Disclaimer: These are not my characters and no one has ever offered me money for anything I've written, nor are they likely to.
A/N: There are references within to "Scam I Am" (which is available on-line) and "Aggie's Visit" (which was published in "Hotshoes 1", but will be on-line in mid-November of 2006).
Thanks are due, as always, to two over-worked betas, who took time away from their own writing to poke and prod after a pearl in this unlikely oyster. Muchas gracias!
Judge Hardcastle lifted the top piece of bread and peeked under it at his sandwich. "Ham and cheese?" he said grouchily.
"You like ham and cheese." Mark McCormick set his own plate down, then sat opposite the judge. "Besides, I got you that three-bean salad you wanted. Now, eat your lunch like a good boy and you can have cookies for dessert."
"Yeah, thanks." The judge picked up his sandwich reluctantly. "Why don't you like three-bean salad? You like beans."
McCormick shook his head. "I don't like wax beans; they call 'em that because they look and taste like wax."
"No, they don't. They taste like beans."
There was a brief silence while both men ate.
Hardcastle drank some tea, then said, "I don't know why we don't have chicken salad once in a while, that's all."
McCormick chewed and swallowed. "Because first you have to buy a whole chicken, then boil it, then take off the skin and take the bones out, then cut it up. Then you have to add a whole bunch of stuff like celery and mayo and I don't know what, so if you want chicken salad, you can make it yourself." He addressed himself to his lunch again.
"Well, you don't have to make a big deal out it." Hardcastle chewed thoughtfully. "We tried some from the deli, didn't we?"
"Yep, and you said you'd never had chicken salad with sugar in it before." Mark looked at the judge intently. "Why have you got the hots for chicken salad all of a sudden?"
"I don't," Hardcastle replied mildly. "I just thought it might be a good idea to have something a little lower in calories. I could stand to lose a few pounds before I go walking around the beach in a bathing suit, that's all."
McCormick stopped eating. "Hold it. You don't walk around this beach in a bathing suit." He squinted at the judge. "Are you talking about a vacation?" He smiled suddenly. "Hawaii!"
"No, not Hawaii."
The McCormick smile diminished, then returned full-force. "Tahiti!"
"No." The judge shifted in his chair and picked at the remains of his three-bean salad. "I thought it might be fun to go back to San Rio Blanco."
Mark chewed the last bite of his sandwich slowly, then pushed his chair back. "Great idea, Judge. Have a nice trip." He took his plate to the sink.
"Aw, come on. San Rio's a great place for a vacation." Hardcastle brought his plate over to be rinsed. "It's got beautiful beaches, great weather, girls in bikinis--"
"Aggie Wainwright," the judge played his trump card. "I talked to her last night and she's gonna put us up for a week."
"Nope. You tell Aggie I said 'hi' and have a great time on those sandy beaches, Judge, 'cause I am not going."
"Why not, for cryin' out loud? It'll be a vacation." Hardcastle followed Mark as he went back to the table to scoop up the crumbs. "If I should just happen to see Farnell, I might ask what he's been up to, but that's all."
"Yeah, like it was a 'vacation' last time." McCormick turned to face the judge and pointed at him accusingly. "I got shot at, nearly fell out of a helicopter, and had to jump off a building half-a-mile high. No. You go. You enjoy the weather and the bikinis." He shook the crumbs into the sink and paused momentarily. "Besides, you won't want me around if you're staying with Aggie."
"It's not like that and you know it. She stayed here for the play-offs, didn't she? So, she's just returning the hospitality, that's all." Hardcastle harrumphed, then added, "And that's another reason you have to come along. I can't stay there with her without somebody else being there, too. Kind of like a chaperon." He swiped at his chin and looked vaguely embarrassed. "Wouldn't look right. Her reputation, ya know. That kinda thing."
Mark sighed and took pity on him. "I'll make you deal, Hardcase. We'll got to San Rio for a week, if," he held up an index finger, "we don't go trying to get Arthur Farnell extradited, and," he held up a second finger, "we get to go somewhere that I want for two weeks. Deal?"
"Two weeks! Say one and you got a deal."
"Two, and I get to pick where we go." Mark waited with an implacable expression.
The judge put his hands on his hips and muttered something that sounded like "Rikken-ratzen-raggafratzen." He sighed. "Okay! You got a deal, but,"he held up a finger of his own, "if we do seeFarnell, I'm gonna do a little nosing around. That's gotta be part of the deal if you get two weeks."
McCormick nodded. "Deal. When do we leave?"
"Milt!" Aggie grabbed Hardcastle and gave him an enthusiastic smack on the lips. "Mark!" McCormick got his on the cheek. "Welcome back to San Rio. It's so good to see you! How've you been, Mark? You both look like you need to sit by the pool and drink mango daiquiris. Come on, the baggage counter is over here."
Aggie Wainwright's home was only a few minutes drive from her private airstrip. Built of stuccoed adobe, covered with bougainvillea and honeysuckle, it looked like a Spanish pirate's hacienda. The oval pool in the back was surrounded by clay tiles and enormous poinsettia bushes. The mango daiquiris were cold and delicious.
"See. This is what a vacation is supposed to be like." McCormick took another sip of his daiquiri.
The judge lifted his glass to his hostess. "Can't thank you enough for putting us up, Aggie. This is really terrific. But you gotta let us help out around here, do a few chores."
"Oh, no. You're my guests. Just enjoy yourselves and relax. After all, I stayed at your place for the play-offs."
"Yeah, but you cooked for us then, too."
"Well, if you insist," she smiled wickedly at the judge, "I'm sure I can find something for you to do."
Mark snickered as Hardcastle blushed faintly.
"So," said the judge hastily, "you know a guy named Arthur Farnell; been here about a month?"
"Hey!" objected McCormick.
"Yes, I know Arthur." Aggie looked at the judge questioningly. "Is he a friend of yours, too?"
"Ah, no. Actually, he's the guy I mentioned on the phone." Hardcastle looked down at his drink. "That we were coming down to check out. How well you know him, Aggie?"
"As well as anyone could after only a month. He's taken me out to dinner a couple of times and seems to be a pretty popular guy." She squinted at the judge. "I don't believe this. Arthur is the guy you came down here after?"
"Yeah," sighed the judge. "'Fraid so. He's got three outstanding warrants and is a major league bad guy."
Aggie leaned back in her patio chair and stared at Hardcastle. "You're serious."
He nodded somberly. "Yep."
"It can't be," she stated definitely. "Arthur is not a bad guy, Milt." Aggie had her arms akimbo and was glaring at the judge.
"He's a crook. He's got a criminal record, he's been in prison, and he is a bad guy! He's just buttering you up and you know it." Hardcastle was glaring right back.
Mark stood up from the chaise longue and said politely, "I'll just step into the house and stand by the phone in case you two need an ambulance when this is over."
"He is not just buttering me up! He's an intelligent, good-looking gentleman who happens to be a friend of mine!"
"Good-looking, hah! Let me tell you something about Artie Farnell--"
"No, you let me tell you something!" Aggie rode right over him. "I know all about his prison record because he told me himself. And don't you dare, Milt Hardcastle, try to tell me people can't change." She pointed defiantly toward the house and McCormick, who was watching diffidently from a window.
"Well," the judge paused for a moment. "The kid's a special case. He's different. He made some bad choices, got in with some bad people, had some tough breaks. But he was never the crook that Farnell is, and I'm telling you right now to break off with him!"
"You're telling me!"
At that point, McCormick decided he really didn't want to see or hear any more, so he wandered into the living room.
Six minutes later, Hardcastle stormed into the house.
"McCormick! McCormick! Where the hell are ya? Get our gear packed, right now!"
"I'm in here, Judge."
Mark winced as the older man shouted, "We're going to a hotel! Get upstairs and get packed!"
McCormick patted the air and said soothingly, "Now, Judge, you don't want--"
"Fine! I'll do it myself!" and the judge stomped up the stairs.
Aggie came in a few minutes later, shaking her head. "Sorry, Mark."
McCormick smiled wryly at her. "Not your fault. Exactly." He thought for a moment. "Not exactly his either, I guess. The two of you just see things differently, that's all. Although, most people who disagree don't do it with so much volume."
Aggie sighed. "I suppose I ought to apologize. He is a guest in my house. Or was," she added bitterly.
"No, I wouldn't. Take it from a guy with a lot of experience with Hardcastle's yelling." Mark grimaced as something heavy fell on the floor overhead. "He only really yells at people he . . . cares about. And criminals, but that's a different kind of yelling. You definitely got the 'affectionate yelling'."
"Now, that," laughed Mark, "is the other kind. Let me talk to him a little, okay?"
McCormick found the judge packing furiously and sloppily. He caught a parrot shirt on the fly and said mildly, "Need some help?"
"Go pack your stuff!" Hardcastle grabbed the shirt from him and crammed it into a suitcase.
"Okay, listen for a minute--"
"I don't need to listen! Go get packed!"
"Let me help you with that." Mark walked over to the suitcase and took the parrot shirt back out. He folded it carefully and put it in the open drawer of the bureau.
"What are you . . . what," sputtered the judge. "Give me that!"
"Nope." Mark stood in front of the bureau and crossed his arms. "We're not moving to a hotel. It would hurt Aggie's feelings."
"Hurt her feelings?" Hardcastle stared at him in disbelief. "That's what I'm trying to avoid! She's being charmed by that snake Farnell and --"
"And she's very upset that the two of you have had an argument. She really likes you a lot, Judge. I don't think you need to be jealous of Farnell." McCormick shrugged. "At least, not yet."
"Jealous! I am not jealous!"
Mark looked at him silently.
"I'm not jealous." Hardcastle picked a shirt out of the suitcase and folded it awkwardly, then threw it on the bed. "Am I?"
"A little." Mark grinned at him. "But think about it, Judge. I got a room with two beds in it and you got a separate room right across from Aggie's." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"Cut that out, McCormick! She's just being thoughtful. She's probably heard me complain about your snoring, that's all." Hardcastle slowly took a pair of pants out of the suitcase. He looked at them consideringly. "You think we should stay and keep an eye on things?"
"I think you should go downstairs and patch things up while I unpack the mess you made." Mark made little shooing motions. "Go on. She's in the living room. All you have to do is tell her you're sorry that you're a donkey once in a while."
"Hmmm." The judge glared at him.
"Besides, Farnell did you a favor, didn't he? And maybe even saved your life." McCormick took out another parrot shirt and held it up with distaste. "Maybe he's not really the horrible person you think he is. I thought I threw this away."
"You did." Hardcastle sighed and swiped at his nose. "And you know damned well that Farnell's a ruthless, amoral criminal. And I don't want Aggie involved with him."
"Well, maybe he's different when he's dealing with a charming, attractive woman. Maybe you and Aggie ought to talk about that. Now go." Mark continued to unpack.
"You gonna be a while with that?"
"As long as you need." Mark grinned at him. "Just yell when you're through making up."
"Milt, I promise you this is the only time you'll have to wear a jacket the whole week." Aggie looked quite chic in a fawn pant suit with elegant gold earrings. "Enrique's is the best restaurant on the whole island and you have to at least taste the seviche. It's incredible."
"Seviche's raw fish, isn't it?" Mark straightened the judge's tie as he spoke. "Ol' Hardcase here let me order steak tartare once, so I looked up every other raw food ever served just in case."
Aggie laughed. "Well, it's not exactly raw; it's cooked by being marinated in lime juice, but they do something special to it here."
Hardcastle grumbled a little as they approached the door of Enrique's. "Get all dressed up . . . All fancy . . . Hafta wear a tie."
"You look very posh, Milt." Aggie smiled at the doorman as she went inside.
"Yeah, well, it's just that I told McCormick this would be a kinda vacation, see. And it's not really a vacation if ya hafta put on a jacket and tie." The judge fingered his tie again and Mark once again straightened it. "Lay offa me, willya! It's my tie." He looked around the foyer as Aggie gave the maitre d' her name.
"Let's go the to bar for a few minutes," Aggie took the judge's arm and led him to the side. "Our table's not quite ready."
"See, part of the deal to get him to come along was it'd be a real break – lying on the beach, sleeping late, eating strange food, but that we'd look into Farnell if we should happen to see him."
"Judge," Mark put on hand on his shoulder and jerked his head to the side. "I think we just did."
"Aggie! You look superb." A dark, debonair man of about Hardcastle's age approached from the end of the bar. "You should always wear that color. It makes your skin look positively golden."
Aggie turned to Hardcastle as if to introduce him, but the judge immediately said, "Hiya, Artie, how's tricks?"
"Tricks, my dear Hardcase, are wonderful. And Mr. McCormick," Arthur Farnell smiled at Mark. "How are 'tricks' with you?"
Mark smiled back at him. "Oh, they're about the same."
"Are you dining here tonight, Arthur?" said Aggie before the judge could say anything else.
"Well, I was supposed to meet El Jefe here, but he's been called away on an emergency." Farnell shrugged lightly. "These things happen in the world of crime. Or so I hear." He winked at her.
"Why don't you join us then?" Aggie looked at the judge meaningfully. "It'll give Milt a chance to get to know you better."
Hardcastle's jaw tightened, but he managed an artificial smile.
Farnell smiled back at him in amusement. "Thank you, Aggie, but no. I was taught that 'three's company and four's a quartet'." He extended a hand to her and she took it. "But I appreciate the invitation. Perhaps I could stop by your place tomorrow afternoon for a small chat with the judge?"
"Of course, you know you're always welcome, Arthur." She blushed faintly as Farnell placed a delicate kiss on the back of her hand.
"'Til then, my dear. Judge. Mr. McCormick." Farnell took his leave, waving to a few other people as he headed for the street door.
"That guy," gritted Hardcastle, "that guy is gonna --"
"The Wainwright party? Your table is ready. This way, please."
"So, who's El Jefe? That means The Chief, right?" McCormick was prodding his raw fish with a seafood fork. "Is that a scallop?"
"There are scallops in there, and crab, and lobster. Try it, Mark. I promise it's delicious. You trusted me on the okra, didn't you?" Aggie took a forkful of seviche herself and made mmm-ing noises. "Incredible! And yes, jefe means chief." She looked at the judge, who had nearly finished his seviche. "El Jefe is the new San Rio crime boss. Everyone knows he exists, but that's all we do know except for the nickname. I wonder what he wanted with Arthur."
"Oh, probably just scoping out his next operation. Ow!" Hardcastle glared at McCormick. "What'd ya kick me for?"
"For being a donkey. Aggie, are big-time criminals just taken for granted here? I mean, if everybody knows who the big boss is and he meets people in public, it doesn't look like the hometown cops give a damn. And this is terrific." Mark inserted another forkful.
"Well, for a long time, we had a very corrupt legal system here. I'm sure you remember your experience, Milt." Aggie looked at the judge, who nodded and scowled. "That was typical, I'm afraid, until last year. We had a somewhat surprising election and there are serious reforms underway. There's even talk of a treaty with the United States to extradite some of the criminals who've come here to avoid prosecution."
"Oh, really. That's news to me." Hardcastle leaned back to let the waiter take his plate away. "When did that start being talked about?"
Aggie thanked the waiter for removing her plate. "Just about two weeks ago. It's going to cause a lot of problems for some of our wealthier residents, but it'll be a good thing for San Rio." She rested her chin on her hand and gazed soulfully at the judge. "I'll have to figure out some other reason for you to visit."
Mark made a squeaky noise behind his napkin, then jumped and said, "Ow!"
The judge smiled at him benevolently, then looked at Aggie. "We gotta do a little work tomorrow, see some people, check stuff out. Will that be okay?"
"If you're thinking about Arthur again, no." She sipped at her wine, then added, "Unless I get to go with you." Aggie extended an arm to the judge. "Look, Milt. You know a few people from a couple of years ago, but I live here. I can get you in to see nearly everybody. It'll save time, and we can combine business with pleasure."
"She's got a point, Judge," said McCormick, still rubbing his ankle. "It would save time and we could do a couple of vacation kind of things, too."
"Yeah, well, I guess so. Oh, this looks great!" The judge rubbed his hands together as his main course was set in front of him. "But," he added, "we get the business part done first."
"What a waste of time," groaned Mark. "I could've been soaking up the rays and getting sand between my toes, but no! We've got to spend all morning checking out the San Rio legal system. Which, apparently, doesn't exist!" He shook his head and took another sandwich from the plate on the patio table.
"Well, that's information in itself, ya know," growled Hardcastle. "The fact that nobody would talk to us or admit anything or even let on they'd ever heard of Farnell; that's significant."
"You can't still think he's involved in anything criminal, Milt," Aggie refilled his glass with iced tea. "What would be the point? If there's going to be a treaty to extradite, it would be idiotic of Arthur to do anything illegal here. And he's not stupid."
"No, he's not," mused the judge. "Which is why I wish somebody would tell us what's going on. I used to think I could call in a couple of favors here, but I've never been so stonewalled. Nah, I'm full, thanks."
Aggie set the sandwich plate back on the little tile-topped table. "Dessert? I've got rum babas . . . and a tiny bit of San Rio Gold on the side?"
"Oooh, that's the rum you can't get anywhere else, isn't it?" McCormick leaned his head back against the back of his chair. "Now this is starting to sound like a vacation again."
"That's the doorbell. It must be Arthur. Now, Milt," she shook a minatory finger at the judge, "remember you're both guests in my house. No squabbling."
"Me?" Hardcastle was shocked. "I never squabble." He grinned at her expression and added, "Bicker, maybe, but not squabble."
As Aggie went to answer the door, Mark leaned closer to the judge. "You know, the one thing we did find out was that there is going to be an extradition treaty. If that happens, we could just have Farnell shipped back home and we wouldn't have to pin anything on him here. Can't we just wait for that?"
"No. If he's looking at a trip back home," the judge pointed a thumb vaguely northwest, "then he's already got plans to go somewhere else, maybe Venezuela. With all the paperwork involved, we can't count on the authorities getting him before he leaves again."
McCormick sighed, then asked, "Would it help if I got Aggie to drive me down to the beach? I mean, to get you and Farnell alone here?"
Hardcastle thought momentarily, then shook his head. "But if I scratch my ear, make some kinda excuse to get her into the kitchen for a minute, okay?"
McCormick nodded as Aggie and Farnell approached the patio.
"Well, hello again!" Farnell looked crisp in a white suit, with a navy blue shirt. "Enjoying your vacation, gentlemen?"
"Arthur, I'm just about to get dessert. You'll have a baba with a small glass of Gold, won't you?"
"That sounds almost as delectable as you look, my dear." Farnell bowed slightly and offered, "May I be allowed to help you serve?"
Aggie grinned at him. "No, I want you and Milt to talk alone a bit. Mark will help, won't you, Mark?"
McCormick rose slowly, smirking at the judge and ostentatiously scratching his ear. "You bet. Just relax, you two, and swap war stories while we sample the rum in the kitchen."
"I love that shirt, Hardcase," said Farnell, lowering himself onto a chaise. "Yellow parrots on a purple background. It's so you."
"Yeah, well, McCormick's thrown it out twice. But if you like it, he can throw it out again." The judge watched Farnell through half-closed eyes. "What're you really up to, Artie?"
Farnell smiled happily at him. "I'm helping someone smuggle cocaine."
Hardcastle gaped at him. "You . . . you are not!"
"Yes, I am." Farnell held up his right hand and started ticking off fingers. "There's the coke deal, the bank robbery, the jewelry store, the gun-running, the money laundering, and . . . I know there's another. Oh, the rum smuggling! I knew there were six." He looked at the judge and said proudly, "I am a man of many parts, and many abilities, as you well know."
"I don't believe that for a minute." Hardcastle glared at him angrily. "If you don't wanta level with me, okay, I can understand that. But I'm telling you one thing, Farnell; you're going home to stand trial and that's a promise."
"But, my dear Hardcase, I've told you the truth. For a change." Farnell rose as Aggie and Mark appeared with plates and glasses. "Here, I'll take that and just set it here. That all right?"
"We noticed things were getting a little tense, so," Aggie handed glasses around, "we thought a little rum might help. Salud!"
"To you, Aggie Wainwright." Farnell held up his glass to her. "A lady of charm, wit and many strange friends."
"Speak for yourself," muttered the judge.
"I did," said Farnell.
The rest of the afternoon was spent pleasantly enough. Mark told the story about Hardcastle inheriting a race horse. The judge told the story about McCormick getting a job selling water filters. Aggie told Arthur the story about Hardcastle being arrested and imprisoned on his previous trip to San Rio. Farnell was quite entertained by her description of the jailbreak.
"So much for law and order and the sanctity of the judicial process, hmm?" he said with a smile.
"Well, I try not to make a habit of breaking out of jail," the judge replied sardonically.
McCormick proceeded to tell the story of how he broke the judge out of the Canary Creek jail.
Farnell laughed appreciatively, then stood, smiling down at Aggie. "I hate to leave, but duty calls. Thank you for the afternoon, Aggie. I've really enjoyed it. Gentlemen, I'm certain we'll be seeing more of each other." He leaned over to the judge and added softly, "Especially since my source in the police department tells me my business will have to be concluded in the next three days."
As Aggie saw him out, the judge looked at McCormick and said, "We're going to the Embassy. I'm gonna get accreditation as a special investigator and we're gonna figure out exactly what he's up to."
"Now?" said Mark plaintively. "It's three-thirty already, Judge. Can't it wait 'til tomorrow?"
"No." Hardcastle rose and pulled at Mark's arm. "Come on. Knowing these bureaucrats, it'll take 'em an hour just to make a phone call."
"All right, guys." Aggie stood in the doorway. "Where are you off to in such a hurry?"
"Ah, we gotta drop in at the Embassy and pick up some papers. No need for you to go." The judge smiled at her and waved at McCormick behind his back.
Not knowing what the wave was supposed to signal, Mark ignored it.
"But you're here as my guests. Of course, I'll drive you."
Hardcastle waved a little more emphatically.
"Oh!" McCormick said. "Um, no, I can drive. If you'll lend us your car."
Aggie grinned at him. "Is that what all that hand-signalling was all about? Don't be silly. Come on, let's go."
Armed with a Special Investigator's license, Hardcastle strode confidently into police headquarters the next morning. McCormick, who insisted on calling the paper a Special Instigator's license, followed a little less confidently.
"Just remember what happened the last time you got involved with San Rio crooks, Judge. I'm not bailing you out this time."
"I'd like to see Hector Ramirez," said Hardcastle to Judge Ramirez's secretary. "And don't tell me he's in a meeting this time, okay?" He displayed his license. "'Cause I don't care if he's in his bathtub. I'm seeing him, right now. Got that?"
"Milt. Please come in." A stocky man with a gray mustache stood in the doorway.
"Hector! What the hell's been going on here?" Hardcastle led the way into the judge's office. "I was here twice yesterday and got stiff-armed by everybody I saw."
"Please, sit." Judge Ramirez gestured to chairs. "I am truly sorry for that, old friend. But there have been changes in San Rio since you were last here. We have a new president and legislature and there are new laws going into effect by the end of this month."
"Yeah, like a treaty to extradite." Hardcastle grinned at Ramirez. "I'm betting you had something to do with that. Right?"
Ramirez spread his hands deprecatingly. "Perhaps a little. But now, how is it that I can help you?"
"Well, we're looking to grab hold of Arthur Farnell and I think I got some bad news for you. It seems you've got a leak in your police department feeding him information on any investigations you've got going. Is there any way we can latch onto him in the next coupla days?"
Judge Ramirez frowned and twiddled a pencil. "Hmm. I don't know . . . There are many pieces of a puzzle to put together and many people involved, Milt. You know that I would trust you with anything, but for this . . . I think I must speak to some others first. Will you let me call you this afternoon?"
"Sure." Hardcastle's disappointment was evident. "Soon as you can, okay?"
"I am not unaware of this Arthur Farnell and his activities." Judge Ramirez looked at Hardcastle unhappily. "I will call you. Forgive me, my friend."
"Well," Judge Hardcastle sighed gustily as he looked up and down the sidewalk, "I guess it's better than nothing."
McCormick shrugged. "It's a start, Judge. He'll call."
They spotted Aggie pulling in to the curb. "Come on, hop in! I've got a boat rented, a cooler full of lunch, and all the sunscreen I could find."
"Hey, that sounds great!" The judge smiled. "I didn't know you were gonna do that!"
"Ah, Aggie," said Mark. "Hardcastle's really the boat fan here. I think I'd rather see what's going on at the beach. If that's okay?"
Aggie smiled at him. "Mark, that's sweet, but you don't have to. We'd be glad to have you along."
Hardcastle looked at her in surprise, then realized that McCormick was maneuvering him into a twosome. "Oh, yeah. Get in, kiddo. It'll be fun."
"Nah." McCormick grinned at both of them. "Two's company, three's a trio or something like that. I'll meet you at the dock in a couple of hours."
"All right," Aggie grinned back at him as the judge got into the passenger seat. "I owe you one!"
As she pulled away from the curb, she said, "He's a such a nice boy. Here, put these on." She handed the judge a pair of sunglasses.
"Yeah, he's okay." Hardcastle took the sunglasses and looked at them curiously. "Thanks, but I got a cap on."
"Trust me, Milt. You'll need them." Aggie steered toward the docks. "Out on the water, the reflection of the sun can give you a headache. We call it sundazzle. It can get so bad you can't see anything else."
The judge put on the sunglasses and turned to look at her through them. "Yeah, that's right. I remember my wife said something about that once. Now she was really nuts about boats. I guess I caught it from her. What kinda lunch you got?"
"Shrimp salad, marinated veggies, melon slices in vermouth, and a split of wine."
"And a couple of cans of beer." She winked at him.
"You sure know how to please a man," he said, then realized how that could be taken and blushed.
"Why, Milton Hardcastle, you rascal!" Aggie laughed and added, "It's about time you paid me a compliment."
She pulled up next to a boat dock and parked. "If you grab the cooler, I'll get the rest of the stuff."
The judge grunted in assent. Hoisting the cooler into the boat, he muttered, "You know I don't go in for that kinda stuff."
"What stuff?" she asked as she loosened the rope wrapped around the bollard. "Compliments?"
"Yeah, all that sticky stuff. I never did know how to say . . . you know, pretty stuff to ladies."
"Is that why Arthur bothers you so much?" Aggie plopped into the boat next to him and grabbed a spar to push off with. "Because he's always saying 'pretty stuff' to me?"
Hardcastle helped her push. "Nah. Well, maybe partly. I mean, Artie and I go way back, so it's not just that he's always smothering you with all that slime."
"Slime?" She started the ignition and raised her voice to be heard over the engine. "Milt, every woman wants to be flattered once in a while. All right, I admit Arthur tends to over-do it. But it is nice to be told I'm not unattractive."
"Yeah, I know," he said slowly.
She steered into open water then turned to face him. "It wouldn't hurt you to say something simple . . . you like my perfume, or you think I'm cute, something like that." She looked at him closely and assumed a pouty expression. "Don't you think I'm cute, Milt?" she wheedled.
"You're cute as a bug's nose and you know it," he stated defiantly.
Aggie laughed. "Now there's a compliment!"
At two o'clock on the dot, the boat pulled up next to the dock, where McCormick sat basking in the sun.
"You have a good time?" he called when Aggie shut off the engine.
"Yeah, it was great!" Hardcastle threw him a rope. "Tie this around that." Then he handed up the cooler and climbed onto the dock.
Aggie held up a hand to be pulled out and said, "You should've been there, Mark. Milt told me I look like a bug."
The judge smiled at her indulgently. "Something like that," he said mildly.
McCormick looked at both of them with puzzlement evident in his face. "Um, what kind of bug?"
They both laughed and the judge said, "Never mind. Ya hadda be there. What've you been doing with yourself?"
"Wasting my time, apparently." Mark carried the cooler to the car and loaded it in the back, then climbed in next to it. "I took a little walk down the beach, scoped out the action, bought somebody a San Rio colada, and then her mother joined us. So I came back here to wait for you two."
"Well, we gotta get back to the house anyway. Hector's supposed to call this afternoon and we oughta be ready to move when he does." The judge settled into the car.
As Aggie slid under the steering wheel, she asked, "Is this some big secret, or am I allowed to know what you're talking about?"
Hardcastle cocked his head and considered. "You gonna get mad if I tell you we're investigating Farnell?"
"Then I won't," he said promptly.
Aggie laughed and started the car. "You're kind of bug-like yourself, Milt."
McCormick shook his head, then rummaged in the cooler for leftovers.
The phone rang and Hardcastle started to reach for it, then realized it wasn't his phone.
Aggie chuckled at him and picked up the receiver. "Wainwright's . . . He's right here. Hold on."
The judge took the phone anxiously and said, "Yeah? . . . Yeah . . . Great! Where?"
Mark and Aggie looked at each other; Mark shrugged and Aggie sighed.
"What time?" said Hardcastle. Then, "You betcha. We'll be there! Thanks, Hector!" and hung up.
Rubbing his hands together, the judge grinned at the others and said, "We got him. There's a big deal of some sort going down tonight around nine o'clock in an office building on Flora Azul." He asked Aggie, "You can tell us how to get there?"
She bridled. "Tell you how to get there? I'll drive you there."
The judge waved his hands. "Nope. There's a whole lot of bad guys all coming together for this one and you're staying here. Just tell us how to get to 1010 Flora Azul and we'll take it from there."
McCormick started edging from the room as silently as he could.
Aggie put her hands on her hips and stated, "It's my car. I drive it or you can walk."
"Oh, no," said Hardcastle. "This could be dangerous and you're not getting involved."
"I am involved. Now you listen to me, Milt Hardcastle--"
McCormick closed the door behind him and headed for the kitchen to wait out the storm.
After fifteen minutes, he tired of waiting and crept back to the door to the living room and listened. There was complete silence. Opening the door a crack, he peeked in. The two combatants were ostentatiously ignoring each other. Sighing, he closed the door and went back to the kitchen.
Another ten minutes went by and he heard someone open the living room door and go upstairs.
At that point, Aggie joined him in the kitchen and said, "How in the world do you stand that man?"
"It isn't always easy." He smiled at her sympathetically. "You win or lose?"
"Oh, I lost, of course. But I gave him a battle." She frowned, then sighed. "Mark. Do me a favor?"
"Keep an eye on him tonight." She looked at him somberly.
"I always do."
At eight-thirty, McCormick parked Aggie's car three blocks from 1010 Flora Azul. "So, where is he?"
"I dunno." Hardcastle climbed out of the car and looked around. "He said meet him here at eight-thirty. Maybe he's late." He quietly closed the car door and looked around again. "There he is."
Judge Ramirez and another man came out of the doorway they'd been standing in and Ramirez shook hands with Hardcastle. "Milt, this is Police Commissioner Hernandez." Hardcastle shook with him, too, and motioned across the car. "Mark McCormick."
McCormick nodded to the Commissioner.
Hernandez said quietly, "We go this way."
The other three followed him two blocks down an alley running parallel to Flora Azul, then up half a block to the side of 1010. Hernandez carefully opened a wooden door set into the building and motioned them inside.
Ramirez whispered to the judge and McCormick, "These stairs lead to a room in the basement. From there we can hear everything that will go on when our suspects arrive. But be as silent as possible. Some of them may already be there."
Mark and Hardcastle nodded agreement and the group crept down the stairs to a small, empty room. A bare bulb hanging from the ceiling cast a dim light.
The Police Commissioner held a hand to his lips and then held both palms out flat. The others understood he meant them to be quiet and wait.
Through the door in the far side of the room, they could vaguely hear voices and movements. When it was nearly nine o'clock, they heard one voice raised enough that it came through the walls clearly. It was Farnell speaking.
"Everyone, if I could have your attention? We're all here now and it's time to get started. I think we all know why we're here and I assume each of you is ready to assist in carrying out the Dia del Crimen." The others in the room chuckled and murmured agreements.
"I'd like to have each of you stand as your name is called and tell the others your particular responsibility tomorrow. Mr. Cruz?"
"The jewelry store."
"Excellent!" Farnell's voice sounded pleased. "We will now proceed to the details."
Police Commissioner Hernandez held up a warning hand to the others, then threw open the door into the other room.
"Policia!" he shouted. "Nadie se mueve!"
Instantly the other room was filled with police officers, shouting and waving pistols at the confused and surprised criminals. Hardcastle followed the Commissioner and Judge Ramirez into the room, with McCormick close behind.
The police moved quickly, subduing and handcuffing everyone in the room except for Arthur Farnell.
"Ah, El Jefe," said Commissioner Hernandez gloatingly. "At last we meet. You will come with me, please." He took Farnell's arm and led him to the side as the other arrestees were taken away.
Judge Ramirez held up a warning hand, then checked to make sure the door had closed completely behind the police. When he turned back to the small group remaining, he grinned and said, "El Jefe. You have our sincere thanks."
Hernandez shook Farnell's hand and said, "It was perfect. We have what you Americans call the 'clean room'."
Farnell laughed briefly. "It's 'clean sweep', but I appreciate the sentiment, Commissioner." He looked at Hardcastle, who was staring at him in amazement.
"Has no one explained? My dear judge, you must be totally confused. A state with which you are familiar, no doubt, but let us adjourn to more comfortable surroundings and all will be made clear."
McCormick took Hardcastle by the arm and said, "Come on, Kemosabe. Let's make tracks so big chief can explain."
"So, I decided to make the government an offer it couldn't refuse." Arthur Farnell lounged at his ease in the Commissioner's office. The Commissioner had left to process the many arrests his officers had made, but Judge Ramirez remained, along with Judge Hardcastle and McCormick.
"I created a fictional crime boss, someone to coordinate the many smaller criminals and bring them together. Alas, El Jefe and I were fated never to meet. He kept standing me up," Farnell smirked. "Under the laws of this lovely country, a simple statement of wrongful intention is enough for an arrest and most, if not all, of the men arrested tonight will accept exile in return for the charges against them being dropped."
"But that's entrapment!" objected Hardcastle.
"Not here, my friend." Judge Ramirez shook his head. "Perhaps some day our laws will equal those of your own country, but believe me when I tell you this is a good thing . . . to rid San Rio Blanco of these men and their gangs. It is a day to remember!"
"But what do you get out the deal?" McCormick asked Farnell.
"The Farnell Clause." He beamed at the other three. "An exemption from extradition."
"I don't believe it! You gotta be kidding!" Hardcastle pinched the bridge of his nose, then glared at Farnell. He turned to Ramirez. "Is he serious?"
Ramirez nodded. "Oh, yes, Milt. He is exempt from extradition for his service to San Rio Blanco."
Hardcastle's shoulders sagged and he sighed deeply. "Well." He sighed again. "That's just terrific."
Mark edged closer to him and said quietly, "He did save your life, Judge."
"Maybe! Who knows what Waldthorpe woulda done?"
Farnell coughed gently. "I'll take that as a 'thank-you'. And you're quite welcome, Hardcase." He stood and stretched. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go spread the rumor that I've paid an enormous bribe for my freedom. Gentlemen, as always, it's been a pleasure." He waved a casual hand as he sauntered out the door.
The judge slammed a fist on the top of the Commissioner's desk. "I just don't believe this!"
"Milt, I wanted to tell you, but we felt it important that you be seen by los criminales as the one responsible for their capture." Judge Ramirez looked at Hardcastle pleadingly. "Surely you understand that justice must be served at the expense of our own feelings?"
"Yeah, Judge." McCormick leaned against the desk, facing Hardcastle. "Lady Justice is a tough old broad, remember? And she doesn't play favorites." He grinned and added, "At least, that's what somebody told me once."
McCormick had said his thanks and goodbyes and gone to check the suitcases.
Hardcastle looked at Aggie and said, "You look really pretty today."
She laughed and reached out to touch a hand to his cheek. "It took you a week to say that, but it's worth it."
He reached up and took her hand in his. "You know one of the things I like about you is that you never said 'I told you so'."
"Did you want me to?" She tilted her head and smiled up at him.
"No. I get enough of that kinda stuff from him." The judge jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "You coming to L.A. if the Lakers make it again this year?"
"If that's an invitation, yes. You coming back to San Rio without looking for a bad guy next time?"
"If that's an invitation, yes." He paused briefly, then bent to meet her kiss. "You take care of yourself," he said gruffly.
"I will. And you, too." She slowly withdrew her hands from his, waved to Mark and left.
McCormick came over to the judge and patted him on the shoulder as they watched Aggie walk to her car. "Plane's boarding in just a few minutes."
"Yeah." Hardcastle swiped at his nose and turned to McCormick. "You know we should've known Farnell would have an out. Dammit."
"Look, Judge," Mark turned him around and pushed him gently in the direction of the ticket counter, "we had a terrific half a vacation. Can we forget about Farnell and just remember the good parts?"
"We were too busy looking at the water," said the judge sadly.
"You want to speak a language I know or keep talking in code?" McCormick had the tickets out to hand to the attendant.
"We were sundazzled." Hardcastle shoved his straw hat back on his head as they got in line to board. "We were watching the sunlight on the waves and never saw the barracuda underneath."
"Now that sounds like a wise, old saying that you just made up." Mark handed over the tickets and got back the stubs.
"Yeah, well," sighed the judge, "something like that. Hey! Where we going on your vacation?"
Mark smiled beatifically. "Ireland," he said softly. "Ireland."