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Книга Third Degree. Страница 19

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Laurel sat stunned, trying to puzzle out Warren’s words. Him, too? Acting like a friend? Warren didn’t see Danny every day. Not even when Danny had taught him to fly. Could Warren be referring to the time they’d spent coaching together?

“Who are you talking about?” she asked softly.

“Don’t insult my intelligence!” Warren screamed.

She squinted against the roar of his voice. “Please, Warren. Tell me.”

He leaned over her and spat the words like a priest naming a demon. “Kyle Auster.”

Her mouth fell open. Did Warren really believe she was sleeping with his partner? “Kyle?” she asked, still in shock.

Warren raised his hand as though to strike her, but then he turned away and muttered, “All those times you told me he came on to you when he was drunk…Christmas parties, weekends at the lake. You told me he repulsed you. Lies, every damn bit of it.”

He turned to face her again, disgust etched into his tired face. “Do you know how many nurses that bastard has slept with? It’ll be a miracle if you don’t have every STD in the book. Me, too, by now. Jesus.

Laurel felt hysterical laughter rising in her throat, but she didn’t dare release it. “Why in God’s name would you think I’m involved with Kyle Auster?”

Warren picked up his revolver and pointed it at her face. “I don’t think it,” he said with certainty. “I know.

Chapter 7

Nell Roberts hibernated the insurance computer and looked over at her sister, Vida, who was talking to an angry patient at the reception window. This morning had been hell, mainly because Dr. Shields hadn’t shown up for work. Nell couldn’t remember Dr. Shields missing a single day because of sickness, and he always called ahead if he got hung up at the hospital. Dr. Auster had instructed the sisters to call every number they had for Dr. Shields, but Warren remained unreachable. Even his wife’s cell phone went unanswered. Vida was so surprised by this that she’d called the ER to find out if Dr. Shields had been in a car accident. Unlike Vida and Dr. Auster, Nell was not surprised by Warren Shields’s uncharacteristic absence. She had a pretty good idea why he hadn’t shown up for work this morning.

Two days ago, Nell had overheard Dr. Auster and her sister talking about their recent business problems, in the coffee room after work. They thought she’d left the office already, but Nell was in the storeroom, culling some old files. Problems was actually a mild word for what had been going on around the clinic for the past ten days. First had come the letter from the IRS. The agency was doing an audit of the Auster/Shields medical partnership. This had sent both physicians into a barely controlled frenzy, Dr. Shields because he deeply resented the government’s intrusion into every sphere of medicine, and Dr. Auster for darker reasons. For the past three years, Kyle Auster had been defrauding the government in various ways, some of which Nell knew about, while others were known only to her elder sister.

Nell kept her emotions under tight rein, but she was easily the most frightened person in the office. Dr. Auster’s scams were only possible because she and Vida made them so, and Nell was deathly afraid of prison. Twenty-seven years old was too young to live behind bars, especially if you were white and pretty and basically innocent. Looking back now, she couldn’t quite believe she’d done the things she had, but it was like Pastor Richardson used to say: a slippery slope. You started small, looking the other way while your sister did this or that, fudging a couple of small things because she asked you to, and pretty soon you were outright lying to help steal from the Medicaid program. It was easy to justify if you tried, like cheating on your taxes. The government did so much to screw doctors out of fees, and Vida made it sound as if they were only getting Dr. Auster his due. But if that was the case, why were she and Vida getting a big cut of the money?

And the IRS letter was only the beginning. Next had come a phone call, informing Dr. Auster that an IRS investigation was under way. That ratcheted things a little tighter and pushed the doctors closer to panic. Then came the call from a friend of Dr. Auster’s in Jackson, a school friend who worked in the state government. This friend had apparently tipped Dr. Auster that the Medicaid Fraud Unit was investigating his practice. No announcement, no courteous letter filled with legalese to give them plenty of time to cover their tracks. Just a late-night warning that someone had made Kyle Auster a target. And why? Because somebody-probably a pissed-off patient-had called the Medicaid office and told them that Dr. Auster was lying to the government. Presto, an investigation began. A secret investigation. That was all Nell knew, and more than she wanted to know.

The scariest thing was that Vida had started it all. Nell had been working in New Orleans when her sister called and told her there was a job waiting for her in Dr. Auster’s clinic, no experience required. To someone making decent money as an assistant manager at an uptown hotel, working as an insurance clerk in Athens Point sounded like a step backward. But Vida had cryptically promised that she was likely to earn double what she’d been making in New Orleans-and Vida hadn’t exaggerated. She had omitted to say exactly what Nell would be doing for the money.

According to Vida, the scams started this way: she’d been skimming a little money from Auster’s till-on cash payments only-and fudging the books to cover it up. Just enough to cover essentials while her husband missed some work at the paper mill, certainly no more than she deserved. But there was a blue-haired lady working as Auster’s insurance clerk, an old battle-ax named Bedner who should have retired years before, and she hated Vida. After catching on to Vida’s scheme, she had gone straight to Dr. Auster. At this time, Dr. Shields was only an associate; he hadn’t yet bought into the practice and so had no involvement in the business side of things.

Dr. Auster confronted Vida after work one day, armed with evidence supplied by Mrs. Bedner. He told Vida he was letting her go but wouldn’t press charges if she left immediately and without a fuss. True to her nature, Vida denied all wrongdoing and claimed she was being framed. Dr. Auster said that if Vida believed she was being framed, she could explain her side of the story to the police. Vida sat quietly for a few moments, then asked Dr. Auster whether, in exchange for a first-class blow job, she could explain her side of things to him instead. Vida had always been pragmatic about sex; she’d been shocking people with her frankness for years. She knew that Kyle Auster had screwed a couple of hospital nurses, and she’d caught him looking down her top whenever he thought he could get away with it. After he heard her offer, Auster told her he’d decide what to do about the embezzlement after evaluating how good a job she did.

Apparently, she’d done pretty well, because Dr. Auster gave her plenty of time to talk afterward, and Vida used her time well. She’d spent her adult life working in medical offices, and she’d learned some sweet accounting tricks. Though Vida only had a year of junior college, she’d always been quick with numbers. When Auster heard how easy it was to hide cash, he decided to listen to the rest of Vida’s ideas on increasing his income. She sold him in half an hour. The key to it all, she told him, was having control of the front office. You couldn’t have church ladies like Mrs. Bedner looking over your shoulder while you were up-coding Medicaid claims. Two weeks later, Dr. Auster called a puzzled Mrs. Bedner into his office and told her she’d been mistaken about Vida, and that she couldn’t continue working for him after making that kind of accusation.

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