Bad Day at Gulls-Way
By Lizabeth S. Tucker
Mark McCormick winced at the stinging water flying into his face. The storm was getting closer by the minute and he still had ten windows to nail boards across, all on the second floor. Judge Milton C. Hardcastle, good friend and sometime pain in the ass, was tying down the few movable objects that couldn't be squeezed in the garage or the old greenhouse behind the estate. Hurricane Larry was on the way and from the weather reports, he was gonna be a killer.
The wind was whipping around Mark's legs as he tried to balance on the ladder, his mouth full of nails, and long pine boards rested across the top of the ladder, held down by Mark's right forearm. The top of the den window was almost out of reach. Mark dreaded doing the second floor, his next project. He would have to drag the large metal ladder from the garage and lash it in place.
Too lazy and in too much of a hurry to move the ladder closer to the edge of the window, Mark leaned over, balancing the board in his hand. Hardcastle came around the corner of the house just as the ladder shifted. Mark, dripping the boards and spitting out the nails as he began to fall, saw the Judge push the toppling wooden ladder back upright.
"Hey, kiddo, watch it!" the Judge yelled, dodging falling boards.
"Thanks, Judge." Mark climbed down and began to search for the scattered nails in the wet grass and bushes. "I don't think we're gonna make it."
"Better give up on the wood and settle on masking tape. At least if they do break, the pieces won't fly all over town. 'sides, it'll be faster."
Mark nodded, wiping the rain from his burnished copper curls with a rough shake of his head. "Get the big ladder, will ya?"
Hardcastle went into the garage, crammed with garbage cans, the GMC and the Coyote. The beautiful classic black Corvette was in the shop for major repairs after one chase too many. He found the ladder against the far wall and had to yank it from under the workbench, knocking cans of motor oil and bug spray around. Dragging the steel ladder outside, Hardcastle backed into McCormick.
"Where'd you come from?" Hardcastle asked, startled.
"New Jersey," Mark popped off automatically. "Wondered what was taking you so long. Help me hold this up, I don't want to take a header off the cliff into the ocean, thank you."
Mark dug the ladder's rubber-tipped feet into the dirt of the garden bed surrounding the main building. With two rolls of tape he'd picked up from the workbench on his wrists like bracelets, the younger man climbed to the top of the swaying ladder. "Hope we don't get any lightning."
"Thought you told me you had an electric personality," Hardcastle retorted.
"Funny, Hardcase, real funny. If I were you, I'd fire my writers."
Due to the wind and rain, it took almost three hours to finish taping the second floor windows. By then the skies were black with fat, rain-filled clouds. Mark and the Judge were soaked to the skin, both men looking forward to a hot shower and a warm fire in their respective brick fireplaces, one in the Gatehouse, the other in the Judge's den in the main house.
Mark snuggled under the covers, curled into a comfortable ball on the leather couch, a blanket under him. He had fallen asleep soon after the power had gone out. Hardcastle had lit a few candles in the den. McCormick tried to make it to the Gatehouse after his shower, taken in the main house as the hot water heater was still broken, but with his usual klutziness, stumbled over the brick driveway liners, taking a header into a potted geranium.
Hardcastle, with an exasperated but tolerant smile, had called him back into the house, saying he would make up a bed in one of the spare rooms. McCormick shrugged, dragging a couple of quilts from the closet and settling himself on the couch in the den.
The only parts of McCormick visible were the tousled mess of curls drying into tiny wild curlicues and ten tiny tips of toes that peeked out from the bottom of the quilt. With a shake of his head, Hardcastle walked over to pull the covers down, wrapping Mark's feet warmly. McCormick moaned softly, then slipped into a deeper sleep.
It was at times like this that Hardcastle most missed his son, long dead in some Southeastern Asian jungle. Tommy Hardcastle had had an intense fear of the dark, ever since he had locked himself accidentally in the gardener's trailer and wasn't found for four hours. Although there was no real resemblance, either in temperament or physical appearance, Mark reminded the Judge of his son. They both had a stubborn streak when they wanted something. Hardcastle had to admit that he was like that also. In fact, McCormick resembled him more than Tommy had. Their son had been the spitting image of Nancy, his late wife.
The Judge still couldn't understand what had attracted him to the cocky, smart-mouthed car thief who had shown up in his court almost six years earlier with a cock-and-bull story about a stolen Porsche being his. And yet, despite evidence to the contrary, Hardcastle had believed the story McCormick gave. But the evidence was too strongly against him and, with the added background of his teenage crimes, the Judge had had to sentence the younger man to jail for that stupid theft. He wondered if Melinda, the ex-girlfriend with the childlike attitude, had thought about McCormick sitting in jail for two long years.
Even more in the Judge's thoughts was the idea that Melinda and the Porsche incident had hurt McCormick more than the ex-con let on. Oh, he griped continually about how he was the poor misunderstood victim of the Judge's hangman justice, but when Hardcastle thought about it, McCormick never spoke about specifics. Never a word about what prison had been like, what had happened to him while inside. The sleeping man was a boyish bundle of life-loving excitement, but the man who had called Hardcastle the high plains drifter at the parole office had been nothing like this. That man had been scared and desperate not to return to the horror he had left behind. Whatever bad memories McCormick had brought from jail had been put in the back of his mind.
A muffled snort and gasp warned Hardcastle that McCormick was waking up. Two bleary blue eyes popped up over the top of the covers, staring in confusion at the Judge. Slowly, the fog of sleep receded and Mark began to smile drowsily.
"Hey." McCormick's voice was thick with sleep.
"Hey yourself. Want something to eat?" Hardcastle asked, pushing a bowl over to the middle of the coffee table.
"There's no electricity, how'dya cook?"
"I didn't. This is the popcorn from last night's movie."
McCormick made a face. "Cold popcorn? Yuck, thanks, but I'll pass. Got any bread? I'll make us sandwiches."
"There's a ten-pack of franks in the fridge, defrosting. We could cook them on the fire."
"Yeah, that'd be nice. I'll go get 'em." Mark padded out to the kitchen, the quilts falling onto the floor.
Shaking his head, Hardcastle folded the abandoned covers and put them on the foot of the couch. He could hear the clanking in the kitchen, the constant noise of the rainstorm outside. The Judge walked to the board-covered window, peering through the cracks at the raging storm. A loud crash caused the Judge to jump, turning around to the location of the noise, the kitchen.
"McCormick, what did you drop now?" Hardcastle bellowed, stomping into the kitchen.
A sheepish face met Hardcastle's glare, the ex-con sitting in a mess of broken glass, spilled milk and franks scattered around the kitchen floor and a puddle of water growing bigger by the minute through the open kitchen door.
"Why is the door open?"
"I was putting the franks on the counter when the wind musta pushed it open. It hit me in the back and I hit the counter," Mark explained, not moving off the floor.
"Which means no hot food."
Mark tried smiling, with about the same effect. "I didn't mean it."
Hardcastle sighed. "I know. Get up off the floor, willya?" He held out his hand to help the younger man up.
Mark took it, climbing painfully to his feet. Bending back over, he began to gather the franks off the floor. Hardcastle pulled a mop from the space between the counter and the refrigerator, kicking the door closed as he moved to wipe up the milk.
Mark frowned. "We'll have to rinse that out pronto or it'll stink of sour milk."
Hardcastle watched Mark moving stiffly around the kitchen. "Did you hurt yourself when you fell?"
"Nah, just a little stiff, that's all," Mark replied, his voice unconvincing, earning him a sharp look from the Judge. "Really, don't sweat it."
"Let's see what else we can have to eat since you trashed the franks." Hardcastle rummaged in the fridge.
"I didn't do it on purpose, ya know," Mark snapped, taking the mop from where Hardcastle had laid it and finished cleaning the floor. Then he filled the sink with water to rinse the yarn mop out thoroughly. "Find anything?"
"Hard to tell with only the candlelight from the den to see by. I think I felt a pound of hamburger, but it could be the sauerkraut we bought on sale last week. Better stick with what I'm sure of." Hardcastle turned with a grimace, his hands filled with packages of deli meat and two tomatoes. "Looks like you're getting your sandwiches after all."
The lights flickered on. Mark held his breath, waiting to see if they would stay. The blinked out again. "Damn, I hate this. I never liked it in Florida, and I don't like it here much more."
"Not afraid of the dark, are you?" Hardcastle teased.
"NO!" Mark protested too strongly. "Well, maybe a little. I didn't mind it much as a kid, but there were times in lockup when it was lights out and…" Mark shuddered, his voice fading as he flashed back on all the things that could and did happen when the guards walked down the hall and all the prisoners were supposed to be settling down for the night. "Sometimes I remember more than I want to." He managed a feeble smile.
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Mark grabbed the towel, wiping his hands, flipping the break into his arm with a flourish. "Let's eat."
Mark and the Judge tried to find the breadcrumbs in the dark, but the candlelight wasn't strong enough to see all of them. With a shrug, Mark snapped the dishcloth across the table. "I'll sweep it up when we get some electricity."
Hardcastle took the remnants of their food and went to the kitchen to put what was still edible in the refrigerator. Mark went into the den, sitting by the fire and prodding the logs with a black and gold poker. He lay down on the floor, his arms crossed behind his head, his eyes on the ceiling. McCormick heard Hardcastle walk back into the room and focused his eyes on him. "What time is it?"
"Too early to go to bed," Mark commented. "So, how do we spend the evening? Can't watch TV, you can't read your files in this light and a game of one-on-one is definitely out of the question," Mark said, nodding his head toward the sound of raging water hitting the window behind Hardcastle's desk.
"How about some parlor games?" Hardcastle suggested. "Or we could just talk."
"When we talk like this, we wind up fighting. Better stick with the games, though skip Charades, willya? I don't feel like jumping around trying to imitate some stupid movie."
With a perverse look at McCormick, the Judge made his suggestion. "How about some Truth or Consequences?"
Mark looked blankly at Hardcastle, then grinned. "Sure you want to play this? Could get pretty dangerous." He waggled his eyebrows at the Judge as his grin spread ear to ear.
"Sure you know how to play it?" Hardcastle countered. "You ask a question and I have to answer truthfully. I ask a question and you have to answer truthfully. If you lie and I catch you at it, or you catch me doing the same, you have to pay the consequences."
"Yeah, I know it. But what's the consequences gonna be? If you lie and I catch you, you have to do my chores."
"No way, McCormick!" Hardcastle said. "But I expect you to do all your chores and no complaints. Deal?"
Mark's face squished up as he thought it over. "Okay, but only if you agree to my terms. Either you do the chores or it's a week on the island of my choice. Well?"
Hardcastle glared at him without success. "Deal. I'll do your chores if you catch me lying. Which you won't!"
"Fine. Who starts?"
"I'll be generous, you go first."
Mark sat up, thinking about his first question while watching Hardcastle sit in the nearest arm chair. He couldn't resist it, knowing the Judge was expecting the question that was always on Mark's mind and lips. "Why did you…"
Hardcastle looked at him with a half-scared look on his face. McCormick knew it was too soon. "Why did you pick me to go Tontoing with you?"
"I…I don't know." Hardcastle thought he would rather have had the one about sending an innocent man to prison.
"Ju-udge, ya gotta answer unless you want to wash the windows after the storm gets done plastering sand, dirt and salt spray on them."
"You looked like a good prospect. Smart, able to think on your feet, passably good-looking. Boy, was I wrong!"
"Not a bad answer. Not the whole truth, though, but I'll let it pass."
"My turn. Do you have any living family besides Sonny Daye, your dad?"
"I guess there are some cousins running around Jersey, but no close relatives, if that's what you're thinking about," Mark replied easily, not quite as protective of his background as he used to be. "Okay, my turn. We haven't been on any cases in a long time. Have you given it up?"
Hardcastle shook his head. "No, but you seem to stumble into trouble without going after my cases. I'm sure we'll start on them again soon."
Mark moved to the fireplace, throwing two more logs in to keep the fire high, the flames highlighting the planes of his face, the shadow in his dimple dark and deep. "Go on, ask."
"I'm thinking, don't rush me." The retired jurist mused on the next question, watching Mark settle back down next to the fireplace, his arms wrapped around his knees, his legs pulled up to his chest. "Got one. What's the first crime you ever committed?"
"Aren't you supposed to read me my rights, Hardcase?"
"Hopefully the statute of limitations has run out on it."
"Hmmm, shoplifting was the first, I guess. Did it one time and swore never to again."
"Why not? Considering your lack of conscience in regards to breaking and entering, why should a little shoplifting bother you?"
"Back where I grew up, there were only mom and pop type stores. If the owner had too many losses from thefts, it hurt him, his wife, his family. I took this miniature race car from old man Scarpino's general store. He caught me but didn't yell or anything. Instead he took me in the back, showed me how he paid for everything in the store whether or not the stuff was bough, sold or broken. Then Scarpino showed me a picture, sitting on his desk, of his five daughters, all wanting to go to college. I learned more in that one afternoon than all the cops, jails and judges could have ever got across to me." Mark rested his chin on his knees, his eyes dark with the memories of his childhood.
"How old were you?"
Mark turned his head to one side, considering the Judge. "Isn't that two questions? Nah, I'll give it to ya. I was seven years old. Mom was barely able to keep food on the table. She couldn't afford to give anything to her little bastard son." The bitterness was obvious.
"What happened to your mom?"
"Nope, can't answer that. It's my turn to ask. I've already let you ask two."
"Okay, kid, fire away."
"Did you mean what you said?"
Mark looked at the fire, his face averted from Hardcastle's scrutiny. "In the ambulance after you found me on the cliff. I heard you say something. I wondered if you really meant it, or if you just said it to keep me fighting."
Hardcastle leaned back against the leather. "What did you think you heard?"
Mark sighed, the questions were going too far, becoming too personal. "Never mind, stupid question."
"No. Tomorrow I might not want to answer, but I said I'd play, it was my idea, and I'll do it. Ask me." Hardcastle rubbed his face wearily.
His voice low, Mark muttered what he remembered hearing in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, Hardcastle gripping his hand tightly the whole trip there. "I thought you said you…that you loved me, needed me. Was I…dreaming?"
The sound of the storm raged on outside while the emotional storm did likewise in the two men's hearts. Hardcastle got up from his chair and knelt next to McCormick. "Yes, I said that. And I meant it."
Mark turned a tear-streaked face to the Judge, the open love in his blue eyes startling. He smiled shakily, reaching out to grab Hardcastle's hand. He held on as he examined Hardcastle's features. "Thank you. I didn't know if you'd tell me. I wondered after if I remembered it or if it was just wishful thinking. I needed to hear it then, but it's nice to know that it was true." Mark dropped the Judge's hand, worry creasing his forehead. "It wasn't just something to say, was it? You really meant it, didn't you?"
"Why is it so important?"
"I…I've been bandied about for most of my life. From foster home to foster home after Mom died when I was twelve. Then it was out on my own at sixteen. I had a mess of girlfriends who were my desperate attempt at a normal life. Each of them nuttier than the last. Hell, the only decent lady I've ever really been interested in was Kathy Kasternack and she dumped me just like the others. I want…I need to be wanted, ya know?" Mark asked pleadingly, afraid that he was opening himself up to a big fall, but more terrified to let the chance go by. "I want to mean something to someone."
"Flip wanted you. Barbara wanted you. There had to be others, you've got a lot of friends around. Why is it so important that I want you?"
"You yell at me, worry about me, make me toe the line, just like a father. But you also trust me, treat me like an equal…most of the time," Mark added, wiping his eyes of unshed tears and, using his sleeve, swiped at his cheeks. "You're a friend, partner and father to me. You fill my empty spaces. I'd like to think that I fill some of the empty spots in you as well."
"You do, kiddo, you do," Hardcastle said gruffly. "But if you ever mention this to me again once this night is over, I'll deny it. I'll swear you musta been dreamin' or drunk," he said furiously, his game having backfired. "I think this is getting too mushy. Better get ready for bed, it's almost eleven o'clock."
Mark looked at his watch. "You lied! I got you, you lied!" He jumped up, chortling. Pointing to his watch and the clock on the mantle, Mark clapped his hands. "It's ten almost, and you lied. Damn, I don't believe it. I caught you in a lie."
"It wasn't a lie. I was merely mistaken. Besides, it wasn't your turn to ask a question, so it doesn't count," Hardcastle protested.
"Uh huh, you got two, I got two."
Hardcastle, faced with McCormick's many chores, tried to regain ground. "You didn't ask a question, I was merely ending the game."
"It doesn't have to be a question, that's not how it's written, Judge. All I have to do is catch you in a lie and I did. An untruth, a lie or a mistake, it doesn't matter. You lost and you've got to pay up."
Hardcastle frowned. "All right already, you won. Damn game is rigged."
Mark shook his head. "How could I rig a question and answer game like this, Judge, come on. But I'm not totally heartless. I'll give you a choice of consequences."
Hardcastle was dubious. "An island vacation or your chores, right? Big choice."
"Well?" Mark sat back down with his arms crossed, his foot tapping on the bricks of the fireplace, the dying embers forgotten.
"Hell of a choice."
"Better believe it," Hardcastle answered, a twinkle in his eyes, then said, "How about one more question, winner take all?"
"No way, I've already won, why should I gamble any further?" Mark asked, an interested lit to his voice.
"Huh? Hawaii? Wait a minute, what's the question? And what happens if I lose?"
"If you lose?"
"Yeah." Mark sat up straight, leaning forward to stare at Hardcastle. "What would I lose?"
"You'd have to do whatever I said for a solid week, no arguments, no back talk, just a simple yes sir, right sir, when sir. And if I lose, one week in Hawaii at the hotel of your choice."
"I sense a trap here. If I don't agree, you won't do my chores, will ya?"
"Nope. I want one last question and I want you to make a choice, all or nothing." Hardcastle stared back, daring McCormick to go for it.
"I don't know." Mark jumped up again, pacing back and forth as he thought.
"Well? Not chicken, are you?"
McCormick felt the danger of the previous emotional storm passing and with a start, realized that he hadn't heard the loud background noise of the rain and wind. He moved over the window and peeked through the wooden planks. "Hey, the rain's dying down. Turn the radio on, let's see where Larry is."
Hardcastle flipped his portable radio on, twisting the dial until the mixture of rock, soul and gospel music was replaced by the monotone voice of L.A.'s latest heartthrob of the airwaves, Patrick Hiller.
"…Larry doesn't seem to like our fair city, he's turned tail and is heading back to the Aloha State with all possible speed. Hate to say it, but I'm not sorry to see him go. I had a hot date at the beach this weekend and if Larry makes it out of town, I might be able to make it. Current temperature of 63 degrees, humidity is 99 and the forecast is still rain, rain, and more rain with a strong possibility of rain." Hardcastle clicked off the radio with an evil grin.
"Still want to go to Hawaii? Looks like it may be a good time for it."
"Ha, ha, ha. I gotta tell ya, Hardcase, those writers aren't doing you justice. I hope you're not paying them a lot."
"No, kiddo, not a whole lot. But a lot more than you must pay yours," Hardcastle laughed. "Now, about our little game…"
The lights came back on with blinding intensity, Mark and the Judge both squinting, their eyes almost closed. When Mark could stand to open them a little, he walked around the room blowing out candles. "Looks like they're back to stay."
The phone started ringing. Hardcastle went to answer it as Mark started cleaning up the clutter of dishes from earlier in the evening.
"Frank? No, everything's fine out here. Oh, yeah. No, I didn't know." Hardcastle beckoned the younger man to come closer. "Hang on while I tell McCormick." The Judge held the receiver on his shoulder. "Frank says most of the Pacific Coast Highway is washed out. We'll be here for a couple of days, at least."
"Oh, joy. Hopefully with electricity?"
"Probably, since it's back on now. Well, we've got plenty of food, we'll be okay." He got back on the phone. "Sorry, Frank, didn't mean to leave you hanging. We're fine. Yeah, thanks." Hardcastle hung up. "Frank also says it's really bad out on the roads. They lost about four houses up the road from us. Be careful when you go near the cliff edge, it may not be in the same place it was."
"So how long do we have to amuse ourselves out here?" Mark asked, walking to the kitchen with the dirty dishes balanced in his hands.
"A couple of days before the road is cleared, maybe two past that before anything other than a four-wheeler can get over them."
"Hey, Judge?" Mark stopped filling up the dishwasher.
"No more parlor games. Cuts too close to home."
"You've got a deal. We'll forget the whole night, pretend it never happened, okay?"
Mark nodded, his smile affectionate. "Sure, nothing to remember really. Just a lot of hoo-ha."
"I think I'll turn in, make sure all the doors are locked and the lights shut off before you go to bed. I'll lay some sheets and blankets on the bed down the hall, near the bathroom."
"Thanks. Night, Judge."
A/N: Originally printed in Zines My Father Sold Me in 1985. Slightly tweaked from original version. Standard disclaimer: I don't do this for money, just for fun, yadda yadda yadda. Don't own 'em, couldn't afford the insurance and taxes for either the estate or the cars.