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Книга Third Degree. Содержание - Chapter 12

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Chapter 12

Nell sat at the reception desk and tried to look like a normal person, but inside she was a wreck. In the last few minutes the office had gone crazy. Vida was acting like some sort of secret agent, and a few minutes ago a strange man had shambled past in the hall, coming from the direction of Dr. Auster’s office. Then an old man in X-ray had started yelling that someone had stolen his clothes. JaNel was looking for Dr. Auster and couldn’t find him, and Vida had told Nell to hold down the front while she took care of some necessities. When Nell asked what was going on, Vida had leaned close and whispered, “Give me five minutes, hon. Then I’ll tell you what to do.” That was five minutes longer than Nell could stand, but she’d gritted her teeth and tried to look calm.

Then Dr. Shields called, and her legs turned to jelly. “I need to speak with Kyle,” he said in a stiff voice.

“I don’t think he’s here, Dr. Shields,” Nell said nervously.

“What kind of answer is that? Either he is or he isn’t.”

“Um…that’s all I know at this point.”

“Listen, if that son of a bitch is trying to avoid me, you tell him I said to get his ass on the phone.”

Nell sat blinking in the wake of Dr. Shields’s profanity. From Warren Shields, a curse word in the office was like an explosion. “Dr. Shields?” she ventured tentatively.

“Yes?”

“Can I tell you something?”

“What?”

She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I’m the one who’s been e-mailing you.”

Silence.

Nell was suddenly sure she’d made a mistake, but then Dr. Shields said, “You e-mailed me to look in my safe room?”

“That’s right.”

“But…how did you know what was in there?”

“I didn’t. I still don’t. But I knew it was dangerous. My sister told me about it. I was trying to help you. I mean, I am trying to.”

“You did help me, Nell. Look, do you know anything about a letter? A love letter written in green ink?”

She thought back over all the papers she had seen in the past few days. “No, sir. Nothing like that.”

There was a long pause. “What’s going on up there today?”

Nell blinked away tears. Being able to talk to Dr. Shields directly was more relief than she could stand. “Things are out of control. I think some kind of agents from Jackson may be on their way here. Because of all the stuff Dr. Auster and my sister have been doing. You know what I’m talking about?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“I haven’t been a hundred percent perfect in my life,” Nell said, “but I never meant to hurt anybody. And I know you didn’t. And…I just don’t want anything to happen to you. You don’t deserve that, Dr. Shields.”

“I’m going to be fine. Don’t worry about me.”

“I don’t know. You’re too trusting, and you sure can’t trust Dr. Auster. Not a lick. Listen, if I hang up all of a sudden, it’s because Vida’s come in. I’ll do whatever I can to help you, but you’d better not call back here. Not with those agents coming. You just do whatever you think is right. You can count on me to back you up.”

Dr. Shields didn’t speak for several seconds. Then he said, “Nell, I need to ask you something.”

“Hurry.”

“Is Kyle having an affair?”

“Well…yes, sir. With my sister.”

“I know that. I’m talking about with someone else.”

Nell wasn’t sure she should say more, but she didn’t want to hold anything back from Dr. Shields. It might hurt him in some way. “I did hear Dr. Auster on the phone with somebody two days ago. I think he’s planning to run off with somebody new.”

“Who?”

She sensed a sudden urgency in Dr. Shields’s voice. “I don’t know.”

“Are you sure? Don’t hold back to spare my feelings.”

This comment confused her. Why should Dr. Auster’s affair hurt his feelings? “I really don’t. But you’d better-” Vida’s cheap heels were clacking down the corridor. “Sorry, I have to go.” Nell set the phone in its cradle and began typing entries on a Blue Cross insurance claim.

“Patients still calling?” Vida asked, walking in with two stuffed Walgreens bags.

“What do you think? It’s like a tidal wave without Dr. Shields here.”

“You just keep blowing them off, honey. And it doesn’t matter what you tell them. Say we’re gone to the NASCAR races. This shop is closing for good.”

Nell stared openmouthed at her sister.

Vida gave back her “I meant what I said” look, then began opening the file cabinets against the back wall.

Laurel watched Warren’s face as he hung up the phone. He had looked puzzled while he was talking, but now he wore an expression she couldn’t begin to read.

“That was Nell Roberts?” she asked.

He didn’t answer.

“Nell is the one who’s been sending you e-mails?”

“Apparently. She’s worried about me.”

Laurel had met Nell a few times, but only in passing. A pretty girl in her late twenties, she looked as if she’d come from a different family than her putative older sister. “How could Nell possibly know anything about me?”

Warren seemed to be working something out in his head. “Through Vida, I guess. Vida’s got a vested interest in protecting her relationship with Kyle.”

Laurel saw where this was going. “Warren, don’t try to bend things around to fit your preconceptions. Look at the facts. You obviously didn’t even know who was telling you this stuff. What if Nell has an ulterior motive herself?”

“Like what?”

“Maybe she’s in love with you.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Why? She’s young and single, and you’re a handsome doctor, her boss-”

“I’m not going to listen to that crap. Nell is the only good person in that whole snake pit. She doesn’t even belong there.”

“She can be a good person and still do not-so-good things. And anybody can be mistaken about things they see or hear.”

Warren raised his eyebrows. “Well, she’s apparently heard that Kyle is planning to run away with someone. A new girlfriend, she said. And that seems to square with the two hundred grand in bonds hidden in our safe room. Guatemalan bonds, huh? Were you planning to take our children with you?”

Laurel suddenly realized that reason would never get her out of this. No matter what facts surfaced, Warren would find a way to fit them into his betrayal scenario. “Listen to me. I’m not going to discuss Kyle anymore. I haven’t had sex with him, I don’t even like him, and I can’t answer any of your questions. I don’t know what those bonds are doing here, or the ledgers, or anything else. I know nothing, okay? Kyle is your partner and your problem. End of story.”

Warren looked at his watch for a long time, as though calculating the number of hours he’d been awake. Laurel guessed thirty-four. How rational could anyone be after that kind of sleep deprivation? He yawned as if trying to swallow his head with his own mouth, stretching his arms back until his shoulders popped.

“Do you want to see the kids?” he asked.

She looked at him in disbelief. “You’re going to untie me?”

“If you promise to behave.”

“Can I clean up before they see me?”

“You worry too much about your looks. We go upstairs as is, or forget it.”

Laurel wasn’t sure she should let the kids see her in her present state. But somewhere in the back of her brain simmered a fear that she might not survive this encounter. “Okay.”

With a quick turn of the dials, Warren opened the bike lock. One moment she was a chained prisoner, the next she was free. Free to move, at least. She was still a prisoner.

She’d expected to be led straight upstairs, but he took her arm and walked her back to the great room, where her laptop sat clicking on the coffee table. Interposing himself between Laurel and the machine, he looked down at the screen to check the progress of the password-cracking program. Around his back, Laurel saw the Hotmail log-in page superimposed in miniature over a background page, which showed a gray-bearded wizard staring wisely up from the screen. Lightning flashed from the staff in his hand, but what held Laurel’s attention was the numerical ticker below the wizard. It was seven digits long, and the last three digits were increasing almost too fast to see, like the digital readout of a gas pump filling a bottomless tank. Above this, a line of asterisks filled the PASSWORD field of the Hotmail log-in page, and a red error message read SIGN IN FAILED. The asterisks and letters appeared to be permanent, but as Laurel stared, she realized that they were blinking so rapidly that she almost could not detect it. Somehow, the cracker program had disabled the feature that kicked people off after ten failed attempts. She felt as though a ghostly robot were sitting at her computer, trying to break into her e-mail account at the speed of light.

39

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