By Lizabeth S. Tucker
"Mark, are you in there?" A wavering voice called from the garage door.
Mark McCormick stuck his grease-smudged face out from under the Coyote, "Yeah, Sarah. What do you need?"
She stood outlined in the dusky garage door opening, pale and ghostlike. "The Judge wanted his files re-arranged in the basement, and everything else removed, but I don't think I can carry some of the boxes."
McCormick pulled himself off the concrete floor and walked over to the Judge's housekeeper. "Sarah, why didn't you call me to do that? You know that the doctors want you to take things easy. That's what I'm for, remember?" He placed a gentle hand on the woman's shoulder, thinking how frail she looked since her younger sister had died. "Just point out the offending stuff, and I'll cart it to the attic for you."
"Well... I don't know. The Judge keeps the attic locked. If you could just carry the boxes to the door, I'm sure I can get them inside." Her reply was hesitant, voice uncertain .
"Sarah, I'm not gonna steal anything. 'Sides, all attics ever have are old clothes and cobwebs, filled with yucky spiders. Don't worry." He leaned down and grinned. "After all, I haven't stolen the family silver yet, have I?"
Sarah smiled back up. "I don't know. I forgot to check this morning."
"Why, Sarah! You're starting to sound just like ol' Hardcase." McCormick's eyes widened in mock shock, then he broke out laughing.
Laughing with him, Sarah nodded. "All right, but be sure to lock the attic door carefully when you're done. And bring me the key. Don't let the Judge know you were up there, understand, Mark?" Some of the old sternness was back in her voice, but her eyes were gentle. Sarah had fought a long, losing battle not to become too fond of McCormick, having experienced, like the Judge, too many disappointments in the past.
They went to the basement and Sarah indicated the items to be removed to attic storage. She admitted that she was tired, and decided to rest until Mark was finished. McCormick watched her go, cursing the Judge for not noticing Sarah's fragility since she returned from San Francisco and the funeral.
McCormick decided to take all the unwanted boxes to the landing near the attic door, before unlocking it. Curiosity consumed him. He wondered what the Judge was hiding up there. "I thought all skeletons were in closets." He chuckled to himself, "Maybe he ran out of closets."
The boxes were heavy and numerous, but finally they were all stacked outside the door of the mysterious attic. McCormick dug into his jeans for the key; he looked at it for a few moments, a sudden reluctance overwhelming him. Then he shook it off, unlocking the door. He had to push against the thick, wooden panels, the seaside air causing the door to warp and stick. There was another set of stairs, curving slightly, and McCormick sighed. He hated stairs almost as much as he hated gutters.
With another sigh, he grabbed a few of the smaller boxes and carried them up the narrower corridor to the dusty attic floor. Dropping the boxes, he sneezed as clouds of dust rose around him, swatting at the long cobwebs hanging from the rafters. Completing more trips than he had cared to make, the paraphernalia was at last safely in the attic. McCormick, panting from his exertions, sat on a dark green locker, resting. The attic was faintly lit by the sun streaking through two opposing grimy windows. Boxes were scattered about, some rotting with age. Mark wandered over to one of the windows, wiping at it with the edge of a tablecloth draped across a brown trunk.
It was stuffy in the room, so Mark pushed at the window, cracking it open with some effort. A warm breeze flew into the room, part of the Santa Ana winds which was now making small dust storms on the wooden floor. McCormick leaned out, the attic window a fine viewing point for the crashing surf behind Gull's-Way. He took a deep breath of the salt-filled air, then pulled back in, tugging on the window to close it. He heard a sudden crash behind him and turned to see that the attic door had swung shut, pushed by the sudden gusts of air.
"Damn it." McCormick walked over to the door and pulled. It didn't budge. He yanked harder, but the warped wood had caused it to jam, impossible to open from this side. "Oh, great. Sarah! Sarah, I'm caught upstairs. Sarah!" McCormick gave up yelling. Sarah's bedroom was far back in the main house; she would never hear him, no matter how loud he yelled. He'd have to wait until Sarah missed him, hopefully before Hardcastle came home. If not, well, he'd have to deal with that when the time came.
He glanced around the attic, smiling a bit at the accumulated grime and clutter. Hardcastle may be a neatness freak about the rest of Gull's-Way, but at least his attic was just as messy and grubby as anyone else's. It was almost enough to make him think the Judge might have some human foibles after all. Wouldn't hurt to straighten up some. It would give him something to do, as well as an excuse to look around a bit.
He opened both windows, letting in additional fresh air. He then cleaned off several panes, allowing more light into the room. Rearranging and restacking, he cleared the center area of the room, several ancient, fiberboard boxes nearly fell apart in his hands, the canvas straps holding them together. The musty smell of mothballs was strong in some of the newer looking packing boxes. While sorting and re-stacking some of these, he uncovered an old-fashioned, brass-bound, steamer type trunk, the center latch and twin buckles broken and rusted.
Pulling it from the dark recesses of a far corner, McCormick sat on another trunk as he raised the lid, hinges creaking. Removing a faded, patchwork quilt, McCormick found a half-dozen hand-made photo albums underneath. He took one out, carefully turning the heavy cardboard pages. There were photos of a young Milton Hardcastle, a somber little boy surrounded by other children. McCormick wondered if they were relatives, or maybe some of the "friends" that had betrayed the Judge when they had visited Clarence last year. There were photos of half-century old automobiles with proud owners of equal age, photos of antiquated farm machinery and implements he didn't recognize. In fact, there were more photos of machinery than people, photos of the 'hot spots' of the locals and the usual teen-age hang-outs.
Another, newer, album had pictures of the Hardcastle wedding. Relatives from both families posing stiffly, smiling and self-conscious, several candid shots, the inevitable car with the tin cans tied on back -- someone had added a few nightsticks -- with the usual embarrassing phrases in white shoe polish, a church, a group of vehicles containing a mixture of luxury cars and pick-ups. Near the end was the formal wedding photo of Hardcastle and his wife. The Judge looked uncomfortable in his morning coat, but Nancy was ethereal in her old-fashioned, lacy white wedding dress. She was a beautiful woman, and from what the Judge had told Mark of her, they had been very much in love right up to the end.
Under the albums lay toys, the kind that were popular when McCormick was a child. He supposed that they had belonged to the Judge's son. That was a part of Hardcastle's past that was a closed book, closed and locked. Never discussed, never alluded to, it had been an accident that McCormick had found out about the boy, who had been killed in Viet Nam.
McCormick heard the sound of the truck pulling up in the driveway. He went to the window to see if Sarah was out there with Hardcastle. He could just glimpse the Judge carrying a sack of groceries into the house, extra supplies for the weekend of football games ahead of them. Mark debated whether to yell for help, then decided to wait a little longer. Surely Sarah would soon realize he hadn't returned the key and come looking for him.
He returned to the steamer trunk, replacing the items and closing the lid. Only then did he notice that the green locker that he had been sitting on was a military footlocker, with the U.S. Marine Corps emblem on the lid, above black stenciled letters T.C.H. A chill ran down his back when he realized that the initials belonged, not to the World War II vet Judge, but his deceased son. McCormick ran his fingers over the initials, wondering what they stood for. Although the buckles were latched, the center latch was open...unlocked. He knew he shouldn't pry, but he wanted to know...had to know. Opening the locker, he saw a dress uniform lying atop a carefully folded American flag. There was a brown envelope lying next to the uniform cap. The hoped-for photo was not in evidence, at least, it wasn't near the top of the trunk. He picked up the envelope, reading the return address.
"Probably commendations for the hero," Mark muttered. "Wonder where the medals are."
He pulled the papers out and scanned them, gasping in surprise. This wasn't commendations, more like condemnation. McCormick re-read the words carefully, the fading light dimming the room.
The letter read: 'Dear Mr. Hardcastle, It is with deep regret that I convey the circumstances of the death of your son, Thomas C. Hardcastle. As his commanding officer, I feel that nothing is to be gained by making this information public, as all participants are deceased. However, you expressed a desire to know everything, and it is my sad duty to tell you the truth. If your son had not been killed in the Ta Song firefight, he would have been court-martialed for treason. We have extensive and conclusive evidence that your son was exchanging information with the enemy for heroin and gold, and was in the midst of making another contact when our battalion attacked. I'm afraid your son was fighting with the North Vietnamese when he was killed. Please believe me when I tell you that this will go no further, and his record shall never show this information. Please accept my condolences and heartfelt wishes for your acceptance of this regrettable tragedy. Major David R. Tellico, U.S.M.C.'
McCormick stared at the hand-written letter, unable to believe that anyone who was related to the righteous Milt Hardcastle could possibly be a traitor. He could pretty well imagine Hardcastle's reaction when the letter had arrived. "Bet he shook up a few military types."
"McCormick! Are you up there?" Hardcastle's voice came from the other side of the attic door.
"Yeah. The door's stuck, and I can't get out." Without thinking, McCormick shoved the papers into his jeans' pocket. He closed the trunk, snapped the latches, and sat on it just as there was a hard thud against the door.
Hardcastle burst into the room, and looked at McCormick with narrowed eyes. "What have you been doing up here? Sarah said that you took the boxes up hours ago."
"Look around ya, Hardcase. What do you think I've been doing? Apart from making some space for all the new junk you wanted up here, I've been sitting around sweltering. Why? Got a body up here or something?" McCormick hoped that, for just this once, Hardcastle wouldn't pursue the matter.
"No reason. I just don't like having anyone up here."
"Hey, I was trying to help Sarah. She's got no business lifting heavy boxes, and you know it." Maybe an attack would draw the heat off.
"I didn't expect her to take those boxes up here. I only said that I wanted to do it this week some time. Well, come on, let's get out of here."
"Fine. None too soon for me." McCormick led the way back down the stairs, glancing back. Hardcastle was gazing at the interior of the attic with a sad expression, before closing and locking the door.
"Sarah!" McCormick came into the kitchen, watching the housekeeper kneading dough for homemade biscuits.
"I need to know something, and I can't ask Hardcastle about it. I'd like you to tell me."
Sarah looked at him curiously. "Get to the point."
"It's about Thomas. The Judge's son."
"Mark." Her look and tone were a warning.
"I know, but...I want to help Hardcase, and I need more information to do that. Please, Sarah. You're the only one I can ask, the only one who can help."
She sighed. "He was the Judge's pride and joy. A good boy, I don't care what anyone said about him." Sarah looked at her flour-covered hands. "You opened the trunk, didn't you?"
"Yeah--I found this." McCormick handed her the papers he had taken from the trunk. "I just can't see someone that Hardcastle loved doing this. Am I wrong?"
"No. I never believed it, either. He was so shocked...crushed when it came. He didn't tell Mrs. Hardcastle. He said it would destroy her, but I think it destroyed him. He was gruff in those days, Mark, but it was a gentler gruffness." Finishing with the dough, she molded it into bread pans. "Then the Missus died less than two years later. For a while, I was afraid that it would prove to be too much for him. But he put his life back together again and went on. The Judge is a fighter."
"Then why didn't he fight these allegations against his son?"
"I don't know, Mark. I do know that he went to the military after that letter came."
"Nothing. He came home, packed up all of Tommy's belongings and put them in the attic. After Nancy died, the remaining photos were packed up there with them. What do you think you can do, Mark?"
"Look, the Judge is an ex-military man, right? Officer, even?" At Sarah's nod, he continued, "and he would be trained to believe the military brass, the legal minds, if they had any sort of 'evidence' at all. If he could find no reason for the military to lie to him, how far would he push? I'm betting not very far. Now I don't have that handicap, I automatically disbelieve the powers that be," he smiled, wagging his eyebrows. "Who else can I talk to about Tommy? What he was like, if he was the type to smuggle drugs, sell secrets to the enemy, that sort of thing."
Sarah paused, gazing at Mark. "Well, Tommy was on a baseball team coached by that nice officer who was over here last week."
"Yes. And he was also seeing a young lady before he was shipped to that horrible place. I can't remember her last name, but the first was Helen."
"Okay. That's a place to start." McCormick leaded down and kissed the elderly woman's forehead. "Thanks, Sarah."
"So, why are you cluttering up my office, McCormick? Is the Judge on another crusade?" The large black officer glared at McCormick over his desk, piled high with papers.
"No, this is my own case." McCormick leaned back in the chair, deciding to just come right out with it. "Sarah said that you could tell me about Thomas Hardcastle."
"Oh, she did, did she?" Bill Giles shook his head, "Yeah, I could tell you some things, but I'll give you some advice instead. Drop it. Don't dredge up the past. It's not a good idea."
"I've stumbled across some things, Bill. Things that are just...well, hard for me to believe. Concerning the military's charges against Tommy, that is. I guess I want to know if you think it's possible that Thomas Hardcastle could have done that sort of thing."
"Milt's gonna have your hide if he finds out what you're into."
"Okay, between you and me, no, I never did believe it, but there's no way to challenge the evidence. And, like it or not, the war did change a lot of soldiers' personalities and attitudes in one way or another. Who's to say how the things Tommy went through may have affected him? I remember him as he was when he left. What do you think you can do, anyway, thirteen years after the event?"
"I don't know, but I think it's important that I try."
"Fine. But tread carefully, or it'll backfire on you. What do you want to know?"
"What kind of person was Tommy?"
Bill laughed. "A lot like Hardcase basically, very righteous, letter of the law. In fact, he was planning on law school after his hitch was up. He was honest, forthright, and didn't hesitate to say what he thought. It was really hard for Milt to accept the Marines' account of Tommy's death."
McCormick rose, came over to Giles' desk and looked down at him steadily. "Why did he accept it?"
"He didn't, not completely. He raged at the officers, and tried to find someone who could prove that Tommy was innocent -- he was almost obsessive on that point, as if, despite what his heart felt, his mind knew there could be some slight possibility that the charges were true, and he had to prove them false. But there wasn't any evidence to the contrary. And a large amount of evidence supported their view of the boy as a traitor. Milt was so broke up, and Nancy was ill with grief over their son's death, he decided not to press it any further. I can remember the way he looked at the funeral, too beaten down to fight anymore, and, later, at Nancy's funeral. He swore that the added stress of Tommy's death killed her. I think Milt may have blamed him a little for that, too."
"Who do I see? Who can help me with friends in the service, someone who might have any information that I can use?"
"And just how are you going to use this information, Mark? Suppose you find that the charges are true after all?" There was an unnerving glint in Giles' dark eyes, "Because I'm warning you ahead of time, you use anything you find to hurt Milt, you'll have me to deal with as well as Hardcastle."
McCormick shook his head slowly. "If that's the case, then I'll never mention to
the Judge what I was doing. I'm not looking to cause him any more pain. But if there's the slightest indication that Tommy was innocent I'll know it, and I'll prove it. Give me some names, Bill, give me a place to start."
The lieutenant gave McCormick a long, measured look, then, convinced of his sincerity, nodded. "Okay, your best bet would be to talk with his old girlfriend, Helen Lockyer. They were going to be married after law school. She'd have letters, cards, tapes, something that might give names, of Marine buddies or enemies. She's married now, and living on a ranch in Topanga Canyon. I'll get the address for you."
McCormick paced the room while Giles ran down the woman's address. He glanced at his watch, realizing that he was due back at the estate for dinner.
"Got it." Giles scribbled on memo paper and handed it to McCormick.
"Thanks. Uh, I need to use your phone for a minute, okay?" McCormick stuffed the paper into his jacket pocket.
Giles nodded, and, after handing him the phone, left the office.
"Sarah? Let me speak to Hardcase, please." McCormick tapped nervously on the desktop. "Hey, Judge. I won't be home for supper... Nah, got a date here in town."
McCormick started to reply to Hardcastle's return comment, then smiled. "Yeah, I'll be home early. See ya later."
"Ma'am, are you Helen Lockyer?" McCormick peered into the narrow crack of the front door, seeing a blue eye staring out at him.
"Yes, I used to be. Now it's Helen Schneider. Can I help you?"
"I'm here about Thomas Hardcastle. I'd like to ask you some questions, if you don't mind."
The door opened wider and McCormick saw a pretty woman in her mid-thirties, with reddish hair and freckles scattered across her nose. She gave a tentative smile, waving him inside. "That was a long time ago. What do you want to know, and why?"
"I'm a friend of Tommy's father, and I don't believe he could have had a traitor for a son. I want to try and prove it, if possible."
"That was all over with ages ago. I really don't think you'd have much of a chance, but come inside and I'll do what I can for you." Helen's eyes took on a far away quality, then focused again on her visitor. "I was very much in love with Tommy. We had so many plans, so much to look forward to. It was difficult for me to deal with his death. If it hadn't been for Franklin, my husband now, I don't know what I would have done. He was Tommy's friend in the Marines, and helped me through it."
They walked through a vaguely Spanish foyer to a large, sunken living room. There was a man seated on the sectional couch, reading newspapers.
"Frank? This is..." Helen paused, a bit embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."
"McCormick. Mark McCormick."
"...Mr. McCormick is here about Tommy. I thought maybe you could tell him about your time together in the Marines."
The two men shook hands, each surveying the other. McCormick was taller than the former soldier, leaner. Franklin Schneider may have been one of the Few, the Proud, the Marines, but since leaving the service, he had given in to the seductive wiles of drink and food. The man was out of shape, but not fat. The impression was one of decay. McCormick resisted an urge to wipe his hand clean after touching Schneider's hand. He shook his first impression off and concentrated on the conversation.
"I'm not sure that I understand what it is that you hope to find, Mr. McCormick. Do you have some new evidence about Tom Hardcastle?" Schneider asked.
"No, but I thought that if I poked around some, I might come up with something."
"How can we help you?" Helen asked, looking at her husband as she spoke.
"Were there letters from Tommy, something he might have mentioned that seemed strange? Maybe other friends that served with him up to the night he was killed that I could speak with?"
"Yes, I have some letters packed upstairs. I'll go get them."
Helen left the room, a smile playing on her lips. She seemed eager to help clear her dead fiancé's name. McCormick was left alone with Helen's present husband, a man who had known Thomas Hardcastle during the war in Viet Nam. He wondered how to ask this reticent man the questions that churned inside him. Finally he decided to just ask, "Mr. Schneider, could Tommy have done what they say?"
"I don't know. He was a strange one, sometimes. Guess we all were, sometimes. But
Tom...Tom was like two people at times, sly, always scheming some kind of plot to get drugs, alcohol, women. Helen didn't really know that side of him...not many people did. It might be better for all concerned if you dropped this, Mr. McCormick. Digging up the past could be dangerous."
"For whom?" McCormick felt an undercurrent of danger in the conversation, but he couldn't understand why. So far, his direct questions had been getting evasive answers, if he got any answer at all.
"If Tom had accomplices, they might not appreciate this being brought up again."
"Accomplices? Like you?" It was a shot in the dark that seemed to hit on target, judging by the anger in Schneider's eyes. McCormick decided to try for a bull's-eye. "What did you do, marry Thomas Hardcastle's fiancée so she couldn't testify against you?"
"Get out! Now, before my wife comes back."
"I came for some letters, and I plan to get them." The two men stared at each other until, finally, Schneider dropped his gaze. "Look, I don't care what kind of black market schemes you had going on over there, I just want to try and clear a friend's son of treason. But if it takes slinging mud at some others, then that's exactly what I'll do. Understand?"
"Take the damn letters and go. I don't know if Tom was a traitor or not, but he was a dealer, big time. And like you guessed, I helped him. I have a decent life now, and I don't want to be arrested. And I sure as hell can't afford to be associated with someone like Thomas Hardcastle. I'm asking you...no, begging you, to let it go. Tom is long dead and buried. Nobody cares anymore. Tom can't be hurt by this anymore, but I can."
He stopped as Helen walked into the room. She carried a well-worn cardboard box, covered with stickers from all over the world. She seemed oblivious to the tension in the living room. Or, McCormick thought, she chose to ignore that which didn't fit her ideal world.
He accepted the box wordlessly, and followed her to the door. Thanking her, he assured her that the letters would be returned as soon as he was finished with them. Roaring off in the Coyote, McCormick headed for Gull's-Way. Glancing at the small box, he wondered if Thomas Hardcastle's possible vindication had lain there quietly for all these years.
"David, I had a visitor. Some guy named McCormick...seems to be a friend of Tom's dad. Yeah, Tom Hardcastle, that's right. I don't know what he wants, but he's nosing around in that old case. Hey, this could blow up in our faces if he discovers any information. I don't know how he could, but that's not my problem, is it?" Schneider yelled into the phone, ignoring his wife's shushing sounds from across the living room. He wasn't concerned with her overhearing, she didn't care for anything but her children, her tranquilizers, and her bridge club. The spark that had drawn them together had never ignited into flames, but flickered and flared occasionally. She didn't need money for happiness, but he did. "Just think of your honored military career, General. If this guy can actually come up with enough evidence to get the case reopened, all those stories we carefully fabricated will crumble into nothing. We were able to convince the kid's old man because he was grief-stricken, and he had ingrained instinct to believe higher-ups. If this McCormick pushes hard enough, the whole thing will collapse, taking us with it. You'd better contact the others. We have to stop him!"
He slammed the receiver down, his hands shaking hard enough to cause the ice in his drink to clink loudly when he picked it up. His pension, his lifestyle, was in danger, and he would not go to prison for all the crimes committed in 'Nam. Not without taking the others with him.
McCormick raised his head, awakened by the loud pounding on the Gatehouse door. He had fallen asleep at the desk while reading the hundreds of cards, letters, and notes sent by Tom Hardcastle to Helen Lockyer. After going through the endearments, the promises, their future plans, and descriptions of the war, McCormick was more convinced than ever that the younger Hardcastle had been as loyal and honest as the Judge. The continued banging on the door broke him out of his reverie. He had carefully locked all the doors to keep Hardcastle from accidentally seeing what he was up to, as the Judge had an irritating habit to just walk in, unannounced and uninvited, whenever he pleased. McCormick wasn't ready to let the Judge in on things, not until he could prove his contentions. To get Hardcastle's hopes up, and then have them come to nothing, would be too cruel, not to mention dangerous for McCormick's health.
"McCormick, what the hell are you doing in there!" the Judge bellowed, still pounding on the door. "Unlock this door, dammit!"
Mark stumbled down the stairs, hurriedly pulling at his shirt to try and clear the wrinkles out, but it was fairly useless. He opened the glass doors to the patio and saw an indignant, but neat, Hardcastle. "Sorry. I was...changing," he said, unconvincingly .
"Came in late, didn't you?"
McCormick hadn't gone into the main house when he returned at seven the previous night. He had parked the Coyote in a secluded part of the driveway to keep Hardcastle from interrupting his reading. "Uh, yeah. Sorry about that."
McCormick followed the Judge out to the patio table where there was a breakfast buffet set out. It was covered with all of Mark's favorites, from blueberry waffles to a chilled fruit salad. He looked up to see Sarah smiling at him, carrying a large pitcher of milk. McCormick smiled back, well aware of why he was in her favor.
"Must have been a terrific date. Anybody I know?" Hardcastle probed, pouring syrup over his waffles.
"No. Your type of ladies and mine don't exactly move in the same circles, Judge."
"Was it an interesting visit?" Sarah asked.
"You might say that, Sarah. Found out enough about her to make some conjectures."
"What kind of conjectures? What are you going on about now, McCormick?" Hardcastle sounded annoyed, and Mark couldn't blame him. The Judge was not fond of secrecy.
"Never mind. You have anything special planned for today?"
"Thought we'd go to the auto parts store and get some filters for the GMC. It's running kinda rough."
"Sounds good to me." The mystery had waited for over sixteen years, it could wait another day, besides, he couldn't avoid the Judge completely. "If you're planning a tune-up, we'll need plugs, too. And we might as well change the oil if we change the filters. Better bring your wallet, Judge."
"There we go." Hardcastle handed the cashier a twenty-dollar bill for the two oil filters, two air filters and a case of oil, as well as two complete sets of spark plugs .
"I'm sorry, sir, but that comes to $62 plus tax."
"What! Sixty-two dollars!" the Judge was incredulous, looking at McCormick as if he was somehow to blame.
"That's about right for two sets of everything. Remember, it was your idea to work on the truck and the 'Vette, too. Parts are expensive, Hardcase. You've got to spend it to drive 'em." McCormick placed the auto equipment into a large brown box while watching the older man struggle with his wallet. The Judge reluctantly pulled out two more twenties and a ten.
McCormick wouldn't have called Hardcastle cheap, exactly, but he was rather tight at times with his money. Usually at the strangest times, it seemed to McCormick. The Judge would complain about the price of car parts or groceries, and then lay out a couple of thousand on something as stupid as a computer system to put his files back on paper after some con had converted them to floppy disk. And then refused to use the thing afterwards, storing it in the vast wasteland known as the basement.
The two men walked outside, McCormick balancing the cardboard box against his hip. It was overcast, but warm, a good day to work on the vehicles. He threw the box into the back of the truck, pushing a tool box against it to prevent it sliding around the bed of the pickup. Hardcastle e got into the driver's side.
"Get in, McCormick. The sooner we get home, the sooner we can finish. Maybe we'll get a pizza sent over, how's that sound?"
"Great!" McCormick started to climb into the cab, but his foot slipped and he had to grab at the door. As his head came back up, the passenger window shattered.
"What the...!" Hardcastle yelped, as Mark dropped to the ground. "Kid, you okay?"
A faint voice came from behind the Judge. "Yeah."
Hardcastle turned to see a curly brown head peek up from under the truck. The Judge was leaning over, keeping his body below the line of the windows. He listened for another shot, but there was only the screams and yells of others in the parking lot. Hardcastle reached down and helped McCormick up from the ground.
Brushing himself off, McCormick stared up at the hill across the street from the auto parts store. There was no sign of anyone up there, but the small road behind the hill would take the sniper away before he and the Judge could get up there.
"What is this all about? We've been too busy to go after any criminals." Hardcastle shook his head. "Since the storm, we've had our hands full cleaning up the estate."
"We!" McCormick asked sarcastically. "That must be the royal 'we'." The last thing he wanted was to have Hardcastle asking questions he wasn't ready to answer.
The Judge didn't reply, merely glaring at McCormick as he walked over to the public phone to call the police. McCormick walked back around the truck and climbed into the cab, his eyes never leaving the hill's broken green barrier. He was afraid he knew the reason for the attack, unsure, and not a little apprehensive, about how he would tell the Judge. He was musing about it, his chin propped on his hand, elbow resting precariously on the window sill, next to the shattered glass and ripped plastic fixtures, when Hardcastle returned. He was saved from further conversation when a police car pulled in a few seconds later, obviously having been nearby to answer the call so quickly. Two uniformed officers came over to Hardcastle, and the Judge gave a short account of the shooting. McCormick barely acknowledged their presence, nodding or shaking his head at the appropriate times. Another car pulled up next to the truck, and Bill Giles got out of it, motioning McCormick to join him.
"Bill? What brought you out here?" Hardcastle called, interrupting his conversation with an older street cop.
"Hi, Milt. You okay?" Giles asked, his dark eyes never leaving McCormick.
"We're both fine. You in on this?"
"Sorta. Mark, come over here. I want to talk to you."
When Hardcastle made as if to follow, McCormick held up his hand. "You talk with the hired help, I'll fill Bill in."
McCormick and the black lieutenant walked down to the roadway, away from the various officers questioning witnesses about the shooting. McCormick waited for Giles to speak, but the detective just stared at him expectantly.
"I'm sorry." McCormick offered hesitantly.
"Is that what you plan to tell Milt?"
"This might not have anything to do with my checking around."
"What else have the two of you been involved with lately?"
McCormick shooed a fly away from his face with his hand and sighed. "Nothing. That's what Hardcastle was just saying. I didn't think anybody would try for me so soon. I mean, I really haven't done anything yet."
"Yeah, I know. But Milt has to be told. If these people think he knows something, they'll try to kill him, too. And I know you don't want that."
"No, of course not." McCormick stopped at the edge of the auto part's property, turning to watch the man that he had learned to love still regaling the local cops with instructions. "I don't know what I'd do if something happened to the Judge because of something I've done."
"Then tell him." Giles placed a hand on McCormick's shoulder. "Think of it this way, you must have spooked them. And that could be just the leverage you need to reopen Tommy's case."
With a thoughtful nod, McCormick smiled. "Yeah. Yeah, that's right. If he was guilty, why try for me?" the smile faded. "But it could also mean that Tom had a partner who doesn't want the case brought up again."
"Do you believe that?"
"No. The only accomplices in this case aren't Tom's. They used him to cover up their deals, and were safely away from any suspicion until..."
"...until you started snooping around. These men couldn't be sure that you didn't know something, or could find out something, enough to make you suspicious of a dead traitor."
"What dead traitor?"
Giles and McCormick turned to see Hardcastle watching them. Giles looked at Mark, receiving a nod. "Mark will explain everything. And, Milt, be easy on him. He meant the best." Lt. Giles headed back to the comparative safety of his police car.
"Well, kiddo, what did you mean for the best?"
"I, uh, that is, I--" McCormick felt a lump in his throat and coughed, then jumped in, feeling remarkably like a man standing before a firing squad, "When I was in the attic, waiting for someone to get me out, I, uh, found this trunk. I looked inside, and...found this." He handed the Judge the paper that had started the trouble.
Hardcastle took the folded letter, scanned it, his face becoming cold and distant. When he looked up, his eyes were hard, glittering with barely suppressed anger. "Who gave you the right...?"
McCormick indicated the paper, seeing the danger signals, but committed. There was no turning back now. "I didn't believe that garbage about your son, so I, well, I started asking questions. Saw Bill and Helen, Tom's fiancée. I've been trying to get a line on--"
Although McCormick saw the fist sailing toward his face, he was too surprised to try and block it. The knuckles struck with jarring impact, sending him to the gritty, gravel-strewn pavement. In the next few seconds it took to recover from the blow, his feeling of surprise went to anger, to regret, then acceptance. He stared up into the cold, unrelenting fury in Hardcastle's eyes, the tight-lipped anger, and the almost visible effort to retain some semblance of control.
"Feel better?" McCormick pressed a hand against a rapidly swelling lower lip in an ineffectual attempt to halt the flow of blood. Still shaken, he felt like he'd been hit with a sledgehammer, and yet the Judge had held back, despite his anger. McCormick knew he'd be out for the count if Hardcastle had put everything he had into the punch.
"Find your own way back to the estate. And I want you out of there by this evening. Understand?" Hardcastle turned his back on McCormick, shutting him out physically and emotionally.
"Wait, Judge. C'mon..."
Hardcastle knocked McCormick's hand aside, not bothering to look at him. "I want you out of my house. I'll notify the parole board of your changed status in the morning."
"Judge, will you listen to me--!"
Hardcastle swung around, fixing McCormick with a soul-searing glare. "No, you listen to me: You'll damn well stay out of my personal life, or yours won't be worth living." Hardcastle held McCormick's gaze, not allowing him to look away first, ignoring the mute appeal in the younger man's eyes, he turned and strode resolutely to the truck. The GMC tore out with squealing tires, swerving sharply to avoid hitting another arriving police car.
Despondent, but still determined, McCormick picked himself up from the dirt and gravel shoulder as Bill Giles approached him.
"Didn't go too well, I gather." The lieutenant smiled faintly at McCormick's slightly swollen features.
McCormick brushed the dust off his faded jeans. "He threw me out of the house. And out of his life." He added with some resentment.
Giles' smile faded, eyes wide. "What? I'm sorry, Mark, I didn't think he'd go that far. What are you going to do now?"
"Catch a ride back, get my stuff, and find some place to stay." The bleeding had slowed, and McCormick wiped at his face with his shirt sleeve. Glancing around, he saw the letter fluttering in the faint breeze and went to retrieve it. "But I'm not giving up on Tommy's case. I can at least give that to the Judge...kinda like a going away present, ya know?" He started down the road, thumb out as cars passed by.
"Hey, come on. I'll give you a lift. Nobody's gonna pick up a bloody hitchhiker. And if they did, you wouldn't want to ride with 'em."
"Are you sure?" McCormick considered the offer, "I don't know, Bill, I don't want to get you in deep water with Hardcase, too."
"Let me worry about that. Come on."
The ride was long and taken in silence. Giles turned into the estate's driveway, and both saw the Coyote sitting in the curve of the drive next to the house.
"I see he didn't waste any time," McCormick said grimly, all but slamming Giles' car door. The Coyote was jammed full with boxes, suitcase wedged in the passenger seat.
Sarah, who'd been waiting by the sports car, came up to him, took his hands and looked him over. Taking a cloth from her apron pocket, she dabbed at McCormick's face. Neither said a word until the older woman had finished. She glanced back at the house before speaking. "He's very upset, Mark. He didn't tell me anything, but I could guess what happened. Don't worry, the Judge will calm down, and once he thinks it over, he'll realize you were only doing what you thought was right."
"No, not this time. I went too far, Sarah, and this time...there's no going back. I knew what I was risking...sorta, I just didn't think he'd--" McCormick shook his head with regret, leaned down and kissed her gently on the forehead. "Take care of him for me, okay?"
McCormick turned to the Judge's old police friend. "Bill, they may try to get Hardcase. Can you arrange some protection?"
"From whom, Mark? We don't know who's involved."
"I can tell you one of them: Frank Schneider, Helen's husband. He hinted around that he and Tom were in on it together, and he was the only person I talked to that could have been involved in the operation, whatever it was."
"I'll pick him up."
"On what charge? I can't prove anything. It's all suspicion and conjecture, not solid evidence that you can hold him on. Once you get him, I don't want him getting off, I'll get the proof we need to send him away for a long, long time."
"Mark, they tried to kill you once already. I can't protect you if you're still working on this. Let me put a couple of men on it...maybe get the military boys to look into it."
"No way, Bill. The Marines don't have diddly-squat to start with. And it's out of your jurisdiction."
"Maybe Tommy's case is, but the attempt on you isn't. Mark, back off this one."
He saw the same intractable resolve in McCormick's clear blue eyes, the same resolve he had seen often in Hardcastle. He tried again. "At least give me a chance to look into Schneider's background, see if I can shake him up a bit. Just hold off for a little while."
McCormick checked the amount of money he had on him, then climbed into the Coyote.
"Even if I wanted to, I can't. This has cost me..." He paused, looking at the window of the den, seeing only darkness. For a moment, he thought he saw a darker shadow against the blinds, but then, maybe he was only seeing what he wanted to see. "…everything. I can't give it up, I'll clear his son's name if it's the last thing I ever do."
Screeching tires and roaring engine drowned out Giles' worried comment. "That's what I'm afraid of..."
Giles cursed softly to himself, startled at Sarah's vehement agreement. "That's rather harsh, don't you think, Sarah?"
"No! This time the Judge is wrong. The boy was only trying to help, he'd cut off his right arm before he would hurt the Judge."
"Yeah, I know. But he messed in Milt's private life, the part that's cut off from everyone. And maybe...just maybe, he hurts a little more because it was Mark who did it."
Sarah leaned heavily on the wrought iron hand railing. "If the Judge doesn't take that boy back in, I'll never forgive him. Never." She suddenly pressed her hand against her heart.
"Sarah, what's wrong?" Giles supported the housekeeper under her arm as she slumped against the metal post. "Milt! Come out here, hurry!"
Hardcastle came outside at a run. 'What is it? Sarah!"
The two men helped the ailing woman into the house. Hardcastle tried to comfort her while Giles called for an ambulance. She shrugged off the Judge's help, closing her eyes, face white with pain. Hardcastle hovered over the chair, concerned and worried, Sarah had worked for Nancy's family, and over the years had become one of Hardcastle's closest, and most out-spoken, friends. Unable to do anything until the paramedics arrived, his worry took the form of anger. "Damn that McCormick! This is all his fault."
"For Chrissake, Milt, don't be ridiculous. How could this be the kid's fault? He's not even here." Giles appeared at Hardcastle's elbow, "I want to talk to you about that later. The ambulance will be here in a few minutes."
"There's nothing to talk about, Bill. He meddled where he had no business, a deliberate intrusion into a part of my life that is closed and done with."
"And for breaking Hardcastle's Number One Law, he's gotta take the punishment, right?"
"If you want to be melodramatic, yes. He intentionally disobeyed me. I may not have actually told him to keep out of my personal life, but he understood it clearly enough. I won't put up with inconsiderate disobedience."
Giles saw the same stubborn chin, the same set mouth that he had seen on Mark McCormick's face a short time ago. "You and Mark have done this fighting routine for so long, so often, that I think you believe it. That man is trying to help you. Despite the fact he's become a target, he plans to finish what he started. And do you know what's uppermost in his mind? That I get adequate protection for you."
Giles shook his head, unsure which stubborn mule to be angrier at. "He wants to help, Milt, let him."
Sarah reached for Hardcastle's hand. "Judge, talk to him. Bring him home."
"No, I can't do that," Hardcastle answered gently, "Not even for you, my dear Sarah."
The ambulance attendants arrived just in time to prevent the Judge from having to listen to more arguments from both Sarah and Giles. After poking and prodding the housekeeper, the paramedic/attendant who was speaking with the nearest hospital shook his head. "We'll have to take her in. The hospital doesn't like the irregular heartbeats. They want to run some tests."
"Fine." Hardcastle stood in the center of the den, looking lost.
Giles gripped his shoulder in sympathy. "You should call Mark and tell him."
"I don't know where he went. And I don't want to talk to him." Hardcastle grabbed his jacket, preparing to follow the ambulance. He paused at the door and looked back at Giles. "If you should see him around town, make sure he knows about her." The Judge hesitated again, his cool blue eyes reflecting conflicting emotions. "Is he really in danger?"
"Yes. They'll kill him if they get the chance. And they will, as long as he's out there alone."
McCormick drove to the St. Francis, a real dive of a hotel. A fleabag, but cheap at ten dollars a night. He had forty dollars and some change, and wasn't sure what he would do when that ran out. Just another of the many bridges he would have to cross when he came to it. He unloaded the boxes, filled mostly with records and magazines, placing one box on top of the other, he balanced them as he carried the old suitcase under one arm. Hardcastle had hastily stuffed the clothes into the threadbare bag, and shirt sleeves trailed around the edges.
The woman behind the front desk was once a beauty, about four decades previously. Now she had three times as much flesh and too much pain etched on her face. She smiled with a vague, bored smile as McCormick dropped his stuff on the counter. "Been out long?"
"Huh?" McCormick stared at her blankly.
"You've been in prison, I can tell, now you're out. We get lots of ex-cons, lots." She explained. "So, been out long?"
"Yeah, a coupla years now."
"Whatcha been doing? Haven't seen you around here before." Her frank stare indicated that if he had been at the St. Francis before, she would've remembered.
"Uh, I got thrown out of my last place. You ask a lot of questions," he gently reprimanded, "Is that a safe thing to do in a place populated by ex-cons?"
"No, but I was never safe, son." She pushed the register across the scarred counter top. "Sign in. Doesn't have to be your real name, it's just to satisfy some old law."
McCormick signed and took the key from the woman's hand, her fingers lingering on his. He saw the offer in her eyes, and pulled away gently, shaking his head. "I'd better get this stuff up to my room before someone steals it."
"I'm on duty from four in the afternoon until midnight." She smiled slyly, "In case you get bored and need someone to...talk to."
"Thanks. I'll remember that."
The room was on the second floor, facing the street. McCormick could see the Coyote parked at the curb, it looked out of place. Almost as out of place as he felt. He tossed the few belongings down on the cot and ran back down to the car. He was going to stake out Schneider, but first there was a phone call he wanted to make.
"Hello, Schneider? This is McCormick, remember me?" He watched the passing street traffic as he waited for Schneider's reply.
"McCormick? What...?" the other voice was shaky.
"Surprised? Yeah, I guess so. Well, my friend, you blew it. You made two mistakes, one was trying to kill me. The other mistake was missing when you had the chance. I'll get you for killing Thomas Hardcastle, and then framing him for your crimes. Those two mistakes will be your last ones, 'cause I'm coming after you and your friends."
"You're crazy, I'm calling the police."
"You do that. It'll save me the trouble."
"You don't have anything on me, or anyone else. You're just guessing."
"I know that you have neither the brains nor the rank to have pulled it off. I have an idea of some of your associates, and they'll talk, once the military gets hold of them. Treason is still a dying offense, you know." With that, he hung up.
Driving to the Schneider residence, he parked down the street and waited. He was sure Schneider would contact his partners, all he needed to do was get them all together in one place. He thought about accomplishing that, and that thought led to Hardcastle. He didn't want to think about Hardcastle, but that was impossible. He fiddled with the car radio, but was unable to find a station that suited his mood. Reaching into the glove compartment, he grabbed a cassette tape and slapped it into the player. When the mellow sounds of Al Hirt wafted from the speakers, McCormick hit the eject button. "Damn it, Hardcase, why didn't you take your tape out of my car!"
He jerked the tape out before the eject had disengaged completely, and the tape caught in the mechanism. Swearing softly, he slammed the cartridge back in with the heel of his hand, pressed the eject again, he tugged the cartridge free, but the Mylar film was hopelessly enmeshed inside the player. When he finally untangled the mess, he ended up with a handful of thin, crumpled film. "Awww, hell. Now he will kill me. This is… was… his favorite tape."
McCormick glanced up at the sound of a car's engine, and Schneider's Ford sedan pulled out of his driveway. McCormick stayed behind him, keeping a minimum distance of three blocks away to prevent Schneider from spotting the custom car. But the ex-Marine didn't seem to be looking, or expecting, a tail, he headed straight to a nearby military base, parking in the visitor's parking lot. McCormick idled outside the gates, waiting to see if his only suspect would be joined by others. A large MP at the main gate eyed the Coyote, at first with open admiration, then with suspicion. He walked over, his hand on the .45 riding on his hip.
McCormick nodded, attempting to look innocent. "Hiya, officer."
"Can I help you with directions, sir?"
"No, thank you. I'm waiting for a friend," McCormick smiled, "Should I move out of the way?"
"No problem. What's the name of the person you're waiting for?"
McCormick thought quickly, his eyes darting about the parking slots. "Uh, well, he's an old friend of the family." He fumbled for a name, "Tellico. His name's Tellico." It was a long shot, and for a moment, McCormick thought he had failed. Then the MP turned around, going back to his post.
"I haven't seen ol' David in quite a while. What rank does he hold now?" He hoped he wasn't pushing his luck.
"Lieutenant General, sir."
"Thank you again. I'll just call him later." McCormick didn't see any need to wait longer and drove off. Glancing in the rear view mirror, he saw the guard staring after him, and knew he wouldn't be able to visit the base again without being challenged. The next meeting would have to be someplace different, or else the military police would be breathing down his neck. He thought he might have enough now for Giles to follow up on.
He cruised back towards the hotel, his mind on the reappearance of the very man who had told Hardcastle not only of his son's death, but the circumstances behind that death. And considering how many military bases there were in the world, it seemed peculiar that Schneider would visit the same base that former Major, now Lieutenant General, Tellico would be stationed. Very peculiar indeed.
A familiar blue flash in his rear view mirror caught his attention, and he groaned, pulling over. "Aw, shit."
McCormick knocked on the door to the hospital room. Sticking his head in, he saw Sarah sitting up in bed, speaking quietly to Judge Hardcastle. He started to withdraw, but heard Sarah call him back.
He strolled into the room, feigning a nonchalance he didn't feel. "Hi, Sarah. Hello, Judge." He handed the housekeeper a bouquet of yellow and white daisies. "It ain't much, but I know daisies are your favorite flowers," he commented, seeing the large arrangement of roses and baby breath.
"It was sweet of you to remember, Mark, and they're very pretty. It's the thought that counts, not the price tag." Sarah handed the flowers to Hardcastle, pointing to an empty vase. The Judge silently placed the flowers in the vase, filling it with cold water from the sink.
Hardcastle reached for his jacket, glancing at Sarah. "I'll come back later, when it's not so crowded."
"Judge, don't leave. I'll go. I just wanted to make sure that my favorite lady is doing all right."
"Oh, stop it, both of you. The two of you would try the patience of a saint." Sarah looked at both men as they looked everywhere but at each other. "Mark meant well, and I think you should listen to what he has to say, Judge."
When Hardcastle didn't reply, McCormick smiled down at Sarah, squeezing her hand gently. "It's okay, I don't expect him to listen. I'll keep in touch, Sarah." With a quick kiss, he released her hand, and started out.
"McCormick. . .wait."
Mark stopped at the doorway, his back to the Judge, almost afraid to hope that Hardcastle would reconsider.
"Bill said that you might be in some danger. Is that right?"
McCormick shrugged, then nodded mutely.
"I told you I wanted you to stop this...this investigation of yours. It's none of your business, not now, not ever. No good will come of it. The danger is of your own making."
McCormick swung about to face Hardcastle. "Well, it is my business now. Judge, they've already made a move on me, at any other time, that in itself would've been enough for you. There's got to be something wrong about the whole set up, or why would they even bother? Face it, your 'friends' in the military framed your son, and I am going to prove it. I would think you would want to as well - or did you stop caring a long time ago? Was it easier for you to accept their lies than to force the truth?" The steel in his tone belied his inner turmoil, knowing he was on dangerous ground but wanting to goad some kind of reaction from Hardcastle. Anything other than the uncharacteristic apathy he'd been displaying.
But his words had cut deeper than he had intended, and he flinched at the stricken look in Hardcastle's eyes, his face whitening with anger and deeply buried pain.
As Hardcastle started toward him, Sarah's thin hand closed firmly on the Judge's wrist, and her voice held a veiled warning. "Judge, not now -- and certainly not here, please..."
Hardcastle maintained his tenuous control with visible effort, and then only in deference to Sarah's wishes, but his manner was unyielding, foreshadowing his words, "Damn you, McCormick. What the hell do you think you're doing? What does it take to get through that thick skull of yours?" His ice-blue eyes narrowed ominously and his voice lowered, "I'm ordering you to drop the whole thing, here and now, or, so help me, you won't be out on the streets long enough to even think about your next move. "
McCormick stared at the Judge numbly, seeing a side of Hardcastle that he hadn't seen before, had not thought even existed. He had gambled and lost, and the vague hope of reconciliation seemed impossible now. He pushed through the doorway, out into the cool, empty corridor, away from the stranger in the hospital room, away from the anger, the pain…and the fear.
For it was fear that was driving Hardcastle, it was fear driving them both.
"He's afraid of having the information made public about his son, Mark." Bill Giles sat across from McCormick in a back booth at McDonald's.
"He can't really believe that Tom was guilty--what does he care what other people think?"
"I don't think he can cope with the pity, the scorn, or the hypocritical, self-righteous attitudes of the few, but very vocal, people who would enjoy exploiting such a story." Giles shrugged, knowing himself to be on uncertain ground where Hardcastle was concerned. The Judge's motives and emotions toward his family had always been an enigma to the lieutenant. "I don't know...maybe he's just decided to let it lie, not to probe for facts that just may strengthen the Marine Corps' case, and to remember Tommy as he was...that there was no longer a need to prove anything." He looked at McCormick steadily, "You do know that Tommy's body was found among the North Vietnamese dead after the battle?"
"Yeah, and I know that was a set-up, too, just like the other charges. You know who Schneider went to visit right after my phone call? Lt. General David Tellico, formerly Major Tellico, the man who wrote this letter to the Judge." McCormick handed the paper to Giles, and reached for his second Big Mac.
"Well, well, well. The gang's all coming together. It's gonna get tricky now."
McCormick mumbled an unintelligible reply, then swallowed and tried again. "It's been tricky from the start. But now at least I'm getting somewhere. Schneider is scared, but I don't know if Tellico will be. I need to push him, make him lead me to some hard evidence. But at this late date, will there be any evidence left?"
"Maybe we can turn Schneider. He's running scared, like you said. And he likes the life he's leading. I don't think he wants to exchange it for a twenty-to-life in Leavenworth, do you?"
"You'd better handle that end of it, Bill. I'll concentrate on our friendly military goon."
"Mark, don't underestimate Tellico. He didn't become a Lt. General on his good looks, and he won't be too eager to give up his career for a mistake made years ago. Tread carefully. I don't want to have to sweep up pieces of you and take them back to Hardcastle."
McCormick glanced away, his expression unreadable. "Hardcastle isn't concerned about my welfare, he indicated as much at the hospital." He frowned at the disquieting memory, still troubled by it. Leaning his elbows on the yellow plastic table top, he rested his chin in his hands and looked across at Lt. Giles with a mixture of bitterness and despair. "All he's concerned with is concealing the circumstances of his son's death. Circumstances that were invented to protect the guilty parties." McCormick pushed the empty wrappers aside, and got to his feet. "I'll get the evidence you need to put them away for a long time, Bill, you can count on it - I can't afford to be wrong."
He went out to the Coyote, slid in through the window. Lifting a hand in a farewell wave to Giles, he drove off, heading back to the base.
Hardcastle slouched miserably in the plastic and metal chair provided for hospital visitors, the type that effectively discouraged extended visits. The overcast sky outside the window suited his mood, and Sarah's room overlooked the visitor parking lot. He hadn't seen the Coyote in the lot, so McCormick had probably parked out front, in the No Parking Zone, no doubt. Bending the rules was one habit in which McCormick took a certain delight, usually in direct proportion to the amount of aggravation expressed by the Judge.
He felt Sarah's gaze on him and smiled faintly at her. There was a thoughtful, faraway look in her eyes as she broke the uncomfortable silence. "You know, Your Honor, those long months ago, when you first brought Mark to Gulls-Way, I had serious misgivings about that young man."
Hardcastle grunted his agreement, but offered no further comment.
"I remember telling him, in the Gatehouse, that you were a kind and caring man, and if he couldn't see that, then he was very blind." She sighed quietly. "Now I wonder who's the blind one." Before Hardcastle could reply to the implied criticism, she returned to her former train of thought, shaking her head. "My heavens, the Gatehouse. I'd thought you had lost your mind. So did Mark, but for a different reason."
"McCormick always has a different reason, that is, when he has a reason at all. Which I'm beginning to doubt, judging by his recent behavior."
"You trusted him then, when you knew very little about him other than what was written in a police file, why can't you trust him now, when you know him so well?"
"Thought I knew him. I don't know, Sarah. Hell, this is different."
"No, it's not different."
"My family, their memory, comes first. No one can come before them...no one." Hardcastle rose, leaned against the window, his back to Sarah. She heard the anguish
underlying his harsh tone. "Why does he insist on doing this? Damn obstinate, contrary, hard-headed--"
She interrupted his diatribe. "I've never met two people who were so different, and yet so much alike. You need him, Judge, he needs you...and you're both too damn stubborn to admit it, not even to yourselves. Too much male pride getting in the way." She leaned back into the pillows, giving in to the weariness. "And it frightens me to think about what could happen before one of you does admit it."
Carefully timing his return visit to the Marine base to coincide with 'the changing of the guard', McCormick groaned as the same MP appeared at the guard station. Checking McCormick's license carefully, the guard's face was unreadable, his manner stiffly polite. "Who do you want to see, sir?"
"Tellico. Why don't you call him, and tell him that Mark McCormick would like to speak to him about Thomas C. Hardcastle."
The guard eyed him the whole time he was on the telephone, still holding McCormick's license. His demeanor suddenly changed, coming almost to attention and saluting when he hung up. The MP then returned the identification, motioning to the visitor's parking lot. "Go right in, sir. Lt. General Tellico is in room 339, rear building. He's expecting you."
"Thanks." McCormick drove into the space nearest the building and went inside.
The halls were painted off-white, with off-white moldings and pale gray signs on the various doors. It was an old building, old even before Korea, probably before World War II. It was aging gracefully, despite the cracks in the stucco from the occasional earth tremor. McCormick searched the hand-painted numbers on the wooden doors until he found the right room, then knocked.
"Come in, Mr. McCormick." Tellico was a short, barrel-shaped man. His hair was in a crew-cut, out of style even in the military, slick and black with the frequent use of Grecian Formula.
There were two other men in the room as well. One was in uniform, a quick glance at the insignia showed him to be a Marine Captain. The other was in civilian clothes with an Oriental appearance. McCormick stood in the doorway, feeling the game fall apart around him. Not only was Tellico expecting him, but the others were there to obviously conclude the case. With the exception of Schneider, it appeared that all the participants were now together, unfortunately, the circumstances were not in his favor.
"I'd like for you to meet some friends of mine, Mr. McCormick. That man with the awful frown on his face is Captain William Louis, former friend of the late Tom Hardcastle. The other gentleman is an associate whose name you don't need to know, suffice it to say that he was not on our side during the conflict."
"North Viet?" McCormick remarked, burning the man's face in his mind for a later description to the police. If there was a later.
"Yes, very good, Mr. McCormick." Tellico motioned to the only chair in the furniture-empty room. "Please, have a seat."
"Do I have a choice?" McCormick remained at the door, and guns appeared in the Vietnamese and Captain's hands.
"Of course, we always have a choice. You can cooperate, and thereby delay your demise, or you can resist, and die now."
McCormick reluctantly complied, Captain Louis moved to stand behind the chair. Tellico motioned to the silent Asian, and the man removed a hypodermic from his pocket. McCormick watched as the man siphoned liquid from a small bottle into the syringe. Louis held his arms firmly as the other man approached. "Hey, wait a minute...what is that stuff! What--" He broke off, wincing as the needle jabbed his arm.
The Oriental stepped back, and Louis relaxed his grip. McCormick slumped back, wondering if the drug was a fast-acting one. It would be to their advantage to kill him as quickly as possible, and he had no reason to believe that they would let him live any longer than necessary. "So, this is it, huh? How about letting me in on the real story before I...check out?"
"Of course, why not? You were right. Thomas Hardcastle had nothing to do with the selling of information to the enemy, we did. There were quite a few of us: Bill, here, Frank, whom you met earlier, another Marine who was killed during the exodus from Saigon, and a journalist who worked for a network news crew. We sold information on military movements to the Cong in exchange for drugs. We sold the drugs and put our cut into a Swiss bank account which would be waiting for us at the end of the war."
"Musta been a lot of cash..." the room seemed to tilt as the unknown drug began to take effect. "Why didja stay in?"
"Many reasons, most of them to do with a good cover. Plus, I could watch for anyone who might get too close to the truth...like you. What made you start checking, was there something we overlooked?"
"Nope. . .just couldn't see it."
"A whim? A mere guess? Amazing. You made Schneider panic and lead you to me. Yes, the guard at the gate informed me of the fancy sports car that had followed Schneider on his last visit. You might consider using a slightly less noticeable vehicle next time." Tellico smiled coldly, "But there won't be a next time, will there?"
He watched McCormick closely, then glanced at the Vietnamese. "I think it's time, don't you, Doctor?"
The other man nodded, stepping outside the room and returning with a straitjacket which he and Louis put on McCormick. The ex-con tried to struggle, but couldn't seem to make his muscles respond properly. He had to concentrate to even form words. "Stupid… somebody miss me...Hardcastle--"
"You think that Judge Hardcastle will miss you and come looking? Come on, McCormick, don't try to pull that. I checked on you before I decided how to dispose of
you. Hardcastle threw you out, he doesn't want anything to do with you, or this investigation of yours. As to the police...well, you're an ex-con with a tendency to break the law. They might put out an APB on you after someone realizes that you're missing, probably your parole officer, and that will take a week or so."
McCormick felt hands helping him up onto his feet, steering him towards the door, and knew that he was truly dead. Tellico was right, no one would be looking for him, except, maybe, Bill Giles. He smiled as he let his eyes close wearily. Giles would not only be looking for him, but knew where his last stop would have been. It might come too late, but his death would be avenged and Hardcastle would be shown how he was right about his son's innocence. He stopped trying to keep his head upright, and let the men drag him outside to a waiting van.
"What's this all about, Bill? I don't like mysterious calls in the middle of the night ordering me to dumps like this." Hardcastle shoved his hands into the jacket pockets, the cold night air whistling around them.
"I thought you might like to be in on this. Especially since it involves McCormick." Giles' rotund face was highlighted by the flashing red and blue lights of the various emergency vehicles parked outside the St. Francis.
"What would this place have to do with McCormick?" the Judge looked around in disgust.
"Up until yesterday, he was living here."
"Here? McCormick wouldn't be caught dead in this sewer trap. He enjoys his creature comforts too much."
"For God's sake, Milt, will you cut it out!" Giles had about had it with both of them. How they had managed to survive each other's company for nearly two years was beyond his understanding. "Didn't you wonder where the kid was staying after you threw him out? I mean, he doesn't have any money, did you expect maybe the Hilton on what you pay him?"
"I thought he would be bunking with a former girlfriend, or a buddy from the racing circuit. I never thought that he'd come to a place like this." Hardcastle shook his head in dismay. "That still doesn't explain why you called me here. Did something happen to McCormick?"
Giles gazed steadily at the craggy features, the shimmering, alternating lights gave his expression a warm, but lifeless, appearance. "Would you care? I'm beginning to wonder if Mark wasn't right."
Hardcastle grabbed Giles' arm, the grip tight with suppressed fear. "Damn it, Bill, what's going on? What's he gotten into?"
"We split up this afternoon. Mark went to visit an officer at the base, and I went to talk with Frank Schneider about turning evidence for the military tribunal. They had already agreed to reopen Tom Hardcastle's case, if Schneider would testify. It didn't take much to get him on our side. Seems Tellico--"
"David Tellico, Tom' s commanding officer?" Hardcastle interrupted.
"Yes. Lt. General Tellico was planning on disposing of their only real threat, a snooping ex-con by the name of McCormick. Schneider didn't want to be involved in another murder, so he gave me everything he knew about the night your son died. I turned him over to the military investigation unit and drove straight here. All I found was the Coyote parked out front, and no McCormick inside."
"Then we'll go after Tellico!"
"We already thought of that, Milt. He's disappeared. The guards on duty at the base admitted that McCormick had been there in the Coyote to visit Tellico, but they never saw him leave. The Coyote was driven out by another Marine, and Tellico left the base shortly after in a white van."
"And?" Hardcastle walked over to the Coyote, seeing an unraveled tape on the passenger seat. He absently picked it up, clutching it tightly upon seeing that it was his favorite Al Hirt cassette.
"And nothing. We have an APB out on the van, and the people implicated by Schneider, but so far, nothing. I'm hoping we're on to them before they have a chance to cover their tracks, but I wouldn't guarantee it."
Hardcastle leaned back against the bright red car, feeling very old at the moment. "You just hadda go ahead and do it, didn't ya...despite everything." It wasn't easy for him to admit that he may have been wrong, and the renewed hope he felt was tempered by his concern for McCormick's safety. "I'm sorry, kid. Maybe I should have listened with my head, instead of my heart."
"Hardcase!" McCormick woke up with a jerk when someone shook him.
"Sorry, McCormick, it's just me." Tellico stared down at the strait-jacketed man. "It seems that someone did miss you. The police, both civilian and military, are searching for us. And Schneider is now in protective custody, we've been found out."
McCormick blinked, trying to clear his blurred vision. The Vietnamese doctor was gripping some rubber tubes, winding them nervously around his fingers. Louis stood behind him, frowning. They were in a different room, a different building. How long they'd been here, he wasn't sure, but the sun cast long shadows through the single window. Unable to sit up, he contented himself with rolling over on his side. "What happens now?"
"We move up our time schedule, go to an alternate plan of action. We'll take care of you and get out of the country sooner than planned."
"If this is blown anyway, why not just leave me tied up here...maybe call the cops after you're gone?"
"Sorry, no can do. See, they might not believe what Schneider tells them about that night when Hardcastle died. But if you're around to tell about how we had planned to kill you, then we're sure to be hunted down no matter where we go. Not to mention giving credence to Schneider's testimony. I plan to retire in the south of France without having to look constantly over my shoulder for Interpol, and to ensure that, you have to die. But don't worry, we shall make it as painless as possible. I can't risk having you found here, so we'll go elsewhere."
"Really decent of you, Tellico. Why don't you just have your friend give me some poison, or an overdose? Seems a lot of trouble to go to, taking me to still another location."
"I agree." Louis Lifted the medical bag. "There's enough stuff in here to kill a whole battalion."
"Yes, but the doctor can't bring himself to do it. So we shall drive our drugged problem out to the cliffs, and let him fall over. Just another tragic accident."
McCormick still couldn't control his muscles well enough to pull away when his arms were released from the strait-jacket. The doctor wrapped the tubing around his upper left arm and again inserted a liquid-filled hypodermic. "What is it this time?" McCormick felt a rush as the drug hit his system.
"A cocaine derivative. You'll feel no pain at all, believe me. In fact, you'll probably flap your arms and think you're flying on the way down." To Louis, he ordered, "Take off that jacket and get rid of it."
"Hmmmm..." There was no resistance at all as the Marine Captain tugged the strait jacket off. McCormick's world was tilting, the floor a gentle sway, a silly smile was on his face as his worries retreated into a distant haze. "Can't you...let me just lie here...no trouble..."
Tellico ignored him, speaking to the others. "Okay, let's get him back into the van."
McCormick leaned against the rear doors of the van, humming to himself and listening to the arguments of the other three men. He knew he should be doing something, that he was in trouble, but the mellow feeling was such a welcome relief after the tension of the past couple of days, and he didn't want to interrupt the peace that surrounded him.
"Christ, David, how far are we going to drive? Just pull over and dump him." Louis's disgruntled voice drifted back, followed by Tellico's stern voice.
"As far as necessary. A few miles further up the coast, the cliffs are higher, lots of rocks and surf at the bottom. I don't want his body to be too easily recovered. Aw, hell!" He swerved sharply, having seen the blue flashing lights appear around a curve, going the opposite direction. The van bumped down an access road of hard-packed sand and ruts. Glancing back at the highway, he slowed, looking for a place to turn around. "Don't think he saw us, probably after a speeder."
Louis spoke again, "Let's just get it over with here, we sure as hell can't afford to be caught with him--dead or alive."
The Captain took out a gun, and McCormick frowned. He didn't like guns appearing in his peaceful, dreamlike world, they reminded him too much of real life. Maybe he'd leave this dream before it became a nightmare. He nodded wisely to himself, get rid of the gun and cruise on, find another restful haven.
McCormick leaned forward, and, just as Louis turned in the seat, gun arm resting on the back of the bench seat, McCormick lunged forward and grabbed the gun. "Give me!" Gun in one hand, McCormick pulled the rear latch with the other, tumbling out onto the sandy roadway. He stumbled to his feet and ran aimlessly through scraggy bushes and dune grass. Voices yelled after him.
Tellico brought the van around in a wide semi-circle, sliding to a halt. "Hold it." He stopped the other two from getting out of the van, watching McCormick's erratic progress. Stumbling and staggering, he made slow, but steady progress toward the line of cliffs towering over the crashing surf. Distant sirens rent the air, and Tellico headed the van back toward the highway. "We'll just have to leave to chance that he'll fall over on his own. We can't delay any longer, there's no time to go after him. Even if he survives, he's too drugged to be coherent, and we, hopefully, will have time to make our escape."
McCormick still held tightly to the gun, having forgotten that he still had it. Ahead of him was a wide expanse of blue, cloud-flecked sky and deeper blue ocean. He liked the ocean. It was calm, peaceful, and soothingly familiar, he felt drawn to it. The brisk ocean breeze was cool and gentle, welcoming. He paused at the cliff's edge, it was so nice, this new dream he had found. Calm, restful, quiet, no worries, no hassles, no tensions...it would be so nice just to lie down...to sleep forever...
A siren shattered his dream-trance, and he retreated a few steps. Far below, the surf pounded on jagged outcroppings, loud and angry to his re-awakened ears, and he reeled away, away from the anger. What he was looking for wasn't here, but it was somewhere near here. Unsure of the direction, he let instinct guide his faltering steps.
"The Judge...that's it," he muttered to himself, "Gotta find the Judge..." He rubbed at his eyes, vision still blurry, as he came to the highway, "Find the Judge. He'll tell me what to do." He giggled, weaving down the shoulder toward Gulls-Way, "He always does."
The van was cornered, two police cars blocking it in the front and three more in the back. Tellico and the others were barely twenty minutes down the Pacific Coast Highway before they'd been sighted, and back-up called in. Cut-off and surrounded, the occupants gave up peacefully. Hardcastle, following Giles, was in the sixth vehicle to arrive on the scene, he and the police officer ran to the white van, yanked open the rear doors and peered into the dark interior.
"He's not here." Giles walked around to the front of the vehicle where his men were handcuffing the three suspects.
Hardcastle got to Tellico first, grabbing the man by the uniform collar and lifting him. "Where's McCormick!"
"Who?" Tellico, despite his situation, was still cool.
Hardcastle tightened his grip. "You know damn well who! You were the last person he was with, we have witnesses, his car left the base, but he didn't. Now," he said in a low, deadly tone, raising his fist before Tellico's eyes, "You'd better tell me where he is, unless you want your face re-arranged."
"Milt, you can't do this." Bill Giles tried vainly to pry Hardcastle from his intended victim.
The Judge shrugged him off, ignoring him. He pulled his fist back "You got maybe two seconds, Tellico."
"Okay, okay. I don't know where he is."
Hardcastle pulled his fist back again,
"No, wait! He was with us but he got away. We thought he was too drugged up to do anything. But he grabbed Louis' gun and jumped out of the back of the van, several miles back. The state he's in, he'll probably kill himself or somebody else with that gun. Guy was crazy, out of his head, came in my office, accusing me of--"
"Shove it, Tellico," Hardcastle interrupted, pushing the general into the waiting arms of the law, "McCormick doesn't take drugs, if he's 'drugged up', you're responsible."
Hardcastle didn't bother to look back as he walked away. "I will."
"High, and with a gun..." Hardcastle gaze out at the horizon, dark clouds obscuring the stars. "He could hurt himself."
"Or, like the general said, harm someone else," Giles added.
"We have to find him, now, soon."
"Come on, Milt, where do we start? This is a big place, there are at least a hundred places Mark could go to. And a hundred more that we'd never think of. Where do we go first?" Giles shook his head. "I'll put an APB out on him, but I'll have to tag him armed and potentially dangerous."
Hardcastle turned sharply, glared at Giles. "You do that, and some cop will blow him away."
"I won't have one of my men killed because Mark doesn't recognize him and pulls the trigger."
Tight-lipped, the Judge headed back for the GMC.
"Where are you going!" thee black lieutenant called after him.
"Back home. He might show up there, it isn't that far."
"Yeah, maybe. But remember, that isn't his home any longer. He may try to get back to the hotel, I'll have some men stationed there. At Hardcastle's sharp look, Giles relented. "Okay, I'll warn them to take care and not to shoot, unless they absolutely have to."
The Judge drove back to the seaside estate, constantly looking around for any signs of McCormick. There was nothing to see but darkness. The estate was deserted. Sarah was still in the hospital, and the pool man had finished his tasks the previous day. Leaving the truck in the garage, the first thing he noticed was the front door. It was wide open.
"McCormick?" Hardcastle walked into the entryway, called out again, he looked into the den and kitchen, McCormick's usual hang-outs. The rooms were empty, and he stood at the stairs, straining to hear any sound in the vast house. "McCormick, are you in here? Answer me!" More silence.
He went upstairs, glancing quickly into the bedrooms, including the master bedroom. Had McCormick come, found the place empty, and left? Hardcastle swore, and started for the main stairway. He was at the end of the long hallway and had gone barely two steps when he heard the faint creaking of floorboards overhead. "The damn attic!" He took the narrow attic stairs two at a time.
Pausing at the door, he stood and listened, not wanting to cause McCormick any more upsets. He knocked lightly on the door, eased it open carefully- "McCormick, are you up there?"
A quiet laugh that choked off in a sob was the only reply. Hardcastle closed the door softly behind him, ascended the remaining steps to the attic. McCormick was there, sitting on a stack of books next to an open trunk, he wore Tom's Marine-issue jacket, and held Louis' gun, spinning it carelessly on his finger. A quick glimpse between spins showed the Judge that the safety was off, making the weapon a potential danger even if dropped.
McCormick stopped the spinning and cocked the gun, pointing it at the Judge. "Who are you?" He squinted into the dimly lit corners, the single overhead bulb insufficient illumination, "Are you with that goon from the Marines?"
Hardcastle swallowed, this was going to be more difficult than he'd thought. "It's Judge Hardcastle, you remember me, don't you?"
"Hardcase doesn't want to see me anymore. I was only trying to make things right for him, but I messed it all up. I mess everything up that I do. I should've stayed in jail, 'stead of gettin' parole..." His voice drifted off, then resumed, stronger, "Ya know what?"
"Tommy's uniform almost fits me. 'Cept the sleeves are too long--family trait, huh? I guess the Judge will be mad at me 'cause I tried the jacket on. And I broke in...I'm not supposed to be here..." He looked up at Hardcastle, "Why's he always mad at me?" He lowered the gun, then raised it again, gazing intently down the barrel. "Never saw a double-barreled pistol before," he murmured to no one in particular. He shook his head, uncrossing his eyes.
"McCormick!" Hardcastle lowered his voice, tried for calm, "Mark, why don't you put the gun in the trunk there...it might go off."
McCormick ran his finger up and down the trigger, awkwardly holding the gun away from him. "Can't hurt...it's a dream. Things can't hurt in dreams...I'll just change it, find another one..."
There was a frightening glint in McCormick's eyes, as if what he was seeing wasn't in this world. Hardcastle edged closer, "Hand the gun to me, Mark, I won't let it hurt anyone."
McCormick pulled back, eyes glazed and wild, "No...this is mine. I don't want another dream, none of them ever works right. There's no place for me, no one wants me... nothing's mine, except this and my car--"
"Where is it!" Hardcastle interrupted quickly, changing McCormick's train of thought.
The ex-con looked puzzled. "What?"
"Your car. Where is it!"
McCormick rested the muzzle against his shoulder, head tilted slightly as he thought. He shook his head sadly, "I don't know. Gone...like everyone else..." He blinked back tears, eyes bright, "They're all gone... eventually.. ." Then he smiled, a strange, crooked smile, "But I know where they are...they're hiding. I can end this dream, find another one, find the dream where they're hiding..." He raised the gun barrel toward his temple, and Hardcastle made a quick, desperate lunge.
Hardcastle's hand closed tightly over McCormick's, momentum carrying both to the floor, the action caused the gun to fire, the shot singing past Mark's ear.
Hardcastle didn't know what had set the weapon off, but McCormick's eyes were wide with shock and pain. Hardcastle placed the gun safely out of reach, then took McCormick's upper arms, pulling him to his feet. "McCormick, you're okay. You hear me?"
McCormick's knees buckled, unable to support his weight, he slumped heavily against Hardcastle, the Judge's attempts at comfort awkward at best. The unrestrained tears soaked through Hardcastle's shirt, as he repeated, "You're all right. Everything's all right...you know that, don't you? It's okay, there's nothing to worry about..."
The sobbing against his shoulder worsened instead of subsiding, becoming almost hysterical. Becoming concerned, and unsure what to do, Hardcastle tried to lead McCormick away from the attic, and the unpleasant memories it caused. At first there was resistance, then reluctant obedience. They stumbled slowly down the narrow steps, Hardcastle guided him into the master suite. Settling McCormick into the bed, the Judge called for an ambulance on the bedside telephone.
McCormick curled up tightly, gripping a pillow to him, alternating between harsh sobs and sniffling gasps. Gradually, before the attendants arrived, the crying subsided into soft hiccups, and McCormick lifted his head, revealing red-rimmed eyes. The eyes were clearer now, more focused.
"Why was I crying?" McCormick looked around, as if surprised at where he was.
"You don't remember?" Hardcastle sat in the chair across from the bed.
"No, but my ear is ringing. The last thing I remember was talking to Tellico about how he was going to kill me. How'd I get here?" He dropped his head into his hands. "I feel funny, like I'm sliding off the edge of the world."
"You broke away from Tellico and his men, then came back here on your own. I followed, and found you." It was an abbreviated version, but Hardcastle didn't think it was time for McCormick to deal with the whole truth. For that matter, the Judge wasn't sure if he could deal with what passed for the truth.
"Judge, I'm sorry. Sorry that it all turned out this way, I mean. But Tommy was killed by those men, and he was set up to be their cover, so no one would ever investigate the treason. I can't say that I'm sorry to know the real truth about that."
McCormick sat up, grabbing the edge of the bed. Unsteady, he got carefully to his feet.
"And where do you think you're going?"
"Don't know. Back to my place at the St.-- at the hotel." McCormick quickly covered his slip on naming the hotel. He obviously didn't want the Judge to know where he was staying.
"Why don't you wait until the paramedics get here and look you over. You've been drugged, you might not be up to traveling about on your own."
"I'm okay, now, really." McCormick started for the door and slipped to his knees. "Uhhh, no problem, just a little shaky."
Hardcastle reached out and helped him up. And the paramedics, having been informed as to where to find the patient on arrival, came in the door.
"I don't understand why they kept Mark for so long in the hospital." Sarah bustled about the Gatehouse, straightening McCormick's personal effects which had been removed from the St. Francis.
"Sarah, stop fussing. It hasn't been that long, a couple of days. And you are supposed to be resting. Sit down and leave things be. The place looks fine, at least the furniture is visible." Hardcastle glanced out the front window for what seemed the hundredth time, waiting for the cab's arrival. "Maybe I should have just gone to the hospital and picked him up myself."
"Now, you and Bill decided to let Mark decide whether he wanted to come back here to stay. And if he chose to return to Gulls-Way, you wanted to surprise him, finding all his things back at the Gatehouse, where they, and he, belong." She mused, surveying the patio, checking the buffet lunch on the lawn tables. "You would have either gotten into a fight with him, or told him what you had done. Bill said to let him speak to Mark first, to clear the air."
"I don't like it. The doctors said he'd been severely depressed the past week, only partially due to the drugs in his system. Damn it, Sarah, they wouldn't even let me see him for the three days he was there. And they didn't have to lock him up."
"Now, Judge," she said in a soothing tone. "They didn't 'lock' him up, he was under observation, the doctors explained why. They believed that the firing of the gun was accidental, that Mark wasn't aware of where he was or what he was doing, they just wanted to be certain that Mark understood. They were trying to protect him until he was well enough to see people."
"I'm not 'people', I'm family." Hardcastle bit his lip, realizing that he had revealed more than he had planned with that particular choice of word.
But Sarah just smiled, making no comment. Catching sight of a flash of yellow outside the window, he was saved from further conversation. "The cab's here."
They went outside, watching as Giles helped McCormick from the cab, paying the driver while Mark took his overnight bag from the trunk. McCormick stood looking around the estate, noticing the Coyote parked in its usual place next to the GMC, the 'Vette in the open garage. Hardcastle watched as Bill said something to the weary-looking man, and Mark laughed, shaking his head. The two approached the patio, McCormick smiling at Sarah and avoiding the Judge's eyes.
Bending down to kiss Sarah's forehead, Mark whispered something softly in her ear. Sarah lightly slapped his cheek, her hand lingering affectionately.
Hardcastle interrupted gruffly, "So, kid, howya feeling?"
For the first time in ages, the Judge saw the familiar grin. "Fine, Hardcase. What's all my stuff doin' here?"
"Sarah said she'd leave me if I didn't bring your stuff back. I can do without you, but I need my housekeeper."
McCormick laughed at the hidden affection beneath the words. Seeing the Coyote parked in the drive had dispelled his last doubts, for the car wouldn't have been there if Hardcastle hadn't wanted it there.
Hardcastle indicated the heavily laden tables. "Come on, let's eat."
The Judge held Giles back as Mark and Sarah helped themselves to the buffet. "How did it go, Bill?"
"Well, he wasn't too sure if you'd have him back. He said that you would never back down, that you were too stubborn to ever admit to being wrong. If you ask me, I think you should just forget the whole thing, let him forget it, too, if he wants. I've seen the two of you fight before, and you're both very good at simply 'forgetting' the angry words. Sorta like a family does, ya know?"
"Bill, I appreciate your--"
Giles cut in, "Milt, I'm not the one you should be thanking."
Hardcastle grimaced, "Yeah, I know."
"...And this military court finds that Sergeant Thomas C. Hardcastle, United States Marine Corps, was grievously deprived of his life and honor by these men, and should be recognized for his attempt to clarify the situation at risk of his own life. Therefore, the court will recommend that Sergeant Hardcastle be awarded the highest award that this branch of the service can bestow on one of its own. Court dismissed." The Colonel banged the gavel, ending the month-long trial into the manner of, and circumstances surrounding, Thomas Hardcastle's death. The criminal trial for the two military defendants would give its sentence one week later.
Hardcastle, McCormick, Bill Giles, and Sarah sat in the audience. The elderly housekeeper, still under a doctor's care, had been given strict instructions that she could no longer work full-time at the estate, and any part-time work could only be a few hours a week. But she had wanted to attend the trial, to witness the vindication herself.
"Well, that's it." Hardcastle commented, watching as the Military Police led Tellico and Louis out of the courtroom.
The mysterious doctor was being questioned as to how he was smuggled into the United States with false American citizenship. The investigators had assured Hardcastle that the doctor would be either jailed, or deported to an eager Vietnamese justice. The new regime was just as anxious to question the defector as the Americans were. They also took a dim view of traitors and drug dealers.
"Yeah, I guess so. About sixteen years too late. I mean, if I could poke around with no evidence and uncover the scheme and murder, why couldn't the military have done so!" McCormick wondered, Hardcastle hearing the unspoken inclusion of himself.
The Judge really didn't know how to answer that. The notice of his son's death, and the supposed circumstances, had overwhelmed him. What McCormick hadn't discovered, due to the immediacy of the retaliation, was that Tom was a bit wild, in many ways like the Judge had been as a youth, and similar to what McCormick was like when he and the Judge had first run into each other. Not bad, and certainly not vicious, just a little reckless. It had been all too possible for the war to have pushed Thomas over the edge, into something he would not have done otherwise. And deep down, that may have been the basis for Hardcastle's attempts to help others who, by circumstances, found themselves on the wrong side of the law, especially those with a charming line and a roguish character. It was a way of redeeming a son who had similar qualities. And of all the ex-cons he had tried to help, McCormick was his most successful case. Although Hardcastle still didn't know why Mark had been so determined to clear Thomas Hardcastle's name and honor.
As the spectators rose to leave the courtroom, Hardcastle took McCormick's arm, pulled him from the crowd. "Come over here for a minute."
"What?" McCormick broke off in mid-sentence to Giles, let himself be led to a somewhat secluded part of the courtroom. "Now, no violence in the courtroom, Judge."
For a few seconds, Hardcastle was silent, just looking at him, as if he had never seen McCormick before. "I wanna know something--and no smart-ass remarks, either."
McCormick shrugged. "Sure, what is it?"
"Why did you do this? You never knew Tom, he couldn't mean anything to you, so, why?"
McCormick thought back over the conversations with Thomas Hardcastle's various friends and acquaintances, the letters and cards that revealed a young man with high ideas, who loved his country, admired and respected his father, and was unswervingly loyal to his friends. He had learned of the real man behind the uniform, of his hopes and dreams. McCormick felt he knew Thomas Hardcastle very well. Perhaps in a way that the Judge never had, and now, never would.
"Because I believed in him, Judge, just like you believed in me." He smiled slightly, "At least, you used to, but it's a more than equitable trade. You see, I wanted to give back something of what you've given to me."
"I still do, I guess I always did." Hardcastle didn't comment on the last part of McCormick's reply. "Just too damn stubborn to admit it - but you didn't help any. Going against my direct orders, ignoring my feelings in the matter, flying in the face of authority. I didn't know what you were planning to do."
"Didn't know? Every time I tried to explain, I was eating knuckles, you don't listen to anything you don't wanna hear. And you wouldn't…didn't..." McCormick stopped, exasperated. He leaned over Hardcastle, poked him on the chest. "You're a donkey, Hardcase, always was, always will be!"
"Yeah! Well, Let me tell you, smart guy--"
At the sound of their raised voices in the nearly deserted courtroom, Giles and Sarah came over. The Lieutenant stepped between them. "If you two are gonna start World War III, would you kindly do it outside? There's another case coming up."
Hardcastle and McCormick looked at Giles, then at Sarah's ill-concealed amusement, her eyes warm and sparkling. Self-conscious, they backed off. Following Sarah out of the courtroom, each dared the other to say something.
Once outside, Hardcastle gave McCormick a hearty slap between the shoulder blades, causing him to stumble a bit before regaining his balance. The Judge started down the steps ahead of him. "Come on, kid, let's go home and get down to cases."
He paused a few feet from McCormick, and looked back at him, "And, McCormick. Thanks."
A/N: Originally printed in Scenario 1 in 1988 and Back to Back 4.