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Книга Third Degree. Содержание - Epilogue

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Sheriff Ellis barely slowed down as he crossed the Athens Point Bridge. A minute later, they turned into the parking lot of St. Raphael’s Hospital. As Ellis parked under the admissions bay, Danny leaned forward and squeezed his shoulder. “You did all right, Sheriff. I’ll see you around.”

He got out and walked toward the double doors, the pressure of Ellis’s gaze on his back. Then a voice caught up with him.

“I hope she’s all right, Danny.”

Danny held up his right hand but kept walking.

“I’ve got to ask,” Ellis called. “Is that kid yours or what?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Danny murmured. “That’s the thing.”

He walked into the hospital, ready for anything.

Epilogue

Three Weeks Later

Danny stood sweating outside the city courthouse in the only suit he owned. May had arrived, and it was already eighty degrees before noon. He was waiting for Marilyn Stone, his lawyer, whose office was around the corner. They were due for a meeting at the office of Starlette’s lawyer.

Starlette herself had left town soon after the rumors about Danny and Laurel began filtering out of the Sheriff’s Department. She’d taken the children and flown back to Nashville, threatening to file for divorce and take everything Danny had-his money and the kids. Danny had been in a daze since the night of the standoff, so he hadn’t argued too much. He’d simply called Marilyn Stone and asked her advice. She’d promised to do all in her power to ensure that Danny didn’t lose custody of Michael, and also to get him reasonable access to his daughter. Starlette ultimately chose to file for divorce in Mississippi rather than in Tennessee, where they’d married, because Mississippi was still a “fault” state, and you could pay a heavy price for adultery.

“Danny!” called a female voice. “Over here!”

He looked down Bank Street, which housed many local attorneys’ offices. Marilyn stood on the sidewalk in the bright sunshine, looking nothing like the plain Jane who showed up at the airport twice a week for flying lessons. She wore a navy suit and lipstick, and she appeared to have curled her hair. Danny waved and walked slowly forward. He dreaded having to sit across a table from the woman who was willing to institutionalize their son to get revenge on her soon-to-be-ex-husband.

“Guess what?” Marilyn said, her eyes twinkling.

“What?”

“Starlette caved.”

He stopped. “What do you mean?”

“I mean she’s willing to give you custody of Michael.”

Danny blinked in the sun, trying to process this unbelievable statement. “What do you mean? When did this happen?”

“She didn’t even get on the plane in Nashville this morning.”

“What?”

Marilyn nodded. “I just found out myself.”

“But…why?”

“I’d like to say it was my great lawyering, but the truth is much simpler. Three weeks as Michael’s sole caregiver was all it took. When Starlette’s lawyer told her she couldn’t institutionalize Michael if you were willing to take him, she cracked.”

The sudden release of weeks of tension nauseated Danny.

“This won’t be free,” Marilyn cautioned. “Nobody’s that lucky.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll have to pay a price to get Michael. A big price.”

Danny shrugged. “Whatever.”

“Starlette wants your interest in your last oil well. Your entire interest.”

Danny rocked on his feet. He didn’t even want to calculate what twelve feet of pay sand was worth at $60-a-barrel oil. Whatever financial security he had, that was it. “Okay,” he said. “Done.”

Marilyn put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “I already said yes for you.”

He laughed ruefully. “I guess you know me.”

“A potential client once told me that he’d heard divorce was expensive. I said it was-very expensive. When he asked why, I quoted another client back to him: ‘Because it’s worth it.’ ”

Danny was still trying to anchor himself in time and space. “When do I get Michael?”

“Starlette’s loading him on a Continental flight in about an hour. You can pick him up at the Baton Rouge airport at six fifty-three p.m.”

Danny decided right then to rent a plane; the distance was short, but Michael loved to fly with his dad. “I don’t know what to say. You’ve changed my life, Marilyn. And you’ve saved my son’s life.”

“Come with me,” she said, smiling strangely. “I have one more thing to do for you.”

She took his hand and led him into her office, past the male receptionist, then up a flight of stairs to a door at the end of a narrow hall. “This is my VIP dining room. I had some food brought in, because I figured we’d be hungry after our meeting.”

She opened the door.

Laurel was standing behind a table laden with boxes from the Indian restaurant a couple of blocks away. She was wearing a bright blue skirt and a white linen top, and she looked like nothing so much as the lovely teacher who had welcomed Michael with a smile two years ago. Danny had only seen her in black since Warren’s death, and then only from a distance. The change almost took his breath away. He looked back to thank Marilyn, but all he saw was a closing door.

“I heard,” Laurel said. “About Michael.”

Danny nodded. “I can’t really believe it.”

“You see? The worst didn’t happen.”

“No.”

Laurel’s face was still pale, and she had lost seven or eight pounds she could ill afford. Danny saw darkness under the makeup beneath her eyes.

“Are the kids in school?” he asked.

“Only a few more days.”

“Have you made any plans for the summer?”

She looked away. “I was thinking of getting out of town for a while. I can’t take all this gossip. Grant and Beth have had a really hard time at school.”

“You probably should,” Danny said, trying to mask his disappointment.

“I guess you’re going to be busy with the divorce?”

“I don’t know. With Michael more than that, I imagine.”

Laurel nodded, then gestured at the bags on the table. “Are you hungry?”

“I couldn’t hold anything down.”

She smiled as if at a fond memory. “Me either.”

“I miss you, Laurel. Bad. I’ve been worried about you.”

Her smile cracked, and she put up her hand to cover her eyes. He started to go to her, but she waved him back. “It’s been hard,” she said. “I have a lot of guilt about what happened.”

“I don’t feel too good about it myself.”

She dropped her hand, revealing bloodshot eyes. “I don’t know where to go, Danny. Do I get in the car and drive to the beach? Take the kids to Disney World? There’s this huge hole in our lives now, and I don’t know how to fill it.”

He cleared his throat. “I have an idea.”

“What?”

“Go down to the travel agency and buy three plane tickets for Disney World. Forget the Internet. Tell everybody you know that you’re leaving town. Pack up the SUV where all the neighbors can see you. When it gets dark, load up the kids and drive out to Deerfield Road. We’ll close the gate and shut out the world. There’s fifty acres for everybody to get to know each other in. I can move out to the cabin by the pond, and you guys can take the house. We’ll fish, cook out, let your dog chase the four-wheeler, whatever. If the kids get bored, I’ll rent a plane and fly us anywhere they want to go. Even Disney World. Nobody will know where you are or what you’re doing. And you can have all the time you need to get over things.”

He thought he saw hope in her eyes, but he wasn’t sure.

“Do you think…,” she said, faltering. “Would it be all right, considering the kids? Or would it just be selfish?”

He walked around the table but stopped a foot away from her. “There’s something I haven’t told you. I didn’t think you were ready to hear it.”

She drew back, obviously afraid of learning yet another nightmarish fact about her husband’s death. “Do I need to know this?”

86

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