Payback

By Lizabeth S. Tucker

1.

The street was dark; no lights from the overhead lamps to brighten the gloom, no passing car headlights to highlight the pavement. The only sounds were the crickets and the soft footpads of Mark McCormick's feet as he walked along the road, carrying a busted flashlight and can for gasoline. Someone had tampered with the gas gauge, and McCormick had mistakenly believed that the Coyote's tank was half-full when, in reality, it was almost empty when he had left the estate to pick up Judge Hardcastle at the all-night firing range.

Hardcastle was at a bachelor party there for a cop he had know when he was on the bench. McCormick had dropped the Judge off, went to the movies with a girl from his Torts' class, then took her home and not a house or store in sight. He remembered seeing a small mom-and-pop gas and convenience store about a mile from the shooting range and hoped that they would still be open. If they weren't, the Judge would have to get a taxi to get them home and come back for the stranded Coyote in the morning.

The flash of headlights warned McCormick of company. He got up onto the grass, debating whether or not to hitch a ride. That was a dangerous pastime nowadays, but it a good three miles to the station, and it was already near midnight.

The vehicle came up on him too fast for McCormick to decide whether to put his thumb out or not. The car caught him in its headlights and veered toward him. Startled at first, McCormick didn't move. Then as the vehicle jumped the curb, he threw himself backwards, grazed by the front bumper.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" McCormick shouted, rolling onto his side. He jumped to his feet as the car slammed into reverse and backed swiftly toward him. "Hey! Cut it out! This isn't funny, man!"

McCormick turned and ran, weaving in and out of the rocks that showed eerily in the bright headlights. Still the car came after him, playing him like a bull in a Mexican arena.

McCormick, panting, his heart feeling as if it would burst, fell over a clump of tangled brush. He scrambled desperately to his feet, but felt the car clip him painfully in the small of his back. He fell forward, tumbling off the flat part of the grass into the sloping clump of weeds and trees. He slammed headfirst into a large evergreen and didn't know anything more, the blackness becoming complete.

2.

"Ohhh, my head…" McCormick groaned, wincing when his hand hit a wet spot on his forehead. He looked around, but realized that it was still night and still dark. He peered at his wrist, or where it could be, but couldn't make out his watch. For that matter, he couldn't make out his arm. He listened for the sound of an engine, but there was nothing but the usual night creatures.

McCormick climbed to his feet, trying to orientate himself. He had been on the right side of the road when he fell, heading for…for the shooting range…to pick up Hardcastle. He groaned again, holding his pounding head in his hands. He stood in that position for five minutes, trying to calm both his head and his queasy stomach. Finally, he climbed to the top of the sloping ground, slumping to his knees in exhaustion.

"Oh, man…I'm not gonna make it to the firing range…no way…" He fell back, laying on his back and breathing in and out until his heart calmed. McCormick stared at the stars and sighed, knowing he had to get moving. Hardcastle would be waiting for him. And the Judge didn't like to be kept waiting.

Slowly, McCormick climbed back to his feet and began to trudge down the road. He was glad that there were no cars, certain he would jump out of his skin if one came by him. He was dizzy and his head was still bleeding, the blood dripping into his left eye. He kept rubbing it out, but it continued to trickle in. McCormick began weaving about, barely able to walk. The darkness, combined with his bout of dizziness, was making his balance tilt from one side to the other.

It seemed hours before he arrived at the small store he had originally set out for. Now, he didn't have the useless flashlight or the gas can, but it wouldn't have mattered -- the place was locked tight. He slumped against the brick and glass store front, resting. His eyes, roving about restlessly, lit on a phone booth and he smiled. Digging in his jeans pocket, McCormick found a quarter and two pennies.

If his luck would hold out a little longer, he could call Hardcastle and have him get one of the guys to give him a lift to the station. If he could find a number for the range. Stumbling to the phone, McCormick held his breath as he looked for a phone book. His search was rewarded when he pulled out a much-torn copy of the Yellow Pages.

"…okay, 'Guns, Shooting Ranges'…must be there somewhere…" he mumbled to himself, running his finger down the various listings. The dim lighting from the station barely reached the pay phone, and he squinted, his eyesight already blurry from the earlier concussion-causing injury. "Aha, found it!"

Closing the door to the booth, the interior light came on with starling brilliance. "Hey, nice place. The light bulb works in the phone booth, it has a complete directory. Now if the damn phone itself works, I'm home free."

Dropping the quarter into the slot, he heard the dial tone, and shakily punched in the number he needed.

"Bite the Bullet, may I help you?" The man's voice on the other end of the line was the most welcome thing McCormick had heard all evening.

"Yeah, I need…I need to talk to a guy who's at that party. Man by the name of Hardcastle, Judge Milton C. Hardcastle. Can you get him for me? Page him or something?"

"Well, I don't know…"

"It's important, really."

"Okay, hang on."

McCormick bit his lip while listening to the dead silence over the phone. His foot tapped impatiently on the concrete floor, eyes on the road, still looking for the mysterious car that had tried to run him down.

"Hardcastle," came the familiar growl.

"Thank God! Judge, I need help. Can you get somebody to drive you to that gas station we passed? The Coyote's out of commission and so am I."

"What happened?"

"Some idiot tried to run me down. The Coyote ran out of gas, and I was hiking to this place, ya know, only this car showed up and…hey, Judge, just come get me. I'll tell ya what happened when ya get here. I've walked this far, but I don't think I can make it -- Oh, Jesus, he's back!" McCormick saw the lights heading for him, knew from the low cant that it was the same vehicle as before. "Hurry, Judge!" He dropped the receiver and ran out of the booth, heading for the back of the store, praying that he hadn't been seen. Falling to his knees as he rounded the corner, McCormick listened as the car halted, the engine idling at a high rate of RPM. Taking a chance, he peered around the building, but couldn't see the driver of the car or, for that matter, the car itself. It could be foreign or American, a compact or a sedan, there wasn't enough light from the booth or the station to be able to tell. The windows of the car were darkly shaded, tinted with some one-way film. He didn't even know if there was more than one person in the vehicle.

All he had to do was wait for Hardcastle to arrive, or remain hidden until the driver grew weary of the game and left. McCormick sat on the ground, keeping an eye on the car as if it watched him. "That's silly. The car isn't watching me, the driver is." While he knew that was true, that it was the driver who was dangerous, McCormick still felt as if it he were in a remake of CHRISTINE, the Stephen King thriller about a killer car.

It was scary, not being able to see the driver. And why was the guy trying to run him down? He and Hardcastle had been too busy with McCormick's law school activities to work any old cases. In fact, he mused, it had been over a year since someone had shot at them, or involved them in a high-speed car chase, or tried to make their lives miserable in any number of the usual ways. He laughed silently. No killers, extortionists, or crooks who threw people off trains in ages. A normal life.

So why was he hiding from a car, behind a deserted store, in the dead of night, in the middle of nowhere? If it wasn't for the fact that he was sure the gas gauge had been working yesterday, McCormick would've assumed he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Come on, Hardcase!"

3.

Retired Judge Milton C. Hardcastle hung up the phone, staring at it curiously. McCormick was injured, and he had sounded badly frightened. That in itself worried the Judge. McCormick didn't scare easily. "What the hell is going on?"

Looking around the room, Hardcastle sighted Lieutenant Frank Harper juggling three oranges while standing on one foot. "Frank," he yelled across the intervening distance, "Get your keys. We've gotta rescue McCormick!"

Harper dropped one of the oranges. "Whaddaya mean, 'rescue McCormick'? What's Mark involved in now?"

"I don't know, but it sounded serious. Come on!" Hardcastle was out the door before he finished speaking, Harper having to run to catch up with him.

They ran to Harper's small tan car, a ten-year-old Opel, Hardcastle telling Harper what little McCormick had said. They tore out of the parking lot, spraying the other cars with tiny bits of gravel.

"I don't know what he stumbled into, but he said that someone had tried to run him down, and he sounded shaky. Then the kid shouted that they were back, dropped the phone, and that was all I heard." Hardcastle explained, leaning forward, trying vainly to see beyond the limited range of the Opel's headlights. "Can't this thing go any faster?"

"Hey, I'm sorry -- it isn't the Coyote or the 'Vette. It doesn't have a souped-up engine like the pickup. I don't normally go chasing around late at night in the family car, ya know?" Harper responded sharply. "We'll get there. And probably find out that the kid had a few drinks, fell over his own feet, and imagined it all."

"First, McCormick doesn't drive after he's had a drink. He's not that stupid. And he doesn't imagine things."

"That's not what I've heard. Like the time with the leprechauns. Or when he was attacked by those Russians." At Hardcastle's sharp look, he said, "yeah, I know about that, too."

"It's not the same. And he didn't imagine those Russians, either."

"And the leprechauns?"

Hardcastle harrumphed. "No comment. There it is, turn in."

As the Opel turned into the station, the headlights picked up the low silhouette of a custom job, sitting now with lights off. "What's that?" Hardcastle had his gun drawn, and was half-way out of the car before Harper could react. "You! In the car. Come out with your hands up, keep 'em where I can see them," the Judge ordered.

Harper stood behind the protection of his door as he pulled his service revolver. "Police!" He called out to the idling vehicle. "Do as he says."

They sat there, staring at each other. Then the car's lights blazed on, pulling out with a screech of tires, narrowly missing the Opel as it left the parking lot of the convenience store. Torn between chasing after it and looking for his missing friend, Hardcastle made his decision by holstering his gun.

"McCormick!" Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted loud enough to wake the dead. "Where are you?"

"Here, back here." The reply was weak, but definitely that of the missing man.

Hardcastle and Harper hurried around the building, almost falling over McCormick as he sat with his back to the wall. Hardcastle knelt next to him, staring in concern at the bloody features, now grinning up at him.

"You okay?" Harper asked, helping McCormick to his feet.

"Yeah. What took you so long? I was getting worried." McCormick stumbled, only Hardcastle's quick grab saving him from another fall. "Well, a little dizzy, maybe. Did you see it? Did you see that car?" As both men nodded, he continued. "Did you see the driver?"

Hardcastle shook his head. "No, I couldn't see inside the car. Frank?"

"Nope. I couldn't even see if there was a driver. What are you guys into now?"

"Nothing," Hardcastle protested.

"Not a thing, really," McCormick added in agreement. "But somebody tampered with the gas gauge in my car. That's howcum I ran outta gas and had to hoof it here." McCormick held a hand to his head, another to his back. "I don't feel so good, Judge. Can we go home?"

"After we take you to the emergency room."

"Awww, Judge…" McCormick whined, a true indication of his weariness, as it was a habit that he rarely indulged in any more.

"McCormick, I don't want an argument. You're going to see a doctor, and that's that!" Hardcastle growled, slipping his arm around McCormick's waist in support. "Can you make it to the car?"

His face set in pain, McCormick nodded. They slowly moved to the waiting Opel. Harper hurried ahead to clear a space in the back seat, sweeping his collection of sports' magazines to one side.

"Tin can, Frank. I feel like a sardine," McCormick muttered, his smile softening the jibe.

"This from a man who drives a Matchbox car. You don't even have a back seat," Harper grinned back.

Hardcastle made sure that the injured man was comfortable before climbing into the front seat. "Hang on, kiddo, we'll be there in no time."

"Yeah, sure," came the drowsy reply.

Hardcastle turned around in his seat as Harper pulled out from the parking area, heading for town. "Don't go to sleep on me, kid."

"Hey," McCormick protested softly, "it was a long walk here, not to mention my race from that damned car. Who was that? Judge, you haven't been doing anything while I'm in class, have you?"

"No! I've been too busy tutoring you. Then there's that substitute teaching job at the college I took on last month. When would I have time to crook hunt?"

McCormick's head nodded in the near darkness of the back seat, and the Judge saw him grab his head. "Bad?"

"Not too. You know the old saying…my head hurts, my feet stink, and I don't love --"

"Yeah, yeah, I've heard your Jimmy Buffett tapes. It may be the only music we both agree on."

Hardcastle sat sideways in the front seat, his eyes never leaving McCormick's shadowy figure for the rest of the drive. He was forced to prod the younger man awake a couple of times, but the cut on his forehead had stopped bleeding and the need for sleep seemed natural, considering the lateness of the hour.

Still, Hardcastle breathed a sigh of relief when Harper pulled up at the emergency entrance of the hospital. Prying McCormick out of the Opel took a lot of effort, but soon he was walking the wobbly, exhausted man to the desk.

4.

"How is he?" Harper asked, stifling a yawn as he stood next to the examination room which Hardcastle had just exited.

"Sleeping. They're going to send him home, but I have to keep an eye out for anything unusual in his walk or speech for a couple of days. He was lucky. The doctors found a large bruise on his back that will be pretty painful by morning. I'm not sure, but I think it was from being grazed by this mysterious car. Just missed his kidneys. He could've been killed!" The anguish in his voice embarrassed him. All Hardcastle could see was a vision of McCormick lying by the side of the road, injured or possibly dead, and no one knowing he was there. "I want this guy, Frank."

"I know, Milt. But there were no tags on the car and we don't have much of a description. Hell, did you get a load of the car? It's like nothing I've ever seen before. Looked like a damn shark. How do I put out an APB on it?"

"Okay, it's one of a kind. It's a dark color, maybe black or dark blue. Heavily tinted windows, low on the ground, a sloping roofline, nosedive hood, slotted tail lights. It shouldn't be that hard to find, if there's only one like it."

"And if this guy, or woman, puts the car in a garage or trailer and waits for the heat to die down? Or what if Mark wasn't the intended victim, just an unfortunate bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time?"

"I was just talking to the kid about that. He said that someone tampered with the gas gauge in the Coyote. That means it was deliberate and premeditated. He was definitely the intended victim."

"Okay, he mentioned this when we picked him up. If that's true, how will we find out who the driver was, Milt? Where do we start? Your old cases, Mark's former life in prison, or before that?"

Hardcastle ran a shaky hand over his face. "I don't know, Frank. I really don't know. I guess we'll start at the most current cases and work our way back in time. Find out who would have more of a grudge against McCormick than with me. Who's out of jail, who made threats at their trial and/or arrest. The usual run through. When the kid wakes up, we'll see what light he can shed on the case."

Harper stopped the Judge before he went back into the stark, white room. "Want a guard out at the estate?"

Hardcastle frowned, sighing. "No, not now. It might scare him off, only to return later. Anyway, that'd be running scared, putting that person ahead. I won't give into that. I can take care of McCormick."

"But who'll take care of you?"

"Me." The voice was sleep-slurred, but strong nonetheless. The two men turned to find McCormick slumped against the open doorway, a large bandage on his forehead. "Like always, right, Kemo Sabe?" The grin wasn't quite as effective, but sincere. "The Judge is right, we can't give in to this bastard. Now that I know I'm a target, and Hardcastle is probably one, too, since I've never gotten involved in anything without him along, we'll be prepared. If that's settled, can we go home? I'm bushed."

"Sure, kid. Let's get you home and into bed." Hardcastle walked protectively next to McCormick, ready to help if the woozy man needed any assistance.

Harper watched both men fondly. It was a relationship that constantly surprised him, considering the obstinate natures of both men and their earlier meetings in court. McCormick had once admitted to Harper privately that he had hated Hardcastle with an almost violent anger before getting to know the man, not that he had wanted to know him. That anger had helped McCormick survive in prison, according to the man who know called Hardcastle his best friend. It gave him something to focus on besides the hopelessness of his sentence. It made him determined to survive just to show Hardcastle that he had been wrong about him. Now only McCormick could say derogatory things about Hardcastle. If anyone else tried, they would feel the sharp side of McCormick's tongue. It was a tossup as to who protected who the most. Hardcastle picked on the younger man constantly, but took a dim view of anyone else doing so, and was known to spring to McCormick's defense, usually when Mark wasn't present to hear it.

Easing the weary man into the back seat of the tiny Opel once more, Harper drove slowly to Gulls-Way. "I'll take care of sending a tow truck to pick up the Coyote, Mark."

"No way. A tow could screw up the undercarriage. I'll call a flatbed in the morning -- in a couple of hours," McCormick corrected as he viewed the sun creeping over the trees. Yawning, he slumped to one side, quickly falling asleep before Hardcastle could tell him he'd take care of that.

5.

McCormick stretched, his jaw cracking with the force of his yawn. He turned to glance at his alarm clock, but couldn't find it. It took him a few seconds to realize that he was sleeping in the main house, not the Gatehouse. Hardcastle had decided to mother-hen it for the night. Or day, as the case might be. Mark fumbled for his watch, yelping at the time. "After noon! And Hardcase didn't wake me up?"

McCormick jumped to his feet, then had to grab for support as a wave of dizziness swept over him. "Slowly," he chided himself. "Do things slowly."

He managed to pull his clothes on and walk down the stairs to the kitchen without any more near- falls. Standing in the doorway of the kitchen, he silently watched Hardcastle digging through a large pile of file folders, a cup of coffee growing cold at his right elbow.

"Morning."

Hardcastle looked up, a distracted frown on his face that cleared at McCormick's appearance. He got up, shepherding the younger man to a chair. "You're supposed to be in bed, remember? No activity until tomorrow."

"I'm okay, honest. Maybe I'll take a nap later," McCormick conceded as he saw the other's concern. "I wanted to get my car back. I figured we could bring some gas with us, and I'd drive it back home."

The frown returned. "You're in no condition to drive. Look at you, you can barely sit up straight, much less drive. Besides, I've already taken care of it."

Suspicious, McCormick stared at the Judge. "Not a tow truck?"

"No, your precious car won't be towed like any other vehicle. I had the garage go get it, take it in for the gauge to be inspected and brought here either tonight or tomorrow morning, whenever they're finished with it. Satisfied?"

"Yeah, I guess so." McCormick looked around the kitchen, trying to find food among the boxes perched on the counters. "Anything to eat here?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah, what do you want? Eggs, some sausage or bacon? Something more substantial?"

"Cereal will do, maybe some toast. I'll get it, if I can find the bread." McCormick got to his feet too quickly and gripped the back of his chair until the blackness cleared. When it did, he found that Hardcastle had a hold of his arm and was looking at him with worry. "I'm okay. I'm not supposed to do anything sudden, but I forget sometimes, and move too fast."

"Sit down, I'll get your breakfast," Hardcastle growled, not fooling McCormick for a moment.

With a smile, McCormick leaned his head on his hand, watching the Judge, too exhausted, and too content, to protest. It was rare to find Hardcastle so overly helpful, at least when McCormick was awake or conscious, though he had been told of other times when he wasn't.

A plate was put in front of him, waking McCormick from the light doze he had fallen into. "Hmm…?"

"As soon as you finish this, you're going back up to bed. And I don't wanna hear any arguments," Hardcastle ordered, slapping a fork and knife on the table next to the plate filled with fluffy scrambled eggs and toast. "Want some apple butter?"

"Yeah, that's be nice. Howcum I'm so tired?"

"Happens after a hit on the head, not to mention traipsing all over the countryside at the crack of dawn. There's nothing to worry about."

"'m not worried, you are. I know the docs warned me of this, but I thought it'd be like all the other times I've been hurt."

"You have a slight concussion. You're bound to be a little drowsy. By tomorrow, you'll be back to normal."

There was a comfortable silence while McCormick ate and Hardcastle dug through the files, placing a few to one side as possible. When McCormick's plate was clean, and the coffee that had appeared at his side drained, he was ordered back to bed.

"Okay. On one condition."

"No conditions. Upstairs."

"Indulge me."

Hardcastle glared at him. "What is it?"

"Don't go after this guy until I'm back on my feet tomorrow. I don't want you going on this one alone. Hear, me, Hardcase? No solo missions."

"Alright already. No solo missions. I haven't figured out yet who your mysterious assailant was. Now, are you satisfied? If so, I'd appreciate your doing what I told you and get back into bed. I don't want to see your ugly face again until tomorrow morning. Understand? If you're hungry, I'll bring something up to you."

"Yes, 'dad', whatever you say." McCormick picked up his dishes, put them in the dishwasher, then trudged back upstairs again.

6.

"Rise and shine, hotshot."

The oh-so-familiar voice interrupted McCormick's vacation dreams, and he rolled over to escape the unwanted intrusion. But the tormentor wouldn't take the hint and yanked the covers off.

"Jeez, Hardcase, go away. I'm tryin' to sleep, here."

"You've slept straight through for nineteen hours. I think that's enough sleep for anyone, even you. Up and at 'em!"

The words slowly sank as McCormick opened his eyes to peer at Hardcastle in shock. "Nineteen hours? Really?" Grimacing, he pulled himself upright and hobbled to the bathroom, turning on the shower.

There was a knock on the bathroom door. Hardcastle slid clean clothes through, dropping them on the counter. "I'll be waiting for you in the den. We have some visiting to do after you've had breakfast."

Forty minutes later, a much more awake Mark McCormick came bounding down the stairs. Grabbing a bowl of cereal from the kitchen, he carried it into the den where Hardcastle was pouring over about fifteen file folders. Crunching on the 'nutritious breakfast', McCormick listened as Hardcastle outlined his criteria for the final selections for possible attackers.

"It would have to be a major case, something with a long sentence. Otherwise, there'd be no attempt on you. Most of the people that we've gone after are professionals. They know that jail is one of the bad breaks that come with their business. I can't see the majority of them coming after us. And some are already in jail. Those people would want to be present if any revenge was taken." Hardcastle sat back in the leather chair, waiting for McCormick to comment.

"I'm not sure I entirely agree with you there. Sometimes just knowing that it's been done is enough. But, for the sake of argument," …or lack of one, he thought, "…let's say that's true. Who have you picked out?"

"My most obvious choice would have been Weed Randall, but since you…that is, since he's dead, well… I think we can rule out any of his relatives, I couldn't find one that liked him, much less loved him enough to seek revenge against you." The Judge reached forward and flicked a drop of milk from McCormick's chin.

Jerking back too late, McCormick laid the empty bowl on the desk and reached for the folders. He flipped through them quickly, removing three and placing them to one side. "I'd rule these out. I don't think they'd come after me…just you."

Hardcastle nodded. "Okay. What about the others?"

Reading them aloud, McCormick weighed the chances of each person in the files being behind the attempt on his life. "Frank Taylor, murder and extortion, put in jail for life last month. Escaped one week later while on a medical visit to Los Angeles General Hospital. Nah, he's free. Why risk getting caught just to take out his frustrations on me?" He tossed the file onto the desk, Hardcastle adding it to the large pile of rejects.

"Tania Lorenzo, industrial espionage. Her trial was declared a mistrial due to the bribing of a juror. She's due up again in a couple of weeks and has been out on bail. Hmmm, she's a possible. Our little 'romance' put her in a real snit when she found out that she had been set up the same way she had set up all those poor married executives." That folder went to the corner of the desk. Pulling out another, McCormick shook his head. "Didn't you hear, Bill was acquitted of manslaughter. I don't think he'd have much of a reason to get us. The D.A.'s case was weak enough with or without my testimony." Another reject.

Hardcastle reached up, pulling a folder from the group McCormick was still holding. "This is my personal choice, kid. Your testimony may be the only thing that clinches the murder case against Gordon Simms. You were the only witness to the killing of his partner."

"Don't remind me. Simms, huh? Well, he is out on bail. So, is he our first stop?"

"You bet."

7.

"Wow, that was a bust. I can't believe he committed suicide like that." McCormick's voice was subdued, almost inaudible in the pickup. "I never knew he had a daughter."

"I didn't either, kid. I'm sorry you had to be the one to find him," Hardcastle replied, his hands wrapped tightly around the steering wheel.

McCormick's mind shied away from the sight of Simms' body hanging from the rafters of his loft apartment, undiscovered for three days. The heat in the enclosed room had hastened the decaying process. The smell was something that would remain in McCormick's memory for a long time to come. He had never seen a body bloated with internal gases before and hoped to never see one again.

"Well, that shoots the leading contender for Driver of the Year. Who next?" the younger man asked, his eyes on the road ahead of them. He was doing his best to act normal, but there were tell-tale shivers that he always seemed to get after a particularly bad experience. He could rarely hide them from Hardcastle and this time was no exception.

"I'm taking you home, then going to visit Frank Harper. After that, we'll decide who's next on our visiting list. And you're to keep the gate closed and the alarm on, understand? Stay in the house where it's safe."

McCormick looked at Hardcastle's steely-eyed glare and smiled, aware of the caring behind the grimace. "Yes, Judge, whatever you say. Are you sure you don't want to tuck me into bed, just to be on the safe side?"

"Can the smartass remarks. Just do what I tell ya without an argument for once, okay?"

"Okay, Judge. Doors locked tight, yours truly locked inside, taking it easy, watching TV…"

"Cleaning the house. If you're inside anyway, you can also get some laundry done. And separate them this time, will ya? All my underwear was pink after being washed with those long red thermal johns of yours."

"Hey, one little mistake and you never forget."

Hardcastle growled an unintelligible reply and continued the drive to the estate. He pulled up to the main house, letting McCormick out.

"Aren't you coming in?"

"Nope, wanna get this trip to town over with. Make sure you do what I said. I have the remote here in the glove compartment, so I'll turn the alarm off when I get back."

"Okay. See ya in a while." McCormick walked into the house, feeling Hardcastle's eyes on him until he closed the main door. He went to the window and watched as the truck passed through the main gate. Then Mark hit the alarm box which would engage as soon as the gate clicked shut.

8.

"Laundry's done, the kitchen is clean for once, and there's nothing on TV. I'm bored, Judge!" McCormick peered outside for the umpteenth time. When he was outside, he wanted to be inside. Now that he was in, he wanted out. "What could happen? I mean, the gate's locked, the alarm is on, and no one could sneak onto the grounds in a car."

Talking to himself was a habit required in prison, one that still appeared when McCormick was feeling especially lonely. Hardcastle had called an hour earlier, stating that he and Harper were working on a possible lead which meant he would be late getting home. That left McCormick with time on his hands.

Tempted to go out, he decided to heed the Judge's warning and stay inside until Hardcastle got home. Mark didn't feel like listening to the usual two-hour lecture over direct disobedience. Settling on the couch, he flipped through the cable channels, finally finding a very old Richard Widmark movie. He leaned back to watch it.

Mark knew he must have dozed off as when the horn sounded outside, it startled him. Assuming that it was Hardcastle, eager to be off on some lead he had gotten from Harper, McCormick walked out the front door, looking for the GMC in the driveway. It was dusk, that hazy in-between time when eyesight is faulty, but even at that, McCormick recognized the vehicle facing him.

The mysterious, one-of-a-kind car was back, though how it had slipped past all the security was beyond him. Parking lights glowed in dim yellow slits. The heavy bumper, painted a deep gray, extended almost six inches past the grill, appearing more offensive than defensive. McCormick began to slowly back away, his eyes never leaving the darkly tinted windshield. He reached behind him for the door knob. The car chose that moment to move toward him, gas pedal floored. McCormick barely had time to leap out of its path before the car slammed into the doorway. He scrambled to his feet, running toward the Gatehouse and a phone. The car, undamaged, reversed and headed after him.

Panting, McCormick knew he'd never make it and veered sharply, heading for the security of a nearby tree. He jumped for a low limb, pulling himself up just in time. The reinforced bumper glanced off the trunk. The tree shook and creaked, McCormick holding on for dear life as the limb threatened to break.

The car backed up and hit the tree again, jarring Mark off his perch and onto the black, sloping hood. Desperately he searched for a handhold, looking for the rim where the windshield wipers would be, but there was none. The metal met the glass in a smooth, unbroken line.

Not knowing what else to do, certain he would be run down if he fell off the car, McCormick spread-eagled himself on the hood, trying to become a part of the vehicle. The sleek expanse of metal radiated heat from the thrumming engine, the glossy surface made adherence difficult at best. McCormick gradually slid downward, toward the grill. The car weaved erratically before jerking to a sudden stop, reversing sharply.

He hit the ground with a painful thump, his knee twisting under him. Pushing himself back on the grass, Mark winced when he attempted to use his injured leg. A few feet and his back was against the scarred tree trunk. The car's engine revved while the headlights came on bright, blinding in the waning evening light.

McCormick tried to pull himself behind the tree, aware that it would be poor shelter but better than none. With his knee twisted, running was out of the question. The car backed up for one last run, far enough to provide excessive speed. It looked as if the unknown driver had decided to go through, rather than around, the tree. Unable to avoid the onrushing vehicle, McCormick breathed a silent prayer that it would be quick, pulling himself into a tight ball behind the narrow trunk. The car rammed into the tree, the trunk cracking. He looked up to see the splintered tree canted at an angle, nearly toppling over on the car.

"Alright! Hit her, baby! Crush that mother!" He sat on the grass, arms around a drawn-up leg, watching as the tree creaked and snapped under the second impact, crashing down on the hood and roof. The car was in reverse when the tree fell and managed to back out from under the topmost part of the tree, avoiding being pinned under the heavier trunk.

McCormick started backing up, looking around for a more steadfast shelter, pushing with his good leg and pulling with his arms, his fingers digging into the ground. His momentary surrender was over. He wasn't about to give up without a fight. Hardcastle would never forgive him, no doubt tracking him down in the Hereafter, and giving him hell. As the vehicle struggled free of the myriad branches, the lights fell on a possible refuge behind him. An ornate, stone bench sat near the hedge. It would take a bulldozer to budge it.

Steeling himself, McCormick lurched to his feet and half-ran, half-fell toward the concrete bench. He looked back over his shoulder at the car. He saw that the hood was badly dented, but it was still moving, straight for him. Ignoring the pain in his leg and knee, he tumbled over the bench, placing it between his body and the oncoming car. The darkly gleaming vehicle paused, then backed up, apparently to gain momentum. Mark crouched behind the solid back of the bench, unable to believe that the driver intended to ram the solid, half-ton obstacle.

The tableau was interrupted by a sudden blast from an air horn and a black and gray blur plowed through the hedges. Relief swept through Mark as the GMC ground to a halt between him and his unknown assailant. The other vehicle veered off in a sharp 180 and fled the estate's grounds, the engine hissing in protest. McCormick waited for Hardcastle to pursue the fleeing car, but the driver's door on the truck opened and slammed shut just before Hardcastle appeared in the dusk, hurrying over to him.

"Are you okay?" Hardcastle leaned down to help McCormick to his feet.

"Yeah, I think so. Why didn't you go after him? It? Whatever?"

Hardcastle harrumphed. It occurred to Mark that the Judge had stayed because he was worried about him. "Oh," he said finally. "Well, I'm okay. Really." He managed to stand, but when he tried to walk with Hardcastle back to the pickup, his leg collapsed under him.

The Judge barely grabbed him in time. "'Okay', huh?"

"I kinda twisted my knee. I tried to outrun the car after it hit, uh, the house," McCormick cringed as the Judge hadn't been aware of the damage to the front door of the main house.

Now he was aware of it. "The house?" Hardcastle's grip on McCormick's arm tightened as his gaze fell on the totaled doorway. "What the hell happened here!"

"Jeez, Hardcase, I didn't think he'd be crazy enough to ram the front door."

Hardcastle stared at him for a long moment. "Did you leave the house? Just like I told you not to?"

"Aww, c'mon, Judge, I thought it was you. The alarm didn't go off and there he was, right in the driveway…'course, it was too late then. Anyway, this isn't so bad. It could've been a lot worse. He might have hit the den window…'member how much that cost to replace when I dove through it?"

Hardcastle picked up a piece of splintered door jamb. "That was only glass. This is…was…solid mahogany. I'm taking it out of your pay."

McCormick pulled away. "The hell you are. I'm not payin' for something I didn't do. I already did that number." He started to walk off, momentarily forgetting his injured leg, and found himself on the ground. With a rueful grin, he looked up at Hardcastle. "Don't you have insurance or something?"

Helping the former con back on his feet, Hardcastle hid a smile. "Somehow, hotshot, at the time it just didn't occur to me to insure the house against hit and run."

9.

"McCormick, I just got off the phone with Frank, and…" Hardcastle's voice trailed off as he saw his friend sitting at the oversized desk, his face white and drawn. He was holding a letter in his hand, one which had arrived in that day's mail. "Kid, what is it?"

McCormick looked up, his manner distracted. "I have to go out for a while. I have to…to take care of something important. I'll be late getting back, so don't wait up for me."

Hardcastle barely had time to intercept him as he headed for the door. "Where are you going? What's going on?"

"None of your business," McCormick snapped. He pulled away, limping past the makeshift front door.

"McCormick!" Hardcastle's order was ignored. He stood watching helplessly while the pickup raced out into the dangerous darkness. Before leaving, the younger man had crumpled up the letter, tossing it out of the truck's window as he sped through the gate.

The Judge walked slowly to where the ball of paper lay on the ground. He picked it up, taking it back into the house. Uncrumpling the ball, he smoothed the letter out on the desk, shining the lamp on the handwritten lines.

It seemed an innocuous message, a few simple words strung together:

Skid, seems like old times, doesn't it?

(signed) Harry

P.S. You know where I'll be if you want to talk.

A few simple words and McCormick looking as if he had seen a ghost. Not to mention a mysterious black car wandering around in search of him. A car that was already on the estate grounds before Hardcastle had left, if the evidence on the back road could be believed. There was a patch of oil, tracks that didn't match any of the vehicles on the estate, and cigarette butts on the sand. Hardcastle didn't smoke cigarettes. McCormick had mostly given up the habit at the Judge's instigation.

So the car and its driver had lain in wait for Hardcastle to leave, for McCormick to be alone. If the intended victim was his friend, and that appeared to be the truth, the mysterious attacker knew his subject well enough to that McCormick would get antsy and leave the house. But according to the absent man, he hadn't left the house until he heard a horn that he thought belonged to the GMC.

The note called McCormick "Skid", a nickname that seemed to be used mostly by the cons and racing buddies of his past. Since living at Gulls-Way, almost everyone began calling the kid Mark. Soon, he had dropped the nickname almost entirely. Nicknames didn't go with Rolodexes and briefcases and McCormick's slightly warped idea of adulthood.

Two hours later, Hardcastle was still pacing the den, having alerted Lieutenant Harper of McCormick's disappearance. The Coyote was in the shop, the Corvette was getting bodywork done and the GMC was in the hands of his friend, leaving Hardcastle without transportation. He was considering renting a car if McCormick didn't show up soon, only where would he go? Where would he start looking?"

"Damn it, kid, what's going on?" Hardcastle muttered, his eyes darting form the desk clock to the driveway outside the den window.

10.

The racetrack was closed, deserted. The old place the note had said. An old code phrase they had used when meeting secretly at an abandoned racetrack back East in New Jersey. Now the ghost from his past had found another, similar rendezvous, one that he would be certain that McCormick would know.

Stray bits of garbage and loose newspapers blew about the concrete, catching at Mark's legs as he walked across the grounds, his limp barely noticeable. An Ace bandage kept his knee tightly wrapped with a minimum of pain. The dull ache in his knee was nothing compared to the ache in his heart.

He stopped in the pits, gazing at the man who was sitting on the hood of the customized car. In the afternoon sunlight it gleamed black over a metallic charcoal gray. The hood had been repaired or replaced, only the oversized bumper showing any evidence of the attack the previous night. The impression was one of deadly beauty. McCormick admired it in spite of himself. But then, he and the car's owner went a long way back. They had once had very similar interests and ideas. "Hello, Harry. It's been a long time."

"Real original, Skid. I always liked that about you." The man lowered his sunglasses, cool grey eyes surveying McCormick over the rims. "Nice to know you haven't changed that much."

"I've gotten older. And maybe a little smarter. How about you?"

"Jail doesn't agree with me." He placed the folded glasses in his breast pocket. "I really didn't expect you to show up. You've always been so good at running."

McCormick shrugged, watching the older man as he absentmindedly flexed powerful muscles, straining the shirt to its limits. "I'd always thought running was easier, just proves how many times I've been wrong. I still ended up in jail a couple of times."

"So I heard. Car theft, wasn't it? Doesn't exactly count for the same thing now, does it? I mean, I was in for attempted murder, theft, and a few other things, remember? I was put in a New York City prison for ten long years. Ten years that should never have happened. Wouldn't have happened if you had obeyed orders."

McCormick laughed, a bitter laugh with no humor in it. "Kill a cop? Yeah, right. Thanks, but no thanks."

"He was nothing but a low-grade security guard, as well as a witness. He saw us in that museum. He gave the alarm that got me caught while you ran. You managed to get away, but I didn't! I did time for that job, serious time, and you didn't even bother to visit, to check up on me. You were out and free, and I was locked up and forgotten."

"How the hell was I supposed to visit you? One look at me and that guard would've fingered me as your partner. Yeah, you went to prison for a crime we both committed, but if my going inside too would have made you feel better, why didn't you give me up to the cops? Might've even reduced your sentence."

"Me, snitch to the man? Not hardly. Though I gotta admit, I thought about it when the nights were so long and the heat sat on my chest like a lead weight. And then I'd read about your wins in the car magazines, all the stories about your great success on the tracks. And I'd call a guard, but something always kept me from telling. I'd reconsider and make some excuse for calling them in."

"Why didn't you do it? I was always looking over my shoulder. It's been close to fifteen years since I tore out of New York, sure that the cops were breathing down my neck. And then you were sent up for ten years. I knew that someday there'd be a knock on my door. But it never came. Where were you?"

"You mean, what took me so long to come after you when I got out?"

"Yeah."

"Had to get myself together, get used to life on the outside again. And this baby," he patted the glossy hood, "helped me a lot. Built her myself from the ground up, built her with one purpose in mind. We used to do that a lot, didn't we, rebuild old wrecks. Got a job, money, and transportation. Then I started looking for you. The last I'd heard, you were in San Quentin, GTA. Came out to L.A., got a job at a garage and waited. The next thing I know, you're living with some Judge in Malibu. Quite a scam you're running this time, Skid. How long before you get some money form this job?"

"It's not like that, Harry. There's no money, no scam. Hardcastle is a friend."

"You might not be getting any money, but I'm sure gonna. Unless you want this 'friend' of yours to find out where you were the summer of 1971."

McCormick's lips tightened, as he recalled the years with Harry Landon, from the first meeting in Florida when he was a runaway 14 year old to the abortive museum theft when he was seventeen. Hardcastle had always wondered where his talents in safecracking and marksmanship had come from. As far as Hardcastle knew, it was a mysteriously acquired set of accomplishments. "How much?"

"A hundred thou to start."

"Are you crazy? Where am I gonna get that much money? And in cash?"

"That's your problem, son." Harry leaned over and patted McCormick's cheek. "It's your choice, of course. I didn't really want to kill you, just let you know how easy it would be for me to do so."

"How long do I have?"

"I'll be generous, for old times' sake. A week."

"No way!" McCormick protested.

"I thought you'd say that. You're so predictable, Skid. Okay, two weeks, tops. I'll call you when I'm ready."

"Two weeks, you'll call…" McCormick repeated numbly. "A hundred thousand."

"Be seeing ya, Skid." Harry waved as he left, climbing into the custom car and roaring out of the pits to the exit.

"Yeah, sure." Rubbing his knee, McCormick slowly plodded back to where the pickup was parked, wondering where he'd get a hundred thousand in two weeks.

11.

"Yeah, I mean cash. How much and how soon, can I get it?" McCormick leaned on the top of the Coyote, bickering with the owner of Al's Car Barn -- 'Cash Paid With No Questions Asked'.

"Well, fifteen thousand, maybe. Twenty at the most, Mr. McCormick."

"Twenty? This is a one-of-a-kind, custom vehicle. I got fifty thousand for it last time."

"It's used. Nice, but the insurance would be ridiculous. Hard to unload. Look, I like you, kid, and I can see that you're desperate. If you give me a week, I could probably swing about twenty-five thou, cash."

"Okay, if that's the best you can do. I'll be back for the cash with the car, in one week."

He took the long road home to Gulls-Way, not wanting a repeat of the scene that had occurred when he had arrived home after his meeting. Hardcastle, worried, had jumped on his case as soon as the GMC's engine died. Scared that the Judge would find out about his sordid past, despairing of a way to find so much cash in a short time, McCormick had clearly told Hardcastle that his life was his and that the Judge should mind his own business. And his 'suggestion' had been full of four letter words that he hardly used any more.

Hardcastle might understand how a kid could get involved with someone like Harry, but the fact remained that McCormick had never done time for the job and a guard had been shot, almost killed, by his partner. It was just a fluke that the man hadn't died. Harry had wanted him to kill the guard when they first broke into the place, but McCormick had been satisfied to just tie the guy up. Unfortunately, the guard did magic on the side and knew how to wiggle out of ropes. He had discovered the two thieves when their hands were on a priceless Crown jewel from Vietnam.

Harry was carrying a gun, something McCormick hadn't known. It had taken a frantic grab to deflect the weapon, but the bullet still hit the guard, missing the man's heart by a mere six inches to the south. Shocked by the sudden violence, McCormick had turned tail and run, the adrenalin pumping through his body so forcefully that he'd thought his heart would burst. Ignoring the cries to stop, both from the guard and from Harry, McCormick had lost himself in the subway.

He hadn't stopped running until he meet Flip in Florida, later following him to California. He had managed to put his past in the back of his mind. The years had passed quickly, more so than he would've thought possible. When he was thrown in jail for stealing the Porsche, his own car, McCormick had wondered if it wasn't just punishment for running out on Harry, for getting involved with him in the first place. The fear had begun to fade, his memories safely locked into a remote corner of his mind. Then he had found a real home with Hardcastle. Now it was all back, the fear, the guilt. To keep Hardcastle from finding out and being forced to turn him in for the old crime, McCormick had to dig up more money than he had ever seen in one place in his life.

He rubbed his face, stealing himself for the confrontation with the Judge. And confrontation it would be. He hadn't even had breakfast with the man, taking off in a cab to pick up the Coyote, praying that he could once again sell the car for cash.

Twenty-five thousand dollars. Only seventy-five to go. But where was that to come from?

Hardcastle stood in the door of the house, the wood still unpainted. It had been a hurry-up job, but the workmen were willing to complete it for the right price. "Where have you been? Or is that out of line, too?"

McCormick climbed out of the Coyote, a sheepish and apologetic smile on his face. "I was out of line, Judge, not the question. I'm sorry. I guess all this was getting to me."

Hardcastle seemed to consider this for a moment, then accepted it as a smile broke over his face. "Hungry?"

"A little. Got something to eat?"

"Leftover pastries. Come on in, kid."

Hardcastle threw an arm over McCormick's shoulder as they walked to the kitchen. He felt a pang of guilt for keeping the truth from the Judge, but the alternative was worse -- the destruction of their friendship and partnership.

"So, did you work everything out?" Hardcastle asked, his mood carefully light.

"Huh?" The question startled him. McCormick had to regroup quickly to appear calm. "Oh, yeah…I guess."

"Do you know who's after you?"

"How would I know that? It's probably one of your many dissatisfied customers."

"Maybe."

12.

"Hello, Skid." The phone was pressed tight against Mark's ear, his face as blank as he could make it, knowing Hardcastle was watching him closely.

"Thought I'd see how close you are to completing our deal."

"Um…I have another week or so to go, 'member?"

"I know. I just wondered how much luck you were having. I can't wait, Skid. I'll be in touch." Harry laughed as he hung up.

"Problem?" Hardcastle asked.

"No. Some guy I owe a coupla bucks to, that's all. I have to go out for a while. Do you want anything?"

"No, nothing. Hey, be careful, will ya? That guy is still out there."

"I will be. Maybe he's gone, realized he made a mistake."

"Do you think so? Well, we'll see. Want company?"

"Nah. I won't be gone long. The Gatehouse is getting a little crowded. Went through some of that game show junk. I think I'll dump a few things. Oh, that's another thing. I'll need the truck, okay?"

"At least you're asking this time. Go on, get it over with. Here's the keys." Hardcastle tossed them to McCormick who caught them one-handed.

The younger man grinned, flipping the keys up in the air and jingling them before leaving the den.

He loaded the boxes with his personal possessions, acquired after almost three years with Hardcastle and several appearances on a game show. Some of the prizes had been stored in the garage until they had decided what to do with it all. Now he knew. The best he could hope for from the stereo, television, and various other electronic gizmos, was five thousand dollars, about one-third of the actual value. After a trip to the pawn shop, there would be a stop at the bank to try for a personal loan for the rest of the blackmail money.

13.

McCormick sat on his bed cross-legged, counting the money that lay in front of him. The car was sold. He had given Hardcastle a story about some engine work that was too delicate for him to do. He wasn't sure how long that would hold up, but it would work for the time being. The bank refused him a loan, saying that he had no collateral and no full-time job. The best they would do was suggest that he have Judge Hardcastle cosign the loan, guaranteeing it.

That would mean explanations that would negate the need for the money, a Catch-22 in reverse. He had $31,500 in cash. There was about $500 more in his savings account. It was a long way from the hundred thousand Harry was demanding.

What was worse, to McCormick's mind, was the fact that he knew of another $50,000 within his reach. Only it was the Judge's money, put in the safe until Hardcastle could get around to putting it back in the bank. It had been used as front money in their last case, was unmarked and in small bills. Just perfect for paying the blackmailer off.

But it belonged to Judge Hardcastle. And that meant hands off. Unless there was some way to 'borrow' it to pay Harry, then return it before the Judge discovered it was gone.

McCormick shook his head. "Nah, there's no way. Even if I paid Harry and then stole the money back, he'd be back for more."

"Hey, kid, where are ya?"

Panicked, McCormick yanked the quilt up and over the pile of bills. "Don't you ever knock? Don't I rate any privacy?"

Hardcastle stared up to the bedroom loft. "Sure ya do," he agreed. "I know you didn't have any company tonight and thought you might like to watch the cable movie with me, have some popcorn. Didn't mean to intrude, kiddo."

"Sorry, Hardcase, you just surprised me. Sure, a movie sounds great. Go on and start the popcorn. I'll see if I can dig up some chips and dip and be over in a few minutes."

"Don't be too long or I'll have all the popcorn eaten before you get there."

"Yeah, you would, too," McCormick muttered, loud enough for Hardcastle to hear, unable to suppress the smile on his face. Or the pang in his heart.

After Hardcastle left, McCormick swept the money up and stuffed it into his desk drawer. It wasn't the safest place in the world, but with the main house next door, who would hit what was obviously the servants' quarters?

The movie was a comedy, not Hardcastle's usual bill of fare, but McCormick enjoyed it more than he could have thought. He knew he was storing up memories, in case the meager amount of money wasn't enough to satisfy Harry Landon. He'd find out soon enough.

There was no call from Harry that night. McCormick went to the Gatehouse and sat in the dark, his eyes on the main house. "All that money…I would only need it for a little while. I could get it back from Harry somehow." Chin on fist, McCormick argued with himself about the cash.

It was much later when, ignoring his conscience's protests, McCormick slipped into the den. The lights were out and Hardcastle was safely upstairs, sound asleep. He stood in front of the painting that hid the safe, sweat breaking out on his face. Finally, he swung the picture out and opened the safe, having been told the combination over a year ago.

The cash was there, in tight little bundles. Before he could change his mind, McCormick stuck the green banded packages into the knapsack, pushed the safe shut, and closed the painting over it. He backed out of the den, checking for sounds of alarm from the upstairs bedrooms. Hearing nothing, he took to his heels and ran back to the Gatehouse.

14.

It had been a sleepless night, McCormick unable to take his eyes off the drawer where he had stashed his ill-gotten gains. His stomach was pitching a fit and he knew he couldn't face the Judge over the breakfast table and act normally. It had to go back, that was all there was to it. If Harry wasn't happy with the $32,000 that was available, then he could just tell Hardcastle and take his chances.

"Yeah, tell the Judge and destroy my life." McCormick sighed, but there was no other choice. He couldn't take the guilt of the theft, knowing he would crack. "Damn you, Hardcastle. You've really screwed me up, ya know that? I've always felt twinges of guilt, but nothing like this!"

The phone rang, McCormick jumping at the suddenness of the harsh sound of the sound in the Gatehouse. He grabbed for it, thanking his lucky stars that his separate line had been reconnected. It had been disconnected twice due to non-payment. His last deposit had been over a hundred dollars to insure that the phone company wouldn't be ripped off.

"Yeah?"

"Hiya, Skid. Got my money yet?" Harry Landon's voice was almost welcome, the strain of waiting becoming unbearable.

"Some. I've sold everything I own. I've got $32,000 for you. Take it or leave it." McCormick's reply was curt.

"Now, Skidder, that just isn't enough."

"It's gotta be. It's all I can get. Hell, Harry, it's every dime I have in the world."

"I don't care how you get it, but you owe me for all those years I served alone in the New York prison system. I don't think ten thou a year is out of line, do you? I mean, I could have made a lot more than that out on the streets. Hell, I could have made that going straight!"

McCormick's eyes were gritty, but rubbing the heel of his hand in them only made the situation worse. "I can't get it, Harry. I'd sell my soul to get the money for you, but I don't have anything else."

"What about that old man you're living with? He's rich, get it from him."

"No."

"'No'? I don't think you have much choice, my friend. Either get it from Judge Hardcastle or I'll tell him and the cops back east about my accomplice."

"I don't care. I'm only gonna say this once, Harry, so listen close. I have all the money that I can get. Take it or leave it, I don't care which. But remember one thing -- if you put me in jail, there won't be anything for you."

"Wrong, pal. There'll be the satisfaction of watching you spend time in jail. And there's something else, Skid. In those days, it would have been your first adult offense, no big deal. You probably would've gotten off with a suspended sentence, a year at the most. Now, you're a repeater. That means heavy time."

"I know."

There were long seconds of silence as Harry considered. "Okay, I'll give ya a break this time. I'll consider the $32,000 as a down payment. I'll be expecting more, and soon. Take care, Skid, I'll be seeing you in a couple of days."

"Don't come here, Harry. I mean it!"

"Hey, don't get all excited. How about day after tomorrow, eight o'clock, at the race track?"

"Yeah, fine. I'll be there."

15.

Night again, and another trip to the den in the darkness. McCormick had successfully avoided Hardcastle for the entire day, but it hadn't been easy. He hoped he would feel a lot safer when the money was back where it belonged.

He opened the safe again, kissed the money goodbye and was reaching inside when the lights flashed on. He spun about and saw Hardcastle standing in the doorway with his shotgun pointed at him. At his side was a uniformed police officer.

"Oh, shit," McCormick murmured, caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

"I thought it was my thief, returned for my wife's jewels. What the hell are you doing in here? And with the stolen money? That was gone yesterday." Hardcastle lowered the gun, but the police officer kept his trained on McCormick.

"What's it look like, Your Honor? Your ex-con went bad," the officer said.

"Shut up, Charlie. Well, kid?" Hardcastle's tone was pleading, his face disbelieving.

In that second, McCormick thought of an out. No payments to Harry. He was already being threatened with jail and Hardcastle's disappointment. The latter had already occurred. And one jail was about the same as another. Plus, he couldn't deny stealing the money. Despite the fact that he was giving it back, it was still theft. Hardcastle was a stickler for the letter of the law. He realized the Judge was still waiting for an answer. Shaking his head sadly, McCormick shrugged. "You heard your friend. What's it look like I'm doing? In the middle of the night, the safe open, your money in my hands. You don't have to be a detective to figure it out."

"Why? If you needed money, all you had to do was tell me."

Hands against the wall, McCormick gave a mirthless laugh as the cop frisked him. "Not for this, you wouldn't."

"Are you in trouble? Tell me, what do you need?"

McCormick shook his head. "It's too late for that." He was handcuffed and prodded to the front door. "Judge? I'm sorry. It happened a long time ago. I never thought it'd come back to haunt me."

"What?"

McCormick didn't answer, going with his escort to a hidden police car and climbing in the back without complaint. He watched Hardcastle staring at him in puzzlement, feeling his hear sink. It was all over. He no longer had anything to lose.

16.

"I appreciate this, Frank. Really." McCormick sat at the conference table, dressed in prison clothing. He had sat in the jail, refusing to allow Hardcastle to bail him out. Wrong it might be, but it seemed fitting punishment for stealing from the Judge. He wouldn't even go to the visiting room when Hardcastle came to visit. It wasn't until he decided to use his one phone call to contact Frank Harper that he allowed himself to leave his cell. Because of his prior record, the overcrowding in the local holding cell, and his refusal to be bailed out, McCormick was now in prison instead of city jail. His call to Harper, and his hazy, somewhat confusing explanation over the phone, had gotten him brought back to the police station where he was trying to marshal his incoherent thoughts.

"You dragged me out of bed, Mark. What do you want? Out of prison? That can be arranged, just call Milt. He's more than willing to post your bail." Harper sat across from McCormick, impatient for an explanation.

"No. I want…that is, I have to confess to a crime, a heist." McCormick's voice was low, his head down, eyes firmly on the table top.

"The heist at Gulls-Way?"

"No. A jewelry heist in New York. A guard was shot. A guy named Harry Landon did a dime for the job. I was his partner."

"Why didn't you do any time?"

"I took off. The cops didn't find me. Harry kept his mouth shut. I don't know. All I do know is that I wasn't caught, I didn't do any time, and I want to confess. I won't protest the extradition to New York either." For the first time, McCormick raised his head and looked Harper in the eye. "Tell the Judge I was putting the money back, will ya? I couldn't do it. Not to him."

"Mark, he's gonna ask me why you wanted all that cash. What'll I tell him?"

"I don't care." The newest member of C Block sighed, something he was doing a lot of lately. "No, that's not true. I do care, but there isn't much he can do about the mess I'm in now. Just tell him… Tell him I'm really sorry, but this was from before I'd even thought of living in California. I'd forgotten about it, or maybe I'd thought it would never come up. I was a kid, a kid on the verge of manhood. A dumb kid who thought he was ready for the big time."

"Tell me about it."

McCormick settled back in the chair, hands clasped on the table. "I had been busted for joy-riding when I was sixteen, you probably already know about that. Well, while I was waiting for the trial, I hooked up with this guy, Harry Landon, who said I had a real touch with a hotwire. He wondered if I would be as good with something else. I managed to talk my way out of hard time, bucking it down to a six month stretch at a reform school. Before you ask, I wasn't let off because of the times and the neighborhood I lived in. And some minor brushes with the local beat cops. I thought I was tough in those days. What a laugh! I had a talent with safe-cracking, was a great second-story man. But what I didn't like was carrying a gun, something Harry preferred to do. Burglary was one thing. Armed robbery was something else entirely. Harry planned this big heist. I was his only partner, so there's only be a two-way split. We were discovered, Harry shot the guard, and I ran. I kept on running, clear to Florida. I was seventeen, and I thought I've found a perfect way to score a lot of money. Now, I've got everything I've ever wanted, really wanted in life, and I blew it."

"You still haven't answered my question. Why did you take the money? To run?" Harper's hand covered McCormick's for a moment in sympathy.

"No. Not to run. Never again."

"So?"

"Harry is out of prison. He wanted a payoff for serving time that he felt I should have shared with him."

"How much?"

"A hundred thou. I couldn't come up with more than…well, let's just say I was far short of it. I thought I could borrow Hardcastle's money, use it for a couple of days and, somehow, get it back. Don't ask me how. I think I stopped thinking when I realized that Harry was back in town."

"We'll pull him in. That's blackmail."

"Yeah. We can stay in adjoining cells. Nah, that's not right. I'll be back East and he'll be here. Cute."

"Milt wants to see you. You really should tell him all this yourself."

McCormick shook his head violently. "No! Not yet, not here. I couldn't…I would rather wait. Maybe later."

"You want anything?"

"What? More than this wonderful facility provides? No, thanks."

They sat at the table in silence before McCormick, with a faint smile, got up and signaled the guard. He was ready to go back to the prison. He waved as he left the room, his eyes sad and regretful. His world was crumbling around him and there wasn't much he could do about it.

17.

"How is he?" Hardcastle stood next to the map in Harper's office, staring at the small dot that indicated the prison where McCormick was housed.

"Depressed. I'm worried about him, Milt," Harper replied, sitting back in his chair.

"You don't think he'd try anything…stupid, do you?" Hardcastle turned a concerned face to Harper.

"No," the lieutenant assured his old friend, "I didn't mean anything like that. He's gonna insist on going back East to face the charges in that jewel heist. The statute of limitations is out on the theft, but the other charges are still good."

"Which are?"

"They got Mark's partner for attempted murder during the commission of a crime. They could conceivably try him for the same thing. With his previous sentences in jail and prison, we could be talking some heavy time. Milt, he's gonna need a lawyer, a really good one. I think he should fight the extradition. I'm not that sure the NYPD or the New York court system is that hot to get him back for a trial, but they will go through the motions. And if Mark doesn't fight the move to bring him back, they'll have to go through with the trial. I spoke with the original detective on the case. He said that they know that the guard survived only because Mark deflected the gun. They didn't get the jewels, so it was actually an attempted theft. If they had caught Mark at that time, as a minor…well, it would've been a lot easier for him then than now. But there's still a chance Mark could be free and clear if he fights."

"And you don't think he will?"

Harper shook his head. "Not in his present state of mind, no."

Hardcastle dropped into the chair next to the window. "What's his problem?"

"I don't know for sure. I could guess."

"Then guess."

"He didn't want you to know. I guess he figured a simple car thief with unknown talents was one thing, but a big-time thief who was in on an armed robbery was someone you wouldn't want to know. It was all you from start to finish."

"Me?"

"Oh, don't give me that innocent routine. You're the most important person in Mark's life. And your opinion counts highly with him. Maybe too high. Sure, he was worried about the charges that were waiting for him back in New York, but what was really driving him was keeping you from finding out what an idiot he had been. He thought it would destroy any faith you might have had in him to discover that he was more than what you thought he was."

"That's the past. Besides, what you're telling me is that the kid didn't have the heart for it, that the violence turned him off."

"There's more."

Hardcastle slumped further down in the chair. "I'm not sure I want to know anything else."

"When's the last time you saw the Coyote? Have you been in the Gatehouse lately?"

"The Coyote is in the shop. And as far as the Gatehouse goes, McCormick is worse than a teenager when it comes to neatness. I don't go over there unless there's no other choice."

"He sold the car. It took me a while to find everything, but one of the guys here spotted the car a couple of days ago at a lot. He sold the car, and everything else he's ever owned. There's an added complication, Milt. Seems his former partner wanted compensation for not turning Mark over to the cops. And Mark was desperate enough to pay him off. I thought you might like to be in on his arrest for blackmail."

"You're damn right I want to be in on it. Any time you're ready."

"Let's go." Harper held the office door open for Hardcastle."

18.

The racetrack was eerie in the darkness, the moonlight catching bits of discarded metal and making them glimmer like fallen stars. Harper and Hardcastle stood in the deeper shadows of the entryway, waiting for Harry Landon to appear. Unable to release McCormick for the job, and the younger man refusing to be bailed out, Harper had chosen a man from his team who resembled him.

As they watched the dark outline in the pits, Hardcastle wondered if he was doomed to pick substitutes for McCormick in the future. He was going to force the 'martyr' to see him, talk some sense into the stubborn kid.

"He's here," came a whispered voice over the walkie-talkie. Harper nudged Hardcastle, pointing to the man walking confidently across the track. "Wait until he's near Franklin, then get him," Harper ordered his men.

"Hiya, Skid, got my money?" Harry laughed. "No money and you know what's gonna happen."

"Sorry, wrong guy. You're under arrest for attempted blackmail." The man posing as Mark McCormick pulled a gun as he spoke.

Harry turned tail and ran, straight into the arms of the fast approaching uniformed police officers. He looked up in the shock as the man he had held over McCormick's head stepped forward into the light of the large flashlights of the officers. "You? Skid gave me away?"

"Not until he was in too much trouble for it to matter."

"What are you talking about? He's got it all. What kind of trouble could he be in? The lousy bastard has had it easy his whole life, always falling into things. He should pay. You don't know what he was, what he did."

"Shut up!" Hardcastle snapped, his temper frayed. "Whatever he was, you tried to corrupt. He knew what was right and what was wrong. You couldn't change that, no matter how hard you tried."

"Yeah, always had someone to bail him out of trouble, always had somebody to go to. I never did. No sirree, not me. Well, he's gonna pay this time." Landon's smile was chilling, thrown over his shoulder while he was frisked and handcuffed.

19.

"I'm here to see Mark McCormick." Judge Hardcastle stood in the small room of the prison, nervously crumpling his hat. If McCormick refused to see him, there wasn't much he could do to force him. But try he would.

"I'm sorry, he's no longer in this facility. Two New York cops picked him up this morning," the guard said, busy with paperwork.

"Gone? But, the courts haven't ruled on the extradition yet."

"Look, buddy, I don't know anything about that. All I know is that these two cops had the right paperwork, and there was no lawyer with an injunction, so he went. Can't say he was unwilling about it, either."

Hardcastle's frown deepened. "What are you talking about?"

"Well, he seemed like he was relieved, ya know? Oh, and he left a message for some Judge friend of his, name of Hardcastle. You wouldn't be him, would you?"

"Yeah, I am. What's the message?"

The guard dug through a mass of papers in his basket, extracting a thin envelope. McCormick's scrawl was spread across the outside, apparently written in haste. Hardcastle gripped the paper in his hand, crumpling it. He went to the truck to read the letter in private.

He ripped the envelope open and saw one single sentence written on the paper: "I'm sorry." No signature, just two short words that spoke volumes. Hardcastle sat back against the truck seat, the loneliness closing in on him.

He wondered if his license to practice law in New York was still good, because he was going to up up one hell of a fight for McCormick. And he didn't care if he had to fight the whole New York court system to get him back.

20.

"Your Honor, we would like to proceed with this case as quickly as possible. The defendant has no objection to this. Justice has long been delayed in Mr. McCormick's part of this case." The assistant district attorney presented his argument for a quick appointment on the court calendar.

McCormick stared at the Judge on the bench, struck by how dissimilar he was to Hardcastle. He shook himself. Thoughts like that would only serve to drive him crazy. It would be best to forget that part of his life. At least, until he was in prison and needed something pleasant to think about. The mustiness of the old courtroom made him want to sneeze, but he resisted the urge. The Judge was talking to him, and he brought his attention to the matter at hand. "Sir?"

"I asked you if you have an attorney to represent you during this trial?" The Judge's tone was annoyed.

"No, I don't," McCormick replied.

Another voice overlaid his. "Yes, he does, Your Honor. Me."

McCormick jumped to his feet, turning. Milton C. Hardcastle, in suit and tie, was standing in the audience. McCormick felt as if the sun was shining once more and he broke out in one of his biggest grins. "Judge!"

"Shaddup, kiddo. I'll deal with you later." Hardcastle glared at him, then, in a louder voice, he spoke to the judge on the bench. "I'd like some time to confer with my client."

"Granted. Bailiff, show them to a waiting room."

McCormick, his guard, and Hardcastle went to a small room, the guard standing outside the room. Hardcastle had a briefcase with him. He placed it on the table, rummaging through it while McCormick stood and stared.

Finally becoming aware that his client was still standing by the door, gaping, Hardcastle indicated a chair. "Siddown, will ya? You're making me nervous."

Still not speaking, too much in shock at Hardcastle's sudden appearance, McCormick stumbled to a chair and plopped down in it. His eyes never left Hardcastle.

"Will you stop that! You look my old dog back in Clarence, eyes as big as saucers. Your mouth's hanging open, for God's sake!" The grumbling was the nicest thing McCormick had heard in a while.

"Why'ja come? I thought you'd never want to see me again."

Hardcastle looked back at him, sighed, and sat down across the table from McCormick. "Look, hotshot, what you did was from before we met. And from what I understand, you saved that guard's life by deflecting the gun, so I wouldn't worry about this case. We might have him testify for you."

"I never expected to see you again. I thought you'd be…I don't know, disappointed in me. I figured that I'd do my time, see what happened. It's gonna be years before I get out."

"No, it's not! Damn it, kid, you've gotta fight this thing. You were young. And dumb, something you haven't grown out of."

"Thanks, Hardcase. Nice to know I was missed." McCormick said happily. He knew all was forgiven when Hardcastle started insulting him again.

"Yeah, well…" Hardcastle smiled at McCormick, his face softening for a moment. Then the frown returned. He dug through the briefcase, pulling out a thin file folder. "This is everything I could find down at police headquarters about your case. Seems they weren't that concerned about catching you. The guard told them that you seemed more scared than anything else. And Harry popped the gun on the man. Plus, you didn't actually take anything from the museum. All that added up to a low priority case. Until you decided not to fight the extradition. Now we have to clear you in a court of law. That's a lot of trouble, unnecessary work, but that's your style."

McCormick's face was beginning to ache from grinning so much, something he wasn't sure he'd ever do again. "God, I've missed ya, Judge. Thanks."

"For what?" Hardcastle growled.

"For following me clear across the country. For helping. You know, the usual stuff."

"Hmmm, right."

"So, Kemo Sabe, how are we gonna handle this one?"

"Carefully…very carefully."

21.

"…and if it hadn't been for the defendant, you would have died that night, is that right?" Hardcastle asked the witness, Chester Trail, the former guard at the museum where McCormick and Landon had attempted their first big-time heist.

"Your Honor, I object. It calls for a conclusion from the witness that he is not qualified to make," the A.D.A. protested.

"Your Honor, this man was there. He was shot. I think he'd know what might have happened if Mr. McCormick hadn't deflected the gun."

The judge looked at Hardcastle patiently. "As a former judge, I'm sure you're aware that this isn't a debate. The gentleman over there makes his objection, then I rule on it. There is to be no more comments from you. Objection sustained."

McCormick could barely hide the smirk. He felt like he was high, wanting to smile and laugh ever minute of the day. Hardcastle had bailed him out of a dingy jail where he was being kept, assuring the court that he wouldn't take off. After all, hadn't he voluntarily come back to face trial? They were staying at the downtown Hilton, the only hotel where Hardcastle could get a room. There were four conventions in town, a big meeting at the United Nations, and a party to celebrate the birthday of the Brooklyn Bridge. That made for a very crowded town. Luckily one group of people had cancelled out on a suite in the Hilton. Hardcastle had arrived before someone else could snatch it up.

A big suite with two large double beds, a fancy bathroom, a color TV set with cable, and free admission to the health club, a steam room, and massage parlor. All of which made McCormick very happy. And Hardcastle not happy at all. All he did was moan about the bill that would be waiting for them on checkout. If there was a checkout for both of them.

McCormick's smile faded somewhat. He could just as easily be sent to Ryker's Island near LaGuardia if Hardcastle couldn't pull this off. He listened to the questions Hardcastle was throwing out. He knew that the guard was mostly on his side, but, with his confession, it would be a hard haul.

He scribbled on the pad in front of him, drawing tiny race cars, little jail cells, and palm trees. He might never see palm trees again. McCormick sat with his chin in his hand, watching Hardcastle at work. That, at least, was entertaining.

"Thank you. I don't have any more questions." Hardcastle said to the guard, moving to stand beside McCormick.

"Your Honor, I'd like to call -- " the assistant D.A. began.

"I think we'll break for lunch, Mr. O'Hara," the judge interrupted. "Well' reconvene at three o'clock. Court dismissed."

They all stood until the judge was out of the room, then broke up into groups. McCormick stood with his back to Hardcastle, watching the A.D.A. putting his files together. "Judge?"

"Yeah, kid?"

"Are we gonna win?"

Hardcastle shrugged. "I don't know. You just had to confess, moron. I can't say that it was coerced out of you, 'cause it wasn't. We have to make the jury see that it was a stupid stunt that you regretted before you had completed it. And that they shouldn't hold it against you."

McCormick thought about the middle income jury they had wound up with. "Think it'll work?"

"Maybe. But it won't be easy. The D.A. is doing everything he can to bring your record into the trial. I keep objecting before it can actually be said, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that you have a record. That could be more damaging than the evidence in this trial. No matter. We'll figure something out. Let's go to lunch."

"Yeah, sure."

"This is your old stomping ground. Know anyplace really good, something that'll stick to your ribs?"

McCormick hurried to keep up with Hardcastle's longer strides. "Judge, it's been years since I hung around the City. I did see a pretty interesting restaurant when the cops brought me back. I think I can find it again."

"That figures. You're heading for a long stretch and you're thinking with your stomach. I don't know about you, kid."

"What can I say? I was staring out the window of the squad car, drinking in the sights, such as they are. Might've been the last time to see anything on the outside."

Hardcastle stopped short, McCormick running into him. "Yeah. I forgot."

"Wish I could."

"I'm a pretty good lawyer, McCormick. I'll think of something."

"Famous last words," McCormick muttered, not really that worried. He had trusted Hardcastle in the past, and the man had always come through. Why should now be any different?

22.

McCormick stood before the judge overseeing his trial, sensing Hardcastle's comforting presence beside him. The trial was over. McCormick had been found not guilty of attempted murder, guilty of complicity in the act, and guilty of attempted theft, . Now was the day he would hear what the sentence would be. His stomach as jumping like a crate of Mexican jumping beans.

"Mark McCormick, the jury has found you guilty. Based on your previous record, I hereby sentence you to no more than ten years, and no less than three years, in prison."

The judge's voice faded away in a roar of white noise. He could feel the reality of the Judge's, his Judge, grip on his arm, supporting him, but the rest of the world was as far away as Malibu and Gulls-Way.

"Listen, Mark, listen to him," Hardcastle was hissing in his ear, though he couldn't understand why. He'd already heard…what?

"Sir? I don't…" McCormick's voice was hesitant, but the courtroom was hushed.

"I said, Mr. McCormick, that considering your record since being placed in my esteemed West Coast colleague's custody, I am suspending your sentence. You're free to go, Mr. McCormick."

"F-free?"

"You'll just have to sign a few papers, then you can do and go where you wish." The judge was smiling at him, but Mark couldn't respond.

Hardcastle was slapping him on the back in congratulations, but still McCormick stood there in shock. After having prepared himself for the worst, deep in his heart not believing that anything else could happen once he was found guilty, he couldn't take in the fact that he was a free man. He turned to Hardcastle, puzzled.

"I don't understand. He said not less than three years." His eyes prickling, he looked at Judge Hardcastle.

Hardcastle gently led him out of the crowd, down the hall to a secluded bench shielded by marble pillars. "He said that would be the sentence, but the jury had recommended mercy in your sentencing and he concurred. Weren't you listening to any of it?"

"Milt, I didn't hear anything after the three to ten in prison. I can't believe it. I'm really free?" He looked up at Hardcastle, seeking the truth from the one person he trusted more than anyone else.

"It's true, Mark. No more clouds hanging over you. No more threats."

McCormick looked down, remembering Harry and his blackmail attempt. "Frank told you about the money?"

"Yeah, he did. If you had stuck around for a while, you'd have known that he was arrested for attempted blackmail. You're gonna haft testify at the trial. Think you can do that?"

"After getting through all this, you bet."

"I would've loaned the money to ya, kid. You didn't need to 'borrow' it. We would've gotten him together. And from what I understand, it wouldn't have been enough, anyway. Where did you expect to get the rest?"

McCormick glanced up at the Judge, then back down at the tiled floor. "I was hoping he'd take it anyway, thinking it was better than nothing." Surely Hardcastle didn't know about him selling everything he owned. He hadn't even told Harper about that. He would quietly try and buy everything back, starting with the Coyote -- if it hadn't already been sold to some smart collector. Hardcastle would never have to know just how stupid he'd been. "When can we go home?"

"You heard the man. Sign some papers and you can leave. C'mon, let's get it done."

23.

McCormick stared out the airplane window, unaccountably shy in Hardcastle's presence. He thought of the money hidden in his desk drawer, hoping it was still there.

"Ya know, kiddo, you've cost me a lot of money. Too bad you don't have any way of paying me back."

"What? A lot of…money?" That got McCormick's attention. "What are you talking about?"

"Court fees, travel expenses, miscellaneous costs, the hotel, your bail, my attorney's fee…"

"You got the bail back. I didn't skip."

"Minus the fee. Not to mention the new security system I had put in before I found it was you rummaging in my safe."

Feeling particularly indebted to the Judge, Mark decided to ask the fatal question. "How much?"

"In all? Why, are you planning on paying me back?"

"Depends."

"Since when do you have any money? And what you do have will have to go to fixing your car. You do remember that it's in the shop, don't you?"

Mark turned back to the window, mumbling an acknowledgement before he lost himself in the clouds again. It wasn't going to work. Somehow Hardcastle would find out. "Uh, Judge?"

"Yeah?"

"I don't have to get the car out of the shop. I don't have it at all. I sold it. Along with just about everything else in the Gatehouse. Nothing of yours, though," he added hastily. "Just my stuff."

"I know."

"I can get you some…you what?"

"I know. Harper told me. Well, most of it. It didn't take a genius to figure out that you would try everything and anything else before you went into my safe. Right?"

"Sure. I guess. And I was putting it back, Judge. Honest!"

"Yeah, I know. Frank went looking for the Coyote. Once he found it, it didn't take much effort to search the Gatehouse for evidence. Only, when he walked in there, it was clean. Or should I say, cleaned out?"

"I…"

Hardcastle smiled, laying his hand on McCormick's arm. "I know why you did it, Mark. It wasn't necessary, but you know that now. We'll get everything back as soon as we get home. The Coyote is already there."

"But the money. I know the dealer would want a hefty profit."

"You still have the money from the sale, don't you?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, give it to me and let me worry about profits. For once, let me handle things. Agreed?"

Mark turned and gave Hardcastle an awkward hug. "You're something else, Hardcase."

"Damn right, and don't you forget it."

McCormick leaned back in the airline seat, feeling the warmth and security of home.

A/N: This was originally printed in Back to Back 4 in 1988. Slight tweaked from the original. Kudos to Melinda Reynolds who was my editor during the Back to Back years, helping me put into words the scene I would have in my mind. The zines are still available and highly recommended reading if you're a Mark and Milt fan. And you'll see the wonderful artwork that accompanied the stories.