Knockout Nightmare

It was a pretty simple case, Hardcastle mused, shifting as he sat in the uncomfortable chair in the ER waiting room – well, it was supposed to be a simple case. All they had to do was catch Calvin Jenkins attempting to steal the incriminating files from Hardcastle's desk (which he had taken great pains to "accidently" reveal to Jenkins were in his possession). Figures that McCormick would find a way to make it complicated.

Predictably, Jenkins had broken into the main house in the wee hours of the morning, where Hardcastle and McCormick were waiting, relatively patiently, in the darkened den. Jenkins had proven very resistant to capture, fighting fiercely to escape. In the ensuing brawl he shoved Mark hard so that the ex-con struck his head against Hardcastle's unforgiving mahagony desk as he fell and was out cold. After finally securing Jenkins, the judge had quickly moved to check on McCormick, finding him still on the floor, just starting to stir, dazed and bleeding from a gash and growing lump on his temple. His unsteady attempt to stand and his glazed eyes left no doubt to Hardcastle of a trip to the hospital. Mark had, of course, protested the need to do so, but the judge was adamant, and waited only for the police to come out and pick up Jenkins before dragging his reluctant protégé to the hospital. And so now here he sat in the Emergency Room, awaiting word about the kid and wondering why they so often wound up in this same situation. That kid was a walking trouble magnet.

The judge looked up when he heard Frank Harper's voice, seeing him inquiring at the nurse's desk before coming over to him.

"Hey, Frank," Hardcastle greeted with a small smile.

"Hi Milt. How's Mark?" Frank asked as he sank down in the chair next to Hardcastle.

Hardcastle shrugged. "I think he's okay; they're looking at him now. Hit his head on my desk pretty hard." He sighed. "That kid has the damnedest luck."

Frank nodded. "Yeah, well, I'm sure he'll be fine. I wanted you to know that Jenkins will be arraigned later today and it looks like the evidence you supplied will be enough to secure an indictment. I wanted to thank you for your help. If you could come by tomorrow to give a statement …"

"Sure, Frank, I just want to get McCormick settled first. I'm hoping he doesn't have to stay here overnight. I assume you'll want a statement from him, too."

"Yes, but we can wait a day or two for that. Let's give him some time to recover. Jenkins isn't going anywhere." Frank was interrupted by a nurse who stopped next to him and told him he had a call. He went over to the front desk and then returned a couple minutes later. "Sorry, Milt, I wanted to wait here with you but duty calls. Double homicide in Inglewood. You gonna be okay?"

Hardcastle waved a hand. "Sure, no problem. Got too much experience doing this. You go on, and thanks for stopping by."

"Anytime. And say hi to Mark for me. I'll touch base with you later to see how he's doing." Frank clapped Milt on the shoulder and left.

Hardcastle sighed, his tired blue eyes anxiously eying the door to the ER examining room. At this early morning hour the ER was quiet, and he was alone again in the waiting area. He shifted restlessly in the plastic chair, only to quickly stand when the door swung open and the doctor emerged, a young resident whose white coat helpfully said "Dr. Whelan."

The doctor approached him. "Are you here with Mr. McCormick? I'm Dr. Whelan and I treated him. "

"Yeah, I'm Milt Hardcastle and I brought him in. How is McCormick?" the judge asked.

The doctor gave a reassuring smile. "He's going to be okay. As you know, he took quite a knock to his head, and he has a mild concussion. He's going to have a headache for a few days. His eyes might bother him a bit and he might be sensitive to loud noises. He might also be a little nauseous and dizzy, but that should ease over the next 24 hours or so. We treated the head laceration – fortunately, no stitches were required. He should get lots of rest over the next few days and stay hydrated."

Hardcastle breathed a sigh of relief. "Great. Can he go home now?"

Dr. Whelan hesitated. "You said when he was checked in that he lost consciousness when this happened?"

Hardcastle felt his anxiety ramp up a notch. "Yeah, for a couple minutes."

Dr. Whelan frowned. "Well, I'd like to keep him overnight for observation, just to be sure we didn't miss anything and there are no complications, as sometimes with head injuries issues don't surface for hours, but –"

"Let me guess," Hardcastle interrupted. "He refuses to stay."

"Yes, he insists on going home," the doctor replied.

The Judge shook his head. "Yeah, I figured. Can't tie that kid down. Is he okay to go home?"

"Well, yes, but that's providing he has someone who can check on him regularly and wake him every couple hours throughout the day."

"Okay, then, no problem, Doctor Whelan. I know what to do. It's not the first time he's had a concussion."

The doctor smiled. "Good. I'll sign the orders for a mild pain reliever and anti-emetic and write the instructions for after care and he should be ready to go shortly. If you wish, you can go in and visit him."

Hardcastle pulled up to the main house and stopped the truck, then hustled to get over to the passenger side before Mark exited. "Just wait til I get there!" he admonished.

"Geez, Judge, I'm not a little old lady!" Mark exclaimed testily, although he wobbled when he stood and reached out a hand on the truck to steady himself.

"McCormick, will you at least try to cooperate? I'm just making sure you don't fall over and hit your head again." Hardcastle gripped Mark's elbow and began to steer him towards the entrance of the main house.

Mark stopped, pulling away. "Aww, can't I just go to the gatehouse and –" he began.

"No, hotshot! Weren't you listening to the doctor?" Hardcastle returned with an exasperated growl. Seeing Mark's wince, he softened his voice. "You have a concussion. He said you need to be awakened every couple hours, and I'm not going to trek over to the gatehouse all day!"

"I don't see why this is necessary," Mark grumbled. "I'm fine. If I weren't, they would have made me stay at the hospital."

"After all your moaning about 'when can I get out of here' and 'do I have to stay'? They were probably thrilled to see you go. See if you can get it through your curly head: they agreed to not have you stay overnight IF someone woke you up regularly." Hardcastle shook his head. "Ya know, kiddo, you should thank me. If I hadn't said I would check on you, they would have made you stay."

Mark blew out a gusty breath. "Okay. Sorry, Judge. I don't mean to be difficult."

Hardcastle gently took his arm again. "That's okay, sport. I know you're hurting and just want to rest. We'll get you all set real soon."

Once inside, Mark insisted they head for the den, and he gingerly settled onto the soft leather couch with a weary sigh. Hardcastle draped a blanket over him, asking, "You hungry? I can rustle up some soup or a sandwich."

Mark closed his eyes, pulling the blanket close. "Nah, I just wanna sleep for a bit."

"Okay, I'll wake you in a couple hours. Sure you don't want to use one of the bedrooms?"

"Nope, here is fine …" Mark's voice trailed off as he sank more deeply into the couch.

Hardcastle regarded him for a long moment, grateful the damage wasn't worse. He drew a deep breath, tired from the hectic morning. He looked at the clock and noted the time – hmm, just late morning, going on noon. Felt later, but then again neither of them had gotten any sleep. He wandered into the kitchen to make a sandwich, and grabbing a Pinky Fizz, went back to the den and settled at his desk to eat. He observed McCormick fondly, who was curled comfortably on the sofa, quietly sleeping. Pulling a file from his desk, the judge settled back in his chair with a yawn. Within minutes he too was fast asleep …

Milt awoke slowly, the late afternoon sun glaring off his desk. Stretching painfully, he wondered for a moment why he was in his chair and not bed, and then he sat up abruptly as memories flooded back. Dammit, he hadn't meant to sleep all afternoon! Hah, damn watchdog he turned out to be! Never checked on the kid all afternoon, and – he glanced at the clock – almost six hours had passed since they'd returned home. He looked over at the couch. Mark lay silently, apparently still asleep, buried under the blanket.

The judge stood and rounded the desk, reaching out a hand to gently shake Mark's shoulder. "Hey, McCormick, time to rise and shine!" Hardcastle said gruffly. No response. "McCormick!" With rising fear he pulled back the blanket and reached for Mark's wrist with trembling fingers. Thank God, a pulse thrummed under his fingers, but it was slow. His breathing was slow and shallow, too. "McCormick, stop fooling around! Wake up!" he pleaded. Still no response, not even a flutter.

Hardcastle quickly went to his desk and called for help, then returned to Mark's side. "Oh, god, kiddo. Please be okay. I'm sorry I didn't check on you." He eyed the purpling bruise on Mark's temple anxiously. The doctor must have missed something. Mark's face was pale with a cool sweat glistening on his skin, his lips a very pale blue. The judge stood near him helplessly, not knowing what to do to help him. The sound of an approaching siren made him dart out to the front door, where he urgently ushered in the paramedics and directed them to Mark, quickly giving them a brief recap of Mark's head injury.

Hardcastle heard the one paramedic say to the other, "Barely breathing. Let's start him on O2. I'll call it in." The judge listened to the paramedics give the hospital Mark's vitals and the instructions they were given, but while he didn't really understand all the terminology, it sounded bad. The presence of the medical team didn't reassure him, either, as he clearly heard one paramedic suddenly say with controlled urgency, "Respiratory arrest! Bag him and let's wrap and run!" Mark's limp form was hastily moved to a gurney and wheeled out of the den and into the ambulance.

Hardcastle tried to enter the ambulance but was told there was no room for him and he needed to follow them to the hospital. Unwilling to delay Mark's transport, he didn't argue, but felt bereft as the ambulance doors closed and he lost sight of his friend.

The trip to the hospital was a blur, and Hardcastle suddenly found himself in the all too familiar waiting room again. Finally a doctor came out with a solemn, regretful look and informed him that unfortunately, there had been bleeding on the brain and they hadn't been able to do anything …

The room swam and Hardcastle could feel himself falling as he cried out, "No! McCormick!"

With a start, Hardcastle awoke, surging to his feet even before he was fully alert. "McCormick!" The hospital scene faded and he found himself in his den.

A rustle on the couch, and he saw Mark peering at him fuzzily, pushing himself up to a sitting position, the blanket tangled around his legs. "Judge? What's up?"

Oh God, it had only been a dream. No, a nightmare! Hardcastle gave a quick look at the clock – he'd only been asleep just over an hour. More importantly, McCormick was here, alive and breathing. The judge found himself tightly gripping the desk, trying to absorb the new, wonderful reality.

Mark pushed himself up to a seated position, eying Hardcastle with concern. "Judge? Are you okay?"

"Yeah, kiddo, I'm just fine," the judge replied, eying him with relief, breathing deeply to slow his pounding heart. "Better question is, how are you?"

Mark shrugged. "Okay. Still have a headache, but not so bad. Hey, I'm hungry. Can we order some pizza?"

So much for the possible threat of nausea, the judge thought, amused. Seems like there was little that would keep the kid from eating.

Hardcastle smiled indulgently. "Sure thing, kiddo. Anything you want."

Mark looked at him curiously, not sure what to make of the very pleasant reply. He frowned, studying the judge's face, which showed nothing but concern and fond regard. That was just weird. "Something wrong with you? You're being … nice."

Hardcastle's eyes narrowed. "Nothing's wrong with me! I'm always nice! Now shut up while I call in the pizza." And as he dialed, shooting a final glare at Mark, McCormick settled back with a smile. Now THAT showed things were getting back to normal.