Author's Notes: This story would have been early in the relationship between Mark and Milt and was the very first Hardcastle & McCormick story that I wrote, although it wasn't the first published. Some might find Milt's actions out of character, but at that time (early in the series), I felt that Milt had a tendency to act without consulting Mark or thinking about the consequences. That said, I hope you still enjoy this story.

Desperado

By Lizabeth S. Tucker

(Originally published in Sweet Justice 1, 1985)

"McCormick, where the hell are you?" Judge Hardcastle leaned out the window of Mark's bedroom, checking for the missing ex-con by the front bushes and the swimming pool. "McCormick!"

"Your Honor, I can hear you, everyone can hear you! What do you want?" A somewhat greasy McCormick pushed out from under his pride and joy, the Coyote.

"I didn't see you there." The Judge sounded peevish.

"So I gathered. What do you want?"

"I've got something for you to do. Get in here."

Mark slowly put the car tools back in the garage, dreading the latest Hardcastle idea. Antoher dangerous undercover job? Sometimes he wondered if it was worth it. Sure, he was out of jail, but only technically. The Judge had been keeping him under a pretty tight lock and key lately. Mark guessed that Hardcastle was pissed at something he'd done, but he didn't know what.

Hardcastle was standing over by the bookcase when Mark walked into the gatehouse. He waited for some sign that Hardcastle knew he was there, but the retired judge just stared at the new seascape painting Mark had put up. Finally McCormick cleared his throat.

"Take care of that cough." The Judge turned, startling Mark with the signs of age on his face. Hardcastle seemed to have become at least ten years older in the past week.

"Yeah, I will. You said you wanted to see me?"

"What? Oh, yeah, I need you to listen to me for a little while. If you can keep your mouth shut long enough. Think you can handle that, McCormick?"

"Yeah, I think so," replied Mark sarcastically.

"This parole thing isn't working out. It's not entirely your fault. I…admit you were blackmailed into it. I think it's time we put a stop to it. I'm sure you'll be relieved."

McCormick stared at him. Was Hardcase letting him go free? Why? "I don't understand. Is my parole over? Am I out of your custody?"

"No!" Hardcastle shouted. Then, lowering his voice, "No, you'll have to go back to prison for a short time. It shouldn't be for more than six months, at the most."

"Back to prison?" McCormick dropped onto the couch. His thoughts were all jumbled. "Why? What did I do wrong? I do everything Sarah asks, I may complain a bit, but I do it. And I haven't gotten into any trouble since you got me out of jail. Nothing you don't know about. Why are you sending me back?"

"Nothing personal, kid -- "

"Nothing personal! First you blackmail me into helping bring the scum of the world to justice, now you want to put me back inside without so much as an explanation. And you say it's nothing personal? What else am I supposed to think?" Mark slammed his fist onto the coffee table, knocking over a glass figurine which crashed against the table leg without either man noticing.

"There's no need for all this. It's necessary. Let's leave it at that." Hardcastle turned to leave.

"No, I won't leave it at that. I want to know what I did wrong, why you're throwing me back. I don't think that's too much to ask, Your Honor, all I want is a reason!" Mark was confused. He'd thought he and Hardcase had been getting along just fine. Now the Judge was abandoning him, just like…no, leave that in the background. One crisis at a time.

"Let's just say I finally understand what everyone's been saying, that this crusade is ridiculous. And I've decided to stop it, before someone gets hurt." Careful, this is getting too close to the truth, Hardcastle said to himself.

"So it's 'Sorry, Mark old boy, back to the slammer with you', right?"

"Essentially, yes." Hardcastle opened the door and revealed two waiting police officers.

Mark looked at them in surprise. "So soon? Can't I at least pack my stuff up?"

"I'll take care of that. All your personal belongings and the car will be stored here till you get out."

"No thanks, Your Honor, I'll find someone else to look after them. I wouldn't want you to have any reminders of me lying around. I'll send someone for them, as soon as I can." Mark looked around the gatehouse apartment, his home for almost a year. "Okay, guys, let's go." He walked over to the waiting policemen and offered his hands. One of the officers slapped cuffs on him. McCormick missed the wince on the Judge's face as he walked blindly out the door.

Sarah was hovering outside the door. Her hands rose to her mouth as she saw McCormick being escorted out in handcuffs. She started to reach out to him, but he shrugged away. She watched as he was put in the patrol car and driven away. Hardcastle came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. Sarah turned and questioned him with tear-blurred eyes.

"It had to be done, Sarah, you know that."

"But why couldn't you tell him?"

"It was better for him not to know. I pray God it was better."

McCormick went through the entry procedures in a daze, his mind on the scene at Gulls-Way. Over and over again he asked himself, why? What had he done to cause the Judge to send him back? Oh, sure, he had complained about the assignments, about his jobs around the house and the grounds, but that was mostly show. He thought Sarah and Hardcastle understood that. He toed the line -- maybe a little close, but still within the law, as he knew it.

When he came to himself, he realized he was in a cell, alone. There was unusual enough to bring a question to his mind. Was he in so much hot water that he was to be in solitary? Surely not -- prisons were overcrowded enough without using regular cells for solitary. Probably his cellmate was somewhere else, like the clinic or the warden's office. McCormick peered at the bunk beds, trying to decide which looked least used. Finally he chose the top bunk and pulled himself up onto it, lying back and staring at the ceiling. Should he get a lawyer? To find out just where he stood on time served and time remaining? He really hadn't had much of a trial the last time, since the Judge had been planning his little crusade even then. He might not even be legally obliged to serve any time at all. The man who had claimed to own the Coyote, the man from whom he had stolen it, was a murderer, doing time himself. If there was no one to press charges for the theft, did that mean there was no theft? Mark rolled over onto his right side, his face to the wall. This whole thing was getting very confusing. Yeah, a lawyer might be a good idea.

A rough shaking woke him up. He looked around, unsure of where he was.

"Oh, yeah. Jail," he murmured.

"That's right, hotshot. How you doing?" His cellmate laughed. "I didn't expect to see you here again, Skid. What happened?"

"Bobby? Hey, man, long time. I don't know what I'm doing here, but I am. 'spect that's all that really matters." Mark sat up, his head full of Buddy Rich imitators.

"Thought you were in good with Hardcase. Sorry to see you back, Skid, you don't belong here." Bobby Croft leaned back against the wall of the cell and took out a cigarette. "Want one?"

"No."

"Well, how long this time?"

"Don't really know, I gotta get a lawyer. Know any good ones?"

"Old Man Treble, he's back on the job. He might be able to help you. Only one problem, he and the Judge aren't so tight, if you know what I mean."

"No problem there, old buddy. Friends of Hardcastle's aren't what I'm looking for. Can you get a message to him, pronto? I don't want to spend any more time in here than I have to." Mark could feel the walls closing in on him. Just like old times.

"First thing in the morning. And it won't cost you the usual -- after all, we're old friends, right?"

Mark looked at the prematurely aged ex-addict sharing the cell with him and nodded. "Right, old friends."

"Judge Peterson, this is outrageous. Mr. McCormick was paroled into the custody of Judge Hardcastle and then sent back to jail. Yet everyone who had previously laid car theft charges against him is himself serving time. Are we to deny Mr. McCormick his due process, keep him locked up while the State attempts to get new evidence? He has led an excellent and law-abiding life while in Judge Hardcastle's charge and I believe it to be in everyone's best interests for him to be freed until the Court decides whether to charge him or not."

Judge Peterson looked down from his bench at the defense lawyer, glancing at Milton Hardcastle as the motion was read. Hardcastle kept looking at Mark McCormick, but the ex-con wouldn't acknowledge his presence in the room.

Peterson thought of his earlier meeting with Hardcastle. "Milt, I'm sorry. Frankly, I can't think of any good reason to keep the boy in jail. And unless you can give me one, I'll probably let him out."

"Then do it, but anything that happens will be on your head," Hardcastle had said.

Now Milt was in court, obviously hurting over something he knew. And Mark McCormick was fighting to get out of jail just about as hard as Hardcastle was fighting to keep him in.

"Counselor Treble, your point is well taken. I hereby move to release Mark McCormick under his own recognizance until further charges are presented in this court." With that, Judge Peterson banged his gavel, dismissing the hearing.

Sarah smiled. Mark had won. She understood Peterson's reasoning. As far as the court could see, McCormick was being unjustly detained. Hardcastle himself would have agreed, at another time. Mark was entitled to his freedom.

McCormick shook hands with Treble. "Ill pay you as soon as I can get a job."

"Son, it was almost worth it to see Hardcastle bested. You must have really riled him. He was working very hard to keep you behind bars. But I'm not quite that generous. I'll send you a bill as soon as you get settled." Treble ran his hands over his mostly bald head, appraising the accused car thief. "What did you do to get him so mad?"

"Everyone keeps asking me that!" Mark's voice rose. "I don't know!"

"Okay, son, don't get upset. Tell me sometime later, when you feel like it."

Treble walked out of the room, passing Hardcastle on the way. He sneered at the former judge, pleased at the recent turn of events. Hardcastle ignored him, and tried to get near McCormick. When the ex-racer kept his back turned, the Judge reached out and grabbed his arm.

Unable to ignore Hardcastle any longer, Mark asked him again, "Why?"

"I couldn't let you go free, not now. Maybe later," Hardcastle answered. "You don't understand, McCormick."

"You're right there, I don't' understand, but I will. I promise you, I will before long." Mark pulled away and walked quickly to the courtroom doors. "I'll be at Gulls-Way in an hour to pick up my things."

"Your Honor, you have to tell him!" Sarah said, her concern for the two men evident.

"Okay, you're right. If McCormick is going to be free, he has to know everything." Hardcastle sighed. "I'll tell him as soon as he gets to the house."

McCormick walked out of the courthouse, relieved that everything was settled, at least for the time being. Now a bus trip out to the beach, pack all his stuff up and try to fit as much as possible in the Coyote, and find some new living quarters.

He didn't notice the two men following him until it was too late. They came up on either side of him and one pressed a gun to his side.

Mark froze, causing them to pass him as they continued forward automatically. Before they could react, he ran into a nearby alley. They raced after him, two guns now drawn. McCormick might have been one of the fastest men on the tract, but only if he had a car. In running, he was only average, and the two men chasing him were better than that. Soon he could hear them close on his heels.

Just as they were about to catch up, he burst out onto a street. As he tried to weave his way in and out through the traffic, one of his pursuers fired. The bullet hit McCormick in the lower back just as he was squeezing past a speeding car, causing him to fall into its path. Screeching brakes masked the sound of the gunfire, and the screams of a female witness caused all eyes to focus on the tragedy in the street, missing the assailants and their weapons.

In the center of a circle of drivers, passengers, and passersby lay a bleeding, nearly unconscious Mark McCormick. Leaning closer to him, one of the observers heard him murmur, "Why?"

"Where the hell are you, McCormick?" Hardcastle looked up toward the bus stop. "How long does it take to catch a bus in this town?"

It had been over two hours since the scene in the courthouse and the Judge was worried. McCormick had said he would be at the house an hour ago, and McCormick might be a lot of things, but he was never late. Not without a good reason, like a woman. But Hardcastle couldn't see McCormick with a woman right now. The Judge turned his truck and drove back to the house. As he pulled up, he could see Sara waving at him.

"Your Honor, hurry! Mark's been hurt, he's in the hospital."

"What?"

"On the phone, the police, Mark's hurt."

The Judge rushed into the house and picked up the phone. "Hardcastle here. What's this about Mark McCormick?" He listened as the officer on the line explained himself, then, after a long pause, hung up and looked at Sarah.

"McCormick is very badly hurt. He was hit by a car while trying to run across the street. It appears he was running from someone at the time, someone who managed to shoot him just before the car hit him."

"Shot?"

"The police don't know much about it yet, but they said I should get to the hospital as soon as possible. McCormick may be…dying."

Sarah all but pushed him out the door. "You go. Call me as soon as you know anything."

"Yes. Yes, I will."

The long drive to the hospital allowed the Judge some time to indulge in guilt. If he had told McCormick what he knew, if McCormick had been aware of a threat to Hardcastle and anyone around him, could they, between them, have found a way to prevent this? Hardcastle remembered the call that had first notified him of danger.

"Judge Milton C. Hardcastle?"

"Yes, speaking." The Judge had pressed the phone receiver closer to his ear. "I can barely hear you. Speak up!"

"You and McCormick are dead men."

"What? Is this a joke?"

"No joke, Your Honor, just an old debt being paid." The caller laughed, a rough cackle. "In fact, I think I'll do McCormick first. That would be fitting."

"Who are you? Why would you want to hurt McCormick or me? It won't mean much if you don't tell me."

"You were the cause of my son's death, and since your son is already dead, I'll have to settle for the next best thing -- your assistant. Word is that you think highly of this one. Just as if he were your son, isn't that right? He'll make a good substitute. Till later, Hardcase, till later." The phone went dead.

"Hey, what do you mean? Stay away from McCormick!" Hardcastle was wasting his time. The caller was no longer there to hear.

Hardcastle had tried to figure out who it had been, but after so many cases, it was difficult to fix on just one possibility. Some of Hardcastle's guilty had been executed. A few had died in prison, either from natural causes or from violence inside. Too many years, too many people.

The Judge took the threat as a harmless one until he found a phony bomb outside McCormick's bedroom window a week later. The note attached to it read: This one is a fake -- the next one won't be!

After that, Hardcastle kept a close eye on his partner, not letting him out of his sight. No jobs were allowed to take him outside the walls of Gulls-Way. At first, Mark seemed to enjoy the respite from crime fighting. Then he became restless. Hardcastle knew he wouldn't be able to confine him much longer without an explanation. Yet he couldn't bring himself to tell McCormick what the problem was. No reason to involve him, not yet anyway.

That was what Hardcastle had thought at the time. Then he thought that if he put Mark back into prison, his enemy would leave the younger man alone, think that his enemy had misunderstood the relationship between the two men. Now he realized that McCormick had had a right to know he was a target. Only now it might be too late.

Hardcastle went up to the nurses' station at the Intensive Care Unit. "Do you have a Mark McCormick in here? Gunshot wound?"

"Yes, are you a relative?" The nurse looked up at the man standing before her. "His father?"

"No, not a relative. Not exactly, just a close friend. Can I see him?"

"I'm sorry. Only immediate family and a priest, if you know of one."

"A…a priest? Is it that bad?" Hardcastle hasn't really believed it, not while he was on the phone with the police.

"Well, it could happen at any time…" the nurse began.

"Forget it, Carol. This is one of the good guys." A man in a gray jacket emerged from the waiting room. "Hardcastle."

The Judge shook the offered hand, barely recognizing the man. "Jim? Jim Paltry? Aren't you with the Organized Crime Strike Force?"

"Yes, sir. Could you come this way?" Paltry motioned to the room he had just left.

"What's going on? I'd like to see McCormick."

"In a minute, Your Honor. First I'd like to ask you some questions." Paltry sat down in one of the orange and brown armchairs. There were two other men in the room, one obviously a doctor, the other a stranger. "This is Dr. Redd, he's taking care of McCormick. And this is Steve Griggs from the Justice Department. Gentlemen, this is Judge Milton Hardcastle. McCormick was in his custody until just recently. We can talk freely with him."

"I'm not so sure of that," said Griggs. "Pardon me, Judge Hardcastle, but didn't you just finish trying to send McCormick to jail? That doesn't sound as if you have the man's best interests in mind." He stood, towering over the shorter Hardcastle.

The Judge glared up at him. "I really don't think you're aware of anything involved in this. So I'd suggest you butt out."

"No, I don't think you are aware of what is involved here. A major crime figure made an attempt to have your former parolee killed, an attempt, I might add, that came very close to succeeding. We don't know exactly why this person wanted McCormick dead, but we can make a good guess. Shortly before this happens, you do your best to have McCormick yanked back to prison. Frankly, the whole thing stinks!"

"Enough, Steve," Paltry interjected. "McCormick wants him in on this, and right now, it's his ball game."

"McCormick is still alive?" Hardcastle asked.

"Alive, but not too well. He took a bullet in the back and the car that hit him threw him pretty far. He was lucky -- very lucky. Do you want to see him? I'm sure the doctor will let you, won't you, Dr. Redd?"

"Of course. Whenever you're ready, Judge Hardcastle."

"I am, but first I want some answers."

Paltry nodded. "You're entitled."

"Where do you two come in? The kid didn't call you, I'm sure of that."

"We had some information that Samuels was preparing a hit on you, and we put him under surveillance. Unfortunately we didn't have the money or the manpower to watch all his goons, so they made it to McCormick. I'm sorry, Judge."

"Why wasn't I told, warned of the danger?"

"It wasn't in the interests of the Department," Griggs replied.

"In other words, your information was obtained illegally. Okay, what about McCormick?"

"He agreed to help us." Griggs walked around the room, seemingly bored by the conversation.

Paltry grimaced. "Not quite that easily. McCormick isn't the cooperative type -- I'm sure you know that, Judge. We let him hear the tapes, condemning you to death. We…I explained that our chances of stopping Samuels were slim, without his help."

Hardcastle smiled faintly. The kid had agreed to play ball with the Feds to help him. Well, well, well. "I'm ready, Doctor."

The doctor led him through the large swinging doors and past rows of monitors that recorded the patients' vital signs and television screens that watched them through video cameras. Hardcastle stopped by the screen that showed McCormick's bed. The ex-con was attached to various tubes and machines, and barely visible through the bandages. He was pale, or maybe that was the monitor. There was a large pillow wedged under his right side, propping him up. Hardcastle moved on, catching up with the doctor just as he entered McCormick's room. He didn't know what to say. McCormick seemed asleep, or unconscious.

The doctor leaned over his patient, checking his pulse. "Mr. McCormick, you have a visitor."

Mark opened his eyes and tried to focus on the two men standing over him. At first he seemed confused and frightened. Finally he realized where he was. "Hardcase. I know." The voice was raspy, hardly there at all.

Hardcastle smiled. "I'm sorry, I didn't think…"

"What else is new?" Mark interrupted, wincing as the doctor prodded at his bandages. "Why didn't you just tell me? I might've helped. I'm not helpless, you know."

"Yeah, I know. I thought you were in danger." Hardcastle hesitated. "There was a threat against you. I thought that if you were gone, no one would try to kill you."

"So they'd just be after you. Who are they? The big guys -- Ahhhh!" McCormick cried out as the doctor probed the gunshot wound.

"Jesus Christ, Doc, you're hurting him!" Hardcastle growled, seeing all the remaining color drain from McCormick's face.

"I should do worse than that. Mr. McCormick, that bullet must come out and soon. It could move against your spinal cord or your kidneys and do serious damage."

Mark shook his head. "No, not till this is over. I could be out for days, that's what you said. I don't think I can afford that just now."

"The bullet's still in him?" asked Hardcastle.

"Yes, and he's still bleeding inside. That's why we have him hooked up to all this equipment. If he should start -- "

"Shut up, Doc," Mark interrupted. "As soon as this is over, you can cut all you like. I'm sure Hardcase will wind things up fast. Won't you, boss?" He looked over at Hardcastle, his eyes filled with tears from the pain.

To Hardcastle, it appeared that he was crying. The resemblance to his dead son was stronger now than ever. After all that had happened, was McCormick still willing to trust him? "Yeah, as soon as we can. But I think you should have the operation. Damn it, kid, if you trust me, then take my word for it, you'll be well guarded."

"Will I? I'm not so sure of that. I don't trust that Griggs guy, he's out for the head man. If he can get the guy for murder, well, that's great. One more charge. He doesn't know me from Adam, and he could care less. Paltry's okay, but even he's thinking that I'm just another con caught in a bad situation. Neither one of them is gonna bust his ass to save me. I figure you're the best chance I have of staying alive."

His logic was impeccable, though Hardcastle was loath to admit it. Not everyone believed in absolute justice. 'The end justifies the means' was a much commoner attitude, even among Hardcastle's own colleagues.

Have the operation. You'll convalesce at Gulls-Way. I think we can get a pretty good defense out there. I know a few people. What do you say, Doctor?"

"I'll have to see the place first. I don't like the idea, but I see your point. There are too many people passing in and out of a hospital, too many unknowns to control. In a private place, you control the players. I'll make a trip out there with you right now and examine the facilities. If I like it, Mr. McCormick will be scheduled for surgery tomorrow morning. Is that agreeable, Mr. McCormick?"

There was no answer. Hardcastle looked over toward the bed. Mark was asleep. "Is he going to make it?"

The doctor checked the heart monitor. "Barring unforeseen circumstances, like another bullet, yes, I think so." He went out, leaving Hardcastle alone with his partner.

The Judge reached over and rested his hand on McCormick's shoulder. He looked up at the monitors that calmly beeped out the patient's heartbeat. "He'd better make it, or justice may turn to revenge!"

Having approved the Gatehouse as a private care facility, with some alterations, Dr. Redd scheduled Mark's operation for nine the following morning.

Sarah scurried all over the apartment, getting it ready for Mark's return. Hardcastle helped by moving all McCormick's personal belongings back in. The last touch was Mark's favorite painting, going up where the Picasso had been.

The medical people arrived with their equipment, moving some items around , but generally not disturbing the place. This made Sarah very pleased, and when the specialists appeared, she served coffee and cake and made them feel at home. Hardcastle went back to the hospital to wait until the operation was complete. He was surprised to find only minimum security in effect around the surgery. He went looking for Paltry.

"Where's the security? You said the kid was covered, but a total idiot could get past that crew. My God, two guards on the doors?"

Paltry waved toward Griggs. "He's in charge of that part of the job."

Griggs looked up, annoyed at the interruption. "Believe me, Hardcastle, if they got to him, by some wild chance, they would never leave."

"I'm sure that would be a real comfort to McCormick," said Hardcastle sarcastically.

"Look, Hardcastle, you're in this for only two reasons. One, McCormick wouldn't talk to us unless you were notified; two, you have close ties to the local police. Don't push your luck or you'll find yourself out in the cold. And by the way, we don't want McCormick out at your place. We'll take him to a safe house and you'll be notified when he can go back to Gulls Nest."

"Way."

"What?"

"It's Gulls-Way. And McCormick will be coming out there. Not to any spot you two pick. Security will be my concern from here on. You gentlemen will get further information from me when I feel it's warranted. Is that understood?" Hardcastle's tone and expression demonstrated clearly why he was called 'Hardcase'.

The two lawmen started yelling, trying both reason and anger to change the Judge's position. Nothing worked. Hardcastle was adamant. He was running things now.

"Look, Hardcastle, you tried to get McCormick back into jail because you felt he wasn't safe, right?" Griggs asked.

"Yes, so?"

"So why should he be safe now, especially in his weakened condition? You're not making sense, Your Honor."

"He wasn't aware of the danger before. I thought getting him away from me would protect him. I was wrong. Now he knows the danger and so do I. The people behind this will have to go through me to get to the kid and I'm not about to let them. I'm worried about McCormick. All you're worried about is an arrest and let McCormick be damned. If he happens to survive, great. If he doesn't, that's too bad. Well, I think he has a better chance of survival with me than with you. I'm sorry about your plans, but this is my show now." Hardcastle strode off to find Dr. Redd. He left the two officers staring after him.

"This complicates things," Griggs murmured. "I wonder if we can get around him?"

Paltry only shrugged.

Hardcastle finally found Redd at the I.C.U. nurses' station. Grabbing the surgeon by the arm, he asked how the operation had gone.

"McCormick came out perfectly, but we really won't know whether it was a total success until he comes to," Redd answered. "Would you like to see him?"

"Yeah, I would."

"Come with me." The doctor led Hardcastle back to the O.R. and opened one of the large silver doors. "I thought he'd be safer in here than in the recovery room, just in case someone is looking for him."

Hardcastle shook the doctor's hand, a slight tremor noticeable in his own. When Redd left, Hardcastle looked at the unconscious man. McCormick was pale and looked like death warmed over. The gunshot and the battering by the car had taken a lot out of him. Hardcastle felt content just to be with his young friend for a while. He pulled up a chair and sat next to the gurney.

It was about an hour before McCormick began to signs of life. At first he was still out, but seemed restless, moving his head from side to side. Hardcastle reached out and held onto his shoulders, trying to reassure him. Then he began muttering, mostly unintelligibly. Occasionally Hardcastle could pick out a few words. McCormick kept saying 'no' over and over again. The Judge couldn't tell if he was reliving the attack or simply in pain. All he could do was talk to him, try to let McCormick know that he was safe.

That was how Sarah found him when she entered the room.

"It's okay, kid, I'm here. You're safe, don't worry. Nothing is gonna happen." Suddenly he became aware of Sarah's presence. "Oh, hello. I was just -- "

"Yes, I know. Everything is ready at the house. And I've arranged for a private ambulance to transport Mark, if the doctor says he can travel."

"Hardcase?" A weak voice came from behind the Judge.

"Well, McCormick, it's about time you woke up," Hardcastle admonished. "Lollygagging in bed while Sarah and I do all the work."

McCormick laughed, then winced. "How'd I do?"

"Just fine!" Hardcastle assured him heartily.

"Right." McCormick saw through him, but didn't have the energy to argue. He sighed. "Can we go home now?"

Sarah smiled, caressing Mark's brow. "Of course, we can." She bustled off in search of the doctor.

After Mark was settled, the Judge walked out to the pool. Sarah found him there, watching the sunset.

"You should come in, Your Honor."

"I will, in just a little while."

They stood side by side until the sun had disappeared from view. Finally the Judge turned and looked back toward the gatehouse. "He's so like…my son. Sometimes it hurts. I miss them, Sarah. I miss Nancy and Tommy. Mark fills the gaps, the loneliness."

"You love him." It was a statement, not a question.

"Maybe." Hardcastle walked toward the Gatehouse. "But don't you ever tell the boy that!"

Mark was sleeping lightly and awoke when the Judge came in. "Hey, Judge."

"Hey yourself, kiddo. How do you feel?" Hardcastle smiled at the nurse standing by the bookcase. "Don't you people ever sleep?"

"She's a vampire. You know, sleep by day, drink blood by night." McCormick propped himself up with his elbow. "Did the doctor say when I can get up?"

"Slow and easy, that's what he said. So don't overdo."

"How about these bad guys, anything on them?"

"I've been going through my files. When Palry mentioned Samuels, I was able to narrow it down to one particular scumbag. About fifteen years ago, I was heading an investigation into a reputed racketeer by the name of Carl Samuels. There was a series of bomb threats, some phone calls, the usual harassment. The police traced some of the calls and arrested Samuels' son, Robert. I didn't have any connection with the case after that. In fact, the investigation was dropped because there wasn't sufficient evidence to indict Samuels. I made some phone calls while you were being moved in here and found out that Robert Samuels was involved in a riot at the prison where he was doing time. He was brutally beaten by certain guards there and died from his injuries."

McCormick lay back down and thought about this. "Let me guess. This just happened -- his death, I mean."

"Actually, no. The father had a massive heart attack immediately after his son's death. What with rehabilitation time, hospital stays, and so on, it's been about two years. More than enough time to stew over what happened."

"Why's he blaming you? Because you were one of the judges involved in the investigation? What about the others?"

"There were four others: Franklin, Carletti, Williams, and Jerrold. Jerrold died about six years ago. Williams is in Europe somewhere. Carletti is in jail for accepting bribes."

"And Franklin?" McCormick was making a great effort to stay upright and awake.

"Franklin died about six weeks ago. Under suspicious circumstances."

"How suspicious?"

"Killed while driving under the influence. Supposedly."

"Unfortunate, but all too common, Hardcase."

"Maybe. But alcohol hit Franklin hard. If he took enough of it to get drunk, he ended up unable to even walk to the car, must less drive it."

"Ah, I see." McCormick nodded off, unable to resist any longer.

Hardcastle smiled, said good night to the nurse, and checked with the guards surrounding the property. Once he was certain that everything was secure, he went into the house.

Two men watched him disappear, then studied the section of wall nearest the Gatehouse. To reach it from the street would involve a twenty yard run through a broad open area and a scramble over a stone wall that was about three feet high, all in plain sight of the guards. It would be impossible to do the job without first creating a diversion to attract the guards. The men turned back down the street toward their car. The attack on the grounds would take time and planning.

"Hardcase!"

"McCormick, what are you doing up? You're gonna bust your stitches or something." Hardcastle watched as Mark slowly moved to the lawn chair by the pool.

"Come on, Judge, it's been three days! The doc said I should get back to normal, slowly. That's what I'm doing."

"Normal, huh?" Hardcastle snorted.

"Yep, I'm going to lie here in the sun and get back my usual gorgeous tan and soak up the vitamins beaming down." Mark pulled his sunglasses down from the top of his head. "Oh, and Hardcastle, could you get me something cool and refreshing from the fridge?"

"Don't push it, hotshot."

An explosion drowned out any answer McCormick might have said. Hardcastle jumped to his feet and ordered the poolside guard to stay with McCormick, no matter what. Then he ran in the direction of the sound.

There was a large gaping hole in the side fence. A group of guards were watching both the street and the adjacent grounds. Except for them, there was no one in sight.

"What happened?" Hardcastle studied the fence.

The senior security officer showed him a burned, broken box. "A bomb, very small, very efficient. It was placed next to the fence, probably some time last night."

"To get in? Or to…oh my God, to distract everyone…" Hardcastle took off at a run, back toward the house.

After a moment's hesitation, the security team followed him. They came upon the remaining guard unconscious by the stone border. There were bloodstains on the paving near the overturned lawn chair. McCormick's sunglasses, bent and twisted. Hardcastle turned back for the Gatehouse, praying that Mark had made it that far. A quick look inside revealed no one but the resting nurse.

The persistent blaring of a car horn suddenly attracted Hardcastle's attention. He recognized it as the Coyote's horn. Running up the stairs to the balcony, he looked out the window to see two men trying to pull McCormick from his car, which was parked in front of the garage. He was just as desperately trying to stay inside it, but it was obvious that he was losing the battle.

"Leave him!" yelled Hardcastle. "I've got a gun, and if you don't let him go, I'll use it!"

The men stared up at him, one drawing a .38 and firing in his direction. Hardcastle withdrew, hoping they wouldn't turn the gun on McCormick. Further gunfire told him that his security people had reached the garage. He looked back out and saw McCormick swing a wrench at one of his assailants. Due to his weakened state, the wrench barely grazed its target's head, and the man pulled it from McCormick's hand and tried to turn it on him, striking him a glancing blow just as one of the guards shot the assailant.

Hardcastle ran down the stairs again and out to the garage. He stopped beside the Coyote, knelt and cradled McCormick's head while the guards secured the wounded invader and his partner. The ex-con was still conscious and smile weakly at him.

"'s okay, really. I'm fine. Just a few dents." With that, McCormick passed out.

After another long drive to the hospital and another long, fretful wait until the doctor assured him that McCormick was not seriously hurt this time, Hardcastle returned to Gulls-Way after putting guards on McCormick's room.

Sarah was waiting for him when the Judge stepped out of the truck. "How is he?"

"Fine. No permanent damage. I think it's time to meet Mr. Samuels in person." Hardcastle went into his study and unlocked one of his desk drawers. He removed a well-oiled Smith & Wesson and loaded it.

Sarah stood in his way as he turned toward the door. "You're not going without another person to help you. Please, Your Honor."

Hardcastle stared down at the tiny, determined woman. "Okay, I'll take Cartwright from Central. And I'll call Griggs and Paltry. Satisfied?" Hardcastle turned back to the desk, reaching for the phone. He stopped, put the gun on the desk and took Sarah by the shoulders, drawing her closer. "Sarah, I promise you that I won't break the law. I admit the thought crossed my mind, but I'm not built that way. I have to do things by the book, it's all I've got. But Samuels doesn't know that. If he thinks I'm going to shoot him for what he tried to do to Mark, he may crack. Feel better?"

She nodded. "Call them."

"You don't trust me, Sarah."

"I'm afraid too much of Mark may have rubbed off on you."

The Judge arranged to meet the officers in an hour at the gates of Samuels' estate. During the drive there, he tried to set up a plan. He wished McCormick was there to bounce his ideas off of.

Mike Cartwright was waiting. He was an old friend Hardcastle's from when the Judge had been a cop. Hardcastle explained the situation to him. Cartwright wasn't happy with the Judge's idea, but he agreed to back him up.

Samuels' house was a somber-looking building of gray concrete and stucco. Hardcastle had never seen gray stucco before and wondered whether it was natural or a byproduct of the L.A. smog. There was a brass lion head knocker on the door, and he used it. A very large man answered the door, taller than the Judge. Looking up at him, Hardcastle gave his name. "I'm here to see Samuels."

"You've been expected, Judge Hardcastle. Please follow me."

Cartwright made as if to follow him. The doorman laid a hand on the policeman's shoulder. "You have to come in alone, Your Honor. You'll be safe."

Hardcastle nodded, motioning to his friend to wait outside. "I shouldn't be more than thirty minutes, at most."

Samuels was waiting in the dining room, eating soft-boiled eggs. He waved to a chair across the table from him and Hardcastle sat down.

"A heart condition, ulcers, and bad arthritis. Getting old is not fun, Your Honor."

"Sins of the body?" Hardcastle commented.

"Perhaps. Would you like some coffee, or maybe a drink? I have a fully stocked bar." Samuels played the perfect host.

"No, thank you." Hardcastle leaned forward. "Shall we get down to business?"

"I assume you are here concerning your young assistant?"

"Yes. I want you to call your goons off. I won't have McCormick killed because of an old grudge between you and me."

"An old grudge? You caused my son's death!" Samuels' voice rose, bringing his doorman/bodyguard into the room. "It's nothing, Len, leave us."

"I didn't kill your son," said Hardcastle. "I only gave the police a statement. He was involved in a prison riot and he was mistreated. I didn't send him there, I didn't beat him up, I didn't kill him. And neither did McCormick."

"McCormick is convenient. At first I wanted to go after you. But then I thought, why not put you through the same kind of pain I've suffered? Word has it this kid means a lot to you. Maybe a replacement for your dead son. If that's so, then his death would hurt you. I've failed twice, but like they say, the third time's the charm." Samuels smiled, then bean to laugh as he saw the look on Hardcastle's face.

The Judge pulled his gun from under his jacket, fingering the trigger. Just a few ounces of pressure and Mark wouldn't have to worry again. Just a little squeeze and justice would be served once and for all.

"You want to kill me? I'm already dead, Hardcastle. Go ahead! This would be the best revenge of all." Samuels' face was reddening, his laughter becoming mixed with gasps for breath.

The Judge knew he was right. If he pulled the trigger, he would insure McCormick's safety, but he would also betray his life, his ideals, everything he believed in. He would become no better than any of the criminals he had judged in court during his long years on the bench. Hardcastle put his gun back in his belt. This wasn't the way.

"No, I'm not going to kill you. Though I admit the thought occurred to me. I'm asking you nicely to leave us alone. At least, leave the boy alone."

Samuels coughed, his breath coming in great gasps. "No. No, I'll see him dead and you mourning by his grave. I'll see you…" He grasped at his chest. "I'll…I'll…" his voice trailed off.

The Judge realized that Samuels was having another heart attack and went to find Len and a phone to call for help. When they returned, it was to an empty dining room.

"I don't understand. Where is he? He could barely breathe when I left." Hardcastle looked around the room.

Len checked the kitchen. "There's only one other place he could be. The den, with his son's pictures." He led the way, Hardcastle close on his heels.

As they entered the room, the Judge saw Samuels sitting at a large mahogany desk, a photo of the dead Robert in one hand and a pistol in the other. At first he thought the old racketeer was dead, but then Samuels' eyes opened, staring at the Judge as he stood on the opposite side of the desk.

"It's finally happened, Your Honor. I'm dying." Samuels aimed the gun at Hardcastle's heart. "Are you pleased? The boy is safe -- a dead man can't kill anyone. At least, not anyone who isn't here right now. Would you mind keeping me company, Your Honor? I'd like to have some company with me when I leave this earth." He smiled and pulled the trigger before the Judge could react.

Hardcastle felt a sharp burning sensation between his arm and right side. Looking down, he saw a small tear in his jacket, where the bullet had cut the fabric, grazing him. He looked up again, and saw that the gun lay on the desktop, Samuels' head resting next to it. Hardcastle didn't need Len's confirmation to know that Samuels was dead.

It's over, Mark, this time it's really over. Hardcastle walked slowly out to join the waiting officers in the front driveway. He stood there in silence as the different police agencies did their work, and watched as the ambulance attendants wheeled Samuels' body from the house. Paltry stood beside him, waving Griggs away when the agent wanted to question him. Finally, when only the crime lab remained, Hardcastle got into his truck.

"Where are you going, Judge?" Paltry asked while Griggs glared.

"Back to the hospital, to tell McCormick that he's safe." The Judge drove off, showering the other two with dust and small stones.

When Hardcastle arrived at the hospital, he found Dr. Redd waiting.

"McCormick?"

"Better than he has a right to be. Blows about the head with an object like a wrench are serious. However, it appears that it glanced off onto his shoulder. He has some new bruises and cuts, a hairline fracture of the collarbone, a very bad headache, and the other wounds from before. He's a very lucky man. No activity for a few weeks, and then only the lightest of duties -- no lifting until that collarbone knits. I want you to bring him back here for a check in three days if thee are no problems, then his regular physician can take over. For tonight he's to remain here for observation. You can take him home in the morning." Redd started to leave, then turned back. "From what I've gathered, he does a lot of different jobs for you, some of them highly dangerous. I suggest you take better care of him or he won't be doing anything for you, except pushing up flowers in a cemetery somewhere."

"Don't worry, Doctor, I'll take care of him." Hardcastle went on to McCormick's room.

"Hey, Hardcase. Get the bad guy?" McCormick had a bandage around his head and his arm in a sling. There was a bruise on his right cheek, and the beginnings of a black eye above that.

"Jesus, McCormick, you're a mess!"

"Tell me something I don't know. You didn't answer my question. Did you get Samuels?"

"No, not exactly. He has a higher court to answer to."

"Oh." McCormick thought about that, then dismissed it. "Well, Doc says I can go home tomorrow and back to normal in no time. Better line up our next mission, kemo sabe."

Hardcastle hesitated. "I don't know. Redd said I should take better care of you. Maybe he's right. I did drag you into all this against your will."

"Come on, Hardcase, are you crazy? I'm a grown man and I can take care of myself." At the Judge's dubious look, he conceded, "Most of the time. Don't sweat the small stuff. Don't I always tell you when it's too dangerous?" McCormick was struggling to sit up, fumbling for the bed controls.

Hardcastle found them hanging by the side of the bed and handed them to him. "Yeah, constantly. Of course, to you, trimming the hedges is dangerous."

"Have you seen those things lately? I mean, it's like Day of the Triffids time."

"McCormick!"

"Hardcastle!"

The two men stared at each other for a few minutes, then broke out laughing. Hardcastle sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Actually, I look worse than I am," McCormick said. "Mostly bumps and bruises and a few cuts."

"And a broken collarbone, a bullet wound, and a face that looks like a truck ran over you."

"No problem, it'll heal. You'll be seeing this gorgeous face again in no time."

"McCormick, you're incorrigible," Hardcastle told him, shaking his head.

"That's why you love me, Hardcase." McCormick grinned.

"Hmmm," said Hardcastle. "Dr. Redd said I can pick you up in the morning. Be ready by nine."

"You got it. Fact is, I'm ready now."

McCormick rested on the shovel handle and wiped his brow. Sarah's rose garden was in need of fertilizer, so he was breaking up the dirt first. Hardcastle was in town, getting gas in the truck and picking up some supplies. At first, he'd been overprotective, but finally McCormick had convinced him to back off. Everything was back to normal, business as usual. Mark was stiff, and moved slowly sometimes, but the pain was gone. At night, after Sarah and the Judge were asleep, he would run along the property line. He hadn't admitted it to anyone else, but he'd been afraid he would never be at full capacity again. It was hard work, but he was finally beginning to feel normal.

Was he back in condition? Today would tell. The Judge was bringing an old friend whose son was a basketball star. The four of them were to play this afternoon. Mark's big concern was whether he could beat the Judge's pulse rate.

When the two visitors arrived, McCormick was ready. He did some stretching exercises in the gatehouse, so the Judge wouldn't see him. The match was close, the two older men against the younger. Finally Mark did a slam dunk that gave him the game-winning points. He leaned back against the garage door, panting slightly, and reached for his wrist. "Hey, Hardcase, got twenty that says I beat you."

"Come on, McCormick. It would be taking candy from a baby." Hardcstle leaned against the wall alongside him.

"Afraid?"

In answer, Hardcastle took his own wrist and called ready. Presently they compared rates.

"A tie? A tie? That's impossible! He's an old man, how can he tie me?" Mark yelled.

"An old man? I'll show you an old man, McCormick. Pool cleaning, hedge trimming, general reworking of this whole place. You'll be the old man before I'm through with you."

Sarah watched from the door, having come out to tell the men to get ready for dinner. Yes, she decided, everything was definitely back to normal.

The End