7.

Hardcastle had spent hours questioning Felipe de Leon without success. He had confronted the policeman with Jamie's identification, but de Leon didn't even blink an eye. Taking a break, Hardcastle had returned to his hotel room, after warning Utombra that de Leon had better be there when he came back. He unlocked his hotel room, tripping over a package on the floor. Catching himself on the wall, Hardcastle frowned as he picked it up and tossed on the dresser where it skidded to a stop by the mirror. Hardcastle decided to take a shower, trying to think of something besides the missing McCormick.

The Judge came out of the bathroom, somewhat relaxed in his gym suit. He glanced at the package and, curious, ripped the box open. In the middle of a cotton ball sat McCormick's silver medallion, one of the few pieces of jewelry the missing man ever wore. There was a note underneath the cotton. His hand trembling, Hardcastle took the note out and unfolded it.

Dear Judge Hardcastle, (the note said) As you have probably guessed, I am the one who took your friend. He won't be joining you again, I'm sorry to say. He is a very inventive person, your McCormick, but he can identify me so he must be eliminated. It is unfortunately a slow death, but clean. He asked that this be given to you and I promised that I would. You may use your labs to discover where this note came from, but by then it will be too late to catch me and much too late for Mr. McCormick. Farewell.

Hardcastle gripped the medallion in his fist, heading out the door and back to the police station. He would get McCormick's location if he had to beat it out of de Leon.

He arrived at the station and felt his heart drop when he saw the ambulance leaving. Running inside, Hardcastle spotted Utombra, blood on his jacket, sitting on a bench outside his office.

"What happened?" Hardcastle growled.

Utombra looked up, his eyes filled with pain and anger. "I am sorry, I was wrong. I think I know where your friend may be, de Leon did not die immediately, he had time to tell me who his boss was and where he had originally taken Mr. McCormick. We cannot be certain he will still be there, but it is worth a try. Will you want to come?"

"You bet I do. Are you up to it?" The Judge pried the jacket up, seeing a bandage under the torn shirt.

"Yes, I would not miss this. I apologize again for my reluctance to help. I thought it was another case of the Americans trying to dictate to us. Come, my driver is waiting and I must cancel the call to your hotel. I thought you might want to accompany me."

Hardcastle followed Utombra to his car, the driver holding the door open. The drive was at speeds that even McCormick wouldn't have attempted.

"Excuse me, where are we going?"

"Felipe mumbled that McCormick was taken to the old fort. I can't imagine that he is still there, the flow of tourists would make it difficult to hide him, but it's the only clue we have," Utombra replied.

Arriving at the fort in what must have been record time, Utombra, Hardcastle and the driver began to search for signs of McCormick. Splitting up, Hardcastle walked to the lower levels, using the flashlight Lt. Utombra had lent him. The brown stones dripped with moisture, some covered with soft green moss. The corridor was uncomfortably cool, running below sea level. Reaching a dead end of white cement, Hardcastle turned to leave. Halfway up to the surface, he froze.

"Utombra! I think I've found something!" Hardcastle shouted.

The two police officers came running down the hall, finding Hardcastle poking at the new wall that dead ended the corridor.

"What is that?" Utombra asked. "We have not given permission for this to be done until next week. Originally it was scheduled for tomorrow morning, but was changed due to some protests. This area of the fort was considered unsafe. I wonder…Chaim, get a crowbar and call for help to knock this down."

The driver saluted, rushing to follow his superior's orders.

Mark was barely conscious, his breathing shallow and difficult to manage. He had tried to keep calm, knowing the oxygen would be used up that much faster, but the cold was becoming worse and the coughing was almost out of control. He knew the end was getting closer. He found his mind wandering. He was even hallucinating. Twice he thought he heard Hardcastle's voice, but when he tried to find him, there was no one there.

The cold had been painful, but now most of Mark's body was numb, either from the cold or from his cramped position. Mark felt his eyelids growing heavier and heavier, not even his latest hallucination keeping them open. The tapping on the outside of the wall wasn't convincing enough to keep Mark from lapsing into the black void. At least he wouldn't know when death came. "Sorry, Hardcase," he murmured.

Utombra had rallied five other men to break through the wall. Even with the help, it took an hour to break through enough to see anything. Hardcastle wiggled through the hole, shining the flashlight's beam around, seeing the bodies of some rates on the floor. Leaning farther in, Hardcastle flashed the light to his left and then to his right. The light picked up a figure hanging in ancient manacles.

"He's here! Get this thing widened!" Hardcastle pulled back out of the way as the police officers backed at the partially set cement. It was still loose enough to be easy to break up, now that it was started, the older stones falling easily.

When the opening was wide enough to squeeze through, Hardcastle climbed in the dark cell. He lodged his flashlight so that it lit McCormick's corner of the room.

"Hey, kid? You okay?" Hardcastle reached back through the hole. "I'll need something to cut these chains off of him. And you'd better call for an ambulance."

"You shall have it."

Utombra climbed in, joining Hardcastle, his driver having brought the hacksaw from the car. He sawed through the chains that kept Mark hanging. McCormick fell into Hardcastle's arms. The wall was finally and completely destructed with the help of the Bahamas' finest.

Utombra ran the light over McCormick, seeing the blood-encrusted wrists where the man had struggled to escape. "That must have hurt horribly. It was a valiant attempt, though hopeless. Animals have been known to gnaw their limbs off to escape a trap."

"Yeah, so I've heard."

McCormick's cough continued, even while he was unconscious. Hardcsatle lifted him to a sitting position, holding him securely against his chest. "He sounds bad." Hardcastle said worriedly. "What do you think they did to him?"

"Perhaps nothing. Why bother? We had the alert out almost immediately after he was missing, with all the details. They would know Mr. McCormick was not a police officer, merely an unfortunate bystander. With their contacts in the police department, that information would have been given to them immediately, so other than eliminating him for his ability to identify him, there was no need to work him over."

"Gotta say this was less of a vacation than I had hoped." McCormick commented, holding Mandy in his arms while talking to Lt. Utombra and Mr. Greene. "I think I'll stay on the cruise boat next time. It's safer."

"If you recall, you ran off that boat while we were talking," Hardcastle commented.

"Hey, can we talk about this later?" Mark retorted, rubbing his wrist against his kneed, moving Mandy a bit to one side. There were thick white bandages on both wrists and a thick coat of lip balm on the chapped lips. He had been ordered by the doctors at the hospital to drink plenty of fluids and cut back on solid foods until his stomach adjusted itself again. The first thing Mark had done, after being released the next day from the island hospital, was burn his clothes. The medallion was back around his neck where it belonged, returned by Hardcastle with some gruff comments on hanging onto his personal property. And he had a cold to take home as a souvenir.

"Mark, I wish you'd stay, like you said before all this." Mandy leaned on Mark's leg, half-sitting on his other knee. Mark sat forward on his chair, brushing her pony tail over her shoulder, dropping a light kiss on her cheek.

"It wouldn't work out. The L.A. courts wouldn't let me move here. I'd have to get permission to move out of the city, much less out of the country. 'sides, didn't you say there wasn't much of a job opening for an ex-car thief?"

"Daddy'd give you a job, wouldn't you, Dad?" Mandy turned to her father.

"I would at that, Mark. Hell, with your background, you could get into security." Greene agreed. "And my wife and I would be glad to help you get your visa, put you up till you found a place, whatever you need."

Mark smiled. "Thanks, I really do appreciate it and if things ever get…well, if I decide to come here, I'll let you know, promise." He turned to the silent Hardcastle, the smile becoming a grin that bordered on a smirk. "See, somebody wants me. You don't have to put up with me any longer than you want to."

"Yeah, well, if you're so hot to move here, I'm sure I can arrange something." Hardcastle's face was cold, no emotion showing in his eyes. "These people are good enough for the courts to approve of as your sponsors."

Mark's grin slipped, sneezing twice in succession. "Yeah, fine. Why don't you take care of it for me? I'm gonna get a drink." He stalked out of the screened-in patio, slamming the door behind him.

Mandy glared at Hardcastle. "You're stupid!"

"Mandy! Behave," Greene ordered his daughter. "Although I tend to agree with her. Why are you pushing Mark away from you?"

"He wants to leave, I'm not gonna stop him." Hardcastle stood with his back to the three other people on the patio.

"I think you are wrong, your honor, but it is your concern. I must return to my duties, try to clean out my department of those who have sold their souls. Please have a pleasant trip back to the United States and do not judge my country by this incident." Utombra shook the two men's hands and nodded to Mandy.

"Judge," Greene said after the police lieutenant had left. "I have listened to nothing but Mark, and what I've heard leads me to believe him to be a fine man."

"He is," Hardcastle agreed, slumping into the nearest chair.

"He doesn't want to leave you," Mandy exclaimed, slipping into her father's lap. "He thinks you don't want him anymore."

"I don't know where he gets these fool ideas. He said about the same thing on the ship before he bolted."

"Tell him you want him to stay, Judge," Mandy said. "He's scared of being alone."

"Okay, okay. I'll talk to him." Hardcastle slowly went to the kitchen, uncertain of what he was going to say.

He saw McCormick slumped over the sink, his face in his hands. And then he knew just what would work. "Hey, kid? Don't leave." Unspoken was don't leave me.

Mark turned, smiling tentatively. "You sure?"

"Yeah. For a long time now. How about you?"

"Oh, yeah. It'll be tough. We'll fight. I'll take offense."

"As will I. As to it being tough, well, always has been, but…it'd be worse without. So?" Hardcastle asked. "Coming home with me, kiddo?"

Mark grinned, pulling his airplane ticket from his pocket and waving it at the Judge.

Hardcastle stepped forward, Mark moving back an equal distance. "This was a trick? McCormick!"

"Hardcastle!" Mark sprang for the door, Hardcastle close on his heels.

The end