Disclaimer: They aren't mine, never were, but like so many others, I'll always love them! No intention of copyright violation is intended.
Description: When the Judge finds out why McCormick's been moping around, he's determined to sort things out.
Feedback: Comments are always very welcome
Word Count: 17591
Hardcastle peered past the curtains on the window in the kitchen door and shook his head. What was wrong with the kid? He'd been standing out there for the last hour, staring at the sea, his face all sorry looking, as if he'd lost his best friend. Well, only one way to find out. The Judge opened the door and stepped out into the perfect California morning. There was a light breeze off the ocean, which was a deep, mysterious blue under the lighter sky. Puffy clouds drifted lazily and a few gulls danced in the air and cackled stridently at one another down by the shore. Striding by the glorious gardens, which the Judge had to admit looked a whole lot better since McCormick had taken an interest in them, he crossed the sprawling lawn and stopped just behind his young partner in justice.
McCormick seemed oblivious to his approach, even when the Judge 'harrumped' to get his attention. Hardcastle rolled his eyes and put his hands on his hips, growling, "So, are ya going to just stand around mooning all day, or are you going to get back to work? I don't pay you to watch the ocean, ya know!"
He waited, expecting a smart-mouthed comeback, like 'you don't pay me at all, Hardcase,' or 'do you mean that pitiful pittance you call an allowance?' But, there was no reaction at all. Nothing. Hardcastle frowned, as he barked directly into Mark's ear, "McCormick!"
Mark started at the shout, reflexively stepping back and gazed at the Judge as if he had just come back from a long way off, his eyes still not quite focused. "Huh? What?" Then, his ear still ringing, he rubbed at it and scowled, "You don't have to shout at me! I'm perfectly capable of hearing normal voices, not old and half deaf, like some people I could mention."
The Judge grimaced, and shouted in reflex, "I am not OLD!"
"Depends on your perspective, Judge, but it's a good thing that you still feel young at heart, frisky and all ready for action. Absolutely necessary especially since you seem to suffer from the delusions of being Batman or the Lone Ranger..."
"McCormick!" interjected the Judge, knowing Mark could go on forever if he didn't keep him focused on the issue at hand. Which was what? Oh yeah, the kid had been mooning around like some kind of forlorn orphan.
"What!" replied Mark, "Oh, I get it, there's a bush around here that needs trimming. I must have missed it, forgot to count, besides I lose track after the first couple of hundred..."
"I didn't come out here to talk about shrubs!" growled the Judge.
McCormick gave a long suffering sigh. God, all he'd wanted was a few minutes of quiet. You'd think on this huge estate, the Judge could find something else to do than hound him down and natter at him. "Then what did you come out here to shout at me about?"
Hardcastle frowned again. The kid definitely looked distracted, upset by something. Almost as if he was hurting. "I came out here to find out what's wrong with you! You've been staring at the ocean as if it could answer the mysteries of life..."
"There's nothing wrong with me," McCormick cut in, half turning away. "Was there anything else? The lawns are cut, the pool is clean, the gardens, all of them, are weeded."
Hardcastle stared at the kid for a long moment, trying to get a handle on what was going on. McCormick was making a good effort at his usual 'whine, whimper and moan' act, but his heart wasn't in it. "You're sure there's nothing wrong with you? You're not coming down with something?"
"I'm fine," Mark replied with a trace of halfhearted irritation. "What's wrong with you? Can't a guy look at the view without getting the third degree?Jeez, Judge, lighten up already."
Hardcastle sniffed and rubbed his hand over his mouth, clearly not buying it. But, if McCormick didn't want to tell him what was bothering him, he wouldn't push it. "Fine, have it your way," he growled.
Mark looked away, his shoulders a little slumped. He definitely looked tired. "So, there's nothing you want me to do right this minute? No bad guys to chase, no dusting?"
"No, McCormick," he said, throwing up his hands and turning back to the house. When he got there, he turned back to see the kid still standing there, but after a moment, Mark headed down to the beach and began to walk away along the sand, his head down, his hands shoved into his jeans. Hardcastle watched him a while longer. Something was definitely bothering McCormick. He wasn't the type to mope around, unless it was over some girl he'd met, and Mark hadn't been seeing anyone special for a while now. Sighing, shrugging his shoulders, and shaking his head, he turned and went back into the house.
But, something was niggling at his elephant-like memory. He'd seen McCormick like this a time or two before. But, not for a while now. Ambling toward his study, he put it out of his mind. The kid could be moody. There was no point worrying about it. He'd get over it, whatever 'it' was.
A couple of hours later, the Judge was slavering mayonnaise on a sandwich in the kitchen, humming the Lone Ranger theme a little off-key, when McCormick wandered in through the back door. Hardcastle looked up, hoping to see the flash of devilment in Mark's eyes, but all he saw was a kind of pain. He frowned heavily. "So, you're back. Did you have a nice walk, McCormick?" he asked with a tinge of sarcasm. It wouldn't do to let the kid know he was worried about him.
Mark shrugged a little, "Yeah, it was fine. I thought I'd go for a drive, and wondered if there was anything you want me to pick up at the store while I'm out."
"A drive? Where?" asked the Judge, wondering if this would give him a clue as to what was up with McCormick.
Mark just shrugged again, not even bothering to complain about being cross-examined, "Nowhere, just a ride."
No help there. The Judge sighed, then tried another tack. Holding up the sandwich, he asked, "Do ya want some lunch first? You didn't have breakfast this morning."
Shaking his head, Mark replied, "Nah, thanks, I'm not hungry." He pulled the keys to his Coyote out of his pocket as he turned back and opened the door. "I won't be long," he said, only to be forestalled by the Judge who replied in a tone of consternation and disbelief.
"Not hungry? McCormick, you're never not hungry! You eat more than any other three people I know," he said, deliberately exaggerating to get a rise out of the younger man, but he was wasting his time. He bustled around the counter up to McCormick, who was giving him another long-suffering look, and reached up to test Mark's forehead, to see if he had a fever.
Mark brushed his hand away, "Judge, what is wrong with you today? I told you I'm fine. I'm just not hungry. And now, if you don't mind, I'm going for a drive!"
"Fine! Go!" the Judge growled turning back to his sandwich, but he frowned again when Mark didn't say anything more, just walked out and closed the door quietly. Not good. If the kid was really irritated, he would have slammed it. What the hell was going on?
Mark guided the Coyote around the curved coastline along the PCH until he came to the spot he'd come to on an annual basis for the last few years. Pulling up and parking in the cutaway parking area over the ocean, he climbed out of the racecar and wandered to the edge of the lookout. He stood there quietly for a long time. His voice was little more than a whisper as he rasped huskily, "I miss you, you know? I remember everything, everything we ever used to do together, and I'm sorry I was such a screw-up for so long. But, it's coming together better now. Well, you know Hardcase. He's a donkey, but kinda sweet when you get to know him. Not that I'd ever let him know that. But, I know you'd like him ... and he'd like you, too."
He paused a moment, feeling a catch in his throat and the burn of tears in his eyes. He didn't want to cry. She wouldn't like that. It would've only made her feel bad. No matter what, all she'd ever wanted was for him to be happy. He took a deep breath to steady himself and push the pain and grief back under control. He watched the waves crashing over the rocks below him, and the sea birds dipping and diving in the wind, plummeting to the surface and back up with wiggling fish in their beaks. It was peaceful here, quiet. She'd never seen California, never seen the Pacific. Her ocean had been the Atlantic, and he remembered the bright Sunday afternoons at the beach in the summers. So long ago.
"I love you," he whispered, wiping moisture from his eyes with his fingertips, then running his hand through his unruly curls. Straightening, lifting his chin, he said a little more strongly, "I'll always love you, and be grateful for the time we had. And, I'll be someone you could be proud of, I promise."
A few moments later, he turned and got back into the Coyote, turning it around to head back to Gulls Way.
McCormick got home in time to throw together a meatloaf for their dinner. It wasn't fancy, but then the Judge wasn't a big fan of 'fancy', and Mark didn't really care what he ate. The Judge had stayed out of his way, a small mercy for which he was grateful. Today just wasn't a day when he felt up to their usual banter. He knew the Judge was worried about him, but he just didn't know how to tell him about this. And he wasn't sure he wanted to talk about it anyway.
He pulled the meatloaf out of the oven, cut a generous portion for the Judge, plopped some mashed potatoes down on the plate and a scoop of peas. He put some of the same on his own plate, then grabbing a couple of beers to carry under one arm, he juggled the plates in his hands as he headed through the swinging door into the dining room.
"Chow's on!" he called over the sound of the television, another 'shoot em up, good guys to the rescue' vintage Hardcase favourite from the sounds of sixguns and horses coming from the other room. He swung the small tv over onto the table and flicked the channels until he found the one Hardcase was watching. If he could distract the Judge with the movie, then maybe they wouldn't have to talk over dinner. He really didn't feel like talking today.
Hardcastle ambled into the dining room, and paused a moment when he saw the television already playing the show, angled so that he could watch it while he ate. "Hummph," he said under his breath. 'Avoidance tactics,' he thought, 'Well, we'll see about that.' He squinted up at McCormick as he sat in his place at the table and picked up his fork.
"Did you enjoy the drive, McCormick?" was his opening gambit, his tone neutral.
Mark nodded briefly, picking up his own fork, pretending to be interested in the television show, a rerun of Rawhide's endless cattle drive, and Rowdy looked like he was mouthing off to Gil Favor again. "Yeah, it was fine, Judge," he mumbled around a forkful of food.
"Uh huh," replied the Judge, taking a bite of the dinner. Not bad. The kid could cook, even if Milt never let on he appreciated it much. It was better than eating endless sandwiches and microwaved food on his own, anyway. "Where'd you go?"
"Just up the coast a ways," McCormick replied, his eyes focused on the television, but he was groaning inside. Hardcase sensed a mystery and there would be no living with him until he found out to his own satisfaction what had been preoccupying Mark today. Damn.
But, the Judge just nodded and took a few more bites, noticing all the while that McCormick was playing with his food, pushing it around his plate, not even pretending much interest in it. His eyes were on the tv, but the look in them was somewhere far away.
Shaking his head, sighing heavily, the Judge put his fork back down on the table, making a bit of a show of it, pushed his half-eaten meal away, and leaned his elbows on the table. "Look, McCormick, if it's none of my business, just say so," he began, a little awkwardly. He was worried, but didn't really want the kid to know; he wasn't used to showing he cared.
Mark thought, 'Here it comes,' but only turned his eyes to Hardcastle, feigning a puzzled look, as if he didn't have the least idea of what the Judge was talking about.
Disgusted, Milt made a face, "Don't pull that on me, kiddo. The 'little old whatever can you mean' look. I wasn't born yesterday, ya know."
"Well, yeah, Judge, I know ... you were already old when I was born, for crying out loud," Mark returned sarcastically, thinking he might deflect Hardcase into one of their typical wrangles, and he could stomp out in the middle of it.
Hardcastle squinted his eyes as he studied McCormick, who slid his gaze away. "You're hurting, kid. I'm just saying if you want to talk about it, well, I'll listen," he said, trying for gruffness, but falling short.
Mark looked back at him out of the corner of his eye, then pushed his hand through his hair with a sigh. "Look, Judge, I already told you, I'm fine."
"Yeah? Is that right? You moon around all day looking like your dog died –" But the Judge cut off his sarcastic rejoinder sharply when he saw Mark flinch. What the ...? "Look, kid, I'm just worried about you, okay? I can see something's wrong," he said more quietly, getting genuinely worried. He sighed, a little hurt that Mark wouldn't trust him with whatever it was. "But, alright, if you don't want to talk about it, fine. I just thought it might help ..."
Sarcasm and shouting he could take. But that hurt tone got to him every time, perhaps because he heard it so rarely. Rolling his eyes, Mark raised his hands in surrender. "Alright! Alright, already!" He took a breath and then looked back at the Judge, his curls falling almost into his eyes. "Judge, it's nothing for you to be worried about. It's just that today ... well, today was my Mom's birthday ..."
Hardcastle sat back. Well, he'd never have come up with that. But, come to think of it, he remembered now that Mark had gone all quiet around this time last year, too. His eyes softening with sympathy, he said quietly, "I'm sorry, kid."
Mark gave him a half grin. "There's nothing to be sorry about, Judge. I ... well, it's just that I remember her so clearly on her birthday, ya know? When I was in New York, I used to visit her grave; but here, well, here I just drive out to the Sunset Point lookout up on PCH to remember her, sort of a tradition. Silly, I guess ..." he finished, looking back down at his uneaten meal, not really seeing it.
Hardcase shook his head, "Nothing silly about it. We all remember in our own way." He paused a moment, thinking of Nancy and his son. He sighed. It just wasn't possible to forget the ones you loved most. Who would want to? He looked back at the kid. "You know, McCormick, you've never said much about her. What was she like?" But, then, realizing he might be trodding on private ground, knowing how he'd bite Mark's head off for a similar question, he hastened to add, "'Course, if you don't feel like talking about her ..."
"No, Judge," Mark said with a trace of his grin, "No, I don't mind talking about her. I guess I just never figured anyone'd be all that interested. I mean, it's not like you knew her."
"I know you," the Judge sniffed, as if that was explanation enough for his interest.
Mark nodded a bit, one brow lifting up to be lost under the curls, as he tried to think about how to describe his mother to the Judge. "What was she like? She was great," he murmured, then looked up at Hardcastle. "You would have liked her. She was ... kind, and gentle. You know, I never once heard her say a mean thing about anyone – even when she had good cause ..." His voice faded, a troubled look on his face.
"Yeah? Like what kind of 'cause'?" the Judge probed, but gently.
With an almost embarrassed shrug, McCormick looked into the air, "Well, her family didn't treat her very well." When he turned back and saw the questioning look on the Judge's face, he continued hesitantly, not wanting Hardcase to judge his mother harshly, "My parents weren't married, Judge."
When Hardcastle just shrugged, as much as saying, 'so what?' Mark gave him a grateful look and continued his story. "Her family always acted like that was some kind of capital offense. They were ashamed of her, and never missed a chance to let her know it."
"How do you know?" Milt asked.
"Because I saw it," Mark replied with a shrug.
"They treated her like that in front of you?" Hardcastle growled, not impressed.
Mark just shrugged. "When my Dad walked out when I was five, it got even worse. But, she never complained, pretended she didn't notice. And it was tough after he left. We were on our own, and she had to hold down two jobs to pay the rent, and keep me in running shoes." Mark grinned a little in memory, "She used to say she'd never seen a kid grow as fast as I did." But, then his eyes clouded, and he said softly, "I just wished I could have been more help."
"Hey, c'mon, you were just a kid! It was her family that should have been helping! You were only what, about ten when she died?" the Judge objected, less and less impressed with the relatives.
"Yeah, a long time ago ..." Mark said, still lost in memory.
Milt studied his young friend for a moment. "I'll bet she appreciates the fact that you still miss her." Mark grinned a little sheepishly, touched by the present tense the Judge had used, but he didn't answer. Hardcastle continued, "How did she die, Mark? An accident?" he suggested, hoping the woman hadn't suffered. She'd had to deal with enough in her short life.
McCormick shook his head, tensing a little. "No. No, Judge, it wasn't an accident." He looked up at the Judge then, pushing his own cold plate away, and leaning his elbows on the table. "My mother was murdered."
"WHAT?" exclaimed Hardcastle, genuinely shocked. "What do you mean she was murdered?"
Mark held up one hand in an exasperated gesture. "I mean she was murdered!" But, then, he just sighed and looked away.
Hardcastle stared at him, "Who did it? Why?"
McCormick shrugged and shook his head wearily. "I don't know, nobody knows, except the guy who did it. They found her in the storeroom of the convenience store she worked in at night. She'd been beaten to death. I guess, from what I heard when the grownups thought I wasn't listening, that she'd been ... tortured before he killed her."
"Oh, God, kid, I'm sorry," the Judge breathed, horrified. Mark had hunched forward, his elbows on the table, his face in his upraised hands. Hardcastle sighed as he stood, and moved to put a hand on the kid's shoulder. "Who would want to do something like that?" he murmured, more to himself than Mark, but he knew too well. There were all too many freaks out there who fed on the pain of others. Could have been some drugged out deadbeat. Could have been ... "There must've been an investigation. Was she seeing anyone? Or, had she been ..." he stopped. How did you ask a man if his mother had been raped?
Mark stiffened under his hand, instantly defensive, reflexively angry. Pulling away from the Judge's hand, he looked up, his eyes flashing, "No! She wasn't ... molested. And she wasn't seeing anyone! That's what everyone thought. But, she never was with anyone after my father left." Mark shook his head, bitter, "She always believed he'd come back someday."
The Judge cocked his head, a little skeptical. A ten-year-old kid wouldn't necessarily know if his mother had a 'friend'. McCormick saw the look and blew-up, lunging to his feet. "You're just like the others!" Shaking his head, he stormed, "But why should you be any different, huh? Unmarried woman with a kid. Poor. Of course it must've been her own fault! Of course, she set herself up to be beaten to death!" Furious, Mark swiveled away and stalked from the room, across the kitchen, and he slammed the door behind him when he left the house.
Milt, stricken, raised a hand, followed after him, calling, "Kid, I didn't mean ...!" But, McCormick was gone, the Coyote pealing around the drive and away into the night. "Damn," breathed the Judge, staring after the tail lights until they disappeared onto the highway. Rubbing the back of his neck, he bit his lip. Then, he looked up into the sky, pursing his lips as he nodded, mumbling to himself, "Murdered, huh? Well, we'll see about that!" Then he turned and headed back into the house.
Tomorrow, they'd start work on another old, unsolved case. And they'd keep working on it until Hardcase found out what had happened. There was no statutory limit on murder.
The next morning, Mark was already at work cleaning the pool when Hardcastle got up. The Judge watched him from the bedroom window for a few minutes, thinking about how their conversation had ended the night before. Well, first he had to clear the air, and then they had to get to work. He turned and clattered down the stairs, heading down the hall, and out through the kitchen to the back.
Mark didn't look up when Hardcastle came around the corner, just kept working, ignoring him. He was more embarrassed than mad. Once he'd calmed down, he'd realized he'd over-reacted. He knew the old donkey well enough by now to know the Judge had never thought anything like what Mark had accused him of, before storming off. Deep down, he harboured an uncomfortable sense of guilt. Oh, not that he ever believed his mother deserved it! Never that. But, since he'd gotten old enough to understand adult relationships, he had wondered if, maybe, there'd been a man he'd never known about. But, whenever he thought that, he felt guilty, because it was what everyone else had condemned her for. And, he really didn't believe it. He was sure he'd have known if she'd been seeing someone.
"Mornin'" muttered the Judge. "You're up early."
"Yeah, well, I didn't sleep much," Mark replied quietly, then turned to face Hardcastle, letting the long-handled sieve dangle in the water. "Judge, about last night, I'm sorry ... I know you didn't think ..."
While Milt was saying, "McCormick, I'm sorry, I never meant..."
They both broke off, giving each other sheepish looks. Mark nodded and gave the Judge a lopsided grin as he laid the tool by the edge of the pool. "Well, you must feel bad," he said with a trace of his usual teasing, "I don't think I've ever heard you apologize before."
Hardcastle just shook his head as he grimaced, replying gruffly, "Well, if you hadn't've stormed out of here last night, I wouldn't have to apologize, because you would have known what I meant. I'm glad you finally came to your senses and realized that!"
Mark chuckled, "Ah, Judge, what can I say? I guess I'm still defensive." But, then his lips thinned as all the humour bled from his face. "And angry. So angry. I guess I didn't need much excuse to yell at someone and you were handy. I'm still furious, with myself, with the world, whenever I think about what happened to her, ya know. She never deserved that."
"Why in the world would you be furious with yourself?" Hardcastle challenged, catching something in Mark's tone. Why was he blaming himself?
McCormick threw his hands into the air. "Well, Judge, if she hadn't had to worry about me, she wouldn't have had to work two jobs ... she'd never have even been in that damned store!"
"Now, that's enough of that!" Hardcase snapped, flicking a look at the sky as he pointed upward. "Your mother would tan your hide if she heard you say anything so stupid!"
Mark just gave him a helpless look and turned away. Hardcastle grimaced, and moved to stand closer to the younger man. "Mark ... it wasn't your fault, kid. And, it wasn't her fault either. It's time we found out whose fault it was."
McCormick turned to face him, "What?"
Hardcastle shrugged. "Well, why not? It's what we do, right? Solve unsolved cases. Bring the bad guys to justice."
"Oh, Judge," Mark sighed, shaking his head. "I tried, I really did. But, it was twenty-two years ago. The lawyer she worked for is dead. The store where it happened has been turned into a parking lot. The other people she worked with moved away; or at least, I couldn't find them. There's nothing in the newspaper files. I looked. I tried. But, it's a dead end."
Hardcastle just shrugged again, refusing to be dissuaded. "Maybe, maybe not. I've got contacts you haven't. C'mon," he said, motioning to the chairs by the pool, "Sit down. I've got a few questions."
McCormick just looked at him for a minute, a look of mingled doubt, hope and surrender on his face. He didn't think there was anything Hardcase could do, but once he had the bit in his mouth, there was no stopping him, so maybe he could find out something after all this time. In any case, he wouldn't stop until he'd tried, so Mark might as well go ahead and get the questions over with.
Mark plopped down into one of the chairs, his legs sprawled out in front of him. "There's not much to tell, Judge."
"We'll see. Tell me about the two jobs your mother held," he directed, sitting down across from McCormick.
Shrugging, Mark complied, "During the day, she worked in a lawyer's office, typing memos, contracts, that sort of thing. At night, she worked at the local corner store."
"Uh huh, what was the lawyer's name, do you remember?" the Judge probed.
"Bates. George C. Bates. But, Judge, like I said, he's dead. He was old then ... older than you are now. He wouldn't have done it. There was no reason. She'd worked there for years."
"What kind of neighborhood did you live in? Was it likely some deadbeat wandered into the store looking for drug money?" Hardcase continued.
"The neighborhood? Well, it was just your ordinary, run of the mill, city neighborhood. It was poor, sure, but it wasn't a slum; mostly families, like us. There'd never been any trouble at the store, never so much as I remember," Mark explained.
Hardcastle sniffed, paused, almost reluctant, but if they were going to do this, he had to know as much as Mark knew, at least to start with. "You're sure there were no men in her life?"
McCormick shook his head. "I really don't think so, Judge. I know I was just a kid, so maybe I didn't realize everything about life back then but, to be honest, I don't think she had the time. When she wasn't working, she was with me." Mark looked up into the sky, as he continued, his voice soft, "She used to say that she spent so much time at work, that she wanted to spend all of the rest of her time with me. She was always coming up with some 'adventure' for us, you know, like going to the zoo, or the latest movie, picnics in the park and, when we could afford it, the boardwalk and beach. She'd play games with me, read to me when I was younger ... always something. She ... she made me feel like I was the most special kid in the world, Judge," he said, a slight catch in his voice. "She was a good mother ... a good person."
Hardcastle nodded thoughtfully, thinking he would have liked this woman. "I believe you, kid. Look, I know this is hard ... but, can you remember much about what happened the night she died?"
Mark narrowed his eyes as he looked down at his hands, and nodded. "Oh, yeah," he murmured hoarsely. "I remember everything about that night." He could see it all, as if it was yesterday: his mother, a petite woman with auburn curls down to her shoulders, eyes bluer than the sea, hurrying in the door of their tiny apartment, a little breathless. "She came home a little late that night, from the office. I remember, because she was hardly ever late. She didn't like me to be worried about her. Anyway, she seemed, I don't know, sorta nervous ... maybe not nervous, more worried. I don't know. I thought she just felt bad about getting home later than usual."
In his mind's eye, he could see her shrug out of her worn coat, and hang it in the closet, turning to pick up a bag. "She'd brought a present for me," Mark smiled a little in memory, "a book. Treasure Island. She joked, said there was a treasure inside. She was always trying to get me to read, get me interested in the wonders of the imagination. I remember the book had a bright, glossy cover. I'd never seen a brand new book before. Even in school, they were all battered up, half the pages missing. Anyway, she said the cover needed to be protected, and she made a book jacket out of a brown paper bag ... you know, to protect it from a boy's rough treatment, and habitually dirty hands; she even sent me to wash my hands while she finished covering the book." Mark smiled a little to himself, remembering how grubby he could get. Then, he shrugged, looking back at the Judge, "Sorry, none of that's important, it's just that it's the last time I ever saw her. After supper, she went out to work at the store ... and she never came back."
The Judge just nodded. "And after ...?"
Mark looked away. It still hurt to think about it, even after all this time. "She usually got home just after midnight, when the store closed. She didn't know, but I always waited up. I guess I was a little nervous about being on my own, even if I never admitted it, even to myself. Anyway, she didn't come home. After a while, I got up and got dressed, and I went down to the street. I could see the store on the corner, all dark and closed up. Nobody was around. I ran to it anyway, and tried the door, banged on a window, called for her. And then, I walked back toward the apartment building we lived in. I searched the alleys, and I went to the laundry room in our building. But, I couldn't find her." He paused a moment, taking a breath. "I ran back upstairs, hoping she'd be there. I was so scared, Judge. I didn't know what to do... there wasn't anyone I could call ..."
Hardcastle looked down and away, shaking his head, imagining the poor, frightened child. After a moment, Mark finished the story. "The police came the next morning; the day clerk had found her."
The Judge's head jerked up; he saw the look of pain on Mark's face, and demanded, "Don't tell me they were dumb enough to just blurt out what happened! God, kid!"
McCormick hastily shook his head, "No, they didn't tell me. But, the guy at the store had told them about me, so they came to get me. They wouldn't tell me anything," Mark said, the annoyance still clear in his voice. "I was just a kid after all. They badgered me into giving them my uncle's address, my mother's brother ... threatened me with juvie hall, if you can believe it." He shook his head, admitting, "I was already pretty mouthy when I wanted to be, and I was giving them a pretty hard time. Mostly, I was just terrified and didn't want to show it. Anyway, they took me across town to my uncle's place, and I guess they got him to identify the ... her. No, I heard what happened after the funeral," he continued bitterly, his voice laced with anger. "I overheard my aunt giving the gory details to her neighbour. God, she was a mean old bitch! She made it sound like divine retribution for a sinful life. She was such a miserable, rotten ... I'd never hated anyone before, Judge – but I hated her."
"Easy, McCormick. Sounds like you had good reason. Don't tell me you had to stay with them," the Judge said, sympathetically.
"Oh yeah," Mark sighed. "There wasn't anyone else, and they had to do their 'Christian duty'. Expected me to be grateful to them for taking in 'Donna's little mistake'. You know, she never called me by my name, always 'him', 'you', 'that ungrateful boy', or my personal favourite, 'the whore's worthless brat'." Gaze averted, he wearily shook his head. "I ran away every chance I got. After a while, they gave up and had me put in a foster home ... a series of them actually. I ran away from them, too. Finally, when I was thirteen, I got away for good. Wasn't easy – living on the streets – but that was a step up to what it was like living with them."
Hardcastle shook his head. No wonder the kid had been so messed up. The miracle was he'd turned out to be a decent human being. "Did you ever see them again?"
McCormick snorted, "Not exactly. The first time the cops caught me hotwiring a car, I knew I was in real trouble. I called my uncle, I don't know, to ask his advice, help; there wasn't anyone else I could call, and I was scared. She answered the phone, and wanted to know why I wanted to talk to him. When I told her, well, she told me it was what I deserved, that I'd never been any good, and never would be, that I couldn't expect help from decent people, and she hoped they'd lock me up for good. She told me never to bother them again, and hung up. When the cops called her back, I guess 'cause they were my legal guardians, she wouldn't talk to them either. I spent a little time in juvie, and then the last foster home ... and then I took off for good. I hitched my way down to Florida."
Hardcastle sat back and stared at him. He'd known some of it from Mark's record: the series of foster homes, the stints in Juvenile Hall, but he never knew the back story, and he'd never asked. Now, he wished he had. He might have understood the chip that McCormick had carried like a block of wood on his shoulder when they'd first encountered one another. Forgetting himself, forgetting he was supposed to be tough and gruff, he muttered, "How the hell did you ever turn out the way you are?"
McCormick, his thoughts still in the past, reacted with the old defensiveness of the hurt and lost child he'd been. "Now, don't you start on me, telling me it's no more than I deserved. So I was a punk kid, so what?"
Stung by the tone, Milt snapped, "Don't be an idiot, McCormick! You know that's not what I meant. Anybody with that kind of story deserves to be a little bitter and twisted, but you're..."
"What?" challenged Mark, "I'm what, Judge?"
"Decent, that's what," he responded gruffly, and rolled his eyes at the surprise he saw in Mark's eyes at the comment. "Look, in the last two years, McCormick, I've seen you show a lot of compassion for other people, and not a little courage. You could have just as easily have been hard, selfish and mean – lots of others with similar histories go down that route, you know. You're a good kid, McCormick, no thanks to them."
Mark looked honestly astonished by the speech, then ducked his head, pleased, before looking up from under his curls with an impish gleam in his eyes, "Why, thanks, Judge! I guess I didn't know I'd made such a good impression ... does this mean I can have a raise?" When Hardcastle just narrowed his eyes, Mark chuckled, but then his eyes got a faraway look. "If I turned out any good at all," he said, "it's because of my mother, and maybe even because of them. I know I've screwed up a lot, but I've tried to be like her, you know? She could see the good in everyone. And, I've tried really hard to never be like them ...but, she never even ever said a bad thing about them, either. When I'd make some crack about them, she'd just say that we had to accept other people, understand that they had troubles, too, and that we couldn't hold their ignorance, or meanness, against them."
"Your mother sounds like she was a remarkable woman, kid," the Judge sighed, more determined than ever to find out what had happened to her, and to make whoever was guilty face justice for it; which made him remember that he'd been trying to find out what had happened after the murder, before he'd gotten sidetracked by the sad aftermath. Turning Mark's attention back to the time when she'd died, he asked, "After she died, there must have been some investigation. Was there never any clue, anything at all?"
Mark shook his head. "No, not that I've ever been able to discover. The only other thing that happened was that the day after she died, and I was taken to my uncle's, our apartment was ransacked. The police had to show me; I was the only one who might've known if something had been stolen, but I couldn't tell if anything was taken. What a mess ... pillows and furniture ripped up, mattresses slashed, all the books pulled from the bookcases, pictures torn off the walls, tables overturned, flour and sugar all over the floor, drawers all emptied. It was awful, Judge. Nobody ever found out who did that, either."
Mark looked up at Hardcastle, a defeated look in his eyes. "Judge, I appreciate your interest, I really do. And, I know you want to help. But, it's over twenty years ago. There's nothing anyone can do now. I'll never know what happened to her ... or why."
But Hardcastle just looked at him for a moment, before responding. "Maybe, maybe not," he said again. "C'mon, kid, we got work to do." With that, he stood and headed toward the garage. Sighing heavily, believing it was all futile, Mark stood and followed him.
When Hardcastle and McCormick walked into his small office, Frank Harper looked up from the file he'd been studying, surprised to see them. "Milt! Mark! I wasn't expecting you." He paused a moment, taking in the grim expression on Hardcastle's face, and the slightly drawn look on Mark's. "What's up? Somebody kill somebody?"
He'd asked facetiously, given the trouble these two could routinely get themselves into, but was taken aback when Mark flinched, and Hardcastle nodded, "Yep, somebody killed somebody and I intend to find out what happened."
Frank closed the file with a sigh and waved them to the chairs on the far side of his desk. "Well, you've got my attention. When did this alleged crime take place, where, who's the victim, and why don't I already know about it?"
Hardcastle glanced at Mark, but McCormick gave him a half-hearted wave, as much as to say, 'it's your show, Kemosabe'. Besides, he really didn't want to go all over it again. It was hopeless.
Hardcastle nodded at him, then turned to Frank. "It took place twenty-two years ago in –"
"Twenty-two years!" Frank interjected, his heart sinking. Trust Milton C. Hardcastle, Superior Court Judge, retired, to come up with something colder than the ice in Alaska.
But, Hardcastle just scowled, waved a hand at him to listen, and continued, "Yes, twenty-two years ago. There's no statute of limitations you know. It happened in New Jersey."
Frank rolled his eyes. Great. Just a little ways out of his jurisdiction. He settled a careworn look of patience on his face as he waited for the rest.
The Judge continued, "The victim was a young woman named Donna McCormick."
McCormick? It was as if a shoe had dropped. A very heavy boot, actually, Frank thought as he turned his startled gaze to Mark.
"My mother," McCormick said quietly.
Frank sat back in his chair, clearly at a loss for words. Finally, he said sadly, "Mark, I didn't know ... I'm sorry." McCormick nodded, acknowledging the sincere sympathy. When he didn't say anything more, Frank turned back to Hardcastle. "What happened?"
The Judge summarized what they knew, concluding, "So, I thought we could start here. Maybe there's someone you could call back in New Jersey, get a copy of the file shipped out here for us to take a look at it. We can take it from there."
Frank nodded, flipping through the rolodex on his desk. "Twenty-two years ago ... that would be 1964?"
Mark nodded, "Yeah, September 12th."
Frank started to dial.
Later that afternoon, they were back in Hardcastle's study at Gulls Way, pouring over the copies of the old police reports. Hardcastle had separated the materials, giving Mark a handful of investigative reports, carefully keeping back the photos of the crime scene, and of the victim. Mark saw him palm the pictures, but didn't make an issue of it. He really didn't want to see them, though he knew he'd steal a look later, when Hardcase wasn't around. Nothing could be worse than what he'd imagined for all these years; might as well know the whole truth. He'd seen the infinite sadness in the Judge's eyes when he looked at them, then the flare of anger, and was poignantly grateful to know the Judge really did care.
An hour later, discouraged, Mark tossed aside the pile of papers he'd been reading. There wasn't anything there that he didn't already know. Hardcastle had just flipped over another page in his stack, when he paused and grunted. "What?" asked Mark, standing to walk around the desk to read over the Judge's shoulder.
"This," Milt said, pointing at the document. "James P. Henderson was one of the lawyers at the firm. He musta just been starting out back then."
"Henderson? Isn't he the one you think is in the mob's pocket?" Mark asked. "Can't be ... my mother wouldn't work for scum like that."
"Alleged scum, McCormick. Nobody's ever gotten anything on him. And, yep, it's him. I remember that he came out here from New Jersey, and opened a practice after he passed the California Bar. Interesting coincidence, don't you think, that he worked in the same office?"
Hardcastle looked up at McCormick, a speculative gleam in his eyes; then he reached for the phone book, riffled the pages, found what he was looking for, and pulled the phone toward him. "I wonder what he remembers about September 12, 1964?" He picked up the handset and then paused, "On second thought, why don't we go ask him in person. I'm sure he'd be glad to meet the son of an old office colleague. You up for it, kid?"
"Hell, yes! Let's go," McCormick responded, already heading for the door.
"Now you're cookin'!" said the Judge, not missing Mark's renewed energy as he followed the younger man out. That innate vitality had been sorely lacking over the last couple of days, and Milt had been really worried about him. Now that there was, finally, some lead, some hope, however slight, of finding out the truth, there was a flash of the old McCormick. Smiling grimly, he followed the kid out.
The secretary, doing her job, tried to protect her boss from unexpected interruptions. "I'm sorry," she said, after Hardcastle had introduced them, and asked to see Henderson, "but you don't have an appointment. Perhaps, next month?" she suggested, paging through the pages of the calendar on her desk.
Hardcastle just shook his head as he moved to skirt around her desk, heading toward the lawyer's closed office door. "That's alright ... it'll only take a minute," he said, not caring if the man had a client with him or not, as he gently moved the secretary from in front of the door, where she'd jumped to intervene, trying to stop him from entering.
"You can't just barge in there!" she said, aghast. She knew Judge Hardcastle ... didn't everyone? But, he had no right – it was too late, he was already knocking cursorily on the door as he opened it and walked in, McCormick close behind him.
James Henderson looked up in surprise at the intrusion, but covered it smoothly when he recognized Hardcastle. Standing, the elegantly groomed, middle-aged lawyer stepped away from his desk and circled it, to stand in the centre of the large, imposing, wood-paneled office to meet the Judge, one hand held out in welcome. "Judge Hardcastle, I wasn't expecting to see you today. Is there something I can do for you?"
Hardcastle hesitated a moment before shaking the lawyer's hand, then casually, as if absentmindedly, rubbed the hand on his windbreaker jacket as he replied, "I hope so, Jim," he replied, "I sure hope so."
The lawyer hadn't missed the hand-wiping gesture and was irritated, but he hid the reaction, long ago having learned to keep his thoughts and his feelings to himself. "Well, then, please, sit down," he said motioning to a burgundy leather couch and chairs around a rosewood coffee table, "Tell me what I can do for you." He cast a questioning look at McCormick and frowned slightly; there was something familiar about him but he couldn't place the memory.
Hardcastle, catching the look, turned to introduce Mark, not bothering to move toward the chairs. "Oh, Jim, I'm sorry, I should introduce Mark McCormick. Mark's been working with me, helping me clear up a few old files."
Henderson nodded, but didn't offer his hand. He'd heard the Judge had taken in yet another parolee in what Henderson considered a misguided, do-gooder effort. But then, the name registered, and he realized why the younger man seemed so familiar. He looked a lot like his mother. But, again, except for a momentary flash of surprise in his eyes, he covered his reaction. "Mr. McCormick,' he nodded, to acknowledge the introduction, but turned back to Hardcastle, as if the name had meant nothing to him.
Milt, however, had seen the gleam of recognition. Deciding after all to make himself at home, he moved to one of the chairs and signaled to Mark to sit down as well.
Mark had been watching the lawyer with the kind of look he'd normally reserve for a rattlesnake. But, he followed the Judge's lead and sat down on the couch, leaning forward, his elbows on his thighs. Henderson took the chair opposite Hardcastle and raised an eyebrow, repeating, "So, how can I help you?"
"Jim, we're looking into a murder case and, well, since you knew the victim, we thought you might be able to help us ... you know, with some of your impressions as to what may have happened."
Henderson frowned, a mystified look on his face, "Murder victim? Someone I know? I don't recall ..."
"Oh, it was some time ago, Jim," Hardcastle cut in, purposely using the lawyer's first name, knowing the man didn't like it. "Back in New Jersey. The victim was Donna McCormick. She was a secretary in your old office there."
"Donna? Why, yes, of course I remember her. But, Judge Hardcastle, that was more than twenty years ago. I don't know how I could be of any help now. Why would you be investigating that now?" Then he turned to Mark, a feigned look of enlightenment on his face, "Of course, you'd be Donna's little boy."
Mark cocked a disbelieving eyebrow, not buying the ingenuous look, and responded dryly, "Well, I've grown up a little since then."
"Yes, obviously. I'm sorry about your mother. She was a beautiful, sweet woman. It was a terrible tragedy; everyone felt very badly, especially since her murder was never solved. Just one more act of senseless violence. Such a waste."
Mark bit his lip, but held his tongue. This guy dripped slime.
Hardcastle returned to the conversation. "Well, yes, it was a tragedy. It's time we found out what happened, who killed her and why."
Henderson turned his eyes back to Hardcastle, now showing incredulity, "But, surely you can't expect to learn anything at this late date!" With a glance at Mark, before returning to Hardcastle, he continued, "I'm very sorry, Mr. McCormick, but that was twenty-two years ago ... I really don't see how I can help you. The police investigated at the time, but there wasn't much any of us could tell them. Donna was quiet, never said much about her personal life. I don't recall her ever actually saying who he was ..."
"He?" the Judge interjected, one brow raised.
"Well," Henderson spread his hands, "if it wasn't a random killing, which frankly seemed unlikely in that neighbourhood, and no cash was stolen from the till, then it must have been someone in her personal life. Donna was very beautiful, single ... she must have gotten mixed up with the wrong sort."
Mark had bristled, but restrained himself when the Judge shook his head, pursing his lips. "There's no indication of any personal relationships," he countered flatly.
Henderson simply shrugged, unconcerned. "Well, perhaps not. We'll never know, will we?" Standing, he continued, "I'm sorry, but I can't help you. If anything does occur to me, I will, of course, call you."
Hardcastle nodded as he and Mark stood as well, "Well, thanks, Jim. I appreciate your time. If we come up with anything that concerns you, well, we'll let you know."
"Concerns me?" Henderson repeated with a smile. "Well, that's hardly likely. I barely knew her. I'm sorry, Mr. McCormick," he continued, opening the office door to show them out, "Your mother seemed a pleasant woman. I wish I could be of more help."
"Yeah, I'm sure you do," Mark said dryly, passing close to the lawyer as he left the office, noticing with some satisfaction that Henderson had taken a step back, away from him. Hardcastle slapped Henderson on the shoulder as he left, with a cheerful, "We'll be in touch."
Milt smirked when he heard the door close soundly behind them. James P. Henderson seemed awfully happy to see them go.
Mark threw a disgusted look over his shoulder at the Judge, then headed into the hall toward the elevator.
Behind the closed door, Henderson's urbane expression collapsed into grim hostility. He went to the window, watching until they left the building.
Outside, unable to restrain himself any longer, Mark was sputtering, "Did you hear that snake? Implying ..."
"I heard him," Milt responded quietly, looking up toward the window with a smile and a wave. His grin broadened when Henderson jerked out of sight. "I don't think he liked us much, either."
Mark threw Hardcastle a look as he opened the door of the pickup to get in. "You think he's lying, don't you?"
"Like a rug," he responded, getting in behind the wheel. "I'm just surprised he's not better at it with all the practice he's had. Seeing you really threw him."
"Yeah," McCormick reflected, "I could tell he knew who I was before you said anything. But, I didn't think he was all that rattled."
The Judge turned the ignition and wheeled out of the lot. "He was rattled enough to remember it was exactly twenty-two years ago. That's a little too precise for someone who'd like us to believe that it was all too long ago and too vague to remember any details."
Mark swiveled on the seat to face Hardcastle, his arm up along the back of the seat. "What are you saying, Judge? You think he had something to do with it? That he killed her?"
Hardcastle screwed up his mouth as he shook his head. "Too soon to tell. So far, there's no motive, nothing to tie him to her death. But," he continued grimly with a glance at McCormick, "if he didn't, I'd be willing to bet he knows who did, and why."
Mark sat back, thinking about it. Why would Henderson kill his mother? Why would anyone kill her? He shook his head and sighed. Someone had had a reason. Reason enough to have hurt her badly before they murdered her.
Hardcastle stole a look at him, noticed the bleak expression on McCormick's face. "We've given him something to think about, kid ... we've shaken him up."
Mark just nodded, and turned his head away to look out the window as they headed back to Gulls Way.
Later that afternoon, Frank Harper rapped on the study door as he walked in, making himself at home, as usual. Milt looked up from the file he had on Henderson, and nodded, waving Frank into the room. Mark had been outside, but had seen the police detective arrive, and followed him in.
"Frank! Good to see you, have a seat," Hardcastle said.
"Thanks, Milt. I just thought I'd drop by and see how the investigation is coming along," he said with a glance at Mark, who had dropped into a chair, one leg dangling over the side.
"Well," Hardcastle replied, "we paid a visit to James Henderson. He seemed a little surprised to meet McCormick here. He denies knowing anything, but he's lying."
Frank nodded gravely. "You could be right."
Hardcastle caught the look and tone. His eyes narrowing with interest, he responded, "What have you got?"
"Maybe nothing. But I noticed Henderson's name when I glanced over the file copy I kept, and given what we all suspect about the learned lawyer, I decided to touch base with a few other sources."
"What sources?" Mark interjected.
"Well," Frank answered, scratching behind his ear, "if Henderson was involved with the syndicate back then, I figured your mother's death might have gotten attention in other quarters ... like the FBI. So, I called a buddy of mine at the Bureau and asked him to check the old files."
"And?" Hardcastle pushed impatiently.
Frank shook his head. "Well, there's nothing specifically referring to the murder. And there was no interest in Henderson at the time; he didn't start to look dirty until almost a year later. However, on the 12th of September, 1964, the FBI have a record of a call from an anonymous woman who said she wanted to find out what to do about someone she'd learned might be involved in a mob murder. She wouldn't give her name, just arranged to meet the agent the next day. But, no one ever showed."
Mark's mouth had dropped open as he listened to what Frank told them. In the silence that followed, he looked from Frank to Hardcastle and back again. "A mob murder? You think my mother had something on Henderson? You think he killed her to keep her quiet?"
Frank shrugged. "No way of telling, Mark. There's nothing to tie any of this together."
Hardcastle pondered the information. "It could explain why someone ransacked the apartment. They could have been looking for whatever it was she had, if it was Donna who called."
He reached for the phone. "Let's see if this information interests our legal beagle," he drawled as he dialed. A moment later, he said, "Yes, hello, it's Milton Hardcastle. I'd like to speak to Jim ... thanks." He held his hand up, to signal he was waiting. "Hello, Jim, sorry to bother you again. Listen, we just found out that Donna McCormick had been in touch with the FBI ... Yeah, it was a surprise. Seems she had some information to give them, but never showed up. I wondered if you might have any idea what ... No? Well, I'm sorry to hear that. Guess we'll just have to keep looking for ... What? Oh yes, yes, we're going to look for ... Yes, I know, it's been a long time, but ... Uh huh, well, you never know what might turn up. Look, sorry to have bothered you ... Uh huh, yes, we'll let you know. Good-bye."
Putting the telephone back into its cradle, Hardcase cocked a brow and grinned evilly. "Well, that should stir things up a bit!"
Henderson snarled into the phone, "Look! They're trouble. I know Hardcastle; he's like a dog with a bone. He's not going to give up ... Don't tell me to calm down! I never found the ... I know it was more than twenty years ago, but I'm not prepared to just sit back and hope they never find ... Look. I've done my part, I expect you to take care of this ... That's right, and I want it done tonight. I don't ever want to hear from them again. Do you understand?" He listened a moment more, nodded sharply and hung up. Running a hand through his hair, he sat back in his chair, fingers drumming on his desk.
Damn it. It was ancient history. He'd thought the problem had been solved long ago. Now this. Damn.
They were sitting in the study late that evening, lamps burning over the desk where Hardcastle sat and behind the chair where McCormick had flopped a couple hours before. They had been through all of the papers again, searching the files for something that would give them a handle to grasp, some idea or loose end. But, there was nothing. All they had was speculation.
McCormick tossed the last document onto the haphazard pile of paper which had grown around him on the floor, rolled his shoulders, stretched and flopped his head back on the chair, looking up at the ceiling. Milt chose to ignore this evidence of frustration and discouragement, keeping his eyes fixed on the documents on his desk. But he felt much the same.
"It's hopeless, Judge!" McCormick groaned theatrically.
"It's not hopeless!" the Judge growled back.
Mark sat up to gaze over at the Judge. "He did it, but we'll never prove it. He's got to know we're only guessing; that we don't have anything to tie him to Mom's murder. All he has to do is sit tight, wait for it all to blow over, and get on with his life. Tell me if I'm missing something here, that there is something else we could be doing, but I just don't see it!" he blurted out, waving his hands for emphasis, then slumped back into the chair, the picture of dejection.
Hardcastle rolled his eyes, sighed theatrically, and instructed, "I told you, McCormick, it's not hopeless! We've rattled him, brought back a threat he thought was long buried. You can't predict how he'll react. Sure, he might just 'sit tight', but he might also break, make a mistake. You," he said pointing his finger for emphasis, "need to settle down and learn to have a little patience."
"Patience!" McCormick jerked back up, his voice rising with his protest. "Judge, it's been twenty-two years of wondering, wishing I knew what happened ... wishing I knew why! How much patience do you want from me?"
Again the Judge sighed, his shoulders slumping a little, "I know, kid. But, the only thing we can do now is wait and see what happens next."
"If anything," Mark muttered, standing to click off the light behind him. "It's late, I'm tired ... I'm going to call it a night."
He had taken a step toward the doorway, and Hardcastle was just saying, "Good night, kid," when a burst of machine gun fire shattered the windows of the study, smashing the lamps and cutting a ragged line of bullet holes into the wall opposite the windows. Hardcastle and McCormick dove for the floor, hugging it, yelling in surprise and not a little fright.
The burst of fire stopped briefly, then resumed, making them curl to protect heads and bodies from falling plaster and glass.
"JUDGE!" McCormick shouted, "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," growled Hardcase, anger winning over jubilation that something had broken loose in the case. He hated having his house shot up, and wasn't thrilled at being shot at, either. "You?"
"Fine, I'm fine," McCormick replied, scrambling to get to Hardcastle's side, having to duck again when more bullets splattered the room with a deafening roar of sound.
"THAT'S IT!" growled Hardcastle, having had enough. He scrambled over McCormick, a knee landing on Mark's stomach as he headed toward his gun cabinet.
"Judge! OOOMMmpph! Judge, what are you doing? Would you stay DOWN!"
McCormick shouted, scrambling after Hardcastle when he saw the Judge rise to knees to grab a shotgun and shells from the rack. They both ducked again as more fire rained into the room. "Judge! Be careful!"
Heading toward the door on his knees, Hardcase growled, "Are you coming or not?" And then he was out and running down the hall toward the back door, then out and around the house, levering the action of the shotgun, McCormick racing after him. When they got to the front corner of the house, they slowed, crouching behind thick shrubs, seeking the source of the attack.
Mark, searching the shadows, saw with horror that the assassin had anticipated their move. It was just the outline of a man between the trees, turning the snout of his weapon toward them, but it was all Mark needed. Springing forward, he barreled into Hardcastle, shouting, "Get DOWN!" sending the Judge sprawling, just as another burst of fire came at them.
Milt rolled on the ground, leveled his weapon and shot both barrels at the shadow walking toward them – and was gratified to hear the yell, and to see the man drop to the ground. "Gotcha ya!" he crowed.
Hardcase pushed himself to his feet and bent to drag up McCormick, who seemed to have developed an affinity with the ground and was slower to jump at and run toward the guy with the machine gun. Milt levered the shotgun again, ready in case the intruder was playing possum, but there was no motion from the man, and no one else started to shoot at them. Keeping a wary lookout, they moved cautiously to check him out.
Hardcastle kicked the machine gun out of reach, then, with the toe of his boot, he pushed the crumpled man from his side onto his back. Satisfied there was no threat from him, Hardcastle went down on one knee to check for a pulse, not all that unhappy to be unsuccessful in locating one. This guy wouldn't be telling them anything. McCormick was standing behind him, still keeping a lookout, his eyes raking the shadows around them, one hand picking at his shirt.
Hardcastle, recognizing the man from the light cast by the full moon, said with some satisfaction, "Well, well, Tony Pareso; looks like you made your last mistake, chum." He put a hand on the ground to push himself back up to his feet.
Mark glanced down at the dead man at their feet, his voice strained and a bit breathless, "Who was he when he was breathing?"
"Chief enforcer for the syndicate out of Vegas. Well, kiddo," he said, his voice laden with tones of satisfaction, as he turned to face McCormick, "looks like we made someone nervous. What did I tell you – you just need to have a little patience!"
"Yeah, well, looks like you were right again, Hardcase," Mark replied, swaying a little.
"Would you get a hold of yourself, McCormick!" growled the Judge, thinking Mark was just reacting to the terror of the last few minutes, as he pushed a hand to Mark's shoulder to steady the younger man ... and felt something warm, wet and sticky under his palm. "McCormick!" he shouted, "You've been shot!"
Mark looked down at Hardcastle's hand, then back up to the Judge's face, "Yeah ... I noticed," he mumbled, swaying again, and starting to sink, his knees buckling.
Alarmed, Milt dropped the shotgun to catch hold of him, slowing his descent to the ground. "Mark!" he called anxiously, hastily touching the kid's face, seeing that he had lost consciousness. Then, quickly, he checked the wound again, noting the spread of blood on Mark's shirt over his left shoulder and upper chest. "Hang on, kid," he said firmly, as he stumbled to his feet and ran back to the house to call for help.
Hardcastle was impatiently pacing in the waiting room of the hospital, just outside the operating theatre, when the elevator pinged, and Frank Harper emerged. Seeing the Judge, the police detective jogged to his side. "Milt, what happened? I heard someone shot up your place, and Mark got hit. Is he alright?"
Milt stopped prowling the floor and stood rigidly, hands on his hips, his ball cap pulled down over his brow. Cocking his head toward the double doors to the inner sanctum of the hospital, he sighed, "He's in there now." Shaking his head tightly, a look of anger and disgust on his face mingled with worry. "You know, Frank, I expected some kind of reaction from Henderson, but I never thought he'd be dumb enough to try an old style gangland shoot-out!"
Frank laid a hand on the Judge's shoulder, knowing that, in part at least, he was blaming himself for what had happened. "No one could have expected this, Milt."
Hardcastle just looked away, grimacing as he chewed on the inside of his lip. Wanting to distract him, worried himself about Mark, Frank asked, "Who was the shooter?"
"Pareso; Tony Pareso," Hardcase growled, pulling away to resume his pacing.
Frank frowned thoughtfully, "Maybe we can tie him to Henderson."
"Maybe," the Judge allowed in a tight voice, "but it's all circumstantial. There's still nothing to tie Henderson to Donna McCormick's murder. And the now the kid..." He stopped in front of the wall at the end of the room and slammed his fist into it, furious, frustrated. Frightened.
"Milt, hey! Take it easy," Frank soothed, taking the older man's arm and leading him to a chair, pushing him into it. "How badly is Mark hurt?"
Hardcastle shook his head. "I don't know yet. He took a couple of rounds in his left shoulder and chest." He shrugged, his face bleak, his eyes staring around the room.
Frank took a seat beside him, leaning forward to clasp his hands between his knees. "Look, they're doing everything they can for him. We just have to have patience."
"Patience!" he growled, then sighed, slumping. "Yeah, I guess there's not much else we can do." He leaned back into the chair, staring up at the ceiling. There was a long silence; then he said quietly, "I'm going to get him for this, Frank. He's not going to get away with this."
Frank nodded. "Look, he'll know you won't give up, Milt. So, it's likely he'll keep coming at you. I'm going to post a guard on Mark's room, and have a backup keep an eye on you. The next time he makes a move, we'll be ready."
Hardcase nodded, resigned that it was the best they could do for the moment, grateful that the kid would have a guard. They both looked up with a start when the double doors opened, and stood when a doctor, pulling off his surgical cap, his mask dangling around his neck, came toward them. Licking his lips nervously, Hardcastle found himself studying the doctor's face, searching for some sign, and afraid of what they might be told. Stepping forward, he asked, unable to keep the anxiety from his voice, "McCormick, is he all right?"
Wearily, the doctor nodded, "He'll be fine. He's lost a lot of blood, but he's strong. And, he's lucky. The bullets missed anything vital. He's in recovery now, and later we'll take him up to his room. You might as well go home and get some rest."
Hardcase felt the tension leave his body as he cast a quick glance upwards and gave silent thanks. Then, he shook his head. "No, I'm not going home until I see him, and he's awake. When can I see him?"
The doctor knew stubborn intransigence when he saw it and forbore to argue. "Give us an hour, and someone will show you to his room."
Nodding, Hardcastle replied, "Thanks, Doc. I appreciate what you did to help him."
The doctor smiled then, resting a hand on Hardcastle's shoulder before turning away, "No thanks necessary. It's my job." Then, he left them to go back into the theatre area, the doors swinging shut behind him.
"C'mon, Milt, let's go get a coffee. It's going to be a long night," Frank suggested, and they headed toward the elevators, relieved to know their friend was going to be just fine.
Hardcastle had been sitting there for hours, watching the slow drip of the intravenous, watching Mark's face. From time to time, he'd stand, adjust the blankets around McCormick to make sure he stayed warm, touched the younger man's hand almost tentatively. Then, hunching his shoulders, he'd pace a bit before sitting down again. Mark hadn't moved since they'd moved him from the gurney to the bed, but every once in a while, he'd moan softly in pain, bringing the Judge's eyes up with concern and regret to know the kid was suffering.
The window had begun to lighten with the dawn, driving the shadows from the room, when Mark stirred and blinked, groaning a little unconsciously as his right hand fumbled up toward the left side of his chest. The Judge was on his feet instantly and by Mark's side, laying a gentle hand on his right shoulder. "Easy, kid," he murmured, "You're okay."
"Judge?" McCormick muttered, disoriented. He took a deep breath, and grimaced, "Owww," he muttered softly. "What happened?"
"A hit man came after us. You took a couple of bullets when you pushed me out of the way ... but, the doctor says you'll be fine."
Mark pulled one eye open, squinting at the Judge, his brow furled. A slight grin on his face, his voice weak but teasing gamely, "Hardcase, don't tell me I saved your life!" And then the smile widened as the second eye opened up and twinkled at the older man. "Does this mean that now I get a raise?" he asked hopefully.
Hardcastle just snorted. "Be grateful you're still breathing. You pull a dumb stunt like that again, I'll shoot you myself!"
McCormick chuckled, then winced at the pain it caused. "You're welcome, Hardcase."
Hardcastle just gave him a lopsided grin as he patted Mark's shoulder, then stepped back. "Yeah, well, it looks like you'll be laid up here for a couple of days. You were lucky, kid; it looked, and probably feels, worse than it is."
"Hmmm," Mark murmured, beginning to drift back to sleep, then he jerked a bit as he mumbled, "Don't go playing the Lone Ranger while I'm out of action, Hardcase." He paused, then murmured, "You gotta learn to have a little patience." He grinned again slightly as he slipped into sleep.
Hardcastle swallowed and sniffed, wiped a hand over his mouth. "Yeah," he rumbled, "Right." Then, satisfied that Mark was all right, he yanked his ball cap down, turned and strode from the room.
The elegant wood door slammed hard against the wall as Hardcastle burst into the office, the secretary shrilling behind him, "You can't go in there!"
Henderson looked up in shocked surprise at the violent intrusion; then stood hastily when he saw a very angry retired Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court stride into his office. "What's the meaning of this?" he demanded, his own underlying anxiety fueling his fury.
Milt crossed the room like a burly gorilla on a rampage, his face flushed with anger, his eyes flashing. When he reached the desk, he pointed at Henderson, "You went too far this time, and I'm going to get you for it!" he snarled.
Henderson regarded him with narrowed eyes, "I don't know what you're talking about, and I don't care. Get out."
"Cut the crap, Henderson. I'm not interested in your lies." Hardcastle barked, then continued with disgust. "It wasn't enough you had to kill the kid's mother; you almost killed him, too, last night. That was the mistake that's gonna cost you." He paused a moment, then promised, "I don't have all the pieces yet, but I'm going to get them and put it all together. I'm going to take you down."
"You're crazy, you haven't got anything on me," Henderson replied with a scathing tone, and looking past Hardcastle to his secretary, he ordered, "Call security."
Hardcase narrowed his eyes, studying the other man. "There is evidence," he said with quiet certainty. "You looked for it after she was murdered, but you didn't find it, did you? Well, now I'm looking and you can bet that I'll find it. You're finished, Henderson. It's only a matter of time."
With that, Hardcastle turned back to the doorway, where he looked back with a cold smile, "I'll be back – count on it." And then he turned, tipped a salute to the secretary and strolled from the outer office with the confidence of a man who knew he was going to win. This turkey was going to jail.
Three days later, Milt gave in and grudgingly let McCormick sign himself out of the hospital. "This is stupid, McCormick," he grunted, watching the kid sign the 'against medical advice' document at the nursing station.
"Yeah, well, you're always telling me I'm not too bright, Judge," McCormick muttered, slapping the pen down onto the counter. "I'm outta here!" But, then he grinned and winked at the nurse standing on the other side of the counter. "You know it's not you. You're great. I just can't leave him," he said with a nod back at Hardcastle, "alone and unsupervised. You wouldn't believe the trouble he can get into when I'm not there to look after him!"
"Very funny, McCormick," Milt growled, rolling his eyes.
"You noticed!" Mark sang joyfully, with a wide grin and eyes dancing with devilment, as he turned and settled himself into the wheelchair another nurse had brought to take him out of the hospital. His left arm was in a sling and he was still a bit pale, but there was no repressing his high spirits at escaping the confines of the institution.
"Shut up, idiot, you're making a spectacle of yourself," Hardcastle grumbled as he fell into stride beside the chair and they headed toward the elevator.
"Ah, Judge, you know you missed me! Who else have you got to yell at when I'm away?" Mark teased.
Hardcase cut him a disgusted sideways look and snorted. "Yeah, I missed you all right; about as much as I'd miss a sore tooth. Would you at least try to act like a grown up? You're embarrassing yourself."
"You see," Mark said, craning his head around to the nurse pushing the chair, "you're my witness. He admitted he misses me when I'm not around."
The pretty young woman just grinned down at him and winked. Mark grinned back, then turned, heaving a happy sigh. He had cajoled her number out of her that morning, and planned to give her a call as soon as he could handle the Coyote again without ripping out the stitches in his shoulder. Hardcase just shook his head.
A short while later, when he was helping McCormick climb into the truck, he caught the grimace on the younger man's face, and the hastily bitten back hiss of pain. Frowning, he demanded, "You're sure you're all right, McCormick?"
"Yeah, yeah. I'm fine ... fine," Mark returned, as he settled himself. "Quit fussing at me like some mother hen and close the door. I want to go home."
Hardcastle rolled his eyes, shook his head, muttering, "Give me strength," as he slammed the door shut, walked around the truck and got in behind the wheel. He turned and gave McCormick a look of assessment, trying to decide whether to take him home or leave him in the hospital.
Mark sighed. "I'm fine. It was just a scratch. Let's go already!"
"Some scratch. It took them two hours to sew you back up again. I don't want you pulling out those stitches!" Hardcastle retorted.
"Don't worry about it, Judge; just drive. Or do you want me to drive?" challenged McCormick.
Milt twisted the key in the ignition, muttering, "Stubborn jackass."
"No, that's you. I'm the idiot. Now, let's GO!" McCormick ordered, sitting back with a grin.
The Judge just grunted as he pulled out of the lot. Turning into the traffic to head toward the PCH, his eyes scanned the area and he wondered if Frank still had a backup attached to their tail. He spotted a car behind him, but wasn't sure. Keeping a wary watch on it, he stiffened when it followed them onto the highway, ready for action, just in case they weren't friends.
Mark noticed, caught the glance in the rearview mirror, and swiveled to look behind them. "Something wrong, Judge? We got company?"
"Could be," he muttered, then growled, "Turn around before you strain something."
Mark tossed him a withering look, but settled back into his seat, checking to make sure his seat belt was secure.
When the car behind them gunned its engine and began to move up, Hardcastle grunted, "Yep, looks like company, all right." He pressed his foot down on the accelerator.
"Anyone we know?" enquired McCormick mildly, as if they were about to receive unexpected guests.
Hardcastle glanced back up into the rearview mirror. "Don't know, kid, but it looks like we're gonna soon find out. Keep your head down!"
The other car was overtook them, and tried to force the Judge off the road. Swerving, then pushing back, the pickup and the car sideswiped one another, both rocking, then crashing back together, before a space opened again between them. Mark had grabbed onto the doorframe to hold himself as steady as possible, his shoulder protesting the violent lurches. A passenger in the other car leaned out of the window, a gun in his hand, trying to steady his aim.
"Damn," Milt cursed, swerving the pickup and ducking just as the attacker let loose a couple shots that, just missing him, angled out the windshield, shattering tiny webs around the holes punched through the glass.
Hardcastle hit the brakes, hard, causing the other vehicle to race ahead of them. He grunted with satisfaction at the sound of a siren close behind, then dropped in behind the police car which had pulled up and was chasing the sedan in front of them. The hunter had become the hunted. Unfortunately, they came into a line of heavy traffic, the sedan ahead taking desperate action to increase their margin of safety until it was clear they were out of reach, lost in the mass of vehicles ahead.
The police car slowed, unwilling to risk lives by maintaining the high-speed chase. It pulled to the side of the road, the pickup drawing up behind.
"Well, that was exciting," McCormick said under his breath.
"Humphh," Milt grunted, then turned to face the kid, reaching out a hand to his shoulder, taking care to keep his touch light over the bandages under the shirt. "You okay, kid?"
McCormick nodded, pulling on the door handle, and pushing it open. "I'm just peachy keen, Judge," he assured his friend as he jumped out. Hardcase also got out of the truck and went to stand with McCormick, who was leaning against the truck, his right hand absentmindedly rubbing his left arm, as they waited for Frank to walk over to them from the unmarked police vehicle.
"Well, if it isn't our own personal guardian angel!" Mark grinned at the detective.
The Judge just scratched his cheek, "Cut it a bit fine, don't you think?" he said to Harper.
"You know the rules, Milt, we have to catch 'em in the act," Frank returned with a wry smile, then looked back along the highway. "I'm just sorry we couldn't catch them." He sighed. "I radioed in the license, so we might get lucky and pick them up later."
"It's probably stolen," Hardcastle rumbled, but cocked an eyebrow at Harper. "I was glad when you turned up behind us, Frank. It could have gotten ugly."
The police detective shrugged off the gratitude and turned to Mark, "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Mark replied, straightening.
"Good," affirmed Frank then turned back to Hardcastle. "I'll just follow you home, in case you have company waiting."
"Thanks," grunted Hardcastle, turning to help McCormick back into the truck, before he and Frank started up their vehicles and headed back into the traffic.
But, whoever they had been, the men in the sedan were long gone, and everything was peaceful at Gulls Way went they got there. Frank stopped momentarily, to tell them he'd have a patrol car assigned to their gates for the next twenty-four hours at least before he pulled away, heading back downtown.
Having categorically refused to go to bed as ordered by the Judge, McCormick was lounging in a chair by the pool, his legs stretched out in front of him, his face tilted to the sun. He cocked one eye open at the sound of the kitchen door opening, then sat up a little straighter when he saw the Judge shouldering his way out, his hands fully occupied with two tall sweat-beaded glasses of amber liquid.
"Ice tea?" whined McCormick, reaching for one of the glasses.
"You're on painkillers, McCormick, shut up," Hardcase growled, turning to settle himself in a chair.
"Ah, Judge, one little beer wouldn't hurt," the younger man cajoled.
"Not while you're on drugs, so quit whining," Milt retorted with a half grin when McCormick sighed mightily and took a brave sip.
Leaning back, Mark looked over at the Judge, "Well, Hardcase, I have to admit being a target has its exciting moments, but couldn't we find another way to get this guy?"
"Hmm," considered the Judge, squinting into the air, chewing the inside of his mouth. He scratched his cheek as he ruminated, "You know, kid, we've got him on the run."
"Yeah," rejoined McCormick with a wry glance down at his shoulder, "we've sure got him on the run, Batman!"
"Will you shut up and let me think?" Hardcastle complained, taking another sip of the cool drink. "I think I shook him up when I went to see him the other day."
Mark sat up at that. "You went to see him? Without me? When?" he asked sharply.
"Keep your shorts on. I dropped by his office a couple of days ago, when you were sleeping off the anesthetic," Hardcastle responded with a dismissive wave.
"Judge! I specifically told you not to go off on your own! What were you thinking? No backup?" Mark scolded, with post-event alarm.
Heaving a sigh, the Judge said patiently, "In case you hadn't noticed, McCormick, I'm a big boy. I was going after garbage like him when you were still in diapers."
Mark rolled his eyes, and sat back. "You are one stupid jackass, Judge. So, what'd you do? Tell him you'd get him for putting your yard guy in the hospital?"
"You are not my 'yard guy' McCormick, you're my slave, a much more valuable commodity. And, yeah, that's what I told him," Hardcase growled.
Mark gaped at him, not knowing whether to crow in delight that he had finally got the Judge to admit to holding him in virtual servitude, or blush that the Judge had gone after Henderson on his behalf.
"Close your mouth, McCormick, you're attracting flies," Milt snapped, before continuing, "I told him I knew there was evidence, and that we'd fine it. That shut him up. And that means it's still around somewhere. Those goons today just confirmed it. So, now we just have to find it."
"Sure, piece of cake, Judge, or did you forget ... IT'S BEEN TWENTY-TWO YEARS! How're we supposed to find something that disappeared in Jersey more than twenty years ago?" objected McCormick, deciding someone in this dynamic duo had to maintain some touch with reality.
Ignoring him, Hardcastle continued to ponder the problem. "It does exist. And it has to be one hot piece of property to get him this worked up. So ... tell me again about the break-in at the apartment."
Mark sighed and shook his head. What did common sense and a dose of reality matter in the face of the Judge's determination? "Like I said, the place was torn apart, everything thrown around, mutilated ... and, Judge, it was all sent to the junk heap."
Milt shook his head impatiently, refusing to give up. "Think, McCormick! If it was your mother who called the FBI that day, she must have had it with her. But, not in her purse. He'd have searched it first, in the store, after he ... well, it couldn't have been on her person. And she wouldn't have left it in the office where Henderson could find it. It had to be in the apartment. Anywhere else, she would have ... I'm sorry, Mark, but, she would have told them," he paused, thinking of the pictures he'd seen, knowing what she must have suffered. She'd kept silent to protect her child. "So, what did she do with it?"
Mark threw up his right hand in frustration, his left being encased in the sling. "Jeez, Hardcase, how should I know? I was a kid! She didn't just march in and say, 'Hey, Mark, I've got some hot evidence here that you need to look after for me!' Judge, she came home and she ... oh my god," he said, his voice dropping to a whisper. "She said there was a treasure inside ..."
Hardcastle sat up, tautly alert. "What?"
"The book, Judge ... the book, Treasure Island, that she gave to me that night," Mark said, gazing into his eyes.
"Bingo," Milt said quietly. "And, I'll bet you still have that book, don'tcha kid?" It was the last thing his mother had given him, and Hardcastle had no doubt that book was somewhere in the guesthouse. No way would McCormick have ever parted with it.
Mark was already pushing himself to his feet. He was shaking, having also realized for himself that his mother had died protecting him.
Milt moved to help him, and together they set out across the lawn. When they got inside the guesthouse, Mark skirted around the coffee table to a low bookcase in the corner. He reached down and pulled the brown paper covered volume from the shelf, without even needing to look for it. He always knew where it was, and he'd read it more than once, rubbing his hands over the protective cover his mother had made, unwilling to ever take it off knowing she'd put it on for him, the last time he'd seen her.
Silently, he turned and handed the book to the Judge, who carefully unwrapped it. Inside the plain brown cover was a thin envelope, the tape securing it cracked and yellowed with age. He looked up at McCormick, who just nodded, his eyes on the package, swallowing hard as he waited to see what would be revealed.
Milt bit his lip as he carefully detached the taped package and set the book down. Then, he opened the envelope which bore the printed insignia of the law office Donna McCormick had worked in. Inside, he found two thin pages of handwritten notes and an old picture. He handed the notes to McCormick, who took them, whispering, "It's her handwriting, Judge." His voice cracked a bit, his eyes full of wonder, then he began to read. "They're notes from a conversation she overheard in the office. Someone named Sammy Tinkers was threatening Henderson ... blackmail by the mob, Judge," Mark said softly, as he looked up, "But, it doesn't say what they had on him."
The Judge had been gazing at the picture in his hand. "I think this pretty much explains it." he said, handing it to McCormick. Mark took the picture, and looked down to see a much younger James Henderson, a gun in his hand, standing over a body. He looked up at Hardcastle, his voice faraway, "She told me there was a treasure inside ..."
Hardcastle nodded tightly, then turned to grab up the phone, punching in the numbers. "Frank? Yeah, it's me. We've got it ... the evidence. Meet us at Henderson's office. Right ... one hour."
He put down the phone and took the pages and the pictures from Mark's hands. "You okay, kid?"
Mark raised his troubled blue eyes to Hardcastle's concerned gaze, the distracted, disbelieving look giving way to a dark anger. "He killed her, Judge. He really killed her."
"Yeah," the Judge nodded, "and after all this time, your mother has given us the motive and the evidence. We've got him, kid."
Mark turned to the door, "Not yet, we haven't," he replied grimly.
Hardcastle caught his right arm, stopping him. "Hold it! By the book, McCormick."
Mark whirled on the Judge, fury and pain in his eyes. "He killed my mother, Hardcase! I want to ..." His voice drifted off, his fists clenched.
"I know, Mark. But your mother is the last person who'd want you to go off half-cocked. He's going to pay, son. He's going to pay because you love her, and you safeguarded her last gift to you. But, we're going to do this legally – no vigilante action, ya hear? Or I'll leave you behind when Frank and I go to pick him up."
McCormick narrowed his eyes, breathing deeply, and gradually let his shoulders relax. "Okay, Judge, we do it your way, by the book. There's no way I'm not going to be there to see this," he said, his voice tight with control.
Hardcastle studied him a moment more, then nodded, trusting him to do the right thing. "All right, then. Let's go."
When they pulled into the parking lot outside Henderson's office, the police had not yet arrived. Mark yanked open the vehicle's door, jumping to the ground, pulling his sling off and throwing it back into the truck. Hardcastle had also gotten out of the pickup, with an air of resolute, calm authority. When Mark started toward the entrance, Hardcastle called after him, "McCormick! By the book! We wait for Frank, ya hear?"
Mark stopped in midstride, then turned to face the Judge. His desire for action warring with his word that he would adhere to the principles of justice clearly revealed in his face, he finally nodded curtly, and waited for the Judge to join him. Together, they walked to the entrance, to wait for Frank and his officers.
A few minutes later, two unmarked vehicles pulled into the lot and parked. Harper and three others got out of the cars, and strode over to join them. "What have you got, Milt?" Frank asked, wanting to be sure of their ground before they moved on an arrest.
Hardcastle pulled the envelope from his coat pocket and handed it to the police detective, who opened and scanned the notes, his eyes widening when he looked at the photo. He whistled softly, "Well, they say a picture is worth a thousand words."
"Can we go now?" demanded Mark with irritated frustration. He wanted this done.
Frank nodded and led the way into the building.
Once in Henderson's outer office, Frank signaled his three subordinates to wait, while he, Hardcastle and McCormick entered the inner office. The secretary had stood in alarm when they'd marched in but Frank flashed his badge, waving at her to sit down. Quietly, seeming resigned to the inevitable, she sat back down, folding her hands on the desk.
Again, Frank led the way inside. Henderson looked up when the door opened, his eyes widening when he recognized Hardcastle and McCormick and realized that, this time, they'd brought the law.
"James P. Henderson," Frank began, "I'm here to place you under arrest for murder."
"Whose murder?" Henderson countered, his hand reaching surreptitiously under his desk to the revolver secured there.
"Take your pick," Frank answered dryly. "We'll go over the details at the station. Let's go." The police detective waved toward the door with one hand, while the other reached for his cuffs, only to freeze when he saw the gun in Henderson's hand.
"I'm sorry, detective, but I'm not going anywhere with you," Henderson said, standing, the gun leveled at them. Cautiously, he moved out from behind the desk, considering his options, wondering what they had on him and how bad the situation really was. Glancing at McCormick, who was closest to the door, he ordered, "Close it. I like to hold my conferences in private."
Mark quietly closed the door, knowing this would be the signal to those who waited outside that they'd run into trouble. Having done so, he moved away from the door, to the side, closer to Henderson.
"So, which one of you wants to give me the details?" Henderson invited, his tone reasonable, but his eyes were glittering like a trapped animal.
Carefully, Hardcastle pulled the envelope out of his pocket where he'd returned it after Frank had examined the contents. "We have here notes made by Donna McCormick concerning a blackmail threat against you, and a picture of you holding a gun over what looks very much like a dead man. It's over, Henderson, give it up."
Henderson smiled thinly, realizing that they had brought all the evidence with them. Without it, they had nothing. Fools. "Well, Judge," he said smoothly, "I want to thank you for finding that lost bit of information for me. Now, if you don't mind handing it over..." He moved out from behind the desk, and motioned with the gun for Hardcastle to come closer. In doing so, he took his eyes off McCormick, not really considering him a threat. After all, he knew Mark had just gotten out of the hospital that morning.
As the Judge took a half-step forward, Mark launched himself across the room, diving at Henderson. Seeing the danger too late, the lawyer turned as Mark barreled into him. The gun went off, but the shot went wild. All of the rage of his life flared hot as McCormick grabbed Henderson by the collar of his shirt with his left hand and slugged him hard with his right, the arm coming back to hit him again, only to be caught by Hardcastle.
"Enough, Mark!" he shouted.
Henderson had staggered from the blow, pulling against Mark's weak left side, breaking the young man's grip. Yelling for his officers, Frank swiftly moved in, to pull Henderson's arms behind him, and to secure his wrists with handcuffs.
Mark fought against Hardcastle's grip, momentarily caught in a kind of madness, but Milt wouldn't let him go. Finally, he relaxed. "It's okay, Judge ... you can let me go now."
Hardcastle released his grip, and laid his hand on Mark's shoulder. "We got him, kid," he said quietly.
McCormick was staring at Henderson with narrowed eyes. "You bastard," he seethed. "What you did to her..."
"You can't prove I touched her," Henderson sneered.
Hardcastle tightened his grip on Mark's shoulder, as he replied, "No? We'll see about that. The picture pretty much condemns you for one murder, Henderson, her notes tie her to you and the picture, and her apartment was trashed after she was murdered. I think we've got all the proof we need."
The Judge's relentless confidence shook the vestiges of Henderson's resistance, and he slumped back against the desk.
Milt tugged gently on McCormick's arm. "C'mon, kid, it's over. Let's go home."
It had taken months to put all the pieces together, to work out the whole story. But, it all was revealed at the trial. The dead man in the picture had been a petty hood named Doogie Jenkins, a drug supplier, who had been blackmailing Henderson for the drugs he'd used while still in college. If the information had ever been made public, Henderson's career would have been ruined.
Finally, he had decided to end it, and he'd taken a gun instead of money to the last meeting with the hood, not knowing that the creep had been getting nervous, thinking Henderson was going to stop the payments, payments he needed to supply his own habit. He'd asked a buddy along, Sammy Tinkers, to stakeout the meet, and take pictures of Henderson making the payoff, thinking it would give him more hold over the young lawyer. Well, it hadn't helped Jenkins, but Sammy had pure gold.
Sammy's uncle was a syndicate warlord, and Sammy had always wanted to make a good impression on his uncle. So, he set up the blackmail on the murder, and the mob owned Henderson from that time forward. Sammy had left a copy of the picture with him that day he'd come to the office, to explain Henderson's new role in life as a counselor for the syndicate. He'd put in his desk, but had had to leave his office when his boss, George Bates, had called him into conference. When he couldn't find the picture later, and thought about who had access to his office, who had known Sammy had come to see him, he went out to confront the secretary. But, she'd already gone for the day, leaving early. He was sure, then, that Donna had overheard the conversation, and had taken the photo with her.
But, it was all circumstantial. Like everyone else who worked in the law office, Henderson knew about Donna's second job. He'd gone there that night, to confront her in the store. The fear in her eyes was all the proof he needed. He'd hit her, and when she was down, he'd rifled her purse, but it wasn't there. He'd locked the door to the store, and turned out the lights, dragging her back into the storeroom. There he'd done all he could to make her talk, to make her tell him what she'd done with the evidence, but she wouldn't. She had died, refusing to answer his questions.
He'd heard someone bang on the outside window, heard a child's call, and waited until he was certain the kid had gone away again, before leaving himself. It was then he decided to ransack the apartment the next day, when it was empty. He would have gone that night, but he was afraid the kid would make too much noise, attract too much attention from the neighbours. But, when he searched, he didn't find the photograph.
When nothing had happened, when the police never came for him, he had begun to believe he'd gotten away with it. The mob still had him in their control, but at least he wasn't going to be charged with murder. In those days, New Jersey still had the death penalty. He'd thought he was home free. But, he'd made a mistake. He should have killed the kid, too.
Mark sat in the courtroom every day of the trial. When he heard the part about Henderson still being in the backroom when he'd gone searching for his mother, he bent forward, head down, hands gripped tight between his knees. Hardcastle laid a strong, comforting hand on his back.
The verdict was first degree murder on both counts. Henderson was going to spend the rest of his life in jail.
The day of the verdict, when they left the courtroom, Mark was somber. It was done, but nothing could bring her back. And nothing could ever erase the pain she'd suffered before she died. Standing on the sidewalk outside of the courthouse, Hardcastle pulled an envelope out of his pocket and handed it to McCormick. Puzzled, the younger man opened it, and found a round trip air ticket to La Guardia inside.
He bit his lip, and had to blink hard. "Judge, you didn't have to do this." he whispered hoarsely.
"I think you need to pay her a visit, kid," the Judge muttered, trying for a gruff tone, acting as if it wasn't even worth talking about.
Mark sniffed again, then looked up. "Would you come with me?" he asked quietly, his eyes glittering with unshed tears.
Surprised, touched, the Judge nodded, "If that's what you'd like, sure," he said, then turned to lead them down the street to the Coyote parked along the curb.
The two men walked slowly across the immaculate grounds of the old cemetery. When they neared the grave, Hardcastle paused and hung back a bit, respecting Mark's need to go on the last few steps alone.
Mark stood looking down at the plain white stone marker, then he dropped down on one knee to lay the flowers he had carried at its base. "I'm sorry, Mom," he whispered, "I'm sorry he did that to you. But, at least he didn't get away with it. I just wish that finding out what happened could bring you back. You were really brave, you know? I can't imagine ever having that much courage."
He stopped, his voice breaking and he had to brush the tears from his eyes. Sniffing, he swallowed and continued, "The old guy behind me is Hardcastle; he's the one who helped me finally find out what happened and why. He's irascible, and stubborn, and he hates for anyone to know he's an old softy ... so I try to keep his secret. But, he's a fine man, Mom, and I know you'd have liked him a lot. You got me started, you taught me how to be a decent person, and he's doing his best to make sure I amount to something. Between the two of you, I guess I might."
He reached over and touched the stone, stroking it. "I miss you, Mom, you know that, and I'll always love you. But, you don't have to worry about me anymore. I'm okay. So, you rest now. Everything's going to be all right."
Mark stood there quietly, then turned a little when Hardcastle came up beside him, laying a hand on his shoulder. Looking down at the stone, the Judge said quietly, his tone the courtly voice he reserved for talking to a real lady, "Your son's a fine man, Ms. McCormick, a credit to you. I know you're proud of him ... and I know he's always been proud of you."
Mark's shoulders trembled. "Thank you, Judge," he whispered.
The Judge clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't mention it, kid," he rumbled. "Now, it's time for us to go. There's a lot of work piled up back there, ya know. The lawn looks like it hasn't been cut in weeks, and the weeds have taken over the gardens. As for the shrubs, well..."
Rolling his eyes heaven-ward, Mark laughed shakily. "See what I mean? The man's a slave driver," he accused playfully.
"And don't you ever forget it!" replied the Judge, with a wink at the stone marker, as he turned and led McCormick away, taking him home.
Born ----------------- Died
May 14, 1935 ---- September 12, 1964
Resting in Peace