Disclaimer: The characters don't belong to me but every mistake in the following story does.
Thanks for all the kind and encouraging words for my first story "Hammer to fall"!
So, here is my next try to enlighten some of Mark's childhood.
A third part is planned.
Judge Milton C. Hardcastle sat at a table in a little diner in New Jersey, waiting for his afternoon appointment to arrive.
He wasn't sure if the man would show up but there hadn't been any other witnesses who were willing to give him the information he wanted.
While he waited, his thoughts drifted off to the reason why he sat there in the first place.
It was because of the young parolee that came to live in the Judge's gatehouse a few months ago.
Hardcastle still was convinced that he had chosen wisely as he picked McCormick for his retirement project.
Not that he hadn't been wrong before and not that there hadn't been enough people around to remind him of that fact but this time it seemed to work out just as he had planned.
He was aware of the bets that had been placed among the people from the police station on how long it would take for his latest sidekick to take off.
More amused than offended he had joined in himself, ready to prove everybody else they had been wrong and to take their money with a big grin of satisfaction.
The Judge remembered the long talks he had had with Frank who was one of his closest friends and, as a Lieutenant from the LAPD, he was no stranger to rehabilitation chances and statistics.
"Milt" Frank had said during an evening out at a bar
"Are you sure you want to try it again after that Beal-disaster?
I mean, it could have ended up much worse than it did but taking these parolees into your home is damn near to looking for trouble if you ask me."
"Ah, come on Frank!
It's not like I'm going to invite an ax-murderer to move in with Sarah and me.
We are talking about a car thief here for Pete's sake!"
"Yeah, a car thief and a very, I mean very decent liar.
What makes you so sure about this McCormick guy being the right one, anyway?"
"You are right Frank he is quite a con-man but I am sure he is a good kid underneath it.
Took some wrong turns, that's all.
If he gets what he needs he will turn his life around, you will see."
"And what is it that he needs, Milt?" the Lieutenant asked curiously.
"These young guys need a lead!" Hardcastle replied confidently:
"A lead, discipline and a strong hand to keep them steady on the straight and narrow and a chance to prove themselves.
No more acting out, no chances of making stupid decisions on their own.
They have to learn to obey to the law and with that, they will learn to trust the authorities."
"Sounds like a very short leash to me," Frank said uncertainly:
"We are talking about young people here, not dogs you know?
It takes more, than just control…
By the way, I remember the last of your projects and if I remember it right, that one didn't appreciate your 'training-methods' at all and did bite you right into your backside the moment you turned around.
I doubt that it is all that simple."
"Oh, but it is exactly that: simple!
The modern ideas of rehabilitation are way to complicated if you ask me.
They are making a whole lot of hoo-ha about the parolees, fussing and hovering over them, without realizing that most of the young felonies had been spoiled rotten in the first place.
They have been babied by their families all the time and didn't learn to stand their own man and do good hard and honest work to earn what they desire.
To stay with your "leash-example",
it really is not that far from training a dog:
If it does what it is supposed to do:
you pat it.
If it doesn't:
you punish it.
Once a dog had learned to do what it is told, it can run around without a leash and live a happy life.
And, by the way, most dogs enjoy their training and love their trainer."
"So, you expect to be loved by your next con? What else? You gonna train him to bring your slippers when you come home?"
Hardcastle made a face and waited for his friend to wipe the tears from laughter out of his eyes before he went on in a more restrained tone:
"I guess I got a bit carried away with that dog-comparison-thing." he acknowledged
"I damn well know the difference between looking after a dog and looking after an ex-con!"
"Anyway,my point is:
You have to keep it plain and simple with these guys.
I think I have enough backbone to take it on with one of these little punks and I got what it takes to be a righteous and trustworthy leader to him.
And for the record:
I am a very likable guy, ya know?!"
Frank had the decency to look apologetically as he held out his palms:
"Oh, sure you are.
Always my little sunshine, that's what you are!"
he assured his friend and got punched lightly into the shoulder by a wide grinning Milt.
Thinks had become much more complicated since this evening with Frank.
Hardcastle always tried to be firm but fair, that's why he had earned the nickname 'Hardcase'.
And that's how he planned to handle McCormick too:
firm but fair.
He had laid it out for the young man right from the start:
They were not supposed to be buddies and, he had added later, the parolee was no substitute for his son!
The Judge was the one in charge and McCormick was the one who would follow the orders.
Of course, Hardcastle wanted the kid to feel comfortable and safe.
The older man was no brute!
The Judge was aware of the fact that young people need some fun along with the rules but he was eager to keep his young sidekick in line, and McCormick came out to be a real piece of work.
This mouth of his!
Oh, that damn smart mouth, running faster than it's own shadow!
The kid never got tired of whining and complaining about chores, or wake up calls, or errands, or….just nearly everything!
But Hardcastle had to admit that the kid did quite a good job and everything important McCormick started, had been finished to the Judge's achievement.
The kid showed he has guts and heart and he was smart too but the most important thing was, that he wanted their arrangement to work.
It hadn't taken the older man long to trust the ex-con with most things, even with his life, if necessary.
When Mark says he would back up the Judge, then it was exactly what he was going to do.
No matter what!
And he had shown a loyalty to the Judge that had surprised the jurist and had made him proud at the same time.
For his own peace of mind, Hardcastle had learned to look the other way every now and then but, to be honest, besides the kid's driving-skills his other talents had become very handy to the Judge's crime-fighting-hobby.
Somewhere along the way, Hardcastle's strictly-business-attention had been replaced by a feeling of attachment to the young man.
A strange kind of friendship had begun to develop.
Looking back, Hardcastle was ashamed of the whole dog-metaphor, especially since he had heard the phrase "pet-con" behind McCormick's back.
He didn't want anybody to think of Mark, or talking about him, like that.
The young man deserved better!
The Judge was lost in his thought about his…what?
Parolee, sidekick, employee, friend?
Half of the time McCormick made the older man's blood pressure rise and the other half the Judge had to bite his tongue because the ex-con was hysterically funny.
But all the time he simply liked the guy for his ability to laugh and to forgive easily.
Only a very few people, Hardcastle had met in his life, had been able to take all of the Judge's moods and tantrums, had been able to stand with him toe to toe in rough situations and still would have liked to join him for a movie in the evening, stealing his popcorn and throwing it at him with laughter.
Anyhow, there were a few things that bothered Hardcastle:
The ever-present sadness in the young man's eyes, whenever he felt unwatched.
An alarm bell in the jurist's head had gone off, when he noticed it for the first time and he really wanted to know, were McCormick's uneasiness came from.
It had been only a few weeks ago, when an injury during a case followed by a very strange behavior of the ex-con, had lead to a little inside information about McCormick's misspent youth at his uncle's house.
Another thing he had noticed about his fast gun was the flicker of real, deep fear whenever the Judge threatened to send him back.
The ex-con put on a really good show of being the tough guy that didn't give a shit, but sometimes he wasn't able to keep his mask in place and the attentive observer could see the frightened boy inside the man.
Of course, the kid must have figured by now, that all of Hardcastle's 'I will throw you back into the slammer-show' was exactly that: a show.
But the Judge could swear that there still was a shadow of doubt left in the younger man and he felt sorry for that kind of mistrust but he didn't plan to clear that particular point somewhat soon.
He wanted to keep this handle on McCormick as long as possible.
But even if he felt like a Bully whenever he uses it, the disappointment from J.J. Beal was still too close to the surface.
The jurist was so deep in his thoughts that he missed the arrival of his appointment.
As he looked up he noticed the man already standing at the table.
Hardcastle got up, apologized and offered a chair opposite of his own.
After he had introduced himself he studied the man closely.
He was about his age, tall and slim.
The gray hair was thinning and he pushed it previously out of his brown eyes as he said:
"My name is Miller, Bart Miller.
Of course, you know that already, Mr. Hardcastle or is it Judge Hardcastle?" he asked a bit confused.
"It's Milt." the Judge answered and smiled, trying to break the ice.
The other man smiled back:
"Bart" he replied
"So, Milt, what can I do for you?
On the Phone, you said you were looking for some information about Steve's nephew?
I can't tell you much about him, 've seen him years ago for the last time.
Dunno where he had gone after all that, well...tragedy.
Heard he'd joined some racing-guys though.
But you said you know him now, don't ya?
How's he doing?
Never thought he was a bad kid, no Sir.
No matter what Steve said about him.
I mean, bastard or not, he wasn't a bad breed.
His mother was quite a nice girl, ya knew her?"
"No I hadn't had the pleasure to meet her," Hardcastle answered politely.
He had the nagging feeling that this was going to be a long afternoon!
"Look, Bart. I am interested in information about the kid's childhood.
I understand you were living in the neighborhood when he came to live with his aunt and uncle, right?
Why don't you just tell me about these times?
Anything would be helpful." Hardcastle tried to encourage the man to focus again.
"Yeah, sure I can do that!" Bart answered with confidence
"But what do you need this information for?
I mean, it's a long time ago and all…
Is the boy in trouble?
Am I in trouble?
I, I did report it, back then. I could have looked away like all the other neighbors but I did do my civic duty.
It's not my fault the boy took off on his own.
"Hold it, hold it, Bart!" Hardcastle interrupted him before he could drift off any further
"Mark isn't in trouble and neither are you.
Let's say, I am a friend of his and I want to get to know him better than I do now.
So, you lived there, when the boy moved in.
Have you known him before?
You mentioned his mother."
The nervous glance of the Judge's guest, snapped back to Hardcastle and the man went on:
"Yes. Yes, I've known them before.
They came to visit Steve and Ally, Alicia his wife, a lot after they had moved closer.
Donna, the boy's mother, and her brother were quite close then.
Chris, that was Steve's and Ally's son, was about the same age as Mark.
Both boys must have been around ten years old when Donna and her son moved in a couple of streets away from Steve's place."
The man stopped talking to take a sip from the coffee the waitress had brought in the meantime.
Hardcastle took the chance to ask him:
"Did Donna and Mark came to visit Steve and his family before?"
"Yes, I think so but it hadn't been that often. Maybe two or three times.
I heard the two of them moved around a lot before they came here.
New Jersey is a big place, ya know?
And I guess she had to work a lot to get along with no man in the house around and all."
"Yes," Hardcastle said
"that's what I have heard too.
So they finally moved into the neighborhood, what happened next?"
Bart thought for a moment and went on with his story:
"They all seemed to get along very well.
As I've already said, Donna was working a lot and Mark spent a lot of time at Steve's house.
Sometimes it seemed like the boy simply belonged there.
Donna's little bastard seemed to begin to look at Steve as a kind of a father.
He and Chris were like brothers.
They all looked like a family.
Of course a little awkward because of the two women but that's what they actually were… a family I mean… but you know what I mean?"
he glanced at Hardcastle in question.
The jurist just nodded and gestured him to move on.
"Anyhow, the happy-happy-family thing didn't last for too long.
One Saturday afternoon, Donna came over to borrow Steve's car.
She and her boy had tickets for a circus and I overheard Ally offering the ride to Donna, thin walls, ya know…" he shrugged apologetically.
"Yeah, old houses," Milt said.
"Yeah, old houses...Uhmm, where was I. Ah, the car!
So, they came over to get the car.
As they arrived, Mark looked pale and I heard him mumbling something to his mother and then he ran over to the trash cans, opened one and well, he puked.
After that, they went inside.
I could hear them talking about the tickets and the boy being sick and what a shame it would be to waste them.
Ally had to go to work later and Steve never had been a fan of the circus, said that the clowns gave him the creeps, so they decided to leave Mark on the sofa with Steve and Donna asked Chris to join her instead.
Chris was thrilled and Mark was very upset about the whole arrangement.
I could hear him shouting at Chris that Donna was his mom and that these tickets were his present and that it wasn't fair and stuff...
You know how cranky kids can get, especially when they are sick.
Anyhow, Mark puked again and his Mom said that he had a fever too, so he stayed where he was and Chris and Donna left.
What returned to the McCormick's house later wasn't them, but two police officers.
They told Steve about the accident and that nobody had survived.
Bart's voice trailed off and his eyes stared at the opposite wall.
The Judge swallowed hard but tried to drew his visitor back on track:
"Yes, very sad indeed! Do you know what kind of accident had happened?"
"Yes, a truck driver overlooked a traffic light and crashed into them on their way back.
Later I heard that the trucker had been driving for far too long hours and that he had been falling asleep behind his wheel.
So sad!" Bart repeated
Out of McCormick's file, the Judge knew that he had lived with his aunt and uncle for a while before he had been tossed from foster home to foster home and then into juvy.
From Mark he'd learned that his uncle had been abusive.
Hardcastle knew from first hand what the loss of a child could do to a man, especially when there was no one around to keep him grounded.
It seemed like Steven McCormick hadn't been able to keep it together.
Nevertheless, Milt's heart went out to the grieving, curly-haired boy who must have been a close eyewitness to his uncle's meltdown.
A part of Hardcastle didn't want to hear the rest of the sad story but the officer of the court in him needed this report to be complete, so he encouraged Bart to go on.
"From this point on, it went pretty much downhill with Steve and Ally.
She wasn't able to stand the loss of her son and she got depressed.
She took a lot of pills these days and often refused to leave the bed for days.
Steve wasn't able to stand it either and he started to drink and when he was drunk he got very angry."
"At Mark?" the jurist asked
"At Mark, at his wife at the world in general, I think." Bart replied
Hardcastle shook his head in disbelief:
"But the authorities left the boy in his house, anyway?
I mean, the kid had lost his mother and his cousin, his uncle was violent and his aunt wasn't able to look after herself but they still just left the child there?
And what about the neighbors?" he avoided to address Bart in particular but went on:
"Didn't anybody hear what happened in that house and called the cops or something?"
Bart fidgeted in his chair nervously:
"Look, we all had our own problems...It hadn't been a first-class neighborhood if you know what I mean and Steve was. ..well, he was a big guy with nothing left to lose, right?
His son was dead and his wife was practically a zombie.
And the boy, well, just had the misfortune to got stuck in the middle of that mess.
I did call the police! I did!
On the first evening, I heard a fight.
Steve had been plastered and shouted at Ally. Then I heard the boy, pleading him to stop and...well, he did.
But he did go for Mark instead.
I could hear him insulting the boy and beating him so I called the cops.
They came and talked to Steve and everything went quiet after that.
The next day some old bat from the youth-welfare-office showed up but the boy told her that everything was fine.
He said he had tripped.
Well, the kid tripped a lot in the following months, if you know what I mean."
"Yes!" Hardcastle growled through gritted teeth.
The retired Judge knew exactly what Bart ment and it doesn't matter how often he had heard that kind of trivializing phrases, it still made him sick to his stomach!
Ignoring the knot in his midsection he asked Bart to go ahead.
"I tried to talk to Steve and in the beginning, when he was sober he really was sorry for what had happened. Later on, he told me to mind my own business.
Sometimes I called the cops again when the yelling and fighting had gotten too loud but it always ended up the same way…
Oh boy, did Steve hate that child!
He just couldn't come over the fact that Mark had survived and his own boy had died.
I've often heard him shouting at the kid.
'It should have been you in that grave and not Chris!' and
'If it would bring back Chris, I would toss you over the next bridge without blinking!'
Sometimes it seemed like Steve was just throwing around his weight, for him being the adult and the boy beeing, well, just a boy.
Then he shouted things like:
'This is my house and you will do what I tell you to do, you little piece of dirt!?'
'You are just here because I say so and I only do say so because it is my christian duty!'
'Even your father must've known what a useless brat you are, otherwise he would have stayed with my sister!'
Sometimes Steve got carried away with his anger and he had to bring the boy to a doctor afterwards.
Then he used to drop him at the hospital.
Mark never told them his name or address, or who had done this to him.
After the treatment, he sneaked out and went back home."
Home… Hardcastle rubbed his face.
He suddenly felt old.
After a deep breath he asked:
"Why did he always go back to that house?
Why hadn't he just told the doctor what was going on?"
"I think he came back because of Ally and maybe he felt guilty about what had happened or maybe he just didn't know where else to go…
Anyhow, the whole Situation stayed as it was for about a year or so.
The boy managed to go to school most of the time and he used every excuse he could find to stay out of his uncle's hair.
Sometimes he vanished for two or three days when his uncle had gone too far, but he always came back.
Then everything changed again.
It was another evening and another fight started in Steve's house.
Then, all of a sudden, I heard a loud crash.
I ran to the window and saw the boy lying on the grass on his back.
It looked like Steve had thrown him right through the glass backdoor.
Steve came stomping out of the house and headed for the child.
Mark had been crawling away from him.
He was bleeding and holding his right arm.
Steve reached him, grabbed him and began to shake him while he yelled:
'It is all your fault you filthy little Bastard!
You with your whining about a little stomach ache. My boy is dead!?'
Steve did let go off the boy's shirt and begun to kick him instead:
'You thought you could stay here in my house, expected us to be buddies?
Heck, expected me to play your father?!
Is that what you were thinking?!"
He had grabbed the kid's shirt again and slapped him into the face.
Every hit did go along with a word, shouted from the top of Steve's lungs:
Honestly, I thought this time he would kill the boy but then the police showed up.
One of the neighbors must have called them.
They took the kid with them.
They brought him to the hospital, where he stayed for nearly two weeks.
After that, he came back but he didn't stay long.
I saw him ringing the doorbell and I saw Steve answering the door.
It was near noon and he hadn't been drinking too much yet.
He let the boy inside.
I guess they talked some but I hadn't been able to make out the words.
It was quiet the whole night and very early the next morning the boy left with a duffle bag in his hand and that had been the last I've seen of him."
For a moment, silence fell between the two men at the table.
Hardcastle felt a sharp pain in his right hand and as he looked down he saw that he still held the spoon, that had come with the coffee, in his tightly clenched fist.
For a second he had to force his muscles to relax.
In his years on the bench, he had heard a lot of sad childhood-stories but it always was different when you knew the victim.
It also was a completely different story, when you hear it as a private person.
As a judge, there had been some rituals to be able to keep the necessary distance that had allowed him to stay impartial.
His robe had taken an important role during a trail.
Every time he had put it on before he had been taken the platform, it had been like putting on his armor and taken it off again had allowed him to go back to the private person, Milton C. Hardcastle.
This armor had helped to let most accusations bounce off of him and on the other hand it had helped to keep his feelings inside.
Sitting here in this little cafe, unarmored and with no chance to help the boy, he could see suffering before his inner eye, cut deep into the retired jurist's heart.
This one had stricken him hard too, because it had been expected but with an unexpected intensity.
Hardcastle was struggling to get the pictures he had of McCormick together.
The first one had been drawn by the Judge himself, based on things he had read in the young man's file, on experiences he had made with other young men in similar situations and on, he had to admit that now, lot's of conclusions and guessings.
This picture showed a spoiled young race driver, cruising around town in a Porsche but being too cheap to pay the insurance on his own name so he used a girl to keep it less expensive.
This young, smart-mouthed punk had been stealing cars before and had been in need of a tough lesson to understand how society works!
The next one was more experience based and showed a young man, who had made false decisions in his live and payed the price for that.
A forward looking, kind natured, caring man with a loyal heart for his friends.
And then there was this new picture.
It showed a frightened young boy who had been completely and utterly at the mercy of a system, that had been supposed to protect him and that had failed spectacularly.
McCormick himself hadn't been giving away a lot about his childhood.
A few words here and there. He had mentioned that his mother had died when he was a child and that he had lived with his aunt and uncle for a while.
The Judge wondered what had happened to them. There wasn't anything about that in the files. Just that he lived with them and after that, he had lived at different foster homes.
'You are not a substitute…'
These words were still buzzing around in his head.
Didn't he say the exact same words to the kid after Joe Cadillac's visit?
And how had McCormick's reaction had been?
The Judge couldn't remember, he had been caught too deep into his own memories and thoughts at that moment.
The only thing he remembered, that the words had came out unintentionally harsh and he regretted them the very first moment after they had fallen out of his mouth.
He wanted to take the edge off of them, wanted to show the kid he still was welcome and that the jurist cared nonetheless, so he'd said:
That was all he could've managed but he was sure the young man had understood.
'You only stay here because I say so…'
Another echo in the Judge's ears.
He had told the kid that too.
'Oh my… what kind of sick déjà vu might have given all that to him?' he thought.
He remembered McCormick, asking him…
Telling him to stop saying that he had been spoiled rotten as a kid.
Now, the jurist could see clearly, why!
He wearily shook his head as if to make the unbidden thoughts go away.
Hardcastle looked up, blinked and realized he must have missed something because Bart looked at him expectantly.
"Sorry, Bart. What did you say?" he tried to pull himself together.
"Quite dump of the boy to come back every time, eh?" Bart repeated
The jurist frowned:
"Actually, I think it hadn't been dump at all." he struggled to keep his tone even and friendly
"It takes guts to face a man that has such power over you and it takes heart to deal with your fear because you care about others, but I admit there might have been some desperation involved too.
In fact, I think the victim of this whole affair had been the only one who actually did stand his ground!"
Milt couldn't keep his voice from rising with the last sentence and Bart looked shocked and aggrieved.
"But, as I already told 'ya, I did call the police...I…" he started to defend himself but the jurist cut him off:
"Yes I know, Bart!" but the lack of remorse or even understanding on his visitor's face made it very hard for Hardcastle to stay civil.
So he decided it would be better to end this conversation soon.
He thanked Bart for the information and as he got reminded of the promised reward, the Judge pinned a wide, false grin onto his face and pressed some money into Bart's hand.
Meanwhile, his mental cinema had started and he could see himself scrunching up the bills and stuffing them down the other man's throat.
Two days later Milton C. Hardcastle was on his way to the basketball-court.
It had taken him a while to sort his thoughts after what he had learned about his young parolee's past and it had taken him even longer to decide what to do with his new knowledge.
First of all, he had done what he always did: he filed it.
But there was one thing he did, he had never done before:
He wrote everything down and didn't put it into McCormick's file, where it belonged, but in an extra one.
No way he wanted to take the risk the ex-con would find it and finds out the Judge had gone behind his back and had poked around in his past.
That had turned out to be the greatest issue in this whole affair.
When Hardcastle had started to nose around he had justified it by telling himself, that he was Mark's parole-officer and as that he had a right to know everything about the man in his custody.
But with every litle detail he found out, he had felt more and more like an intruder to McCormick's very private life and his miscarriage of a childhood.
The second thing he had planned to do was:
He had decided to leave it alone because there wasn't a single thing he could have done for the abused and abandoned boy and he feared it would only do harm to the man who had managed to survive all this and did even come out sain.
He really didn't want to add to the damage so he had decided to wait until McCormick would be ready to open up and tell the Judge what Mark wanted him to know.
Nevertheless, the jurist still wanted to keep the rains in his own hands and he still remained confident of being able to keep his parolee on the straight and narrow by giving him a steady lead but he felt the strong need to show McCormick that it was worth to trust the system and the authorities.
To trust him!
Maybe he could spoil the kid a bit himself now and then..
With this thoughts he took the basketball from under his arm, threw it and hit the backboard with a loud thud.
Seconds before McCormick came drowsily scuffling out of the house, Hardcastle replaced his affectionately smile with a scowl and grumbled:
"It's about time you show up kid!
I started to think you were planning to sleep all day!"