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Книга Third Degree. Страница 85

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Helicopters always roll when they fall into water. The rule is to not fight the roll but assist it, but Danny never got the chance. When the first rotor hit the water, the ship was slammed onto its side as though by the hand of God. River water poured through the smashed Plexiglas, and the Bell began to sink. Danny knew he should have taken a big breath before impact, but he hadn’t thought of it. Now he fought to escape his harness with barely enough air to keep his brain alight. The massive power of the Mississippi carried the chopper downstream like a piece of driftwood. A millisecond before fear became panic, Danny’s training asserted itself, the belt disengaged, and he swam through the hole where the door should have been, praying he was still close enough to the bank to swim to safety after he surfaced.

He broke through to the air and into what seemed a ring of flaming islands. Pools of JP-4 floating on the water. By the light of the burning fuel he saw the sandbar. Kicking hard, he fought his way toward the grainy shingle, then crawled high enough on the sand to be safe if anything exploded.

“Be alive,” he said to Laurel. “Just be alive.”

Fifteen minutes later, Danny was led to the backseat of Sheriff Ellis’s cruiser and given a blanket and a hot cup of coffee. He stank of kerosene. He was lucky that he hadn’t caught fire during his swim to shore. A dozen cruisers were parked on the crushed-oystershell lot of the seafood restaurant, some from Lusahatcha County, some from Adams County, and others from Concordia Parish. A crowd of officers stared at the burning wreckage floating downriver. Before long, Ellis heaved his bearlike form into the front seat. He cranked his bulk around, laid his forearm on the seat, and studied Danny, his eyes unreadable.

“They told me Laurel’s in surgery,” Danny said.

Ellis cleared his throat. “Mrs. Shields grabbed her husband’s arm at the instant Carl fired. To save your life, apparently. Carl’s bullet hit Dr. Shields’s gun. Mrs. Shields was struck by shards of glass and fragments of the gun, but also by some fragments of Carl’s bullet.”

Danny steeled himself for the worst. “How bad?”

“She just got into surgery. They stabilized her in the ER.”

“You’re not telling me anything.”

“They don’t know yet, damn it. They don’t know what all got hit, because the wound tracks have to be probed.”

“Any head wounds?”

“No.”

Thank God. “What about her stomach?”

“The verdict’s still out on the baby, according to the ER doc. You rest and get your head clear. You’ve got a lot of questions to answer.”

Danny looked downriver at the burning fuel, fading now as it slid southward toward Athens Point. The lights on the bluff across the water seemed to look down in reproach, but he didn’t care.

“You should have told me about Mrs. Shields,” Ellis said. “You and her, I mean.”

“What would you have done if I had?”

“Probably sent you home.”

“Exactly.”

Ellis grunted. “Well, look what’s happened this way.”

“Shields’s kids are alive. Laurel’s alive, at least for now. It could have ended a lot worse.”

“Trace Breen is dead.”

“Whose fault you figure that is?”

A long and weary sigh seemed to shrink the sheriff.

“Don’t say that around Ray. Not if you want to live another day.”

Danny took a sip of coffee, savoring the heat as it migrated down his to his chest. “Ray has no business leading the Tactical Response Unit. He hasn’t got the temperament for it.”

“I agree with you there.”

“I want to go to the hospital, Sheriff.”

Ellis grunted again, disagreeably this time. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. You don’t want the rumors starting any faster than they have to.”

“I don’t care about rumors.”

“She might.”

“St. Raphael’s, Billy Ray. Come on. Back to Athens Point. Haul ass. I’ve chauffeured you enough times to earn a ride.”

Ellis took a deep breath, then blew out more air than Danny could hold in both lungs. “Don’t spill that coffee.”

He closed his door, started the cruiser, and swung it up over the levee. Soon they were on Louisiana 15, headed north through empty black cotton fields with Ellis’s lights flashing red against the rain, the kind of night run Huey Long had favored in his heyday. This was the fastest route back to Athens Point, since Highway 61, on the Mississippi side, ran southward through Woodville, thirty miles east of the city. As the cruiser roared along the deserted highway at ninety-five miles per hour, Danny went over the sequence of events prior to the assault, when Warren had caught Laurel sending her final text message: U haf 2 kil hm! Danny didn’t understand why she’d risked so much to send that message, for it had seemed only to state the obvious.

“Tell me about those last few seconds in the chopper,” Sheriff Ellis said, breaking Danny’s reverie. “They told me you said you were fighting with Shields, lost control, and crashed in the water by the sandbar.”

“That’s right.”

“And he was ejected through the windshield?”

“The door,” Danny amended. If Shields had gone out through a shattered windshield, his body would show severe lacerations. “His door was knocked off or open. I don’t know which.”

“I heard you said he went through the windshield.”

Danny shook his head. “Door. But he wasn’t wearing his harness, so he hit the instrument panel first. He’s probably broken up pretty bad. I was too busy to see much.”

Ellis drove without speaking for a while. Then he said, “Did you see him drown?”

“No. I was trying to save myself.”

“Uh-huh.”

“What is it?” Danny asked angrily. “Spit it out.”

“Well, Jimmy Doucet’s an Adams County deputy. He was parked on the bridge, and he says he saw somebody fall from the chopper before you dropped down low.”

“That’s bullshit,” Danny said mildly. “He couldn’t see anything from up there. It was pitch-dark and raining.”

“Jimmy’s got good eyes. He says he saw something big fall past your lights.”

“A buzzard, maybe. I was a quarter mile north of that bridge, and two thousand feet above it.”

“That’s what I told him.” Ellis looked back over the seat with an inscrutable expression. Not anger, and not outright suspicion either. It was almost a sly look. “Come on, Danny. You took him out, didn’t you?”

“What?”

“Shields got cute with you up there, and you killed him.”

“How the hell would I kill him? He had the gun.”

“Maybe you took it away from him.”

“You’ll find the body. Halfway to New Orleans maybe, but you’ll find it. And you won’t find any bullet holes, except in his shoulder. Auster shot him.”

“If the gar and the gators don’t eat him first,” Ellis said. “Maybe you pitched him out, then. You could fly a chopper sideways through a keyhole if you wanted to.”

Danny felt himself going pale. “I told you what happened. I’ve got nothing to add.”

Ellis smiled. “Course you did. Better for everybody this way, anyhow. The helicopter’s insured, so what the hell. I’ll have a brand-new one sitting on the pad in two weeks. And I still want you to fly it. We just have to get past whatever bullshit inquiry Ray Breen will try to bring on your head.”

Danny sighed. “I think my flying days are over.”

Ellis looked back again, his disappointment plain. “How come?”

Danny just shook his head.

The sheriff faced forward, the downward angle of his big head radiating disappointment.

Up ahead, the lights of the Athens Point Bridge shone out of the darkness. The cantilevered span had been built during the Stennis era, when Mississippi had expected to get a bigger share of the space program than it ultimately did. Danny still remembered the ferry that the bridge had replaced, and how he’d stand on the thrumming deck with his father while the green hills receded behind them and the Louisiana lowlands slid closer. Some people believed the bridge had kept Athens Point alive during the lean 1980s, when the oil business crashed. Now there was talk of a big new bridge at St. Francisville, just thirty miles down the river. As Danny wondered how that might affect his hometown, he suddenly understood why Laurel had sent that last text message. She wasn’t instructing him to kill her husband. She was giving him permission. She’d realized that after the revelation of Warren’s cancer, Danny might be too mired in guilt to act without mercy. And she’d been right. He had remained on his feet to confess his guilt when he should have been diving to cover her with his body. That mistake might yet cost Laurel her life.

85

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