The characters do not belong to me, they belong to their creators and owners. If they belonged to me, I'd put them out on DVD immediately!
Ratings and Warnings: Mayhem and physical violence.
A/N: Originally printed in Christmas at Gull's Way in 1987, this story has been slightly tweaked for this version.
"McCormick!" Judge Milton C. Hardcastle, retired, bellowed, standing at the door to the basement.
A radio was blaring psychedelic oldies, the washer and dryer chugging to the beat while Mark McCormick swayed back and forth as he folded a large assortment of T-shirts belonging to both him and Hardcastle. Looking up, McCormick's faint smile of welcome faded at the annoyed grimace clouding Hardcastle's features. "What's wrong?"
"Gotta go to will you shut that racket off!" Once it was peaceful except for the clump-chunk of the machines, Hardcastle continued. "Aunt Mae and Aunt Zora are having a family reunion this Christmas and I can't get out of it. Somehow they got me to agree to go to Clarence."
"Oh." McCormick blinked. Family reunion? That meant another lonely Christmas for him. It seemed something always messed up their Christmas together. Two years ago, the Judge was in jail. Last year it was a bad case of flu that had both of them in their respective beds, hacking and wheezing. "That's nice."
"Nice? I thought you'd be thrilled, kid," Hardcastle commented.
McCormick made an effort to appear normal, hiding his face by bending over the next pile of dirty clothes. "A vacation from you is pretty…exciting. I just need time to take it in."
"Vacation from me? What the hell are you babbling about? I'm not sending you there alone, they'd spoil you rotten. 'Course, you're already spoiled."
"Huh?" McCormick stared at Hardcastle, his mouth hanging open. "But…you said it was a 'family reunion'. I'm not family."
"Don't you remember? You said it yourself once, you're here by adoption. My aunts specifically told me to bring you along. In fact, I don't think I'd be too welcome if I left you home." Hardcastle jumped when McCormick whooped, grinning ear to ear. "Is the bleach warping what's left of that brain? What is wrong with you?"
"Not a thing, Judge, not one little thing," McCormick replied, his jaws aching with the width of his grin. He was going to a Hardcastle family get-together. He knew that Hardcastle's various friends and relatives apparently accepted him, but they didn't have much of a choice. To be considered a member of the family was a warm feeling.
"Are you listening to me?"
"What?" McCormick realized that Hardcastle had continued talking to him, giving him orders and he hadn't heard a single one.
"I'm gonna get your hearing checked. I said, be sure and pack warm clothes for us. It's cold in Arkansas at this time of year. And I thought we'd drive, do some sightseeing on the way. You've got the Christmas holidays off at law school, we have the time for it. What do you think?"
"That'd be great! We haven't had a real vacation in ages. Are we taking the pickup or the Coyote?"
"I think the pickup would be better, the traction might be needed if we run into any snow. The heater works pretty good, so we shouldn't freeze or anything. Maybe I'll borrow some snow tires."
McCormick looked up. "How long have you known about this? You seem to have it all planned out. I know you, it takes you ages to organize a vacation. Or do you have some case planned on the way to Clarence?" His suspicions rose. He wouldn't put anything past Hardcastle. And due to his schooling, the Judge was forced to behave himself. McCormick would accept nothing less than total abstinence from criminal chasing, afraid his friend would wind up hurt or dead. Surprisingly enough, Hardcastle had agreed. Now he wondered if this was why he was being taken along.
"No case. But I have know about this for a while," Hardcastle admitted. "I was trying to think of a way out of going there."
The dryer shut off and McCormick busied himself emptying it before he said what was on his mind. "Is it because of what happened there, the last time?"
"Nah, kid, I've put that away. It's the past, no sense in dwelling on it. I just don't like having to put up with Gerald and the aunts fussing about and all the various cousins that show up at one of these things. It's one big pain."
A bit wistfully, McCormick sighed. "Sounds nice to me." He picked up the basketful of clean clothes and edged past Hardcastle, heading for the bedrooms on the second floor.
Hardcastle trailed after him, stopping outside the den. "You won't say that after you get caught in that mass of people, all jabbering about what horrible things you did as a kid, filling you up with different homemade foods, full of good cheer, but only for the holidays. The rest of the year, they're all grouches who don't want anything to do with you."
Halfway up the stairs, McCormick tried to imagine it. Christmas for him was being alone in the dingy one-room apartment that his mother rented for an unreasonable sum of money while she worked a special shift at the local diner. It was more money, something they had little enough of. It meant a warmed-over turkey dinner after his mom got home at three a.m., too tired to do more than watch her bastard son open a tiny present or two. It was usually something simple, like candy or a toy car, but once, it had been a Mickey Mouse watch. It didn't even matter to him that it was from a pawn shop and didn't keep good time, it was the most beautiful think he had seen in his seven years. And even that family feeling had ended when his mother died six years later. Most of the foster homes he had been put into did it for the money or the community good will or, in a few cases, they could get children to torment or worse. A real family, to fawn over you, that was something very special to McCormick and he wouldn't miss the get-together in Clarence for the world. And getting to hear more 'Hardcastle as a kid' stories would only put the icing on the cake.
"This is fun, Judge. I've never panned for gold before." McCormick leaned over the wire-bottomed pie plate, his eyes glowing. He was concentrating so hard that his tongue was sticking out between his lips.
Hardcastle watched with a tolerant, fond smile on his face. They must've stopped at every two-bit roadside operation before arriving in Denver, Colorado. An overgrown kid, that's what Hardcastle sometimes treated McCormick like, but it was true on this trip. Every place they went, McCormick viewed with wide-eyed wonder, no sign of the ex-con/hustler/cynic who acted so tough.
"I've got one! Judge, I've got a chunk of gold!"
Amused, Hardcastle leaned closer, peering at the tiny bit of yellow rock nestled in the mud at the bottom of the pie plate. "Yeah, looks like you've struck it rich, kiddo. Wanna magnifying glass?"
McCormick frowned, stalking off to find the mine's guide and instructor in the fine art of panning for gold. He passed the only occupants of the mine, a young Oriental family of three, intently staring into the muddy water from the nearby sluice.
Hardcastle followed along behind the younger man. McCormick was head to head with the pretty blonde woman who supervised the mining/tourist operation. She was picking the nugget out of the pan with tweezers and putting it in a glass vial filled with clear water, handing it to McCormick. He held it up to the skimpy yellow light, gazing at the dull rock resting on the bottom of the glass tube. He seemed entranced, and Hardcastle's smile softened.
"You ready to go? We can get quite a few miles in before we have to stop for the night."
McCormick looked up, his eyes distant. "Huh?"
Hardcastle jingled the GMC's keys in front of his nose. "Drive. Truck. Now?"
"Oh, right. Sure, let's go. Got my souvenir, don't I? Sure you don't want anything? A t-shirt, maybe?"
Hardcastle pushed the grinning McCormick up the tunnel, laughing at the self-satisfied smirk on his face. "You're driving, but try to keep that noise you call music to a dull roar, okay?"
The agreement had been that the driver got to choose the radio station, to each man's sorrow when the station was on something the other didn't particularly care for. McCormick would catnap during some of the more sedate pieces of music. Hardcastle would attempt to do the same while McCormick drove, but "I Can't Drive 55" and "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On" at the loudest decibel was not conducive to sleep.
"Haven't you ever gone sightseeing before? I mean, considering all the places you've visited during your days on the racing circuit, I'd think you'd have been to so many tourist traps that you'd be tired of them," Hardcastle said as McCormick guided the pickup down the highway.
"Never had the time or the money, most of the time. That's why walking on the boardwalk in Atlantic City when I was a kid was such a big event. Goin' to these places alone is kinda strange, everybody looked at you. So I never did."
The explanation was simple, no hearts and flowers sympathy bid, but Hardcastle read more into it than McCormick meant to reveal. A lonely childhood, few friends during his early years and an attitude that didn't allow him the 'weakness' of childlike pleasures, all of which made Hardcastle glad he had agreed to make all the various stops they had.
"I'm beat. Are we heading straight through to Clarence or can we stop for the night?" McCormick yawned, hunched over the steering wheel. He had been driving all day and was exhausted. It was almost dinner time and they hadn't seen any signs of civilization in hours. The roadmap showed a small town a few miles down the way and McCormick was ready to call it a day.
Hardcastle studied the map, estimating distances. "I think we'll see if this Silver Hills has a motel. That way, we'll be rested when we drive into Clarence. If I know Aunt Mae and Aunt Zora, they'll want to talk for hours when we arrive."
"Sounds good to me."
They drove on, the heater working full-blast and barely making a dent in the freezing cold outside. While it wasn't snowing now, there had been over three feet of white stuff in the last two days, making driving hazardous. McCormick sighed. He was a Floridian, that's what he considered himself after living so long in the South. Snow was something you heard about, not drove in. And his years in California hadn't trained him any better. He had told Hardcastle that when it snowed in New Jersey when he was a kid, he had taken public transportation. Of course, what he hadn't mentioned was that they didn't allow him to use the family car in the last foster home he had stayed in when he got his learner's permit.
McCormick cut his speed down as they entered Silver Hills' town limits. The first thing they passed was a large house, set back off the road and surrounded by a spiked metal fence. The yard was covered with debris sticking up out of the snow. There was a bridge to the grounds over a deep ravine that had a river rushing through it. The water was deep enough and fast enough to keep from freezing.
"There's a motel," McCormick called out, pulling into the motel parking lot and stopping outside the neon-lit registration office.
"Good. I'll sign us up. I could use some food, maybe they can recommend a restaurant."
Hardcastle got out of the pickup, stopping to look back at McCormick who was staring at the motel, frowning. "What's wrong?"
Visibly shaking himself, McCormick replied slowly. "I…don't know. I don't like this place. Maybe there's a Holiday Inn nearby?"
"I doubt it. You're just tired. A hot shower, some food, and you'll feel okay again. I'll be back in a minute." Hardcastle walked into the office, his breath fogging in the cold.
McCormick got out of the truck after shutting off the engine. He looked at the motel and shivered again, but not from the winter chill. The place gave him the creeps. It reminded him of something horrific, but he couldn't quite pin it down.
Whatever it was, it wasn't pleasant. And there was the house, situated on a gentle hill overlooking the motel. McCormick would've bet his last dime that the owner of the motel lived in that house. The house was old, decrepit. It almost looked like…the Bates' house. McCormick swore. If that was the Bates' house, then this would be the Bates' motel.
Hardcastle came out of the office carrying a key to their room. "Come this way, bring the truck and park it at this spot. Mr. Anderson gave us the first room next to the office. The others don't have hot water." The Judge stood outside the door to Room 1, waiting. "McCormick, are you listening?"
"Judge, can't we go on? I don't like this place. It's like something out of PSYCHO."
"You're out of PSYCHO, kid. Get the truck over here and bring our bags inside. Now." Hardcastle's order was tinged with exhaustion.
"Yessir," McCormick replied, climbing back in the GMC and sliding into the parking space, stopping abruptly, just short of Hardcastle.
"I'm gonna take a shower, then you'll do the same. Then we'll find the local diner, and relax over a good meal." Hardcastle unpacked his bag, leaving it opened on the bed near the wall.
"A shower? After what I told you this place reminds me of? You're a cruel man, Judge." McCormick looked around the small room uneasily. He knew he'd check for peepholes before he got under the water.
McCormick laid back on the other bed, staring at the ceiling. He could hear Hardcastle's rendition of "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" in the shower and laughed. Somehow he had never thought of the Judge as singing in the bathroom, although most everyone did it. Well, he admonished himself, he should be thinking of the fun he would be having in Clarence with Hardcastle's aunts and brother, Jerry, not some stupid fantasy about killers that only exist in books and movies.
Hardcastle came out of the bathroom already dressed in soft blue jeans and a warm flannel hunting shirt. He gazed fondly down at the bed where McCormick had fallen into a half-sleep. He nudged the younger man roughly.
"Wha?" McCormick jumped upright, his blue eyes wide open.
"I'm done in there. Hurry and get cleaned up, we'll get some food. Mr. Atwood said there's a diner within walking distance."
"The manager of this motel. Owner, too, from what I understand. He's an old man, in his late eighties and strong as a bull."
"Yeah, good for you, get out in that fresh air."
"Hmmm," McCormick grumbled from force of habit. "Good for me? Yeah, I love getting penumonia."
"Clear your lungs out of the L.A. pollution." Hardcastle continued teasing him as McCormick dragged some clean towels off the dressing table.
McCormick strolled into the bathroom, steam from the Judge's shower blowing out in a tiny puff as the door closed.
Restless, Hardcastle decided to go ahead to the diner. He scribbled a quick note to McCormick, leaving it on the other man's suitcase. He shrugged into the thick sheepskin coat and slipped out the door.
The walk to the diner was invigorating, the air crisp and clean. Hardcastle kew that McCormick wouldn't appreciate his disappearing, but after hours in the pickup, the Judge needed the walk to stretch his legs. And Hardcastle knew from long experience that his friend might be in the shower for an hour. McCormick loved water.
There was hardly anyone in the diner when Hardcastle went inside. A young woman about McCormick's age was standing behind the counter, talking to an older man dressed in a brown police uniform. A typical truck-stop style cook was scraping the crud off the grill with a spatula. A teenager and his girl sat in a back booth munching on large hamburgers, giggling at the ketchup dripping on the Formica table top.
"Hi, help you, sir?" The waitress ambled over to the booth where Hardcastle sat next to a window facing the motel. He wanted to see McCormick when the man was on his way.
"No, I'm waiting for a friend. A cup of coffee would be nice, thank you." He glanced at the nametag pinned to the woman's pink blouse. "Pat?"
"Yes sir, it's really Patricia, but that wouldn't fit on the tag. Coffee. Cream and sugar?"
"No, thanks." Hardcastle took the menu that Patricia offered, scanning it in fond remembrance of diners from his past. Simple food like chicken fried steak, fried chicken and white gravy were the staples of a roadside diner. All heavy with grease and oil, considered bad food by nutritionists, but filling to people on the road. People like truck drivers and motorcycle cops forced to eat at all hours of the day and night.
"Hey, Judge, I was thinking. You're right, much though I hate to admit that. My imagination did get away from me. Crazy, thinking this place looked like the Bates' motel. That's just a movie. And a book, of course."
McCormick's complaining died away when he realized that he was alone in the room. He had a towel around his head, drying his hair vigorously.
Grimacing, he found the note and strained to decipher the scribble. "Damn, Judge, gotta get you a portable typewriter if you're gonna write like a doctor."
He got into the warmer clothes from his luggage and put his sheepskin coat, a present from Hardcastle, over a heavy sweater. He was feeling the cold more than the Judge, to Hardcastle's delight. Lectures about his eating, living and sleeping habits filled a lot of the monotonous hours spent driving through the middle of nowhere.
McCormick opened the door after making sure he had the room key. Pulling the door till he heard a click, he started to walk towards the 50ish diner down the road across the street from the gas station.
The voice was loud and forceful and McCormick turned to see a man who had to be Atwood, the owner/manager of the motel from Hardcastle's description which was right on target. "Yes, sir?"
"Are you staying with Mr. Hardcastle?" Atwood was eyeing McCormick suspiciously.
"Yeah. The Ju - Hardcastle's at the diner waiting for me. Something I can do for you, sir?" McCormick was patient, understanding that Atwood hadn't seen him when the Judge checked in and men Hardcastle's age didn't usually have guys his age traveling with them.
"If there is nothing else, I've got to get going. He's waiting for me." McCormick turned away and was startled to feel a dull poke in the small of his back.
"This is a gun, a very small but efficient gun. If you try to get away, I'll kill you." Atwood's voice was menacingly low.
"You'll never get away with it." The old guy was crazy, he had to be.
"I wouldn't bet on that, boy, if I were you. Move."
Walking slowly back to where the path led to the old house, McCormick tried to figure it out. In desperation, he grabbed at a straw. "It's a joke. Hardcastle put you up to this, didn't he? That sly dog. I've got to think of something really terrible to get him back." He looked at Atwood. "What were we supposed to do?"
Atwood frowned, the gun lowering slightly. "What?"
"Okay, you pull a gun on me lucky I didn't try and take it from you, I could've hurt you by accident and we walk towards the house. Then what?"
"We…we go inside. You think this is a joke, a trick by your friend?"
"I can see his fine hand in this, without a doubt. Alright, to the house it is." McCormick walked peacefully alongside Atwood, grinning as various schemes came to him. He ignored the questions about why Hardcastle would play such a trick. It made more sense as a joke than his premonition being correct.
"I wonder what's keeping him." Hardcastle was standing at the counter, talking with the cook about the chances of the Rams making it to the Super Bowl after their disappointing start.
"Water pressure is a little low here, Judge. Maybe he decided to take a bath instead." Mac, the cook, slung another order of fries on the counter. The teens were still in the diner, making their way through the fourth order of French fries they had ordered since the Judge had come in.
"Yeah, he probably is. Craziest thing, the kid was spouting about the motel reminding him of the Bates' place, in PSYCHO. Considering how Janet Leigh bought it in the film, I imagine he's not too thrilled with the idea of a shower. Maybe I shouldn't have left him alone. But the Bates' Motel?" He chuckled as he shook his head.
"Don't laugh, Judge. He wasn't that far wrong."
Hardcastle moved aside for Patricia to sit next to him. "What are you talking about?"
"Well, my mother remembers seeing the writer guy, what was his name? Oh, Bloch, Robert Block. Anyway, he came to town when she worked here, doing the same thing I'm doing now. See, that book and that movie were based on a case that happened here, a long time ago."
"I remember that. I was a deputy then," the cop chimed in. "I'm a sheriff now, Judge. Seems that Homer's wife ran off with a traveling salesman and took their only son with them. Homer is Atwood's first name. Anyway, Homer took it hard, 'specially when the boy died in a car accident. He blamed the salesman."
"And?" Hardcastle asked.
"He blamed the salesman so much, he had a nervous breakdown. And when he was released a few years later from the santorium, he started killing men who looked like that salesman. He got put back into the hospital, this one for the criminally insane. Yep, all the victims were about thirty to forty years old, slim, charming, with brown curly hair…"
"My God, Mark!" Hardcastle jumped up, stiff-arming through the diner door at a run.
The sheriff ran after him. "What?"
"That description. It fits McCormick."
With a moment's hesitation, the sheriff ran after Hardcastle. They got to the motel and found everything quiet. Hardcastle's hand shook as he unlocked the motel room door, stopping inside, unable to walk into the bathroom.
Understanding, the sheriff slipped past the Judge and went into the small room, his gun in his hand. He came back out smiling. "No sign of him here."
Hardcastle sagged against the wall. "Then where is he? The truck's still out there and he didn't pass us. There's no other place to go."
"Let's see if we can find Homer," the sheriff said, keeping his gun out of its holster.
They went to the office and found it locked tight. A quick glance in the window showed it to be empty. Hardcastle headed for the house, the sheriff trying to slow him down.
"Procedures, Judge. You should know them by heart. I can't go busting into a man's home. We don't know if Homer even saw your friend. Maybe McCormick went exploring or is trying to give you a scare."
"No. You don't know him like I do. You might not be able to go in his house, but I can and will. That madman could be doing almost anything to McCormick. I have to stop him, find them."
Once inside the house, uncomfortably warm, McCormick pulled his coat off. The old man was still holding the gun, apparently confused by the turn of events. "Look, Mr. Atwood, what's gonna happen next? I mean, was the Judge supposed to find us here or what? God, do you know your heater's about to have a nervous breakdown?"
The first slash caught him unaware, slicing neatly down his right shoulder to his nipple. McCormick stared at the blood seeping from the sweater, shocked. "What are you…?"
"You killed my son!" Atwood shouted as he came at McCormick again with the knife he had been hiding in his other hand.
"Your son? I don't even know you." McCormick backpedaled, feeling the paper thin cut slice across his upheld palm as the knife slashed down at him. He knew he had to get out of the house, get as far away from Homer Atwood as possible, but the front door was behind his assailant and the knife. It was all true. The old man was a psycho, else why use a knife when you have a gun? He spun on his heels and raced down the hall, praying for a back door and escape.
He scrambled through a dusty kitchen, yanking uselessly on the only other door. It was bolted shut, the large picture window crisscrossed with wood planks. He could hear Atwood shuffling nearer and frantically dug through the drawers, looking for a weapon of his own. It was a hopeless search. The kitchen had been stripped clean of pots, pans and utensils. Three inches of dust and a couple of dead cockroaches didn't make much of a weapon.
Before McCormick could run back out of the room, Atwood arrived, his eyes shining in the dim light. They stared at each other, neither moving. The man's insane strength made the chances of getting past him almost non-existent. Then McCormick spotted an old dumbwaiter, diving into it and working the ropes that ran through the middle. The blood pouring from his hand made it slippery going, but he managed. He was below the kitchen level when he heard an evil cackle.
Atwood was sawing through the rope from above, making the dumbwaiter shake and shiver. It wouldn't take too long, McCormick knew, before the precision sharp instrument completed its job. He gave up the race to the bottom and tried to brace himself in the cramped box. His knees were already against his chest, the rope between them. Debating the relative merits of cushioning his head on his knees, McCormick wrapped his arms tightly around his legs, praying that he wouldn't fall far. Both wounds were beginning to smart, the soft anesthetizing shock wearing off.
The drop, though expected, was still sudden. McCormick felt his stomach lurch, the queasiness similar to his one and only ride on the Cyclone, Coney Island's wooden roller coaster. He didn't like having no control. Although after all the years with Hardcastle, lack of control should've been something he was used to.
The dumbwaiter smacked into the dirt floor of the basement and tipped over, tossing McCormick painfully out onto his side. He lay there, panting, wondering if he had boxed himself in. The faint echoes of Atwood's footsteps came from above him. There was very little time left. He had to get moving and fast.
Pushing himself off the floor, McCormick cradled his slashed hand against his stomach. His eyes darted about the basement, desperate for a sign of light. Atwood had arrived. But the door to the upper levels of the house must've been barricaded, considering the racket he could hear. His attacker was forcing his way into the basement.
A light, a chink from across the room spurred McCormick on. He walked slowly, afraid of what he might trip over in the darkness. He made it safely and pried at the wood. It wouldn't budge. McCormick felt the outline of the door. It came to him what it was.
"A root cellar, like in THE WIZARD OF OZ."
He needed to push, not pull, and so he did, leaning his unwounded shoulder into it.
"I've got you!" Atwood screamed, breaking through just as the large cellar doors popped open.
McCormick chinned himself up and out, grimacing as the cuts both widened painfully. The cold snow felt soothing and he grabbed a handful, packing it under his sweater and into the throbbing wound which was still bleeding, though at a slower pace.
He climbed to his feet and began running. McCormick was lightheaded, disorientated. He couldn't place the motel and diner's location in relationship with the house, so he contented himself with flat-out running for his life.
Hardcastle pounded on the Atwood door, afraid he might be too late. There was a feeling deep in his gut an ex-cop's hunch that his friend was in terrible trouble and there was no time to lose.
Sheriff Mike Summers, sensing that fear, didn't attempt to stop the Judge when he busted the door in. He followed Hardcastle in, as if to make sure nothing was stolen. In reality, to back up the worried retired jurist, although he wasn't certain that it wasn't a prank by the missing man.
It was in the kitchen that Summers became a serious cop once again. "Judge Hardcastle, over here!"
Hardcastle rushed to where Summers was kneeling. There was a small splatter of blood on the floor, drops leading to an open shaft. The hacked apart rope was smeared with more blood.
"He's hurt," Hardcastle growled.
"Somebody sure is. Come on, let's get down there." Summers led the way outside, circling the old mansion, his caution more pronounced.
They headed for the cellar door, but the bloody clumps of snow and the set of footprints partially obliterated by a second set told their own story.
"They're on the move," the sheriff observed.
"And the kid isn't wearing his coat." Hardcastle had found it thrown over a chair in the hallway.
"Storm's brewing, not to mention nightfall. We'd better find them fast. Here, you take my flashlight. We might need it."
Hardcastle nodded, his haggard face set in stone. He pulled his own coat, a duplicate of McCormick's, tight around him, the collar up behind his neck. It was snowing again, light flakes landing gently on the already fallen snow. Accustomed to walking in deep snow, Hardcastle wondered how his sun-loving friend was faring.
The two men set out, trudging through the piles of dirty snow, their eyes alternating between the ragged trail and the trees up ahead.
McCormick was wandering in a loose, zigzag fashion, large holes in the snow where he'd fall, then climb up to his feet again. Each fall left traces of blood in the snow, and Hardcastle wondered just how badly McCormick was injured.
It was bitterly cold, the slate grey skies turning to almost black as the snow began to fall in earnest.
"If we get a blizzard, we'll never find them." Summers' breath came out in soft puffs of white.
"I'll find McCormick, don't worry about that. I have to find him. We've got a family dinner to attend." It seemed a silly thing to say, Hardcastle knew, but all he could see were his whole family staring accusingly if he arrived in Clarence alone.
"Shhh," Summers ordered, dropping to the ground. "There's someone up ahead."
Hardcastle clenched his fists as he crouched over. He was a man of action, waiting was difficult for him. "Can you see anything?"
"No…yeah, two shadows. Damn it." Summers jumped to his feet, the pistol tightly gripped in his hand. "Drop it, Homer. Now!"
Hardcastle blinked rapidly, the tiny flakes dropping off his eyelashes. It was hazy, but he soon made out Atwood standing over a dark shape, his arm raised, the knife glinting in the beam of the sheriff's flashlight Hardcastle was carrying.
Atwood turned and stared at them, cackling as the knife began its downward thrust. The shot echoed through the woods. The blood that sprayed the white snow seemed Crayola red, it was so startlingly bright.
Atwood's body crumpled to the ground, a wadded up piece of garbage that was no longer of use. As one, Summers and Hardcastle moved closer, only their intended destinations different.
Summers bent next to Atwood, flipping the knife away from the dead man. There was bullet hole in the thorax, a bit higher than where he had aimed, but sufficient to kill Atwood.
Hardcastle took in the dead body at a glance, then knelt next to McCormick's too still form. There was frozen blood all over his ripped sweater and frost on his skin. If it wasn't for the tiny clouds of condensation, Hardcastle would've thought he was looking at an ice statue.
"I'll get the 4-wheel. An ambulance'll take too long," Summers said, running off into the darkness.
Hardcastle nodded distractedly as he shrugged his coat off. He gently pulled McCormick up into his arms, resting the white-flecked head against his shoulder. Then the coat was draped snugly over the unconscious man's chest and the Judge, sitting on the snow, huddled around his friend, trying to pass his own body warmth into the frighteningly cold McCormick.
"So cold," the murmur was almost too low for Hardcastle to hear.
"Hey, kid, you just hang on. Help's on the way."
"I wanna…" Two overly bright eyes stared up at Hardcastle in confusion.
McCormick sighed, shrugging. He snuggled closer, turning his face against the Judge's shirt.
"McCormick? Mark, don't go to sleep." He gripped the man's chin and shook it gently, afraid to touch anywhere else.
"Tired." Single word answers slipped past the blue-tinged lips as if the effort was too much for McCormick.
"Talk to me. Tell me what happened," Hardcastle encouraged. "Why did you go with him?"
McCormick frowned, raising his face from the warmth and security. He didn't seem to know who he was with, the gaze focused far away. "Go with…who?"
"Atwood. Kid, do you know who I am?"
There was a sweet smile on McCormick's face as he reached up with a bloody hand and touched Hardcastle's chin. "Santa Claus…but you don't gotta beard."
Hardcastle was startled. Now that McCormick said more than one word, he could hear the strains of a little boy, not a thirty-three year old man. And he thought he was Santa Claus? "Do you hurt, son?"
"Nope…uh, no, sir."
McCormick looked down at his sweater, his frown returning. "Mom's gonna kill me. I'm not supposed to play with the cat."
Tears appeared in the trusting blue eyes and Hardcastle hugged him closer. "She won't hurt you. Nobody's gonna hurt you, Mark."
"I'm Santa, son, have you ever known me to break my word?"
"You didn't bring my daddy home last year."
"He…he was doing things for me, special things, Mark. Didn't your Mom explain things to you?"
"My gramma said I was bad. That I'm always bad. Gramma said mommy and daddy didn't want me." The childish voice quavered, muffled against Hardcastle's shirt. "Nobody loves me."
Hardcastle could hear the echo of the young boy, sitting on the fire escape waiting for a father that never returned, a young man standing in court accused of stealing his own car, the man who was fighting to get his best friend's murderer, all rolled into one pain filled person.
"I love you, Mark. I love you very much." Hardcastle rested his chin on the top of McCormick's head, hearing the roar of the 4-wheel approaching.
"Santa?" McCormick pulled away, gasping. "I…no, Judge? What…oh, I think…"
Hardcastle caught him as McCormick sagged forward. The brown 4-wheeler slid to a halt, Summers jumping out of the vehicle to help the Judge lift the wounded man.
"I've got him." Hardcastle shied away from the assistance, unable to let anyone else touch and, possibly, hurt McCormick more than he'd already been. It would be a long ride back to the town. Longer to the nearest hospital. Hardcastle wanted to comfort and protect the younger man for just a little longer, till he was aware of his surroundings and the game was begun again. A game in which Hardcastle couldn't openly reveal his feelings, content to know that the kid knew, in his heart, how much he was wanted and needed.
The hum of conversation brought McCormick slowly back to awareness. At first, he couldn't make out the words, only the tone. And the tone was angry, frightened. The fuzziness receded a bit more and the tones fine-tuned into that of three people. One was a man's voice, not Hardcastle's, joking but concerned. The angry voices belonged to two women. All three were familiar, but he couldn't place them.
"You put that boy in danger continually and expect him to get out without a scratch. Don't you care, Milton?"
"Now, ladies…" the man tried to interrupt.
"Hush up, Gerald," one of the women ordered.
The babble faded in and out as McCormick struggled towards consciousness. He wished they would all shut up. He tried to tell them that, but all that came out was a croak. Yet another voice, one who hadn't been speaking earlier, shouted at the others to quiet down. Then, McCormick felt a hand rest on his wrist.
"How you feeling?"
A smile was the best McCormick could dredge up, but the pressure on his wrist made it clear that it was enough. He kept smiling until he faded off again.
The next time he awoke, he felt stronger. Looking around the room, he saw Hardcastle, propped up in a chair, sleeping peacefully. There was a two-day old growth of beard on him and he had shadows under his eyes, but there was a relaxed look to him.
"Judge?" McCormick called, wincing at the harshness of his voice.
"McCormick?" Hardcastle was at the side of the bed instantly.
"Why don't you go home? You look terrible."
"You don't look so great yourself, hotshot. Besides, we're not in California, if you remember. We're in Arkansas, right outside Thomson."
"What happened to Atwood?"
"Dead," Hardcastle replied shortly. "You came out of things pretty good. The cuts weren't deep, just painful. You're lucky it was an old man after you. The worst part was a combination of shock and hypothermia."
"I'm okay? I feel lousy." McCormick pulled the hospital blanket up around his shoulders, glancing at the white bandage. "And tired."
"Yeah, I know. The doctors said you would be for a while. Get some sleep, kiddo." Hardcastle tucked the covers under the mattress.
"Christmas dinner. I missed it?"
"'fraid so. If you hurry and get well, you can shoot for New Year's. Now, go to sleep. I've caught enough grief from Aunt Mae and Aunt Zora to last a lifetime." Hardcastle's face softened as he stared down at McCormick. "And if you behave yourself, I'll even let you have your presents."
McCormick turned his hand over, touching Hardcastle's arm. "I said it once before and I still mean it. You're present enough for me. As long as you're safe, I'm happy."
"You're the damnedest sentimentalist at Christmas, kid." Hardcastle started out of the room. "But, if it means anything to ya, the feeling's the same."
His eyes heavy, McCormick felt himself grinning foolishly. He could remember arms around him, keeping him safe. And, the most important present of all, Hardcastle's voice telling him that he loved him. It was a family Christmas after all. Hardcastle was his family and always would be. He was sure of that now.
McCormick sat on the bed, the blankets tangled around his feet and his finger pressed tightly on the remote control for the hospital television set. He was half-dressed, his shirt draped over his shoulders. He had foolishly refused help in dressing and now was too embarrassed to buzz for the nurse. It was ten a.m., over an hour later than Hardcastle was supposed to pick him up. Mild annoyance at the delay in leaving the antiseptic prison was fast becoming anger and a little worry. He also was having second thoughts about the New Year's family get-together with the Hardcastle family.
He stopped tormenting the control box and let it rest on a local station showing happy weather forecasts. He leaned back in the bed, wincing at the tugging of the bandages on his chest and shoulder. McCormick fumed and fretted and drifted into a half-doze where his imagination could run wild.
He could see Judge Hardcastle on the news, being carried to a waiting ambulance. The pick-up was torn in two, the cab wrapped into a curlicue over the hood. The reporter on the scene discussed the cause of the five car pile-up, but McCormick's eyes were riveted to the edge of the minicab's view and a stretcher that was being covered over with a blanket.
"No!" McCormick jumped upright, his heart racing.
"McCormick!" Hardcastle ran into the hospital room, McCormick's doctor one step behind him.
The patient stared at Hardcastle, his fear sliding away as he realized it had been a dream. "Where the hell have you been?" McCormick asked sharply.
Ignoring the question, the Judge stared back at him, concern evident in his blue eyes. "What happened? What made you yell like that?"
McCormick waved his hand at the news program. "Bad dream. Got it all mixed up with that accident they were talking about." He smiled sheepishly at the doctor. "Sorry."
"No problem. I've signed your release papers, given Judge Hardcastle instructions on your recovery program and a few prescriptions, so you're free."
"Great." There was little enthusiasm in his voice.
The Judge helped the younger man into his shirt, carefully buttoning it up over the bandages on his chest before they left the room.
As Hardcastle and McCormick walked down the corridor, slower than normal in deference to the younger man's stiffness for his wounds and the stitches in his shoulder, Hardcastle waited for him to speak. McCormick could feel his eyes on him but didn't want to talk about the attack or the dream or anything.
The younger man stopped short, turning to look at the Judge. "I'd rather just go home, Judge. It's over with and we have a New Year's dinner to go to, right?"
Laying his arm on McCormick's shoulder, Hardcastle nodded. "Yep, let's go join the family."
When they reached the GMC, and Hardcastle had helped McCormick into the truck, the Judge continued. "At least you'll miss the majority of the Hardcastle clan by having a New Year's dinner instead of Christmas."
"Who'll be there?"
"Aunt Mae and Aunt Zora, cousin Finch and his wife Effie, and a couple of nephews, along with my brother."
"I thought you said the family was mostly gone. That sounds like a lot of people to me."
"There were around twenty more last week, kiddo. Pure pandemonium."
"Oh." McCormick sighed. "Sounds like you had fun."
Hardcastle slowed the vehicle down, pulling to the side of the road. "Son, I wouldn't know about that. I was otherwise occupied while they were here."
"Yeah, oh. What's eating you?"
"Nuthin'" The mutter was low, but understandable.
"McCormick, when I left you last night, you were all smiles and enthusiasm about getting out of the hospital. What's changed things?"
"I'm scared," came the whispered reply.
"Of what?" Hardcastle frowned.
"Meeting your family. I figured only your aunts would be there. Maybe I should take a plane back to Malibu."
"And have you party while I'm away? Not a chance, hotshot. 'sides, there's nothing to be scared of in my family, other than being bored to death."
"What are they gonna think of me? I mean, I don't belong there with your blood relatives. I'm an outsider."
"Look at me."
McCormick reluctantly raised his eyes to the Judge's surprisingly gentle ones.
"I'm only gonna say this once, kid, so listen carefully. You're more family than most of the Hardcastles who were at the reunion. I don't have to like you because you're blood. I do like you because I chose to. Got it?"
Hardcastle continued driving to the Aunts' house, letting the silence grown in the truck. It was a fairly long drive from the hospital to Clarence, time enough for McCormick to take in the almost effusive, for Hardcastle, speech and the emotions behind it.
When they pulled up into the driveway of the modest wood frame house, McCormick put his hand on the Judge's arm. "Thanks."
Harrumphing in embarrassment, Hardcastle pretended not to know what McCormick was referring to.
"Let's eat. If I know your aunts, they'll have enough backed goods to feed an army."
McCormick was engulfed in the anxious arms of Hardcastle's two favorite aunts before he could step on the front porch. Fussed over, he found himself ushered to a comfortable easy chair, plates of cookies, cakes and other sweet edibles piled onto his lap and a large pitcher of lemonade on the side table. He found himself more than comfortable as the man who had married the Judge's favorite cousin, Effie Lamont, now Fitch, regaled him with tales of the Judge's younger days. Soon the aunts chimed in and Gerald added a few tall tales of his own over Hardcastle's loud, blustery protests.
McCormick laughed till he grimaced in pain and the Judge called an end to the bull session. It was an evening like McCormick had only heard of. There was a jigsaw puzzle on a card table in one corner of the small living room, the five nieces and nephews played Monopoly on the kitchen table until the aunts needed it for dinner, Hardcastle and Gerald were playing poker with Fitch and McCormick. It was a happy evening for the younger man, and he couldn't seem to stop smiling.