LOST BETWEEN YESTERDAY AND TOMORROW
Written by Lizabeth S. Tucker
(From an idea by Melinda Reynolds)
(Originally printed in Who Rides for Justice? # 1)
Milton C. Hardcastle strode into the Gatehouse without knocking, his usual manner of entering, and snapped the television set off. "All right, McCormick, what'sgoing on?"
"Hey, I was watching that!" Mark McCormick leaned forward and turned the picture back on. "This is the final heat of the Firecracker Two Fifty."
"I don't care if it's the Indy Five Hundred and you're in the lead. I want some answers." Hardcastle looked around the room as he spoke and spotted McCormick's racing scrapbook sitting in plain sight on top of the coffee table, his new helmet lying on a cardboard box containing the rest of the ex-con's gear and his license next to that. "Well?"
"I meant to tell you about all this. Really."
"Now's your chance."
McCormick walked out to the patio, handing the judge a packet on his way past. "Read this first."
Hardcastle flipped through the packet of flyers and brochures, occasionally stopping to glance at the young man in front of him. "So somebody is building a new race track. Just what the world needs. So what?"
"Not just somebody. It's E. J. Corlette, remember him?"
"Of course I do, McCormick. I'm not senile, ya know," Hardcastle snapped, waving the handful of brochures at him. "I recall him talkin' about buying a track, but what does it have to do with you?" He remembered the former professional racer very well. Corlette had been just another dirt tracker until the mob had taken an interest in him and fixed a big race so that Corlette would be the winner. A race that had cost McCormick his break into the big time. It seemed the mob hadn't held out much hope of being able to buy McCormick's loyalty and as a safety precaution, had his engine sabotaged. It had cost the young race driver the trophy and, more importantly, a prestigious sponsor. Hardcastle had to admit the mob was right, the kid would never have given into a laundering operation. He would have discovered the real reason he was being financed and quit.
Corlette, on the other hand, had been able to look the other way, for a while, but ultimately he had had to face what he had become. His heart and spirit broken, the man began to lose it on the track, going to the street to race kids and hot shots who wanted a chance to beat the professional. During one of those illegal races, Corlette had been involved in a near fatal accident on Mulholland Drive. Totally disgusted with himself, he had helped Hardcastle and McCormick get the mob bosses by turning State's evidence. For his assistance, Corlette had received a light fine and the revocation of his driving license for the street race and failure to report the accident. His ticket was pulled, but Corlette had already decided to hang it up and start teaching kids the right way and place to race.
"He wants me to help him out by testing the track," McCormick explained, interrupting the judge's thoughts.
Hardcastle frowned, not thrilled with Corlette. "Just to try out the track?" he queried suspiciously.
"Yeah, that's all. What elsedo you think I'm planning on doing?" Mark turned, his blue eyes guilelessly looking into the judge's dubious lighter ones.
"I don't know. Let's leave it at that for the present. When and where?"
"Not too far away, if that's what you're worried about. Besides, it won't take long."
Hardcastle could hear the unspoken appeal for approval in McCormick's voice and wondered at the necessity of it. It appeared to him that the kid had already made his decision, why the need for permission? "And?"
McCormick dropped his eyes, but not before Hardcastle saw the disappointment evident in their depths. "Nothing, Judge. Forget it."
Mark came back into the gatehouse, taking the fat bundle from the jurist and slipping it down the side of the box containing his racing gear. "I think I'd better get some sleep. I have to be there first thing in the morning. And don't worry about my chores; I'll finish them as soon as I get home."
Hardcastle started for the door, looking back to see McCormick slowly climbing the stairs to his bed. "Hey, kiddo, need a ride to the track?"
The young man spun about, grinning broadly. "Yeah, that'd be nice. We leave at five a.m., okay?"
"I don't believe it! Mark McCormick getting out of bed before noon!" Hardcastle smiled back, relieved that apparently he had said the right thing.
E. J. Corlette, dressed in work pants and a light blue shirt, watched as McCormick checked out his car with the track's mechanic, another old friend from the early dirt track days. It appeared that Corlette had looked up a lot of old friends. McCormick was dressed in his flame-proof underwear and white coveralls, the red helmet sitting on top of a red and white car plastered with decals from various oil companies and auto parts firms.
"McCormick said you needed him to check out the track. I'd think if it used to be a racing track, it could still be used as one," the Judge observed.
"Well, yes and no. There are lots of different kinds of racing which call for different styles of track. Since I primarily want a race track for beginning and amateur racers, I have to make sure this course isn't too dangerous, and yet I don't want it too easy either."
"Kinda like the bear's porridge, 'just right'?" Hardcastle commented whimsically, his eyes on McCormick.
Corlette laughed. "Yeah, that's it. And I suppose you've guessed that testing the track isn't my only reason for calling Skid here. I don't know if he's guessed the truth yet."
"I think he's hoping for something more. What exactly do you have in mind?"
"Two things. I'd like him to help me teach the kids how to race without killing themselves, like I said earlier. I think Skid would be good with the teens and young adults we hope to attract."
He paused when McCormick roared from the pits to the circular track, a cloud of black exhaust smoke left behind. When the noise had died down some, Hardcastle said, "You said two reasons. What's the second one?"
"I want to sponsor him in races, real ones. Small at first, on a very small budget; but if things work out well, maybe the main circuit. It'd be good advertisement for a car backed by a racing school to win, or even place at important matches."
The judge wasn't sure what to say. It had been McCormick's dream to be a big time NASCAR racer, but his run-ins with the law had put those dreams on hold. Then, when once before he had had the opportunity to drive for a well-heeled sponsor, the judge had discovered that the operation was crooked. And though Hardcastle was loathe to admit it, even to himself, he resented McCormick's driving; he felt it separated him from the younger man at the track, a distance he couldn't seem to bridge. Hardcastle knew it wasn't that McCormick didn't include him; he did. It was that he had a hard time putting the serious, sharp-eyed racer who sat buckled and strapped into the moving death trap with the wisecracking, boyish ex-con who lived at Gull's Way.
But Hardcastle also knew that if he asked McCormick to give up the dream, the man might--and resent Hardcastle for the rest of his life. The judge had to let the ex-con decide what he wanted in life; this was one time he couldn't call the shots.
"Judge, are you listening?"
Hardcastle realized that Corlette had asked him a question. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"I said, what do you think? Mark values your opinion very highly. Not to mention the fact that some of the races will be held out of L. A., which means you have to give him permission to leave the area. But mostly, I don't want to cause Skid problems with you or the law."
"If this is really what the kid wants, I won't try to stop him. But I gotta admit, I'm not too happy about him tearin' around a track with a mass of other cars and doin' better'n a hundred miles an hour." He stared uneasily at the speeding test vehicle as it circled the track again. McCormick was putting the car through the types of maneuvers that a beginner might do. But, Hardcastle wondered, were all those slips and slides on purpose?
"Would it reassure you to know that during the average race, most cars stay in the ninety-mile-an-hour range and that technical problems take more vehicles out of a race than crashes?"
"Yeah, but a lot of drivers die because of those so-called technical problems coming at the wrong moment."
"Not all crashes are fatal, Judge," Corlette countered. "And what you do isn't the safest job in the world. Excuse me, but what you do isn't even for money, it's a hobby. A dangerous hobby that could get him killed." Corlette waved toward the track where McCormick was, his voice thick with accusation. "You and this holy crusade of yours could just as easily get Skid killed, probably easier."
"Not from where I'm sitting."
Corlette sighed, his anger disappearing as fast as it had appeared. "Look, we both have the same concerns, that Skid not get hurt, right?"
Hardcastle didn't reply. His feelings about McCormick were hard to express and, even if he could talk about them, it wouldn't be with the man whom, at the moment, he was considering more dangerous to that relationship than any criminal could possibly be.
"Okay, fine," Corlette continued when Hardcastle didn't answer. "Mark has the right to back out when it seems to be getting too close to the edge. Believe me, Judge, I wouldn't put him in any unnecessary danger. We were friends once, a long time ago. We've just started renewing that easy give and take, and I don't want to screw it up again. Skid's a hell of a loyal guy."
The discussion was halted by the topic of their conversation's arrival. McCormick had finished giving the mechanic some instructions and walked over to them, putting on sunglasses which hid his eyes and changed the appearance of his face from unceasingly cheerful to mysterious and slightly forbidding.
His mile-wide grin appeared. "Well, E. J., looks good. There are a few places where the pavement's loose and causes the car to shimmy, but the banks are good. I think it can handle all levels of expertise from your students as well as being a good track for regulation racing."
"A little road work, maybe a new sealer should do it?"
"Yeah, I think so. That far bank could be a little steeper. We..." McCormick corrected himself, noticing a sharp look from Hardcastle. "Youdon't want it to be too easy for your students "
Corlette nodded. "Why don't you and the judge come to my office and meet my partner?"
"Partner?" Hardcastle and McCormick chorused, the judge carrying McCormick's helmet while the ex-con pulled his fireproof gloves off and loosened his coveralls at the neck.
"Yeah, seems two of us had essentially the same idea about this place and made similar bids. We could've bid again, but we decided to talk things over first. After our meeting, we figured we could go into business together--merge our resources. That's also why we plan to run some real races as well as teaching up-and-coming racers."
"Former racer?" McCormick asked curiously.
"Not exactly. He used to work in the pits, never wanted to race, but he said he could remember how many good guys and gals never had the chance because there was no one to give it to them. That's what he wanted to do. Oh, his name is Karl Bronski, but I call him Ski. Ever run into him, Skid?"
Mark shook his head. "Can't say I know him, but pit crews didn't move as much as most people think."
The three men went into the cool shade of the wooden building, weaving through piles of trash to the concrete stairs, then climbing to the long building where Corlette entered. Two men looked up, one a balding, potbellied person in his mid-fifties with deep weather creases in his face, the other younger and dressed in light blue racing gear, a helmet tucked under his arm, looking like a kid at a Halloween party. Corlette stopped short, McCormick running into him. "Ski, what's he doin' here?"
"I thought you should introduce him to your boy." Bronski had a slight Bostonian accent and a blustery manner. He seemed to think the rest of the world was deaf, yelling as if he were still in the noisy pit area.
"I thought we'd decided to talk about this later." Corlette confronted his partner.
The young man came over to McCormick and the judge, introducing himself. "Hi, I'm Josh Bancheri. You must be Skid McCormick."
"Yeah, and this is a friend of mine, Judge Milton C. Hardcastle. Are you one of the new students?" Mark asked, raising his voice to be heard over the heated discussion between Corlette and Bronski.
"I thought I was gonna be the official track driver, but I have this feeling you're Corlette's first choice, not me. I can understand that. I used to watch you race when I was a kid."
Hardcastle snorted, seeing McCormick wince at the age reference. "If you don't mind my asking, son, how old are you?"
"Oh," Mark replied, his voice subdued. The judge tugged at his arm, nodding toward Corlette and Bronski, who were now arguing in earnest. "Let's go, kiddo. I think they need some privacy."
"Really." McCormick led the way, Bancheri bringing up the rear. Once outside, the three men headed to the overhang that ran above the seats. In the sunlight, they leaned against the metal banister, an awkward silence surrounding them.
Hardcastle saw a marked resemblance between the two drivers, one future, one past, not so much in actual looks, but in the way they held themselves, the way they both looked you in the face when speaking. He listened as McCormick and Bancheri discussed racing and former adversaries, wondering how his friend would deal with the question that was bound to pop up sooner or later. It came sooner than the judge would've thought.
"Why'd you quit? I mean, you disappeared from the circuit in late seventy-nine or eighty, right after a spectacular win in Northern California. I remember it, 'cause that's the day I started taking lessons from Barry Howell."
Hardcastle turned to McCormick expectantly, waiting.
Mark sighed. "I remember him. He was my idol when I was about sixteen. Good man to have for a teacher. His accident in seventy-eight ended a fine career."
Realizing that McCormick was avoiding the subject of his sudden retirement, the judge took pity on him. "What accident?"
"Howell took a header into the wall at the qualifying run for the Coca Cola Five Hundred in Atlanta. Left him paralyzed on the right side. I really think he could've been better than Petty or Waltrip or even Earnhardt."
"Skid, you didn't answer my question," Bancheri persisted. "What happened to you? I know there wasn't an accident. I would've heard about it."
"I did a little time," McCormick finally admitted. "By the time I got out, nobody knew me." He didn't go into details, glancing at the judge as he finished.
"So, you're gonna get back into it with this gig, huh? Man, I'm really sorry, 'cause I plan to use this shot as my boost into the big time, ya know?"
"Yeah, I know. So what's the problem? I'm only checking the track out," McCormick stated, shrugging his shoulders.
Hardcastle wasn't convinced by his words. He had seen the spark Mark only got when he was behind the wheel of a fast car that was giving its all on the road. He wondered if his young friend was telling what he believed to be the truth or was merely trying to convince the judge and himself that he didn't really want anything more to do with racing.
Bancheri smiled. "Yeah, sure. Well, you see, Ski wants me to be the track driver and Corlette wants you. I don't know how they plan to settle that little disagreement, but I'm not just giving in gracefully."
McCormick pulled his sunglasses off, pinching the bridge of his nose at the beginning of a tension headache, then smiled at what Bancheri had said, his eyes crinkling as the grin spread across his face. "Understood, kid. As long as you understand two things. One, I'm not about to let some snot-nose newcomer just take over driving here without making damn sure he's good. And number two, I don't have any intention of being the official racer for this place. I might do some teaching once in a while, if I have the time, but that's all. You got that?"
Hardcastle's heart lurched when he noticed McCormick watching him from the comer of his eye. "Yes, sir." Bancheri saluted, clicking his heels together and smiling.
"Here they come, maybe we'll find out what's going on." Mark moved closer to the judge, his animated conversation having taken him back and forth on the walkway.
"Look, guys, we've decided the only fair way to pick our driver is to run some heats, pitting the two of you against each other and the track." Corlette gestured to his partner.
"Best three out of five, at varying times and with changes on the track."
"What kind of changes, sir?" Bancheri asked.
"Oil, debris, run a driverless car in front of you, any and all of these things, or possibly none of them, depending on what we see from the two of you." Bronski punctuated his speech with his cigar. "I would suggest that you go to town, have a bite to eat. The first match is tonight at dusk. We all know how deceptive the light is at that time of the evening." Corlette shook Hardcastle's hand. "Been nice to see you again, Judge. Skid, Josh, I have to set things up here, so I'll see you at four-thirty for some last minute instructions, okay?"
"Sounds good to me," Bancheri replied. "There's a nice seafood restaurant in town, if you feel like fish."
Bronski interrupted. "I want to talk with you before this match, Bancheri. You can eat later. If you'll excuse us, gentlemen."
The young man shrugged his shoulders and followed after his mentor, leaving the judge and Mark alone on the walkway.
McCormick touched Hardcastle on the arm. "Are you mad at me?"
"Why would I be mad?" the jurist asked, starting down the stairs, followed closely by McCormick.
"Because I'm trying out for this racing job. Really, Judge, I'm only doing it to make sure this Bancheri kid is good enough to represent E. J.'s track." Mark had to hurry to keep up with the older man once they reached the hallway leading to the parking lot. "Honest, Hardcase, I know what we're doing is important. I don't have any intention of changing that."
Hardcastle leaned over the hood of the pickup, one hand on the center ornament. "I'm not mad. You have to make your own decisions, you're a grown man. All I ask is for you to give your options some serious thought, weigh all the advantages and disadvantages, okay?"
"Sure, Judge, okay." McCormick climbed behind the wheel. He waited 'til the other man was in, then started the GMC's engine. "Thanks, Hardcase."
"Let's go find this fish place and get some lunch, kid."
McCormick laughed as he drove off." He tells me I'm a man, then calls me a kid. Hardcastle, you're really somethin'."
"And don't you forget it."
The first match went well for McCormick, with him pulling off an easy victory over Joshua Bancheri. When the two drivers pulled into the pit, Bancheri climbed out of his vehicle, laughing. "Damn, Skid, I watched you long enough to have been expecting that move, and I still let you sucker me in."
"Kinda my trademark, hotshot," McCormick retorted, tossing his helmet back inside his racecar.
"Maybe so, but it won't be so easy the next time." The younger racer waved to the approaching Bronski. "Sorry about that, Ski. I'll win the next one, I guarantee it."
"You'd better, Bancheri. I don't want to think I picked the wrong driver." Bronski had yet another cigar stuffed in the side of his face, unlit and champed up, a thin brown trail of tobacco juice running from the corner of his mouth.
Bancheri seemed shaken, Hardcastle observed.
"You...you didn't. I'll show you--tomorrow. I promise, I'll win."
McCormick was frowning when the judge walked over to him. "I don't like that man, and I especially don't like him doing that kind of number on Josh during these trials. He's already under enough stress to prove himself without his main supporter showing doubts. That makes a desperate racer, and desperation means an accident waiting to happen."
"Are you worried that Bancheri might try something dangerous?"
"Let's just say he might have a tendency to take a few shortcuts, ones that aren't necessary. He's a good driver--has a lot of skill."
"You beat him."
"Yeah, 'cause I was lucky enough to put one over on him. It won't be that easy in the next heat." McCormick slapped the hood of the racecar. "Dave, check the back end, it's still shimmying. Come on, Judge, I need a shower. It's hot in that thing!"
They headed toward the rear of the building, passing showers, lockers and cots--leftovers from when the track had been in regular use. As they went through the gate, the weary, sweaty McCormick was stopped by a hand on his arm. He looked around, but it wasn't Hardcastle holding him back, it was a stranger. "Can I help you?" he asked.
"Need to talk to you," the man answered. Looking meaningfully at the jurist hovering nearby, he lowered his voice. "Alone."
With an amused glance at Hardcastle, McCormick nodded. "Fine. Get my clothes from the car, Judge, please. I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Don't be too long, kiddo, you're turning rank," Hardcastle teased, checking the third man over by force of habit. He saw a flashily dressed hustler type about McCormick's age, dark hair slicked back from a high forehead, thin mustache that struggled for survival on the man's face. Hardcastle dismissed him as the promoter type looking to sucker McCormick into some deal that wouldn't pan out. He felt sorry for the man; Mark was a prime hustler himself, when he felt a need.
Retrieving the young man's jeans and shirt from the silver and black pickup, Hardcastle walked to the changing room adjacent to the showers. After some scrounging for a towel and a thin bar of soap, he sat on a hard wooden bench and waited for the ex-con to show up. And waited. And waited. He was about to go in search of his missing associate when McCormick walked through the door, a puzzled look on his face.
"Whatisit, kid?" he asked, helping McCormick out of his coveralls.
"I just had the strangest conversation. That guy wants me to give up the race. He tried to tell me that there was no way the school was gonna open. Imagine that. I asked him what he was talking about, but he said he was giving me some friendly advice, for old times' sake. But I've never seen him before. What's going on around here? I was talking to this character, looked around and saw three goons waiting about twenty feet away, next to a limo. And I'm talking 'bout real killers, Judge." Stripped to his skin, Mark took the soap and a towel and headed for the showers.
"Maybe I'll ask around about this guy. Did you get his name?" Hardcastle called.
"Yeah. Miller Frey."
The next trial was at six a.m., and both drivers were bleary-eyed from the match the previous evening. With the scheduled pit stops and a debriefing after the first match, it had been late in the evening before McCormick and Hardcastle had gotten back to Gull's Way. Each race was fifty laps and was to be done with different track conditions. That much had been told to them, but not the details. For this, the second match, the track was being hosed down in spots with oil to resemble the aftermath of a bad wreck. The roadway would be slick, but a fairly good driver would be able to handle the change.
The judge leaned in McCormick's window, helping him fasten the safety belts. "Take it easy, hotshot. All you have to do is win three, but this is pretty early in the contest. Don't go crazy."
"If I hurry up and win the first three, we can go home." McCormick grinned, storing his sunglasses in the side pocket of his coveralls. He pulled his helmet on and gave a thumbs-up signal to his pit chief, Dave.
"Good luck, McCormick." Hardcastle climbed back over the barrier and watched as the two cars were lined up at the starting line. Corlette drove the pace car, leading the two racers one lap around the track at a constant speed, then darting into the pits, commencing the race.
For the first few laps, Mark held an easy lead, foiling all of Bancheri's attempts to pass him. Hardcastle watched as McCormick wove back and forth on the track, managing to keep his car in front of the other whenever the younger man tried to slip by him, their bumpers meeting occasionally.
Getting bored, Hardcastle turned to go get something to drink when he heard an explosion. Spinning around, he saw debris from the track flying about McCormick's car. Glancing up, he saw a dark figure hurl something onto the track, followed immediately by another explosion that lifted the kid's car into the air. The vehicle's speed made it flip over and over before sliding on its roof into the far wall. Bancheri's car was so close it skidded when he tried to stop, clipping the rear of McCormick's vehicle and doing two full spinouts before coming to a rest in the infield.
Hardcastle ran across the track toward the still car, glimpsing Bancheri running after him from the corner of his eye. There was another explosion in front of Hardcastle, dangerously near McCormick's entirely too quiet car, then the sound of gunfire. The judge glanced over his shoulder and saw Bronski firing a rifle at the dynamite thrower.
Arriving at McCormick's racecar, the older man hesitated, afraid of what he might find. Bancheri came up beside him and gripped his shoulder. "Let me look first."
"No, I'll look."
"I don't give a damn who looks first, but would one of you help me out of here? The straps are jammed!" Mark's voice came from the car, strong but more than a little exasperated.
"Are you all right?" Kneeling, Hardcastle reached in and yanked at the buckles, finally unsnapping them, then helped the young man slide out the window.
"Yeah, but what happened? I mean, I was driving along when all hell broke loose." McCormick leaned back against the wrecked vehicle, pulling a broken pair of sunglasses from his pocket. "Oh, great, another pair busted."
"Are you sure you're okay?" Hardcastle checked McCormick's arms, the grip betraying his concern, and saw the softening in the younger man's eyes, the faint smile of reassurance.
"Yeah, Judge, I'm fine. A little shaken, but in one piece. Honest." They looked at each other, Mark nodding slightly. "So, what happened?"
"Dynamite. Bronski scared him off, but I have a feeling we'll see the culprit again. And soon."
McCormick looked at the tom up asphalt and the upside down car and sighed. "It's gonna be a little while before we have another match, Josh. E. J.'s gonna have to do some repair work before this track can be used again. And the car will have to be checked over."
"No problem. It'll give me more time to study your driving habits. And I know there's another car, if you need it. But, who wants to destroy the place?" the younger racer replied, walking on one side of McCormick, the judge on the other, as they headed for the office to call the police.
"That's what I have to find out. And quickly, before there's another attack and somebody gets hurt." Hardcastle slapped McCormick on the back. "Go wash off. I'll be in the office with Corlette and Bronski. Try not to take all day, kid."
"Yeah, yeah, okay." Mark and Bancheri walked off to the showers together, Bancheri glancing back over his shoulder and catching the judge watching them.
In the changing room, they stripped off their clothes and headed for the showers. "I don't understand. Why would anyone want to shut this place back down? Are they afraid of the sort of people it would attract?" Bancheri held his face to the spray, his eyes squeezed tightly shut.
"I'm not sure, but the judge'll find out. No secret's safe while he's around." McCormick grabbed his towel and dried himself vigorously, slinging it around his neck when finished. He savored the coolness of the concrete floor on the soles of his feet as he padded out to the changing room. He looked about, puzzled. His underwear was missing. Searching under the benches that ran along the room, he found them, rolled in a ball where he had peeled them off. He grimaced. Sweaty briefs weren't the most comfortable item of clothing in the world. Shrugging, he tossed them onto the bench and pulled his jeans on, listening to the kid while carefully zipping up.
"There's something else I don't understand, Skid." Bancheri, towel around his hips like a furry loincloth, joined him. "Why do you stay with Hardcastle? I mean, he's always on your case."
"Naw, not really, that's just his way, especially when he's worried."
"Worried? He didn't look too concerned, until your car crashed. Then there was the strangest look on his face."
Mark felt uncomfortable but was curious enough to ask, "Like what?"
Bancheri shook his head. "I don't know. As if he'd already been through it once, the horror of losing something or someone. Then when he dragged you out of there, I began to wonder if I was imagining things. He looked like he was gonna start yelling at you again. That's all he does...yell at you."
"You're wrong, Josh. I know it doesn't look much like it, but Hardcase and me...well, we're friends. We understand each other, but to an outsider, I guess it would look a little strange. We really like each other, we just don't show it much. It's the judge's way to yell."
"Like each other? You're right about not showing it. He must pay you an awful lot of money for you to put up with him."
"It's not like that. 'Sides, the judge is cheap!" McCormick laughed. "We have an arrangement, one that usually works for both of us." He burst out laughing again when Hardcastle walked in. "Hiya, Judge, tell the cops the whole truth and nothin' but?"
"Whaddaya think?" Hardcastle bellowed. "Are you finished goofing off? I want to visit your friend from yesterday."
McCormick frowned. "Miller Frey? You think he's the one behind this?"
"How else would you explain the subtle warning you received? Maybe he decided you weren't taking him seriously."
"He was right about that, but I am now." Mark returned fervently, scrounging for a shirt. He sniffed the work shirt he'd been wearing earlier, made a face, and put on his gym top instead. Pulling the hood free from inside the neckline, he walked alongside Hardcastle. "What's the plan, O Great One, or do you have one?"
"I think we'll go and see why Frey wants this place."
A few steps behind them, Bancheri called out as they reached the parking lot. "Mind if I tag along?"
McCormick shrugged, looking at the judge.
"No, but mind if I ask why?" Hardcastle answered, standing with the truck keys in his hand.
"Let's just say that I don't much care for driving in a combat zone." The young man smiled. "And I prefer my racing competitors to be alive when I beat them."
McCormick's eyebrows arched in haughty annoyance. "I was leading, kid, remember that." Bancheri's answer was covered by his laughter as he climbed into the truck after McCormick and slammed the door as Hardcastle took off.
"Milton C. Hardcastle and associates to see Mr. Frey." The judge was at his most officious in front of the secretary, an imposing figure despite his ragtag outfit of worn jeans, rapidly disintegrating sneakers and a T-shirt with There's No Plea Bargain in Heaven proclaimed on it. McCormick watched the look on their young friend's face, barely able to conceal his grin. Bancheri was seeing the official side of the judge for the first time. The smile broke free when he remembered how Hardcastle had scared the life out of him the first time he'd sat in the older man's court. Not to mention the terror that had swept through him when he'd realized Hardcastle was the judge he would be appearing before after swiping the Coyote, his one-of-a-kind sports car. Who would've thought things would turn out so strange?
They were ushered into Frey's office, a large and modernistically appointed room. The desk and chairs were shiny white with black trim, the lamps barely recognizable as such. Bancheri glanced around and murmured to McCormick, "Like something out of The Jetsons."
Mark snorted, choking on his laughter. "Wonder where the boss is?"
"Hard to tell, kiddo."
Hardcastle was looking at the photos on the vinyl-like tan and silver stripe papered wall, so McCormick edged closer to the desk. Catching the judge with his back turned, he thumbed through the folders piled about the working space. Silently getting Bancheri's attention, he pointed at the judge and mouthed, "Distract him."
The younger man nodded and went to make small talk with Hardcastle, carefully keeping the judge's back to McCormick, who began to flip quickly through a file labeled RACEWAY PROJECT. At the sound of a doorknob turning, he stuffed the file into his pants, pulling his gym top down to conceal it. He barely got his top rearranged before three men walked in. Seeing Hardcastle staring at him, he nodded. "Yeah, these are the same guys." He hoped that was what the judge was wanting.
"May I help you, gentlemen?" Frey sat behind his desk, the other two men aligning themselves at the far comers of the room like identical statues.
Mark measured himself up against one of the bodyguards facing him and smiled weakly. The man had five inches and thirty pounds on him, not to mention bulging muscles. Only the man had an extra bulge under his armpit. A gun. He backed away and moved toward the judge.
"Mr. Frey, my friend here says you talked with him yesterday about leaving town, that it wasn't a good idea for him to work for the Checkered Flag Racing School. And today someone tried to damage the track as he and Mr. Bancheri were having a race. Pretty coincidental, don't you think?" Hardcastle stated bluntly to the man sitting comfortably behind the oversized desk, not waiting for introductions.
Frey's face had gone from bland friendliness to outrage to annoyance. He stood, his palms flat against the desktop. "Look, Hardcastle, I know who the hell you are, and I resent your insinuations. I suggest you leave my office before I have you thrown out. And for your information, I didn't throw any dynamite at your friend."
"Funny, the judge didn't say anything about dynamite," McCormick pointed out. "And how'dyou know who he is? 'Bout the only people Hardcase meets are criminals, cops, and judges. And you sure aren't the last two."
The two goons moved toward the unwelcome visitors. "No need to show us the way out, we can find it." Hardcastle started for the door, letting Bancheri and McCormick precede him. As he went to close the door, the jurist leaned back inside the room. "If anything else happens out there, I'll be back. Count on it."
Out in the reception area, Bancheri gave a sigh of relief. "It doesn't take you two long to stir up trouble, does it?"
"The judge has that effect on people. I don't understand it, but half of Los Angeles County doesn't like him. Could it be his overbearing manner? Or maybe it's the accusatory stare? Or possibly..."
"Shut up, McCormick !" Hardcastle snapped.
Bancheri opened his mouth, and Mark shook his head, lightly slapping the younger man's arm, and pulling at him, leaving Hardcastle standing by the receptionist/secretary's desk, questioning her.
When the two racers had retreated down the hallway, Bancheri softly muttered, "Damn!What's with him? I don't understand why you protect him."
McCormick shook his head again. "I don't have to protect him, he's more than capable of doing that himself. Look, you may not understand him and you probably don't even like him, but listen to me carefully. That man couldn't do anything against the law if his life depended on it. He's rough around the edges, and he's at the point in his life that he doesn't feel a need to be polite with people." The young man smiled fondly as he watched the judge trying to charm Frey's receptionist into revealing something important. "To tell you the truth, I don't think politeness and tact have ever been Hardcastle's long suit. Right now, he's trying to keep Corlette's operation from being destroyed, no matter what his personal feelings might be. I think you owe it to him, and yourself, to help, not hinder. After all, if the track closes, you won't have any chance of becoming sponsored by them. That is, of course, if by some wild chance you manage to beat me."
McCormick shook his head. Hearing himself talk like this, someone might think he wanted the job. The idea shocked him. He had meant it when he'd told Hardcastle he was just "helping check the kid out", but the idea of going back into professional racing held a stronger lure than he'd imagined. If I beat Josh, what will I do then?
"All right, I won't cause trouble. After all, I don't want my future bosses to be put out of business before I wipe the track up with you," the younger man quipped, watching the judge moving down the hall toward them. "But if he starts in on me like he does on you, we're gonna get into it."
"That I'd like to see."
"What's that, kiddo?" Hardcastle asked, arriving in time for the last remark.
"Nothing, Judge. What was so interesting?"
"I heard a voice from the office after we walked out. I was checking with the receptionist to see if she knew who it was."
"And?" Bancheri asked as they continued to the parking lot.
"She didn't know," the jurist replied sheepishly.
"Meaning she wasn't telling, despite the irresistible Hardcastle charm," McCormick translated. "I don't know, Hardcase, first it was faces, now it's voices. I swear, don't you ever meet anyone you don't know?" He climbed into the GMC, scooting to the middle.
"You live as many years as I have, McCormick, you're bound to know a lot of people."
"Yeah, but everyone you know seems to be involved with the law some way, either as cops or crooks. Don't you know any civilians?"
"A few, a few." Hardcastle turned onto the Pacific Coast Highway. "But this voice wasn't either side. At least, that's not where I've heard it. I'll figure it out"
"Judge, I hate to interrupt, but whereare we going?" Bancheri leaned forward, looking at the passing scenery.
"Back home," the older man replied.
"GuIl's Way? Why?" McCormick demanded, grabbing at the dashboard as the judge darted around a Sunday driver. "I vote we call E. J. and let him know what's goin' on."
"Who said you geta vote?" Hardcastle teased. "Relax, McCormick. We'll call him, but from the estate. We need to find out what's so important about that track and why Frey wants it badly enough to destroy it. For that, I need my contacts."
"Ah, whose phone numbers are back home," McCormick finished explaining.
"Right." Hardcastle grinned. "You might amount to something yet, Tonto."
With a wry smile, McCormick nodded. "Gee, thanks, Kemosabe."
"Maybe," Hardcastle amended, laughing as he drove the truck up the coast turn-off to the seaside mansion. Out of the comer of his eye, he saw their guest looking from him to McCormick, obviously puzzled by the exchange. He didn't bother explaining. It probably would've lost something in the translation, anyway.
Bancheri came from the kitchen, carrying a plate of sandwiches, followed closely by McCormick with a large thermal pot of coffee in one hand and three cups balanced in the other. Hardcastle was still on the phone, talking to yet another of his old friends in the local government offices.
Bancheri shook his head. "I see what you mean. He does seem to know half the state."
"Hell, half the country is more like it. It doesn't matter what state we're in, Hardcase knows a cop or a judge there. He did it in Vegas, when we first started working together, and again in D.C. a couple of years ago."
The two men laid the food and drink on the desk and helped themselves while the judge dialed another number. There was silence in the room, except for the muted sound of eating and the ringing coming from the receiver. "Take a break, Judge." McCormick waved a ham sandwich under the jurist's nose, earning himself a glare. He shrugged, dropping into the nearest chair. "Might as well sit. He'll get off when he feels like it and not before."
By the time Hardcastle had finished, McCormick had consumed three sandwiches and Bancheri two. With a disgusted snort, the judge started in on the remaining food.
"I gather from that long face you didn't find out anything," McCormick commented.
"Nothing we can use. Frey is shady. There's never been enough evidence to bring him into court, but the police, the feds and the Better Business people all think he's dirty."
"In what way?" Bancheri poured another cup of coffee.
"He does land development deals for some pretty large corporations. Some of those companies are suspected of being money-laundering operations."
"Aha, the dawn breaks." Mark laid his plate and cup down, reaching down the crack in the chair's side to pull out his pilfered file. "Here, take a look at this."
Hardcastle grabbed the file as it flew toward him. "McCormick, when did you get this? Haven't I taught you anything yet?"
"Yeah, yeah, save the lecture 'til later."
The judge flipped through the pages inside, then stopped and pulled a sheet out. "This is impossible."
"That's what I thought. Kathy Kasternack told me about those, and she said that property can't be sold or developed with a federal tax lien against it. And that is exactly what that paper is."
"It could be old, paid off already," Hardcastle mused.
"Nope. After I swiped...uh, excuse me, borrowed it from Frey, I called the Circuit Clerk's office. It's still a valid lien."
"I think we should call Kathy and have her in on this."
McCormick blushed, embarrassed. "We...can't."
Hardcastle looked up. "Why not?" Receiving no answer, he frowned. "What did you do?"
"Nothing! Kathy thought we might be moving too fast, so she went on a long working vacation. In New York. She's apprenticing with a big accounting firm in Manhattan. She'll be back in about six months."
"Judge, now is not the time to discuss this..." McCormick cut his eyes toward their guest, and Hardcastle nodded.
"Okay, we'll find someone else who'll help us. And about Kathy, kid..."
"Yeah?" McCormick's eyes were on the older man, warily waiting for some smart remark or reprimand.
Much different from his frequent, slightly crazed grins, McCormick favored the judge with a shy, yet sincere, smile.
Bancheri coughed, breaking the moment of accord and peace. "Excuse me, but what are we talking about?"
"Seems there was a federal tax lien on this property when it was auctioned off and none of the money went to the IRS. That's illegal, unless the original owner has filed bankruptcy or it's the government doing the auctioneering, neither of which happened in this case. The Circuit Clerk's office should've had the lien on file…"
"They do," Mark interjected.
"…and the auctioneers, reputable as they are, would've discovered it in the files when a search was done for a clear title. But they don't mention it, and the lien wasn't paid off. Somebody's been bought off."
"But who?" Bancheri wondered.
"There's only a few who could've done it. The officer at the Internal Revenue Service who files the liens, the recorder in the Circuit Clerk's office who's supposed to post it, or the auctioneer and his company who check these things out before the final sale. All we have to do is find the right one," Hardcastle explained. "If it was the fed, he would've slipped the lien in after the sale, but everyone else could've simply 'forgot' about it."
"So we find the person who did that and convince them to tell us who paid them to 'forget' that lien?" Mark asked.
"Right, kiddo. I think we should split up."
"No can do, Judge," Bancheri commented. "Skid and I have another race this evening. One of our longest. When I called E. J., he said that repairs had been completed on the track and Skid's car, and Ski wants us to continue as before."
"Look, Judge, why don't I pull out of the competition, so we can concentrate on this case? I'll call the whole thing off, let Josh have it," Mark said, unsure if he really meant it or not. He could see by the doubt on Hardcastle's face that the judge wasn't buying it.
"No way, McCormick. I'm not having you throw this up to me for the rest of my life. Besides, if we do that, then Frey and his mysterious boss win. What's the matter, afraid you can't beat him?" Hardcastle asked, nodding at Bancheri.
"Not a chance."
"Okay, then you two race around in circles, and I'll nose around," the jurist replied. "Just like any other 'leaner'."
Bancheri laughed nervously, glancing at McCormick. Sotto voce, he asked, "Does he know what that means?"
"Yeah, he knows," McCormick answered. "Hardcase, I don't like it. At least wait 'til I'm not on the track to bother people, 'kay?"
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Hardcastle agreed. They cleaned the den up, stacking the dishes in the dishwasher and switching it on before leaving for the track.
Bancheri was in his usual place against the door, McCormick in the middle, and the judge driving. Night was falling, a deep purple glow over the Pacific Ocean, as the GMC sped along the deserted highway. McCormick had slipped off to sleep, his relaxed body slumping to one side, head partially resting on Hardcastle's shoulder.
Bancheri looked at the slumbering ex-con, a peculiar expression on his face.
"Something wrong?" the judge asked.
"Nah." He shook his head slowly. "It's just that he's not what I expected."
"What were you expecting?"
"I don't know, some really obnoxious type, I guess. I asked Ski about him, the jail thing. Wow, a promising career blown because of a stupid car theft. Good-looking, hell behind the wheel, sharp…then he swipes a Porsche. I don't understand it. Why did he blow it? I mean, he had it all."
"It was his car. He made a mistake, maybe paid a bit more than he should've for it, but the kid has this habit of looking for the easy way out." Hardcastle, secure that McCormick was sound asleep, admitted to Josh what he could never admit to his friend, that he had doubts about what he had done.
"'You were the judge, weren't you?"
"Yeah, both times."
"McCormick later stole a car from the man who killed his friend, Flip Johnson."
"Flip? Johnny Johnson! I remember him! Yeah, he and Skid were together in the early days of his career, 'fore he disappeared from the tracks. I heard about his death, but I thought it was a car crash."
"A carefully planned one. Anyhow, we wound up working together on the murder and that was the beginning." Hardcastle paused when he felt McCormick move against him. But the exhausted ex-con merely settled into a more comfortable position, snuggling against the judge's jacket, still asleep.
"How come he didn't go back to racing? I mean, lots of drivers have records, Richard Petty to name just one. It's pretty obvious that he loves it."
How do I answer that one? "I guess he found other things that were just as important."
"Maybe so, but he seems to come to life out there behind the wheel. I'm gonna hate beating him out of the job." The younger racer laughed softly.
"You haven't done very well so far, son," Hardcastle commented.
"Just suckering him in, that's all, Judge."
"Don't underestimate him, Josh. A lot of people have made that mistake, but only once. There's a lot behind that smart mouth and charming con-man appearance." Hardcastle felt annoyed at the boy's cavalier attitude, wanting to defend McCormick and teach this upstart a lesson. He hoped Josh had the pants beaten off him. The thought was sobering, for if Mark won, he'd have the job. And despite his protestations to the contrary, Hardcastle knew the job would be the answer to McCormick's long held dream to be a NASCAR racer. Suddenly he was envisioning a life of loneliness stretching ahead of him, one that didn't include the aggravating, annoying, exasperating, and entirely entertaining ex-con.
The remainder of the drive was completed in silence. Hardcastle's jaw was clenched tightly, his hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel. Bancheri was pressed against the passenger door, staring out into the evening. The judge pulled into the race track's near dark parking lot. Most of the neon lights had been shot out, and only a lone, yellow glow highlighted the entrance where Corlette stood. Parking the vehicle, Hardcastle nudged McCormick awake as Bancheri got out. Bleary blue eyes almost black in the darkness of the truck stared at him in confusion. Slowly, Mark woke up enough to understand where he was and climbed out of the truck cab to trail behind Hardcastle, rubbing his eyes and face.
"I'm getting too old for this, Judge. I'm dead on my feet."
"You guys ready? We have the cars gassed up and the track lit." E. J. led the way to the pits. "I don't know if it wouldn't be better to call these races off until we can settle who's trying to sabotage them."
"Not on your life, Corlette. I'm not about to let some faceless hood dictate to me." Bronski came up behind them, a rifle cradled in his arm.
"I assume you aren't planning on skeet shooting?" Hardcastle inquired, face still set.
"I've hired some guards. There won't be a repeat of this morning's incident," Bronski answered. "Let's get this show on the road, boys." He started to walk off, then turned. "Take it easy out there. No stunts--some of the track is still shaky."
Watching Bronski stalk off, Bancheri exchanged amazed looks with McCormick. "He cares! I don't believe it!"
Mark grinned. "If Ski has a heart, there may be hope for the world yet."
"Are you two gonna race or stand there beating your gums? We didn't set all this up for show, ya know!" Bronski yelled from across the pit.
"On the other hand..." smirked McCormick, following his rival to the locker room to dress, leaving Hardcastle to muse on the mysterious saboteur and his next action.
Clad in white racing coveralls, McCormick walked out of the building, face hidden from sight by the helmet and goggles. Bancheri, in red and white, trailed a few steps behind, carrying his helmet under his right arm. As Mark climbed into his racecar, Hardcastle felt a moment of unease and moved to the driver's window, bending to peer in the vehicle. "Take it easy out there, like Bronski says. I've got a bad feeling about this one, kid." He tapped the top of McCormick's helmet for luck.
McCormick flipped him a sloppy salute; his face averted from the judge as he gave the car some gas, moving out onto the track. The judge moved back to the stands, sitting on the somewhat damp bench. He watched as the race unfolded, surprised yet relieved that Mark was taking his advice for once. Still, he was puzzled that the kid was letting Bancheri gain so much of a lead. He knew McCormick was the better driver, and when Bancheri roared across the finish line first, he put it down to his friend's exhaustion. Maybe the kid's realizing he's not as young as he used to be. He grinned. That'll be the day!
Bancheri, helmet and gloves in hand, bounced past him, heading for Bronski. He gave the young man a congratulatory pat on the back as he passed by, then waited for McCormick, who was striding toward him, helmet and gloves still on.
"Hey, kid..." His condolences died on his lips as his friend brushed past without a word. His confused glance changed to a frown when Corlette received the same cold shoulder. Moving over to Corlette, he shrugged. "Must be pretty upset. He's usually not like that."
"Yeah, Skid always took things in his stride. Guess this means more to him than I thought," Corlette returned. "Look, I've got a few things to go over with Ski. See ya later."
"Yeah, okay," Hardcastle returned, deciding to speak with McCormick about his rudeness and heading for the showers. The cold tiled walls echoed his footsteps, but there was no other sound except for the steady drip-drip-drip of a leaky showerhead.
"Hey, kiddo, where areyou? Sulking? " He called, the silence unnerving. He searched the rooms, one by one, but there was no sign of McCormick, and he stood in the locker room, puzzIed. Now where's he gotten off to? Truck's still here, so where is McCormick? Maybe he got sidetracked. I'll wait a few minutes.
The giant hamper, grimy towels scattered at its base, stood in the corner of the locker room. Unable to leave the mess as it was, he grimaced, gathered them up, and opened the hamper to stuff them in. He froze--the towels falling unheeded at his feet. In the hamper, crumpled into a tight ball was McCormick, a thin rivulet of blood trailing down his forehead, past his slack mouth and onto the few remaining towels in the hamper's bottom.
Hardcastle tipped the hamper over onto its side, afraid to breathe as Mark slid out onto the concrete floor, head bumping with a soft thump. The judge winced at the sound and knelt next to the body. A shaky hand confirmed that the heart was still pumping away in the young but bruised chest. Someone had worked the young man over pretty good. Hardcastle sat back on his heels, letting the adrenaline cease its rapid flow through his body. He checked the head wound, but it looked worse than it actually was, a long shallow cut that was bleeding freely. As he was about to call for help, McCormick's eyes fluttered open.
With a groan, Mark nodded. "Yeah. I think so. Oh, man, wilI I have a headache tomorrow. Hell, I have one now."
"Who did it?"
"I don't know. Help me up, willya?" McCormick held out his hand, the judge looking at him doubtfully.
"Maybe you should stay there until the paramedics take a look at you."
"Aw, come on, I'm okay. Really. Just help me up, I'm cramped."
Hardcastle pulled him to his feet with a strong tug, and McCormick stumbled over to the doorway.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"To a sink...I wanna get some of this blood off me."
The judge walked over, pushing McCormick gently onto the nearest bench. "Stay there. I'll wet a towel and bring it back."
McCormick held his head in his hands, breathing shallowly, his ribs aching. A quick self-check told him nothing was broken, but the rapidly discoloring flesh was sore to the touch. Hardcastle walked back with a clean cloth soaked in water. "Hey, I'm sorry about the race, kiddo. I guess this doesn't make things any better, does it?" he commiserated as the young man washed away the scarlet ribbon weaving down his cheek.
"What're you talkin'about? We'll just have to schedule it for another day."
"Reschedule it? Why? You lost fair and square. Your getting slugged afterwards doesn't change the outcome."
"'Lost? I didn't lose anything. I never got out there!" McCormick stood, one hand scraping with the towel at his face, eyes wide with confusion.
"It wasn't you in the car." Hardcastle ran out the door, heading for the pit area.
He stopped just outside the pits, spotting Bancheri giving instructions to his crew chief. Bronski was listening, adding his own bits of information as he warranted necessary. Entering the pit, the judge grabbed the young racer by the arm, swinging him around.
"Did you see McCormick before the race?" Hardcastle bellowed angrily.
"Yeah, sure, we all did, remember? Why?"
"No, I mean, actually see him. In the face, without the helmet and goggles on?"
Bancheri started to answer, then hesitated. "No, now that you mention it, I didn't. What's this all about, Judge?"
"I found McCormick unconscious in the locker room, stuffed into a hamper like so much dirty laundry," the jurist explained.
"Yeah, and I was slugged before the race, not after." McCormick came up beside Hardcastle, the cut raw and vicious looking but not bleeding anymore. There was the beginning of a bruise on the back of his neck, just under his hair. From the way he gingerly felt at the crown, he had another hidden by the brownish auburn curls.
"Aw, come on, Skid, you lost. Take it like a man. You're still ahead," Bronski chided. "Let's go, Joshua."
"Hey, wait a friggin' minute! Don't you care that someone attacked me?" McCormick protested.
"We only have your word for that. You want this job bad, and it seems to me with your record, you wouldn't be above lying to get it."
McCormick lunged for Bronski with an inarticulate growl, only Hardcastle's quick reaction saving the former pit chief from landing on his backside with a bloody nose. "Let me at 'im, Hardcase," Mark snarled, struggling to break loose from the judge's firm grip .Any other time, McCormick would've had a chance to get away, but the judge was fit and rested, while an aching body coupled with fatigue had robbed the angry ex-con of his usual strength. It was no contest.
Blocking McCormick with his body, Hardcastle turned on Bronski. "Hold it right there, buster. McCormick might cut a few corners out on the track..."
"Gee, thanks, Hardcase," Mark muttered, still steaming.
"Shut up, kid...I'm defending you. But he'd never lie to cover up his loss. And I sure as hell wouldn't back him. I found him in that hamper. He didn't come and tell me about it. But if he had, I still would've believed him. Someone else was driving that race car, not McCormick!"'
"Yeah, yeah, that figures," Dave, McCormick's crew chief, chimed in. "I didn't think that looked like the Skidder's usual style of racin'." When everyone looked at him, he reddened but continued, "Every driver, like a painter or a sculptor, has a style all his own. You can try to imitate it, but an expert can spot a fake a mile away."
"Ya hear that, Judge? I've got style!" Mark smirked, unable to resist a dig at the older man, even with a pounding headache.
"I'm sorry, but since you're still ahead, I don't see a reason to re-schedule. I don't want us spending the rest of our lives on this ridiculous contest." Bronski stalked off.
Hardcastle glared, starting after him, but this time it was McCormick who was doing the holding back, grabbing his arm. "Don't bother. I guess I understand what he's saying. 'Sides, all I want right now is to go home and sack out." He rubbed at his forehead, the pounding spreading past the minor point of agony, and the added stress of the past few days wasn't helping matters. "Just drop it."
"I'm sorry about this, Skid. You sure you're gonna be able to race tomorrow?" Bancheri asked, resting a hand lightly on McCormick's shoulder.
"Yeah, sure. What time?" McCormick returned.
"Great. At least I'll be able to sack out for a couple of hours. Jeez, E. J., did'ja hafta build the track so far away from Malibu?"
"Don't worry, kiddo, we're getting a hotel room, right after I talk to the local cops about this," Hardcastle said, his face stormy.
"Terrific, more cops. Okay, fine. Can we go now? I think I'd like to sit down." McCormick stumbled toward the truck, Hardcastle quickly following and supporting him. As the judge helped Mark into the GMC, he put a hand on the battered man's forehead, looking into his eyes. "Are you sure you're okay? You're awfully white."
"If one more person asks me that; do you know what I'm gonna do?" McCormick protested, an annoyed edge to his voice.
"No, and I don't want to. Just answer my question," Hardcastle growled back.
"Will you leave me alone then?"
"I hurt. My side hurts, my head hurts, and my pride hurts. Other than that, I'm wonderful. Satisfied?" McCormick relented when he saw the unsuccessfully hidden concern on Hardcastle's face. "Really, I just need some sleep and a hot bath. How about dropping me off at the hotel? Yougo talk to the cops. I didn't see a thing before the lights went out. I was heading for the door--next thing I know, you were dumpin' me out of the hamper.
'"Kay, might be better for you, anyway." Hardcastle drove toward town, slowing as he passed every motel and hotel on the road. Most had No Vacancy signs, but finally he found a Holiday Inn that wasn't filled. McCormick sat in the truck dozing while the judge registered them.
Whistling off-key, the clerk filled out the registration card with room number and key deposit. "You and the missus should like the room. The bed has magic fingers."
"Bed? One bed?"
"Yes sir, that's all we've got left. There's a softball convention in town; we're booked solid. Had a last minute cancellation; that's the only reason I had anything at all. You and the little woman don't like the same bed, huh?" The clerk stabbed at the computer register, handing Hardcastle's change back while making conversation.
"I'm not with a woman."
"Oh." The clerk, attempting miserably to be subtle, eased over to see who was in the vehicle. His semi-phony smile slipped when he saw McCormick, a large bruise under his right temple, waiting. "Hey, we don't like to have any trouble, mister."
"Shut up. I'll take the room; bring me a map of the area. I assume the bed is a double?" Hardcastle ignored the implied inference of hanky-panky on his and McCormick's part. Considering what the kid looked like, he couldn't blame the clerk for jumping to the wrong conclusion.
"Uh, yeah." The man dug a map from his visitors' brochures.
"The key, please!"
"Right. Sorry. About everything. Will you want a cot?"
Hardcastle took the key, shaking his head. "No, I won't be doing much sleeping." He smiled as he walked outside, hearing the clerk stuttering. Nasty thing to say, but worth it.
He got McCormick to the room, comfortably under the covers, a glass of tap water on the nightstand. A quickly dropped dollar's worth of quarters made the bed vibrate, McCormick's half-smile the only indication that he felt it.
"I won't be gone long . Get some sleep; I'll wake you in plenty of time for the next heat."
A muffled mumble came from the thermal blanket now covering McCormick's face. Hardcastle, translating that as agreement, left for the police station.
"Rios, Frank Rios" The Chicano police captain threw a file folder onto the desk in front of Judge Hardcastle. "Frey used to be Rios' right-hand man. Then Rios made a move into Miami's narcotics, right after some heavyweight named Calderone was wasted by Miami's finest. Only he didn't fare too well with those same cops and is doing a long stretch in Florida's federal pen."
"Frey was pretty upset when Rios didn't trust him enough, business-wise, to run the L. A. operation. He doesn't rank very high in the organization now. He's mostly hired by individuals who want muscle. He makes most of his money from legit businesses. All those years with illegal activities, and this puta makes his millions in legal firms."
"It's not a cover for a money laundry?" Hardcastle asked, flipping through the papers.
"Milt, we're not amateurs here."
"Sorry, Miguel, wasn't thinking."
Miguel Torres had been in Judge Hardcastle's court more times than either man could count. After a nearly disastrous testimony in the court, Hardcastle had had a small one-on-one class in court appearance and effective fact giving. After that, hardly any of Torres' cases were lost due to his sloppy testimony. "Mind telling what all this interest in Frey is?"
"A friend of mine is up for a job that means a lot to him. But Frey's goons warned him to take off."
"Where was this?" Torres took out his notebook, pencil ready.
"At the new racing school. These guys weren't content with just warning him; they came back with dynamite and blew the track to smithereens while my friend and another man were racing on it."
Torres nodded. "Yeah, heard about that."
"Since McCormick persisted and the school stayed open, they waylaid him in the changing room, beat him up and stuffed him in a hamper."
"He's at a hotel, sleeping. He's a little banged up, but he'll live. I don't like people messing with my friends, Mike. I want this Frey.
"That's okay with me, but how?"
"I'm not sure, but I want you to do a background check on some people for me. See if you can tie them to Frey or Rios or anyone else who might want the track shut down."
"Joshua Bancheri, E. J. Corlette, Karl Bronski."
McCormick was slumbering peacefully, mouth slightly open and hand flung next to his head, the fingers curling into his palm. He stirred, shifting on the bed. The two intruders hesitated, halfway across the room.
Mark moaned softly, rolling over and sinking back into deep sleep.
The men tiptoed closer, slipping a pillow off the bed next to McCormick's head. The darker one took it firmly in his gloved hands and pressed it onto McCormick's face while the other man held the ex-con down.
Mark's oxygen was leaving faster than he was waking up, and his struggles were useless against the stronger men who were determined to kill him. He got in a lucky kick, and the one holding him down lost his tight grip for a second, giving the ex-con a chance to sling the other man away from the bed. He dragged the pillow off his face and bolted out of bed, stumbling toward the door.
The men caught him with his hand on the knob and pulled him around in a wide, fast circle, letting him fall toward the dresser. The sharp corner of the cheap pine dresser caught McCormick in the chest, where he was already badly bruised. The pain cleared his head, but nearly paralyzed him at the same time. His brain screamed for him to move, to ward off the approaching attackers; finally, sluggishly, he obeyed. He fumbled for a weapon, gasping at the flaring pain in his rib cage, and found the water pitcher. Getting a good grip on it, he heaved it at the closest man.
Unfortunately, it was hard to take a plastic pitcher seriously as a weapon. The killer batted it out of the air and reached into his pocket, bringing out a knife.
"Hey, guys, can't we talk this over?" McCormick backpedaled, palms up in supplication. He was stopped by the wall. Any hope of faking the man out was foiled by the very large gun which had appeared in the attacker's partner's hand. "Gunfire will bring trouble, fellows."
"Ah, the gun is only in case you won't stay for the knife demonstration." The husky voice of the gunman was well disguised.
"Yeah, well, I'm not into knives. Maybe you have something in a nice magic trick?"
"Sorry, all out."
McCormick barely had time to avoid the first slash at his face, darting back so fast that he hit his head against the wall. Stars exploded, dimming his vision and blinding him to the next attack. He felt the sweep of the knife as it tore through his T-shirt. There was no pain, only the warm wetness of blood seeping out and down his front. Just as the man moved closer, Mark lunged forward, knocking the knife from his hand, and jumped for the door, yanking it open to a startled jurist. Looking back, he saw the killer with the gun taking aim and pushed the judge down as the weapon went off. The bullet zipped over their heads and hit the parked truck's passenger door. Hardcastle drew his pistol, but McCormick was up and running after the men as they fled from the motel room. He ducked when the man with the gun fired at him, and the judge laid some covering fire until the young man got behind another parked car. The pings of bullets hitting the metal ceased with the roar of motorcycle engines; and the two hit men took off past the GMC, Hardcastle firing uselessly after them.
McCormick slumped behind the car, which was surrounded by shattered glass, his head leaning back against the warm door and his face to the sky. It didn't seem possible that it could be daylight.
"What was that all about?" The judge stood over him, blocking the sunlight.
"Seems they wanted to kill me," Mark replied softly.
"Got me." He pressed his hands to his stomach.
"Come on, kiddo, let's go report it." Hardcastle held out his hand to help McCormick up. When the younger man lifted a blood-covered hand to him, the jurist dropped to his knees. "You're hurt!"
"Hey, anyone ever tell you that you should be a detective?" At the look of concern and annoyance on the judge's face, Mark smiled. "I'm fine. He only got me a little." He peeked at the cut. "Might need a few stitches, that's all. I've been hurt worse trimming the hedges in back. You gonna help me up or not?"
"You're so independent, hotshot, do it yourself," Hardcastle snapped before relenting and pulling McCormick up by the arm, setting him on his feet with a gentle lift. "Let's get you to a hospital."
"Sounds fine to me," yawned McCormick, walking alongside the judge. "Damn, I could use some sleep. I was just drifting off when those gonzos invited themselves in." He tried to make himself comfortable in the truck cab, but the knife cut was where his stomach bent. He finally stretched out as straight as he could; it was uncomfortable, but better than irritating the area by bending.
Twelve stitches later, McCormick was heading for the track, Hardcastle griping about it the whole time. Despite the kid's fervent assurances about his general well being, Hardcastle was convinced that the match at noon should be canceled.
"Look, the stitches are a little painful, but nothing I can't handle," Mark declared.
"What if you sweat?" Hardcastle grumbled.
"I told the doc what I was gonna do, and he put a thick swatch of bandage around my middle. I'll be okay. Padded and a local to help offset most of the pain, it'll be a piece of cake." McCormick shrugged at the jurist's disbelieving look, an affectionate twinkle in his eye. "Trust me!"
The judge's expression changed to one of 'you've got to be kidding'.
"I did it! I won, Judge!" McCormick threw his helmet back into the racing car. "You really made a rough course out there, Ski. Gotta admit, this is the best yet. Where's Josh? He okay?"
"As well as can be considering the bang he got when he hit that other car we threw onto the track. I swear I thought we had you. You're good, kid, real good. I hate to admit it, but Corlette may have chosen the right man after all."
McCormick winced, seeing the look of pain on the approaching Bancheri's face. When the young racer slammed his gloves onto the hood of his crumpled car and stalked off, Mark glanced at the judge, shrugged away from Bronski's congratulations, and followed his rival to the shower room. "Hey, Josh, wait up!" he yelled, running to catch him. He slowed as Bancheri halted just outside the door. "He didn't mean anything."
"Oh, he meant it. And, he's right. You were good. You spun in and around that driverless car like a real pro. Hell, a half-blind civilian could've missed it. I blew it! My whole life I've been training for this moment, and I screwed it up."
"It isn't that big a deal, buddy. We all mess up once in a while. Believe me, I know. I've spent most of my life messing up one way or another."
"Yeah, I know all about that," came a somber reply as the younger man turned around with a pistol in his hand. "That's why I was trying so hard for this job."
"Josh? I don't understand…what is this?"
"I never expected to like you. My Ma always said that racers were no good, just like my Dad. And then they started talking about opening this place. My Dad died here! He left me and Ma with nothing. Nothing but bills and more bills. I watched her kill herself slowly with liquor. And I swore I'd make sure nobody else would race here. Ever!"
"You hired Frey?"
"Not really. Oh, I went to him, but I couldn't afford his price. Funny, he seemed interested when I mentioned whom I was to be racing against. Must not like you, Skid. I wish I didn't, it would make what I have to do so much easier."
"Whoa, back up! Why kill me? That won't shut this place down permanently. A little investigation and everything will be back to normal."
"Not if the cops think Bronski and Corlette had something to do with it. 'Sides, the bank will want their next payment soon, and if the owners are tied up with legal problems, they won't be able to come up with the money in time. They'll lose this place, and it'll become another shopping center."
"But I thought you were one of us? I'm sorry about what happened to your Mom and Dad, but killing me and shutting down this place isn't gonna help stop another racer from abandoning his family. It isn't racing, kid; it's the man. My old man deserted me and my mom when I was five. She died of work and grief. You don't have the corner on the market, Josh."
Bancheri lowered his pistol, tears running down his cheeks as all the sorrows of a young life were released in a cleansing waterfall. McCormick gently took the gun away, put his arm around the boy's shoulder, and led him to a nearby bench. Looking up, he saw Hardcastle enter, slipping his gun back into its holster, and smiled, nodding his thanks as he comforted the young man.
The judge motioned, and two uniformed officers entered, taking Bancheri into custody.
"You knew?" Mark asked.
"I suspected something when he came out of the dressing room after you but never mentioned hearing anything strange. You were worked over pretty good while you were unconscious, which meant it happened before Bancheri had left for the track. With me so far?"
"Yes, Dad," McCormick replied sarcastically.
Hardcastle glowered at the ex-con, continuing with his explanation. "He followed the phony McCormick from the dressing area. That meant he either saw you knocked out and didn't say anything, or did it himself. Considering he said that he couldn't afford Frey, I would assume you were knocked out by one of his people, and Josh decided not to say anything, seeking his revenge on the track as it came. While you were at the motel, I had a check run on everyone involved in this race track. Seems young Bancheri was on file with the police for making threats against the previous owner. His uncle arranged for him to receive psychiatric help. Josh was released only three months ago, after a two-year stay in a nearby sanitarium."
"And he got friendly with Ski to become the official driver? How could that stop the track from opening?"
"Seems our friend was planning a big exit, a splashy suicide and murder…yours…that would shock the racing world, some sort of nonsense like that."
McCormick slowly stripped his racing gear off, shaking his head. "One more accident more or less wouldn't change anything. How did you find out about this?"
"His uncle. Miguel Torres—you remember him? Well, Mike interviewed the uncle after he became aware of the previous threats on file down at the station. The uncle didn't know that Joshua was trying for the job." Hardcastle looked at the ground, his jaw jutting in the ever-familiar way he had when muddling through a distasteful task. "Looks like you have the job, kiddo. You'll be good."
McCormick couldn't resist a few digs. "I wonder where I can stay and how soon I could move here. Track should be ready to open almost immediately, now that this is wrapped up."
"Yeah, well..." Hardcastle held McCormick's gloves, clenching the material into a ball.
"Judge, I do believe you'll be sorry to see me leave."
"Huh? Oh, nothing of the sort. Of course, I'll have to get a gardener."
"Yeah, sure. Hey, Hardcase, this isn't over yet," Mark gently chided; rescuing his gloves from their torture session.
"We've got Bancheri."
"But we don't have Frey. Josh said that he couldn't afford Frey but that our little slime ball was interested when he heard who was competing against him. I don't think he meant me, do you? And, while Josh probably helped to set the accidents up, he didn't throw the dynamite onto the track, or send those goons to work me over in the motel, though he took advantage of the situation and kept his mouth shut…maybe even got in a few shots while I was out of it. We still have someone interested in closing this place down, and possibly getting at you. I'd say we still have work to do."
Hardcastle smiled, trying to hide his obvious pleasure with a series of forced coughs.
"All right, Judge, what's this all about? Your boy has the job, if that's what you want to know." Karl Bronski shoved his cigar in his mouth, having been dragged from the police station where he was attempting to help Joshua Bancheri make bail.
"We have only one of our saboteurs, Bronski. Frey is still at large, and until we take care of him, you could still be in danger of having this track destroyed."
"I've heard all about that, your honor, but frankly, the version I heard seems to indicate that Frey wants you, not us," Bronski replied. "Unless you're planning on hanging around, we won't have any more problems. I think Skid is going to be too busy to help you much in the future, or even able to see you very often, other than reporting like with a parole office. Malibu is so far away."
McCormick frowned, watching Hardcastle's reaction closely. The judge got up from his chair, walking over to the large picture window that overlooked the track. His back was ramrod straight, his hands clenched behind his back.
''I haven't been offered the position yet, Ski, nor have I decided whether to accept or not," McCormick pointed out. "So I think you might be a little premature about this."
"But, Skid, it's made for you!" Corlette protested, half-rising from his seat. "You can't be serious about refusing. Even the judge can't want to keep you from what you were born to do."
"Let's take care of Frey, then we'll hash out what I'm 'born to do'. One case at a time, right, Judge?"
"I'll take care of Frey; you concentrate on your...on this."
McCormick strode over to the judge, laying a hand on the older man's shoulder. "We're partners, remember? I'm not cutting out now, not in the middle of this mess. 'Sides, you can't have a Lone Ranger without a Tonto, a Batman without a Robin, an Abbott without a Costello…"
"Robin left and went into the crime fighting business on his own," Hardcastle commented.
"So, okay, bad example. The point is we're a team, Judge. I'm not gonna be cheated out of what might be our last case together. Let me see this one through with you…please?" McCormick asked, his face open, all emotional barriers dropped.
Turning to face his friend, Hardcastle studied him a moment. "I don't think I could stop you; I've never been able to before."
Bronski interrupted before Mark could respond. "Fine. But understand this, Skid, after you settle with this Frey character, you're to concentrate on setting up our training procedures and the first real race we'll put you in. No more hijinks with Dirty Harry here. You belong to us now, got it?" Bronski laid the contracts out on the desk, glaring when Hardcastle picked them up. "I'll need you to sign these. They're just standard forms, some insurance papers, that kind of thing. I need them back as soon as possible."
"Hey, you don't own me. Nobody owns me, not even Hardcastle." McCormick replied, eyes narrowed. "As far as the rest of it goes, we'll see."
"lf you guys are settled, I'd like to know what our next move is gonna be." Corlette tried to defuse the potentially explosive situation by moving the conversation on to Frey.
"We visit him and drop some hints on what we know," Hardcastle answered the ex-racer.
"But we don't know anything really, other than Frey wants you and is using me to get to you." McCormick shook his head, confused. "Wait a minute, that doesn't make any sense. Why use me to get to you? Killing me only gets you angry. Frey still has to go after you if he really wants you dead."
"Bingo. You're getting better at this, kiddo. Shame you're giving it up. Frey wants something else. Not me, and probably not you, either."
"The track?" Corlette suggested.
McCormick shrugged. "Maybe he felt sorry for Josh?"
"No, I don't think so. Figure it through," Hardcastle urged him.
"Okay, Josh said very clearly that Frey could care less about his problems until he heard who was involved with the matches. Oh, no. That's not right. Frey was interested in who Josh would be racing against. That's what he said. But that brings us back to me."
"How did Bancheri know who was racing against him when he visited Frey? Don't you remember how surprised he was when we arrived outside the office? He didn't know 'til then that the man he would be competing against was to be a former Can Am contender named Mark McCormick," Hardcastle finished, wagging his finger at his friend.
"Right. Yeah, that's right! So who was he originally scheduled to show his stuff against? You, E. J.?" McCormick dreaded the answer, afraid that his old friend might be in trouble again.
"No Not me, Mark. He was gonna race against Ski," Corlette protested. "I didn't want back on the track. To tell you the truth, I was afraid to race him."
Corlette turned to his now quiet partner, waiting for a reply. Bronski sighed, stabbing at the large marble ashtray with his unlit cigar. "Yeah, I was supposed to race him. But I don't have anything to do with this Frey creep."
"Then how come you knew enough to have a rifle on the track property when the dynamite was being thrown?"
"Just lucky. I don't have time for this garbage. I have a track to run, and now that I have a racer, I need to line up something for him to do. I'm not paying for McCormick to stand around gathering cobwebs."
"That's what l've been paying him for," Hardcastle muttered.
"Thanks," Mark replied sotto voce.
"Habit, kid. Nothing personal."
"Yeah, sure." It was the closest to an apology McCormick could remember for the normal teasing that went on between them, and it worried him. He knew a talk was overdue between the two of them, but it would have to wait a bit longer.
Bronski walked off, Corlette following with a shrug. "I'll see what I can get out of him."
"You do that. We'll go see Frey," Hardcastle answered, fumbling with his truck keys, eyes gazing out over the track.
"Something bothering you?" McCormick asked, well aware of the problem.
"Nah, it's nothin'. We'd better get a move on. You'll be wanting to move your things down here, I suppose?"
"If I'm gonna race, l need to be close by, don't ya think?" the young man returned perversely.
The drive was uncomfortable, McCormick waiting for the judge to say something, and the older man staring at the street as if it would change if he didn't watch it carefully. Frey's office was far enough away to leave time for both men to become edgy.
Going into the building, they didn't speak or look at each other, confining any speech to the guard at the front desk and the receptionist in Frey's office.
"Back again, Judge Hardcastle? I thought we settled things at our earlier meeting."
"Things have become rather complicated. First off, what interest do you have in the race track's property?"
"I don't think that's any of your business, Judge," Frey replied, his goons on either side of him as usual.
"Okay. Why did you decide to help Joshua Bancheri close down the racing school?" Hardcastle persisted.
"Bancheri? Who says I did?"
"Your people had a little talk with McCormick here—you were there, as you well know--suggesting he leave the school if he knew what was good for him. And according to information I've recently received from an informant, the property is under lien. Which makes it difficult to be sold. So what good would it be to you, anyway?"
"As to the so-called informant, I was wondering where my file went. I'm sure you're aware, Hardcastle, that the property would be free and clear if someone decided to pay off the lien on condition that the property be sold to them."
"Was that the deal? Did you plan to use Bronski as a front, having him officially own the property, with you or an anonymous donor paying off the lien, but something went wrong?"
"Judge, these games are fascinating, but useless. It's all hypothetical. You can't prove a thing," Frey taunted. "I think it's time you left, don't you? My men will see you out."
The bodyguards moved ominously forward, and McCormick held up his hands, palms out. "Now, guys, I think we can find the door." He tugged at Hardcastle's arm. "C'mon, Judge, we've worn out our welcome."
Hardcastle agreed, stopping at the open door to risk one more question. "Was it Karl Bronski I heard here the day we last spoke?"
"Get out." Frey was standing behind his desk, motioning for his two men to accompany his unwelcome visitors. "Get out before I forget I'm a decent businessman."
"You're a lot of things, Frey, but decent isn't one of them," McCormick snapped, backpedaling out the door, pulling the judge with him. "l don't like being threatened, and I certainly don't like my friends being threatened. Leave the track alone."
Frey's smaller bodyguard slammed the door in their faces, the wall shaking with the force. McCormick grimaced at the strange look the receptionist/secretary gave him.
"Let's get out of here!" the jurist growled.
"So, what do you think? Did he make a deal with Bronski and it went sour?" Mark asked as they walked down the hall to the elevators.
"Probably. But that doesn't explain why the sale went through before the lien was paid off. Frey bribed someone to ignore the lien, likely convincing this person it would be paid off after the sale. Then, for some reason, Bronski decided to go into business alone."
"Uh-uh…with E. J." McCormick corrected.
"Yeah, with Corlette. Maybe he thought the two of them would be better at it; maybe Bronski wanted to run a clean operation, who knows?
"What we do know is that Bronski double-crossed Frey, and when Bancheri went for help to close the track for good, he mentioned that Corlette and Bronski were involved. Frey declined to help, then turned around and tried to scare you off."
"So that Bronski would be doing the trials, not me. And if something did happen on the track, who would say anything about a young kid and an old, former mechanic having a terrible accident during some easy laps? Neat."
"Very neat. Only something went wrong. You wouldn't scare, and Frey's man didn't know you were in the car…he thought Bronski was."
"When that didn't work, he slugged me?"
"Hard to tell whether one of Frey's goons did that, or Joshua, since you didn't see anyone and Bancheri isn't admitting anything. One of Frey's men was nearby, though, to pull off that impersonation. Still, if it was Josh, it worked in Frey's favor. But he definitely sent those knifemen after you in the motel room."
"Okay, we've got some of this doped out, but how do we prove it?"
"Proceed as if nothing is wrong. And see if Corlette wants another partner."
"Why would he? He has one already. I mean, I know E. J. will help us in any way he can, but short of weakening his own position, he can't do much," McCormick observed, rubbing absently at the scratchy bandage on his stomach. His bruises were painful but didn't feel as bad as they looked, the yellow and purple blotches marring his features.
"The sale is illegal if that lien isn't paid off, right? Well, I'm gonna help pay it off, if I get controlling interest in the track," Hardcastle explained, lightly smacking at McCormick's hand. "Leave that alone, or it'll start bleeding and the stitches will bust."
"Yes, Mother." Biting his lower lip, McCormick thought about the plan. "lt's not much, but it should serve to annoy both Frey and Bronski."
"That's the general idea, kiddo."
"Ski, could you come in here for a moment?" Corlette called out to the other office next to his.
Bronski strode into the room, eyeing Corlette and the judge suspiciously as they stood over the desk. He glanced at McCormick standing in the corner behind them, apparently dismissing him. "What is it?"
"Seems our land wasn't legally sold to us. There was a federal tax lien on it, for more cash than I could raise," Corlette said, his eyes on a small, folded piece of paper in his hand.
"Oh? So what? "Bronski asked.
"Judge Hardcastle here offered to pay the lien off and help square the sale with the courts, but he has a condition."
"Let me guess, he wants us to release McCormick."
The judge exchanged a surprised glance with McCormick, then spoke up. "No, in fact, his being the chief instructor and driver may be to my advantage. I can incorporate this job into our arrangement with the courts. We could make the teaching assignment a condition of his parole, making the pay minimum."
"Figures," McCormick muttered with a wry grin.
"What I do want is fifty-one percent of the school and track," Hardcastle finished with a warning grimace at the ex-con.
Bronski stared in shock at the judge. "You what?"
"He wants controlling interest. And unless you have some more cash lying around with which we can buy this lien out, I think we'll have to take him up on it," Corlette explained.
"I wouldn't let…." Bronski stopped, his face reddening. "You're just another crook…like the rest."
"No, I'm not, but I'm not generous for nothing," the judge commented matter-of-factly. "That lien comes to over a hundred thousand dollars, what with interest and penalties. And it may take some small bit of money to keep the sale legal, considering it occurred before the lien was taken care of."
"I'm not giving up this track to some guy who hasn't the slightest interest in racing and wouldn't even be here if his boy wonder wasn't trying to get out from under his wing so hard."
"That's neither here nor there, Bronski. It's your choice. Either pay the lien yourself, give up the track and most of your down payment, or give me fifty-one percent of the operation. Which is it?" Hardcastle and Bronski stared at each other, each willing his opponent to back down. Amused, Corlette grinned at McCormick's expression as he watched Bronski nervously in anticipation of a fight.
"No," Karl Bronski finally said. "I'd rather lose the whole operation than turn it over to an outsider."
"ls that what you told Frey?" McCormick asked, relaxing.
"How'd you know I went to Miller Frey?"
"E. J. said you didn't have enough money to buy the track on your own. And the judge heard your voice when we visited Frey's office," Mark replied.
"I was warning him to leave you alone, that I wouldn't give into him. I didn't want him in the track or the school. He'd bring all his corruption with him, no matter what he promised."
"He planned to use the place as a money-laundering operation?" Hardcastle guessed.
"Yeah, he told me that he would have some minor investors give us money anonymously, and that I could tell E. J. it was my money saved up over the years. I tried to tell him that Corlette wouldn't be fooled by that for one minute; that he had been involved in that sort of scheme once before and had gotten out."
"What did Frey say to that?" Hardcastle motioned McCormick to sit down as Bronski sank into a nearby chair.
"He said that Corlette wouldn't know, wouldn't be looking for it. And that if he did, well, Frey would take care of that when it came up. That's when I decided to take his help with the lien and shaft him with the rest. I didn't think he'd come after you, Skid. If I'da taken him seriously, I woulda gone to the cops."
"Yeah, that sounds fine after the dynamite. But when I was worked over in the showers, why didn't you go to the cops, or tell E. J.?"
"I thought it was Bancheri. I didn't think it was Frey's men. I didn't know the kid was planning on shutting the place down. When he came out after you did, then the judge found you in the hamper, I just figured Josh tried a little dirty dealing to even the matches up. Even you said you weren't hurt very bad."
"Nah, just a few hundred bruises and a slight concussion. Nothin' to worry about," McCormick retorted angrily.
"That's enough, kid," Hardcastle warned softly.
"When they went after you at the motel, I wanted to call things off, go to the cops."
"Why didn't you?" Hardcastle asked,;
"I called Frey first; to warn him of what I was going to do. He said he'd implicate me, tell the cops that it was all my idea from the beginning. That's why I picked Joshua, because I knew how he felt about racing and hoped he would either kill Skid or my partner, and that way, I'd have the track to myself. I didn't know what to do."
"Ya coulda warned me," McCormick muttered, oblivious to Hardcastle's glare.
"How? I didn't know you knew about me and Frey? I knew you'd turn me in. Corlette told me about you and the judge. I knew you'd go running to him about it, and he'd go to the cops and I'd be hung out to dry."
"If E. J. told you about me, you shoulda known I'd help you. That is, if you were really innocent except for trying to own this place without goin' through channels," Hardcastle accused, shaking his head slowly.
"Yeah, you're a great one for helping the innocent, aren't you? Like you helped Skid when he swiped his Porsche from that bimbo model with the bright blue eyes?"
McCormick's mouth dropped open in shock. "Hey, where'd that come from? You've been going on and on about me being an ex-con, a car thief. And now you're defending me to Hardcastle?"
"Well, she was no good for you. She went through half the racers on the circuit."
"Yeah, you always had an eye for the wrong woman, Skidder," Corlette agreed, seeking once again to defuse the conversation before it went too far.
"What do we do now?" Bronski asked, holding his head in his hands.
"That's up to you. Do you want to help put Frey away?" Hardcastle asked.
"How will that help me?" Bronski wondered, his head coming up as he listened.
"We can tell the D. A. you helped. Plus, he'll probably let you turn State's evidence. If you don't testify, you'll go to trial on charges of fraud, bribery, attempted murder, and whatever else we can think of. It's yourchoice."
Bronski got up from his chair and paced the room as the other three occupants watched him. Finally he came to a stop in front of Judge Hardcastle. "Damned if I do, damned if I don't."
"I really don't have much choice, do I?" He paused, mulling it over. "I'll help you set up Frey. What do you want me to do?"
"Call him. Tell him that you're worried 'cause I'm snooping around. Tell him how I've offered to get you out of this mess, but you don't want to give me controlling interest."
"I don't think I understand, Judge. What will that accomplish?" Corlette asked.
"After this, Frey will press for control of the track. Bronski will give in, after he's had time to think about it, and Frey will be forced to take care of me..."
"...That means 'bump him off'," Mark interpreted.
"...because I know too much," Hardcastle continued as if McCormick had never spoken.
"That puts you in a lot of danger, Hardcastle. Is it worth it? What's it matter to you if the track, the school, and I go under? Frey will get his in the end, sooner or later," Bronski commented.
"I don't let crooks get away with this kind of thing."
"Nah, might make them think he's goin' soft in retirement. 'Sides, the judge has sort of a personal interest in this place. Ain't that right, Hardcase?" McCormick jibed, an affectionate smile on his face.
"I want to make sure you don't come home and bother me once you take this job," Hardcastle retorted gruffly.
"Yeah, sure," Mark smirked, refusing to give up riding the jurist.
"Well, here goes nothing," Bronski breathed as he picked up the phone.
Night was falling, but there was no moon, and cloud cover hid the stars from view. McCormick shifted, trying to get comfortable in the GMC. His stitches itched, and with nothing to do but watch an empty motel room, he couldn't ignore them. Hardcastle was slumbering next to him, his New York Yankees baseball cap pulled low over his eyes.
Bored, McCormick picked at the hard threads, irritating the wound. A sharp jab in his forefinger made him swear under his breath but reminded him to leave the black criss-crosses alone. He looked over at Hardcastle, sound asleep and snoring noisily, his chin resting on his chest. The judge's belt buckle was digging deeply into his stomach, so McCormick leaned over and gently unhooked it, pulling the tongue out of the metal snap. Hardcastle moved slightly but didn't wake up.
McCormick leaned back, a surge of affection coursing through him, and he frowned slightly. He knew it would soon be time to choose between his first and overpowering love—racing—or his life with Hardcastle, a very rewarding, almost familial relationship. He snapped the radio on, careful to keep the sound down to a barely audible level, and smiled at the song playing on the Top 40 station. It might have been picked just for him, and he hummed along quietly, sometimes singing snatches of the song.
"Well, it's up in the mornin'
Everybody off and runnin'
Everybody got someplace to be
Some people never go walkin'
Some people just stop talkin'
And I was slippin 'away
You came and pulled me through
I wanna stay in the land of the living with you."
Yeah, Hardcase, sound familiar? I don't think I'd know what to do if I left Gull's Way. It's become home to me, the first real home I've ever had. But I'm not sure if I can have my cake and eat it, too. This is a chance I may never get again. I can't just give it up.
"We got to do what we can
about all this pain and sorrow
But try to live just a little.
We could all be gone tomorrow
You taught me something
Considering the choices--
I wanna stay in the land of the living
I wanna stay here with you."
A car with its headlights out caught his attention as it coasted to a halt right outside their motel room. "Judge?" He gently tugged on Hardcastle's sleeve.
"Wha...?" Hardcastle came awake abruptly, one hand reaching for his pistol nestled in the holster hung on the turn signal next to the steering wheel.
McCormick nodded toward the car where two shadowy figures were getting out, carrying what were definitely double-barreled shotguns, recognizable even in the dark. "This is it. Frey's sure taking you seriously," he whispered, his hands clenching the shotgun Hardcastle had given him. "Judge, I don't like this. Where's your friend Torres?"
"Out of sight. They wouldn't make a move if they saw cops around." Hardcastle slowly and quietly opened the driver's door, Mark doing the same on the passenger side, glad he'd taken the precaution of having removed the bulb from the overhead dome light.
As they crept forward, the two men jimmied the door open and pushed it wider, bringing their weapons up. McCormick was within touching distance when the assault team opened fire at the mannequin in the bed. Before the killers could reload, Mark poked his shotgun in the first man's back, while Hardcastle let his pistol introduce itself to the other man.
"If you'll forgive a cliché, 'freeze'," McCormick said, pleased that for once there was no gunplay and no car chase. He'd had enough racing for a while. As the squeal of tires hit his ears, he cursed. The two goons must've had backups; the cops wouldn't have had to make such a grand entrance. "Drop, Judge!" he yelled as the person or persons outside opened fire.
The gunshots from the latest arrivals were echoed by other shots, while the two men they had captured took off. Torres and his men fired at the backups as McCormick tried unsuccessfully to dig himself into the asphalt.
At a slap on his shoulder, Mark started, nearly passing out from fright until he realized it was just Hardcastle. The judge jumped over him and ran after the escaping hit men. "Come on, McCormick, they're getting away!"
McCormick dove for the truck, the engine roaring to life. Slamming the gearshift into drive, he headed down the parking lot after the three men. Torres and his officers kept the Frey backup crew too busy to shoot him, for which he was immensely grateful. He leaned over and pushed the passenger door open, slowing down as he came up next to the judge. "Get in!"
Hardcastle hopped into the truck, slamming the door shut and waving his pistol out the window. "Floor it!"
"Hey, where are the cops? How come we're always the ones, or should I say I'm always the one who has to catch the bad guy? I mean, our taxes..."
"Which you don't pay and never have," Hardcastle interjected as the truck swerved around a sharp corner to block the men's escape down a small alleyway that wasn't wide enough for the truck. One of the men, a short blond with a receding hairline, bounced against the truck's hood. Hardcastle reached out through the open window and grabbed him by the collar.
McCormick sighed as the other man scrambled over the bumper and half-ran, half-stumbled toward the alley. "Yeah, I know. 'Go get 'im!'" He flung the door open and ran after the escaping killer, praying that the man didn't have another gun. His prayers were unanswered when a shot hit the truck's body with a dull ping.
"Why me?" he muttered, ducking as he zigzagged from garbage can to dumpster while he waited for the gunman to empty his pistol. At shot number six, Mark raised his head above the dark green dumpster, waiting for another shot to pass his way. There was nothing but silence. He rose up higher, until he was almost erect, expecting a bullet to come his way. The hired killer was waiting, a switchblade knife in his hand.
"Well, well, well. If it isn't my old friend from the other night. I thought I cut you, son," the man said as he edged around until the wall was at his back.
"You did." McCormick looked around for a weapon, but there wasn't even a stick in sight. "This just isn't my day."
"Look again, junior, seems to me it's night. Funny, usually when I cut someone, they stay down. Must be losing my touch."
"Maybe I'm just a lucky type of guy."
"Doubt it. I know you're not too smart, or you wouldn't have come alone down this alley after me." The entire time the conversation was taking place, both men jousted for position, McCormick wondering where Hardcastle was. Surely the judge would've come to help him by now unless the other guy had over-powered him. A tremor of fear coursed through the young man at this thought, and he began to back away from the knife-wielder.
"Not scared, are you, boy? Why leave the party while it's going so good?" the man taunted, but the ex-con's mind was on another thing--the explanation he was going to give Hardcastle for what happened next. As he edged farther away, a sharp blow at the base of his already bruised skull brought stars, then darkness as he hit the dirty, trash-strewn alleyway.
The light was too bright, and McCormick tried to squeeze his eyes shut, only somebody's fingers were holding the lids open. He shook his head, but that only made the pain worse. He sucked in his breath, riding the waves of agony as a vaguely familiar voice spoke to him through the thunder. As the pain began to recede somewhat and the fingers released his eyelids, he felt it was safe to breathe again. He felt a gnarled hand push a stray lock of hair off his forehead, but he didn't feel ready to open his eyes yet.
"Hey, you okay, kiddo? Doc, why won't he answer me?"
"He was hit pretty hard from the back, he banged his nose on the pavement, and the joker with the knife decided to be playful and cut all the stitches out. I would say your friend is in a lot of pain. And from the cuts, bruises and abrasions on his body, this isn't the first time he's been worked over recently."
"This has been a pretty unusual few days."
"Could you people keep it down?" McCormick moaned, gingerly touching the two new bruises on his head, one in the back and a really painful one in the middle of his face. From the feel of it, it wasn't broken, just badly banged up. "Hardcastle, you're gonna pay for any plastic surgery."
"Welcome back, hotshot. I was beginning to wonder if you were gonna sleep through the end of this case."
McCormick winced at the seemingly loud voice, and Hardcastle lowered it to a loud whisper. Steeling himself, Mark pushed himself upright on the examination table, the paper cover crumpling in his hands. The doctor held onto one arm in assistance.
McCormick opened his eyes a crack, letting the light become tolerable before widening them. Shoulders slumping, he slid off the edge of the table, weaving a bit on his feet.
"Go slow, Mr. McCormick. We gave you a shot for pain earlier. You'll be woozy for quite awhile. I recommend bed rest and no strenuous activity for a few days."
In a nasal tone that grated on his already raw nerves, Mark responded, "Bedder check wid da judge on dat. Oh, God, I can't stan' dis." He pinched the bridge of his nose, his eyes tearing at the pain.
The doctor smiled, handing him a small bottle. "The blood is clogging it. Use this with Q-tips; it should help loosen it up. I dug most of it out while you were unconscious."
The doctor wanted to make a final check, and tilted McCormick's head back until the light seemed to be burning a hole in his head. After a second or two of difficult breathing and a hard sneeze, Mark realized he wasn't having as much trouble as he had previously. Hardcastle looked at him worriedly, and the young man smilingly nodded. "Better. Much better. I can say T's now." He touched the judge lightly on the arm. "What happened to you? Did the guy get away?"
Hardcastle looked at the floor, then the ceiling. "I thought you could handle it. I didn't see the third guy go down the alley. He had gotten away from Torres and his men. I'm sorry, kid."
McCormick leaned over gingerly and put a hand under Hardcastle's chin, tilting the judge's face to the light. There was the beginning of a bruise under one eye. "Looks like you found your own troubles. Who gave you this?"
"The guy who probably slugged you. I spotted the first guy, the one with the knife, hightailing it out of the alley, looking over his shoulder. I assumed it was at you. But when you didn't come out after him, I went in to find out why. I ran smack into the other one, standing over you." He touched the bruise lightly, frowning. "I got caught unawares."
"We make a great pair, huh? When are we gonna get Frey? I'm tired of him running us 'round."
The jurist's face turned stormy. "Now. We're going after him now. Before he comes after us again."
McCormick hurried after Hardcastle, digging for a quarter when the judge stopped at an old payphone, the kind with the booth that closes. He squeezed in to listen.
"Frey? You made a bad mistake. I was willing to help you with this deal, but now I'm goin' to the cops," Hardcastle growled.
"Hey, wait a minute! Those guys didn't know about the change in plans. They were after McCormick. I couldn't get in touch with them!" Frey exclaimed, his voice carrying clearly over the receiver.
"Don't give me that," Hardcastle snapped.
"Judge, please, give me a chance to negotiate. I've called my men off. Let's talk. Would I admit hiring them over an unprotected line if I didn't want to work a deal?"
Hardcastle looked at McCormick, leaving it to him to call. The younger man shrugged, mouthing, "Go for it."
"Okay. Okay, we'll talk. Where?"
"My office?" Frey suggested.
"No. Nothing personal, but I don't think I'd be safe there. My place?"
"The same goes for me, Judge."
McCormick nudged the jurist, and Hardcastle covered the phone's mouthpiece. "What?"
"The track. Have it at the track. The cops will have lots of cover, and so will we," McCormick whispered hurriedly.
"Frey? I'll see you tonight, at the track."
Frey agreed, apparently amused. "Fitting, having this meeting where it all started. All right, I'll be there. Shall we say, eight o'clock?"
"Eight o'clock is fine."
"What does that get us? Think we can be wired for a confession?" McCormick questioned after the phone was back on its cradle.
"Not 'we', McCormick, me. Frey is going to meet me alone. You're staying with the cops."
"Don't get me wrong, Judge. I prefer staying out of danger, but Frey is sure to bring his so-called bodyguards with him. What are you gonna do about them?"
"Nothing. You and Torres will be less than a call away. You're not worried are you?" Hardcastle asked sharply.
The young man shrugged. "Nah, I guess not."
"Then why the questions?"
"I don't know. It just seems that nothin' has gone right since we came to this town. I'm beginning to wish..." He knew Hardcastle could complete the wish without it being said aloud, and in his heart, he knew he would rather have never heard of this possibly last chance to race professionally. All too soon, he would be forced to make a decision that would change his whole life. And he didn't know if he was ready. He smiled, drawing a puzzled glance from the judge. When would he be ready for that choice? "Okay, let's get this guy before he causes any more grief."
The track was enveloped in soft cotton fog, making observation difficult and McCormick fume. The cops had two choices: stay back out of sight and possibly miss something important going down, or stay so close to Hardcastle that Frey would smell them and run like a scared rabbit. At the judge's insistence, Torres had agreed to keep his men farther back. After a prolonged argument, Hardcastle had allowed Mark to accompany him. Frey would search them, so there would be no weapons or bugs on either man.
But unknown to the judge, McCormick had taken some precautions. He had taken an idea from The Godfather and hidden two pistols in the john, wrapped in blue impermeable plastic bags and stuffed deep into the water tank, which was also tinted blue to help with camouflage. He fervently hoped that the crooks hadn't seen the same movie recently. He'd also looked up an old friend from prison who was an electronics expert. There were now some very sophisticated bugs spread about the changing area, Bronski's office, and on the Coyote. McCormick had insisted on getting the custom vehicle from Gull's Way, in case of another car chase. As he explained to the judge, it was bound to happen sooner or later, and when it did, he wanted something with real power under the hood, something that would hug the curves like a long-lost lover.
McCormick leaned against the wall, his eyes roving about the changing room as Hardcastle paced. A faint scrape against the concrete alerted them of visitors. McCormick balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to bolt if the meeting looked like a set-up. Frey was led in by one of his constant bodyguards, and the other followed behind. The first guard frisked Hardcastle, then moved to McCormick and slapped him against the wall. McCormick palmed the wall, assuming the position, as the thug manhandled him. "Hey, buddy, take it easy. I don't believe in violence," he cracked.
"Really? Good, maybe you'll survive this night. Sit against the wall, over there." The man pointed at the far wall, near the door to the bathrooms.
With a glance at Hardcastle, who nodded quickly, McCormick did as he was told, squatting on his heels.
"I said to sit." The guard walked over to Mark and kicked at his feet.
Unable to stop himself, McCormick landed with a jolt and a grimace. Legs stretched out in front, back against the wall, he sighed, waiting for the end to come.
"Well, I didn't expect the driver to be with you, Judge. Does he know of your intentions?" Frey asked, motioning his guards to leave the room. With a second's hesitation that earned them a sharp look from their boss, the pair did as they were instructed.
"What he thinks or doesn't think of the situation is our business, isn't it? Let's get down to it. You tried twice to kill him..."
"...Three times, but who's counting?" Frey interrupted. "Your young friend has remarkable luck."
"Yeah, he does. Look, the baseline is, I want to take over this track, and I have Corlette and Bronski in the palm of my hand. If you interfere, I'll have to take you out."
"Kill me, your honor? I doubt it, it's not your style," Frey remarked.
McCormick winced, realizing that the microphone tapes were taking all of this down. He tried to warn Hardcastle by tossing a piece of concrete that bounced off the judge's foot with no effect.
"Never. I don't break the law. You do. Why did you try to kill the kid? You had Bronski over a barrel."
"I knew McCormick was the better racer. If he managed to get the job, the track would become famous. McCormick has, as they say, 'the right stuff'."
"So you decided that if he were killed, the track wouldn't open for a while. Which would give you time to work on Bronski, right?"
Frey shook his head. "Not only that, but without a top driver, they'd be throwing money down the drain in other races. Bancheri certainly couldn't hack the big-time."
"What happens now? Do I pay you or do you pay me?" Hardcastle asked, backing toward the seated McCormick.
"No one pays anybody. My boys will dispose of you and your friend. It'll be a big mystery. The cops will finally decide, with some help from doctored evidence, that the ex-con here killed you and ran off."
"No court's gonna buy that, Frey." Hardcastle frowned, stalling for time.
"Maybe not, but it'll be sufficient for the cops." Frey called for his bodyguards. The two men had their pistols out and trained on McCormick and the jurist.
Mark slowly rose off the cold concrete floor. Putting on his best dumb 'ol racer look, he brushed his hands against his jeans. "Excuse me, Mr. Frey. If you don't mind, I'd like to go to the john. I'd kinda prefer goin' with my bladder empty, if you get my drift."
Hardcastle watched McCormick closely, unable to fathom what was going on in his mind.
Frey laughed crudely, his men joining in. "Sure, kid, why not? Phil, check it out."
The larger bodyguard-nee-killer went into the bathroom ahead of McCormick, feeling under the sink and toilet for a hidden weapon. He lifted the cover of the water tank and peered in. McCormick held his breath, waiting for the man to call out. But he put the shiny white cover back into place and nodded. "Go ahead."
"Hey, how about some privacy? It's my last time," Mark pleaded.
Phil thought about it, went to the urinal and checked it for loose parts, then left, advising, "Don't be long."
"Not a chance."
As soon as the door closed, McCormick removed the tank coyer and fished for his bag of guns. Slipping the .45 into his belt, he pulled the .38 out and shoved the dripping bag into a nearby garbage can. He tried to make his hand grip the .38 he had chosen for himself without shaking, but it was hard. His mind flashed back to the last time he had fired a handgun at someone. It had ended with an escaped killer dead, a slightly out-of-line cop wounded, and Hardcastle in the hospital fighting for his life. All in all, it was an experience he had no wish to repeat anytime soon, but if it came down to his or the judge's life against those three men out there, he'd do what he had to.
He edged close to the door, peeking out to place the three killers. Frey was standing close to the judge, talking. The bodyguards were split up, one by the door, the other standing just in front of the bathroom entrance. Taking a deep breath, Mark snaked his arm around the first guard, pulling him back into the lavatory. A tight squeeze and the man dropped to the floor, unconscious. McCormick smiled. Cops weren't the only ones who knew how to use a choke hold. He listened for any sign of alarm, but evidently no one had seen him pull Phil into the john.
There was no way to catch the other guard unawares. McCormick pushed the pistol out in front of his body. With a silent prayer, he jumped out, holding the gun on the other guard, having marked him as the more dangerous, and shouted, "Everybody freeze!"
Hardcastle picked up the action and pushed Frey against the wall, then caught the .45 McCormick flung at him, and flipped it around to point at Frey. "Good job, kid. Let me signal Mike to come pick up this mess."
The judge moved to the outside switch that operated the lights in the long hallway leading to the track. He flicked them up and down three times, while McCormick held his .38 on the two hoods.
"Where's the other one?" Hardcastle asked as they waited for the cops to show up.
"He decided to take a little nap in the next room." McCormick grinned, relaxing now that the situation was under control.
"You're dead meat, McCormick. Throw in with me, and I'll make sure you're set up for life," Frey urged in a last-ditch attempt to turn the case around.
"Sure, and what a short life it'd be, huh? Maybe two seconds, tops," McCormick laughed. "Hardcastle may not pay as much for his slave labor, but at least I know I'll live through it. That is, if the vicious cactus in the back doesn't mangle me to death while I'm cuttin' the lawn."
Frey looked around the room as he heard the cops arriving. "It's still your word against mine. And no one's gonna believe McCormick there, he'd lie for you without a second thought."
"You think you're safe, Frey?" McCormick asked, eyes twinkling. "Think again. See, I pulled in some old favors with a buddy of mine. This whole place is bugged. Every word you said is on tape. You've convicted yourself, chump."
"That's impossible. My men searched the surrounding area before the meeting started," Frey protested.
"Yeah, and they couldn't find two pistols hidden in the toilet, either. Maybe you should look for new help."
"You had this place bugged?" Hardcastle looked at him, a pleased smile on his face.
"Hey, Kemosabe, no way was I gonna let someone out-think ol' Tonto. The whole thing is on tape. This slime ball's not slippin' out of this one."
"Mind if I join the party, Milt?" Miguel Torres stood in the doorway, his men following behind him with guns drawn.
"They're all yours, Mike." Hardcastle put his pistol in the pocket of his jacket, while McCormick slipped his into the rear of his pants before any of the police officers noticed he was carrying, a definite no-no for an ex-con still on parole. Even if his parole was a bit strange compared to most, it still carried a "no weapons" policy.
"Thanks for picking up the garbage, Mark, Milt. I've wanted this piece of scum for quite awhile. The case might be iffy, but we should be able to pin something on him."
"The kid has a little present for you," Hardcastle said, motioning McCormick to get the tape.
Mark pulled the hamper over to a nearby vent. "Hold this steady, will ya?"
Hardcastle held onto the edges while McCormick clambered stiffly up to the vent. He pulled the metal grating off and half-climbed into the tunnel. Soon, only his legs from the knees down were visible. There were a few grunts, then McCormick wiggled back out. The judge grabbed his right foot when it missed the hamper, placing it on the ripped vinyl lid.
McCormick jumped to the floor, cradling a small black box in his arms. The jarring echoed through each and every bruise, cut and concussion on his body, and he weaved a bit, only a steadying hand from Hardcastle keeping him from falling. Blinking, he handed the recorder to Lt. Torres. "Here, this should do it. But I'll need the recorder back when you're done. I only borrowed it."
"No problem, Mark," Torres returned, opening the recorder and extracting the cassette. He held the recorder out to McCormick. "All I need is the tape." He smiled, nodding his head slowly. "Good job, Milt; your kid is as good as you said. Shame he won't be helping you in the future. Between the two of you, criminals don't have a chance. By the way, Mark," the lieutenant added, "we'll need your statement too."
"Uh, yeah, sure," McCormick replied, watching Hardcastle for his reaction to the lieutenant's comment about them. All he saw was a stony face that could rival any on Mt. Rushmore. He knew Hardcastle cared, he had seen enough evidence of that in the past. Why couldn't the judge ask him to stay?
"With Ski turning State's evidence, he should be able to stay out of jail. And the judge has helped fix it so my bid is valid on this track, despite the lien. The IRS is giving me a little time to come up with the money before they move to seize the place. Ski wants to continue with the school, so I think we're in business."
Mark listened to Corlette while eating breakfast. Hardcastle was back at the motel room, packing. McCormick had left before the judge had risen, confused as to what he should do. He didn't want to leave Hardcastle. They'd been through the good and the bad together over the last three years, and there was a lot of emotion invested in their peculiar relationship. But the lure of the track was calling, beckoning like a siren. It was the dream of a lifetime, one that had sustained him through numerous nights in prison and long stretches on the road without a buck to his name. Could he give that all up for a haphazard life with a cantankerous judge on a crusade to clean up the streets of America?
Corlette's voice faded into the background, along with the clanking of dishes in the Waffle House, replaced by images burned into McCormick's brain: his terror when he thought Hardcastle had drowned and later when the man was almost killed when on the bench; the look on the judge's face when he, for a split second, thought he had actually killed Mark while setting up his old Georgia Street motor buddies; the gentle understanding when McCormick had killed his first human being. Not to mention the judge's support of his need to beat the man who had stolen his lady away, taking out a loan for $75,000 to rent a hot ride.
"Skid? You withme?" Corlette reached out and tapped his fingers on McCormick's skull.
"Huh? Oh, sorry, E. J., I was thinkin'," he replied, shaking himself back to the present.
"What're you planning to do about the racing--the pro circuit?"
"It's been delayed, obviously. Soon as the lien's been paid off, we'll be back in business. Don't tell me you don't want the job?" Corlette grimaced. "I knew it! The judge has been working on you, hasn't he?"
"Nah, he hasn't said a word about it. I just don't feel right about this. I guess it's stupid, but all I can remember is that Hardcastle gave up a shot at the Supreme Court, something he'd always dreamed of, 'cause it would mean our splitting up." McCormick mused over that for a moment. "Of course, he didn't have a shot at it, but he didn't know that before he wrote the letter to the President pulling his name from the possibles."
Corlette took a sip of coffee, grimaced at the taste and at McCormick. "You're giving it up aren't you?"
Mark smiled wryly, eyes glittering with sorrow and regret. "Yeah, gotta. Hardcase would have his tail in a sling the first time he went out on his own. If he got hurt 'cause I wasn't there, I don't know how I'd live with myself. I'm sorry, man, I didn't think it would come to this. Shame Josh was taken off to the hospital. He was a good driver, had a lotta potential. Think he might get his head straightened out and go back to racing? I'd keep the kid in mind, if I were you. Give him a chance, E. J."
"Like Flip was gonna give you?" Corlette asked gently. "Like Hardcastle gave you?"
McCormick's smile softened. "Yeah, I guess so."
"So you're not gonna race for us. What are you gonna tell the judge?"
"I don't know. Certainly not the truth."
"He's gonna guess it."
"Yeah, but as long as I don't actually say it, he can't be sure."
"So, what are ya gonna tell him?"
"I'll think of something."
"You lost out to who?" Hardcastle stared at the ex-con sheepishly standing in front of him.
"Bancheri. E. J. and Ski decided that the kid would be a better choice, when he got out of therapy."
"He's cheaper. And 'cause he's younger, he has more years ahead of him on the circuit. Plus, they'd have to clear all the out-of-state and out-of-country races with you or the parole board if I was it. Guess they thought it would be too much hassle." Mark tried his best to sound crushed but was hard-pressed to keep the smile out of his voice. He was careful enough to keep his eyes on the floor, knowing they'd give him away.
"I'm sorry about this. I know you were counting on getting back into racing this way."
"Judge, didn't I tell you when we started that I was only trying out the track for E. J.? I never expected to wind up as track driver." McCormick had to turn his back to Hardcastle when he felt his lips twisting into a self-satisfied smirk.
"Kid, I'm sorry."
Mark felt a hand drop onto his shoulder and realized the judge had misinterpreted his action, assuming he was heartbroken. Strangely enough, he was relieved. It hadn't been such a hard decision after all. The hardest part had been thinking of a likely story to tell the judge without revealing the truth: that he had come to love the older man and didn't want to leave...ever. He had lost one father in his young life; he was determined to hang onto this one.
"Tell you what, kiddo," Hardcastle suggested, draping an arm across McCormick's shoulders. "Let's get a pizza and watch the Rams on TV." Mark winced as the judge's arm brushed the two knots on the base of his skull. He raised a hand to stop Hardcastle's apology. "No problem," he said, flashing a wide smile. "Sounds great. I drive."
"Fine. Driver pays."
"No way ! If I'm driving, in my weakened condition," McCormick dramatically held his hand against his slowly healing knife slash, sighing loudIy, "you're paying for the pizza."
"What about my eye?" the jurist retorted, pointing at the fading bruise.
"Aw, come on, Judge, how can you compare a simple black eye to a knifing, two concussions in one week, and a beating?" he protested as Hardcastle led him out the door. He laughed inwardly as the familiar, beloved donkey look spread across the judge's craggy features, happily anticipating the verbal sparring match to come. He was home, and he was certain he'd made the right choice for the first time in his life. He hurried to catch up with the judge, still complaining about his physical and financial condition.
A/N: A big thank you to Susan Z. who graciously and diligently transferred this from PDF to Word to allow me to share it.