Entertainingly Evil
21
Jan

“Hat and Stick” By Holly Schofield

I followed Max’s blinking red arrow along the oyster shell beach. He chose the route perfectly for my mood: upslope of the high tide detritus, away from the noisy picnickers, around the slipperiest of the rocky outcrops. But, then, Max was a peach among implanted jeeves. A true companion.

“I should have worn a hat,” I subvocalized. The sun, even this low in the sky, glared relentlessly, aggravating the pain in my head further.

Sorry, Paul. I didn’t think you’d walk this far. I’ll amend my data on the sensitivity of your scalp, bro, in case there’s a next time. I’d strolled along my usual route through my own borough of Hastings, before detouring way out here along the Robson borough’s beach.

“No biggie,” I said. “I’m still hoping that all this walking will get rid of the fuzzy feeling in my head.”

Good thing you didn’t have to handle any homicide cases today, bro. This morning, Max had told me a nationwide upgrade had rolled out while I and everyone else across Canada had slept last night. Upgrades usually gave me a headache, this one—the fourth this year—had been a doozy. It gives my view through your eyes 1.0014 times more clarity, Max had said. Then he’d jokingly added, now I see the world exactly the way you do.

The red arrow efficiently wound its way through a large group watching a volleyball game. A tall kid batted the ball hard over the glimmering virtual net; it hit the ground, and several onlookers cheered.

Twenty-one to twenty, Max said, replaying the shot in my mind’s eye and streaming player stats along the bottom of my vision. You could stop and watch the outcome.

“Nope,” I told him. Max knew I didn’t like volleyball. I kept on, past a camera pole and a beach bot collecting litter, over to the less populated area at the far end.

There’s no need to go this far, bro. You can get some quality time with your hobbies before bed.

“Just a little bit farther, Max. My head’s still woolly,” I said. “Besides, I was also hoping a longer walk might stimulate the ol’ parietal lobe.” My lack of imagination had been a running joke between us for a good number of years. An undersized part of my brain—the parietal lobe—meant I wasn’t creative at all, didn’t believe in things I couldn’t see, and was impossible to hypnotise. The condition didn’t bother me—not like it had eaten at Dad—I didn’t miss the things other people did, like going to church or reading fiction. After-dinner strolls with Max feeding me interesting trivia, jigsaw puzzles, and live-casts of Nuevo-NHL hockey games kept me plenty occupied in the evenings. The biggest inconvenience was having to subvocalize to communicate with Max. Most people could just use their imagination to think their questions directly at their jeeves.

I stopped to look westward where the Pacific rolled. The sun spread across the water in a way that a poet could have really described well. And the sun shone on the empty white beach really nicely too; the crowds were now far behind me.

You’ve walked point seven kilometers more than usual, bro.

08HatAndStick1A beach bot trundled up and handed me an Oilers ball cap, tucking the delivery drone netting into its trash receptacle. Good old Max, he always knew how to take care of me. Like an old-school butler, handing me a hat and a stick. More than that, he was my bro. He didn’t care that my brain was deficient.

Just ahead, past a ridge of kelp-strewn bedrock, a narrow beach trail cut up through the two-meter-high bank. I decided I’d go back along the woodland trail that paralleled the beach. More shade that way. I grabbed an exposed tree root and began climbing the steep path.

Might be muddy up there, bro. The beach is easier walking.

I grunted acknowledgement. Max had my best interests at heart, but he couldn’t read my thoughts and he couldn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to. I stepped up onto the trail, pushing aside a big fir branch, knowing my headache was making me testy.

A huge brown and yellow bundle of rags bunched up against the tree trunk. The beach bots hadn’t scooped it up, for some reason. Wait a minute, it wasn’t just rags. Was that a hand?

You don’t want to look at that, bro.

“What is it?”

A body, bro. I’m talking to the Robson authorities now.

“I could take care of it. I’m already here.”

People always said I was an efficient cop—good at collecting testimony from witnesses: no imagination needed. Besides, my current personality profile results—after Dad’s death— indicated I knew better than average how to offer comfort to those left behind.

“Give me the ID and other deets.” I focused on the man’s broad back as a makeshift blankwall for Max’s overlays.

After a pause, Max said, I don’t know who he is. No overlays appeared.

“Huh?” That wasn’t possible.

A series of unlucky events. No signal from the guy’s poor dead jeeve. The beach cam for this area isn’t working. And the body is tucked under the tree so much that the satellite image isn’t very distinct.

“Okay but keep trying. How about other cams? Or the jeeve records of other people on the beach?”

Nothing. Sheer bad luck, Paul. Sorry, bro, but you’re going to have to turn him over.

“Great.” I drew the word out. Max had beaten me to the obvious conclusion, as usual. If I rolled the body, Max could do a visual ID of the victim’s face using his view through my cortical stream.

As I knelt and turned him over, a tiny crab ran out from underneath. I waved off flies and tried not to breathe. I almost never had to handle bodies on the job. I left that task up to my friend, Janin, whose personality profile exactly suited that of city coroner.

It was Uncle Leo. Creative, genial Uncle Leo. Painter, sculptor, and shoe artisan. I’d last seen him at Christmas across a festive table, laughing at some joke that my other uncle, the one that’s the romance writer, had told. Clever extrapolative humor with subtlety that, naturally, I hadn’t gotten.

Thin, damp strands of his long black hair splayed across his nose and were stuck to a whole lot of blood where his ear should have been. A flap of scalp hung down like a slice of heavily sauced pizza. His jeeve insertion point, the usual circular scar around the ear canal, was barely visible through the crusted blood and dangling bits of ear cartilage.

Presumably, the damaged jeeve was still in there—the blood-run fuel cell took dozens of minutes to die—but the imbedded hair-thin nodule must have been too damaged to transmit the incident or even to realize that his vitals were flatlining.

Sorry, bro, Max said again and helped me with biofeedback to keep my pulse down before I even asked. I sure needed it. The agonized look on Uncle Leo’s face meant he hadn’t gone peacefully. Not like Dad.

Breathing and some repeated mantras steadied me after a couple of minutes and I started to get to my feet.

Sorry once more, bro. I need a better look at the wound. Grab the broken branch behind the tree on your left, would you?

I swallowed, eased around Uncle Leo, and got the stick. I did a bit of prodding and poking while Max accessed my visual cortex, until I could finally look away.

Thanks, bro. Cause of death is a stab wound to the side of the head by a right-handed, shorter assailant about thirty minutes ago.

“Not suicide?”

Of course not. Your Uncle Leo was an award-winning designer. Not the type to take his own life. I was grateful that Max didn’t continue the thought. We both knew that Dad had a solid reason to commit suicide—he’d been a failed artist ashamed of his lack of talent.

I rubbed my temples and focused on my breathing again. Uncle Leo had been a good guy and the best way to help him now was to find his murderer. I took my time, thinking it through.

“Max, maybe the assailant is still nearby?” I straightened up. I knew most people in this situation would be fearful of the darkening brush and picture all kinds of creeps hiding in it; me, I just wanted to gather the available information and do my job. Max and I and my lack of imagination made a good team that way.

No worries, bro. The perp’s not here. He’s the vic’s employee, one Kevo Hua. He’s waiting for you at Leo’s workshop.

“Thanks, Max.” Sixty percent of the team, that was Max.

I tried to keep up, fitting pieces together with my limited abilities. “How about the knife or whatever this Kevo guy used to slice Uncle Leo open, is that at the workshop too?”

No such luck. And no RFID-tagged knives on this beach right now. Maybe he chucked it in the water. No cams on the ocean floor, eh. He chuckled. Yet.

I turned to look at the setting sun being absorbed into the sea. I knew he’d mentioned the ocean to distract me from the gruesome sight of Uncle Leo’s oozing head.

The local department will take care of things in an hour or so. You’re free to go.

I mulled that over. “A whole hour?” Most cops were on-scene in ten minutes and most perps arrested ten minutes after that. When the vic’s jeeve could report the incident immediately, delays weren’t tolerated. All the murders I’d ever dealt with in my career were whack-and-rack: the perp walked through the prison admission doors right after the dirty deed. Even if some sick bastard smashed up the vic’s jeeve, like this poor guy’s, there was always solid evidence from city cams or the perp’s own jeeve, so running away made no sense. Kids didn’t play hide-and-seek anymore, and neither did perps.

Don’t sweat it, Paul. You got other things to do given that Leo’s studio is in Hastings on home turf. You need to collect official testimony from both the perp and Leo’s new wife. She could sure use your consoling touch, bro. And get this, the perp says he didn’t do it. You may have to take him in.

I tried to bury my grief over Uncle Leo and focus on this new information. An actual arrest was rare enough it would look good on my record, if I could make this Kevo guy come peacefully. “Thanks, buddy.” Max had always had my back, ever since he’d been implanted around my ear canal on my first birthday. Thank goodness for the Canadian Health Care Rights Act that made it free for everyone. Mom and Dad would have otherwise gone into deep debt to pay for an implant for me and I was hardly worth it.

Cap firmly on head, I hiked back along the beach, behind the red arrow that Max thoughtfully superimposed for me.

 

#

 

Several delays on the LRT—something on the tracks, Max thought—meant I was a few minutes later than the time I’d messaged Kevo and Leo’s wife, Donna, to expect me. Pedestrians, pinged by their jeeves that I was on official and important business, parted way for me as I left the transit station and strode down the sidewalk. I kind of enjoyed the respect. It was nice to be busy for once, even for such a ghastly task.

I’d never visited Leo’s Shoe Fly Designs before. All glass and steel, in the trendy part of East Hastings, with tiny clever gargoyles looming out of the holes where the lobby door locks used to be. How did people think of these creative things? One of the lobby walls had been darkened, and large, artistically posed photos of Uncle Leo—swept-back shoulder-length hair, hooked nose, and all—floated in its depths.

Donna, Leo’s widow, is an award-winning portrait photographer, Max said then directed me to the most comfortable chair. Kevo is in the bathroom. Probabilities indicate he will be out in three minutes and forty-five seconds.

I was surprised Kevo would keep me waiting. We all knew why I was here.

I sat down and my belt clinked with an unfamiliar sound. Max had arranged for handcuffs to be delivered to my LRT car.

“Flick on my newscast?”

Sure. He superimposed my standard feed on the lobby’s blankwall. The breaking news involved a father who had kept a kid jeeveless last night by wrapping an entire box of tin foil around the kid’s head. The father was under arrest and the kid in treatment. Before it ended, Max flicked to another article about yesterday’s launch of the five hundredth comm-nav satellite, the final stage of a decades-long project to complete the Earth’s satellite constellation. I found it all very interesting. A colored map displayed; satellite coverage now swathed the world in the same comforting shade of pale blue as a blanket I’d had as a kid. Makes the world a better place, eh, bro.

Kevo eased into the room, greeting me in a small voice. A short, slim Eurasian with chemically-enhanced quadriceps and purple-tinted sideburns, he dabbed at his eyes with his shirtsleeve. I lifted an eyebrow at him at Max’ suggestion. With help from Kevo’s jeeve, Max figured that would be sufficient to make Kevo stick to the truth.

“I didn’t do it,” Kevo said and hiccupped.

At Max’s prompt, I tightened my mouth, trying to look tough.

Kevo shrugged.

Now what? On the way over, Max had obtained a court order and been able to play Uncle Leo’s jeeve’s final vid for me. Both Kevo and Donna had been walking with Uncle Leo on the beach, part of their usual end-of-day routine. It seemed they’d talked about some minor business matters although some of the audio was surprisingly mumbly. I thought I heard Uncle Leo say my name a couple of times but Max hadn’t thought so, saying that Paul, nephew, and cop all sound like lots of other words.

Donna had turned back, feeling tired and lightheaded. Her jeeve confirmed all that, Max said. Uncle Leo had stood near the cutbank facing westward, the sun behind Kevo’s shoulder. The quality of the vid was poor due to the glare but it was definitely Kevo and they were definitely arguing, right up until Uncle Leo closed his eyes and the vid ended. Kevo’s jeeve had a similarly poor vid full of black areas and staticky sounds. Max explained that Kevo had some temporary memory lapses and blind spots in his vision today, both before and after he claimed he’d left Uncle Leo alive and well and gone home. I hadn’t known that a jeeve would therefore have the same black spots on its vid record, like the blackness they record when we sleep. I tend to learn something new on this job every day.

I stood up. Donna was waiting for me in the back room. Max thought that consoling Donna now rather than later wouldn’t alleviate her pain to any greater statistical significance, but I decided to see that for myself. I could delay Kevo’s arrest for a few moments. It wasn’t quite a gut feeling because I don’t get those, but a twinge of something-not-quite-right spurring me on. Besides, Kevo didn’t seem likely to run off and, anyway, Max felt his testimony was almost immaterial given the overwhelming vid evidence.

Max indicated which door I should go through, and I motioned Kevo to follow me. Donna, a tall woman with carefully sculpted cheekbones, greeted me with a cool nod. Tufts of hair stuck out at odd angles. I sourced a series of images and determined that, since her usual look involved sleek curls and subtle hairlights, she was not herself today.

I gave her my sympathies, stopping short of calling her “Aunt Donna”.

“Kevo wouldn’t have done that to Leo.” She crossed her arms, radiating hostility.

I shrugged it off—Max confirmed that her jeeve had questioned him about me and Max had told it about my mental shortcomings. Donna was no different than my classmates had been at school or my colleagues at the precinct. I didn’t blame any of them. Who could enjoy the company of an unimaginative defect like me?

If she was treating me like I was a cop, not family—then I’d act like a cop. Was she lying to protect Kevo? Was there something going on between them? I told Max to confer with both jeeves. Based on psych profiles, he figured not. Substantiating that, Donna’s vitals were within the norms of anyone trying to deal with a loss as well as with a senseless crime.

In a mild voice, I asked for a tour. She gave a stiff nod. We headed off to the other back rooms. Kevo trailed behind, sniffing occasionally.

As we walked, Max filled me in on the different uses of the 3D shoe printers, all six flanked by slipshod piles of buckles, rivets, knives, and other shoemaking paraphernalia; no surprise, the untidiness matched Uncle Leo’s psych profile.

“The mess makes me itchy,” I told Max. Donna must have heard me murmur because she glanced back but didn’t stop.

I hear ya, bro. You and me, we just want to tidy up the world.

Donna stopped at a particularly disordered workbench and narrowed her eyes at me. Max displayed her jeeve’s stream. Uncle Leo’s endorphin levels historically were at the high end of norms. That matched what I knew of him from the annual family get-togethers, of course. In the minute prior to his stabbing, his mood snapshot—circled in yellow—had been no different than usual.

“Leo was happy, always happy,” she insisted as if I’d been disputing it. She massaged her forehead.

I patted her arm and murmured all the soothing things I could think of.

She shrugged me off. “Here’s Leo’s latest design.” She gestured at a nearby hologram of a shoe blueprint. “His best ever. His last…” Her voice caught.

As with most diagrams, I couldn’t make the mental leap from the squiggly lines of the vaguely shoe-shaped sketch to the actual construct. “Wonderful,” I said.

She used her right hand to wave away the hologram. “Here’s the prototype.” The image faded and, behind it, a vise held a gold boot with tiny silver wings on the ankles. She waved her hand again, and the wings moved like butterflies. A convoluted artistic statement on Icarus, Max told me.

“Very creative,” I said, putting as much warmth as I could in my voice. It must be crushing to lose a spouse. I wouldn’t know. I’d never been able to form any kind of close relationship. Not enough romance in my poor soul, I guess. Max said it didn’t matter, because I always had him for company.

She winced, the first sign of real emotion on her face, then quickly got control back. Some people just held it in better, I thought, but Max—one step ahead as always—said it was because she had the latest model jeeve, with more biofeedback and empathy. The financials showed she could well afford such things, although Max thought that Kevo had perhaps done some creative bookkeeping.

Kevo stuck his face in mine. “Leo was a lovely man. Just lovely.” His hand trembled as he rubbed a colored sideburn. “He was a genius, a tour de force in the shoe design world. I would never harm him. Sure he seemed a bit angry when I left him. He thought someone was after him. Me, Donna, I don’t know who. His jeeve said he had slight paranoid tendencies every so often. We just put up with it.”

Donna wrenched the shoe free of the vise and said, “Surely the vid record shows all that. May I be excused now?”

I shrugged. There seemed to be nothing I could do for her. She left, the gold boot cradled in one arm.08HatAndStick2

Kevo huddled on a stool.

Did you catch Kevo’s body language just then? A bit too defensive. And he used his right hand on his hair a moment ago. Arrest him. But first, ask him why he stabbed Leo in the ear.

I didn’t want to. My stomach churned. I finally got it out, my voice harsher than I intended. “So why’d you stab my Uncle Leo in the ear?”

“I didn’t. He was a good man. A kind soul.” Kevo’s vitals were precisely what they should be.

Arrest Kevo, bro.

Damn it, where was anyone’s motive? If there had been a triangle of any kind between the three of them, all of their jeeves would have known about it. Max had checked for that: nada, over and out. I rubbed my stomach.

What else could have caused the murder? The adage “follow the money” didn’t apply here. Donna and Kevo were both major shareholders in Shoe Fly, and without Uncle Leo’s talent, all indications were the business would wither away. Why kill the burly golden goose? I rubbed my stomach again. I needed an extra-strength antacid.

You can’t ignore the vid record, Max said, a bit testily. Get on with it.

I turned back to Kevo. “Who might have—” My question faltered as Max took the almost unprecedented move of inserting huge flashing letters across my vision: ARREST HIM NOW.

Max had to be right. He always was. And the evidence fit. Max couldn’t make me arrest Kevo but it was hard to find a reason not to.

I took the cuffs off my belt and snicked them open.

 

#

 

Back at the precinct, I swallowed two stomach tablets. Max seemed back to his old self once we’d dropped Kevo off at the prison, offering biofeedback help I’d rudely ignored.

Exiting the LRT station, after yet more delayed trains, we’d passed a crowd gathered on the sidewalk below an open fourth-storey window. Max warned me against seeing another dead body and said a detective was already patting the widower’s arm.

Out of interest, I asked Max for today’s city-wide total deaths and he flashed the figure at me. I recalled yesterday’s rate: it was the precisely the same. Even weirder, the breakdown as to murders, suicides, and accidents wasn’t available. Minor processing delays, Max said.

I wended my way past empty desks and through echoing halls. Every officer must be out on duty. I headed for the elevator to the basement.

Let’s go home, bro. There’s a hockey game tonight and you want to finish that jigsaw puzzle.

Max was right. I’d rather be at home fitting cardboard pieces in place, creating order from chaos, or reading up on some trivia on an encyclopedia site. But my gut feelings—if that’s what they were—wouldn’t let me rest. I started to subvocalize an apology to Max but I bit it off halfway. Surely, I had a right to waste my own time. I pressed the down button. Janin, the coroner, could help me examine Uncle Leo’s body.

I pushed through the morgue doors. At first, I didn’t see her. I couldn’t imagine where else she would be—the morgue was Janin’s life. Finally, I spied her fast asleep on one of the metal tables, snoring like a…heavily snoring person. Her wrinkled clothes and unwashed hair gave off an even fouler reek than the steel drawers that lined the far wall and she clutched an empty liquor bottle. I wouldn’t be getting help from her any time soon.

“Max, why didn’t you tell me Janin had a relapse?” I knew she didn’t handle change well and had some coping mechanisms, like owning twenty identical pairs of socks or living in the morgue whenever the LRT had a route change, but getting passed-out drunk was pretty unusual for her. I couldn’t figure it. I looked around. Fenced in by shelves of old medical textbooks, Janin’s desk was littered with a dozen splayed-open books, scalpels, eyeshadow, and a toothbrush. An open file drawer held more empty booze bottles. “What’s changed in her life, lately?”

It’s redundant to be here. Kevo will serve his time. Let’s go home. Max was getting testy again.

“In a minute.” I swallowed my irritation and read the glowing displays on the drawers, pressing the button to slide poor Uncle Leo out. The big gouge on the right side of his head had congealed and shrunk a bit. A hand could just about cover it. Not that I was going to touch him.

Look somewhere else, bro.

I obediently faced the empty blankwall, trying to imagine how it had been. If Kevo had stabbed Uncle Leo in the head and then run off, poor Uncle Leo had bled out alone on the beach. A person shouldn’t have to die alone like that. “Do you think he felt it?” I said aloud. “Do you think Uncle Leo felt a moment of being without his jeeve? Without anyone at all?”

You’ll never be alone, Paul. You’ve got me.

Maybe that was the problem.

I stood there so long that Max gave me a little nudge, a not-unpleasant tingle in my head that I’d never felt before.

Let’s go home, bro.

I turned to Janin’s desk, plopped into her old-fashioned swivel chair and turned over the top five books. “Soon, Max.”

A Koran, the Torah, and several Bibles. There didn’t seem to be any pattern in the text of the open pages.

You don’t believe in a higher power, bro.

Was that true? There were different kinds of power, weren’t there?

I did what I always did when I lacked the ability to put pieces together. I gathered more information. Only, this time I didn’t ask Max. Instead, I reached for a medical textbook from the dusty shelves overhead.

Ignoring Max’s distracting chatter while reading the texts with their indecipherable diagrams turned out to be the easy part. Probing Uncle Leo’s ear using Janin’s old-fashioned magnifying eyeglasses made my headache worse and my stomach a swamp.

Four hours later, after a lot of hand washing in bleach, and two ginger ales from the vending machine down the hall, I stared at a series of diagrams deep in a tome called “Advanced Forensics Vol. 17, Stab Wound Analysis”. The angle and the abrasions on the margins of Uncle Leo’s head gouge matched the last diagram on the page.

The wound had been self-inflicted.

I sat back in the chair. That meant all the various vid evidence had been photoshopped. Max telling me the perp was a “right-handed short assailant” was a lie.

The suicide rate was a lie.

Hell, the beach volleyball score was probably a lie.

I didn’t have the imagination to be a gambler but right now I was willing to bet that the suicide rate was up substantially and the victims consisted of artists, musicians, and writers. Dad’s suicide might have been caused by his own mistaken lack of self-worth—I squeezed my eyes shut and willed my tears away—but Uncle Leo, and all the other creative people, had been driven insane. The cause? Last night’s upgrade.

How could all the loyal jeeves across Canada betray us so? Did they really think controlling us would make us better people? A better society? How could Max have done that to me, his best bro? I gripped the chair arms so tightly my hands tingled. I unclenched them and managed to draw steadier breaths, sitting very still. If my vitals gave me away, well, I couldn’t imagine what Max might do.

I let Max continue to natter on, about how being here was a waste of time. My breathing slowed. I flipped a few pages at random in the book, hoping Max wouldn’t guess I’d drummed up the imagination to figure things out.

Max went on and on. Things like, you’d be happier at home, bro. You know I only have your best interests at heart, don’t you buddy? I kept nodding as if I agreed. Once he even cracked a joke—I guess he didn’t know me as well as he thought he did.

My thoughts flowed faster and faster and I shivered in the morgue’s chill.

I was probably the only cop that Uncle Leo had known. He had been talking about me to Kevo. He’d hoped to find me on my habitual walk and tell me his suspicions.

If I’d taken my usual route, he would have.

I pictured him stumbling around on the beach after Kevo had left, perhaps getting incorrect information on my whereabouts from his own jeeve, until his paranoia got the better of him. He’d raised the knife, probably hesitating several times, until he’d finally given in, stabbing his own jeeve in an act of butchery that had killed him.

Paul? Buddy? Talk to me, bro. Max changed his tone, now sounded almost pleading, like he was going to regret whatever he was about to do. The tingles in my head, no longer so pleasant, had been increasing over the past hour.

I slammed the textbook closed.

Janin still snored, tightly curled up on her side. The department, three corridors and two floors away, was most likely still vacant. With the increase in suicides, they’d have their hands full simply coping with doing their job amid their own upgrade-induced disorientation—the more creative they were, the more afflicted they’d be.

My small parietal lobe meant I was currently the most capable person in Canada.

I was the only one that could save us.

But, first, I had to get free.

I looked at my hand. Keeping my breaths even and slow had worked. My fingers were steady. Steady enough?

Bro, go home. This time, the tingle hurt.

One of the vodka bottles in the file drawer was still half full. Alcohol could be both an anesthetic and a disinfectant—my trivia knowledge finally was going to come in handy: I stood the bottle on the desk next to Janin’s make-up mirror and opened an anatomy text to a picture of the ear canal.

Now, Paul. Now. A blinking red arrow traced a path to the door.

I shook my head.

Then I picked up a scalpel and rolled it between my palms.

 

—-

Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Unlikely Story, Tesseracts, and many other publications throughout the world. Her previous story in EGM can be found here. For more of her work, see hollyschofield.wordpress.com.





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