|On the Mend
Author: L.M.Lewis PM
Too much liver and not enough ice water.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Words: 3,128 - Reviews: 4 - Favs: 3 - Follows: 1 - Published: 12-15-09 - Status: Complete - id: 5583442
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: These are not my characters and I make no profit from them.
Author's Note: By Georgi's request, this follows on after the story "The Long Hall".
On the Mend
by L. M. Lewis
Hardcastle was ready well before Frank's scheduled arrival time on Thursday morning. He'd even signed the statement that the lieutenant had handed him in the hospital parking lot the night before. He'd given that some consideration on the drive home and decided Frank had been doing them both a kindness, leaving him to reread it alone, if not in peace.
He'd done that as soon as he'd gotten home. It was a necessary duty and he wasn't in the mood to cut himself any slack. Besides, after dozing off in Mark's hospital room earlier that evening, he'd thought he might be in for another long and wakeful night of pondering Fate—why not get one onerous chore out of the way?
To his surprise, though, he'd even gotten a little more sleep in his own bed, albeit fitfully with the occasional awakening into a brief but unsettling confusion—something or someone misplaced, lost. He was getting better at those moments, at reassuring himself that all was once again well, or at least would be soon. No doubt reviewing his statement about the events of two weeks ago had resurrected the almost-banished fears.
But now, by the bright light of nearly mid-day, a different set of worries predominated. After some careful thought he'd decided Frank was right. McCormick must be feeling penned up. Having his parole officer hanging around his hospital room for much of the day wasn't helping things. What had started out as justifiable concern had quickly become a habit.
He thought it might be more than that for Mark—more than feeling crowded-in. Hardcastle wondered if he wasn't also feeling trapped. Not by the parole agreement, McCormick was a smart enough guy to realize that very little force remained behind their arrangement, certainly not at this late date. But in place of all the legal mumbo-jumbo that had been cooked up that night two and a half years ago in great haste and under pressing circumstances, the judge realized there was something else.
It's a commitment.
The judge shook his head. At the start he'd only hoped for a straightforward contract—McCormick avoiding prosecution in exchange for making himself useful. As merely that it was tricky enough. Contracts were by law required to be free of duress and not unconscionably unfair. Telling a man he'll be sent back to prison if he doesn't take a job in which he'd be risking life and limb, patently failed both those requirements.
Hardcastle let out a long, deep sigh. That the situation could evolve into something even more complicated had never occurred to him. That it had, now seemed undeniable. He'd known it a year ago—even sooner perhaps, but definitely then—the day Weed Randall had pulled a gun and shot him in open court. A guy whose actions are dictated by mere contractual obligations doesn't beg the Almighty not to take you over the River Jordon.
And what had Millie said, on that fateful night when she'd been right about nearly every other damn thing—do you want to lose another son? Hardcastle sat stiffer, as if at the echo of her voice. He was in precisely the place he'd been when she'd said that to him. Could it only be barely weeks ago? And had it been her choice of words that had made him push her other warnings aside and pig-headedly insist they attend Price's party?
The judge was shaking his head—part denial and part regret—when his ruminations were interrupted by the sound of a car coming up the drive. It was Frank, right on time as per their very limited discussion. They hadn't haggled about it yesterday. Harper had put his foot down in a way that reminded Hardcastle that the man was a tough cop. There wasn't going to be any mooning around at the hospital all day today. The afternoon visiting hours were long enough.
He was right, Hardcastle supposed. He got to his feet and headed up the steps, statement in hand. Frank didn't even have a chance to ring the bell before the judge had the door open.
"How'd you sleep?" his friend asked, preempting a greeting. The question was put to him with more than the usual casual interest.
"Fine." Hardcastle couldn't help that the answer had come out a little terse. He tried to modify it. "Better than usual." He tacked a smile on the end of that and offered the papers as if to settle the deal. "No changes. I signed it."
"Lunch?" Frank suggested as he glanced at the paperwork and tucked it into his jacket pocket.
Hardcastle shrugged. "I'm not all that hungry. Maybe you should—"
"I was thinking that hot dog place in Santa Monica, down by the pier," Frank bulldozed ahead, straight over any objections. "It'd be good for you to get a little fresh air."
Hardcastle sighed. There wasn't going to be any last-minute evasion of their earlier agreement. He supposed a hot dog stand was the fastest fast food around. "Hot dogs," he said resignedly. "Sounds fine."
Frank gave him an approving grin and ushered him toward his car. Then, in obvious concession to his friend's impatience, he assured him, "I'll get you to the hospital by twelve-thirty."
He was dropped off under the main entrance canopy at 12:27. Frank leaned over, looking up out of the passenger window, and said, "Five, right here."
"Five-thirty," Hardcastle negotiated.
This got him a stern look but finally, "All right, but five-thirty, sharp. Claudia hates for the food to get cold. Okay?"
"And say 'hi' to him for me, will ya?"
Another nod and a wave farewell. The judge was already turning on his heel and heading for the door, feeling slightly guilty as though he'd been playing hooky all morning. This was nonsense, of course, he assured himself worriedly. If anything, McCormick must have been relieved not to have company to entertain this morning.
He picked up his pace and made it to the half-full elevator just as the doors started to close. He exited on Mark's floor and gave the desk clerk his usual nod of greeting as he passed.
He caught himself at the door of the room, which was half-closed. He'd been on the verge of barreling straight on through. He pulled up sharply, took a breath, and knocked.
It felt silly. He frowned. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to do next. He hardly expected McCormick to answer the damn door.
He didn't wait, pushing it the rest of the way open and sticking his head in. "Hey?"—half greeting and half inquiry.
Mark was sitting over by the window, looking as though he'd been following his usual inclination to doze off in that position. "Hey, yourself," he said back, obviously awake now, even smiling. "Look."
Hardcastle squinted for a moment. Apparently there was supposed to be a noticeable difference. The splint was still there. The stuff on the food tray still looked like cream of whatever.
"Oh," he said—it was the absence of something that was the big change.
"No IV." Mark grinned and held up his good arm, with only a taped-down piece of gauze where his constant companion had been. "They took it out before breakfast."
"And they said if I pass the temp check this afternoon, chances are I can blow this pop-stand tomorrow." His grin held for a moment, only to fade into something a little less certain.
Hardcastle jumped in, all smiles himself. "'Course you will. They wouldn't've yanked the thing if they didn't think you were ready, right?"
Mark nodded, not looking entirely convinced. Then he brightened again. "And real food for dinner. No more . . . whatever that's supposed to be." He pointed disdainfully at his nearly untouched lunch.
"Sounds like progress." Hardcastle paused a little guiltily and then added, "Frank took me out to lunch—that's why I was late."
Mark glanced up at the clock on the wall then back at the judge. "It's not even one; that's not exactly late. I mean, it's nice to have company, but you don't have to move in here."
"That's what Frank said."
Mark paled slightly and cleared his throat before replying, "I didn't tell him that . . . well, not exactly."
"He said I might be crowding you."
"No," Mark said, a quick and obviously truthful reply then, with more reluctance, "it wasn't that."
Hardcastle looked puzzled. Mark went on. "I was just having a little trouble handling the, um . . . "
It petered out at that. The judge frowned and suggested, "'Being fussed over'?"
Mark cocked his head slightly, still looking self-conscious as he gave that some thought. "No," he said again with a little more insistence, "not that. You haven't been exactly fussing." He sighed. "Well, okay, you have been a little."
Hardcastle nodded ruefully, willing to accept it. "Okay, no more of that. I've reformed. And Frank's coming back to pick me up at five-thirty."
"Seriously?" Mark raised one eyebrow. "He didn't even trust you that much?"
"Habits." Hardcastle nodded once in self-acknowledgment. "They're tricky."
"Well," Mark sat back a little, looking relieved to have gotten through the conversation, "tomorrow I'll get out of here," He glanced again worriedly at the clock, "I hope." Then he smiled absently and murmured, "Home."
"Home," Hardcastle seconded enthusiastically.
The afternoon passed quietly. Mark had a visit from the orthopedist, who seemed okay with the notion of his imminent departure as long as he followed-up properly and didn't do any of a number of foolish things that orthopedists disapproved of. He took an official and approved walk in the hallway, complete with a newly-provided cane and with Hardcastle doing his best not to fuss or hover.
By the time he got back to the room, slightly out of breath but flushed with victory, it was ten to four. Hardcastle parked him back in the chair and stepped back, eyeing him critically for a moment.
"You okay?" he asked.
Mark nodded. "Yeah, fine." Then, after a pause, he added nervously, "Maybe some water." He pointed at the nightstand.
Hardcastle glanced at the cup and pitcher, just out of reach, then the man doing the requesting. He crossed his arms. "Didn't I hear them say nothing hot or cold twenty minutes before a temperature?"
McCormick was the picture of aggrieved innocence. "I was just thirsty, that's all."
He didn't have a further chance to defend himself, though, before the nurse appeared a little ahead of schedule. Mark cast one regretful last look at the pitcher and opened his mouth for the thermometer.
It had barely beeped and been extracted before he was leaning forward and asking, "Whad'ja get?"
Hardcastle leaned in, too.
"98.9," the woman said briskly as she jotted it down on her pad.
"That's normal enough," the judge observed, "right?"
"You didn't drink anything recently?" She glanced up at Mark with one eyebrow cocked in suspicion.
He shook his head in hasty assurance. "Of course not."
"Good." She smiled. "Then it's pretty normal. It's not likely to be up tomorrow morning."
"Tomorrow?" Mark darted a quick look at the pitcher and Hardcastle had a sudden certainty that the guy wasn't going to trust to luck twice.
He managed to bite his tongue, even after the nurse left. He didn't want to get into a squabble right before his own departure. Instead he politely, and without comment, poured a glass and handed it to the younger man. Mark had the decency to look chagrined as he accepted it but didn't make any promises of future good behavior.
They settled back in and not much more got said until nearly another hour had crept by. At five-fifteen they heard a wheeled cart in the hallway followed by a sharp rap on the door. "Dietary," a male voice announced, and a moment later the man was coming in, bearing a tray whose main dish was covered with the usual stainless steel lid.
Mark looked more interested than he had in previous days. Hardcastle had to admit the soup and Jello—and even the cream of everything—were nothing to get excited about. The tray was placed on the wheeled table. The dietary aide departed, leaving Hardcastle to handle the rest of the arrangements—sliding the table into position and lowering it.
With that done, there was only the unveiling, which he did with a flourish—only to pause in bafflement.
"I thought you didn't like liver and onions." A quick glance at the other man's face confirmed Hardcastle's belief. Mark's eager expression had vanished. "How come you ordered it?"
"I didn't. I think they made up their minds to feed me real food too late to send me a new menu." He looked crestfallen as he added glumly, "Not that this qualifies as real food."
"Must be the thing they had the most of left over," Hardcastle mused. "Hey, you got some nice green beans there." He pointed enthusiastically at the one corner of the plate not occupied by liver.
Mark looked up at him stoically. "It's just one more day." Then his expression went a little grimmer. "Just don't come around here before she takes my temp tomorrow morning if you don't want to be an accessory before the fact."
Hardcastle nodded in what he hoped looked like understanding. Mark glanced over at the clock. "And you'd better head out if Frank is picking you up at five-thirty."
He took the lid from the judge, placing it back over the offending meal.
"Not even the beans?" Hardcastle asked.
Mark made a face and a shooing motion. The judge reluctantly moved the table out of the way. He couldn't argue. His assessment of the side dish had been colored by wishful thinking.
"Tomorrow," Mark said, in apparent lieu of good-bye. "Home."
That pretty much summed it up, the judge thought, and he gave that sentiment a quick duck of his chin as he turned to go. It was the right thing to do, he assured himself, though somehow it didn't feel right at all.
Frank was there, waiting with the car in the pick-up zone.
"How'd it go?" he asked as Hardcastle clambered in.
"IV's out, and the docs are thinking of cutting him loose tomorrow."
"Yeah except he gets winded just walking in the hall and he's not eating yet, but he's so damn tired of that place that I think he'd lie, cheat, and gargle with ice water just to get out."
"I dunno . . ."
"He's on the mend. You'll see."
From there the conversation wandered to developments on the prosecutorial side. Frank had hand-carried the statements over to the DA that afternoon and made sure they weren't left lying abandoned in some cold, dark in-box overnight.
"I heard Falcon's new attorney is sounding them about a plea—reduced charges in exchange for testimony against Price."
"We don't need it," the judge grumbled heatedly. "I don't care how little there is linking him to Charlie's murder, we've got him dirty on the attempted murder."
Of course he wasn't the one would make that decision and the road to perdition was always the path of least resistance.
"I'll go talk to 'em—make sure they understand," he said stoutly.
Frank flashed him a sharp sideward look. "Not a good idea, Milt. I don't think we want them remembering you're the guy who tried to punch our suspect's lights out right before we arrested him."
Hardcastle settled deeper into his seat, saying nothing because there was nothing to say—Frank was regrettably right.
Discontented silence got them to the Harper home where the door opened to a wafting of garlic bread and a multitude of less-specific but equally delightful smells. Milt got a hug from Claudia as he was swept into the kitchen and seated at the table—a cozier setting for old friends. Hardcastle couldn't help not feeling very cozy despite his hostess's best efforts. He'd been on edge since he'd left the hospital and Frank's comments in the car had only aggravated him further.
All talk of the impending prosecution was tabled. Claudia wanted to know about Mark—how he was doing since she'd visited him on Sunday. Hardcastle suspected she'd already heard everything secondhand from Frank regarding the events leading up to the shooting. He sighed and tread lightly around those facts, sticking to recent improvements.
He'd more or less gotten her up-to-date by the time the oven buzzer went off. The arrival of the lasagna at the table coincided with the organ recital—Mark's dinner expectations running headlong into the harsh realities of institutional cooking.
Claudia never actually sat down. She merely cocked her head. She cast a long, questioning look at her husband, then her glance back down to the casserole, pausing there for just a moment. After that she was in motion again, turning toward the cupboard under the counter next to the sink and rooting around in there for a moment or two.
She returned to the table bearing a small stack of plastic containers.
It was the strangest thing. The trip back to the hospital seemed both shorter and less uncomfortable. Even the conversation was lighter. Claudia had no further need for inquiries, as she was in the back seat, keeping a heavily-laden brown shopping bag company. If Harper disapproved of Milt getting an extension on his visiting hours, he wasn't raising the issue with his wife. He'd even lent a hand with the packing up.
And Hardcastle had it figured that even with two extra visitors and all that food, it wouldn't be all that crowded in room 427.