Blue Morning, Blue Day
By Lizabeth S Tucker
(Originally printed in Four Aces Beat a Full House #2, Vol. Three)
The heat of the afternoon sun was becoming intolerable to the weary Mark McCormick, pausing to lean against a handy seawall that ran along the back of the estate. He had promised Judge Hardcastle that he would clear up the debris from the storm that had raged for three days off the coast of Malibu while the Judge was in town with Lieutenant Frank Harper of the L.A.P.D. The storm had made the air thick and muggy, uncomfortable to work in, but Mark was determined to clean the mess up, so he was hard at work picking up the piles of driftwood, pieces of pier and the large clumps of seaweed that always appear when the Pacific turned ugly. His shirt, abandoned long ago, hung over the seawall, soaked in sweat. Mark's tan was becoming pink with sunburn, but he struggled on, dragging the refuse to a large pile near the access road. He would use the pickup when Hardcastle returned from town, driving the wreckage from the sea to the dump.
He glanced up at the sun, the smog giving the red orb a halo. Wiping his brow, McCormick loaded the last large pierce of broken pier piling onto his tidy looking hill of wreckage and pulled himself up to the rocky trail leading up to the estate from the beach, grabbing his shirt as he trudged by. Halfway up the hill, Mark slipped on the slick sand, catching his fall by grabbing a sharp-edged bush. Climbing slowly to his feet again, the ex-con looked at the front of his chest disgustedly. Plastered with wet sand and crushed sea grapes, Mark grimaced, feeling the grittiness on his abdomen, just above the waist of his half-opened cut-offs. He wiped at it, wincing when a stray sandspur raked a thin line of blood under his navel.
"Aw, shit!" His outburst brought a delighted chuckle from above him. Mark looked up to see Harper staring down at him. "Frank? You and Hardcase done with your little trip down memory lane?"
"Might say that, though I think Milt's gonna run over it for you tonight. Need a hand?" Harper flashed a dark-eyed smile at McCormick, reaching down and grasping the outstretched hand, pulling the dirty, disheveled man to the top of the hill.
"Oh, great, just what I need, another foray into the files," Mark replied, brushing himself off carefully after picking off a few tenacious thorns and spurs that stuck to his skin. Sighing, Mark saw Hardcastle stalking across the lawn toward him. "I guess I'm in trouble."
Frank Harper looked back in puzzlement. "Why?"
"I was told not to use this trail. The Judge thinks it's too steep and too dangerous. I thought I'd be done before you guys got back."
"If you knew that, why didn't you take the staircase leading to the beach?"
"It's clear down there. I finished that part early this morning. That part of the beachfront is protected, this isn't. And there's a break in the seawall here, so it wasn't that hard to use the path. Oh, boy, here it comes." Mark put on an innocent face, but the effect was marred by the tired lines around his face and eyes, the shadows under the blue orbs making them darker.
"McCormick! What did I tell you? Don't you ever listen to me?" Hardcastle's growl was audible long before the man had gotten within speaking range. "That trail is not to be used, ever!"
"Look, Milt…" Harper began, trying to deflect the Judge's anger away from McCormick.
"Frank, stay out of this," Hardcastle snapped. "This is between McCormick and me. Well, do you have anything to say for yourself?"
Mark looked at Hardcastle, feeling his own ire rising, out of proportion considering the cause of the argument. He tried to calm himself, but his headache worsened while the three men stood in the sun's blazing rays and he knew that something would be said on his part that he would regret. With another sigh, Mark walked away, heading for the gatehouse.
Hardcastle looked after him in shock, starting to go after him, but Frank's tight grip on his arm stopped him. The Judge shook him off, but Frank merely grabbed his arm again. "Leave him alone, Milt. Let him go cool off."
"Frank! He can't just walk off on me like that, it's not right," Hardcastle said, annoyed.
"Give the kid a break, Milt. My God, have you looked at him lately? I mean, really looked at him?"
"What are you talking about? Of course I've looked at him. I see him at the breakfast table every morning, how could I miss him?" Hardcastle replied, watching the younger man disappear into the shadows near the small separate building where he lived, his shoulders slumped.
"I don't mean look at him, I mean see him. He's tired, bone tired. The kid is trying so hard to please you that he's wearing himself out. Don't push him, Milt. You could lose him."
Hardcastle stared at the concern on Harper's face. Of all the police officers that McCormick had met in their three years together, he and Frank seemed closer friends than with any of the others, although all the cops that came to know McCormick, liked and respected him. Most were surprised by his abilities, not the least of which was his ability to put up with the Hardcastle temper. Not only was McCormick able to weather the storms, but he also seemed to have a unique method of humoring the Judge out of them, even drawing the anger away from another person onto himself, if he felt the remarks undeserved by that individual. But lately, the two men had been snapping at each other constantly. Mark brooded about the house, doing the housework without the usual prodding on Hardcastle's part, even rising early in the morning to fix the Judge breakfast. Now that the Judge thought about it, McCormick was also up late at night, the light in the gatehouse on till well after midnight some evenings. "He's been busier than usual, I admit. So what? That's what he's here for."
"Damn it, Milt, open your eyes. He looks ready to drop from sheer exhaustion. What the hell have you had him doing?"
"Well, there was that loan sharking operation last month, the Triaffi murders the month before, the preliminaries on the drug smugglers the month before that," Hardcastle replied. "Nothing that unusual. So, he's a little beat. So am I."
"Yeah, but you're not working on the edge in those cases, trying to keep your wits about you so you won't be killed, and cleaning this mausoleum from top to bottom as well as doing all the yard work besides, are you? The only concession you allow him is having a pool man in once a month and a gardener who makes a visit every three months to tweak the lawn. This place would be too much for one person even if that was all they were doing. But for a man who's also doing your dirty work, it's a fast road to breakdown. When's the last time you gave him a vacation – a real one, not one of your working ones?"
"Well, we went on that camping trip in the mountains…" Hardcastle mused, his eyes thoughtful.
"Where the plane crashed and the two of you had to fight killers, bears and nature to survive. Try again."
"We went to the Judge's convention."
Frank snorted. "A syndicate meeting, a hit squad and you too cheap to get him his own room."
Hardcastle reddened. "How did you find out about that?"
"Mark happened to mention it when he was telling me what went on up there. Any other wonderful getaways? C'mon, Milt, even when you go for a nice trip by yourself, you get into trouble. Mark barely had time to visit his friends before you were busted for rape. Face it, Milt, you can find trouble faster than anyone I've ever met. And Mark is usually dragged into it with you. He needs rest. It hasn't been all that long since he was shot, remember?"
Hardcastle's face became shuttered, but not before Harper saw the flash of pain in his old friend's pale blue eyes. "He hasn't said anything about it."
"He wouldn't, Milt. You know that. Oh, sure, Mark complains about the little things, but only to annoy you. The important stuff he keeps hidden inside him, eating away at him. Think, man, what has he been like for the past month or so?"
"He hasn't been sleeping too well lately, dozes off in the truck a lot." Hardcastle realized, thinking back on the previous weeks. "Hasn't been that hungry lately either. Which is strange. That kid can eat more than some football teams."
"He's been looking older, too. He's tired, Milt. Do the both of you a favor and take him on a vacation to someplace where neither of you can get into trouble," Harper said, laying his arm around the Judge's shoulder. "And, for heaven's sake, get the boy some help here at the estate."
"I'll think about it. As to the vacation, maybe after we put Fenwick away." Hardcastle said. "He's been getting away with his little blackmail operation for…" Hardcastle's sentence was cut off by the sound of a shotgun firing from the direction of the den.
Harper and Hardcastle turned as one, staring at the shattered window that was behind Hardcastle's desk. The two men ran to the main house, looking for a sign of McCormick.
Skidding to a halt just inside the den, Hardcastle stared at the shotgun lying on the steps, then at McCormick standing over it. "What the hell did you do, McCormick?"
Harper looked at Mark and saw that he was white as a ghost, trembling uncontrollably. He put his hands on Mark's shoulders, guiding him to the nearest chair. Leaning down next to him, Harper saw in Mark's eyes a deep emptiness backed by fear. "Tell us what happened, Mark. It's okay. Nobody's hurt, just tell us how it went off."
McCormick's trembling continued as he tried to speak. "I…I was gonna clean up in here, dust the furn…iture and I picked up the shotgun…and was carrying it…to the…the gun cabinet…I couldn't feel it in my hands…it slipped…slipped out on the steps…then it went off…when it hit…scared me…"
"It's okay, Mark, no one was hurt."
"The hell it's okay!" Hardcastle shouted. "Ya don't take chances with a loaded weapon…"
"Shut up, Milt, shut the hell up!" Frank snapped, trying to hear the rest of what Mark was saying.
"…he coulda…been killed…oh, God, I'm gonna be sick…" Mark stumbled off, heading for the bathroom down the hallway.
Hardcastle stared after McCormick. "What's wrong with him?"
"Milt, look where the gun went off. It took the window out and part of the chair. The chair where you normally sit. All Mark can think of is you sitting there when that shotgun went off. Didn't you see it? He was terrified!"
"He did seem a little overly upset," Hardcastle offered.
"Milt, I swear, you are the blindest person it's ever been my pleasure to know. Now do you understand why I want you to take him away from here?" Harper pleaded with Hardcastle, as the retired jurist went to the hallway, looking for McCormick. "No more cases. If you put Mark undercover now, he could get killed. For all your fighting with him, I know you don't want the man hurt."
"No, never," Hardcastle whispered softly. "I've been pushing too hard?"
"Yes. I know you expect a lot from yourself as well as others around you, but you look for way too much from Mark. He tries desperately to fulfill your expectations. He wants your approval, needs it. Mark would work himself into an early grave to get it from you. Lighten up on him."
"Hell, I don't know why he should be tired. McCormick goofs off all the time. When I come back from town, I usually find him lazing by the pool."
"When's the last time you've been to town? Other than today? I've hard you yelling at him, how he doesn't do anything to earn his keep. You belittle him, Milt, how do you think he feels after one of your sessions?"
"I don't mean anything, he knows that," Hardcastle protested.
"The first few hundred times he might believe that, but lately you've been all over him for the slightest thing. Take it from someone who knows, a little criticism is easy to shrug off, constant attacks begin to make you think you're worth nothing," Frank said, frowning.
"I wasn't thinking about how he'd take it. I guess I was just taking out my frustrations on him. Do you know how few cases we've been on these past few months? All the others were accidental, situations we stumbled over. Maybe I have been a little testy. I thought he'd understand."
Harper smiled, patting the Judge on his arm. "He does, really. But it doesn't mean Mark doesn't try too hard sometimes to please you. You mean a lot to him. And I know what he means to you. Just don't destroy that relationship."
McCormick came shuffling down the hall, his eyes on the floor as he went past Hardcastle carrying a broom.
"Where do you think you're going?" Hardcastle growled, shocked at the lost look on McCormick's face.
"Gonna clean up the mess I made," McCormick mumbled, trudging to the window.
"Leave it," Hardcastle ordered.
"Huh? Can't. Glass all over, somebody might step on it."
"I'll get it later. Why don't you give the glass man a call, ask him when he can come fix it?" Hardcastle took the broom away, gently pushing McCormick to the phone. "Go on, kid. And while you're at it, why don't you call my travel agent and book us a passage to Nassau?"
McCormick froze, the phone halfway to his ear. "What?"
"Are you deaf, too? I said, book us a cruise to the Bahamas."
Harper looked away in embarrassment as he saw the shocked smile spread across McCormick's face, the love and respect shining out of his bloodshot eyes.
"Alright!" The smile slipped a bit. "For when?"
"As soon as he can get us a boat out of Miami. Oh, and I want a minimum of two weeks, got it?" Hardcastle instructed gruffly.
"Yes, sir." Mark started flipping through the Judge's Rolodex, pulling two cards out. "Nassau, here we come!"
Harper moved next to Hardcastle. "Very good, Milt. Oh, and try to stay out of trouble there. We have good relations with the Bahamas. Let's try and keep it that way, huh?"
"Funny, Frank, very funny."
"Maybe. But that's the most enthusiasm I've seen out of him in ages."
"Yeah, you've got a point. Aw, this might not work out too badly after all. A relaxing cruise, a little gambling on Paradise Island, might be nice."