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Книга Third Degree. Страница 57

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Chapter 16

Danny just beat the storm clouds to Athens Point. He flew low over the city, angling along the hills, then cutting eastward once he’d passed the old sawmill. His nerves were jangling, but at least he knew Laurel was alive.

Five minutes ago, Trace Breen had tried to patch Dr. Shields through to Sheriff Ellis on the radio. The connection had been poor, but Danny had heard Laurel’s voice when the sheriff asked Shields for confirmation that she was all right. Laurel told Ellis that Beth was asleep, but she fell silent when he asked her about Dr. Auster. After Shields took back the phone, Ellis had informed him that he was flying next to the doctor’s old flight instructor. Shields asked Danny how he was doing, and Danny said fine. The whole conversation had the feel of a family phone call, like talking to relatives on vacation in a foreign country. The connection died soon after that, and when Trace called Shields back, the doctor didn’t answer.

“I want you to stay close to me when we land,” Ellis said as they dropped toward the earth. “I’m thinking this chopper might make a good diversion if we have to go in hard.”

Danny nodded, trying to swallow with a mouth devoid of saliva.

“That’s the neighborhood, isn’t it?” Ellis said, pointing down to some patches of open grass in the forest below.

“That’s it. Shields’s land is in a bend of Larrieu’s Creek.”

Danny picked out the serpentine creek and followed it eastward. Soon he saw the slate blue roof of the Shields house, nestled in a curve of trees that grew along the waterway.

“Damn,” said Ellis. “There’s at least fifty meters of open ground on all sides of that place.”

“Except that back corner.” Danny pointed through the windshield. A broken line of trees marched up from the creek’s ravine to the southwest corner of the house.

“That must be where the son got out,” Ellis said.

They could see the cruisers gathered in front of the house, and a roadblock at the entrance of Lyonesse Drive. Someone had even put up a red flag as a wind indicator, Danny noticed, on a pole standing in the clear space behind the department’s camper trailer.

“There’s the command post,” said Ellis. “Set her down, Danny.”

“Twenty seconds.”

The sheriff unhooked his harness as Danny pulled back on the cyclic and flared in. Then Ellis opened the door and jumped to the ground like MacArthur going ashore in the Philippines. “Remember, stay close!” he called over his shoulder.

Danny checked his phone for new messages. Finding none, he climbed out and secured the main rotor to the tail boom with the tie-down kit. There was liable to be some real wind before he flew out of this place again.

When he was satisfied, he walked over to the command post, where a small knot of men had gathered around the sheriff. Three of them wore dark business suits, and one seemed to be getting in the sheriff’s face pretty good.

The aggressive stranger’s hair was cropped short, and it had receded on both sides of his scalp, leaving a sharp V of aggression in the middle of his forehead. He looked about forty-five, but the flesh of his face was tight, with no sagging around the jaws. The kind of guy who woke up at 5 a.m. every day to run four miles. As soon as Danny was close enough to hear, he realized that the man in the suit was the agent Ray Breen had been complaining about: Paul Biegler.

“States’ rights versus federal authority,” the sheriff was saying. “Somehow, it always seems to come down to that with you people. I guess you want to refight the Civil War right here, Agent Biegler.”

“Yankee sumbitch,” someone muttered.

“I was born in Arkansas,” Biegler snapped, cutting his eyes at Trace Breen.

“Well, I don’t have time to debate constitutional issues with you,” Ellis said. “I’ve got a crisis to resolve.”

“How?” asked Biegler. “You don’t have any intelligence.”

Ellis drew himself to his full height. “You people may think we’re all dumb down here, but we-”

“Information!” Biegler snapped. “You don’t have any information about your subject. Intel, Sheriff. Ring a bell?”

For a moment Ellis was speechless, so Biegler charged on. “I’ve spoken to Kyle Auster’s office manager at the hospital. She’s in critical condition. Third-degree burns over forty percent of her body. She told me that she and Auster were behind the fraud. They’ve been having an affair for years. Shields went along with some of it for the past few months, but that’s all.”

“If Shields is the good guy in all this,” said the sheriff, “then why did he shoot Auster?”

“Maybe Auster provoked him.”

“Or maybe this office manager’s really been screwing Dr. Shields,” suggested Ellis, “and she’s trying to do whatever she can to protect him.”

Biegler shook his head. “Vida Roberts has worked in medicine for twenty years, Sheriff. She knew she wasn’t going to make it when she talked to me. That’s a deathbed confession. Admissible in court.”

Ellis’s face was getting redder by the second. “So, what are you saying? We should just pack up and go home? Let these two fine fellows work things out on their own?”

“Of course not! I’m saying that if Auster’s still alive, you’ve got two different subjects in there. Two different psychologies. And you don’t know who’s really controlling things.”

“I think Auster’s dead,” Sheriff Ellis said with conviction. “I just talked to Dr. Shields. I heard his voice when he said Auster couldn’t come to the phone.”

“You’d better be sure.”

Ellis gave the agent a patronizing smile. “Well, I sure thank you for your brilliant insights.”

“Sheriff, listen-”

“Now, I’d appreciate it if you’d carry your ass about four hundred yards that way.” Ellis gestured back toward the highway with a sweep of his big forearm. “Down past my perimeter. I don’t want to see you back up here unless you’ve got something that will give me a tactical advantage in this standoff. Are we clear?”

Biegler’s eyes went flat as a shark’s, and he spoke in a low voice. “I can federalize this scene, Sheriff. I will bring the FBI down here from Jackson.”

“This thing’s gonna be over with before you get anybody down here.”

Biegler sighed. “If you think that, you don’t know much about hostage situations.”

“I reckon we’ll see, won’t we?”

“Ellis, if you fuck this up, you’ll answer to the attorney general. And I’m not talking about the one in Mississippi.”

“Go suck an egg.”

Sheriff Ellis walked away from the trailer and signaled Danny to join him.

Biegler stared after them for a few moments, then turned and marched off toward the roadblock.

Trace Breen barked a laugh. “That sumbitch is shakin’ like a dog shittin’ a peach pit.”

“You sure told his ass,” Ray agreed.

Ellis rounded on his deputies, his dark eyes blazing. “You TRU boys have been spending a boatload of my budget on training and equipment. Well, you got till exactly dark to prove you’re worth it. Understood?”

The smiles vanished. “Yessir,” Ray snapped out. “Let’s get to it, boys.”

Danny had to stretch out his legs to stay up with Ellis as the sheriff strode down the border of the Shieldses’ front yard.

“Where are we headed?” Danny asked.

“Neighbors’ house. Frank Elfman’s. They got Dr. Shields’s boy over there. I think we ought to hear him out ourselves before we shoot anybody, don’t you?”

Danny felt the coiled spring in his chest loosen just a little. “Absolutely.”

Laurel lay on her side on the great room sofa, her arms and legs once again bound tightly with duct tape. Warren had taped her ankles first, so she had risked slipping the Razr from her pocket and sliding it beneath her before he taped her wrists. The forty seconds it had taken him to do that were the tensest she’d experienced since the ordeal began.


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