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Public Secrets

By Judith Howard,2014-11-04 22:06
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Public Secrets

    SHE SLAMMED ON THE BRAKES, ramming hard into the curb. Somehow her brain functioned to takecare of little matters: turn off the ignition, take out the key, pull open the door. She wasshaking in the late evening heat. An earlier rain and rising temperatures caused mist to spiralup from the pavement. She ran through it, looking frantically right, left, back over hershoulder.

    The dark. She’d nearly forgotten there were things that hid in the dark.

    The noise level rose as she pushed open the doors. The fluorescent lights dazzled her eyes. Shecontinued to run, knowing only that she was terrified and someone, anyone, had to listen.

    She raced along the hallway, her heart beating a hard tattoo. A dozen or more phones wereringing. Someone cursed in a low, continual stream. She saw the doors marked Homicide and bitback a sob.

    He was kicked back at his desk, one foot resting on a torn blotter, a phone tucked between hisshoulder and ear. A Styrofoam cup of coffee was halfway to his lips.

    “Please help me,” she said, collapsing into the chair facing him. “Someone’s trying to killme.”

    Public Secrets—from

    Bantam Books by Nora Roberts

    Hot Ice

    Sacred Sins

    Brazen Virtue

    Sweet Revenge

    Genuine Lies

    Carnal Innocence

    Divine Evil

    Public Secrets

For my first hero, my father

    Prologue

Los Angeles, 1990

    SHE SLAMMED ON the brakes, ramming hard into the curb. The radio continued to blare. Shepressed both hands against her mouth to hold back hysterical laughter. A blast from the past,the disk jockey had called it. A blast from her past. Devastation was still rocking.

    Somehow her brain functioned to take care of little matters: turn off the ignition, take outthe key, pull open the door. She was shaking in the late evening heat. An earlier rain andrising temperatures caused mist to spiral up from the pavement. She ran through it, lookingfrantically right, left, back over her shoulder.

    The dark. She’d nearly forgotten there were things that hid in the dark.

    The noise level rose as she pushed open the doors. The fluorescent lights dazzled her eyes. Shecontinued to run, knowing only that she was terrified and someone, anyone, had to listen.

    She raced along the hallway, her heart beating a hard tattoo. A dozen or more phones wereringing; voices merged and mixed in complaints, shouts, questions. Someone cursed in a low,

continual stream. She saw the doors marked Homicide and bit back a sob.

    He was kicked back at his desk, one foot resting on a torn blotter, a phone tucked between hisshoulder and ear. A Styrofoam cup of coffee was halfway to his lips.

    “Please help me,” she said, collapsing into the chair facing him. “Someone’s trying to killme.”

    Chapter One

London, 1967

    THE FIRST TIME Emma met her father, she was nearly three years old. She knew what he lookedlike because her mother kept pictures of him, meticulously cut from newspapers and glossymagazines, on every surface in their cramped three-room flat. Jane Palmer had a habit ofcarrying her daughter, Emma, from picture to picture hanging on the water-stained walls andsitting on the dusty scarred furniture and telling her of the glorious love affair that hadbloomed between herself and Brian McAvoy, lead singer for the hot rock group, Devastation. Themore Jane drank, the greater that love became.

    Emma understood only parts of what she was told. She knew that the man in the pictures wasimportant, that he and his band had played for the queen. She had learned to recognize hisvoice when his songs came on the radio, or when her mother put one of the 45s she collected onthe record player.

    Emma liked his voice, and what she would learn later was called its faint Irish lilt.

    Some of the neighbors tut-tutted about the poor little girl upstairs with a mother who had afondness for the gin bottle and a vicious temper. There were times they heard Jane’s shrillcurses and Emma’s sobbing wails. Their lips would firm and knowing looks would pass betweenthe ladies as they shook out their rugs or hung up the weekly wash.

    In the early days of the summer of 1967, the summer of love, they shook their heads when theyheard the little girl’s cries through the open window of the Palmer flat. Most agreed thatyoung Jane Palmer didn’t deserve such a sweet-faced child, but they murmured only amongthemselves. No one in that part of London would dream of reporting such a matter to theauthorities.

    Of course, Emma didn’t understand terms like alcoholism or emotional illness, but even thoughshe was only three she was an expert on gauging her mother’s moods. She knew the days hermother would laugh and cuddle, the days she would scold and slap. When the atmosphere in theflat was particularly heavy, Emma would take her stuffed black dog, Charlie, crawl under thecabinet beneath the kitchen sink, and in the dark and damp, wait out her mother’s temper.

    On some days, she wasn’t quick enough.

    “Hold still, do, Emma.” Jane dragged the brush through Emma’s pale blond hair. With herteeth gritted, she resisted the urge to whack the back of it across her daughter’s rump. Shewasn’t going to lose her temper today, not today. “I’m going to make you pretty. You want tobe especially pretty today, don’t you?”

    Emma didn’t care very much about looking pretty, not when her mother’s brush strokes werehurting her scalp and the new pink dress was scratchy with starch. She continued to wriggle onthe stool as Jane tried to tie her flyaway curls back with a ribbon.

    “I said hold still.” Emma squealed when Jane dug hard fingers into the nape of her neck.“Nobody loves a dirty, nasty girl.” After two long breaths, Jane relaxed her grip. Shedidn’t want to put bruises on the child. She loved her, really. And bruises would look bad,very bad, to Brian if he noticed them.

    After dragging her from the stool, Jane kept a firm hand on Emma’s shoulder. “Take that sulkylook off your face, my girl.” But she was pleased with the results. Emma, with her wispy blondcurls and big blue eyes, looked like a pampered little princess. “Look here.” Jane’s handswere gentle again as she turned Emma to the mirror. “Don’t you look nice?”

    Emma’s mouth moved stubbornly into a pout as she studied herself in the spotted glass. Hervoice mirrored her mother’s cockney and had a trace of a childish lisp. “Itchy.”

    “A lady has to be uncomfortable if she wants a man to think she’s beautiful.” Jane’s ownslimming black corset was biting into her flesh.

    “Why?”

    “Because that’s part of a woman’s job.” She turned, examining first one side, then theother in the mirror. The dark blue dress was flattering to her full curves, making the most ofher generous breasts. Brian had always liked her breasts, she thought, and felt a quick, sexualpull.

    God, no one ever before or since had matched him in bed. There was a hunger in him, a wildhunger he hid so well under his cool and cocky exterior. She had known him since childhood, hadbeen his on-again, off-again lover for more than ten years. No one knew better what Brian wascapable of when fully aroused.

    She allowed herself to fantasize, just for a moment, what it would be like when he peeled thedress away, when his eyes roamed over her, when his slender, musician’s fingers unhooked thefrilly corset.

    They’d been good together, she remembered as she felt herself go damp. They would be goodtogether again.

    Bringing herself back, she picked up the brush and smoothed her hair. She had spent the last ofthe grocery money at the hairdresser’s getting her shoulder-length straight hair colored tomatch Emma’s. Turning her head, she watched it sway from side to side. After today, shewouldn’t have to worry about money ever again.

    Her lips were carefully painted a pale, pale pink—the same shade she had seen on supermodelJane Asher’s recent Vogue cover. Nervous, she picked up her black liner and added more

    definition near the corner of each eye.

    Fascinated, Emma watched her mother. Today she smelled of Tigress cologne instead of gin.Tentatively, Emma reached out for the lipstick tube. Her hand was slapped away.

    “Keep your hands off my things.” She gave Emma’s finger an extra slap. “Haven’t I told younever to touch my things?”

    Emma nodded. Her eyes had already filmed over.

    “And don’t start that bawling. I don’t want him seeing you for the first time with your eyesall red and your face puffy. He should have been here already.” There was an edge to Jane’svoice now, one that had Emma moving cautiously out of range. “If he doesn’t come soon …”She trailed off, going over her options as she studied herself in the glass.

    She had always been a big girl, but had never run to fat. True, the dress was a little snug,but she strained against it in interesting places. Skinny might be in fashion, but she knew menpreferred round, curvy women when the lights went out. She’d been making her living off herbody long enough to be sure of it.

    Her confidence built as she looked herself over and she fancied she resembled the pale, sulky-faced models who were the rage in London. She wasn’t wise enough to note that the new colorjob was unflattering or that the arrow-straight hair made the angles of her face boxy andharsh. She wanted to be in tune. She always had.

    “He probably didn’t believe me. Didn’t want to. Men never want their children.” Sheshrugged. Her father had never wanted her—not until her breasts had begun to develop. “Youremember that, Emma girl.” She cast a considering eye over Emma. “Men don’t want babies.They only want a woman for one thing, and you’ll find out what that is soon enough. When

they’re done, they’re done, and you’re left with a big stomach and a broken heart.”

    She picked up a cigarette and began to smoke it in quick, jerky puffs as she paced. She wishedit was grass, sweet, calming grass, but she’d spent her drug money on Emma’s new dress. Thesacrifices a mother made.

    “Well, he may not want you, but after one look he won’t be able to deny you’re his.” Eyesnarrowed against the smoke, she studied her daughter. There was another tug, almost maternal.The little tyke was certainly pretty as a picture when she was cleaned up. “You’re thegoddamn image of him, Emma luv. The papers say he’s going to marry that Wilson slut—old moneyand fancy manners—but we’ll see, we’ll just see about that. He’ll come back to me. I alwaysknew he’d come back.” She stubbed the cigarette in a chipped ashtray and left it smoldering.She needed a drink—just one taste of gin to calm her nerves. “You sit on the bed,” sheordered. “Sit right there and keep quiet. Mess with any of my stuff, and you’ll be sorry.”

    She had two drinks before she heard the knock on the door. Her heart began to pound. Like mostdrunks, she felt more attractive, more in control, once she’d had the liquor. She smootheddown her hair, fixed what she thought was a sultry smile on her face, and opened the door.

    He was beautiful. For a moment in the streaming summer sunlight, she saw only him, tall andslender, his wavy blond hair and full, serious mouth giving him the look of a poet or anapostle. As nearly as she was able, she loved.

    “Brian. So nice of you to drop by.” Her smile faded immediately when she saw the two menbehind him. “Traveling in a pack these days, Bri?”

    He wasn’t in the mood. He was carrying around a simmering rage at being trapped into seeingJane again and put the bulk of the blame on his manager and his fiancée. Now that he was here,he intended to get out again as quickly as possible.

    “You remember, Johnno.” Brian stepped inside. The smell, gin, sweat, and grease fromyesterday’s dinner, reminded him uncomfortably of his own childhood.

    “Sure.” Jane nodded briefly to the tall, gangly bass player. He was wearing a diamond on hispinky and sported a dark, fluffy beard. “Come up in the world, haven’t we, Johnno?”

    He glanced around the dingy flat. “Some of us.”

    “This is Pete Page, our manager.”

    “Miss Palmer.” Smooth, thirtyish, Pete offered a white-toothed smile and a manicured hand.

    “I’ve heard all about you.” She laid her hand in his, back up, an invitation to lift it tohis lips. He released it. “You made our boys stars.”

    “I opened a few doors.”

    “Performing for the queen, playing on the telly. Got a new album on the charts and a bigAmerican tour coming up.” She looked back at Brian. His hair fell nearly to his shoulders. Hisface was thin and pale and sensitive. Reproductions of it were gracing teenagers’ walls onboth sides of the Atlantic as his second album, Complete Devastation, bulleted up the charts.

    “Got everything you wanted.”

    Damned if he’d let her make him feel guilty because he’d made something of himself. “That’sright.”

    “Some of us get more than they want.” She tossed her long hair back. The paint on the swingygold balls she wore at her ears was chipped and peeling. She smiled again, posing a moment. Attwenty-four she was a year older than Brian, and considered herself much more savvy. “I’doffer tea, but I wasn’t expecting a party.”

    “We didn’t come for tea.” Brian stuck his hands in the wide pockets of his low-riding jeans.The sulky look he’d worn throughout the drive over had hardened. True, he was young, but he’dgrown up tough. He had no intention of letting this old, gin-soaked loner make trouble for him.“I didn’t call the law this time, Jane. That’s for old time’s sake. If you keep ringing,keep writing with all your threats and blackmail, believe me I will.”

    Her heavily lined eyes narrowed. “You want to put the bobbies on me, you go right ahead, mylad. We’ll see how all your little fans and their stick-in-the-mud parents like reading abouthow you got me pregnant. About how you deserted me and your poor little baby girl while you’rerolling in money and living high. How would that go over, Mr. Page? Think you could get Bri andthe boys another royal command performance?”

    “Miss Palmer.” Pete’s voice was smooth and calm. He’d already spent hours considering theins and outs of the situation. One glance told him he’d wasted his time. The answer here wouldbe money. “I’m sure you don’t want to air your personal business in the press. Nor do Ithink you should imply desertion when there was none.”

    “Ooh. Is he your manager, Brian, or your blinking solicitor?”

    “You weren’t pregnant when I left you.”

    “Didn’t know I was pregnant!” she shouted and gripped Brian’s black leather vest. “It wastwo months later when I found out for sure. You were gone by then. I didn’t know where to findyou. I could have gotten rid of it.” She clung harder when Brian started to pry her hands off.“I knew people who could have fixed it for me, but I was scared, more scared of that than ofhaving it.”

    “So she had a kid.” Johnno sat on the arm of a chair and pulled out a Gauloise which he litwith a heavy gold lighter. In the past two years he’d gotten very comfortable with expensivehabits. “That don’t mean it was yours, Bri.”

    “It’s his, you freaking fag.”

    “My, my.” Unperturbed, Johnno drew on the cigarette, then blew the smoke lightly but directlyinto her face. “Quite the lady, aren’t we?”

    “Back off, Johnno.” Pete’s voice remained low and calm. “Miss Palmer, we’re here to settlethis whole matter quietly.”

    And that, she thought, was her ace in the hole. “I’ll just bet you’d like to keep it quiet.You know I wasn’t with anybody else back then, Brian.” She leaned into him, letting herbreasts press and flatten against his chest. “You remember that Christmas, the last Christmaswe were together. We got high and a little crazy. We never used anything. Emma, she’ll bethree next September.”

    He remembered, though he wished he didn’t. He’d been nineteen and full of music and rage.Someone had brought cocaine and after he’d snorted for the first time he’d felt like athoroughbred stud. Quivering to fuck.

    “So you had a baby and you think she’s mine. Why did you wait until now to tell me abouther?”

    “I told you I couldn’t find you at first.” Jane moistened her lips and wished she’d hadjust one more drink. She didn’t think it would be wise to tell him she’d enjoyed playing themartyr for a while, the poor, unwed mother, all alone. And there’d been a man or two along theway to ease the road.

    “I went on this program, they have them for girls who get in trouble. I thought maybe I’dgive her away, you know, for adoption. After I had her, I couldn’t, because she looked justlike you. I thought if I gave her up, you’d find out about it and get mad at me. I was afraidyou wouldn’t give me another chance.”

    She started to cry, big fat tears that smeared her heavy makeup. They were uglier, and moredisturbing, because they were sincere. “I always knew you’d come back, Brian. I startedhearing your songs on the radio, seeing posters of you in the record store. You were on yourway. I always knew you’d make it, but, Jesus, I never knew you’d be so big. I startedthinking—”

    “I’ll bet you did,” Johnno murmured.

    “I started thinking,” she said between her teeth. “That you’d want to know about the kid. Iwent back to your old place, but you’d moved and nobody would tell me where. But I thought

about you every day. Look.”

    Taking his arm she pointed to the pictures she’d crowded on the walls of the flat. “I cut outeverything I could find about you and saved it.”

    He looked at himself reproduced a dozen times. His stomach turned. “Jesus.”

    “I called your record company, and I even went there, but they treated me like I was nobody. Itold them I was the mother of Brian McAvoy’s baby daughter, and they had me tossed out.” Shedidn’t add that she’d been drunk and had attacked the receptionist. “I started reading aboutyou and Beverly Wilson, and I got desperate. I knew she couldn’t mean anything to you, notafter what we had. But I had to talk to you somehow.”

    “Calling Bev’s flat and raving like a maniac wasn’t the best way to go about it.”

    “I had to talk to you, to make you listen. You don’t know what it’s like, Bri, worryingabout how to pay the rent, whether you’ve got enough for food. I can’t buy pretty dressesanymore or go out at night.”

    “Is money what you want?”

    She hesitated just an instant too long. “I want you, Bri, I always have.”

    Johnno tapped out his cigarette in the base of a plastic plant. “You know, Bri, there’s beena lot of talk about this kid, but I don’t see any sign of her.” He rose, and in a habitualgesture, shook back his gleaming mop of dark hair. “Ready to split?”

    Jane sent him a vicious look. “Emma’s in the bedroom. And I’m not having all of your troopin there. This is between Brian and me.”

    Johnno grinned at her. “You always did your best work in the bedroom, didn’t you, luv?”Their eyes held for a moment, the disgust they had always felt for each other clear. “Bri, shewas a first-rate whore once upon a time, but she’s second-rate now. Can we get on?”

    “You bloody queer.” Jane leaped at him before Brian caught her around the waist. “Youwouldn’t know what to do with a real woman if she bit you on the dick.”

    He continued to grin, but his eyes frosted over. “Care to give it a shot, dearie?”

    “Always could count on you to keep things running smoothly, Johnno,” Brian muttered as hetwisted Jane around in his arms. “You said this business was with me, then keep it with me.I’ll have a look at the girl.”

    “Not them two.” She snarled at Johnno as he shrugged and pulled out another cigarette. “Justyou. I want to keep it private.”

    “Fine. Wait here.” He kept his hand on Jane’s arm as she walked to the bedroom. It wasempty. “I’m tired of the game, Jane.”

    “She’s hiding. All these people put her off, that’s all. Emma! Come here to your mam rightnow.” Jane dropped to her knees beside the bed, then scrambled up to search through the narrowcloset. “She’s probably in the loo.” Rushing out, she pulled open a door off the hallway.

    “Brian.” Johnno signaled from the kitchen doorway. “Something here you might want to see.”He held up a glass, toasting Jane. “You don’t mind if I have a drink, do you, luv? The bottlewas open.” He jerked the thumb of his free hand toward the cabinet under the sink.

    The stale scent was stronger there, old liquor, ripening garbage, molding rags. Brian’s shoesstuck to the linoleum as he crossed to the cupboard, then crouched. He pulled open the door andpeered inside.

    He couldn’t see the girl clearly, only that she was hunched back in the corner, her blond hairin her eyes and something black hugged in her arms. He felt his stomach turn over, but tried tosmile.

    “Hello there.”

    Emma buried her face in the furry black bundle she held.

    “Nasty little brat. I’ll teach you to hide from me.” Jane started to make a grab, but a lookfrom Brian stopped her. He held out a hand and smiled again.

    “I don’t think I can fit in there with you. Would you mind coming out a minute?” He saw herpeep up over her folded arms. “No one’s going to hurt you.”

    He had such a nice voice, Emma thought, soft and pretty like music. He was smiling at her. Thelight through the kitchen window was on his hair, making the deep, rich blond shine. Like anangel’s hair. She giggled, then crawled out.

    Her new dress was smeared and spotted. Her wispy baby hair was damp from a leak under the sink.She smiled, showing little white teeth with a crooked inciser. Brian ran his tongue over asimilar one in his own mouth. When her lips curved, a dimple winked at the left corner of hermouth, a twin of his. Eyes as deep and blue as his own stared back at him.

    “I fixed her up real nice.” There was a whine in Jane’s voice now. The smell of the gin wasmaking her mouth water, but she was afraid to pour a glass. “And I told her it was importantto stay tidy. Didn’t I tell you to stay tidy, Emma? I’ll wash her up.” She grabbed Emma’sarm hard enough to make the girl jump.

    “Let her be.”

    “I was only going to—”

    “Let her be,” Brian repeated, his voice flat and dull and threatening. If he hadn’t beenstaring at her still, Emma might have dashed under the sink again. His child. For a moment hecould only continue to stare at her, his head light and his stomach fisted. “Hello, Emma.”There was a sweetness in his tone now, one women fell in love with. “What have you gotthere?”

    “Charlie. My doggie.” She held the stuffed toy out for Brian to examine.

    “And a very nice one.” He had an urge to touch her, to brush his hand over her skin, but heldback. “Do you know who I am?”

    “From the pictures.” Too young to resist impulses, she reached out to touch his face.“Pretty.”

    Johnno laughed and swallowed some gin. “Leave it to a female.”

    Ignoring him, Brian tugged on Emma’s damp curls. “You’re pretty, too.”

    He talked nonsense to her, watching her closely. His knees were like jelly, and his stomachtightened and loosened like fingers snapping to a beat. Her dimple deepened as she laughed. Itwas like watching himself. It would have been easier to deny it, and a great deal moreconvenient, but impossible. Whether he had meant to or not, he had made her. But guidancedidn’t come along with acceptance.

    He rose and turned to Pete. “We’d better get to rehearsal.”

    “You’re leaving?” Jane dashed forward to block his path. “Just like that? You only have tolook at her to see.”

    “I know what I see.” He felt a pang of guilt as Emma inched back toward the cupboard. “Ineed time to think.”

    “No, no! You’ll walk out like before. You’re only thinking of yourself, like always. What’sbest for Brian, what’s best for Brian’s career. I won’t be left back anymore.” He hadnearly reached the door when she snatched up Emma and raced after him. “If you go, I’ll killmyself.”

    He paused long enough to look back. It was a familiar refrain. He could have set it to music.“That stopped working a long time ago.”

    “And her.” Desperate, she flung out the threat, then let it hang as they both considered it.The arm she had banded around Emma’s waist tightened until the girl began to scream.

    He felt a bubble of panic as the child’s, his child’s screams bounced off the walls. “Lether go, Jane. You’re hurting her.”

    “What do you care?” Jane was sobbing now, her voice rising higher and higher to drown out herdaughter’s. “You’re walking out.

    “No I’m not. I need a little time to think this through.”

    “Time so your fancy manager can make up a story, you mean.” She was breathing fast, grippingthe struggling Emma with both arms. “You’re going to do right by me, Brian.”

    His hands had balled into fists at his sides. “Put her down.”

    “I’ll kill her.” She said it more calmly this time, having centered on it. “I’ll slit herthroat, I swear it, and then my own. Can you live with that, Brian?”

    “She’s bluffing,” Johnno muttered, but his palms were sweating.

    “I’ve got nothing to lose. Do you think I want to live like this? Raising a brat all on myown, having the neighbors gossip about me? Never being able to go out and have fun anymore. Youthink about it, Bri, think about what the papers will do when I call in the story. I’ll tellthem everything right before I kill us both.”

    “Miss Palmer.” Peter held up a soothing hand. “I give you my word we’ll come to anarrangement that suits everyone.”

    “Let Johnno take Emma into the kitchen, Jane. We’ll talk.” Brian took a careful step towardher. “We’ll find a way to do what’s best for everyone.”

    “I only want you to come back.”

    “I’m not going anywhere.” Braced, he watched her grip relax. “We’ll talk.” He signaledJohnno with a slight nod of the head. “We’ll talk it all through. Why don’t we sit down?”

    Reluctantly, Johnno pried the girl from her mother. A fastidious man, he wrinkled his nose alittle at the grime she’d accumulated under the sink, but carried her into the kitchen. Whenshe continued to cry, he sat down with Emma on his lap and patted her head.

    “Come on now, cutie, give over. Johnno won’t let anything bad happen to you.” He jiggledher, trying to think what his mother might have done. “Want a biscuit?”

    Damp-eyed, hiccuping, she nodded.

    He jiggled some more. Under the tears and dirt, he decided she was a taking little thing. And aMcAvoy, he admitted with a sigh. A McAvoy through and through. “Got any we can pinch?”

    She smiled then, and pointed to a high cupboard.

    Thirty minutes later, they were finishing up the plate of biscuits and the sweet tea he’dbrewed. Brian watched them from the kitchen doorway as Johnno made faces so that Emma giggled.When the chips were down, Brian thought, you could always depend on Johnno.

    Going in, Brian ran a hand down his daughter’s hair. “Emma, would you like to ride in mycar?”

    She licked crumbs from her lips. “With Johnno?”

    “Yeah, with Johnno.”

    “I’m a hit.” Johnno popped the last biscuit into his mouth.

    “I’d like you to stay with me, Emma, in my new house.”

    “Bri—”

    He cut Johnno off, lifting a hand palm up. “It’s a nice house, and you could have your ownroom.”

    “I have to?”

    “I’m your da, Emma, and I’d like you to live with me. You could try it, and if you’re nothappy, we’ll think of something else.”

    Emma studied him, her full bottom lip pushed out in a pout. She was used to his race, but itwas different somehow from the pictures. She didn’t know or care why. His voice made her feelgood, safe.

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