Author's Note: This is my attempt at a "case" story. I'm not as adept at writing this type of story; the majority of my fics are emotion-driven. So please remember that as you read this, and forgive my errors.

The time period of this story is early '84, roughly between The Georgia Street Motors and The Homecoming episodes.

-ck

Disclaimer: I do not own these beloved characters, and I am writing for fun and feedback, not for profit.


BAIT AND SNITCH

by InitialLuv

As the illegal transaction was finalized, drugs for money, Milton C. Hardcastle gave a nudge to his associate. "That's it, McCormick!" he whispered.

Mark McCormick threw off the grungy blanket he had been hidden under, and scrambled to his feet. Right next to him, also disguised as a homeless bum, Hardcastle tossed aside his own blanket and rose as well. "Hold it right there, Portman!" the judge ordered, leveling his handgun.

For a split second the drug dealer and his teenaged subordinate stood frozen, staring at the two men who had previously been only shapeless lumps in the back of the alley, covered in shabby clothing and blankets. Then Portman ran in one direction, and the teenager ran in the other.

"Go!" Hardcastle yelled, although his direction was unneeded. McCormick was already running after Portman. The judge holstered his handgun and took off in the opposite direction, pursuing the teenager.

The judge was put through his paces as he chased after the boy. The youth ran down another alley, cut across the cluttered parking lot of an abandoned factory, and then ducked through an opening in a fence surrounding a junkyard. Knowing he couldn't fit though the opening or scale the fence, Hardcastle called out desperately: "Jason!" Hardcastle heaved in another breath. "That's far enough! Jason, stop!"

The kid paused, still a good distance from Milt, and yelled back. "I'm not coming back until I know it's safe!"

Whereas Jason Graham had evaded his pursuer enough to make the foot chase interesting, Sol Portman lost his race before it had barely begun. When the drug dealer turned to escape, he'd gotten only ten yards when a sewer grate, not resting flush against the pavement, tripped him up. Portman had wildly pin-wheeled his arms in an attempt to regain his footing, but had eventually succumbed to his forward movement, plunging to the ground. McCormick was on top of him within moments. He simultaneously pulled the man onto his back and raised his right fist, preparing to deliver an incapacitating blow.

Before Mark could connect fist to face, Portman lifted his arm – previously hidden under his body – and swept it out violently at McCormick. At the same time that the gleam of the knife registered in McCormick's brain, he heard the quick rip of his jacket sleeve, and felt the sharp slice across his right forearm. Mark fell back, automatically cradling his arm to his chest with his left hand.

The drug dealer, still breathing hard, struggled to his feet. The knife in his hand was now red with McCormick's blood. Mark stayed on the ground, but then suddenly lunged forward and grabbed with both hands at Portman's ankles, pulling them forward. Again losing his balance, Portman fell backwards. His rear hit first, and then the back of his head connected with the hard pavement. The knife clattered to the ground, and Mark reached for it, then paused. After a second, closer look at Portman he realized the man was no longer a threat. He was out cold.

McCormick again clamped his bleeding arm tight against him. Then he rested back on the ground to wait for the cavalry.

ooOoo

Milt was still breathing heavily as he jogged back to the area where he and McCormick had been staking out Portman. When he drew near, he saw that the drug dealer hadn't made it very far. Portman was lying unmoving on the ground, McCormick sitting next to him. Mark was resting against the brick wall of one of the buildings bordering the alley, and had his arms wrapped around himself, apparently to ward off the cold. Recognizing there was no need to hurry, the judge slowed down to an amble.

Mark looked up with an impatient expression at the older man's arrival. "About time," he muttered. Then, slightly less grumpy: "Where's the kid?"

"Laying low." Hardcastle cocked his head toward Portman's still form. "What happened here?"

"He fell." When the judge sent a doubtful look at his friend, McCormick quirked a grin. "Okay, maybe I 'assisted' him a little." The grin was exchanged for a more serious expression. "He had a knife. I nudged it out of his reach. Don't worry, I didn't get my prints on it."

"A knife?"

"Yeah. You know, it would've been nice to know about that," Mark hinted.

"Well, maybe he didn't know. Knives are easy to keep hidden." Milt's defense of their informant included a brief shrug.

Mark snorted. "Well, then I have an idea. How about next time we run one of these routines, I'll chase the bait, and you can chase the guy with the knife. Since you have the gun and all."

"I let you carry the walkie-talkie. That's important, too."

McCormick snorted again, then tightened his arms around his chest.

"If you're so cold, I can get you one of those blankets we hid under."

"Yeah, the ones thinner than your hair? No thanks, I'm fine."

Milt's hand went unconsciously to his head. He pulled it down quickly, glaring at a grinning McCormick. "Just call Frank on the radio, wouldya?"

"Uh. . . I can't."

"Why not?" Hardcastle rolled his eyes heavenward. "You didn't break the damn thing, did you? See, I can't even trust you with that."

"No, I didn't break it!" Mark said testily, his grin gone. "At least, I don't think so. I just can't quite reach it, is all." He gave an awkward shrug, at the same time jerking his head toward his right jacket pocket.

Milt studied his friend for a few moments, finally understanding the crossed and clenched arms for what they were. He then looked around the immediate area. "Where's the knife?" he asked quietly.

McCormick jerked his chin in the general direction. Hardcastle walked a few steps, gazed down at the ground, and then sighed. "I thought you said you didn't touch it."

"I said I didn't get my prints on it. I didn't say anything about my blood."

Milt returned to McCormick's side, crouching down. On closer inspection, he could see the bloody right sleeve of Mark's jacket, although it was mostly hidden by the younger man's left hand.

"Stabbed?"

Mark gave a quick shake of his head. "Sliced."

"How bad?"

"I don't know. I haven't looked."

Milt sighed again. "Move your hand. Let me see."

Mark backed away slightly, as far as he could with the wall against his back. "No, I think I'll just stay like this. Thanks, though."

"McCormick!"

Mark opened his mouth to protest again, and suddenly found another reason to avoid assessing his injury. "Judge!" He nodded meaningfully at Portman, who was groaning and stirring restlessly. "You don't happen to have any cuffs on you?" the ex-con asked.

"Where would I keep them?" Milt extended his arms, showing the lack of adequate pockets in his "bum" attire: torn sweatpants and a ratty sweater, in decidedly mismatched colors. Even his hat, a somewhat faded New York Jets knit cap – complete with pom – was very unlike the retired jurist's normal headgear (which naturally made sense, as the hat had been loaned to him by McCormick). The only familiarity to Milton C. Hardcastle was the holster and accompanying .45.

"Fine," McCormick said, "but unless you're planning on marching the guy out of here at gunpoint, you'd better call Frank." He leaned to the side. "Grab the radio, huh?"

After a grumpy mutter or two, Milt pulled the walkie-talkie from Mark's jacket pocket. He switched it on, made sure it was set on the right band, and then pressed the "talk" button.

"Frank? Frank, you hear me?"

"Yeah Milt, I'm here. Whatcha got?"

"We got Portman, dead to rights. Just needs some cuffs and a Miranda."

"Where are you at?"

"Right where we were staked out waiting. The kid gift-wrapped him for us." Hardcastle frowned down at Mark. "And get some paramedics here – Portman had a knife, sliced McCormick on the arm."

The drug dealer gave another groan, followed by a loud curse. Milt glanced over at the man, then pressed down on the radio button again.

"I guess Portman should be looked at, too."

"Why? What happened to him?"

"He fell."


When Hardcastle and McCormick returned home it was late enough that twilight had come and gone, and although it was nowhere near as dark as it had been on Mark's first introduction to the estate, he had a strong sense of déjà vu. Sarah was again waiting on the stoop as the judge pulled the truck up beside the fountain, and she voiced a complaint similar to the one she'd had on that night several months ago. "You're late, Your Honor," she said as soon as Hardcastle had stepped out of the cab of the new pick-up. "You said you'd be home over twenty minutes ago. Supper's nearly ready."

The judge frowned. "I'm sorry, Sarah – we got hung up at the pharmacy." He gestured at the ex-con, who was exiting the pickup with a small white paper bag in hand.

Mark sent a displeased look right back at the older man. "And we got stuck in traffic. That one wasn't my fault. Unless you think I had something to do with the four-car crash that caused the ten-mile back up."

"Wouldn't put it past you."

Sarah cleared her throat, and both men stopped bickering long enough to look mildly chastened. They followed the woman into the house. As they stepped inside the door, the housekeeper turned and made a brief wave to the den. "Lieutenant Harper just called, Your Honor. He'd like you to call him back." Milt nodded, making his way for the den. He had barely stepped down to his desk before Sarah directed, "Make it quick."

McCormick hmmped, but soon found himself also regarded coolly by the housekeeper. "And you –"

"Me? What did I do?"

"You're going to help me in the kitchen."

"But—" Mark gestured at Hardcastle, who was now dialing the phone. He saw no help coming from the judge; instead Milt sent a wry grin at the younger man. "You'd better go help her," he advised. "I'll let you know what I find out – Yeah, hi, Frank, it's Milt."

"Let's go, young man." Sarah's sharp voice overrode the judge's side of the phone conversation.

McCormick turned with a silent sigh, and trailed down the hallway after the woman. Before they even reached the kitchen, he could smell the enticing aromas of the home-cooked dinner. Mark was hit with two simultaneous emotions. He felt incredibly blessed to have lucked into this "fast gun" situation, which included a surreptitiously attentive housekeeper (who was also a supremely talented cook). But he also felt a wave of despondency, as he was reminded of her imminent departure. In less than two weeks, Sarah would be leaving them, journeying several hours north to move in with her sister.

Mark glanced around as they entered the kitchen. "What did you need me to – "

"Sit down," Sarah interrupted.

McCormick shook his head, confused. "I thought you wanted me to help you."

"Sit."

Still unsure, Mark slowly pulled out a chair and sat down, depositing the pharmacy bag onto the table top. Sarah sat next to him, and she studied him quietly. Her gaze lowered to Mark's right arm. As he was no longer wearing his jacket (decrepit, blood-stained, and ripped, it had been tossed in the garbage at the ER), Sarah could easily see his gauze-wrapped forearm.

"How badly are you hurt?"

McCormick dropped his head, stifling a smile. Surreptitiously attentive.

"I'm fine – only some stitches. No big deal."

She nodded at the paper bag. "You needed to go to the pharmacy?"

"Yeah, for some antibiotic cream. They gave me a tetanus shot at the ER, but I'm supposed to put the cream on the wound when I change the bandage." He lifted his right arm slightly, as if Sarah hadn't already noticed the injury.

The woman shook her head tightly. "I hope you kept the number of stitches under double digits."

"Uh – nine." When she narrowed her eyes at his hesitation, he repeated. "Nine. Really."

"Well, there's that, at least."

Mark sighed, smiling softly. "Sarah, it's not like I went out trying to get hurt. I didn't know the guy had a knife. If I had, I would've. . . "

"What?" she pressed. "Would you have let him get away?"

"No!" he said immediately. "No, I – I would've fought him differently. Changed my strategy, I don't know."

Sarah still seemed dissatisfied with his answer. "That's fine, but what about when the person you're chasing has a gun?"

Mark shrugged, winced, then rubbed at his left shoulder, where he'd gotten the tetanus shot. Damn thing hurts more than the knife wound, he thought disgustedly. "Hardcase – Judge Hardcastle has a gun. Someone shoots at us, he shoots back."

"And what do you do?"

"Duck."

Sarah had inhaled to answer when the timer on the oven buzzed. She turned her head, and Mark rose, taking that moment to escape. "I'll go tell the judge dinner's ready."

ooOoo

Dinner was a quiet affair. As soon as the food was dished out McCormick tried to grill Hardcastle on his phone call with Harper, but Sarah quickly stopped that, declaring there would be no "shop talk" at the dining room table. Both men grumbled to themselves but deferred to the woman's insistence, and the discussion instead centered on compliments to the cook and asking that condiments be passed.

Mark had been looking down, concentrating on getting his peas on his fork without dropping too many back onto his plate, when he realized someone was calling his name. The voice had a tone of impatience verging on concern, and Mark raised his head, blinking. Both Sarah and the judge were studying him closely. He suddenly had the feeling he had zoned out.

"Mark?" He turned his attention to Sarah. She looked at his face, then at his plate. "Are you all right? You're not eating."

Looking down again, McCormick saw his fork, partially full of peas, was still resting in his hand. The serving of chicken casserole on his plate was relatively untouched, and he'd taken maybe two bites of the baking powder biscuit. He knew Sarah had made the biscuits especially for him after Hardcastle had called from the ER to let her know what had happened. That made him feel even worse about what he had to say next.

"I'm not really hungry, Sarah. Everything's great, but I just don't have much of an appetite."

Hardcastle stared at the younger man. "No appetite?" he echoed. Then: "Are you okay?"

Mark pushed his plate away. "I feel a little out of it. I'm gonna go lie down." He stood up, pushing his chair back in. "Sorry."

Hardcastle and Sarah watched the ex-con leave the dining room, weaving slightly. Then the judge rose, tossing his napkin down. "I'll make sure he doesn't fall over getting to the gatehouse."

Milt was past the doors to his den and ready to head outside when he heard movement in the room on his left. Tracking back to the den, he stepped through the open doors and saw McCormick reclining on the couch, muttering to himself. As the judge approached, the low voice became more audible. "Both damn arms hurt, can't get comfortable. . . "

"Whaddaya doing?" Hardcastle demanded.

Mark lifted his head in surprise. "What do you want? I told you I was going to lie down. I'm tired."

"Tired? Falling asleep in your supper is more than just 'tired.' I think I should call that ER doc."

"Judge – " McCormick sighed in frustration. "I'm fine. It's just a side effect of the tetanus shot. Along with being nauseous." He grimaced. "Probably a good thing I didn't each much supper."

"Side effect?"

"Yeah!" Mark twisted his body, finally finding a mildly comfortable position with his right arm crossing over his body so that his right hand could massage his sore left shoulder. "Where were you when the doctor was talking about the side effects?" After a pause, McCormick answered his own question. "Oh, maybe that's when you were calling Sarah."

Milt nodded with a brief grunt. "What'd he say?"

"It's in the after-care papers. They're – I stuck them in the pharmacy bag. I think – yeah, it's in the kitchen." Mark yawned largely, and it was a moment before he continued. "He said the side effects might hit me harder 'cause of my injury." He leaned his head back, closing his eyes. "I'm just gonna take a nap, 'kay, Judge?"

When Hardcastle returned to the dining room, Sarah looked up from her plate, her face expectant. "Did he make it to the gatehouse all right?"

Milt waved his hand distractedly. "He didn't even get that far. He's sacked out on the couch." Hardcastle continued past the table and headed for the kitchen.

"Your Honor, your food is getting cold."

"I know, Sarah I just have to check something. And I was almost done – I can warm the rest up in the microwave."

Sarah tsked, then rose from the table. "Nonsense. I can do that."

"Sarah, it's not a problem – "

"I have to cover Mark's plate anyway," she answered, then taking both Hardcastle and McCormick's dinner plates, the housekeeper followed the judge into the kitchen.

As Hardcastle located the discarded pharmacy bag and began to search for the pertinent papers, Sarah set about covering Mark's plate with aluminum foil, and then placing it in the refrigerator. She next put the judge's plate in the microwave, covered it lightly with a plastic lid so that it wouldn't splatter, and set the timer.

"Hmm." Milt sat at the kitchen table, reading the paperwork from the ER. "Looks like he was right."

Sarah seated herself nearby. "What are you checking?"

Milt handed the paperwork over. "The kid said it was probably the side effects from the tetanus shot. And it sounds like it. He just needs some rest, most likely."

Sarah set the papers down slowly, pressing her hands flat against them, attempting to straighten out the wrinkles and creases. She gave a slight shake of her head, then spoke.

"Why did you have to go and do this, Your Honor?"

Milt lifted his head and looked back challengingly. "What, getting Portman? We had to get that guy dirty, he had his claws into that kid, making him run drugs for him. . . The boy would never have gotten out, he didn't have any chance to turn his life around with Portman breathing down his neck."

Sarah shook her head again. "I don't mean the case. I agree with what you did. I know you needed to help that poor boy, only seventeen. . . And hadn't you said it was his idea?"

Milt nodded shorty. "Yeah. He's got an uncle who works in Frank's department, a detective in Narcotics. Jason got a hold of him, Frank got a hold of us. . . " He spread his hands in a "and the rest is history" gesture. "The kid's uncle wasn't too keen on the setup today, but Jason had been missing from home for a year, and now he's back with his dad. And Portman's in custody. So I'd say that's a success."

"Other than Mark getting hurt."

The challenging expression had morphed into something more like guilt. "Sarah, we didn't know the guy had a knife. If I'd known, I wouldn't have made McCormick go after him without backup. I'm sorry, all right?"

"It wasn't your fault; you weren't the one who injured him. But I said it's not about the case, not really." Sarah paused. She looked past Hardcastle, her eyes unfocused.

The microwave timer rang, but neither of them responded to it. For at the same time, Sarah again began to speak.

"When you started this project of yours, bringing young men home – ex-cons – I didn't mind that much." Milt snorted, and Sarah smiled. "Oh, I know I complained. Another mouth to feed, and I had to watch the lawn and gardens get destroyed by whichever young man was here at the time. But I understood why you were doing it, that in a way you were continuing your wife's generous work. Plus, it was good for me, too. With Tom and Nancy both gone, this place was just too big, too quiet. Having someone here, even for just a few weeks or a month, helped. And the ex-cons that you selected to bring here weren't too worrisome – with the exception of J.J. Beal. And even his betrayal didn't really affect me – it was your car that was stolen. I didn't get to experience his criminal side until he made his return visit."

"Sarah, I felt horrible about that – "

She lifted a hand. "I'm not done." She had turned to face him. "I even understood how you wanted to change your project to a more definitive arrangement when you retired. That you needed something to keep you active, keep you from fading away. You'd had a reason to get up and go out and keep busy; a job, responsibilities, a career, for forty years – "

"Over forty years," he murmured.

She nodded in acknowledgement. "To go from that and then to nothing – it must have been very unsettling. You aren't the typical retiree. You don't golf, you don't travel for leisure, and there's only so much fishing you can do. So you devise this plan to go after your old cases, and you decide you need a partner, and then one night you show up at two in the morning with Mark, asking me to put him in the gatehouse, of all places. You never inquired what I thought about it. Other than asking me for his file a few days before, I had no clue what your plans were. I had figured you were just keeping tabs on Mark; you did that for many of the individuals that came through your courtroom – you still do. And after everything that happened with Mr. Beal, I was under the impression you were rethinking your 'partnership' idea. I was definitely not expecting you to bring Mark home that night."

Hardcastle was flabbergasted. Sarah had never spoken so candidly about his partnership with McCormick before, and he was distressed to hear the opinions she was now sharing. He had thought, from witnessing the interactions between the ex-con and the housekeeper, that the two had become close – almost like family. He wondered now if he had missed something. Possibly Sarah had only kept up pretenses for his sake, recognizing how the two men were becoming fast friends, and not wanting to threaten that burgeoning relationship. "I never knew you felt this way," he said honestly.

She made a dismissive wave. "It's your house, it was your decision. But did you even think about how it might impact me?" She pointed in the direction of the den. "Did you understand how much that young man in your study would disrupt my life?"

Milt sighed heavily, then swallowed. He hadn't, not really. He hadn't thought enough about how having an "indefinite" addition to Gulls' Way would affect Sarah. She'd criticized the short-timers, but her complaints had always been valid, or made because they were requested. And none of those ex-cons had stuck around long enough – even the ones that had kind of worked out – to cause them to drastically change their lives or routines. Not like McCormick had. An idea suddenly occurred to him, and he spoke it hesitantly, not wanting to hear an affirmative answer.

"Is that why you're leaving, Sarah? Because you have a problem with McCormick?" He looked at her regretfully. "I wish you would have said something sooner."

She gave an exasperated huff, and looked straight into his eyes. "Oh, for goodness' sake, I wouldn't do something like that. I do not run away from uncomfortable situations. And I do not have a problem with Mark. I have a problem with leaving him!"

It took a moment, but then the enormity of Sarah's statement finally registered. And Milt grinned. For her part, Sarah looked away in embarrassment, continuing to huff.

"Sarah, it's not like you're moving cross-country. So you'll be a few hours away. There's the phone, and we – "

"It's not the same," she interrupted. Her face had become glum. "How can I take care of him over the phone?"

Hardcastle lifted his eyes skyward. "He's a grown man, Sarah. And he's lived without us for nearly thirty years – "

She interrupted again. "How many of those years did he spend in some type of incarceration? Or without any kind of family?"

The question was valid, and prompted Hardcastle to look seriously at the woman. "I can't tell you not to worry about the kid, Sarah, but I don't think you need to. You're not the only one that can take care of him."

Sarah reached across the table and grasped her friend's hands. "I don't think I could leave without knowing that; that the two of you will be taking care of each other." She smiled knowingly at the judge.

Milt squeezed her hands, also smiling. "I'm gonna miss you, Sarah."

She didn't respond, only lowering her head to look at their joined hands. They sat quietly for several moments, until Sarah abruptly raised her head. "Oh, bless it." she said. "Your food's cold again."

And they both began to laugh.

ooOoo

Mark woke to the ringing of the phone, although he wasn't exactly sure what had woken him until he heard the judge's rough voice. "Yeah, Hardcastle here. Hey, Frank. You're not still at the station, are you?"

McCormick opened his eyes, and found he was staring at the back of the couch. Disoriented, he tried to remember what time it was and just how long he'd been asleep.

"He's still throwing a stink? What did he expect us to do, wait until the kid was in so deep there was no way to get him out?"

Mark adjusted himself on the couch, stretching slightly, and was aware of a blanket covering him. Where did that come from?

"All right, all right, Frank. I won't push." There was a pause, then Hardcastle spoke again. "Yeah, we'll stop by in the morning if McCormick's up to it." Another pause, this one more brief. "No, he's just pretty beat. Fell asleep in the middle of supper." Hardcastle was quiet, and then laughed loudy. "I know, that's what I said!"

McCormick grumbled to himself, sitting up on the couch. He caught up the blanket, wrapping it around his shoulders. Then he glared across the room at Hardcastle, who stared back with a sheepish grin.

"Frank, I gotta go. Okay, we'll see you tomorrow. 'Night." The judge hung up the phone, then addressed the ex-con. "You awake, huh?"

Mark grunted. "Frank?"

"Yeah. . . how much did you hear?"

"Enough to know I was the butt of a joke," Mark sulked.

"Oh, don't be so sensitive." Hardcastle left his desk, coming to sit on the edge of a chair near the couch. "You feeling better?"

McCormick looked thoughtful, then nodded. "Yeah, I am. I'm kind of hungry."

"Sarah will be glad to hear that. She saved your supper. Not to mention there were plenty of leftovers." Milt shook his head with a slight smile. "I think that's her plan – load up the fridge and freezer with leftovers before she leaves, so we don't have to cook for a while. Like you and I don't know how to cook."

"Not like her," McCormick said wistfully.

Hardcastle nodded in agreement, his smile turning down. Both men were silent for a few moments, caught up in their respective unhappy expectations of what would befall them in Sarah's absence.

Mark was the first to pull himself out of his dismal thoughts. "What did Frank call for? I thought you already talked to him, before supper."

Hardcastle gave a short laugh. "That was almost three hours ago. You've been sawing logs since then."

"Oh." McCormick looked over at the clock on the mantle, and saw it was nearly ten. "Huh. Sorry."

Milt shook his head with an exasperated sigh. "You were tired. Not like you missed anything – well, except supper."

"And Frank. What did you find out? What's up with Portman? Is Jason okay? What happened with him?"

Milt held up a hand, forestalling any more babbling questions. "Jason's all right. You know he was watching us, waiting for Frank and his guys to haul Portman away? He'd gotten on the roof of one of the nearby buildings, had a bird's-eye view. Anyway, once he was sure Portman was in custody and out of the picture, the kid got to the meeting point safe and sound. There's still a lot of stuff that needs to be settled, but he's back home with his dad now. Where he belongs."

McCormick breathed a relieved exhale, closing his eyes briefly. "Good. I just hope they can work things out."

"Well, that kinda depends on Jason. His dad wants him in rehab – "

"That's what started this whole thing, Judge!"

Milt looked levelly at his friend. "What, you think he doesn't need rehab?"

"No – no, that's not what I meant." Mark gestured absently with his hands, and the blanket slipped off his shoulders. "The whole 'my way or the highway' thing that his dad said, the big blowup Frank said they had – that's why Jason took off. I get it, it was supposed to be tough love or something like that, but the kid was sixteen, and you don't just throw a sixteen-year-old out in the street, especially one who's already a drug addict. I just don't want to see it happen again."

"I don't think we have to worry. His dad doesn't want it to happen again either. Frank said things look promising. And I think Jason will do just about anything to make sure he doesn't end up back where he was. L.A.'s a tough city for a homeless kid, even one that's sixteen or seventeen – there were a lot worse things that could have happened to him than what he got mixed up in. Gangs, prostitution – "

"You don't have to tell me that, Judge. L.A.'s not the only tough place for a homeless kid."

Milt leaned back slightly in his chair, studying Mark quietly. The younger man had again drawn up the blanket, and was now huddling under it. His face was blank, and even his eyes seemed empty. Hardcastle cast around quickly in his mind, mentally parsing through McCormick's file and trying to recall if the young man had ever been homeless. The earliest file entries were from when the kid was roughly fifteen – there was information about his time in foster care (mildly detailed) mixed in with his stints in juvie (much less detailed). But there was a lack of data, in between the final entry from Jersey and the first entry from Florida. . . Hardcastle was satisfied that the file he had on the ex-con was fairly thorough, but he had admitted – to McCormick himself – that there had been guesswork involved. He had "guessed" that the gap in official records simply meant the kid had been behaving himself. Now he wondered if it was because McCormick had been off the grid.

But one thing that was also not in McCormick's file was any indication of drug use.

"Yeah, well, as tough as things were, I don't imagine you were the kind of kid that would get himself mixed up in running or dealing drugs."

Mark's expression cleared somewhat; the dead look was replaced with surprise, then chagrin. "No, I just stole cars."

Hardcastle raised his eyebrows. "Ya did, huh?"

"Uh – when I say 'stole', it – I – well, I don't really mean – You know I repossessed cars – "

"Uh-uh. You didn't say repossessed. You said stole."

McCormick lifted a hand to his forehead, massaging it. "I just woke up. I don't know what I'm saying. Don't listen to me, okay, Judge?" His voice became plaintive, almost desperate.

Milt took a slow, deep breath, then exhaled loudly. "Fine. It's been a long day. We can talk about it later." He stood up. "I'm heading to bed. Why don't you go finish your supper, and then I think you should turn in too. I want to go see Frank in the morning."

"Okay." McCormick watched from the couch as Hardcastle headed up the steps and to the doors that led to the hallway. Before the older man crossed the threshold, Mark called out, "Judge?"

Milt paused, turned. "What?"

"Portman. Is he okay?"

"What?" the judge repeated.

"Well, I know he was coming around before the paramedics showed up, but he hit his head pretty hard, and I was just wondering. . . " Mark trailed off. Milt had stepped back in the room, and was now looking disbelievingly at the ex-con.

"Are you telling me you're worried about the guy that stabbed you?"

"Sliced."

"That's a distinction for you? Because you got lucky and didn't get hurt as bad as you could've, that means you didn't have a right to defend yourself?"

Mark shook his head stubbornly. "It's one thing to deck a guy, and stun him enough so you can get the upper hand. But it's not like he had a gun or anything, and I didn't intend to land the guy in the hospital." Both he and Portman had been treated in the same ER, but when Hardcastle and McCormick had left, the drug dealer was still in a cubicle – hand-cuffed to his bedrail and with a police officer standing nearby.

"But it was okay for him to land you in the hospital."

"That's not the point – "

"I'm just trying to clarify things," Hardcastle cut in.

"Ju-u-dge…"

The older man had come back to the chair he had previously been sitting in, but he refrained from again seating himself. He stood near the chair, his arms crossed, and gazed at the open look on his friend's face. Milt tried to scowl at McCormick, but something in the ex-con's expression – not to mention in his wheedling voice – tempered his incredulity. He had recognized, months ago now, that his partner was not a vengeful man, nor prone to physical violence. All his bluster and tough-guy attitude was a façade, shielding a decent and honorable young man.

And isn't that ultimately why you picked him?

"All right . . . I don't know why this should matter to you, but he's out of the hospital. He's got a mild concussion, but they can handle it in the jail infirmary – they're keeping him there overnight for observation. He should be in a regular cell tomorrow."

Mark's responding sigh was almost as relieved as the one he had expressed upon learning Jason's fate. "Okay, good." He smiled gratefully at the judge. "Thanks."

Milt hmmphed softly. "You done asking questions?"

"Uh, yeah, I think so."

"Good." Hardcastle gestured in the direction of the kitchen. "Go eat."


TO BE CONTINUED...