bag·man (băg’mәn) n., pl. –men (mĭn). 1. Slang.

dishonest official; a person who collects, carries, or distributes illegal payoff money.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bipolar Express, Chapter 19

Last week our guys got some time to rest. This week: Bad Chances, Bad Things, and Bad Men. Things are about to get...well...Bad. (And if you can't wait for the last bullet to fly--and you feel like supporting an independent--this story is available on Amazon and Smashwords, too!)

Chapter 19

By the second day in the store, I was already looking forward to leaving. For the first time in a while I had a plan. Not much of one, but a plan. I also had time to worry about how crappy the plan was, but there wasn’t a hell of a lot I could do about that—so I skipped from worry to boredom and landed in a pile of too much reflection.
And that’s how racing thoughts work. You don’t always sit around obsessing over one thing, although that’s when they’re the worst. A lot of the time you just wander from subject to subject, chasing one tertiary thought into the next.  You can’t focus on anything for too long, so in a period of seconds your brain’s all over the place; after a period of hours it runs away completely. Then you’re lost, and you have to figure out how to focus all over again.
I was beginning to understand how a tribal society might be a lot healthier mentally than a culture where everybody has all their needs met. When you’re busy spending all your time hunting and collecting to survive, you don’t have time to sit around and brood.
Yeah, it’s great to have time to think—that’s how civilizations develop. They use that time. To invent things. Sciences. Agriculture. So they have more time. But then you get leisure time. And after you’re all rested and relaxed, you get bored. And boredom gives you time for reflection. And if you look at your reflection too long, eventually, all you’re going to focus on is the flaws.
Think about it, Descartes had to be pretty damn bored to come up with “I think therefore I am.” And that’s deep stuff and all, but pretty soon you’re asking “Why am I?” And you’re not so sure you have a reason. So you invent media, so you won’t have to think about it. Until, ultimately, the media makes everybody stupid—and you end up having to hunt and collect all over again.
The Neanderthals were too busy chasing their next meal around to worry about much else. Me? I was having some serious problems giving birth to the next new branch of science and was ready to move on. I’m sure the other guys would’ve been happy laying around, drinking into the next meltdown, but eventually even they would get bored to death. Or crazy. Or sick.
S.O.S. for the S.O.L.: Hospitals. Graves. Institutions.
Still, this temporary end of the world had probably been better to us than the civilized one had ever been. I was eating better, that was for sure. We had shelter and, strangely enough, we had been crazy enough before that we weren’t as insane as everybody else—or at least that was the theory—we were used to it. There was your new science, figuring out this magnetism thing.
I was reflecting on whether my navigation had been better before I went mental or with the poles crossed, and came to the conclusion that crazy people as a rule have always had navigation problems. It’s how we discovered America. It’s also an example of the kind of answer you get when you can’t focus, and there’s too much time on your hands.
            After everybody else woke up, we spent the rest of the day opening samples of food and cooking what we wanted to in the smoke room. If we liked it, we opened another until we didn’t like it anymore. We ate until we got sick. Then we ate more.
            Nobody ever opened the Dick Sponge Pudding, though. Peer Pressure, I suppose.
            We packed for the next day’s trip. The plan was to find one more place to squat for the night, preferably right next door to the Art Institute, because we had no idea how long it would take to get there. We could only guess what was going on in The Loop. It could be filled with raving maniacs, or, the street regulars might have all been stricken sane.
            Wes made a sled out of some barbecue parts and a cookie sheet. If he couldn’t get the dog to pull it (and he wouldn’t), he’d pull it himself. He was going to load it with food and drink and give it to Jack’s brother. “You have to pay the ferryman,” he said.
            I started to say if he doesn’t show up we can use it, and then kept my mouth shut. Even when I tried to add a positive, negatives crawled all over it.
            Frosty had decided to stay. I hoped it wasn’t anything I had said and let him know he was more than welcome to come along. I got the feeling though, he didn’t want to chance there not being enough room for him in the car. He sounded like he thought he might be able to outlive the cold spell, or maybe he wasn’t thinking at all and just wanted to stay with all that food and booze, rather than risk not having it. He might have even decided to drink himself to death. He was drinking a lot, even by our standards, and he wasn’t eating much even though he’d looked like he was starving when we first met him.
I figured if he wanted to check out that way, it was up to him. I’d been there, and nobody had any luck trying to change my mind. Except me, and I changed my mind every five minutes.
            I didn’t take anything to fall asleep that night. I’d taken that one pill the night before and thought maybe I shouldn’t have. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get addicted. It was that I didn’t want to get addicted and then run out of pills. I stayed awake about half the night, trying not to think. Here we had more food, shelter, booze, wood and tools than we’d ever want, and we were getting ready to risk all of it because, secretly, we needed to find out what was happening to the rest of the world. The city was dying, maybe even a way of life, and we needed a new map.
            When we left here, were we leaving Eden? I almost grinned when I realized I was worrying about the future and everything I had at stake, which wasn’t much.
            Then I heard something skittering around in the walls by the stockroom. At least I thought I did. I fell asleep telling myself that at least tomorrow I wouldn’t have to worry about it.


            At sunrise the three of us walked down the back hall of the stockroom, past the office and the trash compactor. Wes’s little sled scraped the concrete floor behind him with its thin, aluminum grill rails guiding it, while Jack and I headed for the outer door arguing. Jack had Thing on her leash which gave me reason to believe he was in one of his up moods. He and Wes kept calling me “Gloomy” which meant I was back to being myself.
            “Hey, Gloomy, what’s the matter? You think we’re better off staying here with Frosty?” Jack said. “I mean, we have a plan for getting out of this icehole and you’re acting like- like… a clinically depressed guy or something. All we got to do is find a place for the night, meet my bro’ down on Michigan Avenue tomorrow—right between the lions—and we are outta here.”
            “First, all us ‘iceholes’ have to find a place to stay tonight, Jack.”
“No problem.”
“Then we have to make it to The Institute.”
 “More than enough time.”
"Then we’ll have to freeze our asses off waiting for your brother to show up. And—if he shows up—we have to hope nobody carjacks him or something while he’s waiting for us.
            “Nobody’s going to carjack anybody. My brother knows how to look out for himself.”
            “Jack, for all we know there’s a crowd of raving zombies waiting to rip us apart so they can get into Wes’s little sled there,” I said, pointing at the frail, railed, little toy. 
            “Don’t dis the sled.” Wes said. He was proud of the thing. He’d piled it high and it was a lot sturdier than it looked.
            “And don’t worry so much,” Jack added. “We’ve been doing this for weeks now, dude. The people in the city are thinning out. All we got to do is find a place near The Institute to stay for one night.”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “But the least we could do is check to see if we could find an unlocked car—just in case. It would give us one less thing to worry about. And, if nothing else, it would make the trip to The Loop easier.”
            “It ain’t gonna work, Holt.” Jack was grinning and starting to piss me off.
            “None of us knows how to hotwire a car, anyway,” Wes said.
“C’mon, man, there’s bound to be at least one car out there with an extra key on the visor, or stuck to the bumper with one of those magnetic key holders or something,” I said.
            “Yeah,” Jack answered, “because everybody in the city usually keeps the extra key to their unlocked car on the seat, right next to their gold American Express card, just hoping some homeless drunk will find it. Never mind that they would have to leave it with fully charged batteries which, if they had, they wouldn’t have left it in the city to begin with. And, if we stop to look for the key to every car we find, we’ll freeze to death. We’ve been all over this.”
            He was not only up, he was right.
            “Frosty!” Wes said, as we got to the outer door. “Via Condios, man. Peace. Love. Out.”
            “And stay out!” Frosty said.
            Jack opened the back door and headed into the cold.
            “Don’t forget to eat. Take care,” I said, taking one last glance inside. Partly to let Frosty know he wasn’t forgotten, and partly to make sure nothing else was.
“Hey, Jack! That reminds me,” I said, as I turned around and headed through the door. “Did you ever get a chance to see that Nighthawks—”
When I turned around the door suddenly slammed me in the head before it caught the edge of my boot. Somebody had been hiding behind it. Whoever it was hadn’t had enough room to get any momentum behind their swing, though.
            “Jack! Wes!” I was trying to tell them something was up. But at the same time I was busy slamming the door back on whoever was behind it. Between the door and the brick wall, they took a beating. I slammed it over and over again.
            The dog started barking, and I heard the garbage cans across the alley rattle. Then the air was still and for a split second everything was quiet. Not a peaceful quiet, but that ominous, foreboding silence, the calm before the storm, or that instant you realize you’re about to wreck your car. That millisecond before you even have a chance to clench your teeth, and you know for a fact you’re about to go flying through the windshield.
I forgot about the cold.
As I turned toward the rattling noise, this big skinhead guy in army surplus clothes came out from behind the trash cans where we had first met Frosty. Jack stood opposite, holding the dog back as she wrestled with the leash. I figured Jack might be able to punch and run, get away, rather than confront the guy. He’d have to, the guy was huge. Jack let the dog go.
That’s when Army Surplus pulled a gun out of his coat, a big old revolver, and pointed it right between my eyes before he swept it across Jacks chest toward the dog.
            Jack’s arm went back like he was going try to pull his little .22 out of his pocket. The skinhead in camo fired point blank. Wes grabbed the back of Jack’s coat and pulled him to the right, but it was too late.
Army Surplus tried to get a bead on the dog.
            Still holding onto Jack’s collar with one hand, Wes swung his homemade barbecue-sled in an arc around Jack and popped the guy in the ribs. Army Surplus stumbled and went down holding his side. The dog pounced on his face.
            “Inside! Get in!” Wes yelled. Everybody else was just beginning to curse.
            I slammed the door back against the guy behind it and held it open for Wes and Jack. When I looked inside the stockroom, Frosty was wrestling some guy in camouflage pants over a knife. Where the hell had he come from?
Wes pulled Jack inside while I pulled the handle of the whiny indoor fire alarm we’d broken out of the trash compactor. I hit Camo-pants in back of the head with the flat part that says “Do Not Press Here.” Camo-pants went down and Frosty wasted no time, kicking him in the ribs repeatedly and matching me curse for curse.
            Wes had slid Jack inside the door and was trying to pull it closed with his free hand. Somebody pulled from the other side. Wes kicked it back open and the door hit whoever was outside so hard it almost slammed shut before the dog ran in. I shoved Wes and Jack toward the middle of the stockroom and sealed the exit.
            Slam. Click. We were locked in.
            Everybody was talking at once and nothing made any sense. Wes had pulled Jack’s backpack off and laid him down. Jack was on the floor crying, “I’m shot! I’m shot,” staring at his bloody hands. Frosty continued to use the word “Fuck” for all four parts of speech and was kicking Camo-pants all over the stockroom. The dog and I were just standing there, staring, trying to figure out what had happened.
            Wes held Jack’s shoulders, and tried to calm him down. I asked the first dumb question.
“Jack, you okay?”
            He looked up at me like he was ashamed and tried to grin.
            “Wes we need some rags, man. Get something we can use for bandages. Bar towels, rags, anything.” I said.
            “I’ll get ‘em.” Frosty gave Camo-pants one last kick in the head and took off running. The dog stood over the body and growled.
First everything had been too fast. Now it was too slow. I wanted it now. Frosty should have already been back, it wouldn’t be fast enough. I wanted to go get the bandages myself. I wanted the control I didn’t have.
            Wes gave me a nod, and I put my hand on Jack’s shoulder. “It’s going to be okay, okay?” I lied.
Wes went over to keep the dog off Camo-pants, while I unzipped and unbuttoned Jack’s coats. There was a tiny hole just below his ribs, but it was leaking a lot of blood. I put one of the coats back over the wound.
Jack was trying to wipe the tears out of his eyes, and he got more blood on his face. If it had been me I would have been screaming.
“How is it?” he asked.
            What was I going to say? It might have hit an artery, you’re a dead man? “I don’t know. I don’t know what angle it went in. Could be bad.”
            “No. It’s one of those good gunshot wounds,” Jack said. God, he was making jokes. I tried not to laugh and cry at the same time.
I couldn’t watch Jack die.
            Frosty came back with some aprons and bar towels. He was already wrapping one around his forearm. I took one of the bar towels and stuffed it in Jack’s wound like a cork before he, or I, had a chance to think about it. Jack screamed.
            “Sorry! I’m sorry, I’m just trying to stop the bleeding,” I said.
Jack passed out.
            Two shots fired outside, and the door shook. Everybody hit the ground. Wes and I leaned over Jack.
            “We got to get him out of here.” Wes already had Jack in his arms and was heading back for the sales floor.
            “What about this guy?” I said pointing at Camo-pants. “He alive?”
            “Maybe we can use him,” Frosty said. He grabbed him by one foot and started dragging him across the concrete floor. The dog followed. I picked up the bar towels and Jack’s backpack, feeling around for the gun inside just in case.
            Wes had thrown Jack on one of the beanbag chairs before the rest of us got inside. I found the gun in one of Jack’s coats. “I’ll be right back.”
            “Don’t be stupid,” Wes said.
Used to be I would’ve laughed at that coming from him.
“There’s a first-aid kit in the office,” I said. “Try to find a way to seal this door. But don’t do it until I get back.”
            “Two minutes,” Wes gave me.
            I had to keep my thoughts in order, one at a time. They were banging on the outside door. The first-aid kit in the office, just worry about that. Repeating it over and over in my head. Thefirstaidkitintheoffice, thefirstaidkitintheoffice. I grabbed it, and sprinted back to the sales floor.
            I handed the gun to Wes. He put it in Jack’s lap next to a full clip lying on the floor. I’d never even checked to see if the damned thing was loaded. If the goon squad had busted in while I’d been in back, I’d have been shooting with an empty gun. Probably had the safety on, too.
            Jack. Damn it. Jack was shot.
            Wes was still holding a bar towel on Jack’s wound. I took another look and started to dress it with a tiny patch of gauze from the first-aid kit. The proverbial Band-aid on a chainsaw wound.
Frosty tossed me a package of cheesecloth from house wares. “Use this,” he said, holding up his forearm to show me he had dressed his own wound with it. I don’t even know what cheesecloth is for, but it makes good gauze.
Soon the wound didn’t look like it was bleeding too badly. I taped some more over it and left the rag corked in. It would hurt like hell when it had to come out, but it might stop the bleeding. I rolled Jack on his side. There was no exit wound.
            I didn’t know if that was good or bad. If they’d used a bullet with a soft-point it might’ve mushroomed larger inside of him, cutting a wider path with every organ it hit, expanding instead of exiting.
            Jack is dead, I thought. What are we going to do? I panicked. Lost. We lost. We were lost before all this started. We had to meet Jack’s brother. If he lived long enough. I had to stay sober. If I wanted to live long enough. Fight these guys. If we lived long enough. Make sure Wes was okay. If he lived long enough. What about Frosty? If we lived long enough. Jack is dead. What about the dog? Jack is dead. Jack is dead. Jack is dead. It was one word.
Stop. Breathe. One thing at a time, I told myself. Jack isn’t dead. Not yet.  
            But he isn’t dead. Stop. Stop predicting the future. Breathe.
            No fortunetelling. Breathe.
            Take inventory. What’s happening right now is the only thing that’s real. Breathe.
            Right now, Wes was gathering some scraps, banging on the inside door, trying to find a way to bar it closed.
            How could he bar it? It opened out. No fortunetelling. Breathe.
            No, we weren’t dead. Wes would figure something out. Wes was okay. Frosty was up in front of the store, probably making sure nobody was trying break in that way. Okay. Everything was okay.
            Except me.
            If I could just act like everything was okay. It would be. Take your mind and your ass will follow. Right now I was worried about my ass being chewed into hamburger by a bunch of army surplus sociopaths. They kept banging on the outside door in back, feeding my imagination. Fear replaced confusion. Then, anger started to replace fear.
            Jack coughed and asked for a cigarette. No blood came up, so I pulled one out of his pack and lit it for him. I knew he probably shouldn’t smoke, but I didn’t want him to think I thought he was dying. Besides, if your number’s up, your numbers up. Might as well die happy.
            “Thanks man. Can you get me something to drink?” he said.
            “No problem,” I said. “Jones Cola.”
            “Jagoff.” I have a feeling he would’ve said it louder, but he coughed again. Something in back of the stockroom crashed. They were still trying to get in. Jack shoved the clip into the Beretta. “When you’re ready, put me in front of the door.” Other than that, there was nothing I could do for him.
I heard metal in the door wrench, and went over to see how Wes was doing. If the stock room door had opened inward we could have just nailed a bunch of boards up, piled stuff in front of it. I never stopped to realize we probably didn’t have any nails to begin with.
The door was our only defense. That wasn’t good. How do you set up a blockade to keep somebody from pulling open a door? Old slapstick media came to mind. A little tramp with a Hitler moustache blockades the door to keep the heavy out. The heavy just pulls the door open and steps in. More funny stuff from my head.
            Wes, bless his gray hide, had found a way to bar the door. He’d used his trusty crowbar to bend it inward where the bolt had been, before we had yanked it out. Then he found a shaft of iron used to make shelving, and wedged that almost three feet deep into the hollow part of the metal door. Barred across the middle of the wall, a 2x3 iron girder hung half-in and half-out of the steel door. If there was a way to hold the girder in there, it was better than the original bolt.
            “All we got to do’s shove some of this in there to stick it in place,” Wes said, pointing to a pile of scrap metal and rebar scrounged from the display tools. “Prob’ly take us a half-hour to open it from this side after that. Then pile a buncha stuff up. Get in their way.” He backhanded one hand with the other like he was slapping somebody around.
            “You are a mechanical genius,” I said.
            “Long as the hinges on the other side hold out, we’re fine.”
            “You mean they might be able to just pop the door off the hinges from the other side? Take the whole thing down?” Shit.
            “Or not,” Wes said. “I didn’t get a chance to look at it‘s a rush job, y’know.”
            “It’s a steel door. Maybe there are special hinges on it.” I hoped.
            “Or not.”
            They were still beating on the outside door. The rhythm hadn’t quite reached ramming speed.  
            Meanwhile, Frosty was trying to go through Camo-pant’s pockets. It didn’t look like he was doing too well with it. He raised his eyebrows, and gave me a give-me-a-break, help-me-out kind of look.
            “How’s the patient?” I said, starting to go through his pockets.
            “Breathing, but he’s out cold,” Frosty said.
            “Over four minutes can be brain damage.”
            “I got a feeling he had that already. Check this out.” He kicked a pile of paper and some change over toward me. “Read the card.”
            I picked up what looked like a folded cardboard 8x10 with barely legible felt-tip marker on one side. It said:

            This is to certify that JUNE-BUG Skate WHeeler is the property of C. DAGO RED of the Founding Fathers because D gained rights because BUG is to Stupid & Race Handicap to take care of himself. JUNE-BUG is the property of D until he works his debt off—long as D. doesn’t let him have to much to drink. JBSW is marked by a scar on his right forehead, and a dragon with a skull tattoo.
Signed this 1/15 New Ice Age, respectfuly”

            Under that were two illegible signatures.
            “So let me guess,” I said. “Our redheaded vegetable in camouflage is ‘Dago Red?’”
            “Don’t meet a lot of redheaded Italians,” Frosty said. “Of course, seeing as how I’ve never met a slave-owner before either…”
            “Wow,” I said. “You don’t think it might just be some kind of biker joke or something?”
            “Most of the men I’ve met of Red’s obvious reading comprehension wouldn’t have bothered to write it down if it was,” Frosty said. “Probably a fucking term paper for this idiot.”
            “Lemme see that.” Wes had come over. “‘Property... Race handicap?’ Uh-uh.” Wes was shaking like he was going to explode at first, then it was like he caught himself and just shut down. He’d resigned himself to a different emotional state. Dissociation. He wasn’t going to let it shake him. He looked at Camo-pants like he was a lower species, a condescending look I’d never seen Wes give anybody. “I ain’t survived twenty-eight years of bullshit and The North Pole to end up being some mohfucka’s slave.” His voice trailed off into a jigsaw of consonant sounds as he walked away, cursing under his breath most likely.
            “That’s one vote for not trying to revive him,” I said. “Anybody for first aid?” Frosty turned and headed toward Wes. “Last aid?” They were right. It wasn’t funny. “I’m going to tie him up then.” Nobody cared.
            Frosty went over to show the bill to Jack, and they must have found something funny about it, because they were smoking cigarettes and almost laughing while I went back over to where Wes had barred the door. The beat cops were still pounding outside.
The three of us started pulling shelving fixtures and display cases in front of the door together. We piled a bunch of glassware and garbage and everything else we could find on top of everything that was already on the fixtures. Soon, we had a barricade that was long, tall, and heavy.
            The beating on the outside door got steadier.
            Wes and I had been gathering everything we could find to use for weapons while we had been moving fixtures around. Frosty started retrieving items from other parts of the store. The dog growled at Camo-pants and waited for him to wake up.
Between us we collected a rather underwhelming array of weaponry and piled it behind the blockade. It looked like an army of South American-Asian-Vikings had been forced to throw all their cookware in a pile. Considering the other guys had guns, it wasn’t very impressive.
Wes found a machete that was more for decoration than cutting. It wasn’t sharp, but it was sizeable. All the other knives were parts of steak sets. The next best things to Wes’s machete—maybe better—were these heavy, show-off sized barbecue spatulas that would’ve looked too big even at a Japanese restaurant. They were about half the length of your arm, had serrated edges on one side, and weighed about five pounds each. Frosty and I procured one each for swordplay. We had mallets for tenderizing meat, giant barbecue forks—two with extendable 26” handles (according to the package), and when he found a set of fireplace tools, Frosty got an iron poker that was relatively easy for him to hold.
            I finally tied the dog up next to Jack, so he could free her if it was to his advantage. The dog knew what we were doing; she hadn’t even bothered to go after all the now-unguarded food. She just kept rolling her ears back, listening and growling.
            Jack reviewed our position. “How many guys you think they got?”
            “I don’t know,” I said. “Lots?”
            “And they’ve got everything they might find in the stockroom, and…”
            “And at least one gun.”
            So we didn’t know what they had or how many of them there were. Or what their objective was. From a strategy standpoint it was a pretty lousy review.
            I tore the plastic off some of the steak knife sets. “Isn’t this the part where you’re supposed to say, ‘I’ve got a plan, it’s crazy, but it might just be crazy enough to work?’”
            Jack grinned again, trying to act like everything was all right, but I could tell he was forcing himself not to freak out. He looked disoriented, like if he could stand up, he’d just fall down dizzy. I took his pulse and when he asked me about it, I told him it was “a little fast.”
Yeah, like a hundred-beats-a-minute too fast. He was bleeding internally. I gave him a shot of that acetone he called vodka to slow his heart rate down. I didn’t think about it tearing up his gut until he started throwing up blood.
            He didn’t puke all over himself though, I’ll give him that. He was professional about it. He held up one finger in the air, as if to say excuse me, and then he just leaned over to the side and threw up on the floor. At first I wasn’t even sure it was blood. There was some food in there, and the liquid looked almost like grape juice. But it was blood. We both knew it. Other than throwing a towel on top of it, to keep cannibal-dog from licking it up, we both just ignored it.
            I left the bottle where Jack could reach it if he wanted to. Between the gut-shot and the pulse rate, it probably wouldn’t matter.
            He was angled by the door, and I put myself just to the left so I could keep an eye on him. Not because I was the medical Samaritan, but because he had the only gun, and if anything happened to him I wanted it on our side. We all assumed some kind of battle station around the barricade, but I couldn’t stop pacing around.
            “Don’t worry,” Jack said. “If it’s taking them this long, they can’t have ‘lots’ of guys.”
Unless, of course, they’re waiting for them to get here, I thought, but I didn’t say it.
            We heard the back door ram open, and a bunch of voices trying to sound like a football team coming out of the huddle. At least five people, maybe ten—I couldn’t tell—but at least they weren’t firing guns in the air like B-media cowboys. ‘Lots’ or not, it was almost a relief we weren’t waiting anymore.
            Something rammed the stockroom door. And then rammed it again. There was some cursing before somebody took the time to try to pull it open, yanked it back and forth, and got nowhere.
            “School for gifted children,” Jack said.
            A voice announced through the crack in the door. “This is the Sheriff’s Department! Drop your weapons and come out! You will be treated peaceably!”
I couldn’t believe these guys were stupid enough to think, we were stupid enough to believe that. Unless, maybe they actually believed it themselves. Somehow, that was even scarier.
            “Fuck you!” Wes said. “We’re federal! You’re outranked! You should have radioed ahead!”  
            “Godamnit!” the voice half growled, half yelled. They did an impressive job of thrashing at the door, considering it didn’t have a handle on it. “We have the place surrounded!” he announced. “Surrender peacefully! Or we will have no choice but to use force!”
            We all looked at each other.
Like we had a choice.
Nobody had a choice.

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