Warning…death of a major character! Believe me, you'll probably need your hankies.
'...anything I own...'
By Lizabeth S. Tucker & Melinda Reynolds
Story idea by Lizabeth S. Tucker
Mark McCormick, first year law student, glanced up as the French doors opened with a barely audible click; he bit back a smile - Poor Hardcase. The Judge had struggled mightily these past few months, endeavoring not to mention the files, the latest scum released from jail on parole, or the newest crook all but begging to busted by. the Gulls-Way Division of Batman and Robin. Instead, he had hovered in the background, offering helpful advice and being silently supportive. But McCormick had known it wouldn't last forever, and he hurriedly finished writing down his thoughts, secretly pleased to be taking a break from three months of research and written reports.
"McCormick! You busy?" The question was closely followed by heavy footsteps on the stairs, and Judge Milton Hardcastle appeared at the top landing, taking in the cluttered desk with a less than enthusiastic demeanor.
"What's it look like, Hardcase? I'm not usin' these books to hold the desk down." McCormick kept a stern expression while he smiled inside; after all, why make it easy?
"Yeah... Well, how about takin' a break? You can finish that later; ya got a three-day weekend comin' up."
McCormick dropped the pencil in the spine of the open law book, pushed back and gave Hardcastle a knowing look, "And you've got plans for it, right?" As Hardcastle glanced away guiltily, McCormick continued, "Who is it this time? Public Enemy Number One, or are we gonna track down the miscreant responsible for filching your issues of Over 65 from your mailbox?"
"That's an informative magazine, McCormick. I know it's that kook down the road who keeps running up and down the PCH on that over-sized tricycle. Gives senior citizens a bad name," he grumbled.
"You did that a long time ago. You still haven't answered my question." As the all-too-familiar file folder came into view, McCormick shook his head. "Uh-Uh, no way, Hardcase; we had a deal, no cases until this summer. Not even I can set up a crook and bust him in three days."
"This guy's practically asking for it, kid. This one's been at the top of my list for a long time, and he's finally gotten overconfident. All I've have to do is catch him with the evidence and call in Frank. Simple."
"Sure. So's my failing that exam next week. Can't do it, Hardcase; I hafta study." Knowing he'd give in to the Judge's request, he decided to hold out for something in return - asking Hardcastle the questions he needed answers to instead of traipsing all the way to the University's library and spending hours looking up precedents and procedures.
"Okay, another deal. Help me get this guy, and I'll coach ya for the test."
Leaning back in the chair, McCormick propped his feet up on the desk and appeared to give careful, and long, consideration to the offer. "Hell, I don't know... Is that legal? You telling me the answers, I mean?"
"I'm not givin' you the answers, McCormick; I'll just... give ya some idea of what to expect."
Just what he'd been wanting. McCormick nodded, "Okay, deal. What do we do and when do we start?"
Hardcastle grinned, pleased and obviously surprised that McCormick had agreed take on another case. "Got it all planned out. This creep's workin' out of a warehouse owned by a friend of mine; we'll be working there as maintenance personnel. We start," he glanced at his watch, "In about four hours, night shift." As McCormick picked up some work clothes and headed downstairs for the shower, Hardcastle called after him. "This'll be the last one, kid. We wrap this one up, you'll have nothin' to worry about except finals."
"Can I get that in writing and notarized?" Came the laughing response, and Hardcastle found himself chuckling in return.
It was good to be back in harness, even if it was just for 'one more case'.
"I thought you said you had this all planned out?" McCormick whispered to Hardcastle, struggling with the ropes binding his hands behind his back. He was back to back with Hardcastle, making it easier to whisper to him without the guard overhearing.
"I did have it planned; it was you one of the goons recognized. You run into an old cellmate and everything goes in the dumper," Hardcastle whispered back furiously. The Judge was careful not to mention that Addison Heyes had recognized Hardcastle almost the same moment McCormick had been nailed. They'd been there for hardly ten minutes before their cover was blown sky-high.
However, McCormick mentioned it for him. "Right. And withthe low profile you keep, that Heyes guy never even noticed you. Face it, Judge, it's time to hang it up for good. We're not just another face in the crowd anymore." Gritting his teeth, he pulled harder, feeling the slack increase, the rough bristles cutting his hands and wrists.
"This is it, McCormick; I told ya. the haven't made our first check-in; Frank'll show up at any minute."
With a final, concentrated effort, McCormick jerked one hand free, leaned against Hardcastle to cover his fumbling at the older man's ropes. For some reason, they seemed tighter than his had been, but Hardcastle helped as best he could. The ropes began to loosen just as the guard came over to check on them.
The next few minutes happened so quickly, that McCormick would have been hard pressed to repeat the sequence of events to anyone later. He knew he dove off his chair toward the approaching guard as soon as hefelt Hardcastle's rope drop. A quick cut to the man's chin, another to his nose, and their guard was dreaming of better days. Hardcastle rushed past him to the shelf where their walkie-talkies were sitting, and signalled the cops to close in.
Sirens rent the air, the Judge and McCormick racing outside just as Heyes leapt into the Mercedes, gunned the engine, and turned in a tight one-eighty, seeking an exit fromthe warehouse grounds. Without stopping to think of the consequences, McCormick jumped on the hood before Heyes had time to pick up any speed, hanging on fordear life. Heyes's startled expression glared at him, and before the gun-runner could react, McCormick reached through the open window, and pulled the steering wheel sharply, sending the car into the wall. Rolling off the hood just seconds before impact, McCormick hit the concrete hard; and he heard rather than saw the Mercedes plow nose first into cinder-block and mortar.
Hardcastle was at the scene in an instant, leaning in the passenger side window with his gun trained on the not-quite-conscious driver. "You okay, kiddo?"
McCormick pushed himself off the sandy pavement, grinning. "Yeah, you?"
Police cars surged into the area and surrounded the car, taking over the situation from Hardcastle. The Judge went to help McCormick get to his feet"Stupid stunt, McCormick; really not one of your best."
"You wanted him stopped; I stopped him. I tell ya, I'm glad this is over with. I could use the peace and quiet of cramming for exams." McCormick brushed the dust off the gray work slacks, grimacing at the look on Hardcastle's face. "Oh, no, I knew it; what's goin' on in that one-track mind of yours? How about surprising me for once…"
"Look at it, McCormick; we got Heyes in half the time I had expected it to take. I was just thinking, might as well put all your vacations to good use on other cases. Let's see, there's spring break, major Federal holidays..." Hardcastle's eyes gleamed as he enumerated the various holidays available to him.
"Read my lips, Hardcase: No. No way. Not on your life. Wewere lucky this time; this one went bad from the start. We were caught, remember? They were on to us almost the minute we walked through the door. No more cases, Judge." Hardcastle gave a resigned nod, then started to counter only to have McCormick cut him off, "And no cases on your own; Lord knows what would happen if I weren't around to pull your ass outta the fire."
McCormick turned to greet the approaching Lieutenant Frank Harper with a cheery waveand big grin. "You agree with me, don't cha, Frank?"
"Depends. What am I agreeing on?" Harper shook his head at McCormick's torn shirt, blood-stained cuffs, and dust-covered slacks, a rip in the left knee. Somehow, McCormick always looked like some rowdy twelve-year-old just hauled in off the playground.
"That this was a fiasco from the word go. That we should kick back and take it easy, at least until I can give him proper back-up." The manic grin faded to a soft smile. "I just don't want you to get hurt, Judge." He touched Hardcastle's ann lightly, "Okay? After all, what's a couple of years in the Great Scheme of Things?"
"Come on, kid, we could get all sorts of cases finished on your three-day holidays. Nothing complex, just a few of the annoying ones. No big deal, right? A few cases now and then to keep the old reflexes sharp; that brain of yours'll get dull, what with you sittin' on it all day."
"You should know you sat on yours all your life. Nope, in a few months I'll have finals, then I'm going to relax, soak up some rays, and get ready for next semester. My next big case is gonna be Graduation, and after that, well.." He grinned widely at Harper, "Ya better watch out, Judge, 'cause I might get to be a judge like you -- only nicer and a lot better lookin'."
Harper laughed at the mental image of McCormick presiding over the court, punched Hardcastle's arm lightly as the Judge attempted to conceal his own amusement. They were interrupted by a sudden commotion a few yards away, and a tall man darted through some parked cars in their direction, firing a .38 haphazardly behind him at pursuing officers. Harper instinctively moved to block his path, and as Hardcastle started to follow the lieutenant, McCormick caught his arm.
"Juudgge..." His warning made the word two syllables, "Will you for Pete's sake once let the cops handle it? That's what we pay 'em for, ya know."
Hardcastle pulled free of McCormick's grip just as the police returned fire; the fleeing crook dove between two parked vehicles, just one car away from where they stood. He raised up enough to get off two more rounds before ducking for cover. Hardcastle gave McCormick a firm nudge, "Stay low, and get around the front of that car, kid; I'll come around the other side, and we'll have him," he ordered above the gunfire coming from both sides.
But instead of moving forward as Hardcastle expected him to do, McCormick was suddenly thrown back against him, the impact too forceful for it to be of his own doing. "McCormick, what the hell are you --"
He broke off, as McCormick's knees buckled, only his grip keeping him from falling. The younger man twisted slightly in his arms, hand gripping his shoulder tightly, the other pressed against his midsection, attempting to halt the blood surging through his fingers.
Shocked into silence and to near-immobility. Hardcastle eased both of them to the gritty pavement, carefully removing the arm that had encircled McCormick's waist, vaguely noticing his darkly stained shirt sleeve. Afraid to move him too much, the Judge kneeled beside the wounded man, settling his friend as comfortably as possible against an upraised knee; sliding a supporting arm under McCormick's shoulders, Mark's head rested on his upper arm, as wide blue eyes stared up at him with more astonishment than pain.
". . .Judge. .." His voice was barely above a whisper, and he paused. Taking a short, shaky breath, he tried again. "I think... I'm hit..."
Hardcastle glanced down at the wound, unable to respond, unable to confirm what they both already knew.
"Feels... strange. Hurts a bit, but... not as much as I thought--"
Hardcastle interrupted, voice unnervingly gentle, "Take it easy, kiddo; don't talk. We'll get you some help real quick, and--"
He stopped as a shadow fell over them, and a hand reached across to press lightly on McCormick's neck, checking the pulse. The Judge looked up into Frank Harper's dark eyes, and the lieutenant spoke quietly, "I called ln for an ambulance; how's he doing?"
Hardcastle's gaze returned to McCormick, "Hear that, kid? Help's on the way. You justhang on. You'll be fine."
A spasm of pain crossed his pale features, eyes darkening; he shook his head, words slow and weak, "Not... not this time..." He clung tightly, bright scarlet blood flowing copiously over his hand and onto the pavement.
Harper took off his lightweight cotton jacket, folded it; gently prying McCormick's hand away from the wound, he placed the makeshift bandage over it. And Harper knew, from the location of the wound and the amount of blood, that the injury was serious, if not fatal. An artery had been hit by the bullet, which one he wasn't sure, but he couldn't apply enough pressure to stop the bleeding. He maintained as much pressure as he could, and watched as each life-giving heartbeat brought McCormick closer to death.
Hardcastle couldn't shake the sense of unreality, the time distortion -- seconds both flying by and lasting an eternity; the cold void that filled him, shutting out everything except the numbing fear, with an unnatural calmness overlaying the desolation inside. There was so much he wanted to say, and no time to say any of it, so he narrowed it down to the most important ones.
"McCormick, there's something I need to tell you." Somehow, he managed to keep the fear from his voice, "Something I should have told you a long time ago. . ."
"Don't... Don't say it, not now... I... couldn't handle it... now..."
"Milt," Harper spoke softly, his voice not quite as steady as before, "He needs to lie flat. The trauma, the shock--"
"No!" McCormick 's weakening hold on Hardcastle's shirt became a white knuckled grip. "Stay...with me. Don't let go."
"I won' t let go; I won't leave you," Hardcastle's tone was soothing as he carefully eased McCormick onto the pavement. He doubted that McCormick was even aware of the change in position, as the glassy-eyed gaze never left his face. "But you can't leave me, either," he continued hoarsely, "Who's gonna drag my ass outta the fire? Who's going to take care of the estate?" And he added to himself, Who's gonna care about me; who's going to love me?
"Easy enough...to find someone else." There was the faintest of smiles. "Found me."
"No, no one else. You're everything I could have wanted in a son; everythlng I needed in a friend. My pride in you has no boundaries and I've never regretted. .. finding you." His voice broke on the last, and he took a deep, shaky breath.
The hold on his shirt loosened, and cool fingers brushed lightly across his cheek, touching the unfelt tears. "Always knew.. .you were a sentimental old donkey. One 'a the things...I love about ya...Not your fault, don't ever think that…"
Hardcastle swallowed, but the lump in his throat remained. "Nah, smog. It's smog." AsMcCormick's hand lowered, he reached up, caught it in a tight grip.
"Sure." He sighed, eyes closing; then he opened them again, his gaze fixed on something far beyond the others' vision. "Hardcase...you do know... that I love you... Don't you?"
Hardcastle nodded, the slight movement bringing McCormick's eyes back to his. The pupils were widely dilated, dulled by fading awareness.
"Remember... the tracks in the sand...?"
Hardcastle gave another, quick nod, then spoke aloud when McCormick didn't respond, "Yeah... Yeah, I remember." The hand in his gripped tightly, then gradually loosened..
"I almost made' em deep enough... Didn't I?"
Hardcastle didn't hear the screeching siren, or the squealing tires as the ambulance tore through the parking lot; he didn't feel the comforting closeness of Harper's presence, nor the warmth of the early morning sun. He didn't want to feel or hear anything, content, for the moment, to share McCormick's last few seconds.
Harper got to his feet, motioned the slowing ambulance toward them. He sighed heavily, not relishing the next few days. He had seen McCormick fall, and the shot had not been fired by the escaping gunman; which left only his officers. There would be an autopsy -- at that thought, his attention returned to Hardcastle, who was now holding an unconscious McCormick in a tight embrace. He still held the blood-soaked jacket against the wound, but was oblivious to the ambulance sliding to a halt nearby.
Harper walked back to them, an unwilling observer and eavesdropper. The sadness, the gentleness in Hardcastle' s voice and manner were heartbreaking, and he glanced away, not wanting to intrude as Hardcastle said his own farewell.
"And you knew -- even before I did -- that I loved you, too, kid..." His lips pressed lightly on McCormick's forehead, "Very much."
Four paramedics left the ambulance, two headed for the wounded gunman, and two others toward Harper. Taking a quick, assessing look, a stretcher was lowered next to Mark and the Judge. As the younger medic reached for McCormick, the older one halted him, touched Hardcastle's arm, "Sir? I'm sorry, sir, but we need to get him on the stretcher."
Hardcastle looked up. as if only now becoming aware of their presence. Relunctantly, he gave McCormick over to their care, the cool fingers slipping from his grasp. He answered their questions, describing in a flat monotone all that had happened. He stood by, enveloped in a cold remoteness, as the stretcher was placed in the ambulance; once inside, the paramedics worked quickly and expertly, fighting what Hardcastle knew to be a losing battle. He stepped back as one of the rear doors was pulled shut, and another paramedic team hurried up with a second stretcher. Once settled inside, the remaining door was shut, the engine roared into life, and the ambulance wound carefully through the parking lot, then pulled on to the highway, picking up speed, siren wailing.
A sudden, important, thought struck Hardcastle, and he turned, looking for Harper. "Frank, call for a priest. Have him go straight to the hospital. Get Father Atias, he's at... at..." He broke off in confusion, "Lord, I can't remember the church--"
The lieutenant interrupted quietly, "It's okay, Milt; I know where he is. I'll see to it; I'll take care of it. Take my care, Sergeant Harris will take you to the hospital."
Hardcastle gave a grateful nod, threaded through the array of police cars. He neither looked at, or spoke to, anyone; but slid into the passenger seat as Harris received Harper's wave to go on.
Harper made his way to the small group of officers who had been involved in the shooting. Their firearms would be confiscated, and the bullet would be traced to the gun that had fired it. Watching his cruiser leave the parking area, siren blasting as it hit the highway, Harper thought to himself, "And Heaven help the man who owns it."
Frank Harper pushed through the Emergency Room doors just as Hardcastle entered the waiting area, exiting through swinging doors that read "Hospital Staff Only" and "No Admittance". Father Atias was with him, and they were conversing in a low tone; Harper felt a rush of hope, which was quickly dashed in the face of the young priest's obvious despondency. There were a few more words, Hardcastle shook his head, then clasped the priest's hand firmly.
Harper waited until Father Atias had departed, dreading to face Hardcastle now. The Judge walked by him without any apparent notice, pausing at the plate glass wall fronting the busy highway. After a moment's hesitation, Harper went over to him, placed a tentative, sympathetic hand on the older man's shoulder.
There wasa weary sigh, and the voice that answered wasn't recognizable as Hardcastle's. All the strength and animation was gone, leaving only desolation and sorrow. "He's gone, Father Atias was waiting here, in ER, and was able to give the Last Rites before... before..." He stopped, leaned a hand against the glass, head lowered, "Christ, Frank, I can't believe it; not again. It can't happen again."
Harper nodded, then, realizing Hardcastle couldn't see him, "I know, Milt; and I'm sorry..." Sorry that it happened, he thought to himself; damned sorry that it was caused by one of his men. He could think of nothing else to say, nothing to erase the pain, or to ease the anguish; and Hardcastle's own self-imposed emotional retreat did not invite any form of consolation. At the Judge's continued silence, he added, "I got down here as soon as I could. Had to leave a couple of my men upstairs with the gunman from the parking lot. Guy ended up with a busted shoulder blade, but he's gonna make it okay." He shook his head in disgust, "Twenty-two-year-old punk kid; has a few priors, but nothing serious, not until he hooked up with Heyes--"
Hardcastle turned sharply, eyes hard and cold as steel, "Shut up, Frank. Just. .. shut the hell up."
When the lieutenant offered no further comment, Hardcastle shifted uncomfortably, broke the uneasy silence between them, "Uh, look, Frank, I'm sorry; I just…"
"Yeah, I know; forget it. I brought the Coyote; damn thing practically jumped out from under me." He smiled, "I left it in Visitor's Parking. I'll get one of my men to drive you --"
"No." Hardcastle interrupted, not quite so brusquely as before, "No, I'm ok. I'll drive." Deep inside was the irrational feeling that he didn't want to possibly be riding with McCormick's killer; he knew the thought was unreasonable, just as it was unavoidable.
Harper knew better than to argue. "It's in the third row, next to the guard's station. You know, that push-button ignition makes it awful easy for car thieves--" He broke off, angry with himself for continually saying the wrong thing.
But there was no icy cold blast this time, this time there was a wistful smile. "Yeah, I know. I told him, when he changed it over, that it wasn't a real good idea; but when he has his mind made up, he never listens to a thing I say." He turned back to watch the morning traffic, "I only hope he heard, and listened, to the last thing I said."
Taking care of last minute details and arrangements at the hospital, Hardcastle finally escaped the confines of white walls and long hallways; it seemed he had spent half his lifetime there, but in reality it was not yet noon. He drove through the mid-day rush of vehicles, steering by reflex. His mind saw, and registered, the traffic, the lights, the highway signs, yet was unaware of direction or distance.
His actions were divorced from his emotions, stopping and gearing down at an intersection; his gaze fell on his forearm, resting on the steering wheel The once light gray sleeve was now darkened by a dried bloodstain.
"Oh, God..." he sighed, feeling very tired and very, very old. "I can't-- I can't go through this again...".
A sudden, sharp blast from a car's horn jerked his head up. The light was green, and several other horns joined the cacophony. He shifted with inborn precision, tires squealing in anguish as the Coyote tore through the intersection, indicator edging toward 70. Unleashed power from the finely tuned racing engine roared within the confines of the Coyote as the guilt-induced anger was given some release. Damn them, he thought, wanting only to get away from everyone and everything, Damn them all!
He didn't recall the drive to Gulls-Way, only gradually becoming aware that the Coyote was idling quietly in the drive.
Silence blanketed the estate, unfamiliar and unwanted silence; not the welcome silence of peace and homecoming, but the silence of death - death of the soul, and death of the spirit.
Helay awake that night, his thoughts not allowing sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the scenes repeated over and over in vivid detail; and then he opened his eyes, the voices remained. McCormick's non-accusing and forgiving words. Harper's clumsy, yet sincere sympathy. Father Atias, always somber and solemn for his years, grief-stricken himself, yet offering solace and strength. The doctor's distant, detached declaration of death, and, later, the medical report. That was the worst of all; although he had been there, seen the injury, he hadn't known the extent of the damage...only that the wound was fatal. The phrase used by the attending physician, 'He didn't have a chance...' had shaken Hardcastle to the core; the doctor couldn't have chosen a more damning phrase. After that, he'd only half-heard the rest of it. The bullet had struck the aorta, lodged in the lunbar vertebrae - which, the physician had elaborated, if the patient had survived, paralysis would have resulted. And the fact that the bullet had stopped in the spinal column, had in all probability prevented the bullet from passing clear through McCormick and striking Hardcastle as well.
He wished it had.
Dawn crept slowly over the distant mountains, breaking through the lowering clouds in streaks of salmon and gold. But the brilliant rays didn't penetrate the darkness that enveloped his heart, or alleviate the dull ache of his bereavement.
Without conscious thought, he rose, dressed, and went downstairs; automatically falling into old, established behavior patterns. And from habit, he prepared breakfast, setting the patio table; he preferred the outside, the openness, the all-enfolding peace he had always found there when he was troubled.
He picked up the last two items from the kitchen counter, the coffee pot and morning paper; carrying them outside, he stopped dead in his tracks as he gazed at the table in shock. The coffee pot crashed to the tiles, the paper falling to his feet, pages fluttertng in the breeze. Closing his eyes tightly he refused to give way to the emotional upheaval; he swore quietly through clenched teeth, turned abruptly and sought the comforting sanctuary of the main house.
He had set the breakfast table for two.
Sometimes, dying was the easier way out.
Sometimes, living was worse.
Hardcastle had thought that twice before, in varying degrees of anguish and pain; the third time was no different, no less painful. But this time, there was no comforting embrace and soothing touch to share his sorrow; there was no career to deflect his grief, to occupy empty hours and provide a purpose to existance.
And so he took on the responsibilities of McCormick's death, as he had willingly taken on the responsibility of his life. Legally, he wasnot required to, but morally, he felt he owed McCormick at least that much.
Thus committed, there were now things to do, things to take care of. And one of those things was contacting Sonny Daye. He dreaded that, more than he had realized. He dug through the lower drawer of his desk, searching for the gaudily tasteless picture post card from Las Vegas; it had arrived last month. McCormick, having scanned it quickly, had tossed it away; but Hardcastle, with some sixth sense, had retrieved it from the waste basket, thinking at the time it would be a good idea to know Sonny's whereabouts. The return address listed a third-rate casino, and Hardcastle made the call.
The owner took his time about answering, and when he did, he was quick to inform Hardcastle that, 'No, Mr. Daye is no longer booked here and, 'No, Mr. Daye's whereabouts is not known, nor does anyone; here care to know! Sonny had left a week before he had sent the card, which, considering Day's track record, didn't surprise Hardcastle at all. Hardcastle used all his contacts, both police and political; and the only thing he could do now was wait.
He didn't hold out much hope that Sonny Daye would be located any time soon.
The others on his mental list were easier to reach, and he kept the conversations brief and to the point. He cut off the expressions of sympathy before they were even spoken, saying that the paper would list the time and place of the funeral.
It took most of the day, Saturday, to contact everyone. When he came to the last two, he hesitated. May and Zora Hardcasle would not be put off so easily, and he did not want to face their accusations, as well-deserved as they might be. So he called Western Union, knowing that sending a telegram instead of calling personally would just add fuel to the fire, but he didn't care.
There was damned little he cared about anymore.
Frank Harper came by the next day, with the ballistics report; the bullet had been traced to Sergeant Avery, a fifteen year veteran on the force. Hardcastle read through the report carefully. Twice.
"I want his badge, Frank; you hear me? I want him to pay..."
"Milt, I want you to listen to me, and I want you to listen carefully. I can tell you exactly how this will turn out. At the moment Sergeant Avery is on suspension. Internal Affairs is investigating the shooting; then, the Grand Jury will decide whether or not to indict - now, I know I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, but hear me out. It was an accident, Milt; Avery never meant to kill anyone, least of all McCormick. And he is paying. .. It's bad enough to have to shoot someone in self-defense, or in defense of someone else... Can you imagine what it must be like to shoot, and kill, someone who was not involved, much less one of your own? And that's how wee thought of McCormick, you know, as one of us." There was a long silence as Hardcastle stared resolutely at the desktop. Silence, in this case, was a good sign. "In all probability, Internal Affairs will clear him; the Grand Jury won' t hand down an indictment. You, of course, could file a suit of wrongful death. But be honest, Milt. I know you're not doing this for monetary or personal gain, but to ease your own sense of guilt. And do you really think that will make you feel better?"
Hardcastle gazed at a point over Harper's shoulder. "Damn it, Frank--it's not fair! It's not...right!"
"Life isn't fair, Milt. It never was."
Hardcastle gazed apprehensively out the upstairs bedroom window, safely concealed by the drapes. A Yellow Cab had halted at the front door, and May and Zora Hardcastle stepped out; giving conflicting instructions regarding their luggage. He could detect the storm brewing in the elderly women. They had answered his short telegram with an even shorter one: Will arrive Monday. They were no doubt reserving their conments for a verbal barrage, and in aperverse way, he would welcome their accusations and reproachments, knowing he more than deserved their disfavor. And that would be easier to deal with, if given a choice between censure and sympathy.
With a mental and physical bracing of shoulders, he went down to meet them; to get it over with. He opened the door with a manufactured smile, stepped aside to allow entry. Stern-faced, the two women waited until the cabby left the luggage in the entryway, and Hardcastle paid the fare.
Zora, tall and forbiddingly self-reserved, was primed for the recriminations, but something stopped her. Whether it was Milt Hardcastle's appearance or attitude, she wasn't sure, but neither were the norm. He looked old... worse, he was old; the youthful fire that had burned so brightly in his eyes was gone, leaving the dull emptiness of an inner death. Once strong shoulders were bowed now, with the unbearable weight of guilt and loss. And her heart went out to him, in his suffering and pain; taking him in a gentle embrace, her voice was softly soothing, "Oh, Milt; I'm so sorry..." She stepped back, still holding his hands in hers, "We're here, now, Milt; we're here to help. Just tell us what we can do to help."
Hardcastle couldn't bring himself to say the truth, more than a little shaken by her sudden, unexplained, change of heart. May approached then, tearful and forgiving, resting a hand on his arm.
"That's right, dear. We'll see to the house, to the cleaning and cooking. You don't bother with that. And whatever else you want, you just tell us."
Their tears threatened to trigger his own, and he shored up crumbling defenses. He picked up their luggage, led the way upstairs; they followed, nattering on about inconsequentialities. He wanted them to leave, but instead welcomed them. Wanting neither conversation nor sympathy, he closeted himself in the den, determined to avoid everyone and everything as much as he could.
Surreal. That was the way he remembered the funeral.
May and Zora had proven themselves invaluable, more than he would have liked to admit. As if sensing his need to be alone, they keep calls and visitors away from him; dealt competently with the everyday trivialities and maintenance of Gull's-Way. None of them mentioned the shooting, and none of them approached the Gatehouse.
The funeral had been well attended. Several police officers, along with lieutenants Harper, Carlton, Giles, as well as some close acquaintances of Hardcastle's accounted for almost a third; several young women of the blonde model variety. and, he was somewhat surprised to see, several older women of the Grandmother variety made up more than a third. Most he knew, and those he greeted warmly; those unknown to him introduced themselves, saying they were McCormick's classmates, usually followed by, 'He helped me with...'
He had remained at the gravesite long after the others had left. This section belonged to Nancy's family, and certain areas had been designated for his and Nancy's family and children. Annie McShane, and her strangely quiet and reserved husband, John, had been the only representatives from McCormick's family back in New Jersey; and Annie had been very sincere when she assured him that Mark would not want to be anywhere but where he was. The visit with the McShanes had been too brief, and too saddening. He would have liked to have known them better, and long before this.
But the crowd was gone now, the visitors back to their jobs, homes, families; May and Zora to Gull's-Way, to pack for their return flight to Arkansas the next day. He spoke a few words to Father Atias, thanking him for the services; with a sad nod, he indicated the solid white floral arrangement of roses, mums, and carnations sent by the priest's father, Joe Cadillac, Who was currently in San Quentin.
The priest smiled, "Dad always said that Mark was a Good Guy, through and through."
Father Atias departed soon after, but he wasn't alone, neither physically nor spiritually. He'd seen Frank Harper out of the corner of his eye, standing unobtrusively a few yards away. The other presence was a more comforting one; unseen and unheard, but deeply felt.
"You'll always be with me, McCormick." He rested a hand lightly on the smooth, golden bronze metal. "And there's a part of me that will never leave you."
ARRIVING GULLS-WAY, WEDNESDAY. WILL PICK UP MARK'S
EFFECTS. HAVE PAPERS READY FOR TRANSFER.
Hardcastle crumpled the telegram in a tight, angry fist. Hurling it over the cliff, he wished with all his being that Sonny Daye would soon follow it.
Three weeks to the day after the funeral, and Daye finally troubled himself to put in an appearance. There had been no other message from him before this. Nothing from Sonny Daye had arrived at the funeral. He hadn't bothered with flowers, or a letter, or a phone call. The pretense, it seemed, was over.
There was no longer anyone around to impress.
Hardcastle stood outside the French doors, boxes piled about his feet; for all those long weeks, he had avoided the Gatehouse, unable to face the emptiness within. But Daye's telegram from St. Louis had provided enough impetus to overcome his reluctance in what he now felt was an intrusion -- and more than that, he didn't want Sonny Daye pawing through the place. It was that thought, more than anything else, that had urged him to action.
He opened the French doors slowly, quietly, the same as he had done a few short, eternally long, weeks ago. One or two lamps still glowed, the rest having burned out. The air-conditioner had kept the interior cool, and for the briefest of moments, it was as if nothing had changed.
Dragging the cardboard boxes inside, he dumped them on the sofa; he stood looking down at them, unsure how to start. He finally separated a medium sized one from the others, placing it on the newspaper and magazine covered coffee table.
Shutting down hard on resurfacing emotions, Hardcastle gave the lower rooms a slow, visual inspection. For once, he ignored the clutter, conscious only of the keenly felt silence. Crossing to the stereo, he pressed the power button. A small record rack, stacked with singles, sat next to the turntable; containing, what McCormick had termed, 'Most play' singles; the 'Moderate play', 'Least play', and 'No play' records were jammed in the lower cabinet.
Thumbing through the singles at random, he read over the artists' names, pulled out one by a group with a normally recognizable name. The song title was a familiar one - McCormick, after breaking with his latest 'serious fling', would indulge in a bout of self-pity; and he recalled that, on several such occasions, this would be playing background to his lamentations. Hardcastle was surprised that the record still had a playable groove, considering the number of times it had been on the turntable. The adapter was already in, the proper speed already selected. The stylus swung over to the beginnlng of the track, as Hardcastle gathered various items from the surrounding shelves.
The opening chords filtered through the speakers; from the bits and pieces he had heard, in passing, before, he recalled that the sedate, soothing melody was vastly preferable to the strident wailings of Iron Butterfly... or Twisted Sister, God help us all.
You sheltered me from harm,
kept me warm, kept me warm…
You gave my life to me,
set me free, set me free…
The items he carried back to the couch went into the medium-sized box. Photos, a few trophies, the red racing helmet... Sonny Daye would have no interest in them, but they had been an important, meaningful part of McCormick's life. He gazed fondly at the picture taken by the track photographer just after the win at the Arizona Modifieds; Hardcastle had not felt so happy or proud of McCormick, nor had he ever felt so apart and alone. Until now.
The finest years I ever knew,
were all the years I had with you...
And I would give anything I own,
Give up my life, my heart, my home...
I would give everything lawn,
Just to have you back again…
The poignant truth of the lyrics cut deep, and the framed photo fell from his trembling grasp. He turned sharply, away fromthe memories, from the haunting words; he leaned wearily against the upstairs railing, completely unaware of how he got there. Below, the record played on...
You taught me how to laugh,
what it took, what it took;
You never said too much,
but still you showed the way
Until I knew, from watching you.
He crossed quickly to the open closet door, shoved the hangers together, and, encircling the clothes in one armload, draped them across the unmade bed. Pulling the drawers from the dresser, he dumped the contents on the bed, also. If Daye wanted these, he could come up and pack them himself. There wasn't that much in the loft bedroom to begin with, so he was just about finished, and was somewhat pleased at how he had managed to bear up through it. Replacing the last drawer, he straightened, glancing around the room.
Nobody else could ever know,
the part of me that can't let go...
And I would give anything I own,
Give up my life, my heart, my home...
I would give every thing I own,
Just to have you back again...
His gaze fell on the desk, on the open books and unfinished report, as if awaiting his return. Numbly, he approached the desk, reached down toward the open law book, his fingers halting before touching the page; his gaze shifted to the yellow legal pad, finding the words too blurred to read.
Is there someone you know
You're loving them so,
But taking them all for granted...?
You may lose them one day,
Someone takes them away;
And they don't hear the words you long to say...
He took a deep, shuddering breath, tried to deny the burning tears; he stepped back, dropping heavily on the edge of the bed. The long-suppressed grief finally took hold; he lowered his face into his hands and wept. Wept as he hadn't allowed himself to do at the scene of McCormick's death, or his funeral, or anytime since. Wept for himself as much as for McCormick; at the goals attained and those that were promised. And, lastly, but more importantly, for someone he had loved more than he had thought possible.
I would give anything I own,
Give up my life, my heart, my home...
I would give everything I own,
Just to have you back again.
Just to touch you once again...
At some distant point in time, Hardcastle had finished packing the lower rooms; replaced the white drapes over the furniture. The majority of boxes he left just outside the French doors, and stored the mid-sized box, along with another smaller one, outin the garage.
He checked his watch; it was still early, and he needed to make a quick trip to the courthouse. As Daye had requested in his telegram, he would indeed have all the papers ready to sign.
Late that same afternoon, a ten-year-old white Cadillac convertible rolled down the drive. Hardcastle had been watching for it, and went outside as itrolled to a stop outside the den. The car was the same vehicle Daye had had last year, and the Judge was somewhat surprised to see that it hadn't been exchanged for a more flashier, and a more impressive, model. That was Daye's style, the first impression was the most important, because Sonny was never in one place long enough for a second impression.
Sonny Daye could always manage the shallow, show-biz polish, as long as it never went any further than skin deep. Closing the car door with a flourish, he stood next to the ostentatious vehicle, turned his best side toward the approaching Judge and used his most phony Hollywood-chummy grin. "Hardcastle, the place looks great. Look, before you even insist, I can't stay. This is just a quick side trip, on my way to San Francisco. You know how it is on the song-and-dance circuit, they want you there yesterday. Just finished up at the Hilton in St. Louis - did you catch the reviews? Sold out every night. "
"Can't say that I did. Too bad you can't stay, Sonny; breaks my heart."
"Yeah, well, that's show biz. Takes over your life." Daye lit a cigarette, attempting to conceal his nervousness; it was obvious that the sooner he got this over with, the better. "So, let's say we get down to the dotted line? He still have that racing car? Seems I remember him mentioning it was one of a kind; should bring a couple of bucks. What do you think?"
Hardcastle didn't trust himself to say what he thought. Daye's undisguised avarice disgusted him, and he stared at Sonny intently, trying to find the spark of decency and humanity that he had imparted to his son. It was a fruitless search. "Come on inside, Sonny; I have a little deal that I think might interest you."
Once seated at the massive desk, Hardcastle sorted through some papers, "Now, I'm sure you know the Coyote is almost five years old, has nearly eighty thousand. miles on it. However, the bar and grill will be free and clear this Friday, and its value is considerably more - I also have three buyers for it who are willing to pay $86,000 - lock, stock, and barrel. With McCormick's share, you now own two-thirds; I'll sign over my third in exchange for the Coyote."
A cunning gleam came into Daye's dark eyes, which made it so much easier not to think of him as McCormick's father. "Twenty-eight grand for the car, huh? Don't know about that, Judge; should be worth more than that."
"Take it orleave it, Sonny. The buyers have a Cashier's Check, you could close the deal today. I have the check right here." He held up the handwinning card.
In less than five seconds, Daye was at the desk, signing papers.
"Everything else is at the Gatehouse; I packed them and left the boxes outside the doors."
"Thoughtful of you, Judge. You don't mind if I check around before I leave? You might have...missed something. Who knows, we might be able to play 'Let's Make A Deal' again."
Hardcastle held back his anger with an effort; Sonny and Mark did share one trait - when upset, the smart mouth came to the fore. It was just about the only thing they shared. "Help yourself, Sonny; it's not locked."
Daye paused as he fingered the check, "Nah... That's okay. I mean, if you can't trust a Judge, who can ya trust?" Then the cockiness left his voice, and the eyes that looked at him held a child's disappointment. "I trusted you, Judge. I wanted him to have a chance in life, and you were that chance. Even I could see that. What could I ever have given him?"
Leaning back in the chair, Hardcastle studied Daye for a moment. Deciding the man was sincere, he. said the things that McCormick could never bring himself to say. "He thought a lot of you, at first; he expected so much, and got the usual from you - nothing. If you had given him even the lamest excuse for deserting him, he would have accepted it and forgiven you. But you threw it away, just like you did twenty-five years ago; and then your conscience, such as it is, got to you, and you tried to win him over with material things -- bribery, he called it, although I defended you at the time.
"All he ever wanted from you was a name, a home, a sense of family and belonging. He wanted to know that you cared about him, thought of him occasionally - say, once every five years or so. If you had given him any kind of chance, he would have forgiven you." Anger hardened his tone, "You never cared how he thought or felt. You didn't deserve to have a son like Mark."
Daye was uncharacteristically silent as he folded the papers, placing them in his coat pocket. He appeared unmoved by the Judge's angry outburst, and his voice was serious when he did speak. "I didn't feel it necessary to explain anything to Mark; and I certainly don't feel any obligation to explain anything to you. This may surprise you, Judge, but did it ever occur to you that the explanation would have caused him more pain than the not knowing?"
"I don't know. I only know that your seeming indifference toward him hurt him deeply, and that he always felt that he was at fault. You couId have at least spared him that, as any decent father would have."
Straightening his sports coat and his self-esteem, Daye moved toward the door. "Maybe you're right, Hardcastle, maybe I'll never rate as Father of the Year." Opening the door, he paused at the threshold. For the briefest of seconds, his eyes revealed his sorrow, then was quickly concealed by his own anger and guilt. "Maybe I don't know what it takes to be a Superdad. But I do know one thing. I wasn't the one that got him killed."
The door closed quietly behind Daye, an anti-climax to his heart-piercing words. The veracity of the statement left him stricken, and he had no rejoiner, no denial.
And worst of all, it had taken someone like Sonny to put everyone's, including his own, thoughts into words.
The grief subsided to a wistful melancholia. There were too many times shared together, too many memories that would not be forgotten. McCormick had given too much; too much of him was still at the estate. What they had shared was different than that shared by man and wife, or by father and son. Nancy resided in gentle remembrance at Gull's-Way, and his son lived in the happy times and places in his heart and mind. But McCormick was still the all-too-close present, and the unrealized future. Time, he knew, healed all wounds; but he also knew, that the scars would remain.
He had to get away from the constant reminders, away somewhere that he and McCormick had not been; to be among people who had never known either of them. Only then, he reasoned, would he be able to shake the depression that was dogging his footsteps.
A long cruise, the healing sea air, and the slow, easy slap of waves against a ship's hull. Other people, speaking of unimportant things, to distract him from his own misery. The call of the ocean was beckoning to him again, and again he answered it.
Frank Harper turned off the main highway, drove absent-mindedly through the gates; his thoughts elsewhere, he nearly rear-ended a Dodge Maxivan, and he swerved sharply. The dark green van was from a lawn maintenance firm, and what looked to be an army was busily cutting, clipping, and trimming away nearly two months' worth of yard jungle. Another vehicle, a white minivan this time, was parked outside the kitchen, a home cleaning service; and a red truck was by the patio, two men cleaning the pool and filtering system. It seemed Hardcase was back in force, especially if he was getting things shaped up and put back in order.
He found Hardcastle in the den, looking tanned and in a considerably more positive frame of mind. Harper released an inward sigh, he hadn't been too happy about the Judge's decision to take the six-week cruise; he was afraid all that open water might prove too tempting. But the ocean seemed to work some kind of magic on Hardcastle; or maybe the Judge had just needed to be out on his own, to sort through his problems. The sadness was still there, lurking in his eyes; and he knew the loss still hurt, but now it was bearable. Hardcastle could now deal with it.
Their conversation was easy and comfortable, and eventually turned to police and police business. Harper decided to broach the subject that had brought him here. "So, Milt, what have you been doing lately?"
Hardcastle indicated the grounds of Gull's-Way. "Been putting this place back together. Can't you tell?"
"Yeah. It looks pretty good. But after that?" Hardcastle glanced away, and Harper continued, not as confident as before, "I was wondering if you'd... consider continuing your rehabilitation program--"
Hardcastle cut him off sharply, a very real fear in his eyes. "No. Never agaln."
"I didn't mean another one-on-one situation. I wouldn't presume that. But, there's a lot of kids out there, Milt, that need the help that you can give them. Do you think that Mark would want you to literally bury yourself here in a tomb of grief and guilt? You know he wouldn't. Him, more than anyone."
With a thoughtful expression, the Judge rose from the chair, went to the window overlooking the sea. "Let me think about it, Frank," he said quietly.
Harper rose also, knowing he had made the point. "Think, but say yes."
Hardcastle waited until Harper left, gazing out over the calm, deep blue ocean. Then he smiled, to someone other than himself. "Well, what do think, kiddo?" He mused softly, "'McCormick's By-The-Sea'? Nah, sounds like a seafood restaurant. How about, 'McCormick's Horne for Smart-Ass Boys'? Yeah, I like it, too…"
The years slipped by, approaching another decade. Hardcastle almost made good on his threat; but decided that a law scholarship at the college would be a more lasting and suitable memorial for McCormick. And he did agree to work with juveniles and first-time offenders on a group basis.
He reopened the Gatehouse, sometimes letting it double as a guesthouse. He had replaced the items packed in the garage; it had been too sterile, too lifeless, as if McCormick had never lived there. And he realized he didn't want to block that out, and so returned some measure of life to the brick and frame interior.
There was only one other major change in his life. He re-wrote his Will, leaving the estate and all financial holdings to his niece, Warren Wingate, with the provision that she continue to maintain Gull's-Way, and continue to fund the scholarship.
And so he went on, enjoying the years left to him. And he found, to some degree, the peace and contentment of the past in the laughter and tears, the disappoinrnents and successes, that the present and future had to ofter. A contentment that quelled the yearning, until it was his time to join wife, son, and friend.
Captain Frank Harper stood solemnly next to the flag-draped casket; he let the tears fall, watching the mourners leave. He waited until the cars had left the cemetery before saying his own farewell to one of his longest and closest friends. It had been a gentle death, the aged heart having finally given out during the night. And the life he had lived had been a good life, a productive life...Milton Hardcastle could have led no other kind.
The August breeze was a cool contrast to the sun's rays, filtering through scattered clouds. Grey-black thunderheads edged the blue horizon, the threatening storm having held off all morning. Thunder rolled and grumbled in the distance, occasionally accented by flashes of lightning. The ocean, he had noticed on the drive up, reflected the slate grey-blue of the sky; almost as if the elements themselves were in mourning.
His gaze fell on the rows and tiers of flowers, more than he'd ever seen in one place. They represented a cross-section of humanity, rich and poor, powerful and weak, the literate and the unlearned; and both sides of the law seemed to be equally represented beneath the protective canopy.
Aside from the family blanket of red and white roses that rested on the warm mahogany finish; there was only one other all-rose arrangement. It stood apart from the others, atthe head of the casket, from funeral home to gravesite. The arrangement was a stunning array of multi-hued, perfectly formed roses, from the deepest of wine red to the most delicate of shell pink, golden-yellow to salmon-orange to creamy ivory, the brilliant colors rising from the purest of fragile white, then fanning out in a riotous display of color and life. Long, wide streamers trailed from the bow, made from ribbons of three shades of blue. Several had remarked upon it, corrmented on the sender; and Harper only now had an opportunity to see who had sent such abold declaration.
There was only one card attached to the bow, and the only name on it was that of the florist.
The wind picked up, gusting leaves and loose petals across the closed lawn. With alast, silent prayer, Harper turned, and headed for his sedan, reaching it seconds before the downpour did.
Nathan Aldridge turned the sign on the glass door from'OPEN' to 'CLOSED'; it had been a hectic day, and he was feeling everyone of his sixty-eight years. He went through the shop, straightening up, rearranging, putting away cutters, ribbons, and other odds and ends scattered over the countertop. He had done this everyday for most of his life, more years than he cared to remember. He was just turning out the lights when the phone rang; he hesitated, then answered on the third ring.
"Aldridge's Florist. Nathan Aldridge speaking."
"My name is Harper, Captain Harper of the LAPD..." The voice was strong, self-assured, pausing toward the end.
"Yes, Captain?" He prompted, glancing at his watch. Twenty minutes before the bus came.
"I'd like to check on an arrangement sent from your shop, early yesterday morning, to the Whitehall Funeral Home, for aMilton C. Hardcastle. It was roses, fan-shaped, all different colors..."
Aldridge smiled, people rarely asked for that type of arrangement, and he was always pleased when someone expressed an interest. "All, yes, I recall it. Hade it up myself; you might say it is my specialty."
"Could you tell me who ordered it?"
"Hold on a moment, sir, and I'll check my records." Aldridge rummaged through the previous day's work orders, usually filing the slips away at the end of the week. It was easy to recognize, no one bought that many roses anymore; checking the reference number in the corner, he pulled a large,
heavily bound ledger from an upper shelf. It was an old number, and his mind calculated how many years back it would be, as he flipped through the yellow pages. It would be, he decided, almost fifteen years ago.
Frank Harper, safely ensconced behind darkly tinted, one-way glass, shifted impatiently in the large, leather chair, fingers drumming on the desktop. Maybe he shouldn't be nosing around, but his policeman's curiosity couldn't ignore the anonymously sent arrangement that demanded attention, yet withheld identity.
The elderly voice finally returned. "How much information do you want?"
"Everything you have."
"Well, according to my ledger, this account was opened back in 1983, October; several purchases were made, mostly roses, it seems, up to February, 1988..." The voice trailed off, followed by a long pause; when it continued, there was note of surprised awe in the tone, "I remember him.. .nice young man. He wanted to open twoaccounts, a regular charge, and a special one... He wanted me to check the newspaper obituaries for that name -- Hardcastle, Milton C., of Malibu... And when I found it, I was to send my specialty. He added money to the open account, all the way up to '88 -- Now that I think about it, I don't remember seeing him after that. I guess he figured $375 was enough for anyone's funeral. Said he wasn't sure where he'd be at the time, and wanted to be certain it'd be sent. The fellow's name was McComick, Mark McCormick." A note of apprehension crept in, "Why? Is there something wrong? I followed all his instructions, even to not signing the card."
"No, Mr. Aldridge, thank you; nothing's wrong." As the other party broke the connection, Harper replaced the receiver, leaned back thoughtfully, feeling contented for the first time in ages. "Everything's just right..."
(Originally printed in early 1980s in one of the Back-to-Back zines)
"Everything I Own", BREAD, 1972.