A Walk in the Night

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A Walk in the Night

by Alex La Guma


A novella set in Cape Town, Sooth Africa, in the early 1960s; published in English in 1962.


Three isolated young men, members of South Africa’s oppressed underclass, wander Cape Town at night. Long suppressed anger leads to one youth’s inadvertent killing of a drunken white man, initiating a tale of punishment that makes the stories of these separate characters converge.

Events in History at the Time of the Novella

The Novella in Focus

For More Information

Born in Cape Province, South Africa, in 1925, Alex La Guma belonged to a working-class family in the “coloured”—or mixed race—sector of society. His mother, Wilhemina Alexander, and his father, James La Guma, were a cigarette factory worker and a trade union organizer, respectively. Following in the footsteps of his father, who was himself a leading figure in the black liberation movement, Alex became a member of the Cape Town district Communist party and participated in the drafting of the 1956 Freedom Charter. He would remain involved throughout his life in the struggle for racial equality in his homeland. La Guma played an active role in the Franchise Action Council, which opposed the attempt to disfranchise the coloured population; his own house served as headquarters to the South African Coloured People’s Organization. After being placed under house arrest in 1962 because of his writing for New Age, a progressive newspaper, he and his wife spent the following years alternating between house arrest and imprisonment under various charges until they left the country for Britain in 1967. A Walk in the Night, La Guma’s first book, was his attempt to promote Western awareness of the living conditions in his homeland, particularly in the coloured neighborhood of Cape Town’s District Six.

Events in History at the Time of the Novella

District Six

La Guma’s novella provides an ethnographic record of what once was Cape Town’s most populous coloured neighborhood, District Six. This community ceased to exist after 1966, however, when the South African government declared the district an all-white zone. Bulldozers subsequently destroyed all the buildings except for some churches and a mosque.

The razing of District Six struck directly at the symbolic center of coloured consciousness. South Africa’s coloured population traces its roots to unions between seventeenth-century Europeans and the indigenous San people (otherwise known as “Bushmen”) of the Cape. “Coloured” also denotes offspring of unions between either of these groups and slaves, imported from India, Madagascar, East Africa, and Malaya. Interracial mixing among the groups continues to the present day. It was officially declared illegal under apartheid laws in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but those laws were abrogated in the early 1990s.

The historically multicultural district was the closest possible approximation to a homeland for South Africa’s coloured population, which had not been given a separate area to call its own. The neighborhood received its name during the electoral divisions of 1867. Given its portside location, it became a first destination for many immigrants to South Africa, a doorstep community


Journalist Anthony Hazlitt Heard recalls the vibrancy of District Six, which persisted despite the neighborhood’s many social and environmental problems:

Hansom cabs were operated from the centre of the main thoroughfare, Adderley Street. Fresh produce was offered from barrows. Fish horns could be heard above the city noise as vendors hawked the ocean’s wares in hilly suburbs. Flower sellers brightened many streetsides. The Grand Parade, where [a statue of] Britain’s King Edward VII stood invariably with a sea gull on his head, was an open place of religious, commercial, and political activity.

(Heard, p. 57)

for the inner-city industries. The District Six of the early 1960s was a vibrant mix of industry and poverty, in which retailers, shop workers, carpenters, seamstresses, shoemakers, and cabinet makers plied their trades amid exploitative landlords and vicious pawnbrokers. Firsthand recollections of the district invariably place equal emphasis on the neighborhood’s vitality and its dangerous squalor.

Though largely comprised of coloured residents, District Six supported an ethnically diverse population. One of the most conspicuous features of A Walk in the Night is its faithful replication of the multiple accents and dialects spoken by the black Africans, white Afrikaners (of Dutch and other European ancestry), coloureds, and immigrants from India who intermingle on the streets. Equally noticeable is the author’s emphasis on his characters’ racial markings. Michael Adonis, for example, is described down to the shades of his hands: “The backs of his hands, like his face, were brown, but the palms were pink with tiny ridges of yellow-white callouses” (La Guma, A Walk in the Night, p. 2). This deliberate overemphasis on skin color, which recurs throughout the novella, becomes an ironic commentary on South Africa’s myopic focus on race.

Despite its thriving eclecticism, District Six suffered the blight common to urban neighborhoods occupied by coloureds, Indians, or Africans under apartheid policy. This policy, which mandated the entirely separate development of South Africa’s different racial communities, guided a number of laws that negatively affected the living conditions of South Africa’s nonwhite populations. The Group Areas Act (1950), most importantly, authorized the zoning of neighborhoods according to race, resulting in massive relocations of black and coloured populations. District Six remained heavily populated by the coloured population, though, through the time of the novel. A working class district, it was laden with slum areas.

Coloured majority

In South Africa as a whole in 1960, the coloured population formed a sizeable minority:

Population by Racial Group —1960 South Africa
Black Africans10,927,922
Asians477,125 (Western, p. 59)

In Cape Town, however, the racial breakdown differed from these national statistics, including, at the onset of apartheid in 1948, 44 percent coloured, 44 percent white, 11 percent African, and 1 percent Indian (Western, p. 96). District Six was home to many of the coloured residents, whose identity stemmed from their association with the district and from little else. It was a working-class neighborhood, in many parts a slum, but coloured South Africans thought of it as their territory. According to one historian, though they themselves were victimized, even Africans spoke of coloureds as amalawu:“a pejorative term implying that they are people without customs and traditions, without pride in themselves. … Place of origin—home—has become an essential element of self-definition for Coloured people” (Western, pp. 149-50). Their source of pride was to their birthplace, to location. History had conspired to leave them few other options.

After emancipation in 1834, the coloured population passed largely from slavery into servitude; whites confined coloured children to inferior mission schools and paid the coloured worker a lower wage than the white. In the 1890s, Olive Schreiner (see The Story of an African Farm , also covered in African Literature and Its Times) assessed the plight of this group:

The Half-caste … now forms a more or less distinct section of society. … Nevertheless, socially his position remains much what it was. Without nationality, tradition, or racial ideals… robbed of racial self-respect … He belonged to neither [white nor black] … The Half-caste alone of all created things is at war with his own individuality.

(Schreiner in Western, pp. 15, 16).

Whites conceived of coloureds as illegimate persons, drunks, criminals, weaklings, and liars, which led many coloureds to internalize these stereotypes and develop negative self-concepts. As early as 1923 Schreiner dismissed the theory of “inborn depravity” in them and pointed instead at what she saw as the real culprit in the matter of crime: “In the smaller criminal cases … the ’coloured man’ figures out of all proportion to the pure-blooded Europeans, Bantus, or Malays … [This is because of] social conditions” (Schreiner in Western, p. 26).


Almost every house in the districts where the coloured people live is packed tight Children grow up and marry and in turn have children and are unable to find a place of their own. A family is turned out of an overcrowded house and find shelter with friends for a few days—which grows into weeks, months, years. They sleep in living rooms, in kitchens, in passages, in garages….”

(Cape Times, June 20, 1950, in Western, p. 49)

Insecurity—a permanent condition

Beginning in 1950 the Group Areas Act threatened the coloured population with relocation. This threat was all the more fearsome because of the shifting nature of racial classification set in the 1950 Population Registration Act. This act defines a coloured individual in entirely negative terms, specifying only what “coloured” does not denote: a person who is neither white, nor a Turk, an Asian, African, a Hottentot (Khoikhoi), a Bushman (San), an American Negro, or a person residing in a native location. Further, the law made a person’s classification subject at any moment to change. A light-skinned coloured might be reclassified as white, or a dark-skinned coloured as African, mandating an immediate change of neighborhood, as well as of other rights and privileges.

In short, the primarily coloured residents of District Six lived in a tense atmosphere. The constant fear of police interrogation and detention has been suggested as the source for the prevalent mental stress and illness among urban black Africans and coloureds (Thompson, p. 204). This psychological oppression was worsened by the second-class amenities that the government allocated to such regions. During the time in which La Guma’s novella takes place, few tenements in District Six boasted running water, electricity, or a sewage system. The neighborhood’s unpaved streets were often muddy and dangerous, and were seldom lit. Required to reside in a narrowly zoned area, the district’s residents had little say in the selection of their living quarters; they had to take what was available. Crime was encouraged by the massive rates of homelessness within the neighborhood. A 1951 study found that, across all nonwhite townships, an estimated 167,000 of 314,000 families were without housing (Dubb, p. 442). Danger also came from a segment of the district’s youth known as the tsotsi, street thugs who identified themselves by a distinctive slang and style of dress and who practiced petty acts of theft and violence. This threat was so widespread that certain areas of the district were known throughout the 1950s as “no-goes,” areas into which the police would not venture. In the novella, the tsotsi are represented by the gang that courts Michael Adonis. Emotionally and socially adrift, Michael eventually joins their ranks, demonstrating the dangerous allure of the sense of community offered by such gangs.

Today, after the razing of District Six, A Walk in the Night serves as a valuable document that preserves the physical and emotional ambiance of the neighborhood.

Resistance and protest

A sense of anger suffuses the pages of A Walk in the Night—anger at the substandard living conditions and constant sense of surveillance outlined above. Indeed, La Guma wrote at a crucial moment in the history of resistance to apartheid. Organizations voicing protest against racial inequalities predate the ascension of the South African Nationalist party (sponsor of apartheid). Among these organizations were the African National Congress (ANC, founded 1912) and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (founded 1919), groups that benefited from significantly improved leadership beginning in 1948. In 1952 the ANC and the South African Indian Congress began campaigns of passive resistance, encouraging demonstrators to burn their passbooks (a passbook was a document containing its owner’s photograph, specifying where that person could live and work). The goal was to invite arrest in the hope of overwhelming the justice system with the sheer number of protestors.

One such demonstration, conducted by the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), assembled droves of Africans without passes at police stations on March 21, 1960. In the town of Sharpeville police opened fire on the protestors, killing 67 and wounding 186, an event that has since become known as the Sharpeville Massacre.

The incident was instantly recognized as a pivotal moment in the progression of protest and brutality; March 21 would become a date revered by antiapartheid strugglers, infusing them with a sense of inspiration and rededication. In the immediate wake of the massacre, thousands of Africans and coloureds walked away from their industrial jobs to support the campaign against passes. Other demonstrations followed throughout 1960, including one in which 40,000 coloured workers stayed home, crippling the clothing, building, engineering, leather, and baking industries of the Cape peninsula. This walkout engendered fears for the nation’s economic stability, resulting in a stock market run of unprecedented proportions. Though La Guma purposefully refrains from investing the characters of A Walk in the Night with any sense of political awareness, resentment against passbook laws is nonetheless evident: “It’s getting to get so’s nobody can go nowhere,” one coloured man remarks to Michael Adonis (Walk, p. 9).

The effectiveness of such protests against this integral component of white supremacy created a national mood of panic, indicated by a massive exodus of thousands of white citizens overseas. The extent to which white South Africans were losing faith in their government’s ability to negotiate racial tensions was graphically symbolized in the attempted assassination of Prime Minister H. F. Verwoerd by a politically disgruntled white farmer in April 1960. The political importance of Sharpeville and its aftermath is recognized annually, not only by antiapartheid crusaders who mark March 21 with special meetings (the anniversary is today known as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination), but also by police, who throughout the 1960s and 70s cordoned off the region around Sharpeville from the night before the anniversary to the day after. In April 1960, in the wake of Sharpeville, the government declared a state of emergency, which led to the arrest of more than 18,000 people and the outlawing of both the PAC and the ANC.

In 1961 South Africa seceded from the British Commonwealth, and antiapartheid protest increased. So did government repression of such protest. In 1962 the new republic’s government began to establish the Bantustans—the independent homelands for Africans—by designating the Transkei (an area east of the Kei River) as the homeland for the Xhosa people of South Africa. To forestall unauthorized ethnic intermingling, the police were granted sweeping powers of preventive detention or arrest, initially for 30 days, and later for indefinite periods.

Underground movements gave the government cause for concern; for example, the PAC militant wing known as “Poqo” armed themselves with homemade machetes and staged a number of attacks on police and government officials. Such threats resulted in the passing of the General Law Amendment Act of 1962, which broadened the definition of treason to include such offenses as graffiti—with a minimum penalty of five years in prison and a maximum penalty of death.

International response to Sharpeville

As important as the internal response to the events of March 21, 1960, was the reaction of the international community. In April the United Nations Security Council addressed apartheid directly and called upon the South African government to dissolve it. From then until apartheid’s dismantling in 1991, a major component of resistance to apartheid was the publicizing of its horrors to the international community. As the first director of the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid wrote:

One of the essential contributions of the United Nations in the international campaign against apartheid in South Africa has been the preparation and dissemination of objective information on the inhumanity of apartheid, the long struggle of the oppressed people for their legitimate rights and the development of the international campaign against apartheid.

(Reddy, p. 1)

The United Nations statement stresses the importance of antiapartheid literature; A Walk in the Night, with its depictions of brutal, omnipresent police and devastated coloured neighborhoods, is a form of documentation of the conditions that gave rise to protest.

The Novella in Focus

Plot summary

Michael Adonis, a young coloured man, wanders the streets of Cape Town, seething with resentment over his recent firing by a white supervisor. He meets a friend, Willieboy, at a local cafe, but finds his anger compounded by Willieboy’s apparent nonchalance and indifference. A familiar gang of thugs enters the cafe, and the leader asks Michael whether he has seen a missing member of their gang, whom they need for a “job” they have planned. Michael professes ignorance.

Leaving the café, Michael indulges in the opportunity to help another young man even less fortunate than himself with a small handout. Michael’s beneficiary, Joe, expresses his heartfelt thanks, but the emotion is lost on Michael. The anger that clouds all of Michael’s perceptions mounts as he is accosted for no apparent reason by two white police officers who question and harass him before letting him go. By the time he returns home, completing a journey through the oppressively filthy and decayed streets of the coloured quarter, Michael’s control over his emotions and actions is fast slipping. He encounters a frustratingly drunk and gregarious Irishman who lives across the hallway of his dilapidated tenement, and the results are tragic. The old man insists on portraying himself as a victim—he compares his misery to that of a Shakespearean character, Hamlet’s ghost-father, doomed to walk the night. Michael is infuriated at the idea that a white man should feel self-pity, and strikes an irrational blow at the old man, killing him.

Threaded within the narrative of Michael’s journey through the city is the similarly aimless wandering in search of a handout undertaken by his acquaintance, Willieboy. His path takes him to Michael’s tenement, where he has the misfortune of peeking into the apartment of the slain Irishman. He flees in terror, and in the resulting commotion is assumed to be responsible for the victim’s death.

Also threaded within the tales of Michael and Willieboy is the more purposefully destructive path of Constable Raalt, a brutal Afrikaner police officer intent on making the coloured inhabitants of District Six bear the brunt of unspecified problems he has been having with his wife. As he and his partner patrol the streets on the night of the Irishman’s death, Raalt notes the relative quiet of the night and observes, “I wish something would happen. I’d like to lay my hands on one of those bushman bastards and wring his bloody neck” (Walk, p. 36). Raalt’s unreasoning and egotistic brutality is highlighted by the reflections of his more moderately tempered partner, who fears that Raalt’s aggressiveness will discredit the white race. Noticing the commotion at the Michael Adonis tenement, the pair investigate. John Abrahams, a resident who has concluded that cooperation and the path of least resistance are the best guidelines for a coloured man’s survival, gives them a description of Willieboy as the suspected murderer.

As for Willieboy, his continued search for a gift of cash or drink takes him next to a bawdy house, an industry that flourished in District Six. Willieboy asks the madam for a bottle of liquor on credit, but his resentment over the coloured prostitutes’ entertainment of three American sailors—”what you let the girls mess with these boggers for? They foreigners”—soon ends in his violent ejection from the premises (Walk, p. 51).

Meanwhile, the gang of thugs, who have continually been crossing Michael’s path in search of their accomplice, encounter him yet again at another cafe. Tired of waiting, they invite Michael to take their comrade’s place at the “job” they have planned. A strange kind of pride in his recent transgression tempts Michael to agree, though he delays giving a final answer. Joe, who has been sitting nearby and is still grateful for Michael’s generosity, compassionately attempts to repay the favor by urging him to avoid these thugs and the certain trouble they represent. In his earnestness, Joe reveals the sad family history of his father’s abandonment and his mother’s consequent desperation. Michael feels a grudging sympathy, but ultimately turns away in embarrassment and chooses to maintain his isolation.

As Michael leaves, Joe runs after him, intent on dissuading him from taking part in the thugs’ activities. His efforts are unheeded, however, and Michael soon finds himself welcomed into the gang’s meeting. While they plan their escapade, however, the young men are startled by the sound of a gunshot coming from elsewhere in the District.

We soon learn the source of this gunshot. Constable Raalt and his partner, after cruising the city streets for some time, have chanced upon Willieboy, whom Raalt matches with the description supplied by John Abrahams. Raalt’s partner urges restraint and observance of proper procedure, but Raalt is eager for confrontation and immediately opens fire. A chase ensues, and the senselessness of the ordeal overwhelms Willieboy with memories of his abusive parents and troubled childhood. Confused and hunted, he gives voice to the sentiment that dominates the consciousness of all the novella’s characters: “Always there’s somebody to kick you around” (Walk, p. 81).

The chase ends when Willieboy falls from a rooftop and Raalt shoots him where he lies. Raalt and his partner feud once again over the propriety of the shooting, and Raalt scorns the proposition of summoning an ambulance. Critically injured, Willieboy slips into delirium, but Raalt insists on the triviality of his injuries and stops for cigarettes on their way to the police station. During this stop, Willieboy dies.

A Walk in the Night concludes with a brief glimpse of each of the other three young men who have figured principally in the plot. Michael Adonis, his conscience now silenced, embarks upon his newfound career of petty crime. John Abrahams spends a sleepless night wracked with guilt over his complicity against his own people. Meanwhile, Joe continues to wander the city streets, longing for the tranquility of nature.

Naturalism and the city in South African literature

A Walk in the Night can reasonably be said to feature the city itself as its principal character. Vivid descriptions of the city’s filth, iniquity, and poverty dominate each of the narratives in the novella, to the point that the city becomes more than just the backdrop against which events take place. It becomes a force that determines those events, as well as a symbolic representation of the culture’s mood, values, and socioeconomic status.

Casting the city as his principal “character” allows La Guma to tell the story of the sense of community that exists among the Cape Town underclass. A Walk in the Night’s structure—its sudden alternation among the stories of mostly unrelated characters—seems at first glance to confirm its characters’ impressions that there is no cohesion or continuity among these dogged young men. Indeed, the Irishman’s Shakespearean quotation—repeated as the novella’s inscription—suggests that these individuals are like so many lonely spirits, “[d]oomed for a certain term to walk the night” (Walk, p. 26).

Yet by placing the city itself at the center of attention, La Guma provides a convincing connection among these disparate souls. At pubs and cafes it becomes evident that everyone knows everyone else. Echoing gunshots fired in one alleyway are heard in another. Each young man’s disoriented path through the District’s labyrinthine streets eventually crosses the others’. Historian Leonard Thompson has written that “there is a story to be told by social historians of the ways in which black people not only survived under apartheid but also created their own social and economic worlds” (Thompson, p. 201).

A Walk in the Night tells part of that story, showing the crossethnic cooperation of nonwhites within the city. As evidenced in part by the presence of the Irishman and his coloured wife in Michael Adonis’s tenement, the community of District Six defied the principles and practices of racial segregation.

La Guma’s focus on environment shows the influence of naturalism, a literary style first employed in the literature of late nineteenth-century France. Naturalism tried to apply to literature the “objective” and “truthful” standards that were held at the time to characterize the natural sciences, and emphasized a dispassionate narrative style, precise attention to physical details, and the influence of environment on human behavior. In its French incarnation naturalism took the lower classes of society for its subject matter, a tradition followed by naturalist writers in Britain and the Americas as well. Naturalist literature portrayed human destiny as subject to forces that were as indifferent as they were inexorable: social pressure, animalistic urges, and the will of Nature itself. Human free will is relatively unimportant in the naturalist world view, as is individual conscience.


Beginning in 1951, Drum appeared monthly. It featured large pictures, a beauty queen on the cover, and serious as well as entertaining content In the articles, black and coloured writers of the decade protested racial policies, prison conditions, and the way African farmers were exploited. Mixed with this protest literature was text on soccer and other entertaining fare, including short stories by new black writers. Published in La Guma’s time and after. Drum gave voice to defiant African writers whose stories usually dealt with politics indirectly.

A Walk in the Night constitutes a clear example of naturalist writing, though the movement had long since run out in the Americas and Britain by the time La Guma was writing. While the novel itself protests racial policy in South Africa, La Guma’s characters do not speak or think of the larger political questions outside their own suffering. Instead, the characters of A Walk in the Night are strictly reactive, controlled by their neighborhood’s poverty, their poor education, and the savage police force that watches them so closely. Descriptions of the city’s locales—pubs, alleyways, bawdy houses, tenements—are just as prominent as those of the actions of the novella’s characters, the emphasis being uniformly on decay and shabbiness. In one scene, the grime of a tenement floor is studied minutely:

On the floors of the tenements the grime collected quickly. A muddied sole of a shoe scuffed across the worn, splintery boards and left tiny embankments of dirt along the sides of the minute raised ridges of wood; or water was spilled or somebody urinated and left wet patches onto which the dust from the ceilings or the seams of clothes drifted and collected to leave dark patches as the moisture dried. A crumb fell or a drop of fat, and was ground underfoot, spread out to become a trap for the drifting dust that floated in invisible particles….
(Walk, p. 32)

The naturalist subjugation of individual to environment that La Guma effects throughout the novella creates the impression that the neighborhood is a community of unofficial brotherhoods and unspoken allegiances, a space with its own energy and the power to unite the disparate members of an underclass.

Sources and literary context

A Walk in the Night is an example of “protest literature,” a literary genre that emerged in 1950s South Africa in the wake of the banning of the ANC and the PAC. Besides La Guma, such African writers as James Matthews, Ezekiel Mphahlele, and Can Themba practiced the form. In fact, all three of these writers published their work in a radical, avant-garde periodical called Drum.

Protest literature emphasizes the brutality of the oppressor, the disillusionment and poverty of the oppressed, and the general ugliness of the South African condition. Intended either as a prodding of the white man’s guilty conscience or a call to arms for the underclasses, protest literature consistently dramatizes in bold terms the spectacle of horror. La Guma needed to look no further than the familiar environs of Cape Town’s District Six for his material; his writing evokes not only the denizens and habitats of this notorious neighborhood, but the very layout of the streets themselves.


As suggested by its very name, protest literature is often perceived to be a lesser literary medium, an instance of artistry giving way to politics and unrestrained emotion. A Walk in the Night, however, has largely been praised for its finely controlled style and dispassionate detachment. In particular, La Guma’s early critics appreciated the novella’s vivid imagery and ability to capture the idiosyncrasies of dialect. South African critic Lewis Nkoski, a detractor of ineptly didactic literature, received A Walk in the Night warmly, claiming to find in it “real people waging a bloody contest with the forces of oppression” (Nkoski, pp. 164-65). The Times Literary Supplement found the novella’s political purpose to have an effect that was more appealing than tiresome, and claimed that the novella cannot be read without “saluting the valiant protest which is the author’s life-work” (Times Literary Supplement, p. 52). A Walk in the Night, like other works by La Guma, was banned in South Africa throughout the author’s lifetime (1925-85). South Africans were forbidden from quoting La Guma until 1990.

—Jeff Jung

For More Information

Dubb, Allie A. “The Impact of the City.” In The Bantu-Speaking Peoples of South Africa. Ed. W. D. Hammond. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974.

Heard, Anthony Hazlitt. The Cape of Storms: A Personal History of the Crisis in South Africa. Foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990.

La Guma, Alex. A Walk in the Night and Other Stories. Evanston, I11.: Northwestern University Press, 1967.

Nasson, Bill. Oral History and the Reconstruction of District Six. Cape Town: Buchu Books, 1990.

Nkoski, Lewis. “Annals of Apartheid.” New Statesman, 29 January 1965, pp. 164-65.

Reddy, E. S. “Struggle for Liberation in South Africa and International Solidarity.” Notes and Documents (September 1972): 1.

Review of A Walk in the Night, by Alex La Guma. Times Literary Supplement, 21 January 1965, p. 52.

Sibeko, David M. “The Sharpeville Massacre.” Notes and Documents (March 1976): 3-4.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.

Western, John. Outcast Cape Town. Cape Town: Human and Rosseau, 1981.

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A Walk in the Night

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