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Книга Third Degree. Страница 84

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“They’d still jail me for it. Or execute me.” Shields began to laugh strangely. “If only I could live all the years it would take them to execute me after sentencing me to death! I’d take that deal, all right.”

Danny wondered if he had any chance of getting back to the ground alive. As they hovered in the dark, he noticed that several cars had stopped along the northern span of the bridge. Then he saw red lights flashing at the Mississippi end.

“Whose baby is Laurel carrying?” Warren asked with sudden intensity.

Danny turned to him. In the cramped cockpit, their faces were as close as lovers’. “I don’t know.”

“Christ! Can’t anybody just tell me the truth?”

“I truly don’t know. But it doesn’t matter anyway.”

Shields closed his eyes. “Do you really think she’s dead?”

For the first time, Danny sensed as opportunity to save himself. But despite Shields’s closed eyes, the gun still pressed into his left hip. If they had been flying without the doors-as Danny sometimes did-or if Shields had neglected to fasten his harness, a high-G maneuver might have set the stage for Danny to dump his hijacker out of the chopper. But that was useless speculation.

Danny looked back at the flashing red lights. They were static now, at the center of the bridge. “I don’t know. All I do know is, Laurel was right. If you really love her, it doesn’t matter who the father is.”

Shields’s eyes popped open. “How can you say that?”

Danny shrugged. “Age, maybe? You’ll get there eventually.”

“No. I won’t.”

It was so easy to forget the man was dying. Danny wondered if Shields forgot it himself sometimes. For the first second or two after he woke up in the mornings, maybe. Danny had a paraplegic friend who’d experienced that. He said there was nothing worse than the crushing weight of remembering that he was paralyzed and couldn’t get out of bed. “I think love means giving up something,” Danny said. “Maybe the thing that means the most to you. Pride, maybe? That’s what she was talking about. That’s what they want us to do, you know? Only then do they truly believe you love them.”

Some of the anger had drained out of Shields’s eyes. “You really love her, don’t you?”

Danny didn’t answer. He’d already confessed once, and he saw no reason to do it again when repetition might buy him a bullet.

Shields raised the gun to Danny’s temple again. “Say it, Major.”

“I love her,” Danny admitted, suddenly aware that all his world-weary talk about death was bullshit. He’d found a woman he wanted to spend every day of his life with, and he had two kids of his own who needed him desperately-maybe even three. The thought that those children might come in harm’s way without their father there to protect them-that scared the hell out of him. It also gave him the resolve he needed to kill Warren Shields if he could.

“You want to kill me, don’t you?” Shields said.

Danny shook his head, but his heart wasn’t in it.

Warren leaned against the left-side door on his side and lazily aimed the gun at Danny’s belly. “I wanted to love her,” he said, looking puzzled. “I just…I guess I knew her too well.”

You didn’t know her at all.

Warren raised the gun until its muzzle touched Danny’s cheek. “If you lived through this night, what would you do?”

“Best I could.”

“Would you take care of them?”

“Them?”

“Laurel. My kids.”

Sensing a route to life, Danny nodded.

A quarter mile behind and below the doctor, more red lights spun and flashed on the bridge.

“It’s not fair,” Shields muttered.

“It never is,” Danny said, amazed that the man could have practiced medicine for years and not learned this lesson. Until his own diagnosis, Shields had actually believed himself immune to the vagaries of fate. Danny knew a lot of pilots like that. “The house always wins, Doc. It’s just a question of when. The way I see it, you’re alive now. Today. Let tomorrow take care of itself. Your family needs you. Let’s take this machine back to Athens Point and find out about your wife.”

“They’ve sent up another chopper!” Shields said, pointing with his arm across Danny’s chest.

Danny turned, scanning the night sky for lights. There was only one other chopper in the county, a JetRanger that belonged to a private businessman. Danny didn’t think they could find a pilot to fly it in this weather, but this was an extraordinary emergency. As he searched the sky, the Bell rose unexpectedly-maybe an updraft off the bluff, he thought. Then he turned to ask Shields what the hell he was talking about and saw that he was alone in the helicopter.

Danny hung suspended in the darkness above the river, as alone and alive as he’d ever been. Shields was probably still alive, too, tumbling down through space. The nickel-plated pistol lay on the empty seat, unnecessary now.

He’s hit by now, Danny thought, looking at the altimeter. They were high enough that Shields would have reached terminal velocity prior to impact. Danny had heard grisly stories from a Vietnam-era CIA pilot, comparative descriptions of what happened when a prisoner was thrown from a chopper and landed in water as opposed to smacking dirt or concrete, or was ripped to shreds in treetops, strung through the canopy like red and pink ribbons. Shields was dead, no doubt about it.

Danny pushed down the collective and dropped toward the river, searching for the body. The two bridges threw off ambient light, but not enough to help him sight Shields. He didn’t really want to see the corpse, but Laurel was certain to ask, not to mention the sheriff. In that moment Danny realized that he believed Laurel was still alive, in spite of her wounds and unconsciousness.

He started to switch on the searchlight, but then he noticed people lining the rail of the bridge above him. There was no way anybody had seen Shields leap from the chopper, but if Danny started searching the water with a light, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out what had happened. God, how Laurel would suffer if that story got out. Her kids, too. Grant Shields would go through life dreading questions about his father. What happened to your real dad? Uh, he died. How? Killed himself. Wow, dude, I’m sorry. Danny didn’t want the boy to suffer through that conversation again and again. And with a little luck…he might not have to.

Danny executed a quick pedal turn, then swept upriver, jinking from side to side like a pilot under duress, but steadily cheating toward the Louisiana bank. The inside of a river bend is the shallow side, since it doesn’t bear the full pressure of the current trying to cut its way into the land. Danny headed into a patch of darkness along the inner shore, not far from a seafood restaurant, a place where he knew there was a sandbar. When he saw the pale line where the water met the sand, he picked up the shiny automatic and fired two shots through the windshield.

Then he rolled back the throttle, shut off the fuel, and pulled his second autorotation of the night.

He wouldn’t have done it if the chopper wasn’t insured-Lusahatcha County couldn’t afford to replace an aircraft-but it was. Had there been no chance of witnesses, he might have done things differently-jettisoned the doors, for one thing, SOP for ditching-but with towns on both sides of the river and the levee close, someone might well witness the “crash.” And the aircraft might be recovered. He needed all the witness statements and physical evidence to bear out a scenario in which two men had fought until the end. That would be the story for the sheriff, anyway. Laurel’s children could be told something more palatable, at least until they were old enough to understand.

As the Bell fell toward the shallows, Danny took his feet off the pedals and let the ship spin beneath her rotors, as she might if her pilot had been ripped away from the controls. After four or five rotations, he felt like puking, but he steadied the craft just in time to flare before impact. As the dark water rushed up to meet him, he made sure he was less than twenty feet from shore, then dropped the Bell into the river.

84

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