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Книга Third Degree. Страница 67

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Biegler reddened and started to reply, but Trace Breen preempted him with “What’s a REMF?”

“Rear echelon motherfucker,” answered his brother.

Trace grinned. “Damn straight.”

Ellis glared at his comm officer, then motioned for him to call Dr. Shields back.

Laurel lay motionless on the great room sofa, listening to Christy scratch at the pet door Warren had installed during the winter. Now that it was spring, the young corgi spent her days running the creek bed, only returning in the evenings for food. Surprised to find her little door latched, the hungry dog scratched relentlessly at it, wondering why she was being shut out of her family abode.

Warren seemed not to hear Christy. He had put Danny on the speakerphone so that he could keep working at his computer (which probably meant monitoring the Merlin’s Magic program in its digital war against her Hotmail account). It was surreal listening to Danny’s voice floating out of the study. She felt that if she could only saw the duct tape from her legs and wrists, she could run right out the back door and into Danny’s arms. But of course she couldn’t. First she’d have to pick up Beth-who still lay supine in Benadryl-induced sleep-and then trust Warren not to shoot as she fled, something she wasn’t nearly so confident about as she’d once been. The pessimism he had revealed to Danny had stunned her. Yes, the situation was bad, but Warren was talking like a man resigned to death, not to jail or legal fines.

The phone rang again, and Warren pressed the speaker button. “Danny? Can you hear me now?”

“Five by five, Doc.”

“Five by five,” Warren repeated, with longing in his voice. “I wish we were flying over the river right now.”

“Let’s go, buddy. I’ve got the chopper waiting outside. You always said you wanted to try it.”

Warren laughed softly. “They’d never let us go now.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve got some pull with the sheriff.”

“Don’t bullshit me, Danny. I saw them spray-paint my cameras.”

Laurel’s stomach tightened. Had they spray-painted the cameras in preparation for an attack?

“I won’t lie to you,” Danny said. “You know that. I think it’s time we get down to cases. What do you say?”

“I’m listening.”

“The thing is, these boys out here have got a manual for situations like this. That’s what they go by, and they don’t make exceptions. They’re trying to be professional, that’s all. You can understand that.”

“Sure.”

“So we don’t have time for small talk. I want you to know something, Warren. I know you had a tough blow about a year ago. Tougher than this thing with your wife.”

Laurel raised her head from the couch.

“What are you talking about?” Warren asked warily.

“I’m talking about your cancer.”

Laurel’s face grew hot, and her heart beat hard against her sternum. Cancer? What was Danny talking about?

“I understand why you kept that secret,” Danny continued. “God knows a man’s health is his own business. But I think maybe this particular illness is affecting your judgment a little.”

Warren’s reply was almost a whisper, but Laurel could just make out his words. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Come on. You asked me not to bullshit you. Do me the same courtesy, okay?”

There was a long silence, and then Warren said, “Who found out about it?”

Laurel heaved herself up into a sitting position. Warren’s face was concealed behind his monitor, but she stayed erect, hoping to get a glimpse of his eyes. The last fragments of disbelief were falling away. The evil sleeping in the shadows of her failing marriage had suddenly slithered into the light. She felt as if she’d been walking past a decaying house every day, averting her gaze though she knew something dark and hungry lay within.

“Does it matter who found out?” Danny asked.

“Listen, I may be sick, but my judgment is fine. The thing’s in my brain stem, not my cerebral cortex. Not yet, anyway.”

Brain stem? Laurel thought. Cerebral cortex? He has a brain tumor? In a dizzying rush of memories, she saw the womanish fat around Warren’s usually trim hips, the strange hump at the back of his neck…Steroids-

“You’re the medical expert,” Danny said. “But look at what you’re doing here. These aren’t the actions of the Warren Shields I coached soccer with. Or the steady, thoughtful physician I taught to fly.”

“Are you sure? Every man can be pushed too far, you know? Every man has a breaking point. Eventually you have to push back.”

“Are you talking about Laurel again?”

“Of course.”

“I don’t think she’s your main problem, Warren. I think this other thing is magnifying that into more than it is.”

Laurel’s memory had revved into overdrive. All the bike races Warren had traveled to and returned from without trophies, his failure to call home and check in, unusual shortness with the children, surprising moments of maudlin sentimentality-

“I’ll tell you about this ‘other thing,’ as you call it,” Warren said. “I think about it a lot, Danny. I think about all my patients who’ve died. Older people, most of them. But not all. Looking back, I try to remember if the young ones were marked somehow. Whether they might have done something to bring their fates down on themselves. But they didn’t, Danny. One day God or Fate just said, ‘I will not let you be happy. I will not give you children. I will not let you breathe another day. I will take away your ability to move.’ ”

“Warren-”

“No, listen. This is important. I’ve tried to believe, all my life. To have faith that there was justice in life, some larger plan or meaning. But I can’t do it anymore. I’ve watched some of the best people I ever met get crippled or taken before they reached thirty, forty, whatever. Babies, too. I’ve watched babies die of leukemia. I’ve watched infants die from infections, bleeding from their eyes and ears. Terrible birth defects…I look for a reason, a pattern, anything that might justify all that. But nothing does. Nothing does. Until I got sick myself, I played the same game of denial that all doctors do. But, Danny, my cancer ripped the scales from my eyes. I go to these funerals and listen to smug preachers telling grieving people that God has a plan. Well, that’s a lie. All my life I’ve followed the rules. I’ve toed the line, given to the less fortunate, followed the Commandments…and it hasn’t mattered one bit. And don’t tell me about Job, okay? If you tell me God is testing me by killing me…that’s like saying we had to destroy a village in order to save it. It’s a cruel joke that we play on ourselves. And don’t tell me it’s all made right in the afterlife, because you know what? The agony of one infant dying senselessly mocks all the golden trumpets of heaven. I don’t want to sit at the right hand of a God who can torture children, or even one who sits by and allows them to be tortured. Free will, my ass. I made no choice to die at thirty-seven. This one’s on God’s account, Major. We look for meaning where there is none, because we’re too afraid to accept randomness. Well, I’ve accepted it. Embraced it, even. And once you do that, the world just doesn’t look the same anymore.”

Laurel felt herself coming unmoored from reality. She had never heard Warren speak more than three sentences about God outside of church. To hear him launch into a tirade on the absurdity of faith disoriented her. But it was what lay behind his words that had driven her into shock, an unalterable fact that would change her future almost as profoundly as Warren’s-terminal brain cancer.

“I hear you, buddy,” Danny said at length. “I’ve heard that same opinion expressed vividly in war zones. But the thing is, even if you’re right, it doesn’t mean the choices you make don’t have consequences. In fact, if that’s how you see the world, you have to be even more careful about what you do. Because no divine power is going to balance the scales in the end. You know? You have to do it yourself. Or do what you can, anyway.”

67

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