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Книга Third Degree. Страница 20

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Nell replaced Mrs. Bedner the next day.

That was the beginning. The crest of the slippery slope. Once the money started rolling in, Dr. Auster only wanted more. He was that kind of doctor. Cars, motorcycles, gambling trips to Vegas, wild investments, big charity donations, expensive medical equipment…he wanted everything bigger than life, and his wife wanted the same. Of course, he and Vida went full-time after the scams started. She stayed late almost every day, working on the second set of books, the one the government would see if it ever came to an audit (which it finally had). Dr. Auster stayed late about half the days and on most others stopped by for a quickie before going home after evening rounds. Nell liked to leave right at five thirty, so as to witness as little illegality as possible (and none of the illicit intimacy between Auster and her sister). That had bothered her from the beginning, and nowadays she couldn’t stand the thought of it. It was too pathetic.

Because as pragmatic as Vida could be about life, she actually believed that Dr. Auster was going to leave his wife and marry her. Nell figured the chance of this happening was about the same as the chance of Toyota building an automotive plant in Athens Point. But her sister believed, and without that faith, Nell knew, Vida would have nothing in her life but two high-school-dropout sons and an ex-husband on the dole.

The strange thing was, Nell now believed she’d been wrong about Auster. He was willing to leave his wife-only not for Vida. Two days ago, Nell had overheard him talking on his cell phone to someone whose name she hadn’t picked up. She’d only heard a few seconds of the call, but Auster’s tone had definitely been intimate, and he’d been talking about getting married. Nell didn’t know how a married man could remarry without getting divorced first, but then she realized that Auster was talking about down the road. She was pretty sure he’d said, “I just have to keep you-know-who on my side until Warren takes the fall. After that, I can leave and we can be together.” There’d been a pause while the woman replied (a tinny sound with a cadence Nell was strangely certain she’d heard before), and then Auster said in a bitter tone, “I’m so tired of servicing that little redneck, I could kill myself. She scares me. But she’ll have too much at risk to retaliate.” He’d ended the conversation with a whispered “I love you, too,” then crossed the hall and walked back into his private office. Nell stood shaking in her tracks for almost a minute, then put on a fake smile and went back to the front desk, where her sister sat working diligently to protect the man she loved from the law.

I’m so tired of servicing that little redneck… She scares me.

One overheard conversation had split open Nell’s world. She and Vida had been living in a dream. Auster was cheating on his wife and his mistress. And just as disturbing to Nell, he was planning to blame Dr. Shields for everything that had been going on in the office. Auster was obviously counting on Vida to back this story up in court, if necessary. Nell couldn’t believe her sister would be willing to do that, but when she thought about all that was at stake, she realized that Vida would probably see the situation as a case of straight survival. Him or us. If somebody had to go to jail, better it be Warren Shields than the man she loved. Vida would solemnly swear that every illegal act she had committed was at the express order of Dr. Shields, and that Kyle Auster had known nothing about it.

Nell couldn’t live with that.

The truth was so different. Warren Shields was not only innocent of fraud, he was also a good and conscientious physician. Moreover, he’d always treated Nell with respect. He’d never even remotely crossed the line into inappropriate behavior with her, which made him different from almost every other man she’d ever worked with. Dr. Shields had a beautiful wife at home, but in Nell’s experience that wasn’t enough to keep a man faithful, especially after twelve years of marriage. She figured Dr. Shields really loved his wife, and that made Nell sad for reasons she couldn’t quite understand. She was only three years shy of thirty, and though most men found her attractive, her faith that she would find a husband like Warren Shields-a good provider and father who would truly love her for herself-was almost gone. She had held out a long time for her Prince Charming, turning down two proposals of marriage from decent men. She felt intensely jealous of Laurel Shields, and yet also protective of her. Nell had enough generosity of spirit to wish another woman well, if that woman had indeed found happiness.

With all this in mind, Nell had called Vida at home last night, after Leno’s monologue. She’d been on the verge of telling Vida about Auster’s shady phone call when Vida warned her that there were likely to be some “big doings” at the office over the next couple of days. When Nell asked why, Vida told her that the less she knew, the better off she’d be. Vida also said that if she or Nell was arrested, they shouldn’t say a world until they met with a lawyer. “Kyle” would arrange for that. When Nell heard the word arrested, she’d almost peed in her pants. After getting up the nerve, she asked why they would be arrested. Vida took some time, then said softly, “There’s something in Dr. Shields’s house, honey. And if someone searches, they’re going to find it. I hate that it’s come to this, but things are worse than you know. A lot worse. We have to think about ourselves now. Do you understand?” Nell had mumbled that she did, then told Vida she’d see her at work the next morning.

After hanging up, she’d sat hunched over the phone for several minutes, regretting every dollar she’d ever taken from Dr. Auster and wishing she’d never left the quiet old hotel on Tchoupitoulas Street. She cried for a while, then petted her cat and cried some more. Then she’d put on her coat and gone out for a walk. She did a lot of thinking during that walk, and when she got back, she sat down at her computer and typed a brief e-mail to Dr. Shields. She’d never sent him anything before, but she knew his AOL address from work. She used her Hotmail address, which not even Vida knew, and which had no obvious connection to her real name. After she was sure the message had gone through, she took two lorazepam copped from the samples room, washed them down with a glass of white zinfandel, and crashed so hard that she was an hour late getting to work this morning.

When Dr. Shields failed to show up, Nell had felt a quiet, somewhat nervous satisfaction. She assumed that he’d found whatever had been planted in his house, and that he would know what to do with it. Smart guys like Dr. Shields always knew what to do. For most of the morning, Nell had been expecting the FBI to come crashing through the door with Dr. Shields behind them, ripping computers off the desks and confiscating files. It would almost be a relief at this point.

“Nell, honey?” said Vida.

Nell looked up at her sister, who, as usual, was wearing too much blue eye shadow. Vida was watching her intently from the front desk.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Nell assured her.

“You’ve been staring at the same insurance claim for ten minutes. You’re real pale, too, honey. You look like you’re in a daze.”

Nell summoned her cheerleader smile, the best fake smile in her repertoire, and said, “I drank too much wine last night, that’s all. I’m fine.”

“Wine?” Vida’s eyes twinkled. “Did you hook up with somebody? That drug rep didn’t come back to town, did he?”

Nell quickly shook her head. “God, no. That’s so over.”

“Are you sure you’re all right? This could be a rough day.”

You have no idea, Vi. “I’m fine, I swear.”

Several seconds passed before Vida looked away, and Nell sighed inwardly with relief. It would only be a matter of time before Dr. Shields straightened everything out. And when he found out it was Nell who had warned him in the nick of time, well…it was only natural that he would be grateful. It wasn’t hard to imagine the office running just fine without Dr. Auster in it. Or Vida either, she thought with a pang of guilt. It would definitely be a nicer place to work, and Nell was sure she could find a hundred ways to make Dr. Shields’s days less stressful.

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