THE KING OF EVIL
After a horrific accident, graphic artist Jack Simmons and his wife, Cindy, have lost all sense of a normal life. With their marriage in pieces, their only hope in setting things back is by starting over. The two pack their lives in boxes and migrate to the Big Easy. Upon arrival, Jack and Cindy fall into the jobs of their dreams. The new start they were hoping for seemed to have been waiting for them in New Orleans, after all. But something followed them. Something Evil.
Jack is commissioned to create the artwork for a graphic novel about a voodoo king, The King of Evil. As Jack works diligently to create a masterpiece, drawing the images back and forth between paper and his computer, he starts seeing things. Images of his King appear in the corners of his vision. They spring up just as Jack falls asleep. Always only inches out of plain sight.
The King grows more powerful, and soon he unleashes his power on Jack, Cindy, and the people in their lives. The King slowly destroys everyone around them, showing the newly rekindled couple what it's like to be evil for evil's sake. Jack and Cindy will need help from the King's past victims to stop him.
The King of Evil is a heart-pounding, supernatural thriller. Its vibrant characters and intense action is certain to keep its audience reading well into the night.
In the 1940s there was a hospital on the back way out of town where the poor people had their children. It was far enough out of the way that the city was only a murmur, and the trees surrounding the building threatened to break in through the windows. The red brick building was small, and there were only a few rooms. At the edge of the tall grass where the trees stopped, a chipmunk stared in wonder at the marvelous brick structure built by man. She had spent a long day trudging through the swampy Louisiana woods, which was much harder now that she was carrying a litter. The far away sky bruised with the arrival of an oncoming storm.
Bars guarded the glass, but the chipmunk had no problem watching the commotion inside. She didn’t see the brownish-orange, diamond-shaped head easing through the tall grass. She watched as the big people picked up the small people from tiny beds and walked out of view. Then a big person would return and lay the small one back in the bed. No one but the chipmunk seemed to notice when the black smoke rose from the center of the room. None of the people reacted whatsoever, because only the chipmunk saw the ashy gray person materialize in the center of the nursery. The head crept closer. The life inside the chipmunk’s belly stirred. They were hungry, too.
The gray person stood above the tiny bed with wide eyes fixed on the small person. He looked back and forth between the one in front of him and the one just to his right. Then he turned to the one on his right as if suddenly more intrigued with that one. The chipmunk had no idea what to make of this. She just wanted food, and there was the feint smell of something sweet coming from that building. The chipmunk stood on her hind legs. She stopped, tilting her head. The new person, the one no one else seemed to notice, lifted an arm above his head. The copperhead sprung forward, sinking its teeth and venom into her back. The arm descended. As life drained from the chipmunk, the ashy gray person vanished, and the other people in the building seemed to panic.
The First Night
“Shh,” Jack said, glaring through the space between the drapes and window next to the back door. “There’s someone in the yard. Get your phone.”
“Cut it out,” Cindy said, playfully. “Come back to bed.”
The room was pitch black, but she knew he stared out one of the tall narrow windows flanking the back door. His moonlit face shined from beside the drapes. The cold night invaded the house, and Cindy shivered. She could almost see his breath in the glow reaching through the glass like a phantom. Not sure what to believe—Jack wasn’t one to make jokes like this—she reached for the light switch. Her finger came upon the cold metal barrel of Jack’s shotgun. There was no time to consider what she felt before her foot grazed a moving box at the bottom of the stairs between the kitchen and the family room. She thought certainly there would be a full-fledged family to fill that room by now. She caught the teetering stack and stabled the tower of boxes before a loud crash sounded through the open ground floor. She turned back to Jack. She could see the look of anger and concern twisting his face.
“Shh,” he whispered again. He didn’t want to alarm her. “Don’t move.”
The initial thought that Jack was kidding her morphed into something just outside of sheer panic. The change was instantaneous. She went as cold as the barrel of the gun. “Jack,” her voice trembled. “Jack, what do we do?”
“Where’s your phone?” he whispered.
“By the bed.”
“Go upstairs and call the police. Don’t make a lot of noise. Everything is going to be fine. Nothing is going to happen. Let’s just be quiet. We don’t want anything to happen, and if we stay quiet nothing will.” His voice was soft and confident. He did his best not to send her into a panic. That wasn’t something she usually did, but they had never gone through this sort of thing before. Jack kept his attention on the back yard.
In the far corner of the privacy fence stood a dilapidated shack that housed old paint cans, the lawnmower, and little else. Jack had mounted a floodlight above the door that illuminated the yard every night at eight until six the next morning. Between the house and the shack there was a small garden where they grew tomatoes together, but since the move began they hadn’t done more than water the dying leaves.
Jack watched the figure standing next to the shed. Not quite in the light, but Jack could see the silhouette of a person standing, waiting. Whoever it was stood tall enough to bump his head on the roof of the shed. His build was lanky, reminding Jack of the slender man videos he had seen in college. He had to shove that thought away before he really started to fall apart. Jack kept his eyes fixed on the black outline encroaching on their property and interrupting their feeling of safety.
Cindy’s voice came from the bedroom upstairs. Jack nearly called back to her when he realized that she was on the phone. She was using her headphones because he could see a feint glow from the cellphone’s screen lighting up the stairway. Jack listened to Cindy give the police their address and ask them to please hurry. There was enough fear in her voice to warrant an emergency, but she managed to keep composed.
“What are you doing out there?” Jack whispered to himself. He glared at the black shape through the windows. It didn’t move. It seemed to be staring right back at him. “Nobody’s bothering you.”
“They’re on their way,” Cindy called down the stairs, making an effort not to be too loud. “They said someone is already in the area.”
“Okay, honey,” Jack said, feeling awkward after calling his wife of nearly five years “honey” for the first time in their lives. The words tasted like medicine he didn’t need. He grimaced. “Just stay up there, alright? Do you remember where we put the other gun?”
“Behind the suitcases?”
Jack had actually forgotten. The tedious work of packing up the house caused the location of many things to lose their place in his mind. “Grab it and don’t put it down until the police come, okay?”
“Okay,” Cindy was crying. “I love you, Jack.”
He knew what she was doing. After this long he could probably spell out with the exact words what she was thinking. “Don’t go thinking anything is going to happen, Cin. It’s just a guy in the yard. Probably just a wonderer. Just wait for me in bed.” He felt a little guilty and told her he loved her, too. “I’m serious. Nothing’s going to happen.”
“Can he hear us?” She asked.
“He isn’t moving. If I had to guess I’d say he doesn’t.”
“What does he look like?”
“I can’t tell. He’s standing in the shadows by the shed.”
“I knew we should’ve gotten rid of that thing.” Cindy said, more to herself than Jack. “I can’t believe this is happening. Thank God we’re getting the hell out of this shitty city.”
“It’s okay, Cin,” Jack said, going over a mental list of reasons the city had been shitty for them. There was one big reason, and a ton of little ones that made it seem so much bigger. He had to make a conscious effort to slow down before his thoughts spiraled out of control. He focused on the person outside until the feeling was out of his system. He could only think of one thing to say that might keep Cindy calm. He said it without knowing anything of its validity. “The police will be here in no time. They’ll be here before this guy has time to do anything crazy in the first place.”
The shadow moved. It remained in the same spot but it’s arms flailed eccentrically. There was a little hint of red where the person’s head was. Too bright to be hair. The movement was familiar to Jack. Almost like a pitcher’s wind up, Jack had enough time to think. In front of his eyes, the window cracked, dead center in the pane. The break speared out in all directions like ice. Cindy screamed. Her voice rang in his ears.
“What’s happening, Jack?”
“The son of a bitch threw something.” Jack was taken aback, offended. Not only did this asshole have the nerve to step onto his property, but he was also destroying it, literally right in front of Jack’s eyes. Jack had to focus on keeping his voice calm. He didn’t want to stir her into a frenzy, because when Cindy felt something, it spilled over to the people around her. That’s the kind of person she was. What she felt, everyone felt.
Jack pulled the handle on the door, tightening the grip on the shotgun. The knob was locked, and the door didn’t budge. He supposed that wasn’t a bad thing. His heart pounded as Jack realized he had never even shot the gun in his hand. His mouth quivered. His eyes watered.
From across the house, he heard knocking on the door, shaking Jack back to reality.
“Don’t let him come in!” Cindy shouted, hearing someone outside fumble with a knob.
“It’s the cops, Cin,” Jack walked through the house. He heard thumping overhead, and Cindy raced behind him to the front door. Jack confirmed the policemen on the front porch through the peephole and ushered them inside.
“Is everyone alright, sir?” The officer in charge asked.
“Come on,” Jack rushed back through the house. “He’s out by the shed. He threw something at the house.”
A second police officer stayed behind, talking to Cindy.
Jack unlocked the handle and threw open the door.
The policeman behind him charged forward with a handgun loaded behind the beam of a Maglite. “Nobody move,” he shouted in the direction of the shed. “Come out here, right now. You’re under arrest.”
Jack followed for a few steps, but he knew the shadows would be empty. That’s how these things worked after all. They could scan every inch of the back yard, but it would be a waste of time. The intruder was gone. Just like that. Fast as the pitch that destroyed the kitchen window.
“Shit,” Jack said under his breath.
He’s gone, he thought. Thank God we’re leaving this shithole town.
v v v
“Mr. Simmons, did you get a good look at him?”
The blue and red lights from the police car chased each other across the walls of Jack and Cindy’s living room in the dull shine of the end table lamp. Jack and Cindy both wanted the lights to be turned off. In a small neighborhood like this, all it took to become a spectacle was the dancing red and blues of a police car.
“I don’t really know,” Jack explained. “He was tall. His head nearly touched the roof of the shed. But that’s really all I could tell you. I’m not even one hundred percent sure it was a man if I’m being totally honest. I didn’t go outside, but he looked pretty scrawny from here. I just watched him from the window and made sure he didn’t try to come inside. I probably wouldn’t even be able to pick him out of a line up.”
“What’d you see?” The officer asked. Jack felt a tinge of impatience in his voice. “What was he doing, I mean?”
“He was just standing there.”
“Okay,” the policeman said. “How did you discover him?”
“I woke up about an hour ago, and I couldn’t go back to sleep. I had a weird dream so I was already on edge. Maybe I was looking for something to jump at. Eventually I came down for some water, and I noticed something moving in the flood light on the shed. The shadow passed over the window. I peeked through the glass on the side of the door and saw someone, so I ran and got the gun. I was about to go outside and see what was happening when Cindy came down. I didn’t want anything happening to her, so I stayed where I was. That’s when she called you guys, and I guess in the time it took to answer the door he jumped the fence.”
“Notice any damage to the property?”
“He threw something at the window. It’s busted.” Jack pulled the curtain to the side, revealing a shattered panel of glass. Part of him was beginning to worry that the man was never there at all. But seeing the fractured glass put that thought out of his mind.
“You see what he threw?”
“No idea. I was keeping an eye on him. I didn’t even see anything move. He didn’t pick anything up. He must have already had it on him.”
“Anything else you can tell us? What he was wearing, which way he went, did he say anything? Anything like that that could help?”
“No.” Then something came to him. Wasn’t he wearing something on his head? Wasn’t something red up there? He didn’t know for sure, but it wouldn’t hurt to tell the police what he saw. “He might have been wearing a hat I think.”
“What kind of hat?”
“Like a baseball cap. Maybe a bandana, or something. I just know it was red. Again I couldn’t really see much.”
The other officer returned from a perimeter check. He noticed the boxes throughout the house. It was difficult not to see them. “Y’all moving?”
“Yeah,” Cindy said. She pushed the hair out of her eyes and locked her arms together at the front of her robe. “Within the week.”
“I hope this isn’t why,” the officer chuckled.
“No, it’s more than just this,” Cindy interrupted. Her tone froze the room and everything in it. She told herself to calm down. Nothing good will come from you snapping at someone. It’s not his fault. Whoever or whatever it was is gone now. She took a breath and said, “We’re moving to Metairie.”
“You’ve heard of it then?” Cindy said. She was being sarcastic, but that went right over the policeman’s head.
“Oh, yeah,” the cop said. “Why so far away?”
“It’s only a couple hours,” Cindy said. “We’ll come visit if you start to miss us.”
“She got a better job in New Orleans,” Jack told the officer, glad to see Cindy was melting back to normal.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a physical therapist,” she answered
“So I shouldn’t assume anyone would want to…you know…exact their revenge on you?”
That’s not an appropriate way to say that, Jack thought but didn’t say.
“No,” Cindy answered. “I can’t imagine anyone would. I only help people get better. No one ever gets mad at someone for that, right? Besides, ninety percent of the people I work with are retirees.”
“Never know. We’ll go ahead and assume not. If you think of someone, let us know.” The officer pointed the end of his pen at Jack. “What about you? Anyone wanting to get back at you for anything?”
“I’m an artist,” Jack said.
“So were John Lennon, Phil Hartman, and Tupac Shakur.”
“I’m more or a graphic designer.”
“And he’s better than he acts,” Cindy said.
“I’m not ‘Phil Hartman’ good.”
“Hmm…” the officer said. “And do you have any reason to believe someone was breaking in to harm either of you?”
“No,” Jack said. “We always keep our appointments. Keep our yard clean. Recycle.”
“We used to recycle,” Cindy added.
“Anything like this happen before on the property?”
“No,” Cindy said. “I think this is a first for both of us.”
“Okay,” the officer closed his notepad and put the pen in his uniform pocket. “We’ll keep a car around the neighborhood just in case. A neighborhood like this, if you jump out of one yard, you jump into someone else’s. We’ll come by in the morning and see if anyone else saw anything. Lock the doors. Close the windows. If anything happens again, just give us a call.” The officer handed Jack a card with no more information than he could get by dialing 911. The officer’s signature was scribbled on a line in the middle, but Jack couldn’t read it.
“Sure thing,” Jack said, leading the policemen out of the house. He closed the door behind them and locked both the knob and the deadbolt. He turned to Cindy who stood in the hall between the living room and kitchen. He felt the air change. Now it was just the two of them again. She could be honest.
“I’m so ready to get out of this place, Jack.” Cindy said. She leaned back against the wall and slowly slid down to the floor. He joined her.
“I am, too,” Jack pulled Cindy to him. He kissed her forehead.
“Every shitty thing that ever happened to us happened here.”
“It’s almost over. We start the move tomorrow. Louisiana is just around the corner. Look on the bright side. At least it didn’t happen when we first got here. We’d be a nervous wreck from day one. Now we can know we made the right decision to move.”
“I already knew that, Mr. Simmons.” Cindy said, talking like the police officers.
“Let’s go back to bed,” Jack said. He pretended to put her in a headlock. “You have to be up in two hours.”
They walked up the stairs together, in one another’s arms.
v v v
The next morning Jack rose as Cindy showered in the adjacent bathroom. He heard the water slap onto the floor of the tub as she wrung out her hair. He rarely woke early enough to catch her before she was ready for work, but today was a big day for him. Not only was it the first official moving day, but he was also turning in the final draft of the cover for The Homerun Killer, a thriller by Steven Bell.
Jack spent weeks bringing the little dickhead’s concept to life, and a week editing it, and a second week re-editing it. He almost didn’t give Bell the painted version of his cover, but he did it for every client. No matter how difficult a client was to work with, he always did it. Bell was by far the worst, but Jack didn’t think being petty would help move his career forward. He had to keep every client regardless of their never-ending inflexibility. Plus the money he made from The Homerun Killer paid for the move and the first month on the house note. Might as well chew the bullshit and smile, he told himself when he applied the first coat of varnish. He didn’t even bother painting the edges or using black duct tape to cover the sides like he usually did. This was just a small gift for a client. Strictly for fun. Unless Bell decided to show some form of last minute appreciation for putting up with the pompous attitude and condescension toward Jack’s work, then Jack didn’t take anything away from this endeavor aside from the debt free move across state lines. If Bell had anything to say other than “Thank you, Mr. Simmons,” Jack would break the canvas over his tiny head. Tom, Jack’s agent, could pitch a fit if he wanted. To be honest the little dickhead was getting on Tom’s bad side as well.
Jack poured himself a mug of coffee and walked into the garage. He looked at the painting lying across the smallest of his four easels. He didn’t love this cover and deliberately left his name off the list of credits on the book jacket so no one would see it. Although he would never say it out right, Jack had much better ideas than the writer, every time. After all he went to college to know more about the visual aspects of a book than a writer would. Steven Bell was no exception to that rule. That’s why he insisted on the consultation before he even put the pen to paper. He understood an author’s intent on being more involved in his process, after all it was their show, their livelihood, their art, but they hired him to do a job. He just wanted them to step aside and let him do it. Most authors were more than happy to honor the tacit agreement to let Jack work his magic. Steven Bell was not one of them. It wasn’t that Jack didn’t get to use his ideas, but that his ideas weren’t even listened to. That’s what dug at him. If Bell knew exactly what he wanted, he could’ve gone to anyone. That didn’t stop Jack from cashing the checks though.
Jack sipped his coffee, inwardly swearing at the painting. Staring at it like this, he thought of the way the shadow moved last night. It winded up and threw that rock. He felt the corner of the canvas for wetness as he walked it into the kitchen. It’s actually not that bad.
“Great job, baby,” Cindy said, pulling her almost-black hair back in a ponytail. She never asked to see his work while it was still in progress. She was only there to hear his euphoric rants—and in the case of Steve Bell, talk him off the ledge—as he worked his magic on the computer. She preferred to look at the final painting so the magic wouldn’t be ruined. To have it come to her all at once, the way it came to the customers in the bookstores, made it more special. Something about the texture and the weight of the canvas felt more real to her than a print out. More complete. And when she held the canvas, she could feel her husband’s passion in what he had done. “The brooding guy in the corner’s pretty creepy.” She sipped her chocolate milk, grinning behind her freckles at Jack over the glass.
The painting displayed a vivacious crowd of baseball fans, some of their faces red from screaming, others painted maroon and yellow in support of the fictional team, many of the fans were dressed in Vikings shirts. One burly, hairy man dressed in a dark red Viking costume pumped his fists and stoked the flames of their enthusiasm. At the top of the frame, the title of the book shown brightly on the scoreboard under the line next at bat—something Jack passively fought until finally giving up after soothing a minor tantrum from his employer—and the bottom of the page was an advertising-style board leaning against the fence, which read a thriller by Steven Bell, which was also not among Jack’s favorite ideas. The arms of the fans were raised in a cheer that pointed up and to the right of the frame. Even the hairy Viking pointed to the corner of the frame. The simultaneous raised arms subtly directed the viewer’s eye to the top right side of the cover where a shadowy man stood, leering down onto the field. He wore a maroon baseball cap with a yellow “V” sewn onto the front. Everything else about the Homerun Killer was hidden in shadows. The bottom corner of his face was all that could be seen. Just a small triangle of a stubbled jawline.
“What’s his story?” Cindy asked. Another thing she waited to hear about until the end was the story behind the artwork. She wanted to be like everyone who stumbled across Jack’s covers in the bookstores, totally clueless. And that’s how she thought of them. Not as the author’s books, but as Jack’s covers.
“Well, that’s the Homerun Killer,” Jack told her. “Don’t get too close. He’s a maniac.”
“Oh, save me,” Cindy feigned terror. “Why do they call him the Homerun Killer?”
“Because every time someone comes close to breaking his homerun record, boom.” Jack ran a finger across his throat. “He ‘homerun kills’ them.”
“Ew, gross,” Cindy laughed.
“It’s pretty corny.” Jack examined his work. “But it’s published, so it must offer something.”
Cindy walked across the kitchen to Jack and put her arms around his neck. She ran her fingers over the back of his head and brushed the dark hair out of his eyes. I’ll have to cut that for him before we leave, she thought. Her scrubs were the same color as her big blue eyes. Her bangs twitched when her eyelashes rebounded from a blink. Her cheekbones were showing a little more than they used to lately. They had both lost a little weight. It wasn’t from a total lack of money, but partly from not knowing where Jack’s next check would come from, and they both cut back without thinking about it. Little things here and there. Less eating out, only one popcorn at the movies on the sporadic nights they went, Cindy finally quit the gym she was too busy to go to anymore. The other part of their weight loss, the more obvious part, came from a simple lack of time. Between her dozens of clients a week keeping her after hours, and his constant travel and self-promotion, searching for the next project, they rarely had a night to eat together. That typically made for multiple meals a week consisting of a TV dinner tray or a can of ravioli, followed by a book for an hour before bed for both of them. That was another reason Cindy was thankful for her new job. The money and the hours would be much better, and moving closer to a bigger city would give Jack higher potential for more local clientele. Cindy couldn’t wait to get out of this nowheresville town. The last few years had taken a considerable toll on her, but now she and Jack were finally in a place where they were both happy again, together. That was something Cindy had truly missed. She rubbed Jack’s back, helping him examine the painting. “Well at least you don’t have to worry with the little dickhead anymore.”
“That’s very true,” Jack said. “Some people never learn how to murder their darlings.”
Cindy looked at him with an expression somewhere between confused and genuinely frightened.
“It’s just an expression.” Jack sipped his coffee. His face sagged a little.
“What’s wrong?” She asked. She saw something sad in his eyes. Just a flicker. His face was red from mowing the lawn the day before and would be tan by the end of the day. She was secretly jealous of how dark he could get without even trying. “You usually have a lot more pep when you finish a cover. Did he really torment you that badly?”
“Nah, I just slept weird last night.”
“Because of what happened?”
“I didn’t sleep at all after the police left. My cage was rattled. The reason I woke up in the first place is what got me. I had this weird dream that the Homerun Killer was real, and he homerun killed me.”
“That’s silly,” Cindy chuckled. “You don’t even like baseball.”
“I hate baseball. Still, it woke me up.” Jack squeezed his arms around her waist so that she wouldn’t be able to get free. “He just came at me with his bat and…” he pretended to bite her neck, snarling and growling like a monster. Chills rose all over her skin, and she giggled the way she had when they started dating.
“Walk me through your day.” Cindy kissed him on the neck and laid her head on his shoulder. She swayed with him in her arms. They danced without music.
“Well, I’m going to take this piece of shit in to my agent.”
“Wonderful.” Cindy’s voice was muffled against him.
“Then I’m going to call ahead to confirm the appointment for the cable guy in Metairie.”
“Make sure he knows to bring the Internet too, so I can go back to emailing people instead of making them CDs like a caveman.”
“And then come back here to let the movers in.”
“Yay!” She quietly cheered.
“Then finally, I will wait tirelessly for my loving wife to come home from her last day of work before we blow this pop stand.”
Cindy backed away from him, smiling ear to ear. She wasn’t crying but her eyes were ready to. “I love you, Jack.”
“I love you too,” he answered.
She kissed him again, and angled the painting toward her. She put both hands on the corners the way a parent does to a child to really explain why what they did was wrong. Cindy gazed at the painting.
“Careful, it’s still a little wet. Don’t get it on you.”
She looked at it the way she looked at all of his paintings. The way a connoisseur would take in a classic by Rembrandt or Michelangelo. Sometimes he thought she cared more about the paintings than he did.
“You know, it really is good.” Cindy stepped back and really looked at the painting. She may as well have been in a museum. Her eyes shined with wonder. “It’s amazing to me that you can do that. Paint it exactly like the covers. It’s a shame it has to go to such a tool.” She hadn’t seen this cover but all the ones before it looked exactly like the paintings. “I wouldn’t have done it if I was you, honestly.”
“Well, I definitely didn’t want to,” Jack said. “I kind of think they expect it now. Plus, he paid more than anyone else has. I felt like he earned it.”
“You’re a good man, Charlie Brown. I got to go. I don’t want to be fired for being late.” Cindy kissed him again, tousled his hair, and left the house for her final day of work.
It is a pretty cool cover, he thought. God, what a dickhead though.
v v v
“I just heard that today was your last day, Mrs. S.” Mark said. He had quickly become Cindy’s favorite patient. He was the only one she actually looked forward to seeing. A few months ago he was in a horrible accident, and Cindy understood why the doctors told him he would never walk again. His tibia plateau had been broken so badly that at a glance she honestly mistook the x-ray for a mishapened hand. The plate in his leg made the images look like a slasher movie prop. His file said he was six feet, five inches tall, and he hung off both ends of the plinth table. That gave Cindy reason to think maybe six-five was undercutting him a little. He was a tiny bit over weight but Cindy could tell by his slightly drooping figure that he had lost a lot of his size recently. Mark was her ideal patient. He was sweet and charming, and always did his exercises at home. Cindy hated to think about what happened to him. That sort of thing was just a testament to how horrible this town was. “What gives? I still got a couple weeks before I’m out.”
Mark was winding down his appointment with ankle stretches. He doubled up two of the thickest bands the complex carried. His drive to recover was admirable, and at the rate he progressed, he’d prove everyone wrong and continue with his life as if nothing happened to him at all. What kind of doctor could tell a patient to give up before the bone even mended? Cindy thought for the umpteenth time.
“This is Mark,” Cindy told Dana, her trainee and replacement. Dana was new to the field just like Cindy was three years ago and fresh out of college. She was small—maybe five feet tall, a big maybe—and Cindy was a little let down that she wouldn’t be able to watch her work on Mark’s huge structure. She imaged a squirrel trying to climb a tree. “Now even if you somehow manage to kill everyone else, you must work very diligently to keep this one alive.”
“That’s right,” Mark added. “I have to be alive, so that when her husband strikes it rich as an artist, she can leave him and we’ll run away together with half of his money. Perfect crime. Plus, if the world ends, don’t you want someone tall to reach the high stuff?”
“Exactly,” Cindy told Dana. “And as you can tell, his oxycodone kicks in right before we have to bend his knee.”
“Why do you always hurt me when all I’ve ever done,” Mark paused, looking down at the floor, then continued, “is love you. Actually now is a better time than any. I can’t feel my face, and that is the typical indication that I am sedated. Also, no one ever says ‘behold’ anymore. They just start talking about whatever the hell their thing is. Just—, it’s—, there’s no flare with the language anymore.”
Dana did her best to hold back a laugh. She held out her hand to him. “I’m Dana. I’ll be taking over with you when Cindy leaves.”
“It’s great to meet you, Dana,” Mark let go of the rubber bands, launching them into the nearby hamper with the rest of the used bands waiting to be washed. Mark shook Dana’s hand. Then he slapped the thigh of his injured leg. “Watch that left leg. It’s a stubborn one.”
“See,” Cindy said, grinning. “This one’s a good one to keep alive. Ready, Mark?”
He slapped both hands on the plinth and hopped over onto his stomach. “Let’s do this.”
Cindy took her place at the side of the table and grabbed the ankle of Mark’s injured leg.
“So, Mark,” Dana asked. “What happened to your leg?”
“Well,” Mark began. “Actually could you hand me that gray ball in the corner?”
Dana tossed mark the dense rubber ball, and he caught it with one hand.
“Here we go,” Cindy said.
Mark groaned in pain as Cindy bent his knee, pulling on the scar tissue that had built up around the bone. “That’s not all you got, is it Mrs. S? This is our last time together. At least give me something to remember you by.”
Cindy laughed. “Just getting warmed up.” She shook his leg by the ankle to loosen up the joint. She bent his knee once more. Mark’s face turned red, and he squeezed the ball so hard Dana thought it was on the verge of popping.
“I’m sorry to interrupt your questioning. I was hit by a car while riding my bike home from work two days before Christmas. Ooo! Oo! Uffta! That’s what I’m talking about, Mrs. S. Right now, I’m sure you can tell by my chart thing there that I have a metric shitload of scar tissue in my knee right now, and it’s now your job to break it up.”
“Well that’s not all,” Cindy said. “We have to get you back on your bike, right?”
“Exa-a-actly,” Mark said, grimacing in pain. He dropped the ball and Dana scrambled to pick it up for him.
“We’ve been getting a one hundred-degree bend in the knee,” Cindy told Dana. “We’ve hit a bit of a wall with the tissue, but we’re not giving up, are we?”
“Absolutely not!” Mark laughed once the piercing bolt of pain shooting up his left side abated. “You only do that when I’m talking so you can hear me scream, don’t you?”
“Awe, does baby need a nap?”
“No-oh!” Mark said.
Cindy shook his leg, loosening the knee a little more. “One more time and we’re going to measure, you ready?”
“Give it to me. I can take it.”
Cindy bent the leg until Mark groaned and bounced the bend causing the groan to crescendo loudly. Just then Estelle, the seventy-five year-old woman responsible for teaching the Norwegian exclamation “uffta” to Mark and the therapists, walked into the building. Cindy couldn’t really tell how she felt about the woman. She was mean, but she made up for it with her eccentric sense of humor. She and Mark got along very well from across the room.
“That must be Mark.” Estelle called through the gym.
“Hello, Estelle,” Mark said, catching his breath. “You’re up next.”
“That’s horrible,” Dana said. “Did he go to jail?”
“I like to think he just went home and drowned in the tub,” Mark joked. “I doubt it, but he must have been in a hurry to do something. He didn’t have time to stop apparently.”
“Are you kidding?” Dana said. “What did the police say?”
“He said ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ as if helping wasn’t an option. Of course he probably couldn’t remember what happened anyway. He took a week-long vacation and locked the case in his office so no one else could help me either.”
“That’s horrible,” Dana said.
Cindy agreed. She’d heard the story a few times, but it still managed to stir her into a minor frenzy. That made bending Mark’s leg a little bit easier.
“Yeah,” Mark said. “But I got these cool scars, and a badass story to tell. It could be worse. I could’ve gotten hit by the car and died. Then I wouldn’t have anything to show for it. That would have fucked everything up. Sorry for swearing.”
Cindy laughed. That was a new addition to the story. “Always the optimist. Got your breath?”
“I guess,” Mark rolled over onto his back.
“Ready for the goniometer?” Dana asked.
“Oh yeah,” Mark said. “It’s protractor time.” He lifted his leg in the air slowly.
“You want to measure or bend?” Cindy asked. “Dealers choice.”
“I can bend,” Dana said. “I may as well get used to it.”
“Okay,” Cindy said. She lined the goniometer even with Mark’s leg, placing the pivot point on his knee. “On three.” Cindy counted down and the three of them strained to bend Mark’s knee farther than they had before. After a minute of groaning and heavy breathing they stopped. Cindy checked the measurement. “One oh six.”
“Yeah!” Mark shouted, exalted. “I knew we weren’t done with this. Well, Dana you are clearly my good luck charm. You have successfully been passed the torch, and for the remaining two weeks of my time here we’re going to have a lot of fun.”
Cindy used a towel to wipe the sweat from the plinth table. “Worked hard today, I see.”
“Had to see you off in style.” Mark winked.
“Cute,” Cindy laughed. “You want the electricity or just the ice today?”
“Give me both,” Mark said. “Feeling good about myself. The painkillers are also starting to wear off, and I don’t want to feel any of that when they do.”
“Okay, I’ll be right back. Dana, do you mind getting the electricity?”
Cindy walked to her office and returned with the electrolysis pads. She affixed them around Mark’s knee. I wish they’d just make these easier, she thought. Can they not figure out how to combine these machines so one does ice and electricity? There are too many wires.
“So why are you moving?” Mark asked.
“You want the real reason?”
“Obviously,” Mark said.
“I’m just not happy here. The hours are stressful. The pay isn’t as good, and it’s hard for Jack to keep up momentum when he’s always on the run. New Orleans will give him a bigger pond to fish in. Besides, there’s no moving through the ranks here. We’re a mom-and-pop organization. I’m as high as I can go here. At least there I’ll be at a great facility and can move up. There are hundreds of employees there to take up the slack. It’s a better place for me.”
“I get it,” Mark said, massaging the side of his leg where the plate was drilled into the bone. “Although you could’ve stopped after the first thing you said. Who cares why you’re moving if the place you’re moving from makes you unhappy, right? Are you happy to be moving there? And by that I mean are you just as happy to be moving there as you are moving away from here. I’d hate to find out that you got out of the frying pan and into a different frying pan.”
“Oh, of course. A lot of my friends are there, I love the city, and Metairie is far enough away for quiet, and close enough to watch a good basketball game.”
“I hear that,” Mark tipped his sweat-stained Dolphins cap. “Go Pelicans.”
“Let me know when you can feel it.” Cindy slowly dialed up the intensity of the electrolysis machine.
“Well, I’m happy for you, Mrs. S. I’ve always wanted to go to Phoenix.”
“No, talk about a gross city. That’s good, I can feel it.” Mark rubbed the ice pack on his leg. “Phoenix is clean, and there’s no beach. Almost no reason at all to go there. It’s everything Florida isn’t. What are you, twenty-six? Twenty-seven?”
“Thirty,” Cindy said, giving him a “yeah right” grin.
“You’re six years older than I am? You look like you could be my baby sister.”
“Come on,” Cindy added.
“Well I hope in six years I’ll be as happy as you. You have officially set the benchmark for me. I get to thirty and I’m getting out of here. Goodbye, hometown.” He flicked his hand toward the ceiling as if sending out a preemptive wave. “Maybe I’ll stop by on my way out West. I’m going to miss you, Mrs. S.”
“Well, good luck, Mark.” She hugged him. Her heart fluttered. Mark had become her friend, and it was actually difficult to tell him goodbye. She was going to miss him, but the only thing that let her leave with a clear conscience is that she knew in two weeks he would have his last visit to the institute. He’d be on his own again. Never coming back to the University Blvd. Physical Therapy Institute. “You stop screwing around on that bike,” she said. “I will come back here.”
“Because you’d miss me.” Mark laughed.
Cindy continued her rounds and helped Miss Estelle onto the stationary bike. She finished her day like every other normal day. And at the end, there was no party, no sentimental moment with her co-workers. Just a wave across the parking lot. That was enough for her, because in the morning she would be on her way out for good. That thought made her smile. Goodbye, hometown, she thought.
v v v
Jack picked up the cordless phone and held it between his shoulder and ear as he continued making dinner. The movers had pulled out about fifteen minutes ago, and he wanted to surprise Cindy with dinner as well as an almost completely empty house. He answered the phone, wiping his still sweating face dry with his shirtsleeve.
“Jackie boy!” his agent, Tom Dwyer, yelled into the receiver. He was never “Jackie boy” unless Tom had a job lined up.
“Hey,” Jack said. His obvious preoccupation with dinner had seeped through the phone.
“Whoa,” Tom said. “Cindy must be gone. You sound so boring.”
“Thank you.” Jack said in a robotic monotone voice. “She’s coming home now. I’m just getting dinner ready. Got something new for me?”
“So domesticated. Why yes I do, my friend. And holy shit, are you going to love me.”
“Well, I hope so,” Jack answered. He perked up a little. Tom usually started the good deals this way. Why aren’t you as excited about this as me? he would usually say. Because you haven’t told me anything yet, Tom, would typically be Jack’s answer. “I’ll need a backup plan if Cindy ever wises up and realizes she married a bum.”
“Ha!” Jack flinched at the sound of Tom’s voice peaking the speakers in the phone. “Are you on the toilet, Jack? I just don’t want you to shit yourself.”
“What’s the job, Tom?” He allowed a little excitement to creep into his voice. The truth was, Tom Dwyer never got this excited about just anything. Jack was wondering the last time he was ever this excited. Tom had blown right by “Are you sitting down, well don’t because you’ll just stand right back up when you hear this,” and skipped directly to toilet humor.
“Ever hear of Joe McDermott?”
“The writer, Jackie boy! The writer.”
“I actually think I have.”
“Of course, you have,” Tom’s voice was coaxing, like a snake charmer. Come with me, Jackie boy. I have great news. Right this way. I’ll lead you to the truth. “Everything he does turns to diamonds lately. International bestseller. Two of his books have already been made into movies, and another is in pre-production as we speak. Fox picked it up as a summer series. He released a book of poetry a few years back and won the National Critics Butthole Award or something like that. I never read the shit.”
“Good for him.” Jack repositioned the phone to stir the pasta. He was losing interest. “His mother must be very proud to know her son won the Butthole award. I bet she’s polishing that gold-plated anus trophy right now. She probably calls the neighbors.”
“Well,” Tom said, matter-of-fact. “This guy McDermott has decided to branch out into even newer forms of literary prowess.”
“Right?” Jack stopped stirring the various pots and skillets of food. He turned all the eyes on the stovetop to simmer. He was starting to believe this wasn’t just another cover.
“Ah ha, I see I have the wiseass’s attention. Well you will be happy to know that your boy Tommy here is working for ya. I caught wind of his new project accidentally. That’s bullshit. Son of a Bitch Jennings at the firm left his laptop open when he went out to take a piss. Jennings was his agent until he got too big and Jennings didn’t have enough time for him. I guess they keep in touch still. I saw an email from McDermott pop up on his computer, talking about a serial graphic novel that has already been picked up with an advance by IDW. Said he thinks he found an artist. Said he likes his work, but he’s not totally committed to him yet.”
“Yes shit, Jackie boy. I took a picture of the email with my phone and bippidy boppidy mother-fuckin boo! Twenty minutes later I had him in the palm of my hand. I sent him your entire published portfolio.”
“Whoa, what? Tom—”
“Now, I know you don’t like when I do that without permission, but trust me. This time is worth it. He didn’t want to wait. He wanted to see something right then. Plus, I didn’t send him anything you hadn’t sold or copywritten already. I’m telling ya, I got your back.”
“Well what’d he say?”
“What’d he say?” Tom sounded disgusted. “Why would I be calling you if it was no? Come on. Actually, what he said was, he had a guy in mind already, but he hadn’t committed to anything yet. He told me he loved what you do. The cover of Bone Dry was the exact kind of creepy he is after. Believe it or not, Homerun Killer is what won him over.”
“Bullshit,” Jack said. “I hate that one.”
“You take that back,” Tom joked. “He loved it. He thought your work was brilliant. And if all goes well, I’ll call it even. You had to work for the little dickhead but it may have gotten you a much better deal. See what I’m saying. It’s all about paying dues, my friend.”
“I see what you’re saying,” Jack said. “What’s the new project?”
“Well, that’s the only thing. Like I said, he already had a guy in mind. He’s going to float the idea to him, but it’s going to be sort of an audition process. You haven’t gotten the job yet, but you can get it. All he wants is the cover first. ‘Oh, Tom, are you kidding?’ No, I’m not. I know this is all you ever do. Which is why I have the utmost confidence that you are going to hit this one out of the park. Nail it to the wall.”
“That’s it? Just a cover?”
“That’s all he wants. Basically all you and this Trevor something has to do is wow him with the front. ‘If it makes me want to work with them, it’ll make the readers want to pick it up and read it.’ His words, not mine.”
“Well, what’s the story about?”
“It’s called The King of Evil.” Tom brimmed with excitement. “And this is the part where you need to get to a toilet. I’ll wait.”
“It’s about the legendary King of Voodoo.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“I am not kidding you, sir.”
“That’s where I live now. Right in the heart of Voodoo country.”
“Exactly,” Tom said. Jack knew he had a lit cigarette and he was jabbing in the air to emphasize his words. Jack could almost smell the smoke from the Pall Malls through the phone. “And don’t think I didn’t bring that up to Mr. McDermott. Apparently years and years ago, before our time, the Voodoo King lived on an island where people would go as a rite of passage. If you can stare down the Voodoo King and not show fear, you win kind of thing. Something happened along the line that caused him to leave the island and go after people. Then after stealing her baby, a witch locked the King in a magic box and our protagonist stumbled upon it and let the Voodoo King out. Our protagonist…” Tom trailed off, scrolling through the email. “Robert Taylor is pitted against this wily King, who will not stop until he takes the heart of another, trapping them in the weird magic box. That’s all he’s giving either of you to work with. He just wants the cover.”
“Did he say anything about adding our own little flares and individuality that my last client had such a tizzy over?”
“Actually I just replied to his email with that same question. I’m waiting for the answer now. This is big though. Not only will you be getting to work with a great pre-established author, but they’re giving you a lump up front to complete the work.”
“If I get the job, obviously,” Jack added.
“Well yeah, but you’re going to get it.”
“What’s the lump?”
“Still on the toilet?”
“A hundred and fifty thousand per volume.”
Jack nearly dropped the phone into the bubbling marinara. “You’re fucking with me.”
“I have never, and will never,” Tom said with pride. “And that doesn’t include a split royalty deal with you and McDermott. You’re going to get paid, and you’ll see profit if the series does well for once. I can’t imagine his agent knows he’s telling people that. He’s probably going to be pissed if he finds out, so don’t say anything. Let me do the negotiating. Now did your boy show up for you, or did he show up for you?”
“He showed up big fucking time,” Jack said, remembering to stir the sauce and noodles before the house filled with smoke. “I’m totally blown away right now. I don’t even know what to say. This is huge.”
“Goddamn it,” Tom shouted with excitement. “Pop some champagne! Scream and shout! Fuck your wife, this is a game changer, buddy.”
“You better believe it is.” Jacks voice had gone back down to where it was when the conversation began.
After a few moments of silence, Tom said. “Alright, calm down. I’m going to let you sit for the night.”
“Wait, wait. What’s the deadline?”
“I told him you were currently in the process of moving so he agreed to wait and let everything settle before asking for anything. He has another book he’s working on so he’s got time. He wants it by the fifth. That’s three weeks away. I figured that would give you enough time to walk around the city and get some ideas first. I’ll call you when he gets back to me. Oh, I got an email from a guy with an indie film. He wants you to do the poster. He’s still editing it, so it doesn’t have to be done for another month. I figure that could be a quick buck while you get unpacked. They’ve already sent the pictures and credits. Just wants you to put it together.”
“I’ll swing by in the morning before we leave town.”
“CD or flash?”
“I’ll bring my flash.”
“I’ll see you in the morning, Jackie boy.”
“Thank you, Tom.”
“Don’t thank me yet. You got work to do first.”
“See you in the morning, Tom.”
Jack placed the phone back in its charging cradle. Jack stared down into the sauce bubbling in the pot. He didn’t know what to do. He touched his face to make sure he was awake.
Cindy opened the front door then. Jack picked her up and laid her onto the air mattress on the living room floor without saying a word. It was the only thing left in the house. Jack kissed his wife, hoping to make her blush. He slid the scrubs off of her and tossed them on the floor. When they finished, and the house smelled like burnt Italian food, he told her about the conversation with Tom. They threw the pots and skillets into the garbage outside and ordered a pizza. When the delivery kid knocked on the door, Jack hurried off his wife and to the door, fumbling his clothes back in place. Jack gave the kid a thirteen-dollar tip, hoping he hadn’t noticed the teepee Jack was sporting. He slammed the door and went back to his wife on the deflating air mattress. When they finished, Jack apologized for burning the food. “I really wanted to cook for you tonight,” he told her.
“That’s fine, babe,” she said. “I would rather have this anyway.”
v v v
The next morning Jack and Cindy walked into Tom’s office in the center of town. The room was small and the mounted fish and small animals along the walls made it seem even smaller. Jack never asked him about his hunting career. Mostly out of a strong desire to never have a conversation about hunting. The closest Jack ever came to starting something was when he jumped at the one enormous moose head above Tom’s desk. Tom must be good. There seemed to be a new animal every time Jack walked into his office. The smell of Tom’s Pall Malls wafted up to him.
Tom’s wet-looking hair pointed up in the front as usual, and he was swimming in his oversized suit behind his desk. Must be going around, Jack thought. Usually Jack thought he looked much younger, but now something had aged him to match reality.
“The couple of the hour!” Tom stood up and hugged Jack, nearly spilling the coffee in Jack’s hands on his suit, then Cindy.
“Wow,” Cindy said. “You seem to have gotten good news recently. What happened?”
“Did you not tell her?” Tom asked Jack. “Why didn’t you tell her?”
“I’m just messing with you,” Cindy said.
“Oh,” Tom laughed awkwardly.
“Do you have it saved anywhere special?” Jack asked.
“Right there on the desktop,” Tom said. “Coda’s End, I think it’s called.”
“Lame,” Cindy added.
“No shit,” Tom agreed
“Found it,” Jack inserted the flash drive and worked through the process of uploading the files onto it. Jack saw a folder marked “YearEndTaxes” and wondered briefly if that’s what he would find in his agent’s work computer. He managed to avoid opening the folder, wondering how many people on the planet had a folder that actually kept their yearend taxes. “Mind if I see what they sent?”
“Go ahead,” Tom told him. “You still don’t seem very excited. Everything alright?”
“I just want to wait before I do,” Jack told him. Cindy slid her hand across her husband’s shoulders. “Not because it may not happen, but so I can let it all out at once when it does. That way I can be fully excited when we get the job.”
“He’s the sensible one,” Cindy told Tom. “When it comes through, he’ll be wetting his britches just like the rest of us.”
“That’s true,” he affirmed, dully.
“Well that’s good.” Tom adjusted his jacket. “I wouldn’t want to be embarrassed.”
Unimpressed with the shots from the indie film producer, Jack turned his attention back to the graphic novel. “Do you mind if I read the email from Joe?”
“Oh, no,” Tom made to walk back around the desk. “Let me log—”
“Don’t bother. The password is written on the back of your name plate.”
“You see,” Tom said to Cindy. “This why I can’t have people sitting there.”
“Cin, can you take out your phone and text me this information.” Jack said. He was clicking through the emails in Tom’s account looking for the thread from Joe.
“Sure, sweetie,” Cindy said.
“First National Bank dot com. Username T Dwyer eight six seven,” Jack said, reading off the sticky note on the back of nameplate at the end of the desk.
Tom snatched the nameplate off the desk and stuffed it into his pocket. “Funny.”
“Play nice,” Cindy laughed.
“And he says I’m weird about my paintings,” Jack said, still scrolling through emails. “Where is the thread, Tommy?”
“It should just be his name and some numbers behind it,” Tom said.
“I’m still in today’s emails? Jesus, how many do you get a day?”
“Like three, I don’t know. You’re not my only client.” Tom leaned beside him. Jack handed him the mouse, and within seconds Tom found the thread. “There it is.”
“Okay,” Jack said and started reading. Cindy came up on the other side of him and leaned on the armrest. “Well he didn’t give much. Are you cc’d from the other agent, too?”
“Yeah, I think I got a couple he sent back before he realized what he was doing. Why?”
“Just want to see where the other guy is from. Did he say his name yet?”
“Yeah, it’s somewhere in there.”
Jack found a name, Googled it, and came up with his competition. Trevor something was in fact very good, but there was a glaring advantage Jack held over him. Unless he was mistaken, there wasn’t a very active Voodoo scene in Montana, and that meant good news for Jack. He was certain that Trevor Jones had the same access to a computer and therefore the Internet, but he was probably nowhere near a place that knew the history of Voodoo the way Jack was.
“I think we got this one in the bag,” Cindy announced.
“This is a big deal, babe,” Jack said, suddenly realizing that everyone in this room counted on Jack to get this job. The pressure set in, creating a nice cushion of anxiety in the pit of his stomach. Jack sipped the coffee he brought with him, and the feeling faded.
“You’re going to kill it.”
“From what I can tell,” Tom began. “It seems like neither of you are overly familiar with the genre. Luckily you can get that way.”
“He just sent a new email,” Cindy said.
Jack clicked the boldfaced font in the new message box. Two sentences were typed on the white box of the message. One complete. One fragment. “Absolutely not,” Jack read. “That’s what they’re here for.”
“What did you ask?” Cindy turned to Tom.
“I actually don’t remember,” he answered.
Jack scrolled down. “Do you have a problem with the artists adding their own ideas in the cover or do you want only what you’ve given me?”
“Oh, thank God,” Cindy said. “I hadn’t even thought of that. I couldn’t deal with another stubborn little dickhead.”
“We couldn’t either,” Tom said. He wasn’t married yet so he didn’t understand all the “we” talk Cindy and Jack made. They were cute, but it was a little off to him. Numerous times he wondered if Jack ever said “we” had this patient the other day with his leg turned all the way around backwards. There were times when they’d lose a bid for a job, and she start in with the “we” talk. Tom always wanted to ask what she had actually done to move the project along. He never did, of course. Cindy was his favorite artist’s spouse. She was smarter than all of them combined. She was smarter than most people combined.
Most of Tom’s clients were women, and more times than he would like he got a visit or a call from a jealous husband wanting to know where his wife was—often times in the backyard tanning—or when the check was going to be deposited into their account. Cindy was a rare spouse that didn’t really care until everything was over, and she could cheer on her husband’s triumphs. “Reply back, ‘Great, we’ll see you on the fifth.’ And, I don’t know, XOXO, hugs and kisses, whatever seems appropriate.”
“Wait, we’re going to meet him?” Jack asked.
“He wants to meet the two of you in Seattle, so you can talk through your cover concepts in person.”
Jack stared up at him, eyebrows at the top of his forehead.
“He’s paying for it,” Tom said.
“Okay, good.” Jack said. “I think I’ve committed this whole thing to memory now.”
“Want me to forward it to you?”
“Hopefully, you won’t have to meet him with Trevor there, too,” Cindy said. “That would be incredibly awkward. ‘Hello I’m the man who’s going to take money out of your pocket and food out of your family’s mouth.’ That’s psychotic.”
“I would never actually say that, though,” Jack added.
“No,” Tom said. “I’m pretty sure it’s just him and his agent with you and your agent. It happens all the time. I’ve just never been a part of it.”
“Awe, that’s sad,” Cindy rubbed Tom’s arm.
Jack ejected the flash drive and dropped it into his pocket. “I now have everything. Send me an email if you need anything from me. I’ll have the Internet at home soon. Or around then.”
Tom awkwardly shook Jack’s hand too hard and escorted him and Cindy out of the office. “Send me your address so I can pick you up on the way to the airport.”
“See you in three weeks.”
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