Honor and Loyalty
By Lizabeth S. Tucker
Mark McCormick walked to the beach, able to see the trail clearly due to the full moon's silvery rays streaming through scattered clouds. He picked his way through the sea grass, trying to avoid the sand spurs, the sharp little thorns that appeared everywhere on the coast. He laid a light blue towel down, dropping a smaller white one on top. He then strolled to the water's edge, running his toes back and forth in the foamy tide line to test the temperature. It was fairly cool, but since the night air was still hot, it would feel great.
Wading slowly out into the water, Mark let his body adjust to the water temperature. Once up to his waist, he floated back and stared up at the stars, allowing the gentle rocking motion of the water to drain the tension from his weary body.
He licked his lips, savoring the salty taste that came from living near the ocean. It was a taste that he had never found on his skin, or that of his various ladies' skins, back in New Jersey. The only other place like it was Florida.
The salt air was strong, the various smells all mixed together. Dead fish, moldy seaweed dying on the beach, the trace of gasoline from passing ships and boats, the faint odor of a nearby barbeque, Mark enjoyed trying to identify them.
If he was honest with himself, McCormick knew that he had never been so contented as he was at Gulls-Way, even if he did have to put up with the Lone Ranger and his crusades. There were worse ways to make a living, and definitely worse places to live, but he'd be damned before he'd ever admit it to anyone, especially Hardcastle.
Mark bobbed up and down in the water, slowly drifting down the beach, carried by the current. He felt himself falling asleep and realized that it was time to get out of the water. He swam back, the slight fight against the current and the undertow invigorating him.
McCormick left the ocean, dripping water around his feet as he walked to where the towels were laying. Using the smaller towel, Mark rubbed himself down, drying his hair out last. He sat on the larger towel, arms wrapped around his drawn up legs, chin resting on his right knee.
Judge Hardcastle found him in this position when he searched for McCormick an hour later, only now he was resting his right cheek on his knees and his arms were lying next to his feet, curling slightly. Hardcastle hated to wake him, but the kid would be aching all over if he didn't get up.
The Judge laid his hand on McCormick's shoulder. "Hey, sleepyhead, wake up."
"Hmmm? Oh, hi, Judge. Man, I can't believe I fell asleep out here." Mark stretched, his back creaking from the sudden movement. He grabbed the towels and yawned loudly. "Did you want me for something in particular?"
"No. Sarah mentioned that you were down here swimming by yourself. She was worried. Don't you know it's dangerous to do that? If you got into any trouble, there would be no one to help you."
"And it was Sarah who was worried, huh?" Mark snorted, his grin beginning to break out. "Speaking of whom, I thought she would be gone by now. Isn't she going to visit her sister Martha?"
"Yes, she was on her way out the door when she mentioned you were here and left you a message." They started walking toward the trail back to the house.
"Oh, yeah? What?" Mark asked, expecting something about looking after the Judge.
"Have the gutters clean by the time she comes home. You should have enough time as she'll be gone about a month."
Mark shook his head. Sarah loved to make him clean the gutters. He had never seen a house with so many gutters. "A month? I thought this was the usual weekend visit. Is Martha sick?"
"Didn't you know? She's dying of cancer."
McCormick stopped walking, the Judge running into him. "Cancer? I didn't know. Sarah never said anything about it."
"That's not her way, you know that." Hardcastle moved around him, heading for the house.
Cancer? Mark's uncle had died of that, in terrible pain for over a year. Although only ten years old at the time, he could still remember the cries, the awful smells of death and decay.
McCormick caught up with Hardcastle, wanting to think about something else. "What's up for tomorrow? You mentioned a new target during dinner."
Only when they entered the main house and sat down in the den, did the Judge seem willing to answer.
"I hope I don't ruin this chair, I'm still a little damp." Mark was also a little sandy. He pulled at the elastic band on his red trunks, brushing his legs as the clingy, wet sand fell out. The fine grains broke up, falling to the carpet in a gentle rain that disappeared in the thick pile. He looked over at Hardcastle to see if the Judge had noticed, but Hardcastle appeared to be absorbed in the folder on his desk.
"Don't worry about it. Our new target, as you put it, is Anthony Paul Descards, former police officer, suspected double-agent, and probable serial killer."
"What, no traffic violations? Maybe a little jaywalking?" McCormick cracked, smiling until he realized that the Judge wasn't listening. He was obviously preoccupied. McCormick decided to find out what was on Hardcastle's mind. "Don't tell me. Another one of your getaways?"
"Not this one. This guy was an agent for the CIA, the local courts weren't allowed to touch him, unfortunately. Agency people are sacrosanct."
"So I've heard. Judge, we're not going after one of theirs, are we? They play rough!" Terrific, just what Mark needed to make his day.
"Not if they want him also. It appears Descards turned traitor, selling all the valuable information he had accumulated through the years. They want him dead, preferably by one of their people, but dead nonetheless."
"And we just want him, right?"
"You said serial killer?" McCormick thought back over the last few years, but almost every serial killer that he could think of had been caught, or at least identified within a reasonable doubt.
"According to the file supplied by the Agency, Descards was suspected of raping, and later killing, over 20 young men and women in the Los Angeles area, his home base. Seattle police suspect that he might be responsible for ten up there, 15 to 20 in the Las Vegas area, ten more in New York. And who knows how many in small towns around each city?"
"I don't remember hearing of this," McCormick frowned.
"And you won't. At first, when the news began to come out, the killings were believed to be by different individuals. It wasn't until later that certain information was released that indicated a common killer."
"Information? What kind?"
"Anonymously, of course. The women all had certain similarities in their background. No living family, very independent types, all from the East Coast, all did government work sometime during the previous six months, all lived alone."
"Why didn't the cops find this out?"
"The Agency covered for him at first. Later the local police were busy with other crimes. Since there isn't any way of correlating information between departments, Seattle wasn't aware of what had happened in Vegas, Vegas didn't know about the murders in New York, and none of them knew about the ones here. There's no communication between local police agencies and it's even worse on the national level. By the time some very intelligent officers put the facts together, Descards was on the run from the Agency and the police."
"Why are we going after him? I need the CIA after me like I need a hole in my head." McCormick got up form the leather chair and paced the room. "Besides, when we started this, you said we would be going after the crooks you had to let go 'cause of legal technicalities. This guy never came within a mile of your court. Can't we let the cops find him?"
"McCormick, when will you listen? The Agency isn't helping him, he's a traitor, and they want him as badly as the police do." The Judge followed Mark with his eyes as the younger man passed back and forth in front of him.
"You said he was suspected of raping and killing women…and men?" McCormick tried to gather his thoughts. This case bothered him quite a bit. Spies and traitors, killers and rapists -- the former wasn't their domain and the latter wasn't exactly what he would have preferred to go after. What ever happened to fraud and gentlemen burglars?
"Yes, it appears that Descards isn't particular as to the sex of his victims. The men were all young, between 24 and 35, and all resembled Descards' father, tall and muscular, light brown hair, slightly curly, clean-shaven, cocky…" Hardcastle's voice trailed off as Mark's eyes widened.
"Me! They all looked like me?" McCormick fixed Hardcastle with a cold look.
"Well, I suppose there might be a slight resemblance." The Judge didn't look at McCormick when he replied, suddenly interested in the paper sitting on his lap.
Mark sat back down, sighing as he began to see why Hardcastle was taking on the case. "I'm being set up again, aren't I?"
"I wouldn't exactly put it that way."
"What other way is there? Some of your old friends in the department needed a hand, and you just couldn't wait to offer your resident sitting duck."
"No, some friends who used to be with military intelligence during Korea."
"That's a contradiction in terms."
"Military intelligence." McCormick met Hardcastle's level stare. He leaned back in the chair, bare skin sticking to the leather. He waited for the rest of the lecture that was sure to follow.
"Maybe I presumed too much, but this man has to be caught, no matter how." Hardcastle started to explain his involvement. "He's dangerous and will kill even more people before the Agency catches him."
"You don't think the police will get him?"
"Not with his spy training. Descards served as a deep-cover agent in Korea and Viet Nam. He was trained to avoid detection and capture."
"What am I supposed to do?"
"Kid, we need a decoy. An old partner of Descards' saw him in this area, but not long enough to trail him to his apartment. We need someone to lure him out into the open."
"And I'm it. This is great." McCormick's voice was calm, but icy with his growing anger. "Do I have anything to say about this, or do the usual rules apply? 'Do it or else!'"
"Sure, kid. You can say 'yes', 'yeah', or 'okay', but you agreed to the rules. And at this moment, you're my best bet. Everything is arranged. I didn't think you'd be falling all over yourself to volunteer for this type of assignment, but…"
"Maybe I would have, maybe I wouldn't. You never gave me the chance. Just once I would like to be asked instead of ordered. You didn't think twice about throwing me to the wolves, do you? You could show a little consideration, Judge."
"McCormick, this isn't that much different than our other cases, so you wanna tell me what's really bothering you?"
Mark shook his head, dropping his eyes from Hardcastle's with a sigh. "Does it really matter? You've made it clear what you want of me. I'm to be the bait in the trap, a sexual tidbit for him to try and kill." Mark's voice was hard, cold.
"Well…" Hardcastle had trouble acknowledging the truth of this statement. When the agents had first proposed the idea, he had vehemently protested. It didn't sound any better when McCormick said it, it sounded much worse. "McCormick, if you can't deal with this…"
"Don't worry about me, Judge. You wouldn't want to start anything new now."
"Alright, kid, that's enough."
"Fine. I'm going to bed. We'll plan this in the morning." Mark's shadow left the room, slamming the glass door behind him.
The Judge felt sick inside. He realized that this mission could pull Mark and him apart forever before it was done. He halfway wished he could call it off, to be a decoy was dangerous enough, but this might be more than McCormick could forgive.
"This is Ted McGovern of the CIA. Ted, this is Mark McCormick." The Judge made introductions as the ex-con walked up to the poolside table. The glass top had a plate piled with pancakes on it, but no one was eating. Hardcastle didn't think he could stomach it.
There was a definite coolness to McCormick's manner, and from the shadows under his eyes it didn't seem that he had gotten much sleep last night. That wasn't surprising to the Judge, neither had he. The sooner this was over, the better.
"Mr. McGovern," Mark nodded, taking the chair furthest from Hardcastle.
"Mr. McCormick, you understand the situation?" McGovern ran a hand over his balding pate, the warmth of the morning sun already shining the skin with a light covering of sweat. He pulled uselessly at his dark knit tie.
"I'm to lure Descards out in the open and, at best, provide an opportunity for you to catch him."
"Yes, that's correct." McGovern looked from McCormick to Hardcastle and back again. "Milt, you realize you can't stay with McCormick. Our only contact with him will be with a mike. The backup will be at least a mile away."
"A mile? Why so far?" Hardcastle asked.
"Descards is, was, one of the best. We can't let him find us lurking about, watching McCormick. The bug will have a range of two to three miles, depending on the terrain. Not only will we be able to hear everything that happens, we can also home in on the bug." McGovern handed Mark a gold signet ring, a gold "M" inlaid on the black onyx stone. "Descards won't recognize this particular bug. As you can see, it resembles just what it is -- a fairly expensive ring. Only the stone conceals the newest listening device made, smaller than most microdots."
McCormick tried the ring on, finally putting it on the third finger of his left hand.
"How does it fit?" Hardcastle asked.
"A little loose, but it won't fall off."
"It's also sturdy enough to withstand direct impact, if you should have to fight anyone. This bug is so unique, that even if Descards should use a bug detector, he won't find it," McGovern continued, handing McCormick a belt buckle.
"What's this?" Mark examined the heavy brass buckle. There was a stylized rendition of a race car on the face of the buckle.
"It's a gun." McGovern showed how the back of the buckle hid a small derringer-type weapon. "If you get into serious trouble, it will take time for us to arrive. You might not have that long, so this is your one defense. Watch carefully."
McCormick watched as McGovern demonstrated how to prepare and load the weapon. "Small caliber ammo?"
"It carries two .22 caliber bullets at one time. Use them and you'll have to reload to use it again. So be selective. And you had better use the gun only at pointblank range. Any further away, you'll probably miss entirely."
"Can I get a stronger load?"
"Not for this gun." McGovern reached into his briefcase which sat at his feet. He took out a gold watch, handing it to Hardcastle.
"With this watch, you can hear what McCormick is doing and saying. Just in case we get separated. The only thing you won't be able to do is use a directional finder. The equipment for that is too big for a watch, unless you want to wear one that weighs over 80 pounds." McGovern smiled, but neither man responded. There was a disturbing discord between the two that bothered McGovern. He turned to McCormick as Hardcastle replaced his own watch with the gold one. "Mark, are you willing to do this? If you have any doubts, back out now. I don't want to send in an unwilling operative."
McCormick took a deep breath, his decision made. "This guy is a traitor and a vicious killer. He has to be caught by someone soon, right?"
"I'm afraid so. We think the other side is going to pick him up, possibly unless than a week. Our radar sites off Hawaii have spotted an unknown submarine coming towards the mainland."
"Can't the Navy intercept it?" Hardcastle asked.
"Not while it stays in International waters. We can only track it."
"That means you people didn't have enough time to find one of your own men to do this, right?" McCormick gazed out over the ocean, the usually calming influence of the sea absent.
"None that wouldn't be know to him, that's right. Believe me, I wish we didn't have to ask you to do this," McGovern shook his head. Civilians in an Agency operation, they could be so unpredictable, and very unreliable in a crisis. "When I realized that Milt lived out here, and that you matched the victims' profile, I contacted him. I'm afraid I wasn't too welcome after I outlined the plan. I was rather surprised to hear from you."
McCormick jerked around to look at Hardcastle. "You mean, this was all your idea? Hardcase didn't contact you?"
"Contact me? Not on your life! He doesn't approve of our operations, but I thought, as he was accustomed to police work and, even after retirement, was still after lawbreakers that, well…" McGovern chuckled quietly, the first indication of a regular guy persona under the officialness. "I hadn't heard that kind of language since we were in the service together."
McCormick smiled, watching as the Judge's neck begin to redden, a sure sign of embarrassment. "Why didn't you tell me that, instead of letting me think it was your idea?"
"What did it matter, whose idea it was?" Hardcastle tried to change the subject. "Where should McCormick make contact with Descards?"
"Wait a minute, Your Honor, I wanna talk about this."
"And I don't." Hardcastle motioned McGovern to continue.
"Descards is known to be a video freak. He loves computers and computer games. An ex-girlfriend of his reported that he tries to attend every computer show possible."
"There's a private one at the city auditorium this week," Mark offered, reaching for the newspapers. Thumbing through them quickly, he found the advertisement in back pages of the financial section. "Yeah, it lasts one more day."
"We know. You're going to be there, demonstrating an advanced computer game based on an eighteen year old science fiction television series."
"Ah, another Trekkie, huh?"
"We prefer Trekker, if you don't mind."
"Whatever. Descards has a preference for space-related games, so was had the bigwigs at Atari whip one up."
McCormick could imagine the reaction at Atari when the Agency said to 'whip up an advanced video game'.
"What does the kid do when Descards shows up?" Hardcastle asked.
"Absolutely nothing. Descards must make the first move." McGovern wiped his brow and head. "Can we go inside?"
"Sure." Hardcastle led the way inside to the den. The Judge sat in his black leather desk chair, McGovern took the chair facing the window, while Mark perched on the arm of the opposite couch until the Judge glared at him. Sliding off onto the deep cushions, McCormick started the conversation going again.
"How do I respond? I mean, are the guys aware of what he wants?"
"No, all the men and boys he picked up were straight, all salesmen. While we aren't entirely clear on how he picked up most of them, we do have reports from bystanders who overheard Descards use a business approach. By that I mean he used a common interest, spoke with the victims as if he was a potential buyer, and asked them out to lunch."
"Did any of them actually make it to lunch?" McCormick asked.
"Not to our knowledge." McGovern closed his notepad. "We have your tickets and identification. Are you ready to leave now?"
"'bout as ready as I'll ever be. Should I change?" McCormick looked down at his blue work shirt and dark blue jeans.
"Keep the jeans, but try and find a white shirt and tie," McGovern replied.
"That it?" Hardcastle got to his feet, searching his pockets for his truck keys.
"No, there is one more thing. We don't really have the time to head out to the Agency grounds, but I need to know if you can handle a gun. If you can't hit the target…well, you could get killed by your ineptness."
Hardcastle looked at McCormick who nodded in reply. "Ted, we have a shooting range here on the estate…"
"Yeah, his yard," McCormick quipped.
"Shaddup, kid. Like I was saying, we have a range here on the estate if you'd like to use it, but I can assure you, the kid is very good with a gun, almost any kind of all." Hardcastle glanced at the smiling ex-con. "In fact, I mean to find out why someday."
The show was fabulous. All sorts of computers doing various things, from graphs and artwork to games and word processing. McCormick felt like a little boy in a candy store. His display was in the center of the main room, right next to the IBM display manned (womanned?) by two gorgeous models. Across from the Intellivision booth and their lizard-like alien spokesperson, Mark felt underdressed. Maybe he should have asked for a Trek uniform, a Captain's, just like his personal favorite, Kirk. He could see himself on the Bridge, surrounded by his loyal crew, handling all the various enemies in his own inimitable style.
His daydream was broken by the insistent voice asking about the display.
"I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"I said, what does this game do? Hey, man, are you spaced?"
McCormick looked down from the stage and saw a 13-year-old, pimply nerd. There was no other term for the person standing there. McCormick would know, he went to school with a whole class full of geeks and nerds.
"It's a space battle, kiddo. You kill Klingons and Romulans and save the Federation. Or you wipe out the Federation's best as a Klingon or Romulan."
"Can I try it?" The kid leaned over the barrier, trying to see the controls.
"Yeah, sure," Mark handed the kid the master control and instruction booklet. "Think you can handle it?"
The boy looked at McCormick like he wasn't wrapped too tight. "Yeah, old man, I think so."
Mark winced at the 'old man' title, about ready to make a sarcastic reply when he spotted Descards moving towards him. He felt a shudder as he saw Descards' cold grey eyes looking him over.
"Hello." Descards smiled warmly, reaching for a brochure.
"Hello, sir. Can I interest you in our latest game?" McCormick indicated the screen flashing with photons and lasers.
"I might be interested. Are these available now or is this a preview of a game that won't be released until next year?" Descards scanned the glossy pamphlet, showing the proper interest that McCormick had seen from video managers.
"No, it will be available next month. If you'd like to try it, I can kick the kid off."
The young player, engrossed in blasting enemy ships, heard. "Try it, laser breath."
McCormick turned, whacking the "off" button. "Scram."
"Hey! You can't do that!"
"I can do anything I want, hotshot. Take a hike, okay?" Mark decided he didn't want the boy around in case anything went wrong. Absently he wondered if Hardcastle was listening to the exchange.
"Now, Mister…" McCormick waited for Descards to supply the name he was using.
"Denver, Tony Denver." Descards shook McCormick's hand, giving him a business card.
Mark read it without really absorbing the information on it. He had to admit that Descards didn't miss a trick. He handed the killer a card that McGovern had provided.
"Oh, so you're Mark Thompson, regional marketing director for Atari's new games division?"
"Yeah, that's me. What can I do for you, Mr. Denver?" Besides blowing you away? McCormick finished the thought while walking around the stage and its barrier.
Descards looked at his watch, indecision on his face. "I'd like to talk about this further, but I have an appointment for tonight at six p.m. and since I missed breakfast, I plan to go to lunch now." Descards glanced at McCormick for a moment, then made his pitch. "I'm looking for something different for my chain of video stores. This looks promising, should be a big seller. If you could get away from this display, join me for lunch, we could continue this discussion."
McCormick hesitated, not wanting to seem too eager. "Well, I don't know…"
Hardcastle, sitting in his new GMC outside, was cursing the ex-con. "Dammit, McCormick, say yes!"
"Take it easy, Milt, he's doing just fine." McGovern smiled at Hardcastle's impatience.
"Yeah, I know, I know."
The two men listened as McCormick finally agreed and they discussed various restaurants.
"Your boy is very cool, Milt. He would've made a pretty good agent."
"Not the kid, he has too much of a temper. And his smart mouth would get him in trouble in no time." McCormick a spy? Hardcastle couldn't even begin to imagine that.
The restaurant was finally chosen and they heard Descards lead McCormick to the parking lot. Hardcastle could see the top of Mark's head as the two men searched the lot for Descards' automobile.
"It's a brown rental, one of those foreign jobs." Descards started for the next row. "Ah, I see it."
They walked to a small Isuzu parked remarkably near the Coyote. McCormick prayed that it was just a coincidence and that he hadn't been burned as a plant yet.
"Can we stop on the way? I need to pick up something at my hotel, if you don't mind."
"No, of course not." McCormick swallowed, knowing his time was getting short. "For your meeting later this evening?"
"That's right. I appreciate this, Mark." Descards smiled, the warmth never reaching his eyes.
McCormick fiddled with his ring, twisting it on his finger and slipping it up and down.
"Is that new?"
"The ring, is it new?"
"Uh, no, it belonged to an old friend of the family. It's just a nervous habit. Sorry if it bothered you."
"No, it doesn't bother me. It is a beautiful ring, though. Can I see it?"
McCormick froze, not knowing how he could possibly refuse. Apprehensive, he pulled the ring off and handed it to Descards. The agent took it with one hand and drove with the other. Two blocks later, he turned into the parking lot of a Holiday Inn. Pulling into a parking space, Descards gave the ring back and turned the motor off. While Mark put the ring back on, Descards reached under the seat, pulling up a snub-nosed .38, complete with silencer.
"Who are you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. Why are you holding a gun on me?" McCormick stalled, hoping the backup would get there quickly.
"You said the ring wasn't new, yet your finger is as tan as the rest of your hand. Lift your watch."
McCormick slowly pulled the band up and looked at the white skin underneath.
"You see, a ring of white from wearing the watch all the time. Who are you? Are you with the Agency?" Descards shook his head. "It really doesn't matter, you're a dead man."
"Are you going to kill me now? Here I the parking lot with all these witnesses?"
"There is no one here, Mark. Who could see? My weapon has a silencer, there won't be a sound from the gun or you. If you stay very still, I can promise you that your death will be quick and relatively painless."
McCormick had slid his hand behind him, fumbling for the door handle. Feeling it securely under his fingers, he smiled at the killer. "Sorry, Descards, I don't feel like cooperating. Bye!" McCormick fell backwards out of the car, rolling under the next vehicle as soon as he hit the ground. He heard a cough and splinters from the pavement sprayed him.
Mark worked his way out from under the car, running over to the building to try and find cover. He dodged behind the open stairs just as Descards fired again. McCormick knew he had to find a secure place to get at his own gun. He couldn't be certain that Hardcastle and the others would show up in time.
A maid's cart stood outside the end room. Having cased a few hotel rooms when he was younger, McCormick knew that many of the women unlocked a whole roll of rooms to strip the sheets off and returned to put fresh bedding later, relocking the rooms at the time. Mark tried the knob of the first room he came to and was pleased to see that things hadn't changed, it was unlocked. He ducked inside, flipped the lock, and quickly dismantled the buckle, loading the gun and praying he wouldn't have to use it.
According to McCormick's count, Descards had fired at least three shots. He would have only two chances, while Descards would have a minimum of three shots left. If he hadn't reloaded.
Sirens off in the distance alerted McCormick to the nearness of his rescue team, but it also warned Descards. He was determined to kill this upstart. Kicking the door open, the former agent burst into the room just as McCormick finished loading the gun. They stared at each other, a moment frozen in time as each man weighed the other's resolution. Neither gun wavered, both poised on the brink of firing. McCormick couldn't breathe, not wanting to shoot, knowing that only by killing Descards could he live.
Both fingers squeezed at the same instant, neither man saying a word.
Hardcastle heard the shot as they squealed to a halt outside the room. Breathing a silent prayer, the Judge ran to the room, gun in hand. Standing in the doorway, Hardcastle saw McCormick half-lying across the bed, a red puddle forming under his head and shoulders. Next to the door, Descards stood, a red stain spreading over his chest. The wounded killer looked at Hardcastle blankly, then with recognition at the man standing behind the Judge, McGovern.
"He's too soft, but he could have been as good as I was." With that, Descards collapsed at their feet, apparently dead before he hit the floor.
Hardcastle moved to McCormick's side, afraid to turn him over, afraid of what he might find. The slight movement of Mark's back indicated to Hardcastle that he was still breathing, still alive. McGovern, having let his men take care of Descards' body, leaned past the Judge and carefully turned McCormick over. The wound was in the right forehead, just above his eye.
"Oh, God, a head wound," Hardcastle murmured.
"Don't get so upset, Milt. He's alive. There's always a chance."
"Damn, I hope so. If anything should happen to him…"
Waiting in the hospital was not one of Hardcastle's favorite pastimes. He could remember waiting in a hospital when he was just a child, his grandmother upstairs dying of tuberculosis. Later, as a young man on emergency leave from the Army, watching his mother dying of a series of heart attacks. His son had been in Vietnam when he had been killed, no hospital stay then. Soon after, his wife died after a prolonged illness. And now, McCormick, the kid was like a son to the Judge.
"Everyone I love dies. It isn't easy being the one left behind, you know that?" Hardcastle sat holding a cup of lukewarm coffee in the waiting room, talking to Ted McGovern. The agent was wearing his off-duty outfit, work pants and a hunting shirt. He and the Judge had been holding the hospital watch for six hours, waiting for some word on the seriousness of the wound. On the way to the hospital, McCormick's eyes had flown open, staring at some unknown horror, but he hadn't uttered a word in the ambulance.
The doctor had offered the appropriate sympathies, but wouldn't tell the Judge what he wanted, and needed, to know. So he waited and worried.
"Mr. McCormick?" The nurse looked expectantly at the two older men waiting in the small anteroom.
"What? We're here about McCormick, if that's what you mean." It suddenly occurred to Hardcastle that he had no idea how to contact the younger man's family. His files weren't that comprehensive, listing only Atlantic City, New Jersey, as place of birth and no other information. His subtle questions and hints had been met with flippant replies, outright lies, or uncommunicative stares, usually followed by a change of subject. The Judge hadn't really concerned himself with the whereabouts of McCormick's parents, as Mark never seemed to be in contact with them. When things were back to normal, Hardcastle knew he'd have to get the information from McCormick somehow. Just in case.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I assumed you were the patient's father. The doctor is ready to see you now." The nurse turned to leave, her crisp white uniform shining like a beacon.
"Ma'am?" Hardcastle reached out to her, unaware of the gesture, "Miss, how is he?"
The nurse's eyes softened. Too many times she was the bearer of bad news, the messenger that in olden times would have been killed for the information they brought. Finally, she had good news. "He'll live, sir."
"Thank you, Miss." McGovern rested a hand on Hardcastle's shoulder, "come on, Milt, let's see what the doctor has to say."
The doctor was young, female, and distracted. She quickly shook both men's hands and waved them to chairs. She clipped x-rays into a display light, sitting on the edge of her desk. "Your friend is alive, Judge Hardcastle, but it's a damn miracle!"
"I don't understand. McCormick took a direct shot in the skull, how could he still be alive?" McGovern asked, seeing the relief on Hardcastle's place.
"It appears the bullet hit the patient's skull and skidded completely around the brain case until it could exit in the back." The doctor pointed to the x-rays.
"I didn't see an exit." Hardcastle began to pay more attention to what she was saying.
"It didn't bleed as much, and was obscured by his hair." She smiled slightly. "I'm afraid the young man might be a bit upset when he comes to. We had to shave off some of that hair."
"Then he'll be okay?"
The doctor turned away, frowning. "I can't promise that. There was some splintering and definitely some jarring. I'm fairly certain there is no extensive damage with his motor functions, but there could be memory loss, confusion. We'll have to wait and see. That is where you can be of help. We need to check Mr. McCormick's responses to various questions. You know him, so your knowledge of his background will be invaluable."
"Of course, anything that I can do," Hardcastle replied.
"Milt, since everything seems to be okay, I'll head back to my office and clear up this Descards matter." McGovern stopped in the doorway, turning to look at Hardcastle, his eyes guarded. "Milt, I'm sorry. If I could have avoided this in any way, you know I would have."
"Ted, you did everything you could. Don't blame yourself. These things happen."
"Yeah, sure." McGovern left quickly, not looking back again.
McCormick was on his right side, his head covered with a white bandage. Around the edge of the bandage, light brown curls had been shorn away with apparent haste and total disregard for appearance. He was wearing a dingy white hospital gown, another bandage partly visible on his left shoulder.
Hardcastle turned to the doctor, indicating the smaller bandage. "What's that for?" he asked quietly.
"We dug some gravel and concrete pieces from the shoulder," she replied. "Are you ready?"
"Yes, I guess so."
"Mr. McCormick, please wake up. Can you hear me?" The doctor leaned over the sleeping form. "Mark McCormick?"
McCormick's cloudy blue eyes stared blankly at the woman looking at him. Then a boyish and somewhat untrustworthy grin appeared. "Hey, beautiful, do I know you?"
She smiled back. "No. I'm your doctor, Gloria Kendricks. You're in Memorial Hospital. Do you remember what happened to you?"
McCormick's grin faded. "I…I don't really…" His voice trailed off, a grimace of pain passing over his expressive face.
"Anything at all, even a feeling."
"I remember a sharp pain, my head felt like it was in flames." Mark glanced at Hardcastle without any apparent recognition. "Who's he, another doc?"
"No, McCormick, it's me. You were shot, kid."
"Shot? By who, the cops?" He was disorientated, his mind jumbled with images, some that included this man who seemed to know him. "You don't look like any friend of mine. You look more like a cop."
Judge Hardcastle deflated, his body sagging against the wall. "I'm an old friend. My name is Hardcastle, Milton Hardcastle. You live with me, at my place."
"Why? Do you run a hood home?"
"No, I'm a Judge. You were in trouble a couple of times. Now you're in my custody."
"So what else is new? I'm always in trouble with somebody."
"What do you remember, Mr. McCormick? Does this man look the faintest bit familiar to you?" Dr. Kendricks asked, disappointed by the lack of memory, although she had warned the Judge of the possibility.
"How cum you keep callin' me 'Mister'?"
"If you prefer, I'll call you Mark. Would you rather I do that?"
"Yeah, I'd like that." McCormick's eyes closed as he tried to sort out the flashes of memory. "I see him playing basketball. And a bright red car sitting nearby, a real fast set of wheels. A wolf?"
"Wolf?" Kendricks looked up at Hardcastle, startled. "Judge he doesn't own a wolf, does he?"
"He means Coyote. The car is his, an experimental model called a Coyote."
"I own a car?" McCormick whistled, impressed with the lingering memory of a low-slung carriage and long, sleek lines.
"And the basketball?" Kendricks prompted.
"Yeah, pops, and at your age. You'd look ridiculous."
"We play some basketball, one-on-one at the estate."
"Estate? Hey, are you rich?" There was a disturbing gleam in McCormick's hard blue eyes, cold and conniving.
The Judge didn't notice the look and laughed. "You asked me that when I first drove you there. My wife had some money."
"Your old lady as ancient as you?"
Hardcastle stiffened at the insolence. This wasn't anything like the Mark McCormick he knew. "My wife died some years ago."
"Oh. Sorry." McCormick didn't sound contrite. He tried to sit up on the bed, but slid back down on the slick sheets. He swung his legs around the side and hopped off the bed, looking for his clothes. He ignored the attempt to help him. His head throbbed. Mark raised his hand to it, fingering the bandages. He walked to the mirror that was bolted to the hospital wall.
"What have you done to me?" Kendricks and Hardcastle heard the cry that Mark gave, watching as he reached out and touched the mirror. He turned back to them, the shocked disbelief evident on his face. "What have you done?" He lunged at Hardcastle, swinging wildly, but, off-balance, he missed. "How long was I out?" McCormick's glare halted Hardcastle's cautious approach, daring the Judge to come any nearer.
"What do you think is wrong, what seems different to you?" Kendricks' voice was calm, gently reassuring. She motioned to Hardcastle and he backed off, feeling anything but reassured.
"I'm different, older looking. Heavier, with a tan. Soft." The last was said with contempt.
Hardcastle and the doctor exchanged looks. This was unexpected. From McCormick's reaction, it appeared a long amount of time had passed.
"Kid, what year is it?" Hardcastle asked.
"Dammit, old man, stop calling me 'kid'!" McCormick made no effort to hide the anger in his voice. "It's 1971, of course, what year do you think it is?" McCormick glanced at the doctor, twirling his finger beside his head to indicate his opinion of Hardcastle's sanity.
Kendricks jerked back, astonished. "How old are you?"
"Old enough, sweetie." Mark reached out, encircling the doctor's waist. "What do you have in mind?"
"Let go." Kendricks stared McCormick down.
Mark shrugged. "Sure, babe, don't get so uptight. I want an answer, though. What happened to me? I mean, I've got hair on my chest!"
"Doctor, may I speak with you outside?" Hardcastle held the door open for Kendricks, watching McCormick with apprehension.
In the hallway, Hardcastle exploded. "What the hell is wrong with him!"
Kendricks shushed him. "Judge, this is a hospital."
"But, 1971? That's 13 years ago!"
Kendricks paced in front of the Judge. "How old is he?"
"Mark'll be 30 in a few months. Why?"
"You are now dealing with a young man who is mentally about 16 years old. An adolescent with all the urges and reactions of a teenager."
"A teenager? But when he first woke up, he didn't seem that way. Is he retrograding?"
She considered, shook her head. "I doubt it. He appears to be a street kid. More than likely he was faking until he could figure out the situation."
"And just what is the situation?"
"Sir, to all intents and purposes, he is just a teenager, with no memory of anyone or anything past 1971, other than a few fragments struggling to work through." Kendricks stood at the door, her hand on the artificial wood frame. "I'll call Harry Martinez first thing in the morning."
"Head of the psychiatry department."
"Why not call him now?"
"Judge, you may not have noticed this, but it's nearly midnight. Most people are home in bed by now. I'll call in the morning."
"What about the kid? What about him?" Hardcastle waved to the room where a stranger sat waiting.
"He stays over. I want him under observation anyway."
Two days of intense psychoanalysis didn't help anything. Mark McCormick was convinced her was 17 years old, that someone was playing an elaborate scam on him, though he wasn't sure why or how. He also tried twice escape, the second time by decking an orderly who took him by the arm and flipped him. The Judge felt that taking McCormick to Gulls-Way might help. Having no better suggestions, the doctors agreed. Setting up regular appointments, they were also relieved to see him go.
Mark explored the Gatehouse, showing no recognition whatsoever. "Man, I could really get to like living here. Nothing to do but swim, play ball, and sleep." He ran up to the sleep loft on the second floor. Leaning over the metal railing, he watched the Judge watch him. "Don't you trust me, old man?"
"Tell ya what. You don't call me 'old man', and I won't call you 'kid', okay?" Hardcastle didn't like this McCormick. He was rude and arrogant, selfish and deceitful. There didn't seem to be any of McCormick's fun and kindness left in the boy. "Now, supper is at six, you wanna eat, be on time. Then we'll have a talk about your status here, lay down some hard'n'fast ground rules."
"Dammit, you old --" Mark stopped at Hardcastle's hard look. "What the hell do you mean, I can't drive my car!" Temper flaring, his fist slammed down on the tabletop, rattling dishes.
Hardcastle ignored him, continuing. "You understand English, don't ya? No car. Not until you decide to shape up and fly straight, sport. Now, let's clear the table. You can dry."
There was a dangerous glint in Mark's eyes as he glared at Hardcastle. He rose slowly and, with studied intent, swept plate, glass, and other items within his reach off the table. Stoneware and glass shattered on the tiles, silverware scattering. Mark leaned on the table, staring down at Hardcastle still sitting at the table, defiant and demanding. "I want my car, damn you. You have no right to keep it from me. It's mine!"
"There's a broom and dustpan in the kitchen. Clean that mess up."
"Clean it up yourself. You damn well don't own me!" Mark watched as the Judge pushed up from the table, leaning on the glass top to face him. There was something disquieting in Hardcastle's attitude, his voice low and deceptively calm.
"The next time you swear at me or smart off like that, you'll be eating your meals in a locked room." He pointed to the broken dishes, not breaking eye contact. "Pick. That. Up. Now."
For some unaccountable reason, Mark didn't want to press this old Judge too far, to challenge the cold fury in his pale blue eyes. With a careless shrug, he backed off. Next time it would be different. Mark had no doubt that there would be a next time.
Mark peered out the sliding glass door, watching as Hardcastle disappeared into the main house. He began tearing the Gatehouse apart, searching for money and keys, but he found only photos and the various mementos that the 'other' McCormick -- as Mark had come to refer to him -- had collected over the years. He lifted a small crystal duck from a bookshelf and frowned. A dull throbbing pain began behind his right eye as a fragmentary memory came, unbidden and unwanted, the crystal figurine spinning in the air, a frantic grab to catch it.
"No…" he moaned softly. Then, matching action to memory, threw the duck against the fireplace, oblivious to the sound of glass shattering onto the stone hearth. He struck his fist repeatedly against his forehead, trying to drown out the 'other's' voice, to beat the deep pain from his skull by inflicting more pain. "No, I won't let you…not you…"
He stumbled outside, leaning against the black iron porch railing, dizzy and breathless. As he raised his head, his eyes caught the orange reflection on the Corvette's polished chrome, parked near the garage. A hard thin smile made his face take on a strangely un-McCormick expression of guile and deceit.
"All I have to do is wait until night when the old man is asleep, then hot wire that machine and I'm out of here!"
The overage delinquent, never having meet the people who turned his life around just as he was on the brink of ruining it, went back inside, settled down on the couch to await nightfall. It seemed to take an eternity for the evening glow to deepen into black velvet. It was a clear, moonless night. A few hours after midnight, Mark felt he could safely work on the 'vette, unseen, even if, by some chance, Hardcastle should look outside one of the windows that faced the garage.
Mark had changed into a pair of black chinos and black, long-sleeved pullover that he had found in the closet. He had been pleased to find the 'other' McCormick's hot wire kit, so the guy wasn't such a saint. He didn't want to find out what the establishment had done to change him so completely. He couldn't be the simpering wimp the old Judge had told him about during supper.
Carrying the box under his arm, Mark slipped out the door, walking around to the side where the driveway ran. Just as he was about to step over the low hedges lining the curb, bright spotlights froze him where he stood, looking guilty as hell.
"Going somewhere?" The tone said he wasn't.
Mark turned slowly, seeing Hardcastle in a blue jogging suit and holding a basketball. The glare directed at him was more intense than the artificial light. And in those icy blue eyes was something else -- disappointment and sorrow. Mark didn't want to see that, didn't want to know that he was liked as the 29-year-old, out-of-shape weakling. No one had really loved Mark enough to worry about him. He had convinced himself that that was how it always should be. The only person who continued to try was a dirt racer named Flip Johnson. Considering the passage of time, Mark wondered where Johnson was now. Had Flip run out on him as well?
"I asked you a question, boy."
"Just out for a walk." It wasn't convincing and he tensed, ready for flight or fight, as the case might call for.
"A walk, huh? At 2 a.m.? And I know you never wear those clothes unless you're planning a midnight break-in. And if you're not, what's the box for?" The weariness in Hardcastle's voice was obvious, even to Mark. "Let me warn you, you'll never make it off this property. If I don't catch you here, I'll close the gate at the entrance before you reach it."
"Wanna bet?" Mark retorted, grinning.
At that moment, he sounded and looked so much like his normal self that the Judge stepped toward him, looking closely. "Kid?"
"Yeah, old man?" Defiance replaced the grin.
That hope dashed, Hardcastle took the hot wire kit, motioning Mark back toward the Gatehouse. "And stay there!"
Tempted to disobey, Mark weighed his chances and decided to bide his time. Tomorrow night would be better as Hardcastle would be less likely to expect another break so soon. The old guy had to sleep sometime. Or so Mark hoped.
"Since you can't seem to stay put, I'll have to treat you like the prisoner you claim to be. You'll stay in here. The door will be locked at night." Hardcastle threw McCormick's clothes onto the bed, eyeing the sullen boy/man watching him from across the room. McCormick was sporting a black eye from the last attempted escape in the Corvette. The Judge had moved the Coyote to an undisclosed warehouse in Los Angeles, not trusting Mark with it. Hardcastle had felt the difference in the ex-con, even in the way he fought. Before the accident, Mark could fight dirty, but never as out of control as he was now. His McCormick fought to a finish, just rough enough to stop the fight. This one fought to the death, or as close to it as he could with his bare hands.
"You really don't think you can pull this off, do you? I mean, there are laws against this sort of thing!" Mark snapped, his eyes roving restlessly around the room. "I've got rights!"
"You've got nothing. You're certifiably incompetent. I could have you committed." Hardcastle stopped himself. He hadn't meant to say that, but he had seriously thought about it, wondering if he had been right to bring McCormick to Gulls-Way. The surroundings didn't seem to be helping any. Hardcastle knew he couldn't live with this person much longer. It was tearing him apart to see McCormick like this, uncontrollable and contemptuously, openly defiant. Nothing the Judge said or did seemed to make any kind of lasting impression.
Mark's narrowed eyes were on the Judge when he left the room, his face whitening when he heard the key turn in the lock. He sat on the bed, his aching head in his hands. Flashes of memory had been plaguing him for two days and the headache was getting worse with every hour. Mark felt as if there were two people in side of him with one desperately trying to take over.
If he got sent away, the 'other' McCormick would win in the long run, the doctors would see to that. Mark knew all about shrinks. The cops made him see one the first time he had been caught stealing a car when he was fifteen. Do-gooders, all of them, just like this old Judge. So, okay, if it kept him out of the funny farm and free on the street, not to mention being able to use this great estate, he'd play the game. Mark had been a player from way back.
Hardcastle didn't believe the change the first few days, but soon he and McCormick came to an understanding. Mark wouldn't run away, and the Judge wouldn't lock him up.
It wasn't long before McCormick began showing signs of increasing restlessness, so Hardcastle agreed to a drive and a movie, one Mark wanted to see called MAGNUM FORCE. While the Judge got drinks and popcorn, Mark tried to find good seats. As he walked down the aisle, he bumped into a man carrying a Pepsi and a box of Milk Duds.
"Hey, watch where you're goin', Jack!" McCormick snarled.
"Watch your mouth, boy, or I'll…" The man blanched when he saw who he was talking to. "…McCormick?"
"Yeah, what's it to ya?" Mark was upset. He finally got a good fight all ready to go and the man ran away from him. Maybe this new body was more intimidating than he thought.
The Judge joined him and the two settled down for the movie, Mark forgetting the incident.
"I tell you, he saw me! He looked right at me and tried to pretend he didn't recognize me, but there is no way he couldn't remember me. I shot him!" Descards yelled at Ted McGovern, causing McGovern's secretary to shut the outer door.
"I told you not to leave the Agency headquarters until your new face was ready."
"I was bored. We have no choice now, we have to get rid of both McCormick and Hardcastle."
"Hardcastle? Why? He didn't see you, did he?"
"No, but McCormick is sure to tell him. This has really blown my cover." Descards shook his head in disgust.
"And now I have to clean up, that right?"
"You've got it, old buddy."
"Don't ever leave this compound again, not for any reason, until I tell you that you can. Is that understood?" McGovern pulled the right-hand desk drawer open, removing his personal .38 from it. "You weren't supposed to shoot, only force McCormick to shoot you. He had to think that he had killed you. You would have been perfectly safe. But, no, you just had to shoot him, almost kill him." McGovern gave the agent a hard look. "It wasn't bad enough that I had to scam a good friend who had agreed to 'help' me out, but I risked his friend's life because you couldn't follow orders. It wasn't necessary to change any details of the plan."
"I couldn't be sure he wouldn't check to be certain I was 'dead', with McCormick wounded, Hardcastle wouldn't be concerned with me. And it worked, didn't it? You got the extra blanks off McCormick right under the Judge's nose, there was no way he could suspect anything different than what he was led to believe. Until now. So what are you going to do?"
"Visit the Judge and find out if McCormick has said anything yet. If he hasn't, I'll kill McCormick. If he has, I'll kill them both. Satisfied?"
Descards smiled, "Yeah, but I wish I could be there."
McGovern sighed, laying the .38 on the desktop. This whole thing was getting out of hand. He wasn't sure he could control Descards. The man was too headstrong, the same independence that made him such a good agent in the field made it difficult for him to follow the orders of a superior -- especially one with whom he disagreed with, certain he was right and everyone else was wrong. Once Descards' current assignment had been completed, McGovern would be free of him, but now, everything hinged on the fact that Descards was 'dead'. He couldn't afford to have his plans destroyed now, not when he was so close.
He checked his calendar. There was a meeting with another double-agent that he could not avoid. He wouldn't be visiting Hardcastle as soon as Descards thought. He didn't run things. Tomorrow afternoon would suffice. It would also give him time to plan and arrange a fatal 'accident' for McCormick, if he needed to. After all, the ex-con may be reasonable and willing to cooperate, maybe even bought off or threatened with prison. McGovern didn't want to kill anyone just to satisfy Descards' demands.
Bright sunlight edged slowly over the window sill. McCormick stirred restlessly, becoming aware of a dull, persistent throbbing in his right temple. Groaning, he rolled over on his back, he couldn't think of any reason for the headache and looked toward the nightstand to see if he had overslept. The alarm clock was not the one he expected to see. His was digital, this one had a regular clock face. He looked around the room, the furnishings were also unfamiliar. Antique wood, brocade curtains and upholstery, all tastefully elegant and formal, far removed from the environment to which he was accustomed. He sat up slowly, hand against his aching forehead, brushing over a bandage, something else he couldn't remember having had yesterday. It actually hurt to think, but he tried to recall the events of the 'night before'. Disjointed scenes flashed through his mind, the pain worsening as he tried to sort them out into some kind of coherent order. The fight (again!) with his girl, tearing out in his car to the Sports Deli, sitting in the Indy 500 Room, commiserating over uncounted J. W. Dants. Then, nothing.
His clothes were strewn over the floor, shoes clear across the room. Getting carefully to his feet, he crossed to one of the two windows, this one looked out over a meticulously kept lawn with trimmed hedges and shrubbery. The second window had a more informative view. There was a wide blacktop drive that curved around a fountain and a completely customized GMC 4x4 was parked outside in open garage. He could barely discern the dark, clean lines of an early-to-mid-60's Corvette in the dim interior of the garage, but his own 3 year old Stingray was nowhere in sight. He hoped it hadn't been towed from the bar's parking lot, as he had obviously left with someone who was in much better condition to drive than he had been. He had never before had a hangover headache that had ached this badly.
He dressed quickly, intending to make his apologies to the lady, then seeing about his car. Opening the bedroom door, he gazed down a long hall with original paintings, antiques, and more doors. The place appeared to be a mansion, and an empty one at that, very quiet. He tried a few doors, his cautious knocks receiving no reply, until he found the bathroom. It was large and luxurious, with a sunken marble tub and antique brass fittings. He shook his head, wishing he could remember who had gone home with, hoping she was the understanding type. If not, he would have to call Flip to come get him.
He frowned as he gazed into the mirror framed in dark oak over the brass and marble sink. Along with the bandage, there was a dark bruise under his left eye, and the face staring back at him was different, older somehow. He smiled wryly. "Man, that must have been some party. I look 10 years older. And feel like a hundred." He ran his hand through short hair and grimaced. "Who did I pick up, a modern day Delilah?"
Deciding to see if he could find his elusive hostess, he went downstairs, thinking she might be in the kitchen as there didn't seem to be any servants about. Although unsure of the layout of such a large house, he was certain the kitchen would be off the dining room, which was visible through open panel doors about 15 feet down from the entry hall. He glanced into empty rooms as he approached the mahogany doors and looked around the dining room, suddenly uneasy. Paintings, silver, crystal, wood -- everything gave the impression of the quiet, understated elegance of the greatly affluent.
McCormick knew that the only way a young woman would own such a place like this was if she was married to a much older man, or she wasn't so young herself. He was also well aware that someone like him didn't end up in a place like this without something expected in return, something that was usually illegal or immoral or both. He considered cutting out, hitching back to the bar if he had to, when he heard faint sounds in the adjoining kitchen. Cabinet doors closing and the clink of glass. Curiosity overcame his common sense, maybe he'd just have a quick look. Maybe she wouldn't be too old. Perhaps if he saw her, some of the memories would return, or she might be able to fill him in on the last 12 hours.
Moving silently to the swinging door, he pushed it open a few inches. Mark couldn't believe what he was seeing. An older man in his sixties, built like a brick wall, wearing a baseball cap, a worn blue bathrobe and the oldest pair of tennis shoes in the history of Western Civilization. He leaned weakly against the door jamb. "Jeeze, when I'm wrong, I'm wrong." Some pieces began falling into place and he didn't care for the picture that was appearing.
The stranger looked up from the coffeemaker at McCormick's comment. There was a hesitant smile. His manner was one of familiarity, close familiarity. "Hey, kiddo, you finally get to sleep? What the hell were you doing, anyway? Throwing your shoes against the wall? Just 'cause I wouldn't let ya have the car keys?"
As the other man chuckled to himself, McCormick came just inside the kitchen, the door swinging shut behind him. He leaned against the wall, watching as the other man worked with what appeared to be a futuristic coffee machine.
"Uhhh, yeahhh. Look, I, uh, didn't come home with you, did I?" How blasted had he been, anyway?"
Receiving no answer one way or another, Mark continued hopefully, "your daughter, maybe? Granddaughter? Maid? Next door neighbor?"
McCormick was getting desperate as each question brought a negative headshake and the stranger's former friendliness changed to puzzlement. "You're not… Are you married?"
He wasn't sure what answer he wanted to hear, but he got a cold, hard stare in return. The old guy didn't seem to know what he was talking about. Flipping the switch on the coffeemaker, the other man leaned against the counter, arms crossed. He said in a guarded, almost challenging voice, "yeah, I was married."
McCormick slumped against the wall, he was definitely in trouble. He and Flip were scheduled for qualifying trials this weekend. Mark didn't want to be busted up for coming home with some rich old guy's young wife, mistress, or whatever. "Look, I can explain this, really."
"Oh? This I'd like to hear."
Mark wasn't sure, but there seemed to be amusement in those ice-blue eyes, as if he really couldn't wait to hear what this one's excuse would be. "Well, I had an argument with my girl yesterday. I guess I sorta had too much to drink at the Sports Deli, the Indy 500 room, you know. Out in Malibu. I'm still in Malibu, aren't I? California?"
Getting a short nod in reply, McCormick continued, still hopeful, as the guy hadn't given any indication of impending violence -- yet. "Anyway, I was drinking there and woke up here and I don't remember anything in between. Honest. And if I'd done anything like, er, that is, I'd certainly remember if I, uh…" The poorly concealed amusement was more evident than ever. McCormick stopped in mid-sentence. The guy was obviously having some fun at his expense.
"Do you remember your name?"
"Yeah, sure." Tentatively, he held out his hand, using his most innocent and winning smile. "McCormick, Mark McCormick."
"My name is Hardcastle, Judge Milton C. Hardcastle, retired and widower." The grip was firm and there was laughter in his eyes. The broad smile was more like a warm welcome than a formal introduction. "Tell me, kid, how old are you?"
Withdrawing his hand, McCormick looked at Hardcastle. That was an odd question, he thought. He hadn't been asked that, in quite that way, since the cops had pulled him over for boosting a car when he was barely fifteen. He couldn't figure out this guy. Mark glanced around for the back door, in case he should need to make a quick getaway. The fact that this tough-looking old Judge was between him and the door didn't help. He edged slowly sideways, keeping the kitchen table between them. "Past the legal drinking age. Why?"
"Answer the question, McCormick." The tone was stern and he moved to block the younger man's retreat.
"Last time I counted the candles on the cake, there were 24 of 'em. Look, what is this? Could we talk about this later? I've got to check on my car and -- "
Hardcastle's manner softened. "Don't worry about your car, I know where it is."
"You do? Wait, you said something about car keys. Do you have my keys? I couldn't find them. I was afraid I might have left them in the Stingray. I know it's only a '68 and doesn't look like much, but the engine is prime."
McCormick braced against the wall as Hardcastle moved in his direction, but the Judge only picked up the newspaper lying on the kitchen table, tossing it to him.
"Take a look, kiddo."
McCormick caught it, glancing at the headlines. Then his eyes caught the date. He looked up sharply. "What's going on? Is this a joke or something?"
"But it's 1978. It has to be 1978. I'm qualifying this weekend, the Outlaw Trail Championship is -- " He broke off as Hardcastle shook his head, pointing over his shoulder. McCormick turned, stared with total disbelief at the calendar. "It can't be. Please say it's really 1978." He looked back at the Judge, unable to accept the reality of the situation.
"Okay, it's 1978 - five years ago."
"I don't get any of this." He frowned, his head aching more than ever. "And believe me, it really hurts to think. How did I get here? How did I get this head injury, why is my hair so short?"
"It's not short."
"It's not the way I remembered it -- what happened?"
"You had an accident. You were in the hospital for a while." Hardcastle smiled gently, sympathizing with McCormick's confusion. "Sit down, kid, I have a lot to tell ya."
"Flip is dead?" McCormick's shocked response was his first interruption in Hardcastle's long narrative. There was a depth of grief and pain in his eyes that the Judge had never seen before. He waited uncomfortably as McCormick dealt with the unsettling news.
"Sorry, kiddo, I shouldn't have sprung it on you like that."
"No, I'm okay." McCormick took a deep breath, rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes. "How did it happen? When?"
"He was killed in a car wreck. His lawyer was driving. It was some months ago."
"And Barbara? Is she all right? Where is she?"
"She's fine, attending law school. She's quite a young lady, McCormick, she took your advice and continued her education."
"My advice. I don't remember any of this. Damn it. Five years gone, almost overnight. Barbara was just 14 or so. Flip and I, we were just reaching the big time. Now I wake up one morning and find my friends are either dead or strangers and a stranger seems to be a friend." He thought for a moment. "Judge, you've told me about '79 and '80, and from early '83 to not. And I gotta tell ya, it really seems strange to be working for a judge. But what happened in '81 and '82? Man, this is too weird. I'm talkin' about 3, 4 years from now…then. I don't like this, Judge. If I didn't already have one hell of a headache, this would give me one."
Hardcastle rose from the kitchen table. Taking two cups from the counter-top, he poured the freshly brewed coffee. This was going to be tricky, but McCormick had to know everything. "You spent 1981 and '82 in prison. Car theft."
"No! No way." It was an angry protest.
"Because I was finally accomplishing something worthwhile, I was close to becoming one of the best drivers on the racing circuit. Flip…" he paused, realizing just how much he had lost, then continued emphatically, "Flip had done so much, worked so hard. He depended on me to help realize a dream we both shared. I wouldn't have jeopardized that for anything in the world. Certainly not for something as stupid as stealing a car, damn it!"
"The circumstances were a bit complicated." Hardcastle sat down, pushed a steaming mug toward McCormick and faced him squarely. "It was like this. You bought a new Porsche and put the title in your girlfriend's name -- you were living together at the time -- to avoid a steep insurance hike. Later, the two of you had an argument and she threw you out. When Melinda wouldn't let you have the car back, you simply took it. She called the cops, you were caught, arrested, tried for GTA, sent up for 2-5, and paroled in '83. End of story."
"End? Just like that?"
"Yeah, just like that."
"And aside from that one case you mentioned, I haven't done any racing since?"
Leaning back in his chair, McCormick stared at Hardcastle for a long time. "You seem to know an awful lot about me. You sent me up, didn't you?"
"Yeah, kid, I did. But it could have just as well have been 10-15 considering your record. I went easy on you."
"Very considerate of you, Judge. Tell me something, are you trying to ease a guilty conscience by bringing me here, giving me a place to stay, providing a job such as it is, appointing yourself as my guidance counselor? Is that the real reason you chose me for a partner?"
McCormick grinned. "Yeah?"
"Yeah, McCormick. I told you why I picked you out of the line-up, and anyway, you were second choice. It was reaching the point of you or no one. Based on the evidence at hand, and the charges, my sentencing was entirely in order and completely legal. I just gave you a break, okay?"
"I see." McCormick finished his coffee. He touched the bruise on his left cheek, wincing. "And did you give me this, too?"
"Nah, you earned that, McCormick."
"Anytime." At McCormick's quiet laughter, Hardcastle breathed a sigh of relief. Things would work out after all. And it would be easier to deal with this McCormick, he wasn't so volatile, and considerably more mature.
"Then what is it that's troubling you, Judge, if not guilt for sending me to prison? Something's bothering you. It shows."
Hardcastle looked into his half-empty cup, not really seeing it. "It was my fault you were shot. That never should have happened. I sent you out there, but I honestly believed you would be covered." He looked up into calm, unreproachful eyes. "I want you to know, Mark, that I would never intentionally let anything happen to you. And I'm real glad that you're recovering, even if I have to recite your life's history two or three more times." He paused, glancing away. "I've missed you, kid. There's been a stranger around here in more ways than one." The Judge hadn't thought he would ever come to admit that, particularly to McCormick.
"I could have quit at any time, couldn't I?'
"If it came right down to it, yes. But I was somewhat insistant."
"But if I agreed to help, and continued to do so, then it was just as much my decision as yours."
"You don't understand yet, Mark. The choices I give are 'either/or'. I give orders and expect them to be obeyed without question or complaint. You had reason to question, questions I didn't want to answer. You always complain, so I never listened to that. You didn't want to take this assignment, I knew that, but I had already agreed to use you. I put my sense of 'honor' above your wellbeing. It wasn't worth it. I should have insisted that Ted McGovern take care of the CIA's problem themselves. I'm sorry for that. I'm doing what I can to correct that one error in judgment." Hardcastle didn't think he could go through this again as he watched the older/younger McCormick accept the rest of the explanation without rancor.
"I understand, Judge, a lot more than you think. But then, having no memory of those events, sorta puts a damper on any anger or resentment I might have. I'm shaken up, I admit, who wouldn't be? But I can handle it with a little help from a friend."
"You don't even hafta ask, kiddo."
"Judge." McCormick looked at him seriously. "Do you think I'll catch up on those missing five years?"
"Yes, I think so. Eventually."
"And I won't recall any of this, will I?"
"It's not likely, no."
"That's too bad, Judge. I have a feeling that this is something I'd want to remember."
Hardcastle pushed back from the table. "You want some breakfast?"
McCormick smiled. "Yeah. Since both my health and my honor are safe, I'm starving."
Descards waited impatiently in the house assigned to him, watching the headquarters' door from the window in the den. It had been nearly twenty-four hours since his meeting with McGovern, and there had been no indication that Ted intended to follow up with his visit to Hardcastle any way soon.
"You fool, they could ruin it all!" He wondered why McGovern was so reluctant to act. He knew Ted and the Judge were friends from the Korea conflict, but that couldn't stand in the way of successfully completing an assignment, especially one as important and politically delicate as this one. Sometimes, sacrifices had to be made; sometimes, it was necessary.
After he completed the Russian job, maybe he'd take up the matter of McGovern's mishandling of the affair with their supervisors. It seemed lately that things were being handled sloppily, things were happening while under McGovern's supposed control. It was time, Descards decided, for someone with a firmer backbone to head this section of the CIA's covert activities division.
His thoughts were interrupted by McGovern's exit from the white frame house serving as temporary headquarters. He watched as the man got into his Chevy and drove off. Settling back in the armchair, Descards smiled. He would check to see if Ted intended to settle the matter, give his boss one last chance to deal with the situation, properly and finally. If he didn't, Descards would have to remind Ted McGovern just what his responsibilities were.
"Ted, welcome. Come in, come in."
"Hello, Milt. I thought I'd drop by and see how you and Mark are doing." McGovern followed the Judge into his study, checking the Judge's reactions to see if he was in trouble.
"McCormick is out swimming. I don't know whether he'll -- " Hardcastle began, interrupted by Mark's entrance into the house.
"Hey, Judge, can I call someplace and have pizza sent over?"
After a few hours to himself, McCormick had agreed to see Dr. Martinez that same day. The psychiatrists were encouraged, saying that if he continued improving at the same rate, he would be back to normal in a month, maybe less. All the Judge knew was that he vastly preferred the 24-year-old McCormick to the 17-year-old one. He was calmer, friendlier, and a lot more trustworthy. So much so that they had picked up the Coyote on the way back to the estate, and it was now parked in its accustomed place next to the Judge's classic 'vette.
"No, not now, we have company. This is Mr. McGovern. He helped us on that case I told you about." Hardcastle introduced the agent to Mark, ignoring the strange look McGovern gave them. The Judge also noticed a relaxing of inner tension in McGovern, as if he had expected a confrontation of some type. He wondered at the reason for it.
"Nice to meet you , Mr. McGovern," Mark smiled, going back to the pool. "Hurry up, Judge, and come on out."
The two heard a splash as McCormick dove into the pool's cool aqua water.
"What's the matter with him?"
"Some sort of amnesia, although the doctors aren't sure whether it's from the gunshot wound or a reaction from killing someone." Hardcastle watched as Mark slowly kicked his way across the pool. "He's never killed anyone before. I don't think McCormick has even shot a person before."
"Surely he went to Nam?"
"Nope, by the time he was of draftable age, the war was winding down -- he also has an arrest record."
They spoke of old times, and common friends. After a decent time, McGovern left. Hardcastle was puzzled, he didn't think Ted had come over for just small talk, but what was the real purpose?
"Judge Hardcastle, are you coming outside or do I have to come inside and get you?" McCormick yelled from the deck. He stood in his red trunks, looking like the same man who had fallen asleep on the beach so long ago.
The Judge walked out onto the patio, laughing at the faces Mark was making. "What's the matter, kid?"
"The deck tiles are hot!" He jumped back into the pool, just as a shot echoed about the pool area.
Hardcastle hit the ground, looking for the location of the sniper. He didn't see anything except Mark pulling himself carefully from the pool, keeping low to the cobblestone deck area. After a few moments, he realized that there wasn't going to be anymore shots. "Mark?"
The quiet was eerie. Hardcastle slowly stood, looking towards the shrubbery, but there was no sign of McCormick. He quickly scanned the area. "Mark!"
The voice was faint, but definitely belonged to his missing partner.
The Judge ran straight for the beach, nearly stumbling over Mark's body. He knelt next to the ex-con, trying to find a wound. "Where are you hit?"
"Not…shot…hurts…" McCormick held his head in his hands, crying out at the agony he felt.
Another ambulance trip, another wait in the hospital waiting room. Although not so long a wait this time, Hardcastle was heartily tired of the constant waiting. He had never learned patience and he didn't plan to learn now.
"Judge?" Kendricks came out of the emergency treatment room, cleaning her hands off. "He's fine. He wants to talk to you right away."
"What happened? Why did he suddenly have that attack?"
"I think I can explain that. When the gunfire began at your house, it brought back a flood of memories that he had tried to suppress. It caused an overload. His 'circuitry', if you will, backed up suddenly, hence the severe pain. Take it easy on him, Judge Hardcastle, he's still groggy from the pain medication we gave him."
Hardcastle held the curtain surrounding McCormick's gurney back, looking at the younger man lying there. There were dark shadows under his eyes, the whites almost hidden by the bloodshot lines. But the grin was intact, the dimples giving the boyish look to it. It was also the disarming grin of the Mark McCormick that had first come to Gulls-Way.
"Hey, kiddo, you back with us?"
"Yeah, looks that way. Dr. Kendricks explained what was going on with me. Sorry, Hardcase, I know it must've been a real pain."
"Only for the first stage, the second wasn't so bad. It doesn't matter, kid, as long as you're okay now. Are you?" The Judge brushed McCormick's hair back in a rare display of caring. His forehead felt warm, but not feverish, and his manner was subdued. Realizing what he had done, the Judge dropped his hand and backed away.
"Yeah, I think so. The doc does, too."
"You wanted to talk to me?" Hardcastle prompted, leaning against the wall, his burly arms folded.
"Oh, yeah. Guess who was shooting at us?"
"McCormick, I don't feel like playing twenty questions. Who did you see?"
If McCormick was hoping for a big reaction from the Judge, he was disappointed. All Hardcastle did was nod and murmur something that Mark couldn't hear.
"I don't get it. I tell you that a dead man shot at us and all you do is nod? I'm not crazy, Judge, I didn't imagine it."
"I know. Do you remember anything since you were shot by Descards at that motel?" Hardcastle asked, changing the subject.
"Uh, I think I remember coming to once in the hospital, but I'm not sure. Other than that, I don't remember a thing until now. What has this got to do with Descards?"
"You and I got a surprise visit from Ted McGovern moments before our sniper showed up."
"So? You've lost me, Judge."
"What else is new? Think back to the beginning of the case."
"'Return with us to those thrilling days of yesteryear…'"
Hardcastle didn't try to hide his smile. Things were back to normal. "Shut up and listen, you just might learn something. McGovern came to me for help, he set up the arrangements for your tail, as well as for the meeting. He also gave you the weapon used. Are you catching up, or am I goin' too fast for ya?"
McCormick sat up, nodding. "And gave me the ammo as well. But, wait a minute, Judge, those bullets looked and felt real. I know blanks when I see 'em."
"They were probably especially made blanks, McCormick. Someone went to a lot of trouble to pull one over on us. If I had been thinking, I would have confiscated those dummy .22s before good ol' Ted got them off you. And then his people checked Descards out, took the body away, and notifying all the interested parties that he was dead. We -- I -- took Ted McGovern's word for everything. We were suckered, kid, and I don't appreciate an old friend doing that to me. And I don't like the fact that you were caught in the middle."
"So, what do we do to get even?"
Hardcastle smiled, a humorless smile that boded ill for someone, as a glimmer of a plan formed in his mind. "We don't get even, kid, we get ahead."
"Damn it, Tony! I warned you not to go there! McCormick is ill, he doesn't even remember the shooting. Now you've let the Judge know something is wrong. I wash my hands of you. If Milt comes for you, the Agency will not help you -- you're not irreplaceable, no matter what you think of your talents. I didn't like using Milt's friend in the first place, but I felt that establishing you as a double-agent was important enough to look the other way. Then you have to shoot him, after you were specifically told to either miss or wound."
"I did wound him, he's alive, isn't he?"
"No thanks to you. A head wound? You're a killer, Tony."
"Yeah, so? That's what you made me, that's all you ever really wanted. What will your friend do now?"
McGovern shook his head. "I really don't know. I just don't know."
"I don't know about this, Hardcase. What if I slip up?"
"Then you're dead. Descards is no fool, you have to be perfect. Something's going on, something more than just setting up a cover story for Descards. I've been sniffing around and my guess is that my old buddy is playing all of us for fools, you, me, Descards and the Agency." Hardcastle looked at his friend, frowning. Hardcastle had a few doubts about the plan, but he couldn't actually come up with anything else that had a chance of working. "Kid, if you don't want to do this, we can think of another plan."
"No, I'll do it. I'm nervous, that's all." McCormick took a deep breath and walked to the entrance of the Agency's hideout. Hardcastle had pulled some strings to find the location without it getting back to McGovern. McCormick stopped at the main house that doubled for a security checkpoint.
A casually dressed man walked out onto the porch, eyeing McCormick as he approached. "Can I help you?"
"I need to talk to Tony Descards."
"Descards? I don't know anyone by that name." The man, obviously a guard, shrugged. "You must have the wrong house."
"No, I don't think so. Call him, tell him that the man who killed him wants to talk." McCormick turned his back on the guard and watched two squirrels playing in a nearby maple. He heard the watchdog go into the house. After a few moments, a car drove up beside McCormick and stopped next to him. Mark turned, faintly surprised despite everything at seeing Descards at the wheel.
"Hello," the 'dead' spy greeted McCormick, smiling coldly. "I didn't expect to see you again."
"I imagine not, since you tried so hard to kill me this morning."
"Why would I try to kill you?"
"Because you're under the impression that I was taken in by the drama in the hotel room. That when I saw you at the movie theater, I would blow your cover. The only one who came close to blowing your cover was you. That was stupid. Ted told me you were smart. One of his best, or so he said." McCormick carefully watched the guard standing in the doorway.
"I don't understand."
"You idiot, you were set up. Did you really think that I was an innocent? Would McGovern be so dumb as to allow a civilian to try to 'catch' you?"
"You're one of us?"
"No, but I was told going in some of what would happen. Except for the part where you actually shot me in the head." McCormick paused, sighing. "I think you're been double-crossed, Descards. I think McGovern is trying to set you up."
Descards got out of the car, walking to the other side where Mark stood. Under his breath, Descards cursed. "So I was right. He's dirty, isn't he?"
"Let's walk, preferably somewhere away from them." McCormick indicated the guard, now joined by another, with a nod of his head.
"Yeah, let's take this path over here." The two men walked into the woods, both aware of the ever-present watchful eyes around them.
"Can I ask you something?" McCormick leaned down, picking up a small pine cone and nervously breaking off the petals.
"Do you really do that? Kill people?"
"The only killing I've done has been in the line of duty. Or what passes for duty in this line of work. I love this country, McCormick, and I would do anything for it, no matter what." Catching the younger man's moue of distaste, Descards laughed bitterly. "You might not understand, but I consider myself a patriot. Feelings, conscience have no place in this line of work. I enjoy being an agent. I got into it to do some good. Later I came to enjoy the game for the danger. You feel alive."
"What about the people you're supposed to be helping keep free? Don't you care for them?"
"It fades away. And Ted helped keep that wall around me. You don't have many close friends in this business. You can't truly trust anyone, plus loved ones can be used against you."
"Do you want to get him, find out what he's up to? Start living a normal life here in the States?"
"Yes -- no -- I don't know. If Ted's dirty, I want him taken care of, but to quit the Agency? I really don't know any other life. I was recruited when I got out of the service. I was just 22 years old."
They came to the end of the trail, having gone full circle back to the entrance of the compound. McCormick stopped, resting his hand on Descards' car. "Think about it. You can contact me at Judge Hardcastle's place."
"You trust him? He's a friend of Descards."
Mark's smile was warm. "With my life. He won't betray us, I promise."
McGovern nodded. "I'll let you know."
McCormick walked off, leaving with Descards with a few ideas to kick around. He was shaking by the time he reached the Judge's truck. Slipping into the passenger seat, he leaned back and concentrated on calming his heart.
"You okay, kid?" Hardcastle started the truck and drove back to the estate.
"Yeah, but was I scared. That guy is dangerous!"
"I was listening, McCormick. You were safe."
"Ha, where have I heard that one before? It only takes a second for someone like him to kill a guy." McCormick wiped the sweat off his face. "You wanna know something, though? I feel sorry for him. He's a killer, but he has his own set of morals and betraying his country for personal gain isn't something he'd ever consider doing."
"Hello, is McCormick there?" Descards pressed the phone receiver closer to his ear.
"Yeah, hang on a second. Can I ask who's calling?" The Judge motioned Mark to the phone.
"Just a friend."
Hardcastle handed over the receiver, leaning back in his desk chair to listen.
"Yeah, this is McCormick. Who's this? Oh, hi, Descards. Have you thought it over?"
"What we talked about, getting McGovern, you still want to?"
"Yeah. The Judge sniffed around, found out that your boss has been making the wrong sort of contacts and opening some bank accounts in unfriendly countries."
"Where do I come into his plan?"
"McGovern's been spreading rumors around about you going bad. The Judge thinks you'll be the scapegoat and cover for him to disappear."
"I wind up dead, Ted disappears and I'm suspected of killing him."
"Yep, that about covers it."
"But there's no real evidence?"
"Everything Hardcase has found lead back to you, not Ted. If we go to the Agency, they'll take you out."
"So how do we get him?"
"Can you come here, to Gulls-Way?" McCormick saw the Judge shake his head and held up his hand before Hardcastle could say anything.
"No, I think Ted might have me under surveillance. Can you come here?"
"I don't think that would be any better an idea. Those guards wouldn't let me in without reporting my presence. Unless there's a way in without being seen."
"Yeah, there's another path into the place that isn't too well guarded. If you're careful, you could make it in without being seen." Descards outlined the location of the alternate entrance. They agreed to meet at nine o'clock that evening.
Hanging up, Mark looked one as the Judge reached for the phone. "I don't like this, Hardcase. Someone's gonna get killed and I'm afraid that someone might be me." McCormick walked to the dining room while Hardcastle spoke to McGovern. Cross and double-cross, the whole thing was giving Mark a bad taste in his mouth. He reached for a bottle of liquor from the bar and poured himself a drink. Hardcastle entered just as Mark was finishing his whiskey.
"Got a beer for me?" Hardcastle sat at the table while McCormick got the drinks.
"Here." Setting the beer can down on the table, McCormick sat across from the Judge. He stared silently into his glass.
"I don't know. I guess I'm wondering if we have the right to do this."
"Descards shot you, tried to kill you! And Ted set you up for his own personal gain."
"Yeah, I know, but… Descards didn't think he was doing anything wrong. For that matter, neither did McGovern, even if he is crooked. We were just a convenience to them. Neither thought what they were doing was wrong. They probably have done the same thing to others in the past."
"And that makes it right?"
"No, Judge, but, does what we're doing make it any better?"
Hardcastle shook his head, pushing the baseball cap back on his wind-ruffled hair. "I know, kid, but something has to be done. I'm not letting either of them get away with this. The level of callousness towards civilians is appalling. And there is no way I can let Ted get away with what he's planning. As you told Descards, we have no real evidence against Ted. We have to use the one man to set up the other. Do you have a better idea?"
"No. What's to keep them from taking care of the situation themselves?"
"You mean, try to kill each other?"
"Yeah. Descards isn't a 'by-the-book' kinda guy. His reaction to problems is violent -- look how he tried to kill us after I ran into him." McCormick drained his glass, debated whether to have another drink. He rubbed the round indentation in his forehead absently. "I don't know, this whole thing is wrong. I can feel it."
"You can pull out, call the whole thing off if you want."
McCormick shook his head.
Hardcastle could see the signs of exhaustion on Mark's face, the lines unders his eyes and around his mouth. He wondered if the kid had reached his limit. "Look, after this is done, we'll take a vacation. Maybe to Hawaii."
McCormick walked through the woods, carefully watching his steps. If he stepped on a twig or branch, the guards nearby would be alerted. The clearing was behind him, the trail stretching ahead like a dark snake. Climbing through the woods at night wasn't McCormick's idea of a fun evening, but little of what was planned would meet that definition. He heard a faint noise and stopped, one hand on a nearby tree trunk.
"McCormick?" A low, harsh voice came from the path ahead.
"Yeah. Tony?" Mark whispered back. He hoped the Judge's mike was working. He felt alone enough without having equipment breakdowns.
"Sorry, wrong man." A flashlight snapped on, blinding Mark.
"McGovern!" McCormick dove for the ground. As he rolled against a pile of leaves, he saw the Agency boss standing among the trees. He was trying to aim a rifle at the rapidly moving McCormick, but it was difficult to hold the light and the gun at the same time. During the time that McGovern took to place the light on a tree limb, McCormick was running down the twisting trail.
"You can't get away, McCormick. You made a mistake coming here. Tony made a bigger one using a camp phone to call you. Nothing goes on here that I don't know about."
McCormick tripped over something in the dark, landing hard on the rocky ground. He felt around in the leaves, trying to identify what had tripped him. His hand moved over the large object, catching in a sticky substance. As his fingers caught in hair, he realized that it was a body, probably Descards, shot through the skull. He sat back on his heels, shivering, expecting McGovern's bullet to find him at any second.
"I suppose Milt is out there somewhere, backing you up?" McGovern picked up the flashlight, playing it over the surrounding brush. "Hey, ol' buddy!"
"Why, Ted?" Hardcastle's voice echoed.
McCormick looked around, unable to locate Hardcastle's exact position. He fingered the mike, debating on whether to call out to him or not. He finally decided to wait.
"Why, Milt? You ask why? Because I was tired of being loyal and broke. Descards was the perfect patsy, utterly loyal and a killer born to the art. When the double-traitor idea came up, I decded to use the confusion to get out from under the Soviet and U.S. intelligence agencies. Descards would turn out to be the real traitor. I fixed the files to show this. If you didn't kill him for killing your friend, the Agency would. Or even the Soviets, after I leaked the false files to them. And his trusting boss would disappear, a victim of foul play. A neat little plan, don't you think? Except Ted didn't kill McCormick."
McCormick edged closer to the light, gauging his chances of knocking the gun from the man's hands. If Hardcastle could keep his former friend occupied with his story, maybe, just maybe…
"He fit into the plan and he was convenient. I had done some checking after running into you. The word was that you had a different relationship with this ex-con, that you wouldn't want anything to happen to him, yet were willing to put him at risk for the right reason. And that you would never rest if he was killed."
McCormick climbed into a tree, pulling himself up above McGovern's eye level. One thing he had learned during his dubious activities was that people rarely looked up. Only forwards and backwards. He sat there and waited for the agent to come a bit closer.
McGovern, clearly more concerned with Hardcastle, wasn't bothering to look for McCormick at the moment. The Judge was considered the more dangerous of the two men. But McGovern hadn't stayed alive all those years without developing a sixth sense. He could feel someone's eyes on him and the hair tickling on the back of his neck indicated trouble. He dropped the flashlight and swung the rifle around, just as McCormick dropped from above. They struggled for possession of the gun, Mark losing ground to McGovern's superior training. A shot drew both men's attention. Hardcastle stood over the combatants, his own rifle leveled at them.
"Let him go, kid. Ted, you shouldn't have dragged me into this. You never should've set McCormick up to die. If you hadn't, you might have made it." Hardcastle took McGovern's rifle away and helped McCormick up. He prodded his former friend up the winding trail to where other agents and the police waited.
"So, Descards couldn't resist confronting him?" McCormick ran the net through the pool, catching loose leaves and dead bugs.
"That's what it looks like. He knew that Ted had the phones bugged, it's why he called you from them. He was waiting when Ted came to the safe house, but Ted managed to shoot him before Descards could say a word." Hardcastle relaxed on one of the lawn chairs, watching the younger man slowly working.
"Hmmm, guess he felt he owed a fellow agent the courtesy of an explanation." McCormick flicked the bugs out of the net, then paused to look at the Judge. "The next time an old friend of yours from any place, even the dog pound, needs help, count me out!"
"For once, kid, I agree with you."
Leaning on the long pole, McCormick gazed out over the deep blue ocean at the distant whitecaps. Hardcastle heard him chuckling, apparently at nothing.
"What the hell are you laughing at?"
McCormick pulled something from the rear pocket of his favorite jeans, holding up an audio cassette. He tossed it across the pool. "A voice from the past, you might say."
The Judge caught it, read the hand-written label aloud. "From Mark McCormick, 1978, to Mark McCormick, 1984." He looked up, disconcerted. "Damn. He, you, he didn't…"
McCormick's impertinent grin was maddening. "Word for word, Judge, everything you so kindly said about me."
"Hearsay, kiddo, inadmissible." Hardcastle threw the tape toward the pool.
"Hey!" McCormick caught the cassette in the net, inches from the water. "Now, now, Judge, wouldn't want to destroy evidence." He flipped the tape from the net, caught it left-handed, and held it against his heart. "I'm gonna treasure every word until my dying day, Hardcase."
"Watch it, wise guy, that may be sooner than you think -- a lot sooner!"
A/N: Originally printed in Back to Back 1 in 1984. Slightly rewritten from the original version. Please understand that this story was written during the run of the series and was completed long before Mark had shot Weed.