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Книга Third Degree. Страница 31

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“Let me finish, Vi,” she said, louder than she’d intended. “Please.”

Vida laid a comforting hand on her knee. “Go on, baby.”

“It wasn’t just sex talk, okay? He apologized to the person, and then he said he had to keep putting up with-with somebody-for a while longer, before he could leave and be with whoever was on the phone.”

Something changed in Vida’s face. She had the look of someone walking along a path as night fell, one moment sure she knew the way home, the next knowing she was lost. “Keep going,” she said in a flat voice that told Nell her walls had gone up.

“Dr. Auster said, ‘I hate servicing that little…’ ”

“That little what?” asked Vida, her eyes as dead as marbles. “You can say it.”

“ ‘That little redneck,’ ” Nell whispered, and Vida flinched. “Then he said, ‘But she scares me.’ Next was something else I couldn’t hear, but then he said, “ ‘But by then it’ll be too late for her to retaliate.’ Or something like that.”

Vida’s face had lost its color. “And you think he was talking about me?”

Nell couldn’t bring herself to drive the last nail home. She shrugged. “I can’t say for sure.”

“I will castrate his sorry ass,” Vida hissed. “That no-count son of a bitch. After all I’ve-oh, never mind. Serves me right for believing a man about anything.”

“Was I wrong to tell you?” Nell asked anxiously.

“You had to tell me, baby. Blood’s thicker’n water. Thicker than anything. It’s sure thicker than what comes out of a man. Christ almighty.”

Nell watched her sister adjusting to this new reality. Vida usually projected an air of coarse vitality, but at this moment she looked like a road-weary woman from a Depression-era photograph. Nell had tried-subtly-to suggest a few things to soften her older sister’s appearance. Skin lotion, for one thing, which Nell applied religiously every night before bed, and all during the day on her face. Decades of smoking had turned Vida’s face into a hard carapace with a yellowish tint, and her hair, once a lustrous brown, had become dry and frizzy and always stank of cigarettes. When she went out at night, she dressed one notch up from white trash: halter tops and blue eye shadow worn like some sort of mask-not to mention the line of mascara under her lower eyelid, circa 1985. Vida’s great claim to fame was winning a televised wet T-shirt contest in Destin-she’d beaten 150 other competitors-but two children and ten thousand cheeseburgers had deflated her prized assets and hidden her waist in a roll of hard fat. It was testament to her black sense of humor and lively personality that Dr. Auster-who had his pick of twentysomething nurses-had looked past her obvious flaws.

“What are you going to do?” Nell asked softly.

A hard glint appeared in Vida’s eyes. “Don’t you worry about that. I can take care of myself. Always could, you know that.”

Nell was afraid to be honest about her other fears, but she knew she had to speak up if she was to help in any way. “I’m worried about Dr. Shields, Vi.”

Vida looked long and hard at her. “He’s a lot better man than Kyle, isn’t he?”

Nell nodded soberly.

“You’ve got a thing for him, don’t you?”

She closed her eyes and nodded again.

“Jesus, girl. Have you done the dirty with him?”

Nell shook her head vehemently.

“You swear?”

“I swear. He’s never touched me.”

“Do you talk to him? Secretly, I mean? On the phone? E-mail, like that?”

“Nothing, Vi, I swear to God. He’s not like that.”

Vida chuckled softly. “They’re all like that, once the right woman comes along. But I know what you mean.”

“I’m just afraid he’ll go to jail.”

Vida buried her face in her hands and rubbed it harder than Nell would have dared. Then she looked up and said, “I’ll be honest with you, sweetie. Until five minutes ago, that was the plan. Him or us, you know?”

Nell waited without breathing.

“But now…maybe it’s him or Kyle, you know?”

A glimmer of hope. “What do you mean?”

“I’m not sure yet, baby. I need to think.”

Nell was shivering. Vida took her hand and said, “How about this? Whatever happens today, I’ll make Kyle go over to Warren’s house and take out the stuff he put there.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

“Today?”

Vida patted Nell’s knee. “Today.”

“But what if Dr. Shields is home? Or his wife?”

“Oh, Kyle’s slick enough to get it out even if they’re there. Some things he is good at, I’ll give him that. He’s a born con man.”

“But where is the stuff? What is it? I don’t even know that.”

The hardness returned to Vida’s face. “You don’t need to know. But I’ll tell you where it is. It’s in that room they have under the stairs. Did you know about that?”

Nell shook her head.

“It’s like in that Jodie Foster movie, only not so fancy. Where you go if there’s a tornado, or somebody breaks in. It’s a rich people’s thing.”

Nell said, “I remember Mama used to throw us in the closet when a tornado came.”

“That was me. Mama was too drunk to worry about any tornado.”

Shame and love reddened Nell’s face.

“Don’t think about it,” Vida said. “Anyway, Kyle went over to Dr. Shields’s house last Saturday night when they were all gone to the movies. He put the stuff behind some canned goods or something. But you just stop worrying. I’m going to take care of Kyle and make sure your boyfriend is safe, too. As safe as he can be in the middle of this mess, anyway. Safe as you and me.”

Nell forced herself to smile. This was the best she could hope for.

Vida leaned forward and hugged her tight, the smell of Marlboro Ultralights wafting from her hair. “You’re such a pretty girl,” Vida cooed with maternal pride. “Everything’s gonna turn out perfect for you. It has to.” She pulled back far enough to wink at Nell. “One of us deserves a happy ending.”

Nell felt like crying, but she held it in.

Vida stood and walked to the patient window, her hands accepting a form from a patient, but her mind already plotting her next move. Nell didn’t envy Dr. Auster’s next meeting with her sister. Vida was hell on wheels when she was angry-scarier than most men.

Nell rolled her chair back to her computer, but the longer she stared at the screen, the less relieved she felt. Things were moving too fast, and yet not fast enough. What if the cops did something today? What if they searched Dr. Shields’s house before Dr. Auster went over and removed the planted evidence? Could she afford to wait for that? Could she even trust Dr. Auster to do what he was supposed to do, even if he promised Vida that he would? The answer to that question was an unequivocal no. Nell couldn’t leave Warren Shields’s future in the hands of his sleazy partner. She would have to take responsibility herself. After a quick glance at Vida, she opened her Hotmail account and began to type.

Two thousand feet above the city, Danny told his flying student to bank the Cessna northward and head away from the Mississippi River. They’d been in the air forty minutes, mostly on the south side of town, but Danny wanted to know if both cars were still parked at the Shields house. Laurel had not replied to his last text message, and he was worried that he’d made a mistake by sending it.

A bad mistake.

“You want me to go all the way to Fort Adams?” asked Marilyn Stone, a local attorney who’d dreamed for years of learning to fly.

“No, let’s do our usual run out here. When you get to Avalon, execute an S-turn over Belle Chêne Plantation, then head back to the barn.”

Marilyn nodded, her eyes on the GPS unit mounted on the instrument panel. “Why Avalon all the time? You buying a lot there or something?”

“You never know,” Danny said with a forced laugh.

He looked down at the loess hills below and tried to settle his nerves. Athens Point was a beautiful place, and the verdant forests below reminded him why he’d chosen to return after his military career. Unlike so many places that he had lived, this city had a long and colorful history. Athens Point had been founded in 1753 by a classically educated Frenchman venturing downriver through the Natchez Territory. The land was inhabited by the Choctaw Indians, but they lasted only seventy years before vanishing into Oklahoma or worse places. Removal was accomplished the way Hemingway’s Bill Gorton went bankrupt, slowly and then all at once. After the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, all that remained of the Choctaw in that corner of Mississippi was a few names, like the one taken by the county, Lusahatcha (“Black Water”), which today seemed a misnomer since the great river stretching away behind the Cessna looked reddish brown under the sun. But the Mississippi River had many faces, and Danny had seen them all while growing up beside it.

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