth drum, a woman was able to identify the victim as her sister. Margaret Toth was a former cook of the Bristol Hotel, who had gone missing twelve years before. The emotional sister told the story of how Margaret responded to an advertisement in the newspaper and thought that she had found true love. Margaret’s family gave the handsome swindler 3,000 Crowns, to set the couple up once they were married. 

On the day of her disappearance, Margaret cashed out a further 1400 Crowns. She packed some of her belongings and jewellery and told a friend that she planned to take it to her new home. The home that she thought would be her marital home. Margaret told her friend that she would return to Budapest the next day. After two days, her friend went to Cinkota, looking for her. It wasn’t too difficult to find the town’s tinsmith and she asked Kiss if he knew where Margaret was. According to the friend, Béla Kiss, feigned sadness and told her:

"The night was shattered. My bride left me and decided to travel. ”

Police were able to establish that when Margaret then visited Kiss at his home, he forced her to write a letter to her mother, saying she was heartbroken about the break-up and had decided to go to America looking for love. When she was done, Kiss strangled her, disposed of her body and sent the letter to her mother.

Anna Novak was a housemaid in Budapest who had disappeared from her place of employment. She left one day and never returned. Her employers assumed that she had simply run off, perhaps decided to leave town and return to her family. Investigators found a trunk that she left behind at her employer’s home. Among her belongings was a newspaper, Pesti Hirlap, with an advertisement circled with red pencil. The ad read:

“Widower urgently seeks acquaintance of mature, warm-hearted spinster of widow to help assuage loneliness mutually. Send photo and details to Poste Restante PO Box 717. Marriage Possible and even desirable.” 

Fingerprints from her belongings linked Anna Novak to one of the bodies found in Cinkota.

By this time in the investigation, hordes of people were making their way to Cinkota. Some were families of missing women, hoping to find some closure. Others were simply curious and wanted to see the gruesome events unfold for themselves.

All of the bodies were laid to rest in the Cinkota cemetery on the  afternoon of 15 May 1916. A large crowd gathered, laying flowers on the coffins and mourning the deaths. There were so many people, that the headquarters of Budapest’s railway network, HEV, reported:

“Ever since the existence of the locomotive train, there have never been so many people like the ones who have gone to Cinkota today. I had to start eight special trains, because the trains set to the schedule did not have many passengers. At other times, every half hour a train will start to Cinkota, and this morning the trams started every fifteen minutes, and passengers were pushing on the platform like sardines.” 

In the opinion of one station master, the number of passengers could even have exceeded twenty thousand.

Investigators started to look at Kiss’ life before he left Cinkota. They were intrigued as to the relationship between Kiss and his housekeeper, Mrs. Jakubec. Especially when they found out that he had made out a will before he left for the war and allocated her a handsome sum of money, in the event of his death.

Mrs. Jakubec denied any involvement in the murders from the start. In her interview with Dr. Nagy, she said: 

“Please sir, I know nothing of this terrible thing. I knew Béla Kiss only as a man who was kind to me and paid me well.”

Mrs. Jakubec told police that her employer was a friendly and generous man. She even recalled a story of how he had cared for a stray dog that had injured its leg. She could not believe for one minute that he was responsible for the heinous murders. 

When she realised police seriously considered her as a suspect, she assured them that she was innocent. She promised to give her full co-operation and guided investigators through the home on Kossuth Street. 

When they reached Kiss’ bedroom, there was a door leading to another room. Mrs. Jakubec referred to it as the ‘Secret Room’. Although she had a key to the room, she claimed that she was never allowed to enter. This was the only rule in the house. Kiss was very stern about his privacy.

She unlocked the door and let the investigators into the Secret Room. Inside were bookshelves filled with good quality literature, books about the arts and history. Interestingly, there were also multiple books about crime: conning tricks, poisons or methods of strangulation. For someone who never received any formal schooling, this was quite remarkable. He was known to be intelligent and could hold his own in any high-brow conversation. It became evident that he spent a lot of time reading and self-educating. It was often said that Kiss was more intelligent than his social standing. 


In the middle of the room was a desk and a chair. Everything was very organised and tidy. Investigators found many letters on the desk, evidence that Kiss corresponded with no less than 74 women. Each thread of correspondence was kept neatly together in a filing system of sorts – Kiss made separate folders for each woman. Kiss also kept a photo album with pictures of the women. 

It was later revealed that Kiss had received 174 marriage proposals.

The letters dated back to 1903 and exposed his scheme as a lonely-hearts club conman. He had been defrauding women for years. He would place ads in marriage columns and find his victims that way. 

“Lonely widower seeking female companionship” read the lonely-hearts ad.

The timeline was significant, as he had started his scheme eight years before marrying Marie. He never went through with the marriages, he would court his victims get their money and move on. Not with Marie, though, which may be an indicator that he genuinely cared for her, as there is no evidence that she came into the marriage with any money.

Béla Kiss chose his victims carefully. He usually met up with the women in Budapest, showering them with attention and presents. He would learn all about their families and made sure that they did not have any relatives living close-by. This would give Kiss more space, as there wasn’t anyone to notice the disappearances immediately. He also made sure to confirm their financial situation early-on in the conning courtship. 

The selected women were also at an age where they were rather desperate to get married. At the turn of the century the average age of marriage in Europe was between 20 and 25, so once a woman was in her late twenties, societal pressure to find a husband was on. Some of Kiss’ victims were young widows that were eager to re-marry before they were too old. Most of his killings occurred when Kiss was between the ages of 25 and 33 – an eligible bachelor. Again, it’s not so much that all the women were desperate and gullible, he was a very good conman who knew how to play at their insecurities, and ultimately, get to their money.

If he established that his victim had no money, he would simply leave her and move on. One of the letters in his Secret Room, was from a girl that was dumped because she had no money. It read:

Dear Kiss! 

I waited for you and I received a heavy letter instead. And what a hard letter it was. You see, Mr. Kiss, the fate of a poor girl, can be decent if she's poor. 

Thank you very much for notifying me in your letter. I did not want to learn about this surprise anywhere else than at home because at home I could cry by myself. 

Yours sincerely, the Sorrowful Little Gypsy.

The letter also alludes to her mother’s advice, which means that she was an unlikely candidate for Kiss. She was poor and she had family that would notice if she went missing. Because of this, “Sorrowful Little Gypsy’s” life was spared.

If Kiss found a victim who had money, he would convince them to give it to him somehow, then he would break-off the relationship. Many women accepted that they had been duped and left it at that. Others put up a fight, either by confronting Kiss or by starting legal procedures in order to sue him. The ones who caused problems, were the ones who met with an unfortunate ending.

Two of his victims had taken legal steps against him before they were murdered. The mother of his children, Julianne Paschak and another woman called Elizabeth Komeromi. Both cases were thrown out of court, because Julianne and Elizabeth failed to show up at the hearings. They didn’t show up, because Béla Kiss got to them first.

It was said that he had an insatiable sexual appetite. He was a generous lover and women who worked in the red light district on Magyar Street remembered him fondly. He frequented bars and restaurant in the city. One waiter recalled that every time he served Kiss, he was with another woman. He also remembered that Kiss never paid the tab, instead sitting back and allowing the ladies to pay. 

Many stories surfaced, like Balla Gyöngyike who came forward and told the story of a handsome mechanic who had made a play for her sister, Ilona. He visited her a couple of times and they were talking about running away to America. Ilona had saved some money and was keen to elope with her handsome new boyfriend. On the 12th of March 1912 she left a note for her sister, saying that she was never coming back. When her sister saw the picture of Béla Kiss in the newspaper four years later, she recognised him as the mechanic who had promised her sister the world. At that moment, she realised that her sister was not in America, in fact, she was no longer alive. 

However, Ilona was not among the bodies discovered in Cinkota. Which posed the question: how many victims were there? And where did Kiss hide their bodies?

Dr. Nagy ordered Cinkota police to release the housekeeper, Mrs. Jakubec as he was satisfied that she genuinely did not know about the murders. He also felt that she did not have any knowledge as to the content of the metal drums stored on the property. Her only crime was being loyal and subservient to a man who made it his life’s work to deceive women. 

Detective Nagy immediately questioned if Béla Kiss really died in battle. Someone with the blood of 24 people on his hands would perhaps use the opportunity to fake his own death. Dr. Nagy notified the military that they should arrest Kiss if he ever surfaced, but finding him in the chaos of war was not that easy. Kiss is a very common surname in Hungary, it translates to ‘Little’. 

According to the announcement of the contemporary Red Cross Society, Béla Kiss died on 5 February 1915 as a prisoner of war in a Serbian camp in Valjevo. However, the identification of the corpse was lost. Due to the risk of infection, the Serbs had thrown Hungarian soldiers into a mass grave. Finding Kiss’ remains would be impossible. There was no way to tell for sure if the person who was taken as a prisoner of war and then died was in fact the notorious Béla Kiss.

They could not ignore the chance that he could still be alive.

Postal Services were informed to hold all mail addressed to Béla Kiss, in case he had an accomplice who wanted to warn him about the discovery of the bodies.

In October 1916, Dr. Nagy received information that Kiss was not dead, but that he was recuperating at a hospital in Serbia. But by the time Nagy arrived, Kiss had already escaped. The man in Kiss’ bed was dead, but the man was not Béla Kiss. He had placed the body of a dead soldier in his bed, hoping that police would believe it was him who had died. Remember, in those days, there was not a great deal of evidence that could definitively confirm a person’s identity. The average person only had a handful of photos ever taken of them and to recognise someone from a faded photo was not an exact science. If the dead soldier in Kiss’ hospital bed had a stronger resemblance to him, perhaps that would have been the end of it. But Dr Nagy knew the body he was looking at was not Kiss.

On his return to Budapest, Dr Nagy spread the news far and wide: Béla Kiss was still alive.

Many rumours went around in the years to come. One story came out that Kiss was imprisoned for burglary in Romania, another that he had succumbed to yellow fever in Turkey.

In spring 1919, a man who looked exactly like Béla Kiss was spotted near the Margaret Bridge in Budapest. Remember, this was his old stomping grounds, back when he used the alias Herr Hoffman to get into women’s beds and bank accounts. Police were able to ascertain that the man was in fact Kiss and that he had taken on the identity of a fallen soldier. They came pretty close to catching him, but he had given them the slip once again.

One year later, a soldier in the French Foreign Legion reported that he had befriended another legionnaire named Hoffman. Herr Hoffmann boasted about his skills in using a garotte. The man fitted the description of Béla Kiss and police were very interested in locating him. However, when police came for him, he had deserted the Legion and was nowhere to be found. 

It would be another decade before there was another sighting of Kiss. In 1932, New York City homicide detective, Henry Oswald, was sure that he had seen Kiss at Times Square subway station. Oswald was known for his accurate memory of faces, so much so his nickname was ‘Camera Eye’. The details of his sighting were considered to be serious. 

Other rumours also placed Kiss in New York. Witnesses saw a man who looked like an older version of Kiss, who would have been nearing his 70s at the time, working on Sixth Avenue as a janitor. But when investigators went to the building, the janitor had disappeared. After that, he couldn’t be tracked down again.

The theory that Kiss escaped to America was a plausible one. In explaining the disappearance of his wife and her lover, as well as some of his other victims, he said that they had fled to America. Something about crossing the Atlantic appealed to him, but did he turn his fibs into his own destiny?

To this day, nobody knows what happened to Béla Kiss. If it was in fact Béla in the hospital in Serbia, or working as a janitor on Sixth Avenue – how did he know that he had been found out? Did he have an incredible sixth sense? Or did he have help, someone who always kept an eye out for him? Perhaps even a housekeeper with an over-developed sense of loyalty?

Today, Béla Kiss would not be alive anymore. But his story and the trail of destruction he left behind him still remains. In Hungary he will forever be remembered as the one who got away.

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