A/N: Like many other fans, I've always wished that we could've seen the very first moment that Mark and the Aunts met. Unfortunately, that pleasure was denied to us. I've also wondered why none of the Hardcastle clan was present in Clarence during "The Homecoming", a favorite episode of mine as well. This is my answer to both questions. Hope you like it.
By Lizabeth S Tucker
"A criminal? Living in Milton's house? What was he thinking?" Zora Hardcastle hung up the telephone receiver, having heard an earful from Loretta Spradling, church secretary at the Clarence Baptist Tabernacle. "And to bring this hoodlum to our peaceful community."
"Milton could be murdered in his sleep, for heaven's sake." May Hardcastle shook her head. "What can we do, Sister?"
"Milton and that thug will have to come here for a visit. We'll sort things out, bring our nephew back to his senses." She strode to the phone, muttering how living in Los Angeles had weakened the absent man's mid-Western morals.
"Is it safe to have him stay in the house?" May asked fretfully.
"We'll keep an eye on him. Just let this hoodlum try something. I'll take a switch to him, warm the seat of his britches."
Mae nodded agreement with her sister. "If you'll call Milton, I'll get the guest rooms ready. I think the one behind the kitchen for the criminal?"
"Hot, cramped and secure since the door leading to the outside squeaks loudly. Perfect. And we still need to unpack ourselves."
"We should have just enough time to wash our dirty laundry before they get here."
But the best laid plans of mice, men, and disapproving aunts don't always come through as expected. Zora was unable to get her nephew on the telephone for the rest of the week. Their puzzlement turned to shock when they opened the daily paper and saw a photograph of their dear nephew beside a headline declaring him a criminal who was killed while escaping justice.
"It was that boy! He corrupted him. Mark my words…" Zora declared vehemently, only to interrupted by Mae.
"I don't know, Sister. This just doesn't sound right." She continued reading the article. "They say that Mark McCormick, the Judge's accomplice, is still at large and is considered armed and dangerous. According to this, he escaped from the jail and took Christy Miller, Bucky's daughter, hostage. They believe he's still in the area."
"Why would he take little Christy hostage? That'll just slow him down. And why would he stay in the area? It doesn't make any sense."
Mae continued reading, her grey head shaking in disbelief. "There's even more. According to this article, Milton and McCormick are suspected of killing Danny Stuber. You know he became a judge a few years ago?"
"Of course. He was always a little bully, that boy. Milton might've bloodied his nose a time or two, but he'd never murder him. I'm going to call that newspaper and give him a piece of my mind!" Zora stalked off to the telephone, incensed by the very idea that someone would think that a nephew of hers would ever commit a crime so horrendous as murder.
Mark and the Judge watched the pudgy figure walk away, his resemblance to an old television child star uncanny. The Judge shook it off, turning to his gaping friend. He reached out and pushed McCormick's jaw closed with a finger. "You'll catch a fly, kiddo. C'mon, let's go home."
Hardcastle froze, his eyes closing. "Oh, please, not now."
"Judge? What's wrong?" Mark looked around for danger, but saw nothing except two tiny old ladies bearing down on them.
"Ladies, can we help you?" McCormick asked when his companion failed to turn to greet the women.
"Milton Hardcastle, you have some explaining to do."
Hardcastle visibly straightened his shoulders before turning to face the women. "Aunt Zora, Aunt Mae. What a surprise."
"Oh? It's a surprise to meet your aunts in the town where you grew up, where we've lived for our whole lives? It's a surprise to us that you didn't come to see us. That's a surprise." Aunt Zora sniffed.
"Yes, well, I hoped, rather, I thought you were visiting Cousin Missy."
"Luckily we had to cut our visit short and return home. Imagine my surprise to hear that you were in town. And the scandal!"
McCormick could see the veins beginning to protrude from the Judge's neck and was amazed that two tiny women could cause such a reaction. "Hello there. I'm Mark McCormick…"
"We're well aware of who and what you are, Mr. McCormick," Zora declared.
Mark's smile disappeared. "Uh, oh, I…okay."
"Just a minute, ladies. I won't have you talk to McCormick that way." Hardcastle frowned down at the women. "I'm sorry that I didn't check to see if you were back in town. But we've been rather busy the past few days."
"So we've read." Zora was distracted by a whisper in her ear. Her sister, Mae, was a bit shy in front of blustery men and strangers and didn't like to speak in front of them.
"He doesn't look dangerous. Maybe we're wrong about him?"
Zora viewed the young man standing uncomfortably by her nephew. She hadn't missed the flush that heated his cheeks when she made him aware of their knowledge of his background. He was currently standing with his eyes lowered , staring at the dirty pavement. She was beginning to agree with her sister. A hardened criminal certainly wouldn't be embarrassed by his background or the fact that others were aware of it.
"Well, we've heard all about that. You both must come to the house and stay for a visit."
"Aunt Zora, I don't think…" Hardcastle desperately tried to get out of the visit, but his elderly aunt was a force to be reckoned with and wouldn't take no for an answer.
"Obviously. Come along, Milton. You too, young man. Where's your automobile?"
Mark pointed to the low-slung red sports car. "Over there, ma'am."
"Well, isn't that a beauty?" Mae said softly. She looked at the handsome young man standing there with a shy smile at her comment. "Will you take me for a drive home?"
"Yes, ma'am. But all of us won't fit."
"Milton will drive Zora home. We have our Studebaker here."
McCormick choked on the idea of Hardcastle driving a Studebaker. He tentatively offered his arm to Mae, pleased when she easily took it. With a cheeky grin at Hardcastle, he helped the Judge's quiet aunt over to the Coyote, opening the door to simplify her entry into the vehicle.
"Oh, my, it is rather low to the ground, isn't it?" She giggled. "Does it go very fast?"
"Yes, ma'am, it does."
"Perhaps we could…" Mae began, only to be interrupted by her nephew.
"You will not exceed the speed limit, McCormick. Do you understand me? Keep behind us or you'll get lost."
"I can direct him, Milton. After all, it is to my home, the house I grew up in."
"Yes, Aunt Mae, I realize that, but you don't want to be racing around."
"I think it'd be thrilling," Mae commented with a smile and a pat on McCormick's arm after he slipped into the Coyote.
"Yes, ma'am. Maybe later?" he offered.
"I believe I will hold you to that, young man."
McCormick followed the pale blue Studebaker, a sturdy giant from the 1950s, to the Hardcastle farm. Mae felt comfortable with the quiet young man and chattered about the area they drove through. As they were turning onto the dirt road to the main house, she turned to look at her companion. His eyes were carefully watching the road, his hands gripping the steering wheel securely.
After the two cars stopped near the house, Mark hurried around the Coyote to help Mae from the vehicle, supporting her until she was on her feet.
"My goodness, that was a wonderful ride, Mr. McCormick," she exclaimed.
"You can call me Mark, if you'd like."
"I believe I would. Come along, Mark, let's go inside. It's still a bit chilly outside." She ushered him into the farmhouse, followed by her sister and nephew. "Tea, I think. Don't you agree, Sister?"
"Yes, Sister, I do. You boys make yourself comfortable in the sitting room and we'll return in a moment."
Mark walked gingerly into the room, feeling large and clumsy among the knickknacks and doilies spread about the room. He perched on the edge of an overstuffed chair and gazed around at the photographs covering the walls and tabletops.
Hardcastle chose the couch, frowning as he looked about. "We aren't staying, got that?"
"But, Judge, they're your aunts. They want to visit with you. I can always go back to the hotel, get a room back for a couple of days while you visit."
"We'll stay for a few hours, then we're leaving."
"Nonsense, Milton. You and young Mark will be staying with us for a few days. It won't hurt you to visit your family since you came so far from California." Mae bustled into the room with a tray upon which was a tea pot and a plate of cookies.
McCormick jumped to his feet and hurried to her side. "Let me help you with that, ma'am." He took the tray from her, earning an approving smile for his actions. "What a gentleman. Thank you, Mark."
Aunt Zora followed behind her sister, carrying napkins. "We've already prepared your room. Mark will be staying in the room next to yours as soon as it's prepared." The sisters had discussed the situation while in the kitchen. This young man wasn't the hoodlum they first surmised him to be and didn't deserve to stay in the uncomfortable kitchen room.
"I can do that," Mark offered. "You don't have to go to any trouble. All I need is a bed."
"Such a good boy," Mae observed.
Mark beamed while Hardcastle glared at him.
"Milton, some day your face will freeze into that look." Zora admonished her nephew.
"Too late, it already has," Mark quipped.
They sipped their tea, everyone ignoring the Judge's grumbling. Mark took a bite of a large buttery yellow cookie and moaned in delight.
"Something wrong, dear?" Mae asked while Zora frowned at him.
"Nothing's wrong. This cookie is heavenly. Did you make these yourselves?"
Zora nodded approvingly. "Yes, it's something we like to do. I'm glad you like them."
"Like is too bland a word for what I'm feeling. May I have another?"
"What a polite young man you are. Of course you may." Zora exchanged glances with her sister, a silent communication that was clear to both of them and annoying to their nephew. Although not twins, the sisters had always been so close as to have their own language.
After enjoying their tea, Mark accompanied Zora to the guest room which had been chosen as his bedroom. He followed her directions in obtaining clean sheets, not allowing her to do anything other than supervise.
As he made the bed, Zora watched and made her judgment about the young man. "The newspaper stated that you were a criminal before you came to live with Milton. Is that true?"
Mark hesitated, then nodded. "Yes, ma'am, you could say that."
"What did you do?"
"I stole cars."
He smoothed the sheet down, stalling for time. Taking the quilt from her wrinkled hands, he spread it over the bed. "I guess I thought it was the right thing to do at the time."
"Tell me why and how you came to live with Milton."
Mark laughed. "That's a long story and not a very nice one."
"I'm no wilting violet. I've seen a lot in my long years and I read crime novels. I doubt you could shock me."
"Yes, ma'am." Mark sat on the edge of the bed, sighing. "Well, the Judge and I first met when I stole my car from my girlfriend at the time."
"If it's your car, it can't be stealing."
"It is when you stupidly put the thing in her name."
"Not a very good idea."
"No, ma'am, it wasn't. Anyway, we broke up, she kept the car and I stole it to get it back."
"And she reported it as stolen?" Zora shook her head. "A rather willful and vindicative young woman."
"Yes, ma'am, she was. Anyway, I was arrested and the Judge was on the bench during my trial. He sent me away for three to five."
"Rather a long time for a first offense with extenuating circumstances, I would think."
"Well, in defense of the Judge, I did have a couple of prior arrests for the same type of thing, although one was a repo that was later straightened out." Mark shrugged. "Considering everything, I guess he was trying to teach me a lesson."
"Hmm, seems a rather harsh lesson."
"Yeah, that's pretty much what I thought at the time."
"So why are you living with him now?"
Mark bit his lower lip, his eyes dropping to the floor as memories rushed in. Zora leaned forward to put her hand over his clenched ones.
"Dear, if you'd rather not say."
"No. No, I'll tell you." He drew a deep breath and began. "After I was released on parole, I was supposed to work with an old friend of mine, the guy who designed the Coyote."
"The car outside."
"Ahhh, I see. A fitting name for such a fast looking car."
"Yes, ma'am. Anyway, this friend, Flip, he was murdered by the man who was supposed to be his partner, all because of the Coyote."
"I see. And you asked Milton for help?"
"Uh, not exactly." Mark peered up through the hair falling into his face with a weak grin. "I stole the Coyote from the killer, got caught and, heaven help me, wound up as Hardcastle's last case before he retired."
"Yes, ma'am, oh my indeed. See, Hardcase wanted a Tonto to help him with his retirement plans."
"A Tonto? As in the Lone Ranger and Tonto?"
His grin was wider now. "Yep, the Judge wanted to focus on the bad guys who escaped justice. Luckily I was able to convince him to help put Flip's murderer away. Uh, Flip was my friend."
"And you stayed to help Milton with his pursuit of justice?"
"Yes, ma'am. That was the deal. I help him, become Kato to his Green Hornet, Tonto to his Lone Ranger, Robin to his Batman…" he tried to think of other crime partnerships, but they escaped him.
"Watson to Milton's Sherlock Holmes, Goodwin to his Nero Wolfe," Zora offered.
"Exactly." He got to his feet, smoothing the quilt once again. "Anyway, if my being an ex-con is a problem for you, I can go into town and get a room."
"Nonsense. You made some mistakes in your past. Now you're atoning for them. You'll stay here. And you'll call us Aunt Zora and Aunt Mae. Come along, let's go back downstairs and see what Milton is up to."
"Yes, ma'am." At the school teacherish look, Mark corrected himself. "Yes, Aunt Zora."
"Good." She nodded as she accepted his arm to return down the stairs.
On the drive home after staying a week with Hardcastle's aunts, McCormick couldn't stop grinning. He had enjoyed the visit with the Judge's family and was thrilled by the final comment from Aunt Zora. "You're to consider yourself a member of the family, Mark, you are now our nephew and we'll expect to hear from you regularly." She gave him a brisk hug and a kiss, followed by the same from Aunt Mae.
"I don't know what it is about you. You've managed to charm both my aunts without a minute's effort. I don't think I've been so ignored in my life. All that fussing over you had better not go to your head."
Mark just grinned and nodded, not allowing the warmth in discovering a new family be blown away by the Judge's grumbling. "Yes, Judge. Of course not, Judge. Whatever you say, Judge."
"That'll be the day. At least they won't be visiting us at Gull's-Way now."
Mark's eyes darted to the side. "Well, as to that…"
"What did you do, McCormick?" Hardcastle growled.
"You see, Aunt Mae mentioned having never seen Disneyland and Aunt Zora was curious about the mystery book tour given in Los Angeles."
"Well, I just thought it might be nice…that is, I told them that they should…I think I invited them to come visit..." he stumbled over his words as Hardcastle's face turned florid with barely suppressed anger.
"You invited my aunts to visit my home? When?"
"It wasn't a specific time, more like a general 'come next year' kinda thing."
"Next year? Next year! Next year!"
"They are family," McCormick hesitantly said.
"If they come, you will be in charge of showing them about. Understand?"
"Sure, it'll be fun."
"That's what you think now. Just wait. They were all sweetness and light to you, but when you meet the real women, you'll be avoiding them just as I do."
"Awww, Judge, what could happen? They're just two nice old ladies who like to bake and read books."
"Hmmph." Hardcastle sat back in the Coyote, his arms crossed. "You just wait, you'll see."