Read Third Degree Online

Authors: Greg Iles

Tags: #Family Secrets, #Mississippi, #Detective and mystery stories, #Physicians' spouses, #Family Violence, #General, #Autistic Children, #Suspense Fiction, #Adultery, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Fiction, #Physicians - Mississippi

Third Degree (9 page)

BOOK: Third Degree
8.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“Hold on, babe,” he said, pushing the old truck toward the paved road. “I’m coming.”



Laurel lay silently on the great room sofa, her comforter pulled up to her neck. Warren was sitting on the ottoman he’d dragged over to the coffee table and staring at Laurel’s Sony Vaio, which hummed in front of him like a willing informer. His forefinger slid steadily over the computer’s trackpad; he was working methodically through her file tree in Windows Explorer.

Laurel’s computer posed several risks, some minor, others grave. She kept some files on it that, while they would not implicate Danny directly, would certainly make Warren suspicious. There were stored AOL messages that could cause her trouble, but he was unlikely to see them as significant unless he cross-referenced everything he found against a calendar. But there was one thing she absolutely could not afford for him to discover—the digital equivalent of an atomic bomb.

Laurel maintained a secret e-mail account that Warren knew nothing about. Ostensibly, they both used AOL as their mail server, and Laurel did use AOL for her “official” e-mail life: notes to friends, school announcements, and the like. But her correspondence with Danny was run through a free Hotmail account protected by a password. Laurel’s Hotmail username was [email protected]. Corny, perhaps, cribbing a digital alias from Jane Austen, but what else was she going to choose? Agent 99? Hester Prynne? The Sony was programmed to “forget” her username and password every time she logged off, but she knew that these keys to her secret life must reside somewhere on the hard drive, as did her past e-mail messages. A forensic computer expert would doubtless be able to call up that data like a boy rubbing a genie’s lamp. What Warren could accomplish on his own was open to question. He knew how to operate most mainstream Windows programs, but he was no wizard. He was patient, though. And if he was willing to hack at the Sony for hours, who knew what he might uncover? If he stumbled onto that Hotmail account or, God forbid, somehow guessed her password, her secret life would be served up on a platter—a poisonous platter that would kill Warren even as he devoured it.

His eyes glowed with feral hunger as his fingers flew over the keys, and his orbits, almost black from lack of sleep, gave him a desperate mien. Danny had said Warren would want to believe that she’d been faithful despite evidence to the contrary, but she saw no such desire in his face now. Warren wanted only one thing: the identity of the man with whom she had betrayed him. As he punched at the keys, she noticed how unhealthy he looked. Competitive cycling had sculpted Warren into a figure of toned muscle, prominent veins, and limber tendons, but in the past couple of months, she’d noticed an unusual puffiness in his face, his neck, and even on his body. He still had heroically defined leg muscles, but he was looking soft around the edges, with a womanly sort of fat accruing around his hips and upper back. She’d assumed this was due to age, or maybe even depression, but the truth was, she’d been too self-absorbed to ask about it. Besides, Warren had always been touchy about his body, and a question like that might offend him. Looking at him now, she saw a depth of fatigue that could not be explained by a single night of sleep deprivation.

It’s got to be work,
she decided.
Kyle Auster must have finally gotten the practice in bad trouble.
Kyle was capable of anything, in Laurel’s estimation. He’d made it clear from the outset of the partnership that he would dearly love to sample her physical charms. And Warren stayed so busy with his patients that he might easily be duped into anything. But what exactly? Warren wouldn’t get this bent out of shape over some tax penalties. What was the next step? Prison? Surely that was impossible. You had to commit outright fraud to go to jail, and Warren would never have let Kyle go that far. She wondered, though, if the senior partner could have committed fraud without Warren’s knowledge. If so, then today’s manic persecution made at least some sense. Warren might be displacing the anger he felt at his former mentor and venting it on her.
What was Warren looking for when he found Danny’s letter?
she wondered.
Should I ask him? Or is it safer to lie here with my mouth shut and pray that my digital secrets remain inviolate?

With a giddy rush Laurel realized that the blank spots in her visual field were gone. The Imitrex was working. She still had the dislocated feeling of a migraine aura, but the aura wasn’t metastasizing into a headache. That could still happen, of course, and at any moment. She wondered if the imminent danger, rather than the Imitrex, had shut down her headache.
Get back on point,
said a voice in her head.
You’re drifting. The kids will be home before you know it, and then you’re looking at a real nightmare.
Even the thought made her breath go shallow.

It was well after noon already. She couldn’t know exactly how late it was without checking her cell phone, which was what she used for a watch these days, and that was buried in her pocket. She considered asking Warren the time, but asking questions would only emphasize that she wasn’t free to get up and walk into the kitchen. Trying to gauge elapsed time was tricky under stress (she remembered that from her labor with Grant), but she figured that in two hours, more or less, Diane Rivers would drop Grant and Beth off at the end of the sidewalk. The children would race up to the front door, unaware that their father was waiting inside with a loaded gun.

I can’t wait for that,
she decided.
I can’t bank on talking Warren around to reason before the kids get home. Because I might not be able to talk him down.
She stole another look at his eyes, which tracked across her computer screen with laserlike precision, sucking up every character on the screen.
He’s not going to stop until he finds out what he wants to know. And he’s not going to accept innocence until he’s turned over every goddamned rock he can find. Even then, will he believe me? Once somebody begins to doubt your honesty, wiping away suspicion is almost impossible. That’s why people never survive public investigations. Some of the mud always sticks, justified or not. And in my case, it is. I’m guilty, and on some level Warren knows that. If he gets deep enough into my Sony, he’ll have the proof he’s starving for. Or what if he doesn’t? What if he finds my Hotmail account but not my password? Would he use the kids as leverage over me?
Searching for a crack in the mask of jealousy that was Warren’s face, she began to wish she’d sent Danny a very different message.
I should have dialed 911 the second I saw the gun. I’m like one of those stupid babysitters in a slasher movie. TSTL. Too stupid to live.

She still had her clone phone, of course. She could dial 911 right now, if she wanted. But Warren had once explained to her that there was no autolocation system in place for cell phones yet—not in Mississippi, anyway. If you didn’t tell the 911 dispatcher where you were, it could take a long time for help to reach you, if ever. What if she called 911 and simply left the line open? The dispatcher might eventually hear enough of Warren’s threats to realize a dangerous situation was in progress, but again—how would they find her? If she dialed 911, it would have to be from the house phone. They knew where you were the second you dialed in from a landline. Laurel had already taught Grant and Beth this. If she could get close enough to one of the home extensions, she could definitely bring the police to the house, even if she simply opened the line and said nothing. And yet…

Calling the police might be the most dangerous action she could take. Athens Point was a small town: sixteen thousand people. Avalon was outside the city limits, in Lusahatcha County, home to another ten thousand souls. That meant it was policed by the Sheriff’s Department. Laurel didn’t know how much training local deputies had, but she was pretty sure there was no state-of-the-art crisis management team or hostage negotiator. An image of the local sheriff standing outside her house yelling into a bullhorn came into her mind. What were the odds that this situation could peacefully be resolved by a man like Billy Ray Ellis? He’d been a petroleum land man before winning the post of sheriff, and he was a patient of Warren’s. How long would he wait before ordering an allout assault on the house? His deputies would probably be ex-high-school jocks with an excess of testosterone. Warren could easily wind up dead or locked in Parchman Farm for the rest of his life. And even if he chose not to punish her for calling 911, she might be killed by a stray bullet or tear gas canister. She’d seen that kind of thing enough times on CNN. Such thoughts might be extreme, but he had threatened her with a gun. No…she needed to resolve this situation herself, and soon.

Before the kids got home.

I can text Diane!
she thought with dizzying relief.
Tell her to take the kids home with her rather than drop them here.
Laurel was about to slip her hand into her pocket when she realized the risks that such a move would entail. She’d be texting from her clone Razr, which was registered to Danny’s helpful friend. The unfamiliar number might confuse Diane enough to make her call the house. Or what if Diane had something else to do after school? What if she tried to call back? Laurel’s Razr was set to SILENT, but if Diane got no answer, she might call the house phone. Warren would answer, and in less than a minute he’d learn that Laurel had just texted Diane from a cell phone. Game over. Laurel slid her hand away from her pocket. She couldn’t risk losing the clone phone yet.

I’ve got to get out of here,
she thought. Could she hit Warren hard enough to disable him? If so, she could take back her car keys, which would seriously shorten the distance she had to run. She looked around the great room for a heavy object. A thick blown-glass vase on the console table against the far wall might do. But she’d have to choose her moment perfectly. If she tried to hit Warren and missed, there was no telling how he might react. At the very least he would tie her up, and then she’d be truly helpless when the kids walked into this horror show. With that thought came the first ripples of true panic, fluttery jerks in the heart muscle that made her swallow hard even as the saliva evaporated from her mouth.

Don’t give in to panic,
she told herself. The phrase made her recall her days as a counselor at a girls’ summer camp, where she’d taught lifesaving to young teens.
Panic will kill you. So do everybody a favor, remain calm, and focus on safety, even if you’re partying—
“Safety,” she said softly.

“What?” asked Warren, looking over at her with red-rimmed eyes.

“Nothing. I’m out of it. My head’s starting to hurt bad.”

“The Imitrex will kick in. It’s working on those vessels now.”

Warren was talking on medical autopilot. She’d heard that robotic voice thousands of times, when nurses called the house at night for instructions. But Laurel wasn’t listening now. She was thinking about a room that she’d insisted be added to the house before they moved in. Some people called it a panic room, but the architect they’d worked with had simply called it the safe room. Located under the staircase, it was a windowless, eight-by-ten-foot cubicle with steel walls, a reinforced door, and an electronic lock that operated from the inside. The safe room also had a dedicated phone line that ran underground to a box at the street. Warren had stocked the safe room with canned food and water for use during hurricanes, and also with blankets and pillows for comfort. Grant and Beth had “camped out” in the safe room a couple of times; they called it their “fort,” the place they’d run to if “bad guys” broke into the house. Laurel had never imagined a day when the “bad guy” she would need to escape would be her husband. But that day had come.

She knew she could reach the safe room before Warren stopped her. He was so deep into her computer files that she could be halfway there before he got up off the ottoman—

she thought, already flexing her calf muscles beneath the comforter.
Think it through. So I get to the safe room. Then what? Call 911? No. Call Diane and tell her to take the kids to her house without telling anyone else about it. If I say “family crisis,” Diane will handle it, no questions asked.

Once the kids were safe, Laurel could call the police. Or better yet, a lawyer she knew who was friendly with the sheriff. He would get a more serious hearing. And when the law arrived at the house, Warren would have no hostage to threaten. He would effectively be alone with his gun and his wife’s computer.

The most likely risk at that point, Laurel realized, would be suicide.

She closed her eyes, wondering if Warren could really be that far gone. He seemed more angry than depressed, but more was going on inside him than she knew. There had to be. But now wasn’t the time to question him about it.

Leave that to the TSTL girls…

She flexed her fists beneath the covers, then her forearms. When she felt the blood flowing, she tensed her biceps, shoulders, and abdomen. Then her thighs.
Flex, release, flex, release.
It was like warming up for one of those classes at Curves, only her life might depend on this little exercise. She wasn’t about to spring up off her sofa like a lioness and then collapse in a heap because her feet were asleep.

Should I grab the computer?
she wondered.
That would be a tacit confession of guilt.
Plus, Warren might tackle her before she could get clear with it. She could wait until he walked farther away to make her move, but that might not happen for hours. Warren could go for most of a day without urinating, and he might well be expecting her to try to damage the machine.

While she debated when to run, Warren stood without a word and walked away from the Sony. Laurel didn’t follow him with her eyes. She flexed her calves but maintained the illusion of a woman at rest. His footfalls stopped, then started again. She risked cutting her eyes to the left. Warren had walked most of the way to the door that led to the master bedroom, but now he’d stopped again. He was watching her with obvious suspicion.

BOOK: Third Degree
8.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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