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Книга Third Degree. Страница 44

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“The computer will decide,” he said finally. “That’s the only thing I can trust. If you’re not Laurel’s e-mail buddy, you can go.”

Auster stared at his junior partner for several seconds. “You’re crazy if you think I’m staying here. I’m not spending my last good years in prison because your wife is poking somebody else. You’ll just have to shoot me.” He turned and started walking toward the foyer, which probably meant the safe room.

Warren raised his pistol and cocked it with a loud click. “It’s your choice.”

Auster took two more steps. Then he stopped and looked back, his face sagging under the strain. Laurel saw a wet glint in his eyes.

“You’re committing suicide,” Kyle said. “Okay, fine. But why make me do it with you?”

“Because we’re partners,” Warren replied, smiling with irony. “We share everything, right?”

Chapter 13

Nell was standing in line for a teller at the Planter’s Bank when a blast of precognition so strong it made her dizzy hit her. She didn’t know what to call it: foreboding, ESP, the heebie-jeebies, whatever. She just knew in her heart that something was dreadfully wrong at the office. Something about Vida’s manner had rattled her to the bone, but without her quite realizing it. It was a delayed reaction, like somebody dying in the night from a blow to the head during the day.

Vida was too calm.

The situation was unraveling, yet she was walking around and joking like a jaded undertaker at a funeral. Nell hurried out to her car, drove down the frontage road, and crossed Highway 24 onto Audubon Boulevard. Then she turned into the employee parking lot, which was practically deserted, except for Dr. Auster’s Jaguar and Vida’s old Pontiac. She ran to the back door of the office, which was locked and bolted. She let herself in with her key, then moved quietly into the hall.

The door to exam room six was partly open. She saw stockinged feet sticking off the examining table. So there were still patients here. But she saw no staff whatever. As she passed X-ray, she looked in, but Sherry wasn’t at her counter. Same in the lab. No sign of JaNel, and the lights were off. The blood-chemistry machines were still running, though.

A cold chill raced the length of her body, and her shoulders jerked as though a static charge had suddenly left her. The building seemed alien to her, as though she had entered an office that looked like the one where she worked, but was not. Some of the office buildings near the hospital were almost identical. But not this one. Dr. Auster’s building had a hipped roof and dormers, unlike the “modern” boxes with flat tar roofs standing in front of the hospital.

Suddenly Nell understood the reason for her anxiety. The computers were silent. She had never been inside the office when the computers were shut off. It seemed a different place without their steady, reassuring hum. The machines gave the building a sense of being alive, whereas now the whole place seemed dead.

The clinic had always smelled of rubbing alcohol, but as Nell neared the reception area, its biting odor became overpowering. And there was something else in the air, too. Something even more volatile…

Gasoline.

She rounded the arch that led to reception and saw Vida leaning over an open file drawer. Vida was pouring something into the drawer, right onto the papers. It was alcohol, Nell realized. Rubbing alcohol from one of the brown push bottles they used in the exam rooms. Twenty other file drawers stood open to various lengths.

“Vi?” she said softly.

Vida jerked erect and whirled, but relaxed when she saw it was only her sister.

“What are you doing?” Nell asked.

“TCB, honey. In a flash. Like Elvis always said.”

“What?”

Vida laughed. “Taking care of business in a flash. I forget how much younger you are sometimes.”

“Not that much,” Nell said, very afraid and not quite sure why.

“A lifetime, baby girl. I thought I told you to clear out.”

“I had a bad feeling. Like I get sometimes, you know?”

Vida looked down at the file drawer and sighed.

Nell scanned the room, and what she saw sent her to the edge of panic. Empty alcohol bottles were all over the room. Most stood in a row on the floor by her computer, but some lay atop the file drawers. A red metal gas can stood right beneath Vida’s desktop. If someone lit a match in here, they would all die in a giant fireball.

“Why are you doing this?” Nell asked.

“No other way.” Vida opened another bottle of alcohol and dumped its contents into a drawer full of patient records. “We’re having a fire sale. Everything must go! No exceptions!”

Her laughter had a hysterical edge that scared Nell. “Is this why you went to the store today?”

“Mm-hm. We didn’t have enough alcohol. But they had loads of it at Walgreens. I had to sneak it in, inside an old Dell computer box. The Medicaid people have somebody watching the back door. They’re waiting for their pit bull to get here.”

“Pit bull?”

Vida’s humor evaporated. “You need to go, baby. Now.”

“But…how can you light this stuff without killing yourself?”

Vida’s smile was cagey. “I go down to the switch box and shut off the main breaker. Then I come back here and plug the computers and copiers back in. One more trip down the hall, flip the breaker on, and boom! Gone with the wind.”

“How do you know about this kind of stuff?”

“I had a boyfriend who did insurance jobs. Torch jobs, you know? Remember Randy?”

Nell vaguely remembered a scrawny, unshaven Cajun of indeterminate age.

“But we don’t have time for nothing fancy,” Vida said with regret. “You do the best you can with what you got.”

Nell stepped farther into the room. “There are still patients in the back, Vida. I saw somebody on the way in.”

“Just a couple. I’ll take them out with me.” Vida tossed the empty bottle on the floor. “A heroic rescue will make it look more like an accident. As if anything could. But we try.”

“Where’s everybody else?”

“I sent them home. Told them we’d had a computer crash and couldn’t keep up with billing or insurance. They were out of here like a shot.”

“And Dr. Auster?”

“He’s getting that stuff out of Warren’s house, like I promised he would.”

Nell felt a warm rush of gratitude. “Vi…why don’t we just get out of here? You’ve got money squirreled away, I know you do. Let’s both go down to Cancún. We could rent a condo by the month and just figure out what to do next.”

Vida smiled dreamily at this fantasy. “I’d love to, sweetie, but I can’t. I’ve put in with Kyle, and I’m going to stick by him all the way. If we get through clean, he’ll have to stick by me.”

Nell closed her eyes, nearly overcome with sadness. “But he won’t, Vi. You know he won’t. As soon as he’s sure you’ve saved him, he’ll find some other girl. Somebody younger, who doesn’t know what a jerk he is.”

Vida’s smile stretched so tight that Nell thought it would crack at the corners. Then it changed to a grimace. Nell heard a man’s voice behind her. She turned.

A black-haired man wearing a gray suit stood in the hall door. He looked like a lawyer or maybe an FBI man-what they looked like on TV anyway.

“Afternoon, ladies,” he said in a deep, Yankee-sounding voice. “Where’s Dr. Auster?”

“Gone,” said Vida. “We’ve been having some trouble with our computers. I think he might’ve gone to RadioShack for some parts.”

The newcomer’s eyes roamed over the computers and open file drawers. He must have seen the alcohol bottles, but he didn’t mention them.

“Ladies, I’d like you to walk slowly toward me and step out of the room. I want to talk to you for a few minutes. Nothing serious. Please don’t make any sudden movements on your way out. We’re all in grave danger at this moment.”

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