Welcome to My Nightmare

By Lizabeth S. Tucker

1.

"Hey, Judge, I'm back!" Mark McCormick moved through the house, his arms filled with grocery bags. "I couldn't get that salsa you wanted." He continued talking, not dismayed by the lack of response from retired Superior Court Judge Milton C. Hardcastle. He was used to it.

Two more trips from the truck to the kitchen were needed before Mark finished putting everything away. He wiped off the counter, then walked to the den, the towel flung over his shoulder.

"Hardcase, next time tell me when the truck needs gas." He stopped in the doorway of the den. The Judge wasn't there. "Judge?"

Mark looked in the basement. Nothing. He moved outside to search around the house and in the garage. He even checked the Gatehouse without success.

Stumped, he returned to the main house. Mark ran up the stairs to look in the bedrooms, then the bathrooms with increasing concern. Both the Coyote and the Corvette parked in the garage. With two cars available, Hardcastle would have had no need to call a taxi. Perhaps he accepted a ride from a friend.

Mark decided to call the most likely suspects and went into the den, throwing himself into the Judge's chair. Picking up the phone, he dialed Lieutenant Frank Harper's number, spinning the chair around. Before he said more than hello, he saw the blood.

"Oh God, oh God."

"McCormick? Mark, is that you? What is it? What's wrong?"

"There's blood. There's blood on the wall and…the carpet." Mark swallowed. "Frank, I can't find the Judge. Please tell me he's with you. Please."

"Are you at the estate? Mark, answer me!"

"Uh, yeah. Yeah, I'm…I'm in the den."

"Mark, I don't want you to touch anything else. Where are you in the room?"

"I'm sitting in…in the Judge's chair. I can't find him, Frank. I've looked everywhere. There's blood…" his voice trailed off.

"Listen to me, Mark. I want you to listen!" Frank's voice cut through Mark's panic.

McCormick took a deep breath and blew it out before replying. "Okay, okay."

"I want you to go outside. I'm on my way with a team. Just wait outside for me, understand?"

"Yeah, I understand, Frank. Just…just hurry, will ya?"

"As fast as I can."

2.

Harper's car came tearing up the driveway, accompanied by two black and whites and a crime scene van. He had hoped to see the missing man standing outside, berating McCormick for panicking over some spilled tomato juice. Instead he saw the younger man he had come to like and respect sitting on the front step, his arms hanging loosely between his legs. His head was bowed, his chestnut curls ruffled by the breeze.

"Mark?"

McCormick looked up, his blue eyes dark as midnight and unfathomable.

"Stay here. I'm going inside to look around, okay?" Harper was concerned by the lack of reply. He touched Mark lightly on the shoulder as he walked by. He wanted to tell the younger man that it would be okay, but he couldn't make false promises.

The amount of blood was disturbing, but not indicative of a fatal wound. That much was encouraging. Yet the very presence of the blood also showed that whoever had snatched the Judge wasn't above using violence. Harper walked back outside to signal the crime scene specialists to begin.

To his discerning eye, it appeared that McCormick hadn't moved an inch. After directing his men to search the surrounding area, Harper lowered himself to the step to sit beside the silent man.

"Mark? I need to know exactly what happened."

"I went to buy groceries this morning."

"What time?"

"About nine o'clock. The truck was low on gas so I had to get it filled up. I got back about eleven thirty, unloaded the bags and put everything up. When I looked for Hardcase, I couldn't find him anywhere. I thought one of his buddies might've come to pick him up, ya know?" Mark clenched his fists. "I started calling around, well, I called you first and spun around to find…find that."

"What have you guys been working on?"

"Nothing!" he snapped, then took a deep breath, closing his eyes. "I'm sorry, Frank. No, we haven't had time to start anything new. We've got two trials coming up this month to testify in, the Judge was called to take over for Judge Robinson as chairman at the Jurists' Convention in Houston next month, and we're fixing the Corvette for the car show."

"The trials, who are they?" He knew, but wanted to hear Mark's view of them.

"Uh, the first one is pretty simple, just my testifying for the Perkins kid on his GTA charge. The ADA wasn't thrilled that I'm a defense witness, but the kid had a good reason for stealing the car. He thought his sister was in trouble, so he took the neighbor's Camero to go rescue her. It wasn't his fault that the girl overreacted and he got caught by the beat cops."

"Bet Milt was happy about you testifying."

"Nah, he's the one who contacted the kid's lawyer after I told him about overhearing the sister's hysterics on the phone." A fond smile touched the ex-con's face at the memory.

"And the other case?" Frank watched Mark's demeanor darken.

"Another appeal by Martin Cody. The Judge says it's pretty routine, but I hate it. The SOB is trying to get away with murder. I'll be damned if he will. If I have to go every friggin' week to testify, I'll do it."

"Any recent threats from anyone?"

"No, not really." Mark scrubbed at his face with his hands. "Christ, Frank, I don't know what to do. He's been a judge and a cop for decades. Where the hell do I start?"

"We'll start with the most current and work our way back," Frank replied, letting Mark know he wasn't alone.

"Do we…does Milt have the time?" At that, Mark fell silent, watching the crime scene technicians walk in and out of the house.

3.

Hours later the sun was dropping into the ocean. Mark was still outside the house, not willing to go into the Gatehouse as Frank had suggested repeatedly. Finally the police lieutenant gave up, contenting himself with periodically bringing water to the silent man.

The crime techs were leaving at last. Mark watched them go before getting slowly and painfully to his feet. His knees popped as he moved to the main house only to be stopped by a uniformed officer.

"McCormick, you can't go inside," the officer said.

"What?"

"You can't go inside. It's a crime scene."

"I've gotta…the Judge has…I need…" Mark turned away when he felt his throat close up. He wouldn't give in to his fear, he wouldn't! He walked quickly to the short wall separating the manicured lawns from the cliff leading down to the beach. He stood there, his fists clenched as he fought for control.

"Mark?"

He couldn't look Harper in the face, afraid of what he might see in the man's face.

"We're done here for now."

"I…" That had to stop. No more stammering. "Tompkins said I can't go into the house. I need to get to the Judge's files."

"I'll come with you. You won't be able to look at them there."

Mark nodded. "Okay. Okay, we'll move them into the Gatehouse. I'll work from there." Unable to stop himself, Mark asked softly, "is he dead, Frank? The blood, was it enough to tell you whether he's badly hurt?"

"I'm sorry. I can't tell you that." Frank gripped McCormick's arm when the younger man started to move away, his jaw clenched. "I can tell you that the technicians don't believe the amount of blood to be life-threatening, but what caused the bleeding or any ramifications of what was done to Milt, that I just don't know."

"Okay. I can deal with that. He's alive. Until I see his…his body, Milt's alive." Under his breath he muttered, "he's got to be alive." Mark blinked rapidly, then faced Harper. "Let's get those files. The sooner I can go through them, the sooner we'll find the Judge."

"I've called for taps to be put on the phones on the estate. They'll be over later to install the equipment."

"So you think he was kidnapped for ransom?"

Frank shook his head. "It's unlikely, but we can't take any chances."

"If it was for money, who would get it for them? I couldn't. Who would have the authority to pay out a ransom?"

"I don't really know. That's a good question, Mark. I'll check into that first thing tomorrow." He gently placed his arm around the worried man's shoulders. "Come on, let's grab some boxes to dump the files in. Knowing Milt, he'll have a basement full."

4.

"Dammit!" Mark flung a file folder against the wall. "This is getting us nowhere."

Frank watched with weary eyes. "Mark, it's two in the morning. Maybe we should quit, get some sleep and start again in the morning."

"Quit? I can't quit." He jumped to his feet to pace the room. "Hardcase is depending on me. I can't let him down."

"You're not letting him down, Mark. You'll be no help to anyone if you don't get some rest." Frank gathered the files together, piling them on the table. "Go on. I'll sack out here on the couch."

"Go home, Frank. Go home to your wife. I'll be fine."

"I've already called Claudia and she agrees that I'm staying, so get that idea out of your head."

"Okay, fine. I appreciate the company, really. Take the bed," Mark said, jerking his head toward the loft bedroom. "I'm gonna stay up a little longer."

"Mark."

"Go, Frank." Mark picked up the scattered papers, slipping them back into the folder. He added it to the reject pile before pulling another folder.

Frank was struck by the resemblance to the missing man. "Stubborn jackasses, both of you."

Mark's face lightened for a moment. "Hey, I've learned from the best." Then the moment passed and he turned his attention back to the files.

Knowing it was useless, Harper still tried once more to convince his young friend to rest for a few hours without success. Giving in, the lieutenant walked slowly up the stairs to the loft bedroom.

Mark continued going through the files, desperately afraid that he might overlook an important clue. He tried to not think of what the Judge might be going through at the hands of his kidnappers.

5.

Hardcastle groaned as he regained consciousness. He tried to raise his hand to his aching head only to find he couldn't move his arms. It took a moment to realize that he was securely tied up. Blinking his eyes rapidly to clear the fog, he discovered that he was sprawled on a cot and a familiar face was staring at him from a nearby chair.

"What the hell is this all about?" he growled. He remembered answering the door and being met by a man with a gun. Trying to get to the den and his gun, he was conked on the head.

"Revenge, Judge. If you'll remember, I'm quite fond of revenge."

"And lousy at getting it right. The last time you were caught before you could finish your little plan."

Carl Sharples, aka Charlie Carlson, pursed his lips in anger. "Thanks to you and your friend. Well, it's not gonna happen this time. You may have messed up my train scenario, but this time neither you nor your sidekick will have time to unravel my plan."

"What are you talking about? Where's McCormick?" Hardcastle struggled to look around the room, expecting to see his young friend similarly trussed up. "Sharples!"

"Oh, he's not here. He's free…for the moment. But with the clues I'll be dropping into the ear of the police, it won't be long before he's on trial for your disappearance." He removed a hypodermic from a black zippered bag and approached the helpless jurist. "And you can call me Calvin now, Calvin Rochester. Or even son, Pop."

"Pop? Son? What the hell…ow!" Hardcastle was unable to avoid the injection. "What did you just give me?"

"Just a little gift to help you get into your role." His eyes were cold, his lean body bending over Hardcastle as he watched the reaction to the medications flowing into the older man's blood system.

"Wha' role?" the Judge slurred.

"That of my demented father, victim of a series of strokes that have affected his mind and his body. You see, I've decided not to kill you. I want you and McCormick to suffer. You'll be helpless, trapped by your own drug-induced disabilities. And your friend will be fighting for his life in the very courts that you once ruled over. It's the perfect revenge and this time, it'll work." He patted Hardcastle on the cheek. "See you in a while, Pop."

6.

"Harper? Lieutenant Frank Harper?"

Harper looked up from the computer printouts he had ordered in order to facilitate the search for the missing Judge. He saw a comely woman in her middle forties standing in his office door. "Yes, may I help you?"

"I'm Assistant District Attorney Susan McIntyre. I've been assigned to the Hardcastle case."

"It's a bit premature to involve the ADA, ma'am. Right now all we have is a missing man, some blood, and a pile of interviews to do."

"Was one of them one…" she shuffled through a notebook. "Mark McCormick?"

"He was questioned, Ms. McIntyre." Harper focused on the woman, sensing trouble ahead.

"What was determined regarding his involvement with the disappearance?"

"McCormick had no involvement."

"Was that your professional opinion or your personal one? It's well known that you and this McCormick appear to be…friends."

Harper could see this discussion was going down fast. He ushered the ADA fully into his office, offering her a chair and closing the door behind her. "Yes, I consider both Mark and Milton Hardcastle friends."

"We believe you might be unable to investigate this situation with an unbiased eye."

Harper glared at the woman. "Ms. McIntyre, if McCormick was involved in Judge Hardcastle's disappearance, I would be the first to handcuff him. I assure you, my investigation will be thorough and I will arrest whoever is behind this."

"You still believe he's alive?"

"If they wanted him dead, Hardcastle's body would've been lying in the den. Instead they took him away. For whatever reason, they wanted him alive, so I'm going on the assumption that he still is."

McIntyre stared at him through cool grey eyes before nodding. "For the time being we won't request your removal from the case, but be warned, Lieutenant, if we believe your personal feelings for the suspect are impeding the investigation, you'll be gone."

"Understood, ma'am." Harper sat at his desk as the ADA let herself out his office door.

7.

Harper was both impressed and concerned by Mark McCormick's single-minded search for clues to Hardcastle's disappearance. As the days passed, the police lieutenant had accompanied the ex-con during his investigation, using his official status to smooth the way when needed, allowing Mark to do the talking when being a cop would be a detriment. Their latest trip was to the prison to visit Martin Cody.

Granite-faced, McCormick had submitted to the search required to visit the murderer without complaint. He then sat quietly at the metal table as Cody walked into the room.

"Well, well, well, if it isn't Mark McCormick. Imagine seeing you here." Cody looked at Harper. "Who's your friend? What happened? The Judge throw you out at last? Or did you decide to get a younger protector?"

"This is Lieutenant Frank Harper with the Los Angeles Police Department."

"Lieutenant, please forgive my not shaking your hand. I'm not allowed physical contact with my visitors."

"No problem."

"So, what can I do for you gentlemen?"

"Hardcase has disappeared." Mark leaned forward, intently staring at Cody.

"Really? What a shame."

"Did you have anything to do with it?"

Cody glanced at Harper, then turned his attention back to McCormick. "If I did, do you think I'd tell you? Especially in front of a cop?"

Harper shrugged. "I'm just his chauffeur. I haven't given you your rights, so nothing you say could be used against you."

After a moment of considered silence, Cody spoke. "No, I didn't have anything to do with his disappearance. If I was involved, I would've ordered you taken out first. But I won't mourn the Judge's loss."

McCormick continued questioning Cody for a few more minutes, but soon gave up. He remained seated while the guards escorted the prisoner out of the room. Once he and Harper were alone, Mark gave into his exhaustion and put his face in his hands, sighing deeply.

"You believe him?"

Grimacing, Mark raised his head and nodded. "Yeah, I do. If Martin Cody ordered this to be done, he wouldn't be able to resist bragging to me about it. And he's right. I would be dead, not walking around looking for Milt."

"What now?"

"I don't know. I'm running out of ideas and out of people to question."

"Come on, let's go back to Gull's-Way. Maybe we can think of something else on the way."

8.

"Okay, old man, it's time to let the world see you." Rochester forced Hardcastle's arms into a clean shirt. "I need to have the freedom to harass McCormick and start pushing the suspicion onto him."

The shots had done their job. Hardcastle was a prisoner in his own body, unable to move at will nor to speak clearly any longer. He was forced to allow his captor to feed him, the man giving him soft foods to make it easier to swallow. Even something as simple as chewing was fast becoming a thing of the past. His erstwhile son wasn't shaving the Judge's face nor cutting his hair, so both were growing. The lack of solid food and exercise was changing his normally solid physique to that of an feeble old man.

Rochester bundled him into a wheelchair, rolling him to the car and lifting him into the passenger seat with some effort. "You need to lose some weight, Pop. Well, don't worry about that. It won't take long at all with the pap you're eating."

His captor strode to the other side of the car, folding the wheelchair up and sliding it into the back seat of the car. He then climbed into the driver's side and started the engine. "Let's take you to your nursing home. I've already made all the arrangements. Oops, almost forgot. You'll need another shot before we go, just to be on the safe side. Wouldn't want you rambling on and being understood, would we?"

Hardcastle closed his eyes in pain as the needle was pushed into his arm. With each shot, he worried whether the effects were reversible. This consumed his thoughts during the drive. He only came back to himself as they pulled into the driveway of a squat, square nursing facility.

As Rochester removed the Judge from the car, dropping him carelessly into the wheelchair, he pushed his face into view. "Don't think you'll get any help here. I've already laid the groundwork. You're my crazy old father, someone subject to wild flights of fancy. Of course, I doubt you'll be able to communicate with them, but just in case, I made certain no one would believe a word you said. We're also miles from Los Angeles, so chances of anyone recognizing you are slim. I'll be visiting you every day to give you a shot, so don't hope for the effects to wear off while you're staying here." He stopped speaking when they moved into the building.

"Mr. Rochester, welcome to Shady Pines Nursing Home." Mrs. Talbot, a mature woman of size, was the head of the senior facility. She leaned down to speak loudly to the grizzled man slumped in the well-worn wheelchair. "You'll be well cared for here."

Faded blue eyes peered at her, the elderly man's brow furrowed. He struggled to speak, but only nonsensical sounds issued from his chapped lips. His hands twitched in his blanket covered lap, the fingers curving inward.

Mrs. Talbot patted the clenched fists gently. "Now, now, Mr. Rochester. Don't you worry. Your son informed us of your difficulties since the stroke." She turned her attention to the younger man standing behind the wheelchair. "Mr. Rochester, --"

"Please. Call me Calvin," he instructed her with a flirtatious smile.

"Calvin," Mrs. Talbot said, resisting the urge to check her hair and dress. "Your application for senior care stated that your father suffers from dementia, is that correct?"

"Yes, ma'am. It's a tragic thing. Pop was a hard worker, a man who worked with his muscles. He wasn't well educated, could barely read, but now his mind is going. It's gotten so bad that I just can't let him stay at home alone. When I heard about your program, well, it was a godsend. Most nursing homes won't take an elderly person with dementia." Calvin moved closer to the older woman, lowering his voice. "Pop sees someone important on television and gets confused, thinks he's that person. I want to make certain that his access to television is restricted. Is that possible?"

"How awful for you," Mrs. Talbot sighed. "I assure you that our residents are fully involved with games and crafts. They won't have time to watch television. I will make a special note to keep him out of the rooms where televisions are located."

"Thank you for that."

"I do have to ask you a rather delicate question. Is your father, oh dear, does he suffer from incontinence? Diapers will be extra."

The senior Rochester became agitated, rocking in his chair and uttering eerie cries with no understandable meaning. His hands, shaking uncontrollably, reached toward his son. Calvin quickly pushed him back into his chair. "Now, Pop, you've gotta calm down. I'm not leaving you here alone. I promise I'll be back every evening to visit." He carefully avoided the clawing hands. "As to my father's control problems, you might have a point, ma'am. Better to be safe than sorry. I'll gladly pay the extra fees for as many diapers as might be needed."

"Good. As you say, better safe. After all, when they get excited, sometimes they forget themselves."

Two burly nursing aides arrived to transport the new resident to the community room. Calvin Rochester and Mrs. Talbot watched him go. She turned to see a most disturbing smile on the handsome face. Despite her earlier attraction, she now felt a chill upon looking at him.

"Take good care of Pops. He's very important to me. I'll be back this evening." With that, he departed.

9.

Mark, having fallen asleep in the den from sheer exhaustion, was startled away by the shrill sound of the telephone. He reached for it, almost falling off the chair he was slumped in. "'lo?"

"Hello, McCormick. Found your Judge yet?"

"Who is this?"

"I thought you might be happy to see him gone. Don't tell me you really want the old guy back?"

"What do you want? Whatever it is, I'll get it for you." He cursed the fact that the taps had been removed from the telephones after the first week.

"I don't want anything but to see both of you suffer."

"Both of us?"

"Of course. I'll be in touch." With that, the caller hung up.

After a moment's hesitation, Mark grabbed his keys and ran out to the Coyote. He tore out of the driveway, heading for the police station. "This might be the break we need," he muttered to himself.

At first he didn't notice the strange looks from the various police officers he passed by on his way to Harper's office, but when Officer Tony Carlotti stepped in his path, he caught the hatred in the man's brown eyes. He stopped, waiting.

"You've got some nerve, McCormick."

"What are you talking about?"

"You killed the Judge, didn't you? Killed him and disposed of his body, then decided to cover by making out that you're worried about him. It's all over the street." Carlotti began to push his finger into Mark's chest, forcing him back with each comment. "You may have fooled Harper, but we know the truth. And we'll make you pay."

Lieutenant Harper came to the door of his office, looking for his visitor. "Mark? What's wrong?" He watched the two men glare at each other, neither backing off. "Carlotti, don't you have a patrol car to drive? What are you doing in here?"

"Just taking a break, sir."

"Well, break's over. Get back to work. McCormick, get in here."

Carlotti nodded, brushing roughly by Mark as he left. The ex-con stared after him, now aware that others in the office were giving him dirty looks. He swallowed, following Frank. Once the office door was closed, he hunched his shoulders. "They all think I killed him, don't they?"

Frank frowned. "Mark, they don't know anything."

"They do, don't they?"

"Yeah, some of them might. Some of the regular street contacts are reporting rumors about you bragging about Milt's death. The ones that know you don't believe it. The others…well, you can't control what they're thinking, you know that. But once we find Milt, they'll know better, won't they?"

"Hell." Mark threw himself down in the chair situated in the front of Frank's desk. "I got a call."

This statement caught the cop's attention. "From who?"

"Don't know, but the caller made it very clear that this was aimed at both of us. That definitely narrows down the possible suspects. Milt and I have only been doing our thing for about three years now."

"That could mean that Cody was involved."

"No, I don't think so. He couldn't have made that call from prison and whoever it was on the phone wasn't a third party passing on a message. This was personal."

"A man, huh?"

"Yeah. And before you ask, no, I don't know who it was. The voice…" Mark's voice trailed off.

"What?"

"I'm not sure, but…it sounded familiar. Except I can't put a face to it."

"What will you do?"

"I think I can narrow down the focus of our investigation." Mark proceeded to give Harper his impression as to sex, age, and race of the caller. "Even giving some leeway, this should make it easier to weed some impossibles out of the mix. Can you use the computers to help narrow the list of possible down? Maybe when I see the names, the voice'll jog my memory."

"Sure, Mark. I'll have someone get right on it. You want to wait here for the results?"

"No, I'll head back to Gull's-Way and start looking through the Judge's files again, the ones he and I have worked on. And can I have a wire-tap put back on the phone? This guy said he'd contact me again."

"I'll see a judge about it right away." At Mark's puzzled look, Harper explained. "It's not your phone and Milt isn't here to give permission, so we have to get a court order for the tap."

"Oh. Okay." Mark looked back out into the main office area. "Guess I'll walk the gauntlet again."

"Mark?"

"Yeah?"

"I know you didn't have anything to do with this. And I'm not the only one. Hang in, okay?"

Mark stood in the doorway, then turned to look over his shoulder at a man he would never have thought to call friend before being paroled into Hardcastle's custody. "I'm trying, but you know that most of the department thinks I killed him. There weren't a lot who liked Milt taking me in, especially after the others didn't work out. Hell, I can't blame them. I hope I can find him before they convict me."

10.

As the days passed in mind numbing blandness, Milt began to question whether he was delusional, whether Calvin really was his son and not his kidnapper, and the worst doubt of all, whether the curly haired man he longed to see was really just a figment of his imagination.

He suffered through the humiliations of being treated like a body, not a person with a mind, with feelings. He couldn't communicate well verbally nor physically, barely able as he was to control his body. That inability was as terrifying as the thought he might actually be crazy.

Then came the day he was forced to join in with other day care seniors tossing a giant balloon around a circle in the name of therapy. A new nursing attendant had brought a small portable television with her, unwilling to miss her soap operas. It was visible to Hardcastle while he tried to bat the balloon away, even so simple a task difficult for him.

Idly watching the small set, he was caught when a familiar face flashed on the screen, his own. He was wearing his judicial robes in the photograph and, unlike now, was clean shaven. His photo was followed by another. The Judge felt tears well as he saw that Mark McCormick truly did exist.

So enthralled was he that Milt didn't notice the balloon until it smacked him in the face.

"Oh, no, Billy! Are you hurt?" Nurse Betty asked, crouching in front of the Judge who was known to one and all as Billy Rochester. Not William, but Billy, a man of limited intelligence and education, a man who worked with his hands until his mind began to escape him. Seeing the tears, she misunderstood and began to wheel him away.

"N-no, n-no," Hardcastle protested, trying to grab the wheel. "Ma-Ma-Ma."

"Aw, Betty, he thinks you're his mother."

"Andre, help me get Billy over to the nurses' station. Billy, stop that." She pried Hardcastle's fingers from the chair's brakes. "I've got to check you over. Your son's entrusted you to our care. We don't want anything to happen to his Pops, do we?"

As he was rolled past the television, Hardcastle was disturbed to see a video of McCormick in handcuffs. When was that taken, he wondered.

11.

Frank Harper had been a police officer for many years and had never really crossed the line…until now. The paper he was holding in his hand was the proverbial straw. Sighing deeply, he looked from it to his telephone. He couldn't use a phone in the building. This call required an outside telephone. He got to his feet, snagging his jacket as he passed out the door. He stuffed the order for Mark McCormick's arrest for the murder of Milton C. Hardcastle into his jacket pocket and stalked out of the building.

At Carla's Café, next door to the police station, he got a cup of coffee and a Danish. As he was paying for his order, he softly spoke to the owner. "Carla, I need a favor, a big one. I need to make a call and I don't want anyone to see me do it."

Her only response was one eyebrow raised, then she looked down at the register, getting his change. "So the one by the front door won't do."

"Nope, afraid not."

"Well, if you go down the hallway to the bathrooms and turn right instead of left, you'll find my office. You can use the phone in there." She raised her voice as she handed his change to him. "Here's your change, Frank. Have a nice day."

"Thanks." He closed his hand over the coins and the key she had dropped into his palm.

He forced himself to drink most of his drink, nibbling at the pastry. When he was almost done with the snack, he rose to his feet, wiping at his hand as if it was sticky. He made a subtle show of looking for the restrooms, then headed down the hallway. Harper looked carefully behind him before darting to the coffee shop's office.

He quickly unlocked the office door, slipped inside, and closed the door quietly behind him. He stood there listening for sounds of pursuit, but heard nothing. He flicked the office light on and spotted the telephone on the desk. Dialing a number he knew by heart, the cop waited impatiently for an answer.

"Hello?"

"Mark? It's me."

"Hey, Fr --"

"Yeah, it's Fred. Look, I need you to come get me, okay? I'm a little low on cash and you're close enough to give me a lift to work."

"Uh, sure, Fr-Fred. Where are you?"

"I'll wait for you at your girlfriend's place." Frank hoped Mark remembered the conversation from their last poker game together, where Judge Mattie was called his girlfriend. According to Milt, the only one the kid currently had as Mark was going through a dry patch with females.

"Where? Oh, sure. I'll be about 25 minutes, is that okay?"

"Yeah, that'll be fine." Harper hung up and headed for his car, slipping quietly out of the office and locking the door behind him. He casually laid the key into a wadded up paper napkin and dropped it on the counter next to Carla as he left.

"You guys are all alike, can't clean up after yourselves," Carla snipped, sweeping the napkin and key up in her hands. She walked to the wastebasket, tossing the trash away after slipping the key into her jacket pocket.

Harper was careful to look for potential tails on the way to the judge's office, but didn't see anyone. Even if they did tail him, all they'd discover would be that a police officer was visiting the courthouse. Nothing unusual in that.

He walked into the outer chamber of Mattie's office and spotted her bailiff. "Sam, is she in?"

"Yeah, she's munching on some pizza for lunch." He checked his watch. "She's not due back for an hour. What's up?"

"You know Mark McCormick, don't you?"

"Sure, Milt's right-hand man. Has he had any luck finding the Judge?"

"Not so far. He's on his way here and I need him ushered into Mattie's office as soon as he arrives. And I'd rather no one know he's here. Can that be done?"

Sam looked at Harper, then nodded curtly. "I hope he's not driving that red monster of his. It'll be a little obvious."

"I think, I hope I made it clear how important this was, but since I couldn't come out and tell him, I don't know."

"He'll come in the back way. That's how Milt arrives. I'll go there and head him off, take him through the judges' passageway."

"Thanks, Sam. And," Harper paused. "I wasn't here either."

"Gotcha."

Harper walked into Mattie's chambers with nary a knock. She was stuffing her face while reading a thick law book. She looked up in shock. "Frank Harper, don't you know better than to barge into a woman's room? I might've been doing something illicit."

"I'm sorry, Mattie, but I've asked Mark to meet me here. It's important."

"What's wrong?"

"I'd rather wait for Mark to get here before I explain. This is something I'd rather only say once."

"Okay."

They sat there silently, only the sounds of Mattie eating and turning pages in the book present in the room. Frank rubbed the heels of his hands roughly over his face, trying to control his breath.

"Here he is, Frank." Sam ushered a puzzled Mark into the room. "If you don't need me, I'll just keep an eye out, head off any visitors."

"Thanks, Sam. I really appreciate this."

"No problem. Glad to help."

Mark looked at Mattie for an explanation, but saw that she was equally at a loss. "Frank, what is it? What's with the clock and dagger stuff? I almost didn't know where to come."

When Harper didn't answer immediately, McCormick dropped onto the couch. "It isn't…you didn't find Milt, did you?"

"No, not yet. Mark," Frank removed the paper from his jacket and handed it to him. "This was just received in my office today. By this afternoon, the whole department will know."

Mark took the paper reluctantly, reading it carefully before handing it back. "My arrest? It's a warrant for my arrest for murder? They think the Judge is dead!" He jumped to his feet, rushing to the window and gripping the windowsill tightly. "He's not dead, he's not."

"Whether he is or not, son, you'll soon be on everyone's BOLO sheet. You're going to have to go into hiding."

"What jackass of a judge authorized this?" Mattie asked gruffly, holding her hand out.

"Witherspoon. District Attorney Hamilton demanded it at the behest of his new ADA McIntyre. You know how he and Milt used to butt heads in the courtroom, even more after he retired. He didn't approve of Milt's methods. And McIntyre thinks we're all too soft on Mark."

"He didn't approve of me. Few of them do. And with all those damned rumors going around. I've tried to trace them back to " Mark turned, his face set. "How much trouble will you be in if this gets out, Frank?"

"Don't worry about it. I'll handle any flack. Now, what did you discover in Milt's files? I read over the results of the computer search. You two have made a lot of enemies in two years. More than a few would like to see one or both of you put six feet under."

"Sure, that's no biggie, but how many of them would go to such lengths to come up with a scenario like…" Mark's voice trailed off, his forehead creased in thought. "I've gotta go."

"What?"

"Mark McCormick, freeze!" Mattie ordered. "You know who snatched Milt, don't you?"

"Maybe. I just might at that. Catch you later, sweetheart," Mark said, giving the lady judge a quick kiss.

"Mark, wait! Who is it? Mark!" Frank and Mattie's questions were ignored as Mark fled the room.

12.

It took him a while, but Mark soon discovered that Carl Sharples was out on bail, awaiting his own trial for murders committed while on the Casper Arrow, the classic train he hired to enact a complicated revenge that called all his imagined enemies together for inventive executions. It had been a wild ride, from Mark stuck in the train car bathroom to being tossed off the train to helping Hardcastle pretend to be dead of a scorpion bite.

He put Teddy and some other streetwise friends on the job of finding the man. Hiding out in an old friend's garage, he waited for his agents to contact him while he avoided the police. To fill his time and to keep himself from going crazy with worry, he helped repair cars and paced throughout the building. He desperately wanted to be out there looking, but he couldn't afford to be arrested, not yet, not until he found his missing friend.

Finally the call arrived. An address and a very encouraging observation. There was an older man staying with Carl, a man in a wheelchair. No one had gotten a good look at him, but Mark was well aware that Carl's father was dead, so it couldn't be his real father. The wheelchair was disturbing, but Mark wouldn't think about that until he found out who the man really was. He tried not to let his hopes get up that it would be this easy, but he couldn't help it. He was so close to finding the Judge, he could feel it!

He got into a borrowed Dodge Duster with the souped-up engine and peeled out. His destination was the apartment of one Calvin Rochester. Whatever it took, he'd get the truth.

Unfortunately, a fender bender and an observant traffic cop kept him from his goal. An old Mustang ran a red light and clipped the front left panel of the Duster. Once Mark had calmed the young woman driving the Ford and was about to convince her that they didn't need either the police or the insurance companies involved, a motorcycle arrived, carrying a helmeted officer.

The cop slowly climbed off his bike and strode over to the entangled vehicles. He took one look at McCormick and had his gun out.

"Hold it right there, punk. Put your hands on the car and don't move."

"Crap," Mark groaned.

"But, officer, it was my fault," the other driver protested.

"Ma'am, back away. This man is wanted for murder."

"Murder!" she screeched, backing away.

Mark was patted down quickly, his rights read to him, and the handcuffs tightly put on his wrists. A two-man patrol car was called and he was shoved roughly into the back seat. Before they left, a news crew arrived, caught in the traffic caused by the accident. The motorcycle cop kept the reporter from speaking to their prisoner, but didn't prevent them from filming.

"You've got to let me go, I know where Hardcastle is!" Or at least he hoped he did.

"You ready to confess, tell us where you put the body?"

"Damn it, there's no body! He's alive, I know it." Mark shifted in the seat, trying to relieve the discomfort of his arms yanked behind his back.

"Save it for your lawyer."

Mark grumbled as the police car drove through the busy city streets. It took a while before he realized that they weren't heading for headquarters. Instead they were leaving town. "Where are we going? This isn't the way to the station."

"Don't you worry, you'll get there. Eventually."

In a deserted canyon, the police car pulled over. The two officers got out of the vehicle, took off their holsters, and yanked McCormick out the driver's side. Before he could say a word, a fist was buried in his gut. For the next few minutes, he was the recipient of slugs and slaps. Handcuffed, he was at their mercy, only sometimes getting in a shot or two with his feet. Finally the irate cops took a breather, leaving Mark slumped against the car.

"We need to get our story straight. That news crew have pictures of him in good condition."

"He tried to escape, resisted and we had to use force to subdue him."

While the men discussed what their story would be to cover up the beating, McCormick watched through his fast swelling right eye. When they began arguing, their attention off him, Mark painfully slipped his arms under his rear and pulled his legs through the linked hands. Then he slipped into the police car and grinned. They had left the keys in the car. That would save him a lot of time and effort. He turned the key over, slammed the vehicle in gear and tore out of the canyon, allowing the speed to shut the open doors.

He saw them shouting and running after him in the rearview mirror and allowed himself a groan. He was late for a very important appointment, one he couldn't miss. "Good thing the cops in this city drive an automatic."

13.

McCormick drove to the address provided to him, parking the police cruiser in a deserted alley. Once hidden from casual view, he got to work on the handcuffs. Luckily, the arresting officers were so concerned with looking for weapons that they didn't confiscate his lock picks. With just a few twists and squiggles of the tool, he was free. Mark rubbed his wrists, trying to soothe the ache.

Leaving the squad car, he pocketed the keys. After all, he reasoned, he might need transportation later.

He found the Depression era apartment, a ground floor set of rooms with a ramp leading to the street. He scouted out the area before going inside. Once he was certain that no one was lurking outside and he had noted all possible escape routes, Mark was ready to go inside.

He quietly picked the apartment door lock, took a deep breath, which wasn't a good idea considering the state of his ribs, and slammed the door open, catching Rochester unaware.

"What the hell…McCormick!" Rochester rushed toward the battered and angry ex-con.

Prepared for an attempt to escape, Mark slammed his fist at the other man's face. They scuffled and traded blows, knocking over chairs and lamps in the small living area. When Rochester made another attempt to flee, McCormick got him in a headlock, squeezing his arm across the felon's throat. His mouth was next to Rochester's ear when he spoke. "Where's Hardcastle?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Rochester clawed at Mark's arm without success.

"Tell me now!" McCormick pulled his arm in, strangling the other man slowly.

"You…gasp…you won't kill me…"

"Don't bet on it. To get Hardcase back and keep myself out of jail, I'll do just about anything. They already think I've killed him. I've got nothing to lose at this point. Talk or die, it's your choice."

As the oxygen began to be cut off, Rochester felt fear for the first time. "'kay…stop…I'll talk…stop!"

Loosening up just enough to allow Rochester to breathe, Mark waited for an answer.

"What'll you do once I tell you?"

"I won't kill you. Past that I make no promises. It'll all depend on whether Hardcastle is still alive or not."

"He is, I swear."

"He'd better be or I'll be back."

Rochester told him precisely where he had stashed Judge Hardcastle, expecting to be released afterwards. He was shocked to find himself flipped around and handcuffed to the radiator in the corner of the room.

"You better hope it doesn't get cold."

"What about me?"

"You're staying here. If I find Hardcastle alive and well, I'll let the cops know where you are. If I don't find him, I'll be back." His face set in stone, he stared coldly at the other man. "You'd better be telling me the truth. I promise you don't want me coming back."

"He's there, honest." At this very moment, he preferred the police to the return of McCormick. He shivered at the promise in the frigid blue eyes.

14.

Mark McCormick's heart was beating at a frantic pace, afraid that he was on a wild goose chase. He was unchallenged when working into the nursing home. He looked around, trying to spot his friend, but didn't see any sign of him. Gritting his teeth, he strode to the nurses' station in the middle of the common room.

"Excuse me?"

The nurse looked up, startled by the intensity on the visitor's face. "Can I help you?"

"I'm looking for Milton Hardcastle."

"Who?"

"Uh, Mr. Rochester. Calvin Rochester's…father."

"Oh, Pops. Certainly. He's in room 612. Are you a relative?"

Mark broke out in a grin that took her breath away, despite the bruises blooming on his face. "You might say that. Can I borrow your phone for a moment? It's a local call."

"Well, I suppose that's okay." She placed the phone on the counter.

He quickly dialed Harper's private office number, hoping he had returned from the courthouse. When he got Harper's answering, he settled for leaving a message. "Frank, I need to you get over here ASAP. I have a big surprise for ya!" He gave the address, then hung up. "Thank you."

"Judge?" Mark slipped into the nursing home room, struggling to keep control of his emotions as he caught sight of his friend for the first time in two months. The man he knew had changed drastically. "Oh, Milt. What did he do to you?"

The Judge fought to sit up, failing miserably. Mark hurried across the room to help him, holding the Judge upright with one arm behind the man's back while quickly stacking pillows there for support.

One shaky hand reached up and touched Mark's face. "Ma-Ma-Ma?"

"Yeah, it's me. Frank's on his way. I found the bastard who did this." Overwhelmed, Mark gathered the Judge into a gentle bear hug, afraid to squeeze him too hard, but unable to resist holding him close. "Thank God, you're alive."

McCormick didn't need to hear the words to know that Hardcastle was uncomfortable with the overt display of emotion, yet his arms had snaked around Mark's body in a feeble hug. Feeble. It wasn't a word that Mark ever associated with the Judge, but seeing him now, it was the first to jump to mind.

"McCormick! Hands up and away from your body. Back away from the old man."

Hardcastle peered over his young friend's shoulder to see two police officers standing in the doorway with their weapons drawn and aimed at McCormick. As Mark pulled back slowly, obeying every order, the Judge caught his first good look of the younger man. The dim room had hid the bruises and scrapes on McCormick's face, the blood on his right shirt sleeve. Now with the door to his room open, the light from the common room spilling in, the Judge could see it all.

While one officer held his weapon on Mark, the other moved in, yanking him by the neck of his t-shirt and slamming him to the floor. "Thought you could get away with it, didn't you? Lemme tell ya something, asshole. If you don't get the death penalty for killing Hardcastle, you'd better hope you don't get out of prison in your lifetime. 'Cause we'll be waiting for you."

"He's not dead! The Judge is right --" McCormick gasped as he was kicked in his side.

"Shut up!" The two officers, outraged by what they believed had been done by the man at their mercy, began to enact their own form of justice. Neither man heeded the cries of protest from the elderly patient.

Frank Harper ran into the room. "What the hell? Stop it! Stop it!" He pushed one officer to the side while pulling the other away from the figure curled into a ball on the floor. "Both of you get the hell out of here before I have you arrested."

"Have us arrested? He's the one who killed Hardcastle."

"Carlotti, there's no proof of that. And even if it was true, you don't treat any suspect like this. I'm giving you and your partner one more chance. Go, now."

Carlotti glared at McCormick's still body before he was pulled from the room by his partner. Harper turned his back on them, kneeling beside the beaten man. He gently tried to check McCormick. "Damn it, Mark, what was so important that you called me here?"

"F-F-Frank."

The police lieutenant froze, his hand still resting on Mark's shoulder.

"F-F-Frank?"

Harper slowly turned, forgetting how to breathe at the sight that met his bloodshot brown eyes. "Milt? Milt!" He started toward the bed, then remembered the beaten figure at his feet.

"H-hurt?"

"I --"

"'m okay, Judge, 'm okay." One eye was already swelling shut from his earlier beating, but the other was aimed blurrily at the man trying to get out of the bed. "Frank, help me up. Stay there, Judge. I'm comin'."

"Are you sure you should move?"

"I need…I need to see him. Please?"

"Okay, okay." Frank leaned down and helped the shaky McCormick to his feet. "Slowly now. You might've broke something."

"Nah, I'm good." He slowly put one foot in front of the other and moved to the bed, the police lieutenant holding him carefully under his arm. Mark's grin vied with the tears in his eyes as he reached for Hardcastle's waiting hand. "Oh, God, Hardcase. I thought I'd never find you."

"Wha-what took y-you so l-long?"

Mark's laughter turned to groans as he wrapped his arms around his ribs. "I think I might have broke something."

Frank yelled for assistance. "Hey, somebody out there call an ambulance! Call two ambulances!"

Epilog

Lieutenant Frank Harper strolled on the back patio at Gull's-Way, waving as he come into view of Judge Hardcastle. "Hey, Milt! You're looking good. How are you?"

"Pretty good. The drugs are almost completely out of my system now. I'm almost back to normal."

"Or what passes for it with Hardcase," McCormick appeared with a pot of fresh coffee and an extra cup for their visitor. "He still has some episodes, don't let him fool you."

"Oh?" Harper looked from one frowning face to the other. "What kind of episodes?"

"It's nothing."

"He doesn't always know where he is."

"Milt?"

With a sigh, Hardcastle shrugged his shoulders. "I sometimes wake up and think I'm back in the nursing home. It just takes a minute or two to realize it wasn't a dream, that I did make it home. The docs say it'll fade away."

"Eventually," Mark commented.

"McCormick!"

"Judge!"

After they finished their glaring at each other, Hardcastle turned to face Harper. "So, Frank, what brings you here?"

"I'm actually here to see Mark."

"About what?" the Judge asked, his protective instincts alerted.

"The incident with Smithers and Tomas, your arresting officers, and the later one with Carlotti and Williams."

McCormick caught his breath. "Am I still in trouble?"

"Hell, kid, they should all be brought up on charges, working you over like that. It isn't right!" Hardcastle growled, remembering how McCormick wound up sharing a hospital room when it was discovered that he had two broken ribs and a concussion.

"They were just upset about you, Judge."

"That's no excuse. Well, Frank?"

"The department is handling it. They do want to know if you're planning to press charges."

"Are you kidding? Of course he is."

"No, I'm not." When Mark saw the Judge gearing up for another argument, he put his hand up to stop him. "If I press charges against them, they could do the same against me. I attacked two police officers…"

"In self defense," Hardcastle interjected.

"…and stole a police cruiser. I don't think there are any extenuating circumstances around that would cover me for that charge. Not while I'm still on probation."

Frank shook his head. "It doesn't matter whether you pursue charges against these men or not, Mark. No charges will be filed on you. Everyone considers that forgotten."

"Everyone, Frank? Even the cops involved?"

"Believe me, they have troubles of their own. It won't matter what you do, Internal Affairs is discussing their handling of the situation. The last they want to do is tangle with you. So have you decided?"

"My answer is the same as it was the last time you asked and the time before that. I'm not lodging any complaints. I can understand why they did what they did, even if it was wrong."

"You're more forgiving than I'd be, kiddo." Hardcastle started to get to his feet. "I'm gonna get us some of that cake Mattie baked."

McCormick jumped to his feet. "I'll get it!" He took off before anyone could say a word.

"Well, that's unusual." Frank watched the younger man as he disappeared into the house.

"Yeah, he's a little overprotective right now. I can't even think of wanting something before he's getting it. He's waiting on me hand and foot."

"He was really frightened, Milt. We all thought you were dead. Even me, although I didn't tell Mark that. He put himself through hell trying to find you."

"Yeah, I know. He's a good kid. I knew he'd find me if he could, but it seemed like a lifetime waiting for him. He'll settle down pretty soon. Before you know it we'll be fussing and fighting again."

"Yeah, back to normal, huh?"

"For us? Sure."

McCormick returned with empty plates balanced on a cake holder. "Mattie made this super bundt cake for us. I'll cut you a piece." Mark pulled silverware from his pockets and laid them on the patio table.

Harper watched the two men squabble gently about the size of the pieces, leaning back in his chair and sipping his coffee. Despite it all, the partnership of Hardcastle and McCormick had survived another crisis with their own peculiar happy ending. What more could anyone ask of life?

December 2005

Updated January 2006

References aired episode: "Something's Going On On This Train"