A STUDY IN CURIOSITY

By Karen Hall


“Welcome to your first case study seminar. We’re starting with the Deadwood murders of three years ago,” the FBI instructor said. “It took us weeks to understand what happened out there in South Dakota. Six people dead, only two connected in any way. Very unusual, this case…”

Roma stirred her tequila sunrise with the tiny plastic straw for the hundredth time. Where were they? Lucy and Shawna were supposed to meet her nearly an hour ago. Had they picked up some guys? Or had they just gone on their merry way without her? She didn’t want to search for them. Not casino by casino. So. What to do?

She drummed her multi-colored nails on the table as she checked out the room. Lots of shriveled-up old people who weren’t having any fun. She’d run out of nickels a long time ago, but decided her credit card was not an option—not after last month’s bills. And she’d left her last doobie in Shawna’s car. Roma heaved a bored sigh, and tapped a tall turquoise boot against the table’s pedestal. They should have picked a better place to meet. This joint sucked.

She could, of course, pick up a guy and gamble with his money. Like the blonde chick in the corner. Roma checked her out. The chick needed better conditioner. Hair looked like straw. And she could lose a few pounds, too. Maybe work out, put some definition in those floppy arms. Roma would never let herself go like that. The blonde was about thirty, not much older than Roma, but she already had some miles on her. Lots of wrinkles. Not enough sun. And didn’t she know a bare midriff only worked if you were flat there?

How did she get that guy, anyway? Now he was something. Way too much man for Blondie. Look at those biceps, the skinny little waist, and that face—move over, Brad Pitt! Let me wrap my legs around this one. She felt a pang of jealousy as Mr. Pitt slid a hand under the blonde’s hair and stroked her neck.

The blonde was winning more than just Mr. Pitt. Her plastic cup was nearly full of coins, and when the jackpot bells rang, she squealed like a kid and let the cascading quarters pile into her cupped hands. They overflowed onto the floor, and Blondie got down on her hands and knees to pick them up. Definitely not her best side. But she was showing enough skin that every guy in the place watched.

Except Pitt.

He scooped quarters out of the machine’s tray, piled them into the plastic cup. When it was full, he shoveled some into his pockets—and pulled something else out. A small vial. Coke? He wouldn’t do that here, not in the open while Miss Blondie Belly was exposing herself to the rest of the world.

No, Roma realized, not coke, not a powder—a clear liquid. Pitt unscrewed the lid and dumped it all into his drink.

Wow. What kind of drug would that be? Acid? Speed? Ecstasy?

Now she wasn’t sure she wanted those pinheads, Lucy and Shawna, to turn up. This was getting interesting. What would that little vial of Whatever do?

Viagra? Though he didn’t look like a guy who’d have any trouble in that department. She’d definitely have to watch his crotch. No hardship there. Blondie stood and poured some of her quarters into Pitt’s front jeans pocket, then slid a hand in, too, and felt him up. Roma rolled her eyes.

“Slut,” she muttered.

But then Mr. Pitt picked up the drink and handed it to Blondie. Roma’s mouth dropped open.

The doctored drink.

Pitt produced another half-full glass from behind his spectacular body, made some sort of toast and touched his drink to hers. He pulled her tight against him and whispered something to her before she drained the glass. She slid her fingers inside the waist of his jeans, but Roma no longer cared.

What had he put in Blondie’s drink?

Not a date rape drug. No need. He wouldn’t want to waste something good on Blondie, obviously a sure thing. Roma couldn’t think of anything else.

A couple minutes later Blondie wandered off to the bathroom and Pitt went back to his slot. Feed the coins, push the button. Feed the coins, push the button.

Wait. What if it was poison? What if Blondie was lying on the bathroom floor writhing in agony?

Roma ran to check, banged through the bathroom door—

Nope. There was Blondie, combing fingers through the straw, putting on lipstick, humming something Roma didn’t recognize. As she sat in her stall, Roma couldn’t figure out what to do. Tell Blondie? Tell the bartender? “Excuse me, sir, but that gentleman over there just poisoned his companion. That’s right, the one sticking her tongue in his ear.”

She shook her head. Not a chance. Not the police, either. Not even an anonymous call. Not until something happened.

She’d have to watch. See what developed.

Roma finished up in the stall, tugged at her underwear through the tight red skirt, and grinned.

Yes, sir. Let’s see what develops.

Better be careful, she realized as she slid back onto the stool at her table. If Mr. Pitt catches me staring, he’ll know I saw him. Then again, maybe he’ll think I’m just another little biscuit looking for a fast roll in the hay. I’ll bet he’s used to that.

Roma scanned the room for cameras. Would some videotape whirring along in the back rooms of this joint show Mr. Pitt dosing Ms. Blondie? She stretched her neck as she checked the place out. Lots of lenses. She looked again. No cameras that covered their little corner, though, the one tucked next to the end of the bar like an afterthought: Here. We’ve got eight feet. Let’s stick in another couple slots. It’s just two machines. The bartender’ll watch ‘em.

No cameras. That’s why he chose those slots. Roma’s mouth made an O and she sat back into her chair. This guy is crafty. Definitely bad.

She couldn’t look at him, turned away. And there—finally—were Lucy and Shawna, staggering just a little, giggling, carrying cups of quarters like all the crabby old fogies. Roma shook her head in disgust. It was never good to resemble a shriv, not in any way. She’d have to remind them.

***


She decided not to tell the pinheads about the poison. They were too wasted to care, and Roma was livid that she had to drive everybody home. On top of that, the drunks had won almost $200. Life was definitely not fair.

All the way home she thought about Mr. Pitt. Maybe Blondie was his wife? No ring, though; Roma had checked. And married people didn’t hang on each other like that, feeling each other up in public. Not unless they were married to other people.

A date, then. But a date he wanted to be rid of. Why didn’t he just walk away? Pick up somebody else? And what’ll happen to Blondie? How would she ever find out?

God, Roma thought. I’m going to have to read the newspaper.

There was nothing in the local paper the next day. Lots of bad news, but no missing blondes, no dead ones. Nobody in the obits younger than seventy-three. Nothing the following day, either.

Roma thought about Mr. Pitt constantly. She worked evenings for a cleaning company, a Merry Maids knockoff, and as she bagged trash, dusted, disinfected and vacuumed facilities all over Rapid City, she decided to go back to the casino and find him again. See what he was up to.

In a moment of romantic nuttiness born of watching too much TV, she even considered hooking up with the guy, offering herself the way Blondie had, just to see what he’d do. Maybe nothing. Maybe he’d find her so charming, though, so willing, so beautiful that he’d just take her to bed. Then again, he might try to dose her with something. So she wouldn’t drink anything.

But maybe he used needles, too.

Roma shuddered. Just go look. Observe. Think of it as an experiment.

***


Roma bought a notebook, turquoise to match her hair. She slipped it into her purse after titling the first page, “The Pitt Experiment.” She set off for Deadwood late Tuesday morning, alone this time.

She didn’t expect to find Mr. Pitt at the same machines, but she started there anyway. Nope. She walked from casino to casino, playing a slot now and then, but she couldn’t concentrate. Where was he?

After three hours on her feet, Roma sat down to have a coke and rethink her strategy. She’d never been any good at science, but she knew there was some flaw in her method.

She tapped a scarlet nail against her cheek and wrote in her notebook: Day One. No luck finding P. Then she listed all the casinos she’d checked and the approximate times she’d been there.

Roma spent as many hours as she could stalking Pitt in Deadwood, afraid to ask questions in case he’d figure out she was on his trail. She eyeballed security cameras in every casino, scoped out where the coverage was poor, and drew tiny floor plans in her notebook, showing where Pitt might do his business unobserved.

She felt like a detective.

Roma had been a lousy student. Math had flummoxed her, social studies was a ‘who cares,’ and English was cool only when Miss Martindale made them read Lord of the Rings. Science had been a total waste of time—she didn’t care why things worked as long as they worked when she wanted them to. Computers and study hall, fine. Everything else she could have lived without.

But being a detective was The Bomb. Roma was engaged, curious, for the first time in her life.

On Day Seven—exactly one week after Pitt had poisoned Blondie—she found him again. She was checking out surveillance in yet another casino, and there he was, playing a slot in a secluded corner and checking out the women. His gaze slipped past her in a hurry.

Not good enough for you? Roma scowled, then thought better of it. She’d dressed down, changed her look completely for what she thought of as “undercover work.” She wore baggy sweats, no makeup, and had traded in the turquoise streaks for a muddy Clairol brown. Her motto had undergone a metamorphosis from “Make a screaming personal statement with your appearance” to “Attract no attention whatsoever.”

Pitt worked his way through several casinos, and she followed. He picked up New Blondie, another smoker but a little younger this time, in the original casino. By the time Roma took up her station at a nickel slot, New Blondie was draped all over him. They sat—clutched, rather—in the same alcove near the bar, and Roma wished she’d actually seen them hook up. Was New Blondie already there, playing those isolated slots?

She wanted to know, nearly asked Zitboy, a greasy, fat kid sitting at the bar, but just looking at him made her shudder. Roma sighed at the dilemma. She didn’t want to call attention to Mr. Pitt, couldn’t let herself feel like a fool—not in front of a booger like Zitboy—if he didn’t poison New Blondie.

And didn’t want to share him if he did.

She was nearly out of nickels. Roma plugged in her last three, pushed the button—and hit the jackpot. Bells rang, a siren sounded, and thousands of nickels cascaded into her cup, then her lap, the coins ringing nearly as loud as the bells as they slid off each other in torrents of metal.

Roma grabbed a second cup, hiding her flaming face behind a curtain of mousy hair. All she wanted was not to be noticed. She never won. God must be bored tonight and had nothing better to do than fool with her little experiment.

And provide Mr. Pitt with cover. The thought popped into her head as she knelt to scoop nickels off the floor. Sure enough, New Blondie wandered over to check out Roma’s winnings. So Roma watched Pitt surreptitiously as she gathered coins. And there went the vial—out of his pocket, into the glass, back to the pocket. So slick, so quick, so cool.

Roma sat back on her heels and looked up at New Blondie. Should she warn her? No. She’d sound like a nut case. But there must be a security guy in this place. Somebody who could grab the glass before New Blondie drank from it—and have it tested, maybe? Roma scrambled to her feet and, as spectators drifted away, she toted her cups to the cashier’s window, using cash-out time to look for security.

There. That must be him, the little guy in the bad brown suit. The coat pulled across his middle as if the dough inside had gradually risen past the capacity of the bowl. Roma grimaced. And that tie. My God, what was he thinking? At least it covered those little stretched-out windows between buttonholes where the dough would bulge through.

And I actually have to talk to this greaser. She grimaced, collected her winnings from the cashier and checked the crowd to be sure she didn’t know anybody else in the place before she approached him.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Are you with casino security?”

He squinted piggy little eyes at her. Roma backed up a step. “No,” he said. “I’m not.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Why? You got a problem?” He hitched up his pants, tugging at a waistband which lay somewhere far south of his belly’s equator.

“No. Not really.” Roma backed away from Ugly Brown Guy and glanced at Mr. Pitt. He was staring at her. Watching her like he expected her to— What? Turn him in? When New Blondie stepped between them and picked up the poisoned drink, Roma bolted for the door.

He knows. He knows I saw him.

He’ll come after me.

Roma hurried up the street and ducked into the Old Style Saloon. She lost herself in a crowd of people at the back, then hid in the bathroom for a half-hour before she worked up the courage to head home.

***


Roma wrote down three things she learned from that second encounter with Mr. Pitt.

First, she was a coward. She’d run as fast as she could. But, she told herself many times the following week, she was still alive, still kicking, and still—amazingly enough—curious. Did that make her a stupid coward? She wasn’t sure.

Second, Mr. Pitt had a day job, only did his thing at the same time and place each week. She’d seen him dump the vial at the same place, the same day of the week, even the same time as the first. All those trips to Deadwood during the week had been a waste of time. She only needed to go there on Saturday night.

Finally, the big thing: the blondes might not be locals. They could easily be tourists. If they died horrible, writhing deaths, she’d never find out unless she happened on their hometown newspapers. The first blonde might have been from Minneapolis, might have died on the plane home. Or crashed her car somewhere, her burnt-up remains never checked for poison. Or quietly stopped breathing on the bus back to Whereversville. Who knew?

Roma cruised the internet for newspapers. She learned the names of most of the daily and weekly papers in surrounding states. She scanned obituaries, found a couple maybes, but there were no pictures, so she couldn’t be sure. She found a likely victim in Sioux Falls – the obit said she was born in Deadwood, so maybe she came back now and then? Roma called the Argus Leader to get some details.

“I need to know what she looked like.”

“I beg your pardon?” asked the staffer Roma had reached.

“Do you have a picture?”

“No, ma’am.”

Roma sighed impatiently. “Well how can I find out her hair color?”

“Um… it was blonde.”

“How do you know if you haven’t got a picture?”

There was a long pause. “She worked at my daughter’s day care.”

“Good, then. Was she pretty?”

“Ah, well, it depends on what you call pretty, I suppose.” The staffer’s voice moved over the words slowly.

“About how much did she weigh?”

A lot of time passed.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I think you need to talk to my supervisor. What did you say your name was?”

Roma hung up, certain she had found a Pitt victim, equally sure the cops would come looking for her if she gave her name. They’d spout questions about poisons and motives and alibis, none of which she had.

She recorded her thoughts in the turquoise notebook.

***


Before Thanksgiving, Roma observed as Pitt poisoned four more blondes. She dyed her hair so many different colors she lost track, wore hugely padded bras, painted zits on her face and once even pretended she was pregnant. The pillow tucked into her waistband made her feel like the Michelin Man, and she decided no kid was worth stretching out her taut little body. Not a chance. No kids, no matter how hot her husband turned out to be.

Roma thought about tailing the blondes, but they all ended up in hotel rooms with Mr. Pitt. She still had no idea who he was, but she did know this: he was really good in bed. She'd listened at the doors, felt herself flush and heat at the noises from within, heard the Blondes-Of-The-Week moan and beg. But they sure didn’t sound like they were dying.

Roma had never been much good at anything, not even cleaning, but she wanted to be good at detecting. She blew off her friends, stopped drinking and drugging altogether, and spent her days at the library. She studied forensics and police procedure. She read true crime and mystery novels.

She felt alive.

She could hardly wait for Saturday afternoons when she’d put on her latest disguise and head to Deadwood.

She’d considered telling the bartender about Mr. Pitt, but it was a different one every week, all ancient and disinterested. Maybe Zitboy, then. A regular at the bar, he could confirm her story if she contacted The Authorities, but that seemed risky. If Mr. Pitt broke his pattern and didn’t poison, she’d look like a bonehead in front of Zitboy. And Roma could never, never allow that to happen. Besides, she didn’t want to share the glory with that drunken little piece of pus. So what could she do?

Just watch. Watch and learn.

Roma grew increasingly angry with Mr. Pitt. Who did he think he was, anyway? Messing with woman after woman? He poisoned them and then took them to bed, and though Roma could never stay to watch, she imagined he sent their dying little bodies off the next morning with a slap on the butt and a big sloppy kiss. The nerve.

And how did he do it? What poison did he use?

She scouted the internet for information on poisons but found little that was useful—she couldn’t get her hands on any except maybe garden poisons, but people might wonder why she was asking for stuff like that in the fall. She kept looking.

The vet’s office was Roma’s least favorite cleaning client. It smelled of pee and fear and hairy things that shed. Despite her best cleaning efforts, fur clung to everything, even her polyester uniform pants. As she was sitting in the waiting area one night, impatiently applying the backside of the vet’s scotch tape to her pant legs, it occurred to her that veterinarians had drugs like doctors did. She’d watched enough television to know that the good stuff was probably locked up, but she looked anyway.

Roma knew nothing about chemistry or toxicology, of course, so that night all she could do was peer through the locked glass cupboard door and copy the drug names into her notebook. She had to hurry because Marilyn, her cleaning partner, would only smoke so long out on the porch before she’d come looking.

As she copied down the difficult words, Roma realized how easy it would be. She’d been thinking about it, there in the back of her mind, for weeks now.

Roma decided to get even all by herself.

She had some serious drug stealing to do in the weeks ahead.

Smiling, she left with fourteen drug names and a pant-leg full of pet hair.

***


The next Saturday night Roma treated herself to dinner at the Deadwood Social Club, upstairs from the Old Style, and he there he was! Mr. Pitt, all alone. She was nearly too excited to eat, glad for the tall walnut booth that shielded her. She lingered over dinner, waiting and watching until he sauntered off to his poisoning gig, then rushed to the register and, as she paid her own bill, maneuvered to get a glimpse of his check in the cash drawer slot.

His name was DuWayne Johnson. What a disappointment! She had been sure it would be something like “Lance” or “Nathan” or “Donovan,” some great name from a romance story. But DuWayne? He deserved to die for that name alone. She dismissed it and continued to think of him as Mr. Pitt.

Roma slowly assembled her arsenal of poison. She Googled all the vet’s drugs, sorted through language that made absolutely no sense to her—uptake and metabolites and LD50—until she ran across some druggie’s website that actually explained things in English. And there it was. Big K. Ketamine. A veterinary anesthetic. It made you feel like you were lifting out of your body, the website claimed, put you in what was called a K-hole. Pretty cool.

If you used enough, you stopped breathing.

Perfect.

She found the drug cabinet key hanging in a file drawer, but realized she couldn’t steal a whole bottle. Not all at once. But that old standby, ER, had taught her about drug bottles. The tops were porous, and all she had to do was poke a needle through, suck up some of the bottle’s contents, then squirt the stuff into another container. She had an empty coke vial from those lazy, useless pre-detective days, so all she needed was a syringe. Which she stole from the vet. Handy.

It took her two more weeks to get what she thought was enough Ketamine to do what she needed it to do. She risked tasting it, put a drop on her tongue, and found it a little bitter. That would work, though, since Mr. Pitt drank gin and tonics.

Time to try it out.

***


This particular week Roma was disguised as a Vikings Fan. She wore the loudest team sweatshirt she could borrow, along with a pair of matching purple sweatpants, both several sizes too big, a yellow wig with yarn braids and the obligatory Viking hat with horns. Nobody would notice her face, not in that getup. And football fans, she knew, could do crazy things. Nobody would care. Just another nutball plugging nickels into a slot machine.

So here she was, a purple Viking girl with poison in her pocket. Thanksgiving was just days away, and Roma would have a lot to be thankful for. She’d give him the fright of his life, and then the world would be safe from Mr. Pitt. He’d learn his lesson, back off the blondes. It would be safe to pick up a guy in Deadwood again. She was so ready.

But apparently Mr. Pitt was not. She waited for him to sniff out the new blonde, but this week, he just made a beeline for the Slots Beside the Bar and sat there, alone. Didn’t even look at the women passing through.

Roma fingered the vial again as she plugged a nickel into her machine. What to do now?

Her pulse beat like a snare drum. She was pumped, ready. Didn’t want to wait. She wanted Mr. Pitt to get what was coming to him. Enough to scare the crap out of him, for sure. Maybe she’d kill him one day, but not if he learned his lesson. Not if he left the blondes alone.

But the cops needed to think the New Blonde had done it. Her plan depended on a New Blonde. Damn. No New Blonde. What now?

As Roma was debating, Zitboy approached Mr. Pitt. Zit had outdone himself in the fashion department this week with a green college sweatshirt, a gray backpack and dirty olive cargo shorts so baggy the crotch hung between his knees. He dragged hunks of hair back from his forehead and his finger marks stayed there in furrows, testament to abundant oils. Roma shuddered. She was willing to bet this guy had never spent a single hormone on any self-respecting woman.

Zit was awfully friendly with Mr. Pitt, though. They shook hands and clapped each other on the back, then moved to the bar. The kid slung his backpack into his lap and rooted around in it for a few minutes as they talked. Then he pulled out some papers and handed what looked like a check to Mr. Pitt.

What was this?

Roma picked up her nickels and wandered over to the bar. This was the first change in Mr. Pitt’s pattern in nearly three months.

“Yeah, man,” the kid was saying. “It isn’t much. Not near enough, for sure. But it’s all my grant allows.”

Grant?

“I can’t take this, Mick. You keep it.” Mr. Pitt shoved the check back toward the kid.

“Nah. It’s yours. I gotta give you something to cover all those Saturday nights.”

“I got plenty out of those nights, if you know what I mean.” Mr. Pitt laughed softly, and Roma felt the heat of anger rise in her face.

“Yeah, I saw you head out with some of ‘em.” The kid shook his head. “Wish I had that kind of luck.”

“You will, Mick. Just wait a couple years.” Mr. Pitt drained his drink and signaled the bartender. “You goin’ to Mom’s on Thursday?”

“Only if she lets Darryl cook the turkey.” They both laughed.

Roma didn’t get it. Zitboy paid his big brother to poison a bunch of women? And the sex that followed was Pitt’s bonus? It made no sense. None at all.

“When’re you done?” Mr. Pitt spoke around the ice cubes in his mouth.

“Finals’re the week after Thanksgiving.”

“That it, then?”

“Nah. Gotta finish writing this damn thesis, then have to defend the thing in February sometime.”

“What do you mean, ‘defend’?”

Zitboy scrunched up his nose and shook his head. “It’s ugly. Some faculty members read it, then I sit down with ‘em—get this—for two hours, and they quiz me.” He took a long pull on his beer. “Scares the crap out of me just thinking about it.”

“No kidding. What kind of questions’ll they ask? You know?”

“Stuff about the design, the original hypothesis, the conclusions—did the results support or deny—that kind of stuff.”

“So which way did it go?”

“Supported. All the way.”

“Congratulations, I guess.” Mr. Pitt exhaled softly. “Though I don’t know what that says about the world we live in.”

“No kidding.”

“So anybody can poison anybody else right out in public and nobody will say ‘boo’.”

Roma wanted to scream. She squeezed her elbows tight into her body and balled her hands into fists, feeling another hot flush rise from her neck.

“None of the others get caught either?” Pitt said.

“Not one.”

“How many of us?”

“Five. Seven incidents each. Five different places, five different nights of the week. Thirty-five poisonings and not a single citizen stepped forward.”

“And plenty of ‘em saw, didn’t they?”

“Yuh. Lots.” Zitboy picked at a ragged fingernail. “Makes you think.”

Pitt shook his head. “Sure does.”

Roma’s fingers slipped into her pocket to clutch the vial. Her teeth scraped hard against each other. She wanted to throw something, hurt someone.

How dare they?

They had used her. Used everybody in the casino. None of it was real. They had lied. Cheated. Stolen. Stolen her Saturday nights. Stolen her days. Stolen her life. Made her care—more than ever before—about something that wasn’t anything at all.

She felt in her purse for the tattered aqua notebook, the record of her experiment, the record of her observations, the record of her first real mystery. She could barely draw breath. The pressure in her chest, the anger boiling in there, filled up every tiny air sac with fury.

As tears swelled behind her eyes, Roma clenched her teeth and ran for the bathroom. After she threw up her dinner, she sat in the same stall she had used that first night, the Straw Blonde night. She sat there and thought for a long, long time.

Then she recorded her new plan.

DuWayne “Mr. Pitt” Johnson. His brother Mick.

She would need more drugs. A lot more drugs.

“…We finally understood when we found the notebook.” The FBI instructor nodded to the back of the classroom and the lights dimmed. An image appeared on the screen behind him, a small notebook page covered with careful girlish script. The i’s were dotted with tiny circles. “This sample, a page about the second murder, explains much about the psychology of this particular killer.”

… What a rush! Zitboy fell like a big old tree. Timber! Right there in the middle of the casino, just like his brother. Those stupid people flapped their arms like chickens, screaming and squawking, thinking he was dead. He wasn’t, though—just paralyzed. If they’d known they could have breathed for him until the drug wore off, I wonder? Would they take turns putting their mouths on his, blowing, ignoring his zits and bad breath and greasy hair? Eeewwww. No way!!

Maybe somebody should do a study on that, huh? Who exactly would save disgusting people like Zit? It’s such a rush I think I’ll give them more opportunities! Or maybe I’ll DO MY OWN STUDY!!! How about that? Who should I “study” next? That loser over there? The one who can’t grow a moustache? Pitiful. And Ugly Brown Guy, what an excellent candidate he’d be!



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karen Hall is an environmental engineer and writer living in the pines of South Dakota's Black Hills. Her first novel, Unreasonable Risk, was published in August 2006 by ArcheBooks Publishing. A novel of suspense and sabotage in the oil industry, Unreasonable Risk considers the chances we all take when we live near--or even drive by--an industrial facility. It answers the question we should all ask: what can happen if things go terribly wrong in there?

Ms. Hall is currently working on a sequel, a novel about greed and deliberate environmental sabotage, set in western South Dakota's hard rock mining industry.


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