Disclaimer: This is a story written out of love and respect for the series and its characters, not for profit.

Author's Notes: This is yet another follow-up to The Birthday Present, and is just my own personal take on a few of the elements that made that particular episode so truly multidimensional. Many, many thanks go to Owl and L.M., who both went far beyond the call of duty in donating their time and talents to make sure that this story evolved into the very best it could possibly be, and also to my friend Idler, who knew nothing of the series until she read this story, yet caught a major lulu I should have picked up on myself. You guys are truly the greatest. (And yes, ladies, I was tweaking right up to the very point of submission, so if anyone catches any major boners at this point, all the blame goes to me and me alone!)


It was unseasonably chilly that late Tuesday afternoon, with a brisk wind blowing off the Pacific, ushering in the storms forecast to hit the Los Angeles area shortly after sunset. The winds were so brisk that Mark McCormick, ex-con, ex-racecar driver, and all-around handyman, had been forced to abandon his current project of pruning the more wayward of the climbing roses, the outgrown, prickly, and wind-buffeted canes having a distressing and painful tendency to blow back against the less protected areas of his body, as evidenced by the numerous scratches across his cheeks and arms. After putting away the pruners and battening down the hatches of everything in danger of flying off into (or worse, over) the cyclone fencing surrounding the Gulls Way estate, McCormick had retreated into his own cozy gatehouse shelter with plans to spend an unusually solitary and leisurely evening in downing most of a six-pack and catching up on his reading.

Two hours later, McCormick was lazily stretched out on the sofa, curly head propped against a pillow, as the wind howled around the eaves of the house and the rain lashed against the glass patio doors. Slightly bored, yet with an unaccustomed fretfulness, he discarded the racing magazine he had been leafing through and stared absently across to the blank television screen on the other side of the room, wondering idly if it was worth the effort to get up and turn the thing on. Deciding against such monumental exertion on his part, he laid his head back against the arm of the sofa, listening to the ever-increasing sounds of the storm and letting his mind wander where it would.

The relentless pounding of rain on the gatehouse roof soon had him speculating on the whereabouts of Milton Hardcastle, retired Superior Court Judge, owner of Gulls Way (and its gatehouse), boss, slave-driver, mentor . . . and, most unexpectedly but now most definitely, friend. Only a few weeks before, McCormick might have occasionally taken their relationship at something of face value, even as he had sometimes taken at face value his close friendship with an earlier mentor, Flip Johnson, who had died violently and undeservedly, so nearly the fate of Hardcastle as well. You woulda thought I'd have learned something from losing Flip. McCormick's thoughts took on a bitter and most unwelcome introspection, as his thoughts were wont to do these days when he let down his guard. You woulda thought I'd have realized what . . . who . . . we were risking with that stupid stunt.

And then, his mind following its usual path behind that particular train of thought, he acknowledged to himself once more that that he hadn't taken his friendship with the judge for granted. None of those involved had really had any control over the spiraling events that had been touched off by the arraignment of Weed Randall, an already incarcerated killer whose latest potential indictment had resulted from evidence collected by McCormick and his fellow collaborator, Sandy Knight. That evidence, presented as a gift to Hardcastle for his birthday, had been gathered with the best of intentions, but perhaps with more than a little naiveté as to possible consequences.

Yet that wasn't fair, either to himself or Sandy. Neither of them could have known that Hardcastle would be asked to come out of retirement to preside over Randall's trial. Neither could have ever imagined that their well meaning actions – done out of strong mutual affection for the judge, and accomplished despite an equally strong mutual antipathy toward each other – would result in the judge being shot and almost killed by Randall in the courtroom. He doubted that anyone would have predicted Sandy Knight's subsequent lapse into lunacy, and no one could have foreseen the chain of events that had forced McCormick to shoot and kill Randall himself.

And at that point, also as McCormick's thoughts were wont to do these days, all thought abruptly ceased, and the discarded magazine once more found its way into his clenched hands, the knuckles whitening to a bonelike paleness. He stared sightlessly at the page before him, the sound of his heartbeat suddenly reverberating painfully in his ears in echo to the heavy thunder that shook the house and rattled the windowpanes, as the gale outside reached the pinnacle of its fury.


Even as the intensity of the storm gradually subsided, so too did McCormick's heart slowly settle once more to a normal rhythm. After awhile he laid the magazine aside, wondering again, this time with growing concern, just where the heck Hardcastle was right now. The judge had left in a taxi late that afternoon to keep a dinner appointment with an old friend (or so he'd said), his first excursion alone outside the gates of Gulls Way since his release from the hospital several weeks earlier. Predictably, McCormick had fretted just a bit about Hardcastle's venturing into the wilds of the Los Angeles jungle without his faithful ex-con companion alongside to act as expert chauffeur, irrepressible goad, and newly-self-appointed all-around bodyguard.

Hardcastle had rather grumpily snorted off McCormick's somewhat vocal protest to this solitary outing, finally replying in exasperation, "For God's sake, McCormick, I'll be in a taxi. I'll get right out at the restaurant door, and when we're through eating, I'll call another one and get right back in again, and I promise I'll get back home before it turns into a pumpkin. Wouldya stop fussing, for sweet pity's sake?"

There had been no genuine anger in Hardcastle's scolding, however, only a tense weariness that seemed to reveal a genuine lack of anticipation at this forthcoming dinner engagement. But that was the only thing Hardcastle had revealed to McCormick, except for the restaurant in question, the Galley in Santa Monica, a mid-price steakhouse with respectably ancient credentials and equally well-aged steaks. The identity of his dinner companion the judge had kept determinedly to himself, and McCormick had detected something in his somber, almost depressed mood that both warned against any unwelcome inquiries in that direction and set off alarms throughout McCormick's already overloaded sense of protectiveness towards the judge.

Still, concealing his qualms, McCormick had cheerfully deposited Hardcastle into his waiting taxi, after ensuring that the judge carried both his raincoat and an umbrella ("Yeah, Judge, I know, they're in the way, but it's gonna rain, and I really don't think it's a good idea to risk a chest cold right now, do you?") Then, with a persistent feeling of uneasiness, he had watched the taxi disappear around the curve of the drive before returning reluctantly to grapple once again with his cantankerous climbing roses.


Round about midnight, the rain had slacked off, Hardcastle had yet to make an appearance, and McCormick had had enough of waiting. He shrugged into a windbreaker and an old pair of loafers and, slipping out through the patio doors, loped across the strip of lawn that separated the back of the gatehouse from the main house. Letting himself in quietly through the kitchen door, he headed down the hall, where the outside light shining through the diamond-paned front door revealed the double doors to the den standing open to his left. Once in the den, McCormick shrugged off the windbreaker and, without bothering to switch on the lights, installed himself in one of the red leather armchairs, mentally armed and ready for donkey once it finally made its belated way home.

He had been sitting there ten minutes, absently watching the occasional roll of raindrops against the backlit and uncovered glass of the study window behind the judge's desk, when he heard the sounds of a vehicle swishing through the numerous puddles that dotted the pavement of the driveway. Instantly he was on his feet and behind the judge's desk, quickly closing the shutters across the lower portion of the window. Carefully he peered through the blades of one shutter, just in time to see Hardcastle climb out of the taxi, coat carried casually across his arm, and turn back to speak to a second passenger sitting in the backseat. The dome light revealed only a quick blurred glimpse of the pale face, upturned to listen to whatever the judge was saying. But there was no doubt about the thick-cut blond hair that gave its owner his rather obvious nickname: Sandy.

McCormick closed his eyes and felt his stomach lurch, as though he had been gut punched, and he straightened abruptly, releasing the shutter so suddenly that its blades clattered closed with a loud snap. Even as he tried to collect himself, he heard the snick of a key in the lock as Hardcastle opened the front door, and he wondered sickly if Sandy was coming in as well. The next moment, McCormick was blinking in the bright glare of the ceiling light that revealed Hardcastle – alone – standing in the doorway, his movement into the room arrested at the discovery of McCormick standing immobile behind his own desk, half-turned from the direction of the window. Hardcastle's eyes narrowed, but before he could make any comment, McCormick came around the corner of the desk and said defensively, "You didn't say not to wait up for you."

There was a slight pause, as Hardcastle studied McCormick's set, pale face. "No, I guess I didn't," answered Hardcastle mildly. "See? No pumpkin." Making no further comment, he tossed his raincoat across the chair that held McCormick's windbreaker and cautiously negotiated the two steps down into the room. With a sigh of relief, he gratefully sank into the chair McCormick had previously occupied. "Sheesh, I'm tired." Grimacing at the knowing grin that briefly replaced the gravity of McCormick's expression, the judge continued gruffly, "And I don't want to hear any 'I told you so's' from the peanut gallery either."

"Then I'll just save 'em until tomorrow, when they'll really do some good," McCormick replied meaningfully. Leaning a hip against the desk, his smile faded as he studied Hardcastle in turn, his survey a good deal longer and appreciably more comprehensive than Hardcastle's had been. "You feeling okay?"

"Sure," said Hardcastle, and it seemed that he spoke only the truth. His face showed no pain or discomfort, nothing but an understandable exhaustion and a suggestion of his earlier depression. The source of that depression seemed more than evident to McCormick now, and he tried to hide his concern behind his usual banter, with indifferent success.

"Well, then . . . uh, look, why don't I just hang around until you go upstairs and climb into your jammies . . . be a good boy and brush your teeth, maybe you'll get a bedtime story or two . . ."

Hardcastle just stared at him without expression, so that he stammered into silence, and after a few seconds of fixed regard, the judge waved a hand toward the opposite armchair. "I don't feel much like bed yet," he said, the weariness in his voice revealing a complete lack of candor on his part. "Just siddown for awhile, okay? I think maybe you and me need to have us a little talk."

With a sigh, McCormick sat in the indicated chair, or rather, perched precariously on the edge of the seat, staring down at his battered loafers. Then he looked up at Hardcastle and said quietly and, he hoped, without any trace of censure, "So you had dinner with Sandy tonight, huh?"

"Yep," Hardcastle replied, settling more comfortably into his chair and using his foot to maneuver an ottoman into a more amenable position. "It's Tuesday, ya know."

"It's not that Tuesday," McCormick muttered almost inaudibly, but Hardcastle heard the words regardless.

"Well, no, I guess we're kinda off-track datewise for awhile." He caught the sharp glance shot at him from the silent man opposite. "And I guess maybe you think I shoulda told you who I was going to dinner with."

"No," McCormick said, uncharacteristic coolness shading both his voice and his eyes. "Who you eat with is your business." He watched a shadow of disbelief cross Hardcastle's face and suddenly burst out in frustration, "What? Since when do you have to have approval from me for the people you associate with? What did you think I'd say, Judge? 'No, sorry, you can't eat with Sandy, he's been a bad, bad boy?' And did you really think I'd be upset if you did?"

"Well, you sure looked less than happy when I walked through that door," Hardcastle replied with asperity, "And somehow I don't think it was because of all the dust bunnies piled up on the window sill."

The old donkey still doesn't miss a thing, McCormick thought irritably. He tried to tamp down his annoyance. "Yeah, well, it'll probably be awhile before I can see Sandy without . . . well . . . feeling a little . . . well . . . oh, hell," he cried out in exasperation, "I don't know what I'm trying to say."

"It kinda stands to reason you'd be a little upset at the idea of meeting up with Sandy again, considering everything that's happened." Hardcastle cleared his throat and glanced off to one side, classic Hardcase signals that the ensuing conversation probably wasn't going to go as smoothly as he would have liked. Then he said with a suggestion of reluctance, "Sandy's a little upset at the idea of meeting you, too."

"Oh, really?" Quick anger sparked in McCormick's eyes, and his voice hardened dangerously. "Why? Because I'm the one who got all the glory by killing Weed Randall?"

"No," Hardcastle answered, turning back to cast a disturbed glance at McCormick. "Because you wouldn't let Weed Randall kill him."

McCormick just stared at him in silence, processing this statement. Then he scooted back into his chair, his feet vying with Hardcastle's for position on the ottoman. Once both men were comfortably settled, he looked over at the judge and said, with no visible evidence of his earlier anger, "Ah, Judge. He shouldn't feel that way. It wasn't his fault, not really. He just let his feelings get in the way of his better judgment."

"Let's not cut him too much slack, okay, sport?" Hardcastle answered crossly. "His feelings almost got both him and you killed, it cost him his badge and his reputation, and the department has had to do some pretty fancy damage control to take care of all the nasty publicity about renegade cops and ordinary citizens – well, citizens, anyway – having to step in and do their jobs for 'em." He heaved a deep sigh. "Of course, it didn't help any that he was departmental spokesman, the one cop everybody in town knew on sight. And he always had to be so damned perfect all the time, never doing anything wrong . . ."

Hardcastle glanced across to McCormick, taking in the sudden look of surprise on his friend's face. "That's one of the things that really bugged you about Sandy, wasn't it? There didn't seem to be anything he didn't do better than anyone else, and he never seemed to make any mistakes. And you thought I couldn't see that for myself?" McCormick only nodded in reply, as there seemed to be nothing to add to the bare statement. "Yeah, well, I guess I can't blame you much for feeling that way, it's not like he was all that subtle about it. Bad decision on my part, trying to make you guys get along, using him as some sort of Shining Example. But ya know, McCormick, it never was my aim for you to be exactly like Sandy. I just wanted you to get a glimpse of something you might want to try to be like someday. You know what I mean, a nice haircut, maybe a good dress suit or two . . ."

"Yeah, sure, Judge." McCormick remarked sardonically. "I can see it now: professionally-manicured nails with just a touch of polish, some really spiffy shoes, maybe some nice white caps on the ol' front teeth . . ."

Hardcastle couldn't resist a crooked grin in response. "At least you already have the sharp sports car to dazzle the ladies with; you're way ahead of the game there." His brief spark of humor fizzled quickly, and he massaged his forehead tiredly with one hand, as though the action could wipe away his depression. "I don't know, maybe I just thought you needed exposure to a little more class than you usually get hanging around here with me all the time. God knows I'm no kind of role model for you, not for the kind of stuff other people think is important."

"You do just fine for me – not that I need a role model anyway," McCormick answered quickly, a hint of defiance in his voice.

"Well, I oughta be setting some sort of example for you, and maybe I do all right for the really big stuff, while you're still on parole. But with this weird 'arrangement' we got, it's not like you get to see how the other half lives all that often, and what kind of friend would I be if I just let you stay the same all the time, without giving you a chance to grow a little once in awhile? Besides," Hardcastle sighed, "it wasn't just you I was thinking about. I was kinda hoping maybe a little of you would rub off on Sandy, too." He had to stifle a laugh at the outright astonishment on McCormick's face.

"Say that again?" said McCormick when he could find his voice. "Me? Rub off on Sandy? And which sterling virtue were you hoping Sandy would acquire from me, Hardcase? My Winning Ways with Lawn Fertilization? Or perhaps my Awesome Talent at getting really expensive quarter panels so exquisitely laced with bullet holes? Hey, maybe Sandy learned something from my Amazing Ability to foil bad guys by tripping over flower pots." He snorted derisively. "I'd hate to think he ended up doing what he did by using me as a role model."

"Stow it, McCormick," Hardcastle growled, exasperated at McCormick's flippant self-mockery. "As it happens, I just thought maybe a little exposure to you would encourage Sandy to be a little more himself, instead of hiding behind that fake face he was always wearing." He met McCormick's raised eyebrows with a direct look of his own. "Yeah, I know, he laughed and smiled all the time, but you couldn't really see anything behind the smile, you know? It was like he had this shell around him, and what you saw was all you were gonna get – but it wasn't what was really there. You see what I mean?"

"Yeah, Judge, I see what you mean." McCormick answered with equal seriousness. "After the doctor told us how bad it was with you, Sandy headed out gangbusters on his Big Bad Guy Roundup, and he told me then that I had never truly known what he was really about. And that's the truth. I never had a clue. It was like seeing Shirley Temple turn into Dirty Harry. And even then, I didn't really believe he'd go as far as he did."

"I was sorta surprised myself," Hardcastle answered dispiritedly. "And I kinda wonder now if I could have headed some of that off somehow, years back." He shook his head in bemused regret. "With my generation, it was your dad you got your discipline from, and your mom who gave you the affection. And if you were lucky, you still knew you got love from 'em both, no matter how they expressed it. And that was the way most of us raised our kids too. But with Sandy, well, it was the other way around – his mom was the one did the discipline part, and his dad was the one gave all the affection. Poor kid, he idolized his old man." He smiled faintly. "I admit, even I had a little hero worship thing going with Knight. He was one of the best men I ever knew, such a good guy, so reliable, so good at everything he put his hand to, and so damned nice, you couldn't help liking him. And God, he loved that kid, so much it hurt sometimes just to see 'em together."

Hardcastle stopped talking then, his eyes no longer focused on McCormick but on something distant that only he could see. At McCormick's tactful throat-clearing, he blinked, startled, then continued slowly, with a touch of sadness, "Yeah, well, when Knight died, I think that's when Sandy started changing, tryin' to make himself over again. His mom, she was a nice lady, and we liked her and all, but I don't know, she just never struck me as being the really maternal type. And me being like my old man, well, I just couldn't make up what he was missing out on, that relationship he'd always had with his dad. I tried, but I just couldn't."

McCormick sat there, silent and still, reluctant to comment lest he distract Hardcastle from his unusually pensive musings. Hardcastle continued softly, "You know, back in the late sixties, early seventies, there was this TV show Nancy was just crazy about, never missed it, and she made me watch it with her. "Courtship of Eddie's Father", that was the name, all about this widower and his kid. Back then, about the time the kids your age were all getting to be teenagers, it was all you heard about, men getting in touch with their, whaddayacallit, sensitive side. That's kinda what that show was all about, this father bein' more, I don't know, hands on with his boy." He scratched his nose absently. "I always thought maybe Nancy was tryin' to tell me something there, but you know, I never could be like the dad in that show. It just wasn't in me to be like that. Kind of a pity, I guess." Silence again, and a great melancholy that seemed to wrap the judge like a blanket, so that McCormick's heart ached on his behalf. But before he could even begin to think of anything appropriate to say, Hardcastle was speaking once more.

"Not that Sandy didn't eventually do okay on his own, because he did, or seemed to anyway. And not that he wasn't eventually a good cop, because he was that, too – once." He cast a stern look at McCormick, who had been listening with deep concentration but had glanced up in surprise at Hardcastle's tone. "I know what you thought about Sandy only being a cop-for-show, but you don't get a badge on the L.A. force without making the grade and doing the time. Sandy went to the Academy after college, and graduated with top honors – no surprise there," Hardcastle added, forestalling any caustic commentary from McCormick, not that he was inclined to offer any at this point. "And he did his rookie tour, and drove a black-and-white for a few years, and managed to acquire a few testimonials and awards along the way. But with his looks, and his talent for talking, and his education and family background, Sandy turned out to be a natural for the spokesman stuff." Hardcastle sighed once more. "It didn't hurt any that he didn't rattle very easy either; the bad guys could be exchanging machine gun fire behind him, and warehouses could be going up in flames, and Sandy wouldn't even flinch, just kept on talking as though he was back at the station, giving a routine press conference."

McCormick nodded. "I gotta admit, he was good at what he did." He flashed a quick rueful grin. "Irritating as hell, mind you – but good."

Hardcastle snorted. "Yeah, well, now I see it was all an act – a damned good act, but an act all the same – but at the time, I was pretty darned proud of him for accomplishing what he did. But I guess the reality was, maybe Sandy just got to where he did because he thought if he did everything just perfect, maybe he'd get what he was looking for from whoever he thought might give a damn." He sat there for a minute, rubbing a finger thoughtfully across his chin. "And you know, maybe he did, at that. I mean, look at me. I couldn't be the way his dad had been, so he made himself into something that he thought might make him worth my approval – after all, I was the one who tried to look after him, paid for college and all. And, dammit, I went right along with it; praised him to high heavens, and never let on that I was anything but happy with the man he'd become." Hardcastle sank deeper in his chair, his whole attitude one of dejection. "Who knows? Maybe if I'd been more like Eddie's father to Sandy to begin with, he'da been content to be himself, rather than some sort of too-perfect-to-be-true white knight with shiny armor and rusty rivets."

McCormick watched Hardcastle, his eyes sympathetic. "Judge, don't beat yourself up because you weren't Bill Bixby. It's just not the way some guys are made. But you were there, you know? You were there for the people you needed to be there for, your family and Sandy and your buddies and . . . and . . . well, everybody. You never left any of 'em behind, never walked away from them or died on 'em, thank God. You have no idea just how important that can be to a kid." McCormick leaned forward in his chair, his face serious and intent. "And look, it's not your fault that Sandy tried so hard to be somebody he wasn't, even if it was just to try to please you, or his mom, or maybe even some other people he thought he needed approval from. And it's sure not your fault that he succeeded so well that when the real Sandy finally managed to break through, he didn't know how to handle him. You did what you could, and you always supported him, no matter how much he seemed to change, and maybe that's the only thing that was keeping Sandy from total meltdown. Because that's what set him off, Judge, the prospect that he was gonna lose you for good, and he thought it was all his fault."

"Yeah," Hardcastle agreed morosely. "And that's partially why he wishes you'd just held back and let Randall take him out. Because he feels now that it's all his fault – not just what happened at the motel, but going back all the way to him wanting the two of you to give me Randall on a silver platter for my birthday." Hardcastle shook his head in frustration. "I tried to convince him tonight that he can't take all the blame for this mess – if Weed Randall had been the boy scout he shoulda been, there never would have been a need for a birthday present like that to begin with. And there was no reason for either of you kids to expect Randall to be able to pull off what he did in that courtroom; that's why they have all those guards and metal detectors and such around places like that. Randall just lucked out in that his hearing was in that temporary room and not the main courthouse. So, there's no reason for either of you to feel guilty for him smuggling that gun in." He shot a sharp glance in McCormick's direction. "I trust you're hearing what I'm saying here."

"I hear you, Judge," McCormick answered slowly, looking at Hardcastle from beneath lowered brows. "I'd already pretty much come to that conclusion myself. It's the stuff that comes after that I was having a little trouble dealing with – not that I'm not okay with it by now," he added hastily, the rising heat in his face betraying his lie.

Hardcastle gazed thoughtfully at McCormick's slightly flushed face for a few seconds, but made no comment. After a pause, he continued, "Well, I couldn't take the no-blame line too far with Sandy, because there's no denying that most everything that happened after I got shot was his fault – or at least, his responsibility, 'cause he did head out without telling anyone what he was up to, and he did kidnap that guy at the bar, and he did go out and confront Randall at that motel, blowing the whole thing sky high – the situation, I mean, not the motel – and getting you into a hell of a situation into the bargain. I couldn't tell him everything was gonna be all right, because it's not. He's got a lot to answer for, and I'm not too sure that what's left of Sandy Knight is gonna be able to handle it by himself."

Hardcastle's face became unexpectedly apprehensive, almost as though he dreaded his next words, and he said with clear reluctance, "You understand that I've got to be there for Sandy on this, don't you, McCormick? Most of his so-called friends have already run for cover, and someone's got to be there to keep the buzzards from circling." The pleading look in his eyes, so unlike the Judge's normal demeanor, was almost more than McCormick could bear. "You do understand that, don't ya, kid?"

There was a long, almost palpable silence. "Now, see there, that's why you're the perfect role model for me – if I needed one, that is," said McCormick finally, in a pathetically transparent attempt to deflect the conversation. "I don't need someone who can say the perfect things, or wear the perfect clothes, or act perfect all the time; I can scam that sort of thing with the best of 'em. But you can't scam loyalty, or duty, or always doing the right thing for the right reasons."

It was obvious that the judge wasn't deceived for a moment, but apparently he was willing to be diverted to a certain extent, if only to see where McCormick was heading with this. "But, kiddo, you already have that stuff in spades," Hardcastle said, frowning at McCormick in puzzlement. "You don't have to scam it."

"Maybe so," McCormick replied. "But before we started this 'weird arrangement' of yours, I mighta felt all that stuff, but there were a few times – more than a few times – when doing something about 'em wasn't exactly on my to-do list. But you, you're like that all the time, nearly every single minute, you can't help yourself, and it's so rare that you fall off that high wire you've strung up for yourself, it really shows what a great balancing act you've got going." He looked straight into Hardcastle's eyes, and it was plain that, diversion or no diversion, he was absolutely serious about what he was saying. "The fact is, I'd rather look up to a Milt Hardcastle for a role model, than look across at, or more likely down, towards a Sandy Knight."

Hardcastle smiled faintly at McCormick's words. "Yeah, well, that's mighty good of you to say all that, and I really do appreciate all the nice sentiments. But you haven't answered the question, now, have you, hotshot?"

McCormick said nothing for a few seconds, then rose out of his chair and walked toward the bookcases, his back to Hardcastle. Pulling out a book at random and flipping absently through its pages, he found himself wondering how he could even hesitate in responding to the judge's appeal for understanding. It wasn't that he thought Hardcastle was wrong in supporting Sandy; after so many years spent being Sandy's lifeline, it would have been criminal to let him drown alone now.

No, the real problem – and McCormick was ashamed to admit it even to himself – was the sudden appearance of the green-eyed monster, leering in his face in the wake of the judge's words. He'd always suspected that jealousy was the true source of Sandy's resentment of the Poolman-cum-Tonto who got to eat with the company in the main house, and of his own hostility toward Mr. Perfection, who had it all and never failed to flaunt it in the face of Hardcase's resident ex-con. It occurred to him that perhaps it wasn't so much a question of jealousy of each other as it was jealousy of, and maybe even competition for, Hardcastle's affection and respect; he supposed that was yet another strange thing that he and Sandy had in common, along with the fancy sports cars and the deep fondness they both had for the judge.

As he restored the book to its previous location and drew out another, larger volume, he thought about how odd it was that both he and Sandy, each losing his only real source of parental love at a relatively early age, had tried over time to deal with the loss in drastically different ways, only to arrive at similar destinations with equally catastrophic results – and how much both of them had come to depend on Milton C. Hardcastle, the Lone Ranger himself, to rescue them from their predicaments just in the nick of time. But this time there would be no last-minute reprieve for Sandy, the course of events stretching far beyond the point where the Masked Man could effect any sort of rescue. And what of McCormick himself? Well, he still had both Hardcastle to ride to the rescue and time to make the things that had gone wrong come out right again. And in Mark McCormick's book, that made him the clear frontrunner in any competition against anyone – even Sandy Knight.

Suddenly McCormick found his jealousy fading, to be replaced by pity for a man who had seemed on the surface to have everything that any man could ever want, but who secretly longed for the kind of relationship that now existed between McCormick and Hardcastle; who had even tried, with tragic results, to redefine himself in order to make that happen; but who in the end would always be the one standing on the outside, looking in on what he craved so desperately but could never again possess. Struck with this unexpected insight, and shaking his head sadly at Sandy's loss, McCormick replaced the book he'd been holding into its accustomed slot, glancing at the title as he did so: A Tale of Two Cities.

Smiling enigmatically, McCormick came back to sit in his chair and, in answer to the judge's anxious, inquiring look, said sincerely, "Judge, you have to do what you have to do. I'm not so petty that I'd grudge Sandy a little of your time – even if it doesn't happen to fall on a certain Tuesday of every month."

McCormick paused, frowning down at the carpet beneath his feet, examining the pattern with unusual intensity, and saying as he did so, "You know what the funny thing is, Judge? I kinda understand just how Sandy felt, back when you were shot." His gaze tracked up to the judge's intent face. "You told me at the hospital how I'd done all the right things, and how proud you were of me, but the truth is, if you'd died right there in that courtroom, I'd probably have done just what Sandy did, and we'd all be dead right now. But you didn't die there, and you still hadn't died by the time Sandy took off, and I guess the main thing that separates me from Sandy is that he was so certain you were gonna die, and I was just as sure that you wouldn't go without a hell of a battle." McCormick smiled involuntarily. "I just couldn't imagine anyone or anything, even Old Man Death, trying to beat you down for the final count before you were ready, and you letting him coming out the winner."

McCormick looked down at his hands, clasped tightly together between his knees, then looked up at Hardcastle with troubled eyes. "You know, I haven't really thought about all this before. You're right, I was pretty upset when I saw Sandy in that cab with you, and if he had come in the house with you just now, I don't know what I would've said, or how I would've acted. And now I sort of wonder if maybe you felt you couldn't ask him in because of me. And that's not right, Judge. It's your house; you should be able to invite who you want."

"Well, of course I'm not inviting him here, not right now, anyway." Hardcastle answered reasonably, as though that was the ultimate no-brainer. Seeing McCormick's look of confusion, Hardcastle swung his feet off the ottoman and leaned forward in his chair as he said, "Look, kiddo, the man put you into a position where you had to do something that no civilian should ever have to deal with. He didn't really intend to, but that's not the issue here. Whether he did or he didn't, the thing is, you haven't dealt with it, not really . . . would you shut up and listen to me?" he snapped, riding relentlessly over McCormick's immediate and mostly inarticulate protests. McCormick obediently shut up, and Hardcastle continued evenly, "And I don't think seeing Sandy, here or anywhere else, is going to help with that. Maybe later – maybe a lot later – but definitely not now. Besides," he added, with a grave look at his companion, "this may not be your house, but it's your home, see, and that does give you a say in who comes and who goes, at least as far as your having to associate with 'em and stuff like that. So there." Hardcastle then leaned back in his chair, with the satisfied air of a man who considers his case rested and the outcome assured.

McCormick, for his part, tried to swallow down the small lump that had unaccountably lodged itself in his throat, and said hesitantly, "But why wouldn't you tell me you were going to see him? I wouldn't have minded, really I wouldn't." Too honest to leave it at that, he added, "Well, not too much anyway."

"Ah, well." Hardcastle glanced away toward the window above the closed shutters, though the glass showed only a wet blackness and the occasional sparkle of a rogue raindrop. "The thing is, so many people have been hurt in this thing . . . I mean, there's you, hurting because you did the only thing you could do. And there's that guy Sandy kidnapped; Lord only knows what that's gonna cost the department when all's said and done. And then Sandy went and blew his whole career, and got himself shot in the process, and now he's just so shattered, it's almost painful to be around him. I guess I kinda thought maybe you'd be hurt and maybe even angry because I wanted to see Sandy, and . . . well," he looked at McCormick with a sort of grim earnestness, "I guess I'm just tired of people being hurt because of me. Let's face it, even though Sandy was the one who got shot and lost his job, you're the one who I think got hurt worst of all."

McCormick stared back incredulously. "What? For God's sake, Hardcastle! Don't tell me you're blaming yourself for this mess!"

"Well, why were you and Sandy doing what you were doing, if it wasn't for me?" Hardcastle answered a little testily, scowling at McCormick's obtuseness. "And you can't tell me that this thing with Randall hasn't hit you pretty hard, because I know better, and dammit, you weren't even supposed to be carrying that gun in the first place. McCormick, you coulda lost your parole, my God, you coulda lost your life, and it would've been nobody's fault but mine."

McCormick shook his head in disbelief, wondering why he hadn't seen this coming; it wasn't like Hardcastle hadn't been dropping hints for the last twenty minutes. "Now wait a second here. Okay, sure, we were doing it for you, but it's not like you asked us to. And yeah, I shot Weed Randall with your gun, but you didn't know it was gonna come down to that when you told that doctor to give it to me. You didn't know Sandy was gonna go off the deep end. You sure didn't know you were gonna get shot and almost die; I mean, it's not like you got in that chair and said, c'mon, Randall, here I am, come and get me. This disaster may not be my fault, and it may not be entirely Sandy's, but it sure as hell wasn't yours!"

McCormick had leaned forward in his chair, his very stillness revealing his tension and determination. He could hear the strain in his voice, but he really didn't care, because this obstinate old jackass didn't understand where he was coming from, and suddenly it was vital to McCormick that he know. "Let me tell you something, Hardcase. I admit, it may take me awhile to get over shooting Randall, but I will eventually, honest I will. But, Judge, that wasn't what hit me the worst. Don't you get it? It was him almost killing you that really hurt, and it made everything that happened afterwards about ten thousand times worse, because you weren't there to make it all right again. I don't know what I would have done if you had died, because you're the only one I can really count on, the only one I really trust, you know? I truly do care about what happens to you, you old donkey, even if I never come right out and tell you so!"

There was a sudden hush in the room, then Hardcastle, looking a little taken aback, cleared his throat. "Ah, well, ya know, I kinda think you did tell me so, kiddo, or at least that's what it sounded like to me." Hardcastle watched McCormick's suddenly blank expression with a whimsical smile. "'Course, I did have to sort of fill in the blanks. You weren't exactly at your most, uh, eloquent at the time."

McCormick sat up straight and stared at Hardcastle in numb astonishment, saying unsteadily, "I don't believe it. You're not talking about that damned Sutter Annex, are you?" His voice rose in volume. "Are you telling me you heard me that day in the courtroom? With all that was going on, as sick as you were, you still listened?"

"Well, yeah, sure I did, as much as I could," Hardcastle replied, frowning slightly, his expression perplexed. "I mean, I sorta thought maybe you meant me to hear, and so I was trying pretty hard to listen. I admit, it was kinda tough, 'cause the pain was getting really bad about that time. It wasn't all that hard to catch, though," Hardcastle added in amusement. "As I remember it, 'Please, Judge' and 'Please, God, please' seemed to be about the gist of it." He smiled wryly at McCormick's mortified expression, accentuated by a deepening blush that began at his collar and ended at his hairline. "So, anyway, I heard ya, and I guess God did, too . . . and so, well, I did my part, and God did His. Although, now I think about it," Hardcastle continued with a thoughtful expression, his head laid back against the leather of the chair, his gaze drifting upwards, "I probably haven't thanked Him enough for listening that day too."

Me neither, thought McCormick fervently as he sat back and watched Hardcastle, who had settled his shoulders deeper into the chair and was now studying the ceiling in abstracted silence. Closing his own eyes, he contemplated Hardcastle's words and all they revealed – perhaps even more than the judge himself realized. McCormick had never even considered the possibility that Hardcastle had still been conscious of his surroundings following those first few horrible seconds after the shooting, as he sat slumped but still upright in his chair, eyes closed, a dark wet stain spreading slowly across his chest around a small hole barely visible against the blackness of his judicial robe. McCormick's thoughts darkened with remembered fear as he recalled his terrified, insistent pleading, his hand desperately gripping Hardcastle's, willing the warmth of his fingers to stay the steadily increasing coldness that was slowly invading the judge's unresponsive body. And yet, despite the pain, despite the cold, despite everything – Hardcastle had heard it all.

McCormick felt himself growing cold inside as he realized that Hardcastle had no doubt heard, too, Sandy's despairing assertion that Hardcastle was dying. But he had also heard McCormick's fierce, furious rebuttal, in essence the denial of a seemingly inescapable truth that would have been apparent to a blind man. McCormick had stubbornly refused to believe that Hardcastle would die just because the deck was stacked against him – just as Hardcastle himself had refused to give up, for that very reason. It was no wonder that Hardcastle had directed the doctors to give his gun to him and not to Sandy, for it had been McCormick's voice he had heard loudly and clearly, his stubbornness a match for Hardcastle's own. Only McCormick had shared his determined refusal to give up in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, thus making McCormick the only one worthy to be entrusted with his gun, his most prized possession. When it counted, McCormick had believed in Hardcastle and Sandy had not, and that was that, as far as Hardcastle was concerned.

But that wasn't all the gun had signified, as McCormick was only just now realizing. It had also been a testament to Hardcastle's own fierce belief in McCormick, a best-effort, last-gasp gesture of reassurance to a frightened young man that none of their efforts had been in vain, that together they had managed to negotiate Hardcastle's own straight and narrow course to his satisfaction, despite all the obstacles that had stood in their way. Giving the gun to McCormick hadn't been just a matter of trust; it had been a final affirmation of the judge's firm conviction that, regardless of whether Milton C. Hardcastle lived or died, Mark McCormick had what it took to make it to the finish line on his own – with integrity intact.

Lost completely within the whirlwind of his thoughts, McCormick shivered and wrapped his arms protectively across his body, wondering dazedly why he'd never taken the time to really consider any of this before, or to ponder the true significance of Hardcastle's actions that day in the hospital emergency room. Of course, Hardcastle being Hardcastle, he'd never even talked about the shooting itself or the events that had immediately followed, assuming it was an understood thing between them. And McCormick being McCormick, he just took things at face value – again – and never really realized there was anything more to be understood. Ah, well, better late than never . . . almost too late again . . .

"McCormick? McCormick!"

McCormick started like a rabbit at the judge's voice, his face turning white as a sheet, barely aware of a hand on his shoulder and a tumbler being forced into his own shaking hand. Strong, warm fingers wrapped securely over his, helping him to hold the glass more firmly – and he shuddered as he recalled once more those same fingers lying chilled and lifeless within his own convulsive grasp. The hand on his shoulder gripped more tightly, and he heard Hardcastle say with worried gruffness, "Here, drink this stuff. All of it."

Obediently McCormick brought the glass to his lips, then nearly gagged as the fiery taste of neat whiskey shot down his throat – the really good stuff, reserved for only the most deserving guests as designated by the judge. Trapped between the 80 proof and the now-grapefruit-sized lump still lodged in his throat, he was unable to produce anything more than strangled coughing for several minutes. Finally the coughing eased, and he looked with watery eyes at the man who now sat before him on the ottoman, the worry still plain on his face.

"God, kid, what the hell was that all about?" asked Hardcastle in bewilderment, his initial alarm slowly fading into a doubtful concern.

"Nothing, Judge," McCormick answered in a faint voice, as he sank into the relative security of the armchair. "I was just . . . thinking, that's all."

Hardcastle blinked at this somewhat tame description of what had appeared to be an almost coma-like trance, then he sat back on the ottoman in bemused relief, his arms crossed on his knees. "Well, then, maybe you shouldn't think so hard. It looked for a minute there like I was gonna have to call 911; you were pretty far out of it."

"Who, me?" McCormick asked with an embarrassed grin.

"Yes, you." Hardcastle rose reluctantly from the ottoman. "Maybe we oughta go to bed. It's getting awfully late, and I'm beginning to think it's way past your bedtime."

"Nah, I'm alright now," McCormick replied, suddenly aware that he didn't really want the conversation to end at this particular juncture. Maybe things were a little more settled in his head about his own role in this thing, but he still wanted to know more about Sandy. "Please, Judge . . . sit down, and let's talk just a few more minutes. Please?"

Hardcastle, obviously against his better judgment, returned to his armchair and sat down, propping his feet up on the ottoman once more, his relaxed attitude belying the wariness in his eyes. McCormick, in his turn, nestled against the leather cushioning of his own chair, toying with the tumbler in his hands. "So, tell me, Hardcase, what'll happen to Sandy now?"

Hardcastle sighed in resigned regret. "Well, he's out, as far as the police department is concerned, and I don't think anyone's all that surprised. We're kinda hoping maybe internal affairs and the D.A. between 'em will be able to handle that barman – as it turns out, he and Weed's girlfriend were both involved in setting up Randall's getaway from the courthouse, and that's gotta count for something in Sandy's favor. It'll probably end up being a matter of quid pro quo, and since Randall's out of the picture once and for all, I don't think that'll be such a really bad thing." He caught sight of the shadow that drifted darkly across McCormick's face, and added musingly, "I suppose there still might be a possibility of some sort of civil suit against Sandy eventually, but I hope not."

That last gambit worked very nicely as a distraction, as it was meant to do. The shadow dissipated quickly as McCormick's features grew agitated with alarm. "A civil suit? Judge, that doesn't mean you're actually going to have to represent him in court, does it?" McCormick thought that just might be the point when Mark McCormick put his foot down hard and fast, once and for all. "I mean, you wouldn't – would you?"

"Nah," Hardcastle answered with nonchalant assurance. "Sandy would never ask me to do that, I'm way too involved. I might end up on the wrong end of a subpoena, though, and so might you." He sighed gloomily. "Let's just hope that doesn't happen."

McCormick nodded in heartfelt agreement. "But what about Sandy? What'll he do now?"

"Oh," Hardcastle said airily, a small glimmer of devilment beginning to sparkle in his eyes. "Well, you know, Sandy's not like that big egg in the nursery rhyme . . ."

"The big egg in what nursery rhyme?" McCormick asked in perplexity.

Hardcastle shot him an irritated look. "Oh, you know, what's-his-name, Humpty Dumpty. Where was I? Oh, yeah," Hardcastle continued, with a pointed glance at McCormick that dared him to interrupt again. "Sandy's not like Humpty Dumpty, I think he'll manage to climb back up on his feet somehow, even if someone else does have to make the effort to pick up the pieces and put 'em back together first."

"Yeah, well," McCormick replied darkly, his brow furrowed, "Just don't you be telling me you're the one who's gonna have to pick up all those pieces, because if you are, I'm going right down to the basement and hide the Elmer's glue. Giving Sandy a helping hand is all right as far as it goes, Judge, but not if you're gonna have to carry the whole load."

"Well, no, seems he'll be looking to me mostly for advice and support of the moral variety. Even all those king's horses and all those king's men aren't gonna get a crack at ol' Sandy," Hardcastle replied, the gleam of amusement now unmistakable. "Not with all his fair maids more than willing and able to handle the repairs."

McCormick stared at him. "What fair maids?" His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "And just how do you know anything about his fair maids?"

"Are you kiddin'? You can't go anywhere with Sandy without a whole slew of 'em swarming around. At the ballpark, on the street, in the men's room even, they come at you from everywhere. I thought they'd knock me clean out of my chair, just to get a better crack at him at the restaurant tonight. You'd think he was a damn beehive. It makes me tired just watching 'em all." Hardcastle shook his head, apparently mystified by both the incredible determination and dubious motivations of the female sex. "There's a few already making plans to relocate, and Sandy tells me he's trying to make sure whatever town he winds up in is close to an airport, so all the rest of his lady friends won't have to travel so far to get to where he's going."

"Whaddaya mean, whatever town he ends up in? You mean he's leaving L.A.?"

"Well," Hardcastle answered, looking even more amused, "as a matter of fact, he told me that he's had no less than five offers from television stations across the country, wanting him to come and read their six o'clock newscasts."

"What?" McCormick shot straight up in his chair in seething astonishment. "You don't mean he's actually gonna benefit from this fiasco!"

"Kinda looks that way, kiddo," Hardcastle answered, openly grinning at McCormick's aghast expression. "Seems there are a few little podunk places out there that think he mighta done the wrong things for all the right reasons." The judge shook his head sadly. "There's no telling how different folks will respond to something like that."

With a groan, McCormick leaned forward and buried his face in the cushioning of the ottoman, pounding the leather with his fists so forcefully that Hardcastle hurriedly removed his feet from the danger zone. From the depths of the ottoman came wails of frustration. "It's not fair. It's just not fair!"

Hardcastle reached out to pat the shoulder nearest him. "Aw, kid, it's okay. Remember, it's gonna be a long time before he gets over this; it ain't gonna be a walk in the park, I can tell you, being in a strange town and all, and it's good he'll have people around who'll have his best interests at, uh, heart. And at least there's one thing you can console yourself with."

A bleary blue eye peeked out from beneath a mop of curly hair and a forehead marked with a perfect imprint of the button that resided in the center of the ottoman cushion. "And what would that be?"

Hardcastle grinned. "Maybe Sandy gets a new career and all those beautiful women, but you – you get to keep me!"

The judge had expected more wailing at that pronouncement, perhaps with an additional gnashing of teeth, but instead, there was only a long silence. Then, slowly, McCormick raised his head, and propping his chin on one hand with his elbow resting on his crossed knee, he sat and gazed at Hardcastle consideringly. "You know, Hardcase," he said slowly, "I don't know how Sandy feels about it, and to be honest, I don't really care. But you know, somehow I kinda think I'm getting the better end of the deal." Then he smiled, a genuine, heartfelt smile that had been much too absent in recent weeks, and the depression that had haunted Hardcastle's expression throughout the entire conversation, lifted as though it had never been. McCormick stood and offered a hand to Hardcastle. "C'mon, it's time you were in bed."

Hardcastle accepted the hand and rose stiffly, unable to suppress a grunt, and looked askance at McCormick when his hand wasn't immediately released. McCormick's expression was serious once more, but without the somberness that had seemed permanently lurking in the background. "I just wanted to say thank you."

"Thank me?" Hardcastle answered suspiciously. "For what?"

"For not dying. For being the good guy. For trying to do all the right things for all the right reasons." McCormick tightened his grip before letting go. "Maybe even for being a good role model."

Hardcastle cocked an eyebrow, eyeing McCormick in fond amusement. "I thought you said you didn't need a role model."

"Yeah, well," McCormick shrugged, turning to head up the two short steps to the door of the den. "I guess it all depends on the model." He turned back in the doorway to look at Hardcastle with a mischievous smile. "It's like you old-timers say, Hardcase, they just don't make 'em like they used to!"

Hardcastle snorted as he followed McCormick up the steps, flicking the lights off as he passed through the double doors, closing them softly behind him. As darkness enveloped the deserted room, from the other side of the doors came the fading muffled voice of McCormick, saying cheerfully as he and Hardcastle headed toward the stairs, "You know, Judge, I did promise you a bedtime story. C'mon and let me tell you the real story about Humpty Dumpty, and about all those rotten, corrupt king's men who screwed up, uh, royally. You're gonna love this one . . ."

The End – Kinda