Sequel to "Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude…" Warning: Some scenes may be too intense.

Nothing Remains Quite the Same

By Lizabeth S. Tucker

(Originally published in Back to Back 2, 1985)

It was starting again, and still Mark McCormick couldn't make the pain stop. He was hanging from the ceiling, his wrists chaffing against the metal shackles. There was a sharp, persistent pain in his right arm, the cast having been removed by Franklin Talbridge to facilitate the torture session. Talbridge was flicking a cat-o'nine-tails at him, the thin leather strips raising burning welts.

"There were many variations of this particular whip, some with tiny steel balls on the ends, others had fishhook-like barbs which would catch in the skin, forcing the user to rip the skin off to retrieve his instrument." Talbridge continued with his lecture on the history of torture devices while demonstrating their use.

Mark struggled uselessly, feet about twelve inches off the ground, and the not-quite-healed broken arm making it difficult to do much more than try to support himself with his left arm by shifting his weight over to his left side. He could see Frank Keller slumped in the corner of the room, unconscious after attempting escape, caught by Talbridge's goons guarding the door.

"Now, this can be quite painful if used correctly." Talbridge brought the whip down on Mark's bare skin, criss-crossing the welts to heighten the pain. "The more ingenious tribes and cultures around the globe used salt in the cuts to intensify the agony. I have found cayenne pepper or vinegar to do the same job. Would you like to see?"

"Not really," Mark gasped, eyes on the white liquid pouring out of the bottle onto his chest. He felt the sudden coolness almost with relief, then arced his back as the flash of heat swelled inside him. A scream was torn from his throat, and his eyes rolled back in his head.

"McCormick? Hey, kid?" The voice was Hardcastle's, but that wasn't right. He wasn't in the room; the Judge hadn't arrived until it was too late. Mark groaned, the pain too much to bear. He felt something press on his mangled chest and screamed again.

"Mark! Wake up!"

McCormick found himself in his bed, safe and whole, with Hardcastle clutching his shoulders. He sat up, panting, "What happened?"

"You were screaming; I could hear you in the main house. You okay?"

"Yeah, yeah…" McCormick's heart was racing away, the beats painful in his chest. "Sorry, I had a nightmare. Didn't mean to wake you and the rest of the neighborhood." He flicked the bedside lamp on, the sudden glare making him wince.

"Again?"

"'Fraid so. I really thought I was done with it. The shrink sessions were going good, and the nightmares had faded to dreams I couldn't quite remember."

"It's probably because the trial is beginning next week, although you heard what Duncan, the district attorney, said. You shouldn't have to testify. Keller's gonna handle that end of things." Hardcastle sat on the edge of the bed, straightening the quilt which was tangled from McCormick's struggles. "Or is there something else?"

"I don't know. I feel a sword over my heard. As if my life is about to sweep out of control, and I can't stop it. Like a runaway train, ya know?" McCormick pulled his legs up against his chest and hugged them, his eyes darkening with the mixture of dreams, memories, and pain.

"I thought the counseling was helping you."

"It is. Hell, a month ago, I wouldn't have been able to talk about this with you. I don't know if I'll ever be able to forget it, but maybe I can learn to deal with it."

"How much longer will you be going?"

"I don't know. Doctor Hardin said I'm making good progress, but not to expect results overnight. He did say that I was doing pretty good, and that the meetings can be cut back to once a month, if I feel I can handle it."

"Sounds like you're making good progress, kid. So, what else is wrong?" Hardcastle asked, turning the lamp so it didn't shine in Mark's eyes.

"Keller called last week."

"So?"

"Seems our old friend, Mr. Pierson from the Parole and Probation Department is back. Frank said he was questioned about my involvement in the Talbridge case."

"I thought I took care of him. Maybe I'll call the office back and get him out of our life permanently."

"I don't think you can do that, Hardcase. The Parole and Probation Office is supposed to supervise their people, both the P.O.'s and their charges, to prevent abuse. Our arrangement is a bit strange to them, especially since you changed my meetings with the officer in charge of my case to meetings with you. Maybe if we hadn't been so preoccupied with Talbridge, we could've settled the problem. Now, Pierson is out to get you. I think we screwed up, Judge." McCormick rested his chin on his knee, sighing. "Keller said that Pierson is really going crazy since you had him yanked off the case. It appears that we're in for a long haul, between the Talbridge trial and the P&P hearings."

Hardcastle looked at him for a long moment. "Kid, it shouldn't come as a surprise. You've known about the trial, and Pierson's rantings and ravings for the past seven or eight months. It didn't seem to bother you none before. Is it the cases we've been on? I know we haven't been able to pick and choose them, they sorta fell into our laps; but it kept your mind offa things, kept you busy…" Hardcastle hesitated, obviously having problems phrasing his next sentence. "There's something else, isn't there? Two days ago, you came into the den when I was going through the files. I saw the look on your face, son, though you tried to hide it. And what I saw there was surprise -- and fear."

Hardcastle got up, walking slowly over to the window. He gazed out into the darkness as he spoke, his voice low and vibrant. "Do you…want to stop?"

McCormick watched him silently, hard put to fight the tears welling up in his eyes, his inner wounds threatening to spill over in a wash of cleansing water. He was well aware of what it cost the judge to make that offer. Hardcastle was willing to give up his long-planned, long-thought out retirement job -- for him, all for him. At that moment, McCormick had the upper hand. With one word, he could end it all, right now. But if he did, it wouldn't be fair. It would be for all the wrong reasons. McCormick couldn't take advantage of Hardcastle that way; not with the man so sincere, feeling so guilty for something that wasn't even his fault. "I…I'm not sure."

Hardcastle turned, his eyes carefully guarded, his face devoid of all emotion.

"This wasn't your fault, Hardcase. Oh, I know we were gonna get me into Talbridge's organization, but fate intervened and decided otherwise. I decided to go help Keller. I sure as hell never thought anything would happen. Certainly not…not like that."

Hardcastle leaned back against the wall, arms crossed. "When I first decided to go after the crooks that got off 'cause of a technicality, I didn't think anything would happen to me, or the person that would be helping. Planned it all out in my chambers, I did. Oh, sure, I knew there was an element of risk involved, but it was manageable. No one would really be hurt - or so I thought. All I needed was somebody sharp to run the gauntlet; someone with a game heart, a fighting spirit, and a resilient constitution. Somebody who could think on his feet if things took a sudden turn. And dependable, in normal circumstances, as well as not-so-normal ones. I thought Beale was a perfect choice…so much for that idea. Then I found you. You seemed to fit the bill, McCormick, in every way; except for one little detail: You didn't want the job. I found a way to force you into it."

"Yeah, you made me an offer I couldn't refuse." McCormick smiled, the shadows receding somewhat from his face. "And I thought it was because you believed me about Martin Cody."

"Maybe I did; but 'benefit of doubt' only goes so far, kiddo. I dug up some facts to go with your wild suspicions, facts that proved you were right, although nothing that could be used in court. Anyway, I never said I believed you."

McCormick thought back on that night in jail, certain he was in for a long stretch for stealing the Coyote from the man he knew had killed his old friend and partner, Flip Johnson. "Yeah, I guess you didn't. You just said that crooks always repeat their crimes." His smile widened a bit. "Nice to have a killer back up your philosophy."

"I'll tell you something else, McCormick; after that Cody hassle, I wasn't sure if I could keep up with you. You seemed more gung-ho than I was. You've been a bundle of surprises, and contradictions, from the first day. Hell, you take risks I wouldn't dream of. At first, I couldn't just keep pace, I had to surpass you. After all, I had to show you who was boss. But now…"

"You're kidding! You mean to tell me that I've been going all out without needing to? I was trying to keep up with you! You had thirty years plus on me and didn't seem to be hitting your stride, while I was sure I was heading for a major coronary." McCormick settled back against the pillows. "Well, it's nice to know I can take it easy from now on."

Hardcastle gave him a sharp, questioning look, tinged with sadness.

"Nah. What I'm sayin', Judge, is that I really don't want to quit. That's not my style. But I do wish we could hold back on the messy ones, take a couple of minutes and think about what might happen, instead of charging blindly in. Just scam it all out first."

"And then?" Hardcastle asked. "If it looks a little hairy?"

"And then I'll charge…we'll charge…in the best Lone Ranger tradition, with guns blazing and nostrils flaring…" While the comeback wasn't up to McCormick's usual standards, it was an improvement over his somber, introverted self.

"Are you sure, kid? After all, if you crack-up during one of the cases, well, that ain't gonna help either of us."

McCormick's face went blank, jaw clenching. "Is that it? Are you afraid I might be some kinda emotional risk, or something?" He glanced away, "That I can't be depended on or trusted?"

"No, I didn't mean it that way. I just want you to be certain about this. I would much rather give it all up than see you fall apart, or get so uptight that the slightest things rips your guts up inside. If you're not ready, fine. If you want to pull out, do it. It's not worth your sanity, McCormick."

"I wish I could give you a guarantee, Judge, but I don't know. Sometimes thinks seem normal, just like always. Then I see something on the TV, or read an article in the paper, and I break out in cold sweat. Now these damn nightmares are back. I can tell you one thing, though…" McCormick stared intently into Hardcastle's concerned face, "It can't be the idea of a new case. Like you said, we've been doing some work since the…incident; and if seeing you go through the files set it off, why didn't I have the nightmare last night? I slept like a log, same as usual. It's gotta be the trial. I've tried not to think about it, preferring to push it to the back of my mind. But with it scheduled so soon, I can't avoid thinking about it, reading about it in the papers, hearing about it on TV."

Hardcastle looked closely at him, as if trying to see if McCormick was telling the truth. After a moment, Hardcastle crossed to the bedside, turned out the light. "Don't worry about it. After getting through all this, a P & P hearing should be a breeze. It'll get your mind off the Talbridge trial, too. Think you can get back to sleep okay, or do you want one of those tranquilizers that Dr. Hardin gave you at the beginning?"

"Nah, I think I'll drop right off, like normal." McCormick yawned, snuggled down into the quilts; he gazed up at the Judge, "Thanks, Hardcase…"

"For what?"

"Like I said before, for being there. I…I don't know what I would have done on my own." His voice faltered, open sentimentality between the two a rarity.

"Go to sleep, McCormick."

"Mr. McCormick?" The voice was as bland and brown on the phone as the man himself was in person.

"Yes, Mr. Pierson, what is it?"

"I've discussed your case with my new supervisor, and we have agreed to have you removed from Judge Hardcastle's custody and put into a local hospital for…further testing."

"What?" McCormick gestured frantically to Hardcastle, motioning him to come closer.

"I'm certain you heard me. I will arrived in two hours, please have an overnight bag packed. And, Mr. McCormick, don't attempt to run. I would have to consider that a violation of your parole and have it revoked. I don't think you want to go back to San Quentin, do you?" Pierson hung up without waiting for Mark's response.

McCormick slumped against the desk, eyes staring vacantly at the floor.

"What is it?" Hardcastle asked. "Pierson give you the works?"

"I'm to be sent to a hospital for tests, and taken from your custody until further notice. When the hospital tests are finished, what next; where will they send me?"

"Probably to a half-way house until someplace else can be located. Don't worry; you won't be there that long - I'll see to that."

"That seems to be our favorite phrase, 'don't worry'." McCormick shook his head, smiling wistfully. "I'm okay. Hey, a little vacation from this place will be great, come to think of it. No gardening, no pool cleaning - which reminds me. Did you call the Everclean Pool Service about doing the pool?"

The subject was changed, and Hardcastle nodded. "Yeah, but they called the last place we had, and now they want hazard pay."

"Can you blame them, after the last time; submachine guns going off around the patio, not to mention the bomb we found in the overflow valve? The Surgeon General has definitely determined that working for one Milton C. Hardcastle can result in terminal death."

"Funny, McCormick, very amusing. Don't you have to get ready for your hospital stay?"

The broad grin faded to a resigned smile. "Yeah, Judge; and I want burgers and pizza smuggled in while I'm inside."

"You won't be there that long."

"I won't? Well, that's good to know."

"I'll come by and see you." He added off-handedly, "When I get a chance."

"Try and fit me into your busy schedule, okay? Hospitals are a drag, 'specially when you're not sick - and the way my luck's been going, they'll have all male nurses."

Almost two hours later, McCormick was sitting on the steps of the Gatehouse, his bag lying next to him. He watched the Judge bouncing a basketball against the wall, making a sincere effort to look unconcerned.

Pierson drove up in a pale blue Ford sedan, tapping the horn impatiently when Mark didn't immediately get up. Hesitant, McCormick got to his feet, not wanting to leave without saying something to Hardcastle, but unsure about what to say.

The Judge stood in his blue gym suit, the basketball stowed under his left arm, frowning in Pierson's direction. "You behave yourself, McCormick, or I will personally come after you."

McCormick smiled faintly, knowing there was more truth than jest in the statement. Impulsively, he stuck his hand out. The Judge, after staring at it for a moment, shook the ex-con's hand slowly. "Take care, kiddo."

"You, too, Judge. No headhunting while I'm away. Remember, you need Tonto for backup, Kemosabe."

"Me forget? I keep having to remind you. Now, go on; can't get back til you leave."

McCormick slung the overnight bag over his shoulder, and walked to the waiting car. Hardcastle followed, closed the door of the car with a decided thump, hands resting on the half-open window.

Pierson frowned, about to make a comment, but changed his mind when he saw the stormy glare on Hardcastle's face. Instead, he decided to let the Judge do the talking, and he didn't have long to wait.

"What hospital are you taking him to?"

"A very good one; one that specializes in Mr. McCormick's problem."

"There is no problem; or there wouldn't be if you'd leave us alone," Hardcastle retorted, trying to hold his temper to a manageable level, knowing that yelling at Pierson wouldn't accomplish their objective. "The best in L.A. is the R. W. Christie Institute. Is that the one?"

Pierson started the engine, removed his foot from the brake and allowed the car to roll forward. "Possibly."

Hardcastle was forced to step back, or have his feet run over.

"If you'll excuse me, Your Honor, I must be going."

McCormick stared resolutely ahead; his eyes, if focused at all, on the road stretching and curving ahead of them. He didn't feel like asking questions, and his somber mood discouraged Pierson from speaking.

When they continued out towards Camarillo, McCormick became aware of his surroundings. "Which hospital are you taking me to? I thought you told the Judge it was Christie. This is hell and gone to nowhere."

"I explained that your case had been given careful consideration, Mr. McCormick. I saw the information about the Talbridge situation. Frankly, it was sketchy at best, especially your involvement; but certain inferences can be made, from what I found in Talbridge's file and knowing Judge Hardcastle's overzealous propensity to hunt down crooks - at any cost. It is my job to discover what was left out of the official reports, and you are the man who can supply the missing pieces."

McCormick smiled tightly, shaking his head. "Oh, the old 'Ve haf vays to make you talk' routine, huh?" The official report hadn't mentioned the little 'history lesson' that he had received at Talbridge's hands, thanks to a sympathetic district attorney and a discrete police department filled with friends of the Judge. Pierson may be holding a gun to the Judge's head, but so far it was an empty gun - and McCormick wasn't about to supply the ammunition. "There's nothing of importance to add to the reports; and I don't know what you're getting at. If you don't want to take me to Christie, then I think I'd prefer to have any testing done at St. Mary's Immaculate Heart Hospital. I've been there before, and I'm used to the routine."

"I'm sure you would; but my primary job is to insure no undue interference from Judge Hardcastle. Therefore, I am choosing a place that I can control."

McCormick sighed, resigned to a short stay in the boonies. "I've been seeing a doctor of my own. Can he be called in?"

"Not unless you tell me exactly what went on at the Talbridge residence." Pierson waited in vain, as McCormick turned his face to the passing wildflowers.

The car pulled up to a pastel blue building, modernistic but comfortable looking. Two very large nurses, one male, the other female, were waiting at the emergency entrance.

McCormick smiled, handing his bag to the female. "Hiya, guys. Got a pool in this dump?"

The two ushered McCormick inside, insisting he sit in a wheelchair parked near the sliding doors. Their silent reserve began to disturb Mark, used to medical personnel who joked with patients in order to lighten the mood and reassure them. These solemn, detached faces didn't appear to even notice that McCormick was alive.

Hardcastle slammed the phone back into the cradle, his blood pressure rising by the second. Angered by Pierson's uninformative abruptness, he had decided to check with the R. W. Christie Institute, but they had no record of any McCormick on their admission files - and Pierson had had more than enough time to get there. The next hospital had no useful information, and neither did the next. By the seventh phone call, Hardcastle was getting desperate and very worried. It didn't help matters any that most of the personnel at the mental hospitals seemed to think he was in need of their assistance. This had been his tenth call, and the worry was fast becoming fear.

There was only one thing to do, and that was to go to the Parole and Probation offices, see Pierson personally. Hardcastle was more than ready for a confrontation with the officious, annoying Ralph Pierson.

The Judge drove quickly to the Parole and Probation building, getting one irate motorcycle patrolman very embarrassed, then very confused. The cop had started to give Hardcastle a ticket for speeding, then wanted to rip it up on discovering he was a judge, only to have the retired jurist insist on getting the ticket.

Slamming the door to Pierson's outer office open with the flat of his palm, Hardcastle got the immediate attention of the office receptionist and three men who were waiting for their appointments with available parole officers.

The receptionist pushed her glasses up onto her nose, gazing unperturbed up at Hardcastle. "May I help you, sir?"

"Yeah. I want to see Pierson. Right now."

"I'm sorry, sir, he's out in the field. And I don't expect him back for at least two hours."

"Ms…" Hardcastle peered at the woman's nameplate on her desk. "Ms. Lucas, is Mr. Pierson's boss in?"

"Oh, Mr. Selllin is in, but he might have someone in his office. Let me check."

"Yes, why don't you do that. Tell him Judge Milton C. Hardcastle wants to talk to him." Hardcastle waited impatiently while the woman buzzed Sellin's secretary, spoke in hurried whispers, then waited on the line. Finally, she replaced the phone and turned her bright, plastic smile on the Judge.

"He said he would be glad to see you, although he doesn't have much time. His office is just down the hall, Room 345."

"Thank you." Hardcastle strode through the glass doors, followed an array of bad paintings to Sellin's office, then went through another pair of glass doors.

There was another secretary/receptionist, sitting at an identical desk with an identical smile, waiting with a file folder in her hand. "Judge Hardcastle? Come right this way, sir."

The Judge followed the woman into Sellin's office, a study in government monotony, everything gray. The man behind the desk was heavy, a chubby John Carradine, with piercing gray eyes and elongated face, the only thin part of his body. He took the file folder from his secretary, who then left quietly, closing the office door behind her.

"Now, Judge Hardcastle, I believe you're here in regards to one Mark McCormick?" Sellin thumbed through the papers in the folder.

"Yes, sir, I'm trying to ascertain his whereabouts. Your Mr. Pierson led me to believe that he was at the Christie Institute, but they have no knowledge of him. Nor do ten other psychiatric hospitals in the Los Angeles area."

"Frankly, Judge Hardcastle, we are not obligated to tell a third party who is not actively concerned with a case, where a parolee is - as I'm sure you're well aware."

"I'm not exactly an outsider. McCormick was placed in my stay; I'm responsible for his well-being, as well as his whereabouts."

"Yesss, I see." Sellin pursed his lips, the uncomfortable silence stretching Hardcastle's nerves almost to their breaking point. Dropping the folder onto the desk top, he remarked, "I had assumed that Ralph had filled you in."

Hardcastle could read 'McCormick, M.' on the label. "If he had, then I'd know where McCormick is, wouldn't I?"

"No, sir, I'm sorry, you wouldn't. You must understand that we merely want to do what's right for our charges. Much as a parent with a child. It was Mr. Pierson's considered opinion, one that was supported by myself as well as Mr. Jacobs, my superior, that it would be in McCormick's best interest if you didn't have any contact with the parolee until his testing was complete."

Hardcastle stared at Sellin, puzzled, too dismayed to respond immediately to Sellin's inference.

"To put it bluntly, Judge Hardcastle, our office has acquired an injunction against you, preventing any contact with the parolee, whether on the phone or in person."

"You what!" Hardcastle jumped to his feet, eyes hard as he advanced on Sellin's desk.

Disconcerted, Sellin pushed his chair back. "Really, Judge Hardcastle, please control yourself. If you have any further questions, I must refer you to the department's attorney, Lawton Jiles." He fumbled absently for the phone. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm a very busy man. My secretary will show you out."

"Don't bother." Hardcastle stopped at the door, turning to stare coldly at the nervous Sellin. "This isn't the end of it. I will be back, and I will see McCormick."

"What do you mean, I can't see him? What the hell kinda order is that!"

Hardcastle's voice shook the walls of the office, drawing the attention of most of the uniformed officers on duty in the police building. Giles closed the door and tried to calm the irate jurist, but it was a useless task - Hardcastle was in no mood to be calmed.

"Judge, it wasn't my idea, but I tend to agree with Pierson's reasoning. You and this McCormick have become quite a topic of conversation in our offices. And, although he has never come forth with any grievances against you, your volatile temper and single-minded pursuit of, uh, justice, to the exclusion of all else, is well known. He's better off away from your rages while this testing is going on." Jacobs puased, then attempted to use reason to placate Hardcastle, "After all, if you're being upset should make him upset, the tests might show unwarranted stress and ruin any chances he has of returning to Gulls-Way."

Jacobs used his most calming tone of voice, tried and true in countless situations previously; but Hardcastle knew that routine as well as he did and wouldn't be pacified. "Look, Jacobs, we've know each other for a lotta years. I thought you understood the situation after I told you about Pierson's witch-hunt the last time."

David Jacobs brushed long, grayish-white hair off his forehead and nodded. "That was then, and this is now."

"Don't use your doubletalk with me, Jacobs; I want a straight answer from you people, and I want it now. You got that!"

"Milt! Cool it." Lieutenant Bill Giles warned, pushing his former partner back into his chiar. "Dave, sit down. Let's see if we can't discuss this like mature adults."Hardcastle glared at the two men, then nodded with a quick dip of his head. "What is Pierson up to? What's he trying to prove? The boy has been through quite a bit, and I don't want him hurt any more."

"And despite what you think, Milt, Pierson doesn't either. He's heard rumors of what happened at the house. We all have, though we can't get the official confirmation anywhere."

"It's nobody's business."

"Maybe not; but if it has an adverse effect on a parolee who shouldn't have been placed in that situation to begin with, then it is Parole and Probation's concern. We've assigned McCormick to Pierson, whether you approved of him or not."

Hardcastle stood up. Just the thought of recounting McCormick's experience tied him up in knots inside, and he had just viewed the video tape. He couldn't begin to imagine what McCormick felt when questioned about it. He shook his head. "I can't betray McCormick's trust. If he wants you to know, then he'll tell you himself. Now," he stared levelly down at Jacobs, "I want to know what's going on. Where is he?"

"Milt, I can't tell you. I know you too well, old friend. You won't be able to resist going to see him, court order or no court order."

"Aw, come on, David, when have you known me to violate an injunction?"

"When you found it convenient. Oh, of course, you always managed to find a loophole, but we aren't taking any chances this time. What you don't know, you can't use."

There was a moment of angry silence as Hardcastle considered his next move. "The kid was seeing a doctor before he was shanghaied. Are you planning on keeping him in the dark, too?"

"A doctor? I wasn't informed about that." Jacobs frowned. "What kind of doctor?"

"Do you have to know that? Can't you just take him to McCormick without any questions?"

"Milt?"

Hardcastle sighed. "A psychiatrist. He's been seeing Mark for a few months now."

"How many months?" Jacobs pressed.

The Judge was well aware that this admission could keep McCormick from the estate permanently, but he was more concerned that being placed in a hospital, probably a psychiatric one, would set Mark's progress back beyond recall. And that was one risk he wouldn't take. "For almost six months since the…incident at the Talbridge residence."

"For God's sake, Milt, you didn't think that was important enough to tell Pierson and his bosses?" The man from the Parole board slammed his fist on the desk. "You know damn well that this could jeopardize the conditions of the parole."

"I think he knows that, David," Lt. Giles observed, as Hardcastle's stormy blue eyes turned on him.

"Well, can Mark see Dr. Hardin or not?"

"Yeah. Have him call my office this afternoon around three. I'll make arrangements to set up an appointment with McCormick." Jacobs glanced uneasily at Giles, then continued in a less official tone, "Milt, I'm sorry, but I wouldn't hold out much hope of McCormick being returned to your custody."

Hardcastle strode out of the room without comment, shoulders hunched in temporary defeat. "We'll see about that, 'cause I'm not givin' up so easily. Don't worry, kid, I'll get you out - whatever it takes…" He muttered to himself, receiving a strange look from a passing detective.

"Time for our shower, McCormick." The male nurse stood outlined in the doorway, nearly filling the space, carrying a large fluffy white towel and keys to the shower room.

"Oh? Is this a group project?" If there was anything McCormick hated worse than hospitals, it was the continual use of the plural when speaking to patients. Would 'we' like some water? How are 'we' feeling? It was enough to make 'us' gag.

He followed the nurse down the corridor to the once-white door now yellowed with age, the tiny window covered with chicken wire. The outside may have gotten a face-lift, but little had been done to the interior. The hospital had once been used for the criminally insane, and most of the former security measures were still in place. From bars on the windows, to restraints on the beds and chairs, the Reagan Sanatorium was a depressing and scary place; at least, the section he was confined to was.

McCormick slowly stripped, laying his clothes on the hook provided. It was all too reminiscent of jail and their induction procedures. The hospital had allowed him to keep his jeans and pullover, merely changing his boots for slippers. They had, however, insisted on removal of all jewelry. He had pulled the chain and medallion over his head, dropping it into the waiting nurse's hand. Then, after removing his watch, he had reread the inscription on the back. It had been a present from the Judge on the occasion of his thirtieth birthday. "Take care of this, it's special," he had ordered the attendant.

Shaking himself back to the present, McCormick adjusted the water flowing from the ancient shower head, trying to compromise between scalding hot and ice cold. When it appeared that he would have to choose either one o r the other, but not the middle, he stepped under the biting spray. Tiny blades of ice hit his back, soon becoming welcome, needing aching shoulder muscles.

He leaned forward, letting the water flatten his curly hair into dark tangles. He raised his face to the water, holding his breath. When he opened his eyes again, the first thing he saw was a very ordinary batch sponge attached to a long pole.

His breath caught in his throat, his eyes unable to see anything but the sponge. As the pole was lowered and came closer, he began backing away. His whole world revolved around that sponge. It brushed against his shoulder and he screamed, pushing himself backwards and falling on his backside.

"Get it away from me! Get it away!" McCormick half slid, half crawled until he hit the tile covered wall. He cowered, screaming in uncontrollable terror, as he curled up in the corner, arms raised protectively against the sudden materialization of his darkest memories.

The phone rang on and on, Hardcastle cursing the annoying sound as he rushed across the bedroom to answer it. He had a blue towel wrapped around his middle, water dripping onto the expensive rug by the bed.

"Yeah?"

"Judge Hardcastle, this is Stephen Hardin, Mark's doctor."

"Hello, Dr. Hardin. Have you seen the kid…McCormick?"

"Yes, that's why I'm calling. It seems there was…a problem."

Hardcastle sat heavily on the bed, "What's wrong?"

"It seems, according to the report given to me, that everything was going routinely, no problems. Until this morning. Mark was in the shower room and seemed, to the nurse on duty, listless and apathetic. The nurse, in an effort to help, tried to sponge him down."

Hardcastle frowned, uncertain of what Hardin was getting at. "So?"

"The sponge was on the end of a long metal pole." Hardin's voice was hesitant as he continued, "Mark told me that you had been a video tape of the torture session."

"Oh, God, no…" Hardcastle flashed onto a scene on the tape, in which one lone fire sprinkler above the manacled McCormick dripped steadily on him as Talbridge explained about a form of punishment used in prisons and swiped at McCormick's naked body with a sponge attached to a metal pipe that had wiring threaded through it, disappearing out of camera range. It looked harmless enough, but McCormick writhed and screamed breathlessly every time the sponge touched him. The Judge had later discovered that the sponge was laced with live wires carrying enough current to shock the nervous system.

"Is he all right?" Hardcastle's voice was harsh, breath ragged.

"Yes, he is now. But the hospital couldn't figure out what was going on, and pumped him full of tranquilizers before strapping him into a strait jacket. He's a bit disorientated and withdrawn. They won't remove the restraints until they're certain he won't become violent. I tried to explain that McCormick isn't motivated by violence - that he only displays a normal, and expected, amount of anger and resentment." There was a pause, as if Hardin was debating to add more, then suggested cautiously, "Judge, I think he needs to talk to you. Or at least to know that you're there for him."

"There's been an injunction placed against me. The Parole and Probation Department won't tell me where they have him stashed."

"So, that's the reason…" Hardin sounded relieved, but didn't give Hardcastle a chance to question it. "No, then, they won't, but I will," he finished shortly.

"Do you realize what trouble that could get you into?" The Judge was already flipping through his closet, looking for a suitable shirt. Maybe McCormick's favorite, the one with the parrots?

"If it comes down to a choice between obeying the law, and the well-being of my patient, what do you think I'd do?"

"Doc, I could get to like you," Hardcastle laughed. "Okay, where's the kid staying?"

"Now, Mr. McCormick, we are in the perfect place for some more experiments."

McCormick stared at Talbridge, dressed in a white coat and pants, holding electrodes in one hand while waving a scalpel in the other. "How…you're in jail…no, please, no…" McCormick couldn't move, only his head was moving back and forth, as he moaned in horror. "Oh, God, please…go away!"

"Not this time. You're right where I want you, Mark my boy. And I have Judge Hardcastle to thank for that."

"What are you talking about? Hardcase would never help you."

"Wouldn't he? How do you think I got out? How did I know where you were? Why hasn't he visited you, even once? Could it be he's not certain of you any more - maybe never was? He doesn't trust you not to crack in a crisis."

"No, you're lying. He wouldn't do that," McCormick protested vehemently, but there was a tiny trace of doubt as he remembered the conversation in the Gatehouse. "He wouldn't just…forget about me…"

"Really? Where is he? Hmmm? Where is the great jurist and friend of ex-cons? Could he have forgotten when visiting hours are? Or perhaps something important came up, rather suddenly. Something so sudden, and so important, that he couldn't even bother to call you?" Talbridge chuckled gleefully. "Now we have another game. Would you like to know what it is?"

McCormick was panting, desperately trying to move, to get away. But his legs and arms were uselessly unresponsive. "D-did you…drug me?"

"No, I don't need to. You enjoy our little games, don't you…deep down. They give you a thrill you can't get any other way. Not from the danger from Hardcastle's cases, or the hazards on the race track - you've finally found what you've been looking for…" Talbridge considered. McCormick's frightened blue eyes watched him closely. "Or maybe I'm wrong. Have you taught your friend my games?"

"No! No!" McCormick screamed over and over, as Talbridge attached the electrodes to his neck, under his arms, to his genitals, to every sensitive part of the terrified McCormick's body.

Mark jerked up in the bed, arms and legs still immobile, but able to move somewhat. He frantically looked around the room for Talbridge, expecting him to be hiding. Yet, there was no place to hide. Unless…

McCormick leaned over the edge of the mattress, searching under the bed. Nothing and no one. Mark slid off the bed onto the floor with a painful bang, hitting the back of his head. He scooted up against the wall, no part of the room hidden from him, his eyes burning from the sweat pouring from his forehead. The tears began to trickle out, at first fitfully, then in great gasping sobs.

A dream. It had all been a dream. There was no Talbridge, no electrodes…and no Hardcastle. There was no one but a very scared man with no help in sight. The nightmare hadn't been the same as usual, and the sudden shift in emphasis, and change of location, from Talbridge's basement to the hospital room, was unsettling. He leaned weakly against the wall, eyes closed against burning tears, crying as he hadn't done since after Hardcastle had first seen the video tape. Then, it had been from frustrated anger and pent-up emotion; now, from the drug-influenced release of desperately held control, and a painful realization that he didn't want to face. Because if the Judge didn't think he was trustworthy, how could he be expected to think otherwise?

He was still attempting to pull himself together when the attendants came to check on him. Worried, they brought their medication and filled his bloodstream with peaceful oblivion.

The red tape seemed to take forever, but Hardin finally convinced the personnel at the sanitarium that that Hardcastle, using the name Reynolds, was an associate of his and should be allowed to consult on McCormick's case.

The room had been darkened, heavy drapes keeping the sunlight from the lone patient. The Judge pulled them back, the bright yellow rays filling the room with some semblance of life. Steeling himself, Hardcastle turned to see McCormick huddled in the starchy white bedcovers, his eyes puffy, but alert. The straitjacket wound about his neck, leaving a red mark where it rubbed.

"Hey, Hardcase. Thought I was persona non grata." The raspy voice indicated just how long he had been drugged.

"What do you mean?" Hardcastle asked, puzzled by the slightly cool demeanor of the younger man.

"Where the hell ya been? 'cause ya sure as hell weren't here, thas for damn sure. Ya didn't come see me, not once. Didn't call or nuttin'. Couldn't even call ya, to see if you were okay. 'Tell us who you want to talk to, we'll make the call for you when you're up to it.'"

Hardcastle found no humor in McCormick's mocking tone, not when the cold anger was directed at him.

Eyes closed, he continued, voice unsteady. "Even in prison, ya could make a phone call once inna while. I thought… You said you cared. But the joke's on me, jus' like always…" His eyes opened, fixing Hardcastle with a cold, hard stare. "You let them put me in here. You conned me into it! I was suddenly an unknown quality, and you dealt with it in your usual trip-hammer way." He looked away, eyes closing in weariness again, his mouth becoming a tight, thin line.

Hardcastle's startlement at McCormick's accusation was swept away by a wave of icy anger. He had assumed that Pierson would have explained the situation, told McCormick about the injunction. But from McCormick's reaction, it was evident that all along, the bastard had allowed Mark to believe that he had been set up, dumped into the sanitarium because he was no longer wanted or needed. And whether he'd meant to or not, it was the worst thing Pierson could have done. "You really don't think…" He paused, tried to bring the building rage under control. He didn't want to be misinterpreted this time, "I wouldn't do that, not to anyone…"

The Judge swallowed, moving as close to the bed as he could. "Kid, look at me." There was no response, other than the sound of harsh breathing that Hardcastle couldn't identify. Considering the rampaging emotions in the room, it could belong to either one of them. "Damn it, Mark, look at me!"

McCormick gazed up at him, almost defiant, the hurt and betrayal still in his eyes.

Hardcastle began again. "I didn't know where you were. They wouldn't tell me. I swear to you, I looked, kid. I went to almost every hospital in L.A., trying to find you. And if I couldn't visit them, I called - dammit, Mccormick, you know me better than that. And do you have any idea how many nut houses there are in Los Angeles alone, not to mention all the outlying areas? Try goin' to them, 'lookin' for someone'; they have a real strong tendency not to let ya leave. Between the red tape and the injunction…"

"Injunction? Wha' injunction?"

"Pierson had this wired from the start, covered all the bases. I was denied access with some legal mumbo-jumbo. No one in authority would help me. Well, almost no one. Your Dr. Hardin told me where you were." Hardcastle recalled Hardin's hesitancy toward him, and realized that McCormick wasn't the only one kept in the dark.

"I didn't think he'd…an injunction? Really?" The animosity disappeared as if it had never been there, replaced almost immediately by an unquestioning trust that tied Hardcastle's heart in a knot. The blue eyes blinked rapidly as McCormick considered the new information. "Hey, are you goin' to get into trouble for this?"

Hardcastle fumbled with the straps on the straitjacket, anxious to release McCormick, "Nah… Well, probably, but nothing I can't handle." He smiled faintly, "I'll find a loophole somewhere."

After struggling with a stubborn strap, Hardcastle was finally able to remove McCormick's numb arms from their uncomfortable position. He concealed the jacket, not wanting the reminder of their present location in sight. "I'm getting you out of here. I've had it with this whole damned farce!"

"It's okay, really." McCormick smiled, the first real smile since leaving Gulls-Way for the sanatorium.

"Wanna tell me what happened in the shower room?" Hardcastle asked, sitting on the edge of the bed, gently massaging McCormick's arms, the painful prickles of life returning with a vengeance.

McCormick shrugged it off, "Jus' a little flashback…I guess I lost it for a minute. Musta scared that nurse within an inch of his life. Imagine, that big gorilla frightened of me." He chuckled weakly, the laugh becoming a rough cough.

The Judge moved to the hallway door, motioning though the chicken-wired window for Dr. Hardin, on guard duty outside, to open the door. "Doc, can you get us some water in here?"

"How'd Hardin sneak you in here?" McCormick asked, sounding better and more lucid.

"They think I'm another shrink." Hardcastle replied sheepishly.

The coughing became harder as McCormick's laughter bubbled out of him, with nearly hysterical relief.

"You okay, kid?" Hardcastle asked in concern, slapping McCormick on the back.

"Yeah…yeah, just a…a reaction from the drugs they pumped into me."

There was a quiet knock on the door. Hardcastle opened it to Hardin who was standing there with a glass of water. His gaze took in the changed atmosphere, and the noticeable improvement in his patient, smiling slightly. "I see I made the right decision this time." He resumed his guard position near the door, "Take as much time as you want. Just consider me your backup for now."

Hardcastle nodded. "Thanks." He handed the water to McCormick, keeping a hand on the glass when he realized that the ex-con was still shaky.

"That's enough." McCormick raised his hand, and the Judge placed the half-empty glass on the nearby window ledge.

Hardcastle frowned at the bar-covered window, annoyed at the trappings of confinement, and even more upset at McCormick's pallor and the dark circles under his eyes. "I still want you out of here."

"Agreed. But unless you hav'a bright idea…or the National Guard waitin' outside… McCormick's voice trailed off. When Hardcastle didn't respond, he smiled again, sadly. "Yeah, that's what I figgered. Look, the only way I'll ever see daylight again, is to give them what they want."

"You know what that means, don't you?"

"Yeah, only too well. But I've talked it over with Dr. Hardin, and he agrees with me. I think I can handle it. I've got to testify in the trial, and at the Parole hearing." At least he sounded confident.

"I don't know if that will really help, son."

"Maybe not, but I'm gambling on Pierson not expecting me to give in. And if we handle this right, he'll wind up looking like a complete idiot, instead of just a partial one."

"And how do you figure that?"

"Look, Judge, this whole thing hinges on whether you led me into danger, knowingly jeopardizing my life. But you didn't. You told me we weren't getting involved, because of Frank Keller's investigation, already months along. I went on my own to that house, to help Keller when his cover was blown. With me so far? I haven't lost ya anywhere, have I?" He mimicked Hardcastle, the grin infectious.

"Yeah, smart ass, I'm with ya." Hardcastle slapped McCormick's feet to one side, sitting down on the bed. "Go on."

"Well, it seems to me that if you told me 'hands off' and I stumbled in on my own, then you can't be held responsible. Anymore than if I was hurt in a car crash on the way to the police station, or shot while getting a pizza 'cause some goon was robbing the place…" Running out of examples, McCormick waited for a reaction to his jumps in logic.

"Not bad, kiddo, not bad at all. Could work - maybe."

"Maybe? I don't get better odds than that?"

"Okay, better than maybe."

"I need you to set things up, contact your friends at the P&P board, as well as the District Attorney. If I'm gonna do this, then I'm gonna do it up right!"

Hardcastle whacked McCormick's shoulder, pleased at the change. "Now yer cookin'!"

McCormick had been moved to another room, in a more modern wing, one with furniture and a bed without straps, on the recommendation of Doctors Hardin and 'Reynolds'. No drugs, no close guarding at night, no feeling of hopelessness. McCormick draped his jeans over a spare chair, checking the small closet for the suit he would be wearing at the hearing scheduled for the next morning. After making certain all was as it should be, the overly tired ex-con climbed into bed.

"It's an improvement over the last mattress," he thought, sinking down instead of bouncing off what appeared to be a brick bed, "Yeah, much better."

McCormick pulled the sheet and blanket over his head, scooting comfortably down for a welcome night's sleep. He had to admit to himself that he was a little worried about the hearing. Unlike a court of law, almost anyone could ask a question - any kind of question. There weren't many rights for the witness, which, in McCormick's case, meant the torture session would be a vital topic of conversation, as well as previous cases.

McCormick could feel himself floating away, sinking deeper and deeper into sleep. Then it began again, his nightmare. He was strung up in Gulls-Way this time, Hardcastle no where in sight, and Talbridge standing in front of him holding a cup filled with powder.

"Hello, hello, what do we have here?" Talbridge peered into the cup, like a demented Mr. Rogers.

Mark thought he would puke if the man said, "Can you say torture?"

"Would you like to have some of this? The effect is very rewarding."

McCormick shook his head. "No. What is it?" Why was he even asking?

"Lime. Does wonders for the breathing. See?" Talbridge tossed a small amount at him.

McCormick began to gasp, frantically trying to find air. His nose felt as if it was burning, and he bent his head sideways, rubbing it against a taut shoulder.

"Let's try the whole cup, and see what happens." Talbridge, as he had done before, threw the lime in McCormick's face.

Mark squeezed his eyes tightly shut, jaw clenched. He tried to hold his breath, hoping against hope that that action would keep the white powder from his nasal passages.

He waited, but there was no burning sensation, no choking, no laughter. Shaking his head to drop any powder that might be lurking on an eyebrow, ready to fall onto his eyelashes, McCormick cracked one eye open. Talbridge was across the den, a blood-red stain growing on his chest. Hardcastle was standing over him, holding his shotgun.

"You okay, kid?" The Judge never took his eyes off Talbridge's bleeding body.

"Uh, yeah, I think so. I don't know. Did he throw that stuff on me?"

"Nope, plugged him before he got a chance."

"I didn't hear you fire." McCormick was wondering at the change. He was sure he had choked on the lime. He could still remember the frightening sensation as Talbridge explained it to be another punishment borrowed from prison officials within the last few decades.

"Don't know how you missed it." Hardcastle's voice was curt, in control.

"Damnest thing I've ever been through. I remember it differently." Mark realized that he wasn't manacled any longer. He walked slowly towards Talbridge, unsure as to what he wanted to do. On the way over, Mark stumbled on the rug's edge. He cut his palm on something as he fell, the pain blurring his sight followed by darkness.

McCormick's eyes opened, and he saw an eggshell white ceiling above him, without the usual wooden beams. "No beams? But the den has beams…"

"Oh, another dream." McCormick rolled over and drifted back off, murmuring "Thanks, Judge." And this time the change of venue didn't trouble him at all.

"Mr. McCormick, you are aware that this hearing will determine whether or not your present arrangement will continue or not?" The silver-tongued former anchorman on the local NBC affiliate, now chairman of the Parole board hearing, assumed his most serious tone.

It was so obviously a pose, that McCormick was hard pressed not to laugh. But one look at Judge Hardcastle's worried demeanor sobered him up. "Yes, sir, I understand."

"And you are giving this board your statement of your own free will?"

"I am."

"You are willing to answer any questions that this panel deems necessary?"

"Yes, sir, any and all."

"Good. Please proceed, Mr. McCormick, by stating your name and current address for the record."

"My name is Mark McCormick, currently residing at Reagan Sanatorium at the orders of Ralph Pierson. My home residence is Judge Hardcastle's estate, Gulls-Way, in Malibu."

And it began, at first with shaky voice and trembling hands, then with more and more confidence as McCormick realized that reciting what had occurred in that case couldn't hurt him any longer. He glanced at Hardcastle, receiving an encouraging nod and smile.

"…then Talbridge began using various torture devices, some historic, some of his own devising. He enjoyed it, and it lasted for over two hours. At that time, we heard shooting from outside, indicating to me at least, that Judge Hardcastle had discovered where Keller and I had been taken. Talbridge hid, then tried to use me to force Judge Hardcastle to let him escape. I managed to distract Talbridge, allowing the Judge sufficient time to overpower and subdue him."

"Mr. McCormick?" A middle-aged woman sitting on the far side of the rectangular table where the panel was seated, spoke up. "At no time did Judge Hardcastle know of your intention to help Frank Keller?"

"No, ma'am. We didn't expect to be involved in any way, shape, or form. And with my broken arm, as well as Keller's investigation which was already in progress, Hardcastle pulled back and told me we weren't to interfere. I was Keller's only chance to get help, as he couldn't contact Judge Miller for it. I didn't plan on getting caught. I only intended to be there in case Frank needed a quick get-away."

"Would you mind telling us what you felt about Mr. Talbridge after this incident?" The board chairman asked.

"No, I don't mind." McCormick sighed, swallowing the bile that rose in his throat. "Aw, the hell with it. You want to know how I felt? I wanted to kill him. That's exactly what I wanted, to beat his face in, to stick a pistol in his flabby gut and pull the trigger until the gun was empty, then reload." The words spilled out in a mad rush. He paused, continuing more calmly, "but that was only my first reaction. I'm not saying that I would lose sleep if he bought it, but I don't think…I know I couldn't do it, not really. I was so angry, and hurt, that all I wanted to do was destroy him. Maybe you don't think that's right, but it's the way I felt."

"Mr. McCormick," Pierson's voice rang out from the visitors' seating during the ensuing silence. "Did you have a breakdown in the sanatorium?"

McCormick stiffened, then saw Hardcastle half rise, as if to attack the man. He forced himself to relax. "No. I was already a bit disconcerted at being in that place. It was merely a flashback. I would have recovered sooner, and explained, if the staff hadn't pumped me full of downers, without trying to find out what was wrong." His tone of voice was a shade on the sarcastic side, but no one seemed to notice except for the Judge, who was shaking his head in warning.

Pierson kept pushing. "And why were you seeing a psychiatrist?"

"You try undergoing torture for over two hours, buddy, and see if you don't need some help coping. Of course, you have to have some feelings to begin with." McCormick leaned forward in his chair, looking each panel member in the eye, one by one, trying to gauge his effect on each. "Look, I'm tired of this song-and-dance. Either put me back in jail or let me go back with the Judge. I don't want to go to a half-way house, and I sure as hell don't want to stay in the nut house for the rest of my life. Hardcastle and I have our differences, but we can deal with them without interference from so-called do-gooders who don't understand the situation, or get a hair up their ass because they were told to butt out." McCormick looked pointedly at the suddenly nervous Ralph Pierson. "I'm trying my damnedest to stay out of trouble because of the Judge. I certainly don't want to be hurt, but what we're doing is important. The danger involved is no greater, - in fact, probably less, - than in my last profession on the race track. And if you put me away, Hardcase will still go on with his 'hobby', and might be hurt, even killed, if he doesn't have me there to help."

McCormick stared at the chairman, his demeanor serious, intense. "And if that happens… Well, let's just say, I wouldn't want to be the person that kept me from being there."

Hardcastle held his head in his hands after mouthing 'stupid' at McCormick. Mark shrugged back, in for a penny, in for a pound.

"Yes, well. Thank you, Mr. McCormick." The chairman appeared amused, as if his reaction had been expected. Many of the other unnamed members of the panel seemed in accordance with the chairman.

"We will be considering this testimony, as well as statements from Mr. Pierson, Judge Hardcastle, Dr. Hardin, and several police officers who are acquainted with the case and with you." The former anchorperson smiled openly, "you seem to have quite a few friends on the police force, son. Very remarkable, considering your background. There's a snack bar on the sixth floor. You'll be notified when the decision has been made."

The five people walked out of the hearing room, all eyes on them. McCormick walked over to the Judge, his shoulders bowed in weariness. He hadn't slept much since his decision three days earlier to break his silence. He dropped into a chair and sighed. "I blew it, didn't I?"

"Well, kid, I think you need to work on your courtroom presence; the threat may have been going a bit too far. But, I appreciate the thought." Hardcastle glared at him.

"What?"
"Don't give me the raised eyebrow. Just where the hell do you get off telling a whole room full of people that I can't take care of myself?"

"Aw, come on, I didn't mean anything. But, face it, you aren't as young as you used to be."

"Listen, hot shot, I've managed to survive very nicely for some sixty-odd years without you being around - "

"God knows how," McCormick interrupted with a sharp look.

"…and I think I can struggle along with no help in the future, if necessary."

"Does that mean that I don't have to risk life and limb on your cases?"

"No."

"Well, I'll tell ya, Judge, you'd better hope they let me go back with you, 'cause nobody else this side of Heaven or Hell is gonna put up with you."

"That goes both ways, kiddo."

They stared at each other in a glare-down. McCormick relented first. "What the hell are we fighting about?"

Hardcastle smiled ruefully. "I don't know. Habit, I guess…unavoidable. Chalk it up to nerves. But I do want you to know, if this decision should go against us -- "

"Don't even say it, Judge. 'Saying makes it so', ya know."

They sat in silence, broken only by the arrival of two cups of coffee brought by Captain Jay Chan, another friend of the Judge. He and Mark had met while Hardcastle was investigating Chinatown's most notorious crime lord.

McCormick grinned to himself. That had been a pretty hairy deal, too, he thought. It was a lucky break that the board had only barely touched on previous cases, limiting themselves to their successful conclusions and not what happened in the interim. If they, or Pierson, had dug a little deeper, McCormick would never had seen Hardcastle again. Luckily, Pierson had assumed that Mark would never give in and he wouldn't need any proof of dangerous circumstances. What little Pierson did know was unsubstantiated, and the board had decided not to hear any of it, basing their decision on McCormick's current record as well as the Talbridge incident. Thanks to Hardcastle, there was no new police record, other than quite a few speeding tickets.

McCormick's thoughts were interrupted by the reappearance of the Parole and Probation Review panel. His stomach in knots, Mark stood.

A tug on his sleeve and a whispered voice, "This isn't a court, kid. You don't have to stand."

Mark could feel his face burning as he dropped back into the chair.

"Mark McCormick? After reviewing your file - an adventure in itself - and taking into consideration the somewhat guarded appraisals of your conduct since being placed in Judge Hardcastle's custody, we have decided to keep the situation as it is, with review by this panel on a yearly basis until your original parole is completed and three years following that. If at the end of this time, the panel feels that you have truly reformed, we will move for the removal of the pending charges in regards to the theft of the Coyote. Gentlemen, you are dismissed."

Pierson walked stiffly out of the courtroom, avoiding both McCormick and Hardcastle as he left.

Smirking in obvious relief, McCormick commented, "I don't think he's too happy."

"Would you be?"

"Nah, I guess not. I've gotta feeling we haven't seen the last of Mr. Pierson. Better watch your step, Hardcase, one slip and it's all over."

"There isn't much he can do, considering the board's presumption of control over your unique situation."

"Huh?"
Hardcastle grimaced. The eloquent, apparently well-read McCormick who had been in the witness seat was gone, leaving the street-wise, uncouth, ignorant Skid in his place. "You're in the clear. Pierson can't do anything unless you screw up."

"Me, huh?"

Dr. Hardin approached at that point, and shook McCormick's hand vigorously. "Very well done, Mark, I'm proud of you." He stepped back, nodded at Hardcastle, then resumed. "I do believe that our sessions together are approaching their end."

McCormick felt a sliver of fear at the impending loss of his safety valve. But he pushed that doubt back where it came from, understanding that he had to cut the apron strings sooner or later. "Gonna be at the trial?"

"Nope. I don't think you need me there," Hardin replied with satisfaction, "but you can still call me, if you feel a need to talk to someone. Other than Judge Hardcastle, that is. He's just about irreplaceable."

"Yeah, I guess so. Thanks, Doc."

"Ready to go home, McCormick?"

"Sure, Judge, more than ready."

Side-by-side, Hardcastle and McCormick left the cold marble building, the warm sun driving all the shadows from Mark's heart and mind. It was a good day, he decided, a pretty good day after all.

After six long months, both the original trial and the sentencing hearing were finished. Talbridge, with the help of Frank Keller and Mark McCormick's testimonies, had been convicted and given life imprisonment. The only drawback, according to Hardcastle, was the fact that Talbridge would be eligible for parole in just seven years.

"But, Judge, that doesn't mean he'll get it. My God, you saw the photos of those women, what he did to them! Hell, you know as well as I do that Charles Manson has been up for parole numerous times, and is always refused. All we can do is hope that the board hearing Talbridge's bid for parole is as smart."

"Yeah, I guess."

"My turn at dinner, so you've gotta set the table." McCormick snapped his fingers. "Jump to it, Hardcase."

A mediocre supper later, McCormick settled himself in front of the television, prepared to watch the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers attempt something resembling baseball. The Judge brought in a large bowl of freshly popped popcorn.

McCormick was drifting in and out of sleep, the game boring as usual. Idly, he watched the patterns on the wall, caused by the flickering blue and green of the television screen. As he half expected, one of the shadows began to take on an achingly familiar shape.

"Nooo," he whispered. "Not you again, damn you. I won't let you invade my every sleeping moment. You're gone, out of my life, and I want you out of my nights, too. You hear me? I'm not the whimpering, frightened man you tried to make of me. Go on, get out." The shadow, which resembled McCormick's tormentor, wavered, then faded slowly away, never to return. "I'm not at your mercy anymore…" The man who had become so fearful that he was unable to control his almost automatic reaction to common, everyday objects had learned his lesson. He wasn't helpless, he wasn't alone, not as long as the Judge was around. And even if, God forbid, Hardcase should be gone, there were others out there to help him. But finally and forever, there was Mark McCormick, who had survived, and maybe came out stronger from the experience. "Though I wouldn't recommend it. Good bye, Demon, forever."

"You say something, kid?" Hardcastle asked sharply, concern evident on his face, a handful of buttered popcorn halfway to his mouth.

McCormick smiled contentedly, shaking his head. "Nah, nothing important. Just ousting my own personal devil."

He could feel Hardcastle's eyes on him in confusion and thought about explaining, but decided instead to give up and drift off into a peaceful sleep, the first since the Talbridge thing had started. He'd explain in the morning, when he was grouchy from a stiff neck and sore back from sleeping in the crinkly Naugahyde chair.