Disclaimer: These characters are not mine and I make no profit from them.
Author's Note: Well, it ought to be easy when you wrote the forum challenge yourself, right? Hah.
This follows on after The Homecoming, parts I and II, with a brief reference to the story 'Time After Time'. A big thanks to Owl for beta-ing, and also for lending me Mark's philosophy on 'surprises', first stated in 'Lunchdate at the O.K. Corral'.
For Cann, who wanted something for St. Pat's Day.
The Homecoming, Part III
By L. M. Lewis
your home always be too small to hold all your friends.
An Irish toast
Hardcastle had taken the wheel from Albuquerque to Kingman, and he'd insisted on a breakfast stop. Even with McCormick making up some of the slack west of Needles, they didn't pull in to the gate at Gulls Way until a little after noon on Friday.
Mark had the decency not to leap out of the car. After over twenty-four hours of nearly non-stop driving, the judge thought he might need a pry bar to get himself out. They both eventually emerged, stiff and slow. Hardcastle was surprised not to see the younger man head straight for the gatehouse and, presumably, some shut-eye.
Instead, McCormick followed him up to the front door, making a comment about lunch and wandering back toward the kitchen. The judge headed wearily into the den. He hit the message button on the answering machine and stood, waiting for it to rewind. He didn't feel much like sitting. Didn't feel much like anything.
It was Harper's voice on the tape, being vague but slightly insistent about needing to show him something. This was followed by further vagueness about where he'd be today, and that it might be better if he just stopped by the estate in the evening.
Hardcastle hit the stop button and sighed again. He supposed Frank would ask about the trip, and he'd better come up with a short version before McCormick took the floor and turned it into some big melodrama, complete with betrayal, hairbreadth escapes, and some choice comments about the judge's old lady disguise.
He squinted for a moment. There'd been some banter back in Clarence—some of it obviously aimed at distracting him through annoyance—but McCormick had been a bit on the quiet side since they'd started for home.
The judge heard a muffled holler from the direction of the kitchen. "Soup's on."
He headed back there, not sparing much more thought to how he'd handle the inevitable questions, and only half-wondering what bee Harper had in his bonnet this time. Something interesting, he hoped, some big-city low-life who went around with the words 'bad guy' practically tattooed on his forehead. That'd be nice.
It was salami and Swiss on some barely-thawed rye that McCormick had thrown in the freezer before they left. Nothing fancy, but the judge wasn't much in the mood for lunch anyway. Even the breakfast stop, early that morning, had been more on account of needing a break from being folded up in the Coyote for so long.
McCormick munched his own sandwich methodically. His mind was obviously elsewhere, probably on how soon he could hit the sack.
"Frank called," Hardcastle said off-handedly as they were finishing up. "He's bringing something over later on."
"He say what?"
"Nah." The judge shook his head. "Just said it was important."
McCormick made no further comment, except to nod in agreement when Hardcastle said a nap might be the next order of business. The judge left him to deal with the minimal amount of clean-up, and headed upstairs. It was only after his head was on the pillow, that he heard the garage door opening, and the truck being backed out.
He puzzled about that for a moment, but the time when he'd kept track of McCormick's trips off the estate had passed months ago. Must've decided we needed a loaf of bread and some milk. And then he was drifting off, finally tired enough to get past the ugly recollections of the past week.
His eyes opened to the sort of twilight that momentarily confuses. Dawn or dusk?
Evening, he decided after only a moment, certain that even as tired as he'd been, he could never have slept straight through to the next morning. He thought some sound must have wakened him, but there was nothing now. He got up, still stiff and maybe even a little more sore, the aches and pains of Clarence overlaid by the ones from the long drive home.
By the time he'd gotten to the bottom of the stairs, he knew McCormick was in the house. There were sounds from the kitchen—cupboard doors being opened and closed—must have been more than a trip to the grocery store to have taken that long, though. No, he hadn't just gotten back; there was the smell of dinner cooking.
"What's that?" he asked from the kitchen doorway.
Mark was at the stove and almost jumped at the intrusion. He cast a glance over his shoulder.
"Corned beef and cabbage." He turned back to the pot, lifting the lid for a moment and then setting it back, apparently satisfied. "I've never made it before." He frowned. "I supposed I should have asked you if you like it."
"Corned beef, sure. Cabbage?" A brief sideways waggle of his hand completed that statement.
"Well, it's traditional," Mark said, as if that settled it.
"Yeah, ate a lot of it growing up."
McCormick suddenly looked more worried. He glanced sidewards at the judge and then back at the pot.
"Aw, come on now," Hardcastle said in mild exasperation. "Cabbage is not off-limits as a topic of conversation just because I ate it when I lived in Clarence. I spent my first eighteen years there, kiddo."
"Okay," Mark nodded, looking a little relieved. "And I suppose one more helping won't bring on any flashbacks."
"Nah. Gas, maybe."
McCormick grinned and checked under the lid again. The judge caught a glimpse of the brisket through a cloud of steam.
"They had a sale or something? We're gonna be eating corned beef sandwiches for a week. I hope you got another loaf of rye."
Mark was still smiling, though it looked a little stiffer. "Don't worry. It freezes."
"We got some potatoes to go with that?" The answer was interrupted by a ringing of the front doorbell. "Must be Frank," the judge said. "Wonder if he likes corned beef?" He turned and headed for the front hallway.
There was a shadowy outline on the other side of the diamond-paned door glass, but with movement it was clearly more than one person. Hardcastle puzzled as he reached for the knob. He managed to apply a warm and sociable smile, with only a hint of his inner confusion, when the door opened to reveal Frank and Claudia on the front steps.
Confusion became tinged with suspicion as he saw another car had just pulled up. Mattie Groves was climbing out and waving. There was a third set of headlights coming up the drive.
"Happy St. Patrick's Day," Claudia said. "Where are we going to want these?" She pointed to the bag Frank had his arms around. "Mostly dessert but I've got some fruit salad in there, too."
"Might want to ask McCormick," the judge said, his smile had gone thinner on that name. "He's in the kitchen."
Claudia took the bag from Frank, who seemed a little reluctant to be giving up his job. She strode off, looking eager to be useful. Harper flashed a quick, slightly nervous grin, and stepped inside.
Mattie was on the porch, beaming. "A great idea, Milt. I've got the Bailey's." She hefted a bottle-sized brown bag, and gave him a peck on the cheek. "Happy St. Pat's, though I suppose it's technically St. Pat's Eve."
Hardcastle nodded, ushering her in and staring out into the drive again. He leaned over to Frank and said, just above a whisper, "How many are coming?"
"Ah," Frank kept his voice low as well, "Charlie, and Hamilton, and Carlton and his wife, and—" This recital was interrupted by the arrival of Bill Giles.
"Brought the Guinness," he grinned. He had an obviously heavy bag tucked under one arm. "You'll have to add your own food coloring. I refuse to desecrate the stuff like that."
"That's McCormick's department," the judge said bluffly, pointing down the hall to the back. He grabbed Frank by the lapel, as soon as the coast was clear, and hissed, "A surprise party?"
"Well," Frank admitted judiciously, keeping his expression very neutral, "more like a party you hadn't heard about yet."
The judge growled, then rearranged his face and loosened his grip as the next set of guests arrived. By the time he was done with the greetings, the den behind him was abuzz with company. Mattie had fetched glasses and was pouring drinks. He was dragged in by one elbow and Hamilton was proposing a toast.
"I only know one that's Irish." Then he cleared his throat, raised his glass, and said broadly, "'May you be in heaven a full half-hour before the devil knows you're dead.'" This got a cheerful round of agreement and several hearty shouts of 'Welcome back'.
Hardcastle accepted a glass, lifted it just slightly, and took a sip, keeping a brittle smile in place nearly the whole time. McCormick, he noticed, had wisely absented himself.
But then Claudia was summoning them all into the dining room, which had been set up as an impromptu buffet, and everyone was helping themselves to the food. Mark was there presiding over the dishing up, though he looked somewhat distracted. He managed to avoid eye contact with the judge, as if he half expected to get chewed out in front of company.
People made themselves comfortable, scattered here and there. Bottles of Guinness and Harp were cracked open. McCormick stayed busily out of reach, pouring glasses and distributing them. He didn't bother with the green food coloring. Hardcastle watched Mattie finally snag him and get him seated long enough to be handed a plate.
He frowned in the younger man's direction. He calculated that with the buying and bringing home, plus the cooking time of a brisket that size, McCormick hadn't made it out to the gate house at all that day except maybe for a quick shower and a change of clothes. Why on earth he'd thought today would be a good occasion for a party—a surprise party—was one of those mysteries that even the man himself probably wouldn't be able to explain.
Unless, of course, the whole thing was meant as some sort of cockamamie attempt to bolster his spirits. Though even Mark, by now, must've realized how ridiculous that idea had been. As if his spirits needed bolstering in the first place. The judge shook his head. They were going to have a talk once the company left, that much was certain.
But the company, now sated, pleasantly awash in stout, and starting in on the Irish coffee and Claudia's oatmeal cookies, was only going as far as the patio by the pool. It was a clear, balmy, spring night, with the full moon reflected in the water. The conversation was alternately boisterous and quiet. It went round to many things, but touched only briefly on Hardcastle's hometown, with some general and glancing references to his recent honor.
He'd nearly forgotten about it himself, he realized, and this surprised him for a moment. He looked around, thinking he'd give McCormick a nod and a smile, let him off the hook a little—though they were still going to have a talk about the subject of surprise parties—but he didn't see him. Inside, maybe straightening up.
He frowned again. He thought if the kid was going to throw a party, he ought to at least attend it, not stay holed up in the kitchen for most of it like he was hired help or something.
Eventually it was well and truly St. Patrick's Day, or at least midnight had come and gone. The last of the guests were bidding him farewell and making their way around to the front drive. He saw them off, accepting their thanks for a delightful evening with a twinge of guilt. He saw Frank's car was still there, after the rest had gone. He turned and walked back up to the house, heading straight to the kitchen. Frank was rinsing plates. Claudia was tearing off a sheet of plastic wrap to cover what was left of the potatoes.
"Where's McCormick?" The judge frowned.
"Shh," Claudia said quietly. "He looked tired. I told him to lie down on the sofa for a bit." She glanced up at the clock. "That was about an hour ago."
Hardcastle looked back over his shoulder, then turned to Frank. "Wanna help me fetch the glasses in from the patio?"
Frank nodded with what seemed like an air of reluctance. Hardcastle made sure they were well away from the house before he said, "I can't believe you went along with this idiotic idea of McCormick's. I didn't need everybody to come over here so I could have my hand held."
Harper, he noticed, was looking at him a little blankly.
He forged ahead anyway. "I know he doesn't have the best judgment in the world, but I would have thought that—"
"Milt, seriously, we didn't know what else to do, I mean, by the time he called me, it was such short notice and all."
"To call it off. If we had, everyone would have wanted to know why and he thought you didn't want to have to talk about what happened."
Hardcastle stood there, still one step back in the conversation. "Call what off?"
"Ah," Frank knitted his brows, "I guess it was a surprise party, but he said he was going to tell you about it beforehand. Kind of a combination 'welcome home' and St. Pat's thing, ya know? He said if your home town could do it, why shouldn't we? That was a couple weeks ago, before you left."
"You mean nobody here tonight knew what happened in Clarence?"
"Well, he told me. Guess he had to. He called yesterday morning. He was panic-stricken. He said he'd forgotten all about the party with everything that had happened. He didn't even know if you'd be back here in time, and what the hell were you gonna tell everybody if you got back late?"
The judge was staring up at the house. He let out a long breath, took in a another one and said, "Well, if he hadn't gone sneaking around in the first place—"
"Planning a party," Frank pointed out. "Not exactly a parole violation. If it had gone the way it was supposed to go, you would have been back a couple days ago. He'd'a given you a heads up and you woulda grumbled about it and then been a good sport, and after it was all over, you'd'a said you had a good time and maybe we should do it again next year, right?"
Hardcastle gruntingly assented.
"How was he supposed to know somebody was going to try and kill you out there?" Frank's face looked more troubled. "You okay? He sounded pretty shook up when he called."
"Yeah," the judge grumbled, reaching up and feeling the smaller but still-present lump. "I got a hard head. He probably made it sound a lot worse than it was."
Harper shrugged. "He really didn't say much. Said you'd tell me. Just sounded upset, like I said. He looked kinda beat tonight, though. Mattie says you're working him too hard," the lieutenant added with a smile.
"Well," the judge muttered, "been a long week. He, ah, thought I wound up at the bottom of a reservoir."
"Yeah, well, things were a little crazy. He saw the car go in the water, but the sheriff ran him and Christie off. Christie Miller—she was the first victim's daughter." He said the word 'victim' as though it still tasted sour in his mouth. He hesitated a moment, then shook his head and continued on, "And by the time he outran 'em and got back, I was already out. I'd gone stumbling off, and Christie took him up to an abandoned cabin, to hide out. We didn't get back together until the next day."
"And that whole time he thought you were dead? He thought he'd let them kill you?"
Hardcastle gave him a mildly confused look. "'Let 'em'?" He broke out of jail and came after them with a shotgun to try and stop it. That's what Christie said. Then he went down in that reservoir till he was half-drowned himself, looking for me."
"But he thought you were dead." Frank looked over his shoulder at the house. "He thought he hadn't stopped it." He turned back to face Hardcastle. "No wonder he looked like he'd been through the wringer."
The judge still looked bemused. "Yeah, well, it's not like—"
Frank interrupted. "How hard'd they hit you on the head, anyway? Don't answer. Not hard enough, apparently." He frowned. "Listen to me just this once. Don't go in there and yell at him about this right now, okay?"
"I wasn't gonna yell at him," the judge raised his voice in exasperation and then, in response to Frank's twitch of a smile he added, "much," in a lower near-mutter.
"Yeah," Frank's smile had broadened into something slightly less worried, "sure you weren't . . . but you won't, right?"
The judge nodded reluctantly. It was all Harper was going to get by way of an admission. Claudia was peering out the back door. They hastily gathered up the remaining bottles and glasses and headed back inside. Nearly everything else was already sorted out.
He thanked Claudia as he saw them both to the front door. He didn't know exactly how much she knew about what was going on, but he caught her throwing a worried glance toward the den as they departed. Too many referees in this game. Hardcastle tried to smile reassuringly at them both as he waved good-bye and shut the door.
Standing there for a moment in the hallway, staring at nothing, he heard Frank's car start up and then pull away. A noise behind him startled him out of his reverie. He turned and saw McCormick, over by the desk and obviously looking through the front window at the tail-lights of the last departing car.
He looked frowsy and not yet entirely awake, but there was already a hint of worry to his expression. Hardcastle inventoried his own conscience and then said, matter-of-factly, "Nice party."
At least he'd managed to startle the kid. McCormick, who'd looked like he'd been on the verge of an apology, was struck dumb for a moment, and then finally said, in a nervous half-question, "It was?"
"Yeah," Hardcastle smiled. "Too bad you didn't stay up for it. We had a couple rounds of 'My Wild Irish Rose', and Hamilton knows all the words to 'Danny Boy', both verses . . . he can hit the high notes, too."
Mark was smiling himself, now, though there was some reserve to it. "You mean you're not mad about the sur—"
"Don't push it, kiddo," the judge growled cheerfully.
The younger man subsided at once, almost as though the air had been let out of him. "Better get at the kitchen." He stumbled into motion.
Hardcastle shook his head, grabbed him by one elbow as he brushed past, and steered him in the opposite direction. "Claudia already tackled it. I think she and Mattie want to unionize this shop."
Mark looked bemused, but let himself be shoved gently out the front door. He stood there on the porch for a moment. "I'm not in trouble?"
"Trouble?" Hardcastle smiled beatifically. He'd never realized that astonishing McCormick was almost as satisfying as yelling at him. "'Course not."
It apparently took a moment for the words to sink in. Then McCormick flashed a genuine smile of relief. "Great," he finally said. "And I promise I won't do it again. No more surprise parties," the smile turned into a grin, "at least not without telling you first."
He cast a quick assessing look at the full moon, now hanging over in the western sky. He beamed up at it, beaming down at him. It was obviously early morning.
Then he looked over his shoulder, from the bottom of the front steps. ""And happy St. Patrick's Day . . . Hey, maybe we can go out to an Irish pub tonight, have a couple of green beers, listen to some Irish music."
The judge sighed, exasperatedly. "Don't push your luck, kid."