As always, the standard disclaimers apply: none of the characters are mine; I've just borrowed them for a while. Also, feedback is always appreciated, so please let me know what you think.
Mark McCormick snickered in quiet amusement. One of the first things he'd learnt in prison was that you had to know when to pick your battles. There were times when no amount of effort would bring you out the winner in a confrontation, so it was just better not to fight the inevitable. Some people, though, never managed to learn when to walk away, and the kid behind the counter was obviously one of those people. Of course, this kid looked barely old enough to have graduated from high school, and this job at the car hire company was probably the first he'd ever had. He'd never had to consider the idea that sometimes things just didn't go the way you'd planned.
Milton C Hardcastle, retired judge and McCormick's keeper for the foreseeable future, wasn't the world's most patient man on a good day. This wasn't a good day. He'd decided that they needed a weekend away to celebrate the first year of their unorthodox crime-fighting agreement, which had led to him booking a trip to San Francisco. Rather than spend a whole day driving to the city, he'd opted to fly, which meant hiring a car at the San Francisco airport. And up to now, things had been going well. But now, the kid behind the counter couldn't find the reservation for the car he'd hired, and his patience with the situation was rapidly fading.
As the judge opened his mouth to snap at the kid again, Mark decided to cut the kid some slack. "Hey, Hardcase, why don't you go keep an eye on the luggage and let me take care of this." Hardcastle graced him with a withering look, and then shook his head and stomped away from the counter. Feeling highly amused, Mark turned back to the visibly relieved kid, who was still hunting frantically amongst the papers on his desk for the ones relating to Hardcastle. Snatching a glance at the name tag prominently displayed on the bright red jacket, Mark smiled, "Tom, just relax. Start at the beginning and take it one step at a time. The paperwork has to be there somewhere, doesn't it?" Tom nodded frantically, pleased that this half of the pair seemed more accommodating. Rifling through the pile of papers again, he spotted the right ones, and pulled them out. After Mark had confirmed that the information was right, Tom gladly handed over the keys to the blue sedan he pointed out to Mark.
Strolling away from the counter, Mark walked over to the judge and pointed out their car. "You know, Judge, you've got to learn to ease up a little. You nearly scared that poor kid rigid. Normal people don't know how to deal with Hurricane Milt." Hardcastle guffawed loudly at that, and shot back, "I always knew you weren't normal, kiddo. Never thought I'd hear you admit it, though." Mark laughingly shook his head and led the way to the car, quickly stowing the luggage in the trunk.
The traffic on the drive into town wasn't too busy this early in the morning, and Mark had plenty of opportunities to admire the scenery, even while guiding the car in accordance with Hardcastle's instructions. Hardcastle had insisted on the earliest possible morning flight, and privately, Mark had to admit that it had been the right decision. Even if he'd been forced to get up before dawn to make it to the Los Angeles airport in time to board the plane. Frank had offered to take them to the airport, so the fact that he'd still been half asleep for most of the drive hadn't mattered.
They'd decided to begin the sightseeing before even going to the hotel, and soon the car was heading over the giant span of the Golden Gate bridge. After reaching the Sausalito side of the bridge, Mark searched for the first opportunity to turn the car around and repeat the trip across the bridge. Reaching the end of the bridge, Mark spotted a sign indicating an information office at the foot of the bridge. "Judge, can we stop and go in?" Hardcastle nodded, secretly thrilled to see the clear excitement on the younger man's face. Mark's criminal file and prison records hadn't made for happy reading, and Hardcastle was sure that the younger man had been denied many of the things other children took for granted growing up. Family holidays obviously hadn't been something his mother could afford, and the judge was pleased to think that Mark was enjoying himself so thoroughly. And they still had two days of sightseeing left. He was sure the kid would run himself ragged trying to see everything he could.
Mark came away from the information centre full of interesting facts about the bridge, but the one fact that had really stood out, was that the bridge was painted International Orange. Mark was convinced that the engineers had made a mistake, because he was sure the colour he could see was more red than orange.
A short drive later, Mark parked the car outside a small hotel on Washington Square, making sure to turn the wheels towards the curb. The building was quaint and small, a Victorian style wooden house, and faced onto the small green park which gave the square its name. This time, there were no problems with the reservations, and Mark and the judge were soon dumping their small bags on the beds in their rooms. Opening the interleading door between the rooms, Mark popped his head in to ask, "Okay, Hardcase, where to now? And do your plans include lunch at all?"
"Don't you ever think about anything but food, McCormick?" Hardcastle's grin belied the words, and he grabbed up the papers and light jacket on the end of the bed as he headed towards the door. "Don't forget to bring a jacket, kiddo. The weather may look great now, but it'll get chilly later in the afternoon." Mark quickly backtracked into his room to grab his canvas backpack and a jacket. Locking the door behind him, he slipped the room key into his pocket and then shoved his jacket in the backpack. Holding out a hand towards the judge, he offered, "Want me to put your jacket in here too? It'll save you having to carry it around." Hardcastle handed over his jacket, and winced as he watched the younger man shove it into the backpack without looking at it. The creases were definitely going to be hard to get out. Slipping the backpack over his shoulder, Mark glanced expectantly at the judge, "Lead on, Lone Ranger. Time to explore the open plains." Laughing out loud at that, Hardcastle led the way downstairs and out the front door.
Stopping on the green grass of the square, Hardcastle looked through the papers he was still holding. All the possible choices for the afternoon were listed, and now all he had to do was get the kid to pick something. A quick discussion of the available options saw them heading a couple of blocks away to catch the cable car down to the harbour. Looking back later that night, Hardcastle found that he remembered the whole afternoon and evening in a series of vignettes, all of them focused on Mark and his enjoyment of everything.
Mark had insisted on standing on the running board at the side of the cable car and had turned his face into the wind as the car headed downhill towards the docks. He'd been laughing at the feeling and swinging out and back from the car. Spotting a sign for Lombard Street on a pole as they passed, Mark had pointed it out to the judge, and made him promise that they'd come back later to see the hairpin section of the street.
They'd settled on clam chowder for lunch, bought from one of the pier-side vendors on Fisherman's Wharf. Sitting on one of the small wooden benches, he'd been looking out at the bay when he'd felt McCormick elbow him in the ribs, "Judge, quick! Look over there. At the end of the pier." Following the path of the pointing finger, Hardcastle had laughed. Balanced on a piling at the end of the pier was a large seal, looking straight back at the two of them. Then the seal tossed his head at them, and smoothly dived off the piling and disappeared under the water.
They'd strolled along the wharf, heading for the start of the Hyde Street cable car, and Mark had seen a t-shirt he just had to have. Plain white, with 'I love San Francisco' written on the front in bright red. Mark had laughed at the expression on Hardcastle's face, and shrugged off the objections with, "I know it makes me look like a tourist, Judge. That's the point; I am a tourist." Hardcastle could only laugh at the typical Mark-style logic in that statement.
Partway up the hill on the cable car, they'd hopped off to walk slowly down Lombard Street, admiring the beautiful plants on the hairpin turns down the hill. "See, McCormick; that's what you can do with the garden at home. All it takes is a little effort." Mark had smiled and answered, "Only if the estate garden suddenly shrinks to the size of this block, Hardcase. There's only one of me, after all."
They'd walked slowly towards Chinatown and found a traditional Chinese restaurant for dinner. Taking the waiter's advice, they'd had the best Chinese meal either man had ever tasted, followed by a slow walk back to Washington Square. The sky was clear and the stars bright, and Hardcastle had been pleased to think that his predictions of cooler weather had been wrong.
Lying in bed, Hardcastle could only think of one thing that hadn't gone exactly as he'd hoped. The slips of paper inside their fortune cookies at dinner had been odd, for want of a better word. His had said 'Look deeper for the true pattern', and Mark's had said 'When trouble comes, trust the future'. They'd laughed it off at the time, but Hardcastle wondered if some of Mark's silence on the way back to the hotel had been caused by the strange words. Once or twice, Mark had been on the verge of speaking, and Hardcastle was sure that the kid was trying to figure out how the strange words could mean anything good. He'd never figured the kid would be superstitious, although the constant presence of the St. Jude medal should have made it obvious. That, and the fact that in his short life, Mark had already seen more trouble than most people ever did, so perhaps it wasn't unexpected that he'd be wary at the thought of having trouble looking for him. Still, nothing was going to bother the kid this weekend, at least not if Milton Hardcastle had anything to say about it.
Early the next morning, the two had set off back to Fisherman's Wharf, heading purposefully towards Pier 41 to catch the ferry to Alcatraz. Mark had worn his new t-shirt, shrugging off the judge's questioning look with a smirk. The judge hated anything that marked him as a tourist, but Mark was enjoying himself too much not to show his joy to the world. Mark simply shook his head when Hardcastle produced the tickets for the trip to the island prison, "I might have known you couldn't leave the law alone for a whole weekend, Judge." "This isn't about the law or the prison, McCormick; it's about history. Seeing how things used to be done, and how things have changed. Part of the history of this city is tied up in that island." Hardcastle was starting to get steamed up about the whole situation, and Mark held up both hands in surrender. "Okay, okay, you win. I'm not trying to get out of going. I actually think it should be really nice. Purely for 'educational' reasons, you understand." Mark laughed at Hardcastle's exasperation. "I told you yesterday, Judge, you've got to learn to ease up a bit. You'll give yourself a heart attack at this rate," Mark teased.
Secretly, Mark was thrilled that the judge had put so much thought into this weekend. He'd planned a whole lot of really interesting activities and he'd given Mark a chance to choose the ones he preferred from the list of options. Mark hadn't had much choice in where he'd gone and what he'd had to do over the last few years, and the feeling of being in control of something, no matter how small, made him feel that he was getting his life back under his own control. Knowing that most of that was thanks to the man boarding the ferry with him, Mark had decided to do something special for the judge that night. He'd had a chat with the receptionist at the hotel and asked her to make some enquiries for him. Hopefully, by the time they headed back to the hotel later in the afternoon, she'd have good news for him.
Alcatraz was even more imposing up close than Mark would have believed possible, and he had to admit that he was glad that this prison hadn't been an option when Hardcastle sentenced him. The thought of two years this far removed from civilisation was terrifying, and for the first time in his life, Mark appreciated the fact that things could be worse than San Quentin. Maybe Hardcastle really had done him a favour with his strange offer a year ago. Without the judge, he could have been headed for a place as depressing and hopeless as this, whereas now he had a future worth looking forward to and anticipating.
By midday, the judge's prediction from the day before was starting to come true. A slight mist was starting to creep slowly across the bay, swirling gently around the outskirts of Alcatraz. Looking back over the bay, Mark could almost see the temperature dropping as the clouds began to collect beyond the Bay Bridge. Grateful that the judge had once again insisted on bringing their jackets, Mark dug them out of the backpack, offering the judge his jacket before pulling on his own.
"What do you want to do next, kiddo? We can try going up to Coit Tower, but the view might not be all that great now. Or we could go the fortune cookie factory." Hardcastle tossed the last suggestion out nonchalantly, knowing it was sure to hook the younger man. Fishing wasn't just a riverside pastime, after all. Mark's head shot round and he fixed the judge with a sharp look. "You've got to be kidding me, Judge. They have a factory for that?" Mark's disbelief was plain, and Hardcastle loved being able to nod his head knowingly. "Of course they do, kiddo. You don't think fortune cookies just appear out of thin air, do you? Young people today." Hardcastle sighed and shook his head sadly in mock despair, causing them both to laugh. "And then you'll see how they make up those weird little sayings inside the cookies too. It'll be proof you have nothing to worry about." Mark smiled at the expression of open concern in Hardcastle's eyes. "Okay, Judge, lead on. This I've just got to see."
Later on, as they headed back to the hotel, Mark had to admit that he hadn't enjoyed himself this much in years; maybe never before. Catching the eye of the young receptionist as they walked into the hotel lobby, Mark told the judge he'd catch up later and went over to talk to her. The news was good, and Mark was soon headed up to his room with a light heart. Knocking on the interleading door, he waited until he heard the Judge answer before opening it. "Hey, Judge, can you be ready for dinner at six? I've got a surprise for you." "Sure, kiddo, but am I going to like this? I'm not really fond of surprises, you know. I like to be prepared for anything." Mark smiled at that, "Boy, do I know that. Shotguns come to mind." Mark paused and shook his head at Hardcastle's enquiring look. "Nope, I'm not giving you a single clue, Judge, but I promise you'll love this surprise. Trust me." Hardcastle nodded, surprised at how easy it was to do just that.
The surprise turned out to be dinner at a 1950s-style diner, with food that suited the judge's tastes to the letter. Adding to the ambience, the background music was all stuff the judge knew well, as a lot of it dated from when he'd been dating Nancy and starting out as a lawyer. Mark felt slightly out of his depth, but the unalloyed joy on the judge's face made him forget himself for the evening. He'd wanted to find a way to thank the older man for the wonderful time they'd spent together over the last two days, and this had just seemed appropriate somehow.
Getting the judge to leave had turned out to be the most difficult part of the evening, as every song on the jukebox was one he had to hear after it started. He'd even shared some of his memories with Mark; memories of why certain songs were special, and which had been particular favourites of Nancy's. For a little while, Mark knew what it felt like to be a part of a real family. Finally managing to get out the door, Mark noticed that the skies had cleared slightly. Arriving back at the hotel, he slipped his jacket off and tied it around his waist. "I'm going to walk over to Coit Tower, Judge. The weather should hold for an hour, don't you think?" Barely waiting for Hardcastle to nod, Mark carried on. "Lisa, the receptionist, she said that the view at night is spectacular. Want to come with me?" Mark actually hoped the judge would say no, as he could see the older man was tired. It had been a long day, and he felt tired himself, but this would be his last chance to see the view at night. They were going home tomorrow. Sighing inwardly with relief when Hardcastle shook his head, Mark waited until the judge was inside the hotel before setting off. "Kiddo, hold on a second." Hardcastle's voice stopped him in his tracks and had him turning back at once. "Don't stay out too late. I've got plans for tomorrow morning. We've got time for a little more sightseeing before we head for the airport." Mark nodded enthusiastically, and waved the judge back into the hotel before setting off again.
The walk was pleasant, although the night was much cooler than Mark had anticipated. Reaching the tower, he walked around it with his head tilted back, admiring the beautiful building and the way the walls glowed in the lighting. Stopping on the eastern side of the tower, he looked out over the city. The lights made the city look like a fairy kingdom, and hid the ugliness so often visible in the cold light of day. His ruminations were suddenly interrupted by loud voices coming from around the curve of the tower.
"No. I won't give them to you. It's wrong, and I won't be a part of this." The man's voice was upset and determined, but there was an undercurrent that Mark identified as fear.
"You promised. And you don't want to make me angry, Paul." The woman's voice was hard, with a vicious edge. "Now hand them over, or I'll let Jacob and Simon convince you that it's in your best interests to give me what I want." The threat was obvious to Mark, and he took a step towards where the voices were coming from. He hadn't considered whether he could do anything to help, but he couldn't let something bad happen to someone if he could stop it. Before he'd taken two steps he heard the unmistakable sound of running feet, followed by the sharp report of a handgun.
A young man came stumbling around the building towards him, gripping a small package in both hands. Seeing Mark, he aimed himself towards the ex-con. Holding out the package to Mark, he gasped, "Please, take this to the police. I can't let them have it." Stunned by the words, Mark grabbed the package that was suddenly thrust against him as the man, who could only be Paul, collapsed against him. Looking down Paul's back, Mark could see the blood running freely over the back of the other man's shirt. Obviously, this was what the woman had meant when she'd said her friends would convince Paul to co-operate.
As he stumbled backwards, Mark heard more footsteps heading his way. Bending down to Paul, he hoped to drag the other man away with him, only to realise that Paul was dead. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour in this case, Mark turned to run, only to see a large man heading towards him from the other side of the tower. Spinning in a circle, he spotted a small stairway almost hidden in greenery. Taking off at a fast run, Mark headed for the stairs, passing a small sign labelling them the Filbert steps. Glancing back, he saw a woman with long blonde hair leaning over the dead man, and going through his pockets, while the men stood waiting for instructions.
"We can't let a witness get away, you idiots," the woman's tone was scathing, and carried clearly in the cold night air. "Get him. We can't let him talk." The two men immediately turned to chase Mark, and the closest man aimed his gun at Mark's back. As he pulled the trigger, the blonde woman jumped up and pushed his arm to the side. "No! Don't kill him. He must have the package. Paul doesn't have it. We need him alive to find out what Paul told him. Catch him."
Mark felt something tug low down on his right side as he ran down the stairs, and assumed that he'd caught himself on one of the many plants alongside the steps. Worried that the two guys with guns might catch up with him before he could get the package to the police, he paused long enough halfway down the steps to hide it in the branches of a distinctive tree, knowing that he could identify the crooked branches again to retrieve the package. Taking a deep breath, he put his hand over the stitch he'd developed in his right side, only to have his hand come away wet with his own blood. That certainly explained the tug he'd felt earlier; it had to have been a bullet passing close enough to wing him. Holding his hand over the wound in hopes of not leaving a trail of blood for the men to follow, Mark took off down the remaining steps, moving as quickly as he dared.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Mark could hear the sound of pursuit echoing down the steps behind him. Not really sure where he was going, Mark ran across the next street, thankful that there was no traffic at this hour of the night. Halfway down the flight of steps on the other side of the street, he saw a small alley to the left. Making a sudden turn in that direction, Mark dashed forward and found himself in a quiet back alley, lined by older wooden houses. And at street level, at least half of the houses had entrances into cellars below the street. Pulling gently on each set of doors as he passed them, Mark was starting to get desperate, when the fifth set of doors gave under his questing hand. Pulling the door open just enough to slip inside, Mark pulled the door shut behind him.
Slumping down against the door, he tried to control his rapid breathing. As he calmed down, he could hear running feet outside the door. Holding his breath, Mark heard the feet slow, and then he could hear the two men discussing where he could be. Mark felt himself sag in relief when he heard them decide that he must have turned right from the steps, and then turn to leave.
Checking his watch, Mark realised that only fifteen minutes had passed. He supposed it was typical of his life that everything could fall apart in less time than it took Hardcastle to give him the short version of one of his John Wayne films. Finally lifting his hand from where it was clasped against his body, he tried to get a look at his side. Now that he'd stopped running, he could feel the burning ache where the bullet had sliced him open. The light wasn't really good enough to get a proper look at the wound, but he didn't think it was too bad. All he really needed to do was find a way to stop the bleeding. He was annoyed about the shirt, though; after all, he'd bought it as a memento of a wonderful weekend and now he'd have to throw it out. He'd also lost his opportunity to wear it again in front of Hardcastle, and hear the older man complain that it made him look like just another tourist.
Looking around the cellar as his eyes adjusted to the dim room, he realised that it was a small storage room, and obviously hadn't been locked because the owner didn't have anything of value stored there. About the only things he could see were some cleaning supplies and a bucket of slightly dirty water, along with a broom and what looked like a very old mop. Digging through the polishing rags, Mark found the cleanest looking one and folded it over into a pad which he placed over the bleeding graze. Lacking anything better to hold it in place, he slipped his jacket on, and settled the waistband over the makeshift bandage. Pulling the jacket as tightly closed as possible, he settled down to wait.
Half an hour later, he decided that it would be safe to check on the situation at Coit Tower and to try to retrieve the package. Then he'd take it to the police and ask them to call Hardcastle for him. He couldn't go to the police without proof of his story, because as soon as they checked his name they'd find his record. Everything he said after that would be suspect. Keeping to the shadows, he slowly made his back along the alley, across the road and back up the stairs.
The scene at the tower was like something out of a movie. There were two police cars there, with their lights flashing, lighting the scene in swatches of blue and red. There were four police men standing around the body, and one of them was comforting the blonde woman, who was now sobbing her eyes out. There was no sign of the two men who'd chased Mark away from the scene. Straining his ears to hear what was going on, Mark heard one of the policemen speak to the woman, "Miss, let me take you back to the police station. You can make a statement there, and give us a description of the killer. We've already radioed the basic description you gave us out to all the patrol cars: young, tall, curly brown hair."
Mark pulled further back into the trees at that. She was telling the police that he'd killed Paul. Now how was he supposed to take the package to them and ask them to believe him when she'd already cast him as the villain of the piece? Dragging his attention back to the scene in front of him, he saw a policeman straighten up from beside the body and call to his partner, "Looks like a robbery; his watch and wallet are missing." Oh great, now he was a murderer and a common thief! He'd been a thief before, but he'd had the class to steal cars. That took skill at least.
The first man who'd come after Mark appeared around the side of the Tower, and the woman immediately ran to him and put her arms around him. "Simon, thank goodness you've come. Paul's dead." This was followed by another round of sobbing, while the large, black-haired man patted her gently on the back. "It's okay, Angela, the police will find whoever did this. I'm just so thankful he didn't hurt you as well." Still sniffling, Angela introduced Simon to the policemen as her brother, and assured them that he would take her to the police station to give her statement, after she'd seen Paul safely into the coroner's hands. At that, all but one of the policemen prepared to leave the Tower, with one being tasked to wait with the body for the coroner's arrival. Angela and Simon moved off to one side to wait as well, with Angela still crying quietly. As soon as they were out of the earshot of the policemen, though, Angela's sobs stopped abruptly. "So, did you find him?"
Simon shook his head, and tightened his grip around her shoulders. "Don't get carried away, you'll make the cop suspicious. I've sent Jacob to watch the nearest police station in case our concerned citizen decides to pay them a visit. He'll never make it in the doors without us getting him first." Mark cringed in despair at that. The police station was closer than the hotel, and the burning in his side reminded him that the police station had been his best and quickest option to deal with this whole situation. "Well, if that's all you've done, then you should be thankful that I'm the brains of this group," Angela snapped, with barely concealed irritation. "As soon as you've dropped me at the police station, I suggest you go and wait outside the hotel in Washington Square. You could also try looking in the room that this opens." She dangled a key in front of Simon's nose. "Guess what our unwanted visitor and witness left behind him?"
Mark frantically patted his pockets, only to realise that he no longer had his hotel room key. The sickening realisation that he had to have dropped it when he bent down next to Paul hit him hard. Now he couldn't even go back to the hotel and find Hardcastle. They'd be waiting for him everywhere.
Dawn found Mark slipping back down the stairs towards the alley where he'd run hours earlier. The coroner had been a long time coming, and Angela and Simon had stayed in the parking area until the body was removed, so he'd not even been able to retrieve the package. He was sure they'd hung around in case he came back, but now they had no choice but to leave. They'd been too close to the steps and his hiding place in the shadows, and would have heard him before he'd moved three steps. Now at least they'd moved away enough that they wouldn't hear him. Using the carefree trilling of the birds in the canopy of tree branches as cover, he slowly slipped back down the stairs. Halfway down, just as Mark was looking for the tree he'd stashed the package in, he heard running footsteps coming up the stairs towards him. Trying to look innocent, he slowly kept moving as the early morning jogger ran up the stairs past him. Unfortunately, the man was the lead runner in a group of at least twenty people, and Mark reluctantly gave up any idea of retrieving the package until later in the day.
Pulling his jacket tighter around him as he felt the makeshift bandage start to slip, he tried to look inconspicuous as he crossed the road and turned left into the alley again. Finding the cellar doors still unlocked, he slipped inside again, and settled on the floor to consider his options. Dragging himself back to his feet, he used the broom to barricade the doors behind him before slipping to the floor again. Hardcastle would probably be awake soon and wondering where he'd got to. Mark didn't even know the telephone number for the hotel, and even if he'd had the number, he had no change for the payphone. Maybe later in the day, he could find a telephone, get the hotel number and call it collect. Hardcastle would be able to fix this situation, after all. There was nothing the judge couldn't fix, in some way. Still deciding on the best way to find a telephone booth without attracting police attention, Mark's exhaustion overtook him and he slipped into a doze, still propped against the cellar doors.
Mark would have been gratified to see how concerned Hardcastle was, even though the judge was trying hard not to show it. He'd knocked on the door between their two rooms, but received no answer. Assuming that the kid was too fast asleep to hear him, he'd opened the door to a worrying scene. Mark wasn't the neatest person in the world, but this wasn't like him. The room was a mess, with sheets pulled off the bed, and clothing dropped all over the floor. Okay, maybe the clothing on the floor was typical, but that was at home. Generally, the kid was neater away from home. Aside from the mess, the other worrying factor was that there was no sign of Mark anywhere in the room. The clothes he'd been wearing the night before weren't in the room, suggesting that he'd never come back to the hotel after going to see the view from Coit Tower.
Going downstairs to the reception desk, Hardcastle found Lisa on duty again. Smiling at the young woman, he stepped up to the counter. "Have you seen my friend today? Young guy, brown hair, quick smile?" Lisa shook her head immediately. "You mean Mark, sir?" At Hardcastle's nod, she carried on, "He asked me about restaurants yesterday, but I haven't seen him today. Hang on one second for me, and I'll check with the night receptionist for you. She hasn't left yet." Staring at the counter while he waited, Hardcastle could hear quiet voices in the back room, and then Lisa was coming back towards him, looking puzzled. "Samantha didn't see him at all last night, sir. She saw you come in at about eleven, but you were alone." Her eyes questioned the statement even as she made it, but the judge nodded. "He was going to Coit Tower to look at the view. He said you'd told him it was quite spectacular." Lisa looked upset at that, "On no. I hope nothing's happened to him. Maybe I shouldn't have suggested he go at night." Hardcastle shook his head, "Don't worry, Lisa. Mark's quite capable of looking after himself. There's more to him than meets the eye. Thanks for the information. I'll just go see if he left a message in his room." The judge already knew the only message in the room was the fact that it had been searched, and that something had obviously happened to Mark. But there was no reason Lisa should worry about it as well; he was already doing enough worrying for both of them.
Two hours later, Hardcastle's patience was exhausted. Grabbing his jacket, he headed out the door, downstairs out of the hotel, and then towards the nearest police station. He knew that they'd give him the usual line about not being able to report a missing person for twenty-four hours after their disappearance, but something in his gut was telling him that Mark was in serious trouble. It wasn't like the kid not to let him know where he was, and he was sure the other man would have called him if he needed help. Hardcastle had to admit that Mark actually went out of his way to set the judge's mind at ease about everything when he could. The kid was more considerate than many of Hardcastle's other friends. And that, of course, was the problem. He thought of the kid as his friend, and worried that something might have happened to him. This wasn't how he'd thought their partnership would turn out, but now that it had, he could admit to himself that he'd needed a friend badly. He needed someone to pass the time with, someone to argue with, and someone to celebrate life's small victories with. Mark was that person, and just having him around had made Hardcastle's life richer and more meaningful. He couldn't stand the thought that something might have happened to the kid, and that he wasn't there to help fix the problem. He wasn't willing to entertain the thought that this might be a problem even he couldn't fix.
The local police station was busier than Hardcastle would have figured to be normal for a Sunday morning, and he had to wait at the counter for a few minutes until a police sergeant was able to ask him what he needed.
"I need to report a missing person." Hardcastle's tone was businesslike. He hoped to be able to get to speak to a detective before being told that it was too soon. The young police man immediately got out a report form. "Okay, sir. Can you tell me when you last saw this person?"
Hardcastle sighed quietly to himself. "About eleven 'o clock last night. He was going for a walk and I haven't seen him since." Hardcastle believed in sticking to the facts. It wasn't going to help his cause to tell this young man that his gut was fairly screaming warnings at him. "Sir, I'm assuming your friend is over the age of eighteen, right?" At Hardcastle's nod, the young man continued, "Well, he has to be missing for twenty-four hours before you can report it, sir. Maybe he's just met up with a friend and forgotten to let you know where he is."
Hardcastle was shaking his head before the young man even finished speaking. "You don't understand, Sergeant. He wouldn't do that to me. I know he wouldn't. Besides, we're only here for the weekend, and as far as I know, he doesn't have any friends in San Francisco."
Hardcastle could almost see the moment when the young sergeant decided to humour him. "Alright, sir, how about you give me a description of your friend. I'll keep it here, and if you still haven't heard from him by tonight, we'll have a head start on the paperwork. How's that?" Hardcastle wanted to wipe the patronising smile off the young man's face, but controlled himself with an effort. Smiling tightly, he nodded, "Okay, son, let's do that." Anyone who knew Hardcastle could have spotted the sarcasm in that statement at a hundred paces, but the young man seemed oblivious. "We were staying at the hotel on Washington Square. His name is Mark McCormick, and he was going to Coit Tower last night. He's got brown hair and blue eyes …"
Hardcastle's voice died away at the sudden look of shock on the policeman's face. "Sir, could you hold that thought for just one second. I just need to speak to Detective Halloran." The sergeant disappeared through a nearby door, labelled 'Homicide', leaving Hardcastle feeling even more concerned than he'd been when he arrived. Contemplating the name on the door, Hardcastle's mind immediately considered the worst possible scenario. Mark had been attacked last night, and now he was either dead, or so badly off that the police thought he wouldn't live.
The very thought made him dizzy and he could feel the blood drain from his face. Looking around, he spotted a chair and quickly lowered himself into it. He couldn't pass out now. He had to be strong for Mark. If the younger man were injured, he'd need Hardcastle's help; if things were worse than that, Hardcastle needed to be able to organise things to take Mark home one last time. And then, he had to be able to hold things together long enough to find whoever was responsible and make them pay for hurting Mark. And much though he wanted to deal out his own brand of punishment, for the sake of what he'd been trying to teach Mark about justice, he would let the courts deal with the guilty parties.
His head came up when he heard the door open a quarter of an hour later, letting the young sergeant and an older man back into the area behind the desk. He could see the sergeant pointing him out. Hardcastle forced himself to his feet. Whatever the situation, he intended to face it head on. The detective held out his hand to Hardcastle, introducing himself as they shook hands, "Detective Halloran. And you are?" "Retired judge Milton Hardcastle." Hardcastle intended to use every advantage he had, and his position in the judiciary was a good starting point.
The detective nodded and indicated that Hardcastle should come with him. "I'd like you to take a look at a photograph for me, if you don't mind. Your description sounded a little like someone we're trying to identify in connection with one of our cases." Hardcastle nodded and took the chair indicated. Taking the proffered photograph, he took a deep breath and braced himself for the worst before looking at it.
It wasn't Mark. Hardcastle's hand shook slightly as he handed the picture back to the detective. "Sorry. I've never seen this man before. Why did you think I might have?" the indecision on the detective's face was plain, clearing as he began to talk. "This young man was murdered last night at Coit Tower. He and his girl friend were out walking and she says they were attacked by a mugger. This young man tried to protect her, and the mugger shot and killed him. Your missing person's report sounds remarkably like the person she described. And, I've run a check on your friend's name; he's a convicted felon. You can see why I thought you might know this man."
"No. I don't see that at all. If you ran a proper check, you'll know that the worst thing Mark ever did was steal cars. And I'm the one who sent him to prison for that. And you'll know that I'm his parole officer. I can tell you, categorically, that Mark would never do anything like what you're suggesting. He's not capable of something like murder." Hardcastle could feel his blood pressure rise at the look of open disbelief on the detective's face.
"I'm sorry, Mr Hardcastle, but you must understand that I can't simply take your word for something like this. Now that we have a name, we going to put out an APB on your friend. We would appreciate your help with this, you know." One look at the judge's face had the detective almost gulping in fear; Hardcastle looked absolutely livid. "I'm not helping you, you idiot. Take it from me, you're reading this whole thing wrong. Mark isn't capable of what you're thinking!" Taking a deep breath, Hardcastle forced himself to icy calmness. "I'm going to go out to Coit Tower to look for my friend. I can see that you're most likely not going to help me. When I find him, I will get in touch with you. And then I will expect an apology from you." Hardcastle's dignity was offended on Mark's behalf. Who did this man think he was, believing the worst about Mark without even trying to find out the truth? "And by the way, it's Judge Hardcastle to you!"
Hardcastle marched across the room, reaching out to open the door back to the reception area. Some instinct made him turn as he opened the door, and he saw a blonde woman approach Detective Halloran. Something about the woman made Hardcastle's gut sit up and take notice. Lingering at the door, he heard Halloran address the woman as Angela Robbins, but the next sentence made his blood boil again. "We've got a lead on the man who shot Paul, Miss Robbins."
"Please call me Angela, Detective. Thank you so much for everything you're doing. I really hope you find him soon. I know it sounds morbid, but I feel like I need to see him again; I just want to know why he killed Paul." Angela buried her face in a tissue and started to cry. "What did you say his name was, Detective?" "His name is Mark, Mark McCormick." Halloran was clearly uncomfortable around crying women, and Hardcastle wondered if he even realised that he'd just given the woman information about an ongoing investigation. Not to mention the almost unhealthy interest that Angela seemed to have in the case. Slipping out the door, Hardcastle knew he needed to find out why Angela seemed so interesting in finding out about Mark.
Standing outside the police station, Hardcastle looked for somewhere to wait. Settling on a wooden bench further down the sidewalk, he rested his gaze on the exit from station. Five minutes later, his patience was rewarded, and Angela came out into the pale sunshine. The overt signs of grief disappeared as soon as she reached the corner of the street. Hardcastle strolled along the sidewalk behind her, making sure not to attract her attention. He couldn't explain why he felt the need to follow her, but his instincts were sure that she was vital to finding Mark. He'd been wrong before, but not often enough to ignore the sense of urgency he was feeling.
One block further down the road, Angela waved to two men waiting by a black car. Both men took a step away from the car and waited for her to speak. Slowly edging closer, Hardcastle missed the beginning of what she was saying, but what he did hear was enough to tell him that she'd told the two men Mark's name. Walking slowly past the three, he managed to hear Angela tell the two men to go back to Coit Tower and find Mark. And now he knew something the police didn't; the two men were called Simon and Jacob.
Pleased that his instincts had been right, he headed back to the hotel. He knew it was probably a vain hope, but he prayed that he'd find Mark safely in his room when he got back, ready to complain that the judge had left before they'd had breakfast. He was unpleasantly surprised to find a police car parked outside the hotel when he got back. Lisa waved him over, almost in tears as she explained, "Mr Hardcastle, the police wanted me to let them into Mark's room. They won't tell me what they want, but they said he's wanted for questioning in connection with a murder?" Hardcastle nodded grimly. "That's what they say, but they're wrong."
Realising that his room was no longer private, Hardcastle nodded towards the back room. "I need to make a telephone call. In private. Could I use the office for a few minutes?" Lisa chewed on her lip indecisively, then straightened up. "Sure. I don't care what they say. I don't think your friend could kill anyone; he's too nice. Just wait until the manager's not looking and go on through." Hardcastle smiled. The kid seemed to collect believers everywhere he went, without even trying. Come to think of it, Mark had even made a believer of the person Hardcastle was planning to call.
Five minutes later, he was calling Frank and hoping his friend was at home. Nothing had ever been as welcoming as the sound of Frank's voice on the line. "Frank, I've got a problem. McCormick's missing, and the local police think it's because he killed someone last night." Frank's silence lasted only a second, then, "Not a chance, Milt. What can I do to help?" Milt quickly gave a synopsis of what had happened at the police station that morning, and what he had seen after following Angela.
"Do you know anyone in the police department here? I need to know who this Angela Robbins is, and I want to know more about this boyfriend of hers. Something's not right, and I'm not going to let them railroad the kid for something he didn't do." Hardcastle sounded so righteously indignant that Frank bit back a laugh. After Milt had described the woman and the two men, Frank said, "Okay, Milt. Let me see what I can find out. Where can I get hold of you?" After writing down the telephone number for the hotel, and making a note to ask for Lisa when he called, Frank hung up.
Hardcastle slipped out the door and smiled at Lisa. "A friend of mine's going to call for me. I asked him to ask for you. Could you let me know when he calls?" Lisa nodded and ducked her head back down over her files as the hotel manager came past. As he passed, she winked at Hardcastle and settled back down to work.
Three and a half hours later, Hardcastle was ready to explode. He hadn't heard from Frank, and Mark had been missing for at least fifteen hours. His patience, what little he'd had left after the visit to the police station, was exhausted. The constant presence of a police car outside the hotel and a junior officer in the hotel lobby hadn't improved his temper any, either. He couldn't even pace, because that would make the police officer suspicious. Hearing car doors outside the hotel, he looked over to the entrance, only to see Frank walking in, carrying a weekend bag. Frank's gaze fixed on the police officer, passed right over Milt with no hint of recognition, and settled on the reception desk. Setting his bag down at his feet, he checked into the hotel, chatting quietly with Lisa as he did so. Lisa glanced over at Hardcastle once, looked towards the front door, then turned back to Frank. Getting the message, Hardcastle smiled at the police officer and walked out of the front door and across the road to the park.
A short while later, Frank appeared and walked slowly across the road. Making sure that the police officer hadn't followed him outdoors, he walked over to Milt. "Milt, I don't know what you've got involved with this time, but I do know it's not good."
Hardcastle led the way across the park. "Okay. Details, Frank. What do you know? And, by the way, how did you get here so fast? Not to mention, why are you here?" Frank looked hurt for a second, and Milt rushed in, "I'm glad you're here. Just, how bad is it, that you felt you had to come?"
"Claudia has a cousin who's a private pilot. He was willing to fly me here when Claudia explained that Mark might be in trouble. She was quite insistent that he help, actually." Frank seemed rather bemused at Claudia's behaviour. Hardcastle had to smile at that. The kid's cheering section would soon consist of more people than could fit on the bleachers.
"Back to what you asked me to find out for you. I don't know anything about Angela Robbins. There's no information available on her at all. Maybe it's not even really her name. But the two men, they're a different story. As far as I can tell, based on the descriptions you gave me and their names, they're enforcers and general all-around thugs for a couple of criminal syndicates. Always impeccably dressed and extremely polite. They seem to be for hire, but they only work together. Also, they don't come cheap, so whatever this woman is into, it must pay well. And they have a reputation for being fairly ruthless; they like to hurt people and they enjoy watching their victims suffer. Which brings me to your last question; I'm here because if you're going to mess with these guys, I'd rather you had some backup you can trust."
Hardcastle nodded. "I thought it might be something like that, although I did hope I was wrong" Hardcastle sighed heavily, and Frank suddenly saw the older man's years hang heavily on him. "And from what I heard, now she's got them looking for Mark. Did you manage to find out anything about the guy who got murdered?"
Frank pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket. "His name is Paul Jackson. He's apparently a part-time art student and part-time waiter. I'd say rather more waiter than artist, from what I heard. I've got the address of his dorm room at the University, but I've already called there and his room-mate said he was spending the weekend in town. He was planning to spend the time looking at the murals in Coit Tower; something to do with a research project he's working on. But, the most interesting thing about Paul, according to his room-mate, is that he doesn't have a girlfriend at the moment. He broke up with the girl he'd been seeing for over a year. She was a redhead, by the way. That was three months ago, and according to the room-mate, he's not started dating again yet."
"So," Hardcastle mused, "everything she's told the police is a lie. And the fact that they're looking for Mark must mean he's still alive." Hardcastle's sudden relief at that fact was so obvious that Frank made a point of looking away while the older man composed himself again. "And he must have seen or heard something that could be troublesome for them. So all that we have to do, is figure out where he is, and get to him first." Frank rolled his eyes at that. "You make it sound so simple, Milt. Pray tell, where exactly were you planning to start?" Saccharine-sweet sarcasm was hard to find, but Frank made it seem commonplace. Hardcastle smiled gently, and said, "Where all good detectives start, Frank. At the scene of the crime."
Twenty minutes later, the two men were looking up at the tower from the same place Mark had been standing the night before. The dried bloodstain on the tarmac was a grim reminder of why they were there. "I'm going to look around, Frank. I'm not impressed with what I've seen so far of the locals; it wouldn't surprise me if they missed something important if it wasn't bang under their noses." Frank couldn't find it in himself to defend the local police force. If they thought Mark had committed murder, in spite of Hardcastle's spirited defence of the younger man, he wasn't sure they deserved his support. Nodding to Milt, he turned to walk away in the opposite direction, eyes on the ground for any sign of Mark.
Hardcastle turned in a slow circle, looking at his options and trying to put himself in Mark's shoes. Where would he have gone if someone were chasing him, or if he were trying not to be noticed? Spotting the small flight of stairs in the greenery, much as Mark had done the night before, he started walking. The shrubs nearest the parking lot had a few broken branches, and although anyone passing nearby could have caused the minor damage, a nagging feeling of urgency made Hardcastle step closer. He took the first few steps slowly, looking for something out of place; anything to help him find Mark. At first, the stain on the fourth step looked like dried mud, but the lack of loose soil around the mark made him look twice. Bending down, he rubbed a finger across the patch, only to find it rubbed off easily onto his fingers. And that the substance was sticky and red.
Turning back up the stairs, he waited for Frank to turn and look at him. Waving the other man over to him, Hardcastle held out his hand. "What does that look like to you, Frank?" Frank took a close look and touched the red spot on Hardcastle's fingers. "I don't want to jump to conclusions here, Milt, but my first instinct is that it's blood. Where did you find it?" Hardcastle led the way to the step where he'd found the mark, and the two men followed a trail of red spots halfway down the stairs. The patch there was much bigger, but the trail seemed to stop there; there were no more spots on the stairs below them.
Hardcastle was torn between a feeling of supreme satisfaction and angry helplessness. He'd been right when he told the police that Mark wasn't the person they should be looking for. But the pleasure of being able to say 'I told you so' wasn't going to mean much without Mark's presence at his side. At the moment, there was nothing he could do to help Mark; and without a blood trail to follow, he couldn't even find the younger man. And he wasn't sure if the fact that the trail ended here was a good thing or not. Did it mean Mark was too badly hurt to keep moving on his own, and whoever he'd been running from had caught up with him? Or was the wound minor enough that he'd been able to stop the bleeding? And, possibly more importantly right now, why had the younger man stopped here at all?
Inspiration struck suddenly. "Frank, look around and see if you can spot anything odd." Hardcastle's sudden excitement had Frank looking confused. "Milt, what are you thinking now?" Hardcastle started to explain himself, his voice fading in and out as he ducked around the shrubs and trees alongside the stairs. "Mark must have been hurt, right? And for some reason, instead of running, he stopped here long enough to leave that stain on the ground. Why? There has to be a reason, and I'm betting there's something here that will give us an answer, if we just look hard enough." Seeing the sense in the judge's words, Frank also began looking through the groundcovers and nearby shrubs. Finished looking on ground level, Hardcastle started looking at eye level and just above, and almost immediately found what he was looking for. Tucked into the gap between two oddly shaped tree branches was a small brown package.
"Frank, look here." Waiting until Frank had seen the package in the tree, Hardcastle reached up and removed it. Holding only the very edges of the package, he lowered it to the ground. Easing the paper open, he lifted out two metal plates, each almost an inch thick. Separating them, Hardcastle gasped in surprise: he was looking at a printing plate for a hundred dollar bill! Wrapping the plates securely again, Hardcastle was about to put them into his pocket when Frank held out a hand for the package. "Let me take that, Milt. It'll simplify the whole chain of evidence paperwork when we get this all straightened out later." Nodding his agreement, Hardcastle watched Frank slip the plates into his pocket.
Rubbing his hands together briskly, Hardcastle seem fired up with fresh enthusiasm. "Now, all we have to do is find Mark. Which way first, do you think, Frank?" Frank considered the options, and then factored in what he knew about Mark. The younger man would rather run from a fight he couldn't win, unless someone he cared about was in danger. Mark was hurt and probably not up to physically fighting his way out of a difficult situation. Angela and her two thugs were still looking for Mark. The murder had taken place at the top of the steps. Logic told him that Mark would have headed down the stairs. Indicating his choice with a tilt of his head, the two men set off down the steps again, only to find a busy road at the bottom. Any signs of Mark's passing were long gone.
Sighing in disappointment, Hardcastle took one last look around before heading back towards the stairs to the tower. "Milt, where are you going?" Frank was confused, not to mention disbelieving. "Mark's out there, somewhere, alone and hurt, and you're leaving?" The strain of the decision showed clearly on Hardcastle's face as he turned to face his friend. "I don't know where he is, Frank. Standing here hoping for inspiration isn't going to bring me an answer, either. The only thing I can think of is to come back here after sunset and wait for him." Frank wondered if the judge knew that he sounded like he'd been in the peanuts again, then sighed to himself when he remembered that he'd heard that particular story from Mark. "I know what you're thinking, Frank, but trust me on this. I know the kid. He needs that package to prove his innocence. No matter how badly he's hurt, he'll come back for it. He obviously can't come in daylight, so he'll come tonight." One emphatic nod underscored this final statement, and Frank reluctantly followed Milt back up the stairs, muttering quietly to himself, "If it's at all possible."
Struck by inspiration again, Hardcastle paused at the tree where they'd found the package and dug through his pockets for a pen and a scrap of paper. Writing a few words on it, he tucked it under a piece of loose bark on the tree trunk, near where he'd found the package. Seeing Frank's raised eyebrow, he sheepishly ducked his head, and murmured, "Insurance."
Less than two miles away, the object of their search was peering down the alley that housed his hideaway, and wondering how to avoid the police officer he could see. He'd only slept for a few hours after dozing off just after dawn. Then he'd had a nightmare about fortune cookies, dead bodies, being shot and falling down a flight of stairs. Jerking awake just before he hit the ground in his nightmare, he'd remembered that, unfortunately, apart from falling down the stairs, it wasn't really a nightmare. Although he wasn't sure what fortune cookies had to do with anything, aside from the fact that they'd promised him trouble in the future.
He'd also managed to catch the edge of the makeshift bandage on his side when he'd started awake and the graze had started to bleed again and soaked through the material. Digging quickly through the cleaning rags he'd found the night before, he'd found another old cloth, which he'd placed on top of the first one before tightening his jacket again. Settling down to wait until the bleeding eased off again, he'd considered his options.
Obviously, going back to the scene of the crime wasn't an option. No doubt, there'd be some sort of police presence, and Angela had made sure that the police wouldn't believe him. At least, not without proof, and he wasn't going to be able to fetch the package in daylight. He would be the first to admit that some of the clothes he wore to work in the gardens at the estate were disreputable, to say the least, but he never went off the grounds wearing them. He wasn't going to be able to go very far, dressed as he was now, with dried blood streaks on his pants and jacket. And there was no way to get back to the hotel and Hardcastle without being noticed by a passing police officer, who would want an explanation for his appearance.
His next option was to find a payphone and try to contact the judge. Hardcastle would know what to do. He always knew. And he would be able to help Mark make the police listen to his story, without first trying to lock him up and throw away the key. The only downside of this choice was that he'd have to leave his sanctuary in broad daylight and risk being seen.
His final option was to make his way back to the stairs, and retrieve the package. With that in his possession, the police might be more inclined to listen to the whole story before they locked him up. And at least, with some sort of information to hand them, he'd be able to count on the judge's unconditional support. He knew that Hardcastle would want to believe him, and that meant more to him than he would have thought possible. But the judge had been burned before. The other ex-cons he'd brought to Gulls Way hadn't been successes. He didn't want the judge to think he was like JJ Beale. Not having any proof to back up his story would make it hard for the judge to take his side without damaging his standing and reputation amongst his friends and colleagues, not to mention in the whole judicial community. Hardcastle had already taken a fair amount of abuse from some of the people who thought that taking Mark under his wing was a mistake. And more would be unacceptable. So Mark would just have to make sure it didn't happen.
All things considered, he thought perhaps the second option was the best at the moment. He was sure there had to be a payphone somewhere nearby, or even a little closer to the harbour, where the state of his clothes wouldn't stand out as much. If he could find a payphone near where the fishing boats docked, anyone who saw the blood might think it came from gutting fish.
Listening at the doors for a few minutes convinced Mark that he could leave without being spotted. Slipping out the door, he took care to close it properly behind him. Who knew, he might need to come back and leaving it swinging open would only encourage the owner to lock the doors. Keeping to the side of the alley, he made his way to the end away from the stairs he'd come down the night before. Reaching the corner, he risked a quick look around. The traffic wasn't too heavy and feigning a nonchalance he didn't feel, Mark started off slowly down the sidewalk, aware with every step that he took that the graze on his side was still seeping. Keeping his right arm against his side, he slowly walked the few blocks to the harbour.
Luck was with him, and he saw a payphone right near the back door of one of the fish shops at the harbour. Flipping through the directory in the booth, he found the number for the hotel. Dialling the operator, he tapped his fingers impatiently on the glass side of the booth. "I'd like to place a collect call to Milton Hardcastle, please." Giving the pleasant woman on the other end of the telephone the hotel's number, Mark waited for the call to connect. "I'm sorry, sir. The hotel has a policy of not accepting collect calls." Mark could have screamed in frustration. "Miss, it's an emergency. Life and death. Please." After a few seconds of silence, her voice came back on the line, "I'm really sorry, sir, but the answer's still the same." "Thanks anyway." Mark hung the telephone up and rested his head against the side of the booth in despair. So much for option number two. He'd just have to find a way out of this on his own.
Spotting a sign for a public restroom, Mark slipped inside and stuck his head under one of the faucets to get a drink of water. Then he washed his face and hands. His stomach was starting to complain about the lack of solid food, but at least the water would prevent him from dehydrating too badly before making a bid to retrieve the package that evening. Besides which, the heat in his side was starting to spread, and the slight feeling of nausea accompanying the growing pain meant that food was most likely not a good idea anyway.
Making his way back to the alley seemed to take much longer than he thought it should, and certainly longer than the trip to the harbour had taken. The stubborn ache in his side had changed into a burning heat, and laying a hand on his side had confirmed that the graze was unnaturally warm. Apparently the cloths he'd used to cover it hadn't been clean enough. His head was starting to ache as well, though that could also have been due to not having eaten since dinner with Hardcastle the night before. As he reached the entrance to the alley, Mark had caught the telltale sound of a police scanner and stopped abruptly.
Now, poking his head around the corner, he could see a police car parked in the alley, and two young officers going from house to house knocking on doors. He could just make out some of what the nearest one was saying, and he was sure he heard his own name quite clearly.
Angela had given the police his description, he knew that, but how had she known his name? The only person in town that knew him was Hardcastle. Surely the judge hadn't given his name to the police. He annoyed the judge on a regular basis, but he didn't think the older man would turn him in without some kind of proof that Mark was guilty of the crime he was accused of. It wasn't in the judge's nature to act without due consideration of all the facts, and he was inherently fair and unbiased in his judgements.
That only left one explanation for the police having his name. Somehow, Angela and her two thugs had found the judge and forced him to tell them about Mark. And Angela must have passed the information on to the police. His room key had led her straight to the judge. He was to blame for any trouble the judge was in. He could only hope that they hadn't hurt the judge to get the information they wanted. Sometimes the old donkey was too stubborn for his own good, and dug in his heels when he shouldn't.
Mark knew that now he had no choice but to get that package back before the police or Angela found him. He needed some sort of leverage; something to bargain with when they found him. The package was important enough to Angela and her henchmen that they were willing to kill Paul for it. He was sure that he could trade himself and the package for the judge's life and freedom, if that's what it took to keep the other man safe.
Realising that he was standing on the sidewalk staring blindly into space, Mark risked another look around the corner and saw the police car hadn't moved at all. Glancing around to orient himself, Mark slowly walked up another block, his energy flagging with every step. The charming hills he'd admired the day before weren't so charming anymore. Turning left at the next road, he sighed in relief when he saw the bottom of the flight of stairs that had become his main goal in life. He hadn't been sure that he'd managed to keep the streets straight in his head the night before, but it seemed he could still navigate better than a homing pigeon.
Making his way to the bottom of the flight of stairs, he sighed in relief at finding the stairs deserted. Walking up to the halfway point, Mark started to look around for the tree he'd placed the package in, only to find that the package was missing. Reaching up between the branches to feel if the package hadn't simply slipped further back, his hand brushed against something that rustled quietly. Jerking back in fright, Mark almost laughed out loud at spotting a small piece of paper tucked under some loose bark. Pulling gently, he retrieved the slip and unfolded it, to see a short message in Hardcastle's familiar writing: 'Tonight. Trust me, kiddo'. Mark shook his head in despair. He trusted the judge, with his life, his freedom and everything he owned, but nothing about this situation suggested that there would be a good ending to everything. If Hardcastle had written the note, and Mark knew the judge's writing as well as his own, then that meant that Angela and her two pet thugs had somehow got hold of the judge and the package. The only thing he could do now was show up after dark and hope that he could convince Angela to let the judge leave unharmed; always supposing that the judge was still unhurt by then.
Scraping up the little energy he had left, Mark slowly made his way back to his hideout, glad to see the police had moved on, and settled down to wait for the sun to set. He was pretty sure that he wasn't going to make it out of tonight's meeting alive, but he figured the sacrifice would be worth it if he could make sure that the judge made it out in one piece. He'd hoped for more time with the judge, given that the first year of their partnership had turned out better than he could have hoped. He'd had things to look forward to, and he'd made some unexpected friends over the last twelve months. He regretted that he wouldn't be able to tell the judge and Sarah how much he cared for them and appreciated what they'd done for him. Not to mention, he'd never told Frank how much he enjoyed having a friend on the right side of the law. Perhaps he'd be able to give the judge a last message for everyone before Angela got her hands on him. Idly, he wondered how Angela was whiling away the time before the meeting.
Angela was furious, pacing the floor of her hotel room with short, angry steps. In spite of getting Mark's name from the police, Simon and Jacob had yet to find any trace of the man. They'd searched all the streets near the tower, and even asked discrete questions of their contacts in the city. Mark hadn't contacted the police, and he'd not been in touch with any of the local fences in an attempt to get rid of the package. Nothing irritated her more than incompetence. "Simon. Jacob. Get in here." As the two men appeared, she made an attempt to control her temper. "What progress have you made so far? And please tell me that you've made some sort of progress." The scathing tone had both men flinching slightly.
Jacob glanced at Simon and then answered for both of them. "He seems to have gone to ground, Miss Robbins, but we're sure he'll make an appearance soon. From what we've found out, he's only visiting here and it seems he has no friends in the city. So either he'll have to go to the police or back to the hotel soon. And then …"
Angela cut him off in mid-sentence, "And how, precisely, are we going to know these things? If you're both here, who's going to know where he is?" Simon spoke up, his voice deceptively quiet and pleasant, "We have people we trust watching both places, ma'am. But perhaps you should consider one more thing; he hasn't made an appearance yet, which means that he must not have the plates with him. Given the speed with which things happened last night, logic dictates he must have stashed them somewhere nearby. Which means, Miss Robbins, that he will have to get the plates back before he can do anything else."
Angela rounded on Simon immediately. "You didn't think to tell me this earlier. Who exactly do you think is in charge here?" Simon's look was calculating, "We both know the answer to that, don't we? Mr Gilbert won't be pleased if things go wrong here." The fight drained out of Angela at that. "So, what would you, in your infinite wisdom, suggest that we do?" The insincere sweetness made Simon smile coldly. "I intend to go back to the tower tonight to collect the plates. Logically, it's the only option left to Mr McCormick. He needs those plates to prove his story, and we will be there to take them from him as soon as he retrieves them for us. And then, Jacob and I will indulge ourselves as a reward for all the inconvenience we've been forced to endure today." For all the emotion in that statement, Simon could have been discussing the weather. Angela looked away then, surprised to realise that she pitied Mark.
"Now, I'm going to call Mr Gilbert to let him know what's going on. We'll be leaving as soon as I come back. If you co-operate, I'll be sure to tell Mr Gilbert how helpful you've been." Angela could only nod, and get ready to leave. Ten minutes later, the three of them set off towards Coit Tower. Arriving twenty minutes later, Angela made her way towards the entrance of the Tower, while Simon wandered around the parking lot, keeping an eye on all the possible entrances. Jacob set off down the Filbert steps to keep watch on the escape route from the previous night.
Angela settled herself near the entrance, running a mental inventory of all the people she could see. Most of the people were in family groups, with a few groups of young girls hanging around near the bus stop. Other than that, there were a few older people wandering inside the tower, looking at the colourful murals. No-one in sight looked at all like Mark. Her gaze kept drifting back to one older man, obviously alone, who seemed out of place somehow. He was wearing a brightly patterned shirt, which on closer scrutiny, turned out to be a Hawaiian print. That, coupled with the almost worn-out sneakers, made for an amusing picture. Yet, that wasn't what kept attracting her attention. She had a nagging feeling that she'd seen the man before somewhere, but she was also sure that she'd have remembered being introduced to someone so unique.
Hardcastle kept stealing glances towards the blonde woman at the entrance. He'd spotted Angela as soon as she'd appeared, and he'd been keeping an eye on her ever since. Making his way towards the exit as the staff began to close the tower for the evening, he managed to slip past her without attracting her attention. Quickly spotting Simon, Hardcastle strolled around for ten minutes looking for Jacob. After wandering all the way around the tower, he came to the conclusion that the other man had to be waiting near the stairs. As the sun set slowly over the misty bay, Hardcastle moved towards the stairs. Falling in behind a party of tourists, hard on the heels of what looked to be a young pair of newlyweds who only had eyes for each other, he made his way slowly down the stairs, slowing his steps so that he was alone by the time he reached the tree where he'd left his note. Looking up, he saw the slip of paper had been removed, and smiled to himself as he stepped off the path to wait in the shadows.
Less than fifteen minutes later, he heard quiet, cautious footsteps coming up from the street below. The pace was slow and soon he could hear laboured breathing, driving his concern for Mark up another notch. If the person coming were Mark, he certainly wasn't sounding good.
Mark kept turning to check behind him on the stairs. He'd managed to slip out of the cellar and make it across the road without attracting much attention. He was sure that the few people who'd been close enough to get a good look at him had made sure to get as far from him as they could; his clothes were dirty, the dried blood had turned a dirty shade of brown, and he found it impossible to do more than shuffle his way slowly along the sidewalk. The burning sensation in his side had increased since he'd made his way back to the cellar earlier in the afternoon, and he'd made a point of not looking at the wound. There was nothing he could do about it, anyway, and after tonight, he didn't think it would matter much. But now that he was so close to his goal, he had the feeling that he was being watched. He hadn't been able to spot anyone, but the back of his neck continued to tingle.
Taking the final step towards what he come to consider his tree, Mark looked around. He'd expected a welcoming committee of some sort, but found himself alone. "Hello?" No response prompted him to continue, "Okay, I'm here. I don't know where you are, but just let my friend go, and I'll do whatever you say."
Hardcastle shook his head in exasperation as he stepped out onto the path behind Mark. "Haven't I taught you anything, kiddo? You don't make promises you can't keep. And no matter what happens, I'm not going to let you keep that one." The look of shocked pleasure on Mark's face would have been amusing, if not for the way he swayed slightly after spinning around. Hardcastle stepped forward and grabbed an arm to steady the younger man. "Judge. You're okay! But how … I mean … where are they?"
"Where's who, McCormick? I swear, sometimes I have absolutely no idea what you're going on about." Hardcastle's amused laugh was interrupted by a cold, polite voice from behind him. "I think that Mr McCormick would be referring to me, sir. And you would be?" Hardcastle turned around slowly, maintaining his grip on McCormick's arm at the same time. Staring at the face above the silenced gun pointed in his direction, Hardcastle recognised one of the two men he'd seen with Angela earlier in the day.
"Now, take it easy with that thing." Hardcastle waved a negligent hand at the gun. "We don't want any trouble." The supercilious glance from Jacob was accompanied by a polite laugh. "Certainly, sir. We don't want any trouble, either. Just give us our property, and then we can all part ways amicably."
"Sorry, but we can't do that." Hardcastle was definite. "I know enough about you, Jacob, to know that once you have what you want, you'll never let us live. So, perhaps we should get down to the real bargaining." A quiet gasp from behind the judge was the only sign that Mark realised that the judge was stalling for some reason. Hardcastle never negotiated with criminals, and not even facing yet another loaded gun would have been enough to change one of the basic tenets of the judge's character.
"Very well, then. We'll just wait here for a few minutes for my colleague and then we'll see about convincing you to be helpful. I should warn you, however, that my partner enjoys his work very much. Unfortunately, none of the people he's worked with seem to appreciate his art. Please stop right there." Hardcastle had slowly been shifting sideways so that the flight of stairs leading down was now behind him. The polite tone was more chilling than any amount of emotional ranting would have been. "I would hate to have to shoot you before Simon arrives." Jacob settled into a relaxed stance facing the pair. Mark grasped Hardcastle's wrist, and leaned towards the judge slightly. "Judge, what do you think you're doing?"
"Hush, McCormick. Patience is a virtue." The last sentence was said loud enough to carry up the stairs behind Jacob. Less than a minute later, Jacob suddenly shifted uncomfortably and froze where he stood. "Drop the gun, please, and step forward." Frank Harper's voice carried from behind the man, and as Jacob stepped forward, Mark could see Frank's gun pressing against Jacob's back.
Quickly handcuffing Jacob and reading him his rights, Frank looked beyond Milt to nod to the young newlyweds who'd gone down the stairs less than half an hour earlier. Stepping forward, the two, now sporting police badges on their jackets, took charge of the handcuffed man and led him away up the stairs. "So, Milt, how's our boy?" Frank had seen the astonished look on Mark's face slowly give way to confused exhaustion. Hardcastle tightened his grip on Mark's arm. "Not sure, Frank, but I'll check him out as soon as we get to the parking lot. C'mon, kiddo, let's get going." Keeping a firm grip on Mark's arm, Milt led the way upstairs.
Reaching the parking lot, Mark shook off the judge's hand to stand on his own. "I'm okay, Judge, honest. Just really tired." Hardcastle simply nodded and pulled Mark towards the ambulance parked near the tower. "Sure, McCormick, you're just fine. That's why you were bleeding all over the stairs last night." Sitting Mark down in the ambulance and giving the paramedic strict instructions not to let the younger man leave, Hardcastle headed off across the parking lot towards the detective in charge of the scene. Mark's eyes followed the judge's every move, greedily drinking in each second of a sight that he'd never thought to see again. Watching the judge lay down the law to the detective, Mark smiled in quiet satisfaction. Apparently, no-one was safe from Hardcastle's ire, not even a detective who lived a day's travel away from Gulls Way.
Seeing Hardcastle heading back towards him, Mark turned his attention back to the medic, who was peeling the soaked rags off his side. Getting his first good look at the bullet graze, Mark decided that perhaps he'd be better off keeping his eyes closed. He was no expert, but he was sure the skin shouldn't look that red or feel that hot when it was open to the cool evening air. "How bad is it?" Hardcastle's quiet question made Mark open his eyes again. "Slight infection, probably from these," the paramedic poked at the soiled rags with a finger, "but nothing a night in the hospital and some decent antibiotics can't fix. He's also a bit dehydrated, but like I said, nothing that can't be fixed overnight."
"No way. Judge, I don't need the hospital." Mark's objections were interrupted by the arrival of the detective Hardcastle had been talking to. "Mr McCormick, I think you should listen to the experts." Mark's look quite plainly wanted to know who this person thought he was. "I'm Detective Halloran. I'm working on the murder that happened here last night; Paul Jackson. Your disappearance last night made me jump to the conclusion that you were involved in the murder. I was told .." a glance at Hardcastle made Mark wish he could have heard that conversation, ".. that I was mistaken. I would just like to apologise to you for thinking that you were involved."
"Sure. Fine." A quick nod in the detective's direction acknowledged the apology, but his eyes stayed fixed on Hardcastle. "I just want to know one thing," Mark's voice trailed off, until Detective Halloran nodded. "How did you set all of this up?" Halloran glanced at the judge and waited for his nod before giving Mark the details. "Your friend wouldn't listen to me and he and Detective Harper did some digging on their own." "Good thing, too." Hardcastle's growl was just loud enough to be heard clearly. "They found out who the woman and her partners were, and then they came here and found the package that you stashed in the tree. Clever, that. Then they brought it to me and between us, we worked out this little trap."
Mark's interest was piqued and the desire to have all the facts won out over his exhaustion. "So, what was in the package anyway?" Halloran looked startled. "You mean, you didn't know?" Mark shook his head slowly. "They were printing plates for hundred dollar bills. As far as we can tell right now, Angela Robbins apparently convinced Paul to make the plates for her. She told him they were for a museum, which appears to be the only reason he went ahead with the project. Last night he found out that she was actually planning to start a counterfeiting operation with them, and he refused to hand them over. And that was where you came in."
Mark digested all this, and then decided that it really wasn't all that important in the greater scheme of things. "Nice to know why someone wants you dead, I suppose." Looking past the detective, he caught Hardcastle's eyes. "Judge, can we go now? I would really like to get some sleep." For once, the judge was reluctant to meet Mark's eyes in return. "Kiddo, I think you should listen to the paramedic. Frank and I'll be along in a little while to see you at the hospital. I'm sure Detective Halloran can organise special visiting privileges for us." Mark was about to argue the point, but the judge stepped back and helped to close the ambulance doors. Muttering to himself about being betrayed by his friends, Mark settled back onto the gurney with a bad grace. The paramedic laughed at the disgusted look on Mark's face. "It's only because he cares, you know. You're lucky to have someone who cares that much for you." Mark sighed as he lay back, then smiled broadly. "I know, honestly I do. But nothing says I have to make it easy for him."
By the time Hardcastle and Frank made it to the hospital, Mark had fallen asleep. After hunting down his doctor and making sure that the younger man would be fine with a few days rest and a course of standard antibiotics, the two men had gone in search of food and coffee. Heading back to Mark's room, Hardcastle was waylaid by one of the nurses, who handed him what was left of Mark's shirt, along with the rest of Mark's clothing. Holding the tattered t-shirt, Hardcastle was suddenly struck by how close he had come to losing Mark. They'd been involved in all sorts of dangerous situations over the last year, but this time he seemed to feel the possible loss more keenly; perhaps because this time, they'd not been looking for trouble themselves. Settling in the chair, he fingered the shirt as he watched Mark sleep. Following his gaze to the shirt, Frank cocked a quizzical eyebrow at Milt's silence, "And …"
"Just thinking, Frank. About life and death, and everything in between." Frank's gaze followed Hardcastle's from the shirt, to Mark and then back to the stained shirt. "I see, and have you reached any conclusions, Milt?" Harper's tone made it perfectly clear that Milt's concern for Mark was obvious to anyone who knew him well. "Just one, Frank. I don't want to lose him."
Mark would have been pleased to hear the sentiment the next morning, when he found out that Hardcastle had left him at the hospital until the doctor authorised his release. The younger man had seemed pensive when Frank had first arrived at the hospital, which the other man had put down to Mark not feeling his best at the moment. But Mark's attitude had changed rapidly to irritation when he realised that Hardcastle hadn't come along as well. Frank, now being the only person in the vicinity, was getting the sharp side of Mark's tongue for refusing to tell the younger man where the judge had gone. "Frank, you have to know where he is. I don't want to be here, and there's nothing wrong with me that won't get better at home. How much longer do I have to sit here and wait?" Frank just smiled and settled further into his chair. "Until the doctor says you can leave. Milt won't let you leave until then." Frank wished he had a way to record the expression on Mark's face, as the younger man bowed to the inevitable. "Well, the old donkey had better get here soon. I haven't got anything to wear; they took my clothes away last night. And I'm certainly not walking out of here in this thing!" Mark's disgust at the flimsy hospital gown was so comical, Frank just had to smile.
"You could cut him some slack, you know. Milt cares about you. And I'm sure he knows you want your own clothes to wear. He said he had something to do before you left for home." Frank's tone had turned serious, and Mark felt compelled to tell the truth. "I know he cares, Frank. So do I, about him. But sometimes, it's just not that easy to say, you know? Last night, when I thought that Angela woman and her pet thugs had got hold of him, all I could think about was making sure that he got out of it without getting hurt. He's important to me." Mark's thoughtful gaze settled on Frank. "Come to think of it, I don't even know why you're here, Frank. But thanks. Without you two … you two are probably the best friends I've ever had, apart from Flip." Mark couldn't meet Frank's eyes. Cocking an ear towards the hall, Frank moved towards the door. "Nice to know, Mark. We think you're not so bad yourself. And now, I think our ride's here."
Hardcastle entered and dropped a bag on Mark's bed, before dumping their luggage on the floor at the end of the bed. "Here you go, kiddo. Clothes. Now let's get moving. Our flight's in two hours." Mark grabbed the bag and pulled out the jeans and shirt, stopping as he realised what he was holding. A t-shirt exactly like the one he'd been wearing when he got shot. "Judge?" The question was clear and Hardcastle looked sheepish. "I know you liked it, kiddo, so I thought maybe you needed a souvenir to take home with you."
Hardcastle had gone to all the trouble of finding him another shirt to replace the ruined one. The irritation evaporated in a heartbeat, and Mark's smile was bright enough to light the room. "But I thought you hated it. You said it made me look like a tourist, Judge." "It does, McCormick, but you know that's not the point." Hardcastle's voice was as neutral as he could manage, but he knew the kid had seen through his defences. "I know, Judge, and thanks."
Drawing the curtain around the bed to give Mark some privacy, Hardcastle chatted quietly to Frank for a few minutes. Mark smiled at hearing the quiet hum of their voices, savouring the feeling of being part of his unusual family. As soon as he was dressed, Mark drew the curtain back and went to his bag to start digging in the side pocket. Pulling out two small slips of paper, he shoved them under Hardcastle's nose with a triumphant flourish. "Remember these, Judge? I figured them out this morning before Frank got here. I just wanted to be sure I remembered them right before I told you." Hardcastle glanced at Frank, only to be met by a puzzled shrug. Frank was as much in the dark as Hardcastle.
Looking down, Hardcastle realised Mark was holding the notes from their fortune cookies. "And just what did you figure out, McCormick?" Hardcastle rolled his eyes as he humoured the younger man. "Yours was all about you, Judge. You didn't believe what Detective Halloran said, and you dug until you got to the truth." "Okay, kiddo, I can just about see how you could get that from this thing." Hardcastle's sceptical finger grudgingly shifted the first slip of paper in Mark's hand. "But I've just got to hear how you can get anything from this one." The finger poked at Mark's slip of paper with utter disdain.
Mark's eyes danced with laughter. "That one's about you too, Judge." Hardcastle's lack of comprehension was obvious. Frank snuck a quick look at the note and glanced searchingly at Hardcastle. Turning his gaze on Mark, he suddenly smiled and Mark could see the understanding dawn. Giving the other man a quick grin, Mark continued, "All I had to do was trust the future, my future, and everything worked out right. And that's you, Judge; you're my future." The laughter in Mark's eyes bubbled over into a hearty laugh as Hardcastle stood there, completely speechless for once in his life.