by Kashkow

Chapter One

Former Judge Milton C. Hardcastle nodded his head slightly to give the appearance of paying attention to the man sitting across the desk from him. In fact he had turned his chair slightly so that he could look out the window. The information that the small, nervous, man in the bowtie was giving him was a repeat of what he had heard from his friend John Stewart, also an ex-judge, the day before when he asked him to fill in as an arbiter in a dispute between companies.

The panel of arbiters, consisting of three people, would listen to the information from each company, look over the papers submitted by the company lawyers pleading their case, and then make a decision for one or the other company. This form of arbitration saved both companies a large amount of money, and got the problem solved much quicker than waiting for the legal system. The independent arbitration company for which Stewart and the other panel members worked was available for a fee, to arbitrate any dispute.

Stewart, who had worked for the company since he retired 5 years previously, had needed a replacement because his daughter, who lived in Denver and was 7 months pregnant with his 2nd grandchild, had been in an auto accident. She and the baby had both survived, but faced a long recovery. Her husband, having no relatives of his own, was struggling to take care of their other child, age 2, take care of his wife's needs, and still take care of his business. Stewart, with the take charge attitude he had cultivated over 30 years of judiciary experience, had rearranged his life so that he could go and take care of his daughter and grandchild, as long as necessary. Because of scheduling conflicts there had been no other arbiter available to take over his spot on the panel. With the company's okay he had looked to an old friend, Hardcastle, who had judicial experience to take his place. The job should only take a couple of weeks at most, and that was it.

Hardcastle had agreed, happy to help a friend. His own hobby, of tracking down criminals who had escaped the sword of lady justice, could be put on hold for a while. McCormick could use the time to catch up on the yard work, which had been ignored in the pursuit of one criminal or another.

As if the thought of McCormick had conjured up the younger man, Hardcastle saw him come around the corner of the house. He was using the lawn feeder, a wheelbarrow like machine that shot out the feed pellets as it rolled along. McCormick was dressed in cut off shorts, and a ratty tank top. A floppy hat perched on top of his ginger colored curls kept the sun off his face, and he wore flip-flops on his feet. McCormick was an ex-con. Paroled to Hardcastle's supervision by Hardcastle's own judicial order, one of the last of his career. The young ex-con, smart mouthed and street smart, had not been overly fond of the idea of helping the man who had sent him to San Quentin on car theft charges track down criminals, but over time he had come around, and Hardcastle had the distinct impression that McCormick almost enjoyed the exercise, the detective work, the snooping, and the wild car chases and shootouts that always seemed to happen at the end of the case.

McCormick occupied the gatehouse of the estate that Hardcastle owned named Gulls Way, located on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean. His main duties consisted of gardening, pool cleaning, and general handyman, along with being Hardcastle's back up in his war on crime. What had been a purely business-like arrangement at first had matured over the last years to something more. What had begun as grudging respect for each other had blossomed into friendship, one that each would deny. Hardcastle was a widower, whose only son had been killed in Vietnam. McCormick's mother had died when he was a child, and his father had disappeared years before that. With no other close relatives the two men had only each other, and while they would never speak of it, each had come to see the other as family.

McCormick was wandering around the yard in vague circles, seemingly without a plan. Hardcastle frowned as he figured that there were portions of the lawn not getting any feed, and some getting too much. He had told McCormick before to go back and forth like plowing a field, but the younger man persisted in doing it his way, typical.

Hardcastle swung back around to face Percy Durst, and put up a hand to stop the flow of words. "This is all very interesting," he said, giving a toothy grin. "But, John Stewart has covered all of this. I show up, listen to the presentations, read the submissions, discuss it with the other panel members, and make a decision. Just tell me where to be and when. I'll get a baby sitter for the kid." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at McCormick, "And I'll be there."

Durst sniffed, mildly offended at being interrupted, but he was somewhat used to that, and he held his peace. He wasn't sure that this Hardcastle was the right man for the job. The man was in his late sixties, with white hair and wrinkles, but other than that he didn't appear to be quite what one would expect. He was dressed in jeans and an old tee shirt with the sleeves cut off. To top off the look, the shirt had a picture of Lady Justice on it with the words "Lady Justice is a babe." The man inside the clothes wasn't quite what Durst had in mind either. The short frame was as solid as a rock, with bulging biceps revealed by the cut off sleeves. No suit and tie. No slacks and golf shirt, none of the usual things one expected from a noted jurist.

He just didn't know if Hardcastle was their...kind. There were after all certain standards. And that ex-con that seemed to be running free around the estate. Durst had been sure to lock his car, and keep his briefcase close at hand. You could never tell with those people. He shuffled through the papers he had on the desk. He slid one across to Hardcastle. "Here is the scheduled meeting times, with the address and all pertinent phone numbers. Please be there at nine tomorrow, and dress is...professional."

Hardcastle grimaced at the snooty tone. This guy was a pain in the... He shook his head and faked a smile. "I'll try to keep that in mind." 'Jackass', he added silently.

"I'll go then. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to call. My number is on the page there." He placed the rest of his papers in his briefcase, and stood. Hardcastle moved out from behind his desk and walked with him to the front door. After allowing Durst to pass through first he went out and down the steps, standing by as Durst unlocked and got into his car. Durst started the car and moved slowly down the driveway. Glancing in his mirror he saw Hardcastle do an about face, and heard him bellow "McCormick!" Very definitely not the right kind!

Chapter Two

Mark McCormick whistled as he made another circle on the lawn. He had figured out that the most efficient method of dispersing this stuff was to go around in ever increasing circles until the whole thing was done. Going back and forth like a plow horse meant that sections got missed on the sides, and meant more time hauling the disperser around to the different sections. Of course you couldn't tell Hardcastle that, the donkey. You couldn't tell Hardcastle much of anything, come to that.

McCormick was never quite sure exactly what his feelings about Hardcastle were. He had hated the man's guts when he was sent to San Quentin for grand theft auto. He had practically laughed in the man's face when he had suggested that he, McCormick, work with him to bring criminals to justice. Since it was a condition of his parole, McCormick really didn't have too many choices unless he wanted to go back to the penitentiary. He hadn't thought it would work out, but it had. They had captured criminal after criminal. The really bad ones, murderers, swindlers, arsonists, blackmailers, kidnappers, you name it, and they had tracked 'em down, then took 'em down. The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Batman and Robin, Hardcastle and McCormick, that was them. Hero and sidekick. They had bickered their way through it all. Matching pulse rates, and watching each other's backs, and it had grown into something more. He really cared what the old donkey thought about him. Despite everything he had ever thought about the older man, he wanted the Judge's respect. He wanted...he wasn't sure exactly what he wanted.

He jumped as he heard Hardcastle bellow his name. His mind had not been on the job, but he was finished, having completed it on autopilot evidently. He turned to find the short, powerfully built Judge stumping toward him across the grass. Oh great, more instructions.

"Hey Judge, get off the grass would you! You're supposed to let the stuff soak in for a while before you walk on it. You're messing it up. Don't blame me if there's little brown footprints on the lawn." He fired the first shot in what he was sure would be another of their regular patter.

"I told you to go back and forth. Not wander around in circles! Any plow horse can go back and forth, why can't you?"

"Who would know more about plowing than a donkey, huh Judge? That's the old way from when you was a youngin' back on the farm. Going back and forth doubles the application, which is bad. Makes the grass brown. The bag says do it in circles, so I did it in circles."

"I'll show you a farm, McCormick, a prison farm. Now do it the way I say."

"That's always the answer with you isn't it Hardcase? Threaten to send me back to prison, just because you can't stand to be wrong."

"I'm not wrong McCormick! It's MY lawn, so do it MY way." Hardcastle's blue eyes flashed. He really enjoyed the arguments that he had with McCormick, not that he'd ever admit it out loud. A visiting friend of his had, upon observing the two for several days in the course of his visit, remarked to Hardcastle that he seemed more alive and interested in life since the younger man had come.

That he had become too focused on his job since the death of his wife, Hardcastle had known, but he had been unable to find a way out of that trap. He had tried before to find someone to help with the job of chasing down deserving criminals, and had been paid for the attempts with betrayal. That he could find someone who not only helped with his 'calling' and who would bring life back into what had become a gray and dull existence, hadn't crossed his mind before he had brought McCormick here. From the start the smart mouthed kid had challenged Hardcastle's every edict. If Hardcastle said the sky was blue, McCormick would come up with something that said it wasn't. It kept him on his toes, and he liked that.

McCormick snorted at him, and headed with the disperser back towards the shed. "Too late now Judge. I'm done, and that's that. Let's have this conversation again in 6 months or so, huh? Now if you don't have any thing else you want pruned or mulched, I'm off to the garage to get the Coyote. Raul said he'd have the back quarter panel replaced by noon."

"I gotta talk to you McCormick. I have to be downtown at 9:00 tomorrow. I'll be gone until after 5:00."

McCormick popped his head out of the shed. "Don't worry about it Judge. I'll make sure to pack you a lunch, and pin the correct bus number on your lapel. Do you need some change for the bus?"

"Shut up McCormick. While I'm gone, you got things to do. I expect your chores to be done by the time I get here. No goofing off by the pool or hanging out with those 'friends' you made down at the garage."

"Yeah, yeah Judge, whatever."

"No 'whatever' McCormick. Don't make me get a sitter. Get the work done."

"A sitter Judge? What, you'll have one of your ex-judge friends drop by to harass and threaten me? I'm a big boy Judge. I can take care of it myself."

"HA!" snorted Hardcastle. "I leave you alone for five minutes without supervision and you'll be in it up to your eyeballs in no time. And I won't be there to get you out of trouble."

"YOU get ME out of trouble? I think you're having memory lapses, Kemosabe. I'm the one that always gets YOU out of trouble." McCormick came out of the shed and stood toe to toe with Hardcastle. Their height difference was too much for them to look eye to eye with out Hardcastle looking up, but he made a good shot at it. They glared at each other for a while, and then Hardcastle jerked his head at the garage where the truck sat.

"I'll drive ya to the garage. We gotta go over the chores you'll be doing tomorrow and for the rest of the time I'm working."


Chapter Three

Roger "Hardtime" Hazeltine tugged at the collar of his shirt, his thick neck constricted by the tie. As head of corporate security he was required to wear the 'uniform' of the day: shirt, tie, slacks, vest, the whole shebang. Wouldn't the guys back at Chino be weirded out by this change of pace? From jeans and a tee shirt to summer weight wool and fine linen. Who'd a thought it? That he was still just as cruel and immoral as before would surprise no one who had ever dealt with him. He had simply put on a new skin.

He stepped out of the elevator on the top floor of the Discraft Industries Tower. The offices were poshly furnished, as was the secretary who sat behind a large desk containing only a phone and a fax machine. As far as Hazeltine knew, the secretary never used the fax, and the few calls that came through she answered with ill concealed annoyance. Usually she sat, chewing gum and buffing her nails, and waited for a summons into the inner office. What she did there Hazeltine could well imagine.

He nodded to the woman as he went toward the doors to the inner office, and she looked back at him blankly. He pushed in through the huge doors and came into an even nicer office suite. A sitting area was furnished with expensive leather furniture and Persian rugs. An open door showed an opulent, marble tiled bathroom the size of a regular room. Another area had a huge desk, made of polished mahogany, behind which was a leather chair. Windows made up three of the four walls, giving the impression of being in the open sky.

Hazeltine walked up to stand before the desk. The leather chair, which had been turned around spun to reveal a stocky, middle-aged man, balding slightly at the temples, dressed in a very expensive suit. A gold Rolex flashed from his left wrist. He scowled at Hazeltine.

"What is it? I thought you were taking care of this stuff."

"We just got word. Hardcastle is filling in for Stewart on the panel. He'll be there tomorrow. Stewart has already left town."

"Damn it! All right, we knew this might happen. You looked into it?"

"That's the problem. Word is that Hardcastle isn't going to take a bribe. In fact he'll turn you in faster than you can blink. He's a boy scout. If he even gets a whiff of bribery, he'll bring in the cops."

The other man sighed. "Very well, it seems we'll have to go to plan 'B'. What about that, are you ready there?"

Hazeltine nodded and reached into an inside pocket of his jacket. He pulled out an envelope. He took three photos out of the envelope, and put two down in front of the man behind the desk. "Wilmington's wife and Grant's granddaughter. You've seen them before."

The man nodded, and flicked the pictures away. "And Hardcastle?"

"He's going to be difficult here too. That's another reason I needed to see you. I need your opinion."


"He's got no relatives. His wife and son are dead, no parents, sisters or brothers. Got some cousins back east, but not too close. I did some asking around to people who know him, and there may be another possibility." He dropped the third picture down on the desk. The man slid the picture toward him, and found himself looking at a young man in his twenties, with curly red-brown hair. He was dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, and holding a basketball, he was smiling in a devil-may-care way that made him look cocky even in a picture. A few feet away from him, wearing sweats and a sleeveless tee shirt was Milton C. Hardcastle with an evil grin on his face, waving him forward.

"Who is he?"

"He's the ex-con that works for Hardcastle. Lives in the gatehouse at the estate. He's been there for over two years, and those who know say that Hardcastle likes him, a lot."


"Not as far as we can tell. I think it's more like an adopted son or something. Kid takes care of the landscape, and drives for the old man when he goes out looking for criminals. They do everything together, shop, eat, vacation. I think he's a good bet."

The other man nodded slowly. "Do it. Tomorrow. I want them to know by the time day two rolls around that they have no choices in their decisions. They can draw it out all they want, take several days, a week, whatever, but they will decide in our favor. And it better be a plausible reason. They're supposed to be these big judicial bright lights, let them come up with a good reason."

Hazeltine collected the pictures and replaced them in the envelope, placing it back in his jacket pocket. He nodded. "Consider it done. I'll update you after we make the initial contact tomorrow night."

"Use the cell." The man turned back around in the chair, presenting Hazeltine with a view of the back of the chair once again. The interview was over.

Hazeltine nodded, even if it couldn't be seen and left. He had many things to do.

Chapter Four

Mark McCormick took one last swipe at the fender of the Coyote with the chamois. The low-slung racing car was looking good. Raul had done an excellent job on the quarter panel, and everything matched perfectly. The car wasn't meant to be used on the road, but try to tell Hardcastle that. It had taken this long to convince Hardcastle that he should be allowed to race the Coyote on the local circuit. It had felt good to be back behind the wheel in competition. 'Skid' Mark McCormick back on the track. He and the Coyote had done well, and Hardcastle was allowing him to keep racing. Just as long as it didn't interfere with the Judge's 'work'. Since McCormick had gotten caught up in the Judge's war on crime, he didn't mind at all.

It was after noon, and it would be a couple of hours before Hardcastle returned. Mark had completed all of his 'chores' earlier and had decided to wash the Coyote and the Corvette. The Judge had taken the pickup rather than park the Corvette in a parking garage. McCormick was at something of a loose end. He had gotten used to having the Judge around 24/7. There was always something to be done around the place as far as Hardcastle was concerned, so idle time was not something Mark was used to having. There was always something to prune, some killer basketball to play, or criminals to chase. Not that Mark didn't get out on his own to date but midday on a workday was not an easy time to find friends unoccupied.

He heard something pull up in the driveway in front. He spread the chamois over a bush to dry, and sauntered toward the front, probably a delivery guy dropping off something. The Judge always had old files coming in from his friends still on the bench who thought there was a case he would be interested in. Mark stopped as he saw a plain white van stopped right by the stairs to the house. A man was standing at the door, hand on the bell. He didn't look familiar. Mark shook off the moment of suspicion. This thing with Hardcastle was getting to him. He was getting paranoid. He continued forward, passing the van, and stepping up behind the man.

"Hey! Can I help you?"

The man turned, and smiled. "I hope so. I think I'm lost. I'm looking for this address here, but it doesn't seem to exist on this road." He held out a clipboard and Mark stepped forward and took it. He was just starting to read what looked like a work order when he heard a sound behind him. He started to turn when large, rough hands suddenly grabbed him from behind. He struggled, dropping the clipboard over the side of the small porch. It disappeared into the bushes, but nobody noticed as the man who had been ringing the bell took a cloth out of his pocket.

McCormick could smell it almost immediately. Chloroform! He took a deep breath prepared to yell, hoping that someone would hear. But he was too late. Another set of hands had joined the first, and the man in front of him was forcing the cloth over his nose and mouth. He tried not to breath, as they dragged him back toward the van. He tried to kick, but didn't seem to be making much impact. Finally he was forced to take a breath, and in a moment his mind was whirling. A few seconds more and the darkness was closing in. His last thought as it engulfed him was 'Oh boy, the Judge is gonna be pissed dinner isn't ready.'

Chapter Five

Milton Hardcastle pulled up to the garage in his pickup, and sat for a moment staring at the Coyote and the Corvette parked in the front of the garage. A bucket of water, the garden hose, and a chamois were strewn about the area, as if McCormick had just stepped away. However the concrete was dry, as were the cars. Where had the kid gotten off to now? Hardcastle parked the truck and got out. He looked at his watch, it was almost 6:00pm, and McCormick had better be in the kitchen making dinner, after which he would of course come out and clean up the mess he had left. If the kid had dinner waiting, and if he hurried on the clean up, he could be back inside in time for the John Wayne movie that was on tonight, 'Rooster Cogburn'. That Kate Hepburn was a corker! Should have time to digest dinner and get some popcorn made before it was over.

Hardcastle went around to the front door and took his keys out of his pocket intending to open the door, but he dropped them. As he cursed and bent over to grab the keys, he saw a piece of paper in the hedge edging the stairs. He reached for it, and found it seemed to be stuck on something. After tugging on it he realized that the paper was attached to a clipboard, and the clipboard was stuck in the hedge. Where had this come from? The hedge and flowerbeds had been watered this morning, and the paper was dry so it had not been there been there for long.

He maneuvered it out, and looked at the shipping order for an address that didn't exist. As he did so, the instincts that had served him so well as a judge, and before that as a cop, started to scream at him. Something wasn't right, and this clipboard was part of it. He looked around, but there was no one in sight. He unlocked the door and carefully set the clipboard down on the hall seat, being careful to avoid adding any more fingerprints. Something told him it would be important.

He moved cautiously into the silent house. That was very suspicious in itself. McCormick was seldom quiet. He always had some group or the other playing on the radio, usually loudly. Now there was nothing, and no smell of food cooking. McCormick was a simple, but surprisingly good cook, and tonight was meatloaf night. There would be an aroma.

Hardcastle moved into the kitchen to find it empty, there were no preparations underway, and everything was clean and neat. Hardcastle moved swiftly through the rest of the house, and then to the gatehouse. No sign of McCormick there either. He hadn't driven out, the Coyote was still there, and he wouldn't have gone anywhere on foot. He started to reach for the phone to call the police and report a missing person, but then common sense took over. They couldn't do anything for 24 hours at the least. Even as McCormick's parole officer he couldn't violate the kid and put out an APB before 48 hours.

He swore, and went back to the house. Maybe there was a note somewhere; maybe there had been a problem, an accident. But, there was nothing. He was once again getting ready to reach for the phone when it rang. He snatched it up.

"McCormick, is that you?" he barked into the receiver. There was a short silence and then a voice he didn't recognize spoke.

"Is this Hardcastle, Milton Hardcastle?"

"Yeah, who's this?" He was in no mood to be polite.

"A friend of a friend, let's say. In fact it's your friend I'm calling about. McCormick."

"What about McCormick? Where is he?"

"Well, that's a little secret. If you do what you are told, you'll find out. If not it won't matter, if you get my meaning."

"No," Hardcastle growled, even though he did 'get' the meaning of the veiled threat. "What exactly do you mean?"

"Don't play dumb Judge. I know you're not, and it'll get your friend killed. What we want is a decision, in favor of Discraft. You decide how to justify it. You'll find your fellow panel members eager to agree. Once the decision is presented and iron clad, you get your friend back. Everybody's happy.'

"Kidnapping is federal offence. Punishable by..."

"Don't start with me, Judge. I had enough of your kind spouting rules. I make the rules now. Rule number one: no cops. You're all being watched. If one of you goes to the cops, everyone loses. Rule number two: once this is over you don't talk about it to anyone. This time if you cooperate, you'll get them back. You talk to anyone and next time they don't come back. You can't protect them forever. We'll get them. That's it. You have a nice evening now."

"Wait," Hardcastle barked, before the other man could hang up. "I want to talk to McCormick. Now."

"No can do. He's...indisposed."

"I don't talk to him, I don't deal. For all I know he's already dead." Hardcastle's knuckles whitened as he gripped the phone harder. He felt like a pound of lead had landed in his stomach.

"Judge, Judge, how have we made you suspicious of our word? We say he's ok, then he's ok. Tell you what, same time tomorrow. We'll let you talk to him. See, if you cooperate, we can be very nice." The other caller hung up.

Hardcastle stood there for a moment, phone in hand listening to the dial tone. His mind was racing. McCormick was alive, but would only stay that way if Hardcastle cooperated, if he committed a crime, and knowingly allowed others to do the same.

He put the phone down, and sank into a chair. For a few moments he sat there, staring blankly at the wall. He ran a hand over his face and sucked in a deep breath. His spine straightened, and a light came into his eye. Anyone that knew him would have known that posture, that light. He was ready to fight.

He picked up the phone and dialed. As he listened to it ring, plans were flying through his head. He was going to get McCormick back, and the others too.

Chapter Six

Mark McCormick felt like he was swimming through molasses. His head was pounding, his mouth was dry as a bone, and he really wasn't eager to open his eyes. He couldn't remember exactly what he had been doing to end up like this, but he hoped he had had a great time in the process. Of course if he had that good a time, Hardcastle would be on him like ugly on an ape, so he better enjoy the relative quiet. Then he realized that it wasn't quiet.

There was a small whimpering sound. It seemed to be coming from his left, and he couldn't think of anything, or anyone for that matter, that would be whimpering in his bedroom. After several minutes (hours?) he finally couldn't stand the curiosity anymore, and he opened his eyes. For some reason his room was dark, and someone had redone the wall in incredibly old and torn wallpaper. To his admittedly bleary vision, it appeared he was lying on a dirty old mattress in an old tenement building. He had spent way too many years of his misspent youth in exactly this same place.

He shut his eyes and shook his head, then opened his eyes expecting the lingering dredges of the bad dream to be gone. All that seemed to do was make his head hurt. He started to raise his hand to his head but discovered that his hands seemed to be attached together. He was in handcuffs? Oh it definitely had not been a good time.

He stared at the handcuffs for a moment, desperately trying to remember what had happened. The last thing he could remember was washing the cars. He had been wringing out the chamois when...Suddenly it was all there, the van; the man with the clipboard; the hands grabbing him from behind; and the chloroform. He wasn't in his bed in the gatehouse recovering from a hangover. He had been kidnapped!

He sat up suddenly, and had to fight down the nausea that rose from his stomach. After successfully keeping his last meal where it was supposed to be, he looked around. The room was as shoddy and dirty as he had first noticed. A woman, looking to be in her mid to late sixties, was sitting in an old, ragged chair about ten feet away from where he lay on the mattress. She was looking at him with disapproval. He could see that her hands also were handcuffed. She was elegantly dressed, right down to a pearl choker and earrings. She sniffed as she met his eyes, conveying her contempt of him with that one gesture. Great he was being held prisoner with a snob. But she wasn't the one making the whimpering sound.

He turned his head carefully as it was beginning to pound with a headache of epic proportions, and looked around the room. It was furnished in early poor: mattress, chair and window seat. A door opened into what looked like a bathroom, and what had been a kitchen alcove, but now housed only a torn up counter, was on one wall. He had seen it all before, had grown up in it back in New Jersey. What really grabbed his attention was the small child curled up on the window seat. He, or she, McCormick couldn't tell which, was sitting in the corner of the seat, curled into a ball, arms crossed on knees, head buried in the arms. Small whimpering sounds were coming from the still form.

McCormick looked back at the woman, who was staring at him stonily. No help there. He pushed himself to the edge of the mattress and got to his feet. He swayed for a moment, but then the world settled down. He moved cautiously to the window seat, and sat down. A quick glance out the window gave him no clue to where they were, as the view was of a weedy expanse of what once was a central grassy play area/lawn, and the gray face of another tenement. The quality of the light made him think it was late in the day, around 7:00pm. He had been unconscious a long time.

He turned his eyes to the small figure sitting beside him. He didn't have much experience with kids. He wasn't sure what he should do, but since 'her majesty' across the room didn't seem inclined, he was it. He sighed. Oh well, he had dealt with Hardcastle, who seemed to be well into his third or fourth childhood, he should be able to handle a real kid.

"You know, I grew up in a place like this. It was a little better kept, and my mom, she had our apartment so clean you could eat off the floor. We lived on the top floor, about ten stories up, and there wasn't any elevator so we had to climb all the way up and carry everything." He noticed that the whimper had stopped, indicating that the child was listening.

"I remember thinking if we moved we'd have to throw everything out the window and pick it up off the ground. I was so scared we would move, and my toys would get broke when I threw them out. Not that I had a bunch of toys, but what I had I wanted to keep in one piece. Do you have a lot of toys?" For a moment there was no response, then the head nodded.

"Great! I bet you have a favorite toy huh? Mine was this car. It was red, and looked almost like the car I have now. It's called the Coyote, my car now, not the toy one. I bet you'd like it. It's really fast. I race it on weekends. Me and the Judge, that's Judge Milton Hardcastle, he's kind of a friend of mine, we went up to Pacoima last month, and I took a first place. That was a kick. I think even the Judge was stoked. I guess you could say that the car is still my favorite toy. What's your favorite?"

Again a silence, then a small voice said, "I like Polly best."

McCormick grinned. "Polly huh? I knew a Polly once. She was pretty nice. Probably not the same one though. Does your Polly hang out at race courses?"

The bowed head shook from side to side, and then turned to reveal a blue eye that looked at him warily. Mark smiled again, and just kept quiet, as the child looked him over. Finally the head came up all the way, and he could see that he was talking to a little girl. Great, women he could handle, except for maybe the Gorgon across the room.

"What's your name?" the little girl whispered.

"Mark. What's yours?"

"Cecily." Still a whisper.

"Nice to meet you Cecily. How old are you?"

"I'm five. I go to kindergarten."

"Wow. You're very mature for five. I woulda thought twenty, twenty-five. I was gonna ask you out. I guess you aren't dating then?"

The child started to giggle, then cast a glance across the room, and stifled it. That telling glance gave Mark a clue about why the child had been sitting here crying alone. Evidently the woman didn't approve of ex-cons OR crying children.

"You're silly," the girl said, but she had unfolded herself, and she shifted closer to Mark on the seat. He pretended not to notice. He also didn't lower his voice.

"No really, I thought we'd go out, have dinner, some wine, maybe go to the opera, then dancing until midnight."

"My bedtime is 8:00. My Mommy..." The blue eyes started to tear up again, and the lower lip began to tremble. The girl glanced again at the woman, who was staring at them in disapproval. Mark ignored her, and very carefully scooted so that he was sitting right beside the little girl. Maneuvering carefully, he slid his arm around the slim shoulder. It was awkward with the handcuffs, but he managed.

"Hey hey, it'll be ok. You'll be back with your Mommy soon, I'm sure." The little girl wrapped her arms around his waist, and buried her head in his chest. He could feel the sobs going through her. He glared at the woman across the room. She returned the glare for a moment, then turned her head away.

"The bad men said I couldn't go home," came the choked little voice.

"I'm sure the bad men will let us go home soon, and can you keep a secret?"

A nod.

"You remember I mentioned the Judge? Hardcastle. He's a real good detective. He was a policeman before he was a judge. He knows how to find people who are lost, and he'll be looking for me, and when he comes for me, we'll take you back to your Mommy."

Cecily looked up at him, her face tear streaked. "Promise?"

Mark awkwardly crossed his heart, and nodded. "I swear."

There was a snorting sound from the chair, and Mark sent a pointed glare in that direction. He sat there rocking the child gently, and slowly the small form relaxed and became subtly heavier. He realized she had fallen asleep against him, worn out from the fear and crying. He gently maneuvered her, still awkward with the handcuffs, so that she was lying down on the window seat. A blanket was thrown across the bottom of the mattress he had woken up on, and he brought it over and spread it over the sleeping girl. He brushed gently at the dark hair that had fallen in her face. She was deeply asleep, and he doubted she would wake soon.

He moved across the room to the door. It was the only thing that didn't fit the room. This was not the flimsy door that had been built into the apartment. This was a steel door, no doubt complete with locks on the outside. There wasn't even a handle inside. There was no way to pick the lock since he couldn't even see it. A quick tour of the bathroom revealed no exit there except for a small window even the little girl would have trouble getting through. He went to take a look again out the only window. It was at least five stories down to the courtyard, and looking at the building across the way, at least two stories up to the roof. Alone he might be able to make it down, but with the girl, and HER, it wasn't a viable means of escape.

He sighed again, and turned to face the woman in the chair. He had been aware of her scrutiny as he toured the rooms, but he had ignored her until now. Her dark eyes swept over him, taking in the cut-offs and tee shirt. He had lost his flip-flops somewhere, and so he was barefoot on the threadbare rug. Well, no use holding off.

"I'm Mark McCormick. May I ask your name?" When in doubt always be polite. His mother had told him that when he was little.

She sniffed again, and then spoke. "Lila Wilmington." She said it as if she expected him to know the name. "You lied to that child. They won't let us go. They'll assault me and her, and kill you."

McCormick looked at her for a moment, stunned at the bitter prediction, and trying to recall if he, or more likely, the Judge, knew anyone named Wilmington. No one came to mind. Then he shook his head. "No, I didn't lie. Hardcastle will be looking for me, if for no other reason than I didn't put up the stuff from washing the cars. When he gets here, we'll all be free. Do you have any idea what's going on, why we're here? Did you see anyone's face?"

"The men who took me from our home said my husband had to do something, and when he did it I would be set free. They were cretins! They touched me, tried to take my pearls, and then locked me in here. Then they brought the child, and then you. They wore masks. I never saw any faces."

"I only saw one of them, and I'll bet he won't be around. They have no reason to kill us. We can't identify them, and it would be more trouble than they ever wanted. Hardcastle would never give up, he'd find them one way or the other."

"Who is this Hardcastle person you keep babbling about? You sound like some sycophant praising some rock singer or something."

"Yeah maybe, but you don't know Hardcase. He's former Judge Milton C. Hardcastle, and bloodhounds got nothing on him when it comes to following a trail. He..."

"How could someone like YOU possibly know Judge Hardcastle, and why would he come looking for you?" The woman interrupted.

"Hey, I'm an integral part of Hardcastle's domestic engineering staff, not to mention his landscaping consultant," Mark said, tongue in cheek. This woman was seriously getting on his nerves. Talk about a snob.

"Domestic mean you do his housework?" she said aghast.

"And his yard work, and his pool work, and anything else he can think of in between chasing criminals all over the state."

"You are that criminal he had paroled to him. Some kind of silly program." She sniffed again. "Well they probably won't kill you then. You are one of their kind. But we two females..."

"No one is going to die, and no one is touching the girl..." He paused for a moment then added, "or you while I'm here."

"Oh that's very reassuring," she said with no conviction. "Protected from criminals by a criminal. You will forgive me if I don't celebrate."

Mark had taken about all he was going to from the old lady. "Look lady..."


"Look MRS WILMINGTON, we are stuck here together until SOMEONE either gets us out or lets us go. We might as well try to get along. It's a small room, and the little girl is scared enough as it is. I'll try if you will. You don't have to like me, and I don't have to like you, but let's make nice for the kid, okay?"

"Fine. What are we going to do about sleeping arrangements?"

Mark looked around again. The mattress was a queen size, and there were two blankets. There was no sign of any source of heat. "Well, there's no heat, and it's going to get cold in here. We can all fit on the mattress. We'll put Cicely in the middle, that way she'll have the heat from both of us, and propriety will be maintained." He couldn't resist adding the last. He could almost hear Hardcastle calling him a 'smart ass'.

Another sniff was his only answer. He took that as assent, and went to move the child from the window seat to the mattress. As he laid her down and covered her with one of the blankets, he heard the door being unlocked.

He moved quickly to stand near the older woman who had stood up. She wasn't very tall, only coming to McCormick's shoulder. They were both facing the door when it was pushed open. A large man, in a mask came in first, gun pointing at the two adults, another man stood behind him also holding a gun. The first man gazed around the room, seeing the sleeping child. Dark eyes studied McCormick and the woman.

"You understand why you're here McCormick?" At Mark's nod he continued, "You cooperate and everyone goes home. You get a vacation from mowing Hardcastle's lawn, and everything is fine. I don't think I need to mention what happens otherwise. You were inside, I'll leave it to your imagination."

"We need some food, drinking water, and a light. It'll be dark soon," McCormick said, fighting down the urge make a smart remark. He had no back up here, and he had a real good imagination about what might happen. He held up his wrists and jiggled the handcuffs. "I could also do without these."

"The food's coming now. No light. Early to bed ya know. We'll take them off of the old lady, your cuffs stay on."

"Yeah well wealthy and wise seem to be out so I'll hope for healthy. How about another blanket. There are three of us and only two blankets."

"Share. What you see is what you get. We'll be back tomorrow, same time. Stay away from the door. Stay away from the window. Someone is watching."

The second man brought in a large cooler, then went out and came back with three gallons of water. He sat them next to the cooler, and went back to his post at the door.

"You know this isn't going to work out really well for anyone," McCormick said. "I don't know if you know Hardcastle, but he's not real big on blackmailers, or kidnappers. He tends to take it personally when he's forced to bend his principles."

"He wants you back alive he'll bend like a pretzel. Otherwise it's his choice," the dark eyed man said. His eyes came to rest on the pearls the old lady was wearing. Even through the mask McCormick could see he was grinning. "You won't be needing those here, makes you overdressed." He reached for the woman's neck as he spoke.

She shrank back from him, and McCormick stepped between her and the other man.

"Leave her alone. You're not here to rip off something to pawn down on the south side. I'm sure your bosses are paying you well for this gig, at least they better be for federal kidnapping charges."

The man glared at him for a moment, and then started to turn away as if he had changed his mind. Then he suddenly spun back, and slammed his gun across McCormick's cheek.

He was thrown to the ground by the blow, his head whirling. He shook it to try to clear the blackness that threatened. He was vaguely aware that the man was going after the pearls again, and he rolled in front of him, blocking his way. The gun came up, this time the barrel pointing right between McCormick's eyes. The trigger finger started to tighten.

"They need to be alive. Chill out," came an authoritative voice from the doorway. A third man had joined the group. He was wearing a mask, but he was dressed in a business suit instead of the jeans and tee shirts like the others were. Obviously this was a boss. Middle management maybe. McCormick tore his eyes away from the gun pointed at his head and tried to focus on the man in the doorway. That voice sounded very familiar. He wasn't sure where from though. He'd have to think about it.

The man with the gun mumbled something under his breath, and moved back toward the door. McCormick crawled over to the chair and used it to pull himself to his feet. He could feel blood running down his face from where the gun sight had torn the skin. His cheek was throbbing, and he hoped it wasn't broken.

"This won't happen again will it?" The newcomer said to the man who had struck Mark. He got another mumbled answer that seemed to satisfy him. He then glanced around the room. "Well, all the comforts of home. We'll just leave you to your dinner."

"Wait a minute," Lila Wilmington said. "I wish to speak to my husband. Now."

"Not possible. Tomorrow is phone call day. We'll be back then."

"No! If it's a matter of money, my husband..."

"Don't want your money lady. I say tomorrow, I mean tomorrow." He turned to the other masked men. "You," he said pointing to the second man, "you stay in the hall." He then pointed to the other. "You walk the yard." It seemed that the man might protest, but a look made him swallow it.

Something niggled at the back of Mark's mind. Something trying to come out. Maybe later, after his head stopped hurting. Speaking of which...

"Hey anybody got an aspirin?" he asked.

The boss man snorted a laugh. "We got no infirmary. You'll have to deal." The second man, who had remained silent came in and unlocked Mrs. Wilmington's handcuffs. They left, and Mark heard the lock slip back into place after they closed the door.

McCormick stood for a moment staring at the door until he noticed he was swaying. Then he sank into the chair, and propped his aching head in his hands. He closed his eyes. "That went well. I feel we've established a fine working relationship with our captors, don't you?" At least the little girl had slept through the process. Kids.

"Don't be facetious Mr. McCormick. It doesn't become you."

"Yeah, well we criminals like to be facetious. It makes a nice change from lurking in dark alleys and preying on the weak." Damn his head hurt. He got up and walked/stumbled to the mattress. He lay down next to the little girl, and put his aching head down. It felt good not to have to hold it up. He wasn't usually tired this early in the day, but the day had been a bitch, and he just wanted it to go away for a while. He wished Hardcastle would get it in gear and figure out what was going on. He dropped an arm over his eyes, which given his handcuffs involved both arms, thus blocking out the dimming light from the window. He heard Mrs. Wilmington go to the other side of the mattress and felt the mattress move as she lay down. He heard her pull the blanket up. There was silence for a few moments.

"Thank you Mr. McCormick." She said quietly.

"You're welcome." He let himself drift off to sleep.

Chapter Seven

Hardcastle watched as a pool pump repair van pulled up in the driveway. Two men got out, one went around the back of the house toward the pool house, and the other came up the steps and rang the doorbell. Hardcastle glanced at his watch. 6:30pm. Not bad for a half hour's work. He went and opened the door.

Frank, a friend who had been on the force for many years, dressed in the orange jumpsuit of the pool company was standing on the doorstep, clip board in hand. He was wearing sunglasses, and did not remove them until he had stepped inside and the door was closed.

"Very nice," Hardcastle said, indicating the outfit.

"Used it on a stakeout for a drug bust down in Beverly Hills. It was all set up, so we could just get in and go."

"Merchason isn't going to touch my pump is he?"

"The man couldn't put together a bike at Christmas, had to have the guys down in the garage do it. He'll just sit out there and have a smoke or two. Now what do you got?"

Hardcastle went over the happenings of the afternoon: McCormick's disappearance, the clipboard, and the phone call. Frank took everything down on his own clipboard, and took the other clipboard and wrapped it in a large evidence bag he removed from his pocket.

"We'll get this printed and run them through the computer. As soon as we get something, we'll let you know." He started toward the back door so that he could join the other officer, and they could leave together in case anyone had been watching the front of the house. He paused, looking back at Hardcastle who had remained seated in the kitchen.

The Judge, usually a forceful personality to say the least, looked lost and lonely. Frank hadn't seen that look since before Mark McCormick had come to stay with the Judge. The two argued like cats and dogs, but there was always an underlying friendship, and perhaps more, that was easily seen for anyone who really listened. In each other, the two men had found something they hadn't known they were missing. He really liked both men, and he hated to see the Judge suffering like this, and he worried about McCormick wherever he was. The kid had a tendency to be a smart ass, and it came out even more when he was scared or under pressure. This would qualify, and Frank hoped it didn't get him killed.

He hated to think what would happen to Hardcastle then. He suspected vengeance would be swift and terrible, and then the man would return to a solitary existence for as long as he had left. Frank figured that the time would not be all that long, as he would have little left to live for. It wasn't that Hardcastle didn't have friends. He had many, but friends could only take you so far. You had to have someone close, someone who you loved and who loved you to give you value, a sense of meaning something to someone. McCormick had become that someone to Milton C. Hardcastle, despite the arguments, the killer basketball, and the slave labor jokes.

And McCormick was no less devoted to Hardcastle. He had watched, fascinated, as Hardcastle's rough affection had turned the smart mouthed kid into a useful member of society that anyone would be glad to know and happy to call a friend. McCormick would never admit it, but Hardcastle had become the father that he never knew growing up, and the hero that had been sadly lacking in the young man's youth. McCormick looked up to Hardcastle, and several inquiries that had been made regarding local law schools and references had Frank suspecting that McCormick was going to follow in the Judge's footsteps. Frank had no doubt he would be good at it, and that the Judge would be prouder than a peacock, even if he wouldn't admit it.

"We'll get him back Judge," he said.

The cool blue eyes turned to him, and he saw a determination grow in them. Nothing was going to stop this man. "You're right. We will."

Frank smiled and went out.

Hardcastle watched Frank leave, and gently pounded a fist on the table. He wasn't sure what to do now. He couldn't go to the police station and help there. Any move he made to ask questions could result in McCormick being killed. He couldn't take the chance that he might speak to the wrong person. He knew someone at Discraft was responsible for this, but he didn't know how high it went. He pounded his fist harder in frustration. He wasn't a patient man. He needed to do something.

A glance at the clock showed it was after 7:00. He wasn't really hungry, even though lunch had been more than 6 hours earlier. He got up and started fixing a sandwich. He needed to eat something, but he couldn't help but wonder if McCormick was getting something to eat tonight. The kid was a walking garbage disposal. He could eat more and gain less weight than anyone Hardcastle had ever seen. His own son, killed in Vietnam, had hit that stage as a teenager, but had grown out of it by the time he had shipped out overseas. McCormick, now in his mid twenties was still constantly hungry, but kept lean and trim.

Hardcastle took his sandwich into the den, and turned on the TV. The movie channel was on, and 'Rooster Cogburn' was in progress. He idly watched it as he ate his sandwich, not really paying attention to either the movie or the food. He was trying to think of some way he could get a hold on this thing. There had to be a loose thread somewhere that he could begin unraveling without endangering McCormick and the other hostages.

The other hostages? He put aside the plate, and reached for the phone. It was time to have a little discussion with his fellow panel members, and he really didn't want to do it tomorrow at the adjudication chambers they were using. He dialed the first number and waited for an answer.

An hour later he let Jackson Wilmington into the foyer and closed the door. The other man, ten years older than Hardcastle was tall and thin, and as supercilious in attitude now as he had been on the bench 20 years previously. Hardcastle had never been a fan, but their duties had seldom put them in proximity to each other, and it hadn't been a problem. He led Wilmington into the den where Cheryl Grant, a former State Appeals Court Judge was seated on the couch.

Grant, in her late sixties was dressed in slacks and a light sweater. Her hair, shot through with gray was slightly disheveled, and her eyes were red. She sniffed and daubed at her nose with a tissue as the men came into the room. Wilmington took the seat that Hardcastle indicated and then spoke.

"I know you think you have some plan, Hardcastle, but I want to state that I am opposed to doing anything that could result in harm coming to my wife," he said thunderously.

Hardcastle held up a hand. "I don't want to do anything that is going to get anyone hurt. But I am sure that you agree with me that we have to do something other than what we are being told to do. It is illegal and immoral, something we spent most of our lives supposedly trying to stop. And I can assure you that it isn't going to end here. If we do what they want, then they have something to hold over us forever. Next time they want something all they have to do is threaten to reveal how you fixed the decision on this one, and you'll do it again."

"That's beside the fact! My wife is being held hostage. Are you suggesting that we should just let them kill her, and the others?"

"I can't let them kill Cecily! My god she's only five, she must be terrified. I...I'll do anything they ask..." Cheryl Grant could not continue as tears streamed down her face. The thought of her granddaughter in the hands of criminals was too much to bear.

Hardcastle reached over and awkwardly patted her knee. "Don't worry about that. McCormick will make sure she's ok. He should be good with kids, and he won't let anyone hurt her."

Wilmington snorted, "That ex-con of yours. For all we know he's involved in this."

Hardcastle was on his feet and towering over Wilmington. "You say something like that again, and I swear they'll be picking your teeth out of my wall. McCormick may have been in prison, but he's as straight as they come now. He's a good kid, and I won't have you talking him down."

Wilmington shrunk back in his chair, but still managed to sneer up at Hardcastle, "You wouldn't dare strike me. You're the one that was just preaching law and order. You're certainly not going to stoop to battery." His eyes were frightened however despite the bravado.

"Yeah well, you don't seem to have any problem with breaking the law, so why should I."

"Milt," Cheryl Grant said, "you have to understand, Mr. McCormick is just a friend, someone you work with, not a wife, or a granddaughter. It's different for us. We..."

Hardcastle rounded on her, his eyes blazing. He pointed a finger at her. "Don't you say it. I won't let him do it, and I'm not going to let you make McCormick less important because he's not my blood relative, or married to me. He's not JUST anything. He's just as important to ME as the others are to you. I don't want him hurt, and I don't want him killed, and I know he wouldn't want or expect me to break the law to save him. What he would expect is that I do everything I can to get him home safe, and that is what I am going to do, with or without the two of you."

Both of the other two judges were staring at him like he was a raving maniac. He pulled his shirt down and reseated himself in the leather chair. He stared back at them.

Wilmington straightened in his chair, and sniffed. "Well, I wasn't aware you felt that strongly about the man. I'm sure neither Cheryl or I meant any offense." He paused as Hardcastle muttered something that sounded like 'bull crap' under his breath. Then he continued, "Intellectually I know you are right about the situation. We can't do it and expect to continue doing what we are doing. Our integrity will be gone. But how can we help ourselves. They said not to contact the police..."

"I already did that," Hardcastle said, and described the ruse the police had used to come in, he also told them about the clipboard and possible fingerprints. The other two were worried about possible consequences, but happy that something was being done.

"What do we do, about the arbitration?" Grant asked.

"I think we should go tomorrow and act like nothing is happening, just like they said. The presentations should go on for maybe another day, then the wrap up. It would be expected that we would deliberate for at least a few days, so that gives us more time."

"But while we play pretend, they have my wife," Wilmington said. After a moment he added, "And her granddaughter and your...friend. What about them?"

Hardcastle sighed and rubbed a hand down the side of his face. "They have to keep them alive and in good shape or they won't have any hold over us. I asked to speak to McCormick when they called me. They said he couldn't come to the phone right then, which leads me to think they weren't calling from wherever they are being held." He didn't want to mention the possibility that McCormick might have been physically unable to answer. He didn't want to go there at all. "We have to pretend to be going along until we can get some more information, find out where they are being held, and get them back. Then we can make sure whoever is responsible for this gets a close and personal look at the judicial system in action."

The others nodded in agreement. It wouldn't be easy to wait, but some hope had arrived on the horizon.

Chapter Eight

"They got together and talked for over an hour. No cops. They'll cooperate. Grant looked scared to death when she left, and Wilmington was clinching his jaw like to break some teeth," Hazeltine reported to the man in the leather chair. He smirked as he thought about the control he had over the three judges. It was about time he got some of it back from "the man".

"What about Hardcastle?" the boss asked

"He's the one called the meeting. The other two won't let him do anything. They're too scared. Besides what could he do? They got nothing on us. No evidence, no case. I'm telling you, we're set."

"And our guests?"

"There was a little trouble with the help, but otherwise it's good. They're in the room, and locked down. We left the cuffs on McCormick, and they know there are guards. They won't cause any problems. The building is condemned, and we paid off the neighborhood gang to use it with no questions and no distractions."

"Good. Keep me appraised."

"You got it."

Chapter Nine

McCormick felt a small hand tapping his chest, and puzzled, he opened his eyes. He immediately slammed them closed as the light stabbed like a blade through his eyes and into his aching head. He groaned, and cracked open one eye to find a small face peering down at him from very close range.

"You hurted your face," she said, lifting one hand to gently tap the left side of his face which was throbbing along in tune with his head.

"Yeah I did," he said, and slowly opened the other eye. Obviously it was morning, and rather early in the morning if the light was any indication. He looked at his watch. 6:40AM. Even away from Gulls Way he couldn't sleep in. Well at least he didn't have to do the killer basketball today. The way his head felt he wouldn't have been up to it.

"Does it hurt bad?"

He shook his head slightly. "No it doesn't. How are you feeling?"

"I'm ok. I want to see my Mommy though."

"I understand." He pushed her hair back gently from her face, and then sat up. He couldn't quite keep the groan inside, and he heard the little girl snicker. "Oh you think that's funny huh?" He reached out and tickled her gently along the ribs. She squirmed and giggled loudly. The blanket wrapped form on the other side of the mattress stirred, and Lila Wilmington, her formally perfect coif mussed, looked at them sternly.

"Do you mind? SOME of us are trying to sleep."

"I mind. I'm tired of sleeping," McCormick said. He turned to the little girl. "What about you? Do you mind?"

"I mind my mama and my papa, and I'm supposed to mind the teachers at school, but I don't always."

"Don't worry, I've gone my whole life without minding authority and look how I turned out," McCormick assured her.

There was a snort from the other side of the mattress, but when Mark looked over, he was sure he caught a trace of a smile as the older woman looked away. He levered himself off the mattress, and stretched. His head ached, but he had felt worse. He went and sat down at the window seat, looking out at the courtyard. As he watched, a form dressed in jeans and a blue shirt moved across the courtyard.

That would be his friend from last night with the short temper. McCormick hoped he had had a long night. As he watched, the figure disappeared from his field of view. He suddenly flashed back to another yard, this one surrounded by chain link and concertina wire. A husky form in denims and prison blue was sauntering away from him, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. Seconds before he had been subjected to a searching gaze from dark, angry eyes. After exchanging a few smart remarks, at least from his side, a guard had wandered by, and McCormick had been left alone. Maguire. 'Rusty' Maguire. So named not for his hair, but because he liked to knife people with a rusty old shiv that he carried in his boot. He also had been sent to San Quentin by Hardcastle. McCormick had been paroled shortly after that meeting, but he now knew who that was under the mask, and why he had been so familiar. It really didn't make him feel any better. Maguire had been in for manslaughter and aggravated assault.

What he had to do was figure out a way to let Hardcastle know. McCormick couldn't think of what Maguire's real first name was, he hadn't really wanted to know. He was going to have to rely on Hardcastle's near photographic memory for his cases. The problem was getting the name into the conversation with out tipping off their captors. He'd have to think about it. He looked down as a small hand slipped into his, and held on tight. Huge blue eyes looked up at him anxiously.

"Will I be able to see my Mommy and Daddy today?"

McCormick tugged her down beside him. He noted with amusement that she had to hoist herself up on the seat, and her feet dangled. She was shorter than Hardcastle.

"I don't know when you'll be able to see your Mommy and Daddy, Pumpkin."

"I'm not a pumpkin."

"Are you sure?" He gently rubbed his hand over her head. "You seem to be kinda round, and I think there's something of an orange tint to you. Of course I haven't seen you smiling. Maybe you should smile real big, and we'll see if you are a pumpkin or not"

The little girl grinned at him, and he smiled back.

"I'm hungry Mr. Mark."

Mark got up and went to the cooler. Upon opening it he found a selection of sandwich material, a bag sitting next to the cooler proved to have bread and paper plates. No condiments, but then they would have had to include utensils. Well a dry sandwich was better than nothing. He spread out three plates, and after waiting for Mrs. Wilmington to come out of the bathroom, took orders for sandwiches. After trimming off the crusts on Cecily's, they sat down together on the mattress and ate.

Mark was surprised that the older woman had unbent enough to join them. She had been so aloof the night before, openly contemptuous of Mark, and distant from the child. Now she sat with them, daintily eating the sandwich. Guess taking a gun across the face earned a guy a break.

As they ate he put his mind to how he could get the information he had learned to Hardcastle. He had faith that the Judge was trying everything to get them back, and that doing whatever it was these guys wanted him to do was not going to happen. His distraction did not go unnoticed.

"What are you thinking about Mr. McCormick? A way to escape?" Lila Wilmington asked. She had done some thinking in the night. She was not an ignorant woman. She was, as she was well aware, a person of very set opinions. As the daughter of a state senator and later as the wife of a very successful lawyer and judge, she had become something of a social icon in the area and had become used to being deferred to in her desires. Things were done her way, or they just weren't done.

As she had tried to find a comfortable place on the thin mattress, she had been forced to reevaluate her circumstances. She had been very afraid when the men had come into her home and forced her out into a van. She had been blindfolded, and deposited into this hovel. An hour later they had brought the child. Lila had not dealt with a child in many years. Her own children had been basically raised by the nanny, and her grandchildren were being raised in the same manner. Any dealings she had with them were restrained and of short duration. It wasn't that she didn't like children; she just had no real experience. Thus she had no idea how to comfort the crying child. After several fearful glances around the room, the girl, dressed in jeans and a pink tee shirt, had settled herself into the window seat and sobbed to herself. And so it had been until the men had returned with the third occupant.

She had been somewhat taken aback to see them drag in a grown man, and dump him on the mattress. He had lain there, unmoving, for almost half an hour. She had been able to tell he was breathing, but other than that she had taken no steps. She had noted his ragged cut offs, and faded tank top, and had written him off as anyone important.

To Lila Wilmington appearances were always very important. One should always be dressed properly for every occasion. Exactly what the appropriate dress was for a kidnapping was a puzzle. She had been dressed for an afternoon tea with some ladies from her gardening club when the men had come. Her lightweight but terribly expensive gray dress and her mother's pearls were perfect for the tea and gossip, but were definitely not for the seedier side of life.

Her opinion of the man, Mark McCormick, had not improved upon his wakening. He had at least comforted the child, but she could tell he wasn't of the class she was used to dealing with. He was young and reasonably handsome she supposed, though that raft of ginger colored curls was outlandish. She would have never allowed her children to have their hair so long. He was also not impressed by her, she could tell. She was used to deference, even from young people. When he revealed that he was a hostage for Milton Hardcastle, the whole thing had become clear.

Milton Hardcastle had been a thorn in her husband's side for decades. The man was a philistine! While his dedication to justice could not be denied, his personality left a lot to be desired. His wife, now long dead, had some success refining the man, but once she was gone, he had returned to his old ways. What could one expect of a former policeman, and a motorcycle policeman at that. There may be some who valued forthright speaking of the mind, regardless of to whom you spoke, but she was not among them. There were certain things that one did not say, even if they were true.

Now this young man, brash and irreverent, was being held hostage for Hardcastle's cooperation. She had no problem seeing him as one of Hardcastle's 'projects'. How her husband had laughed when he had told her of Hardcastle's hobby. The man was mad he had said. Everyone expected him to be found murdered in his bed, all his possessions stolen, after the first criminal he had taken in.

What she did wonder was that the kidnappers had obviously thought that this man had some value to Hardcastle, enough value to make him turn his back on many years of hard-line principle. She was sure that Hardcastle was not a homosexual, that would have been major gossip about the circle, but she would have wagered that no one could break through the hard armor of Hardcastle's protective shell, grown since the death of first his son and then his wife. Much less that a longhaired, mouthy man-child who wore his cockiness for all to see would be the one to do it.

Given the smart alec remarks McCormick had made to the kidnappers she figured that he and Hardcastle were two of a kind. What she had not figured was the young man's protective response when the thug had reached for her pearls. He had stepped between her and the masked man, and had paid the price for his defiance. She was sure that the masked man would have killed McCormick if the other man hadn't appeared. He had risked being killed for her, for her pearls, which meant nothing to him. That was something she had considered long into the night.

Obviously she had been hasty in her characterization of the young man. When had she become so shallow that she allowed appearances to color her perception of a person's character? Had that been a lesson picked up as a child, or had she simply picked up the mores of those around her to whom appearances where everything? She did not wish to see herself as someone that made decisions about people based on erroneous standards. She knew that there were good people who were not of her circle. When had she become a snob?

She thought of how the young man had been with the little girl. He was keeping her occupied, and had been able to get her to calm down and go to sleep the night before. He was awkward with her, but obviously was trying his best to keep her calm and happy. He was doing much better than she was, as a matter of fact. As she watched him, without her past prejudice, she noticed that his eyes were bright and clear, even after being hit the night before. Intelligence shone from them as he studied the room while keeping up a friendly patter with the child. He was planning something, but she wasn't sure what. She had seen that look on her father's face many times as he plotted out the best way to get this or that bill passed, get this or that person elected, or canned as the case may be. That she could see a similarity between this paroled young man and her staunch father amazed her, then humbled her as she once again realized how she had become prejudiced.

She finished her sandwich, and watched as the little girl went to the window to look out. She turned back to McCormick. "Mr. McCormick, I know you are planning something. Let me help."

The young man looked at her in surprise for a moment, and then a huge grin split his face. "Now you're cooking!" he said.

Chapter Ten

It was almost seven o'clock in the evening, and Hardcastle was pacing back and forth across the room, his gaze never leaving the phone for long. Frank had called him earlier to let him know that they had a tap on the lines at all three houses.

There was some good news. They had a positive hit on the fingerprints from the clipboard. They belonged to a two-time loser by the name of Hotchkiss who had been sent up for graft and theft. He had spent both sentences at Chino. He was off parole, so there was no current address, but Frank was looking. They were following up with his known associates, and had found out that the man had recently paid some large gambling debts, and had spoken of leaving town for Vegas after the big races at the local track.

They were also looking into the owners and management of Discraft Industries. They were publicly traded, so their records were public. It was just a matter of doing the searching in a manner that didn't send up any flags with the wrong people.

Hardcastle was planning on doing a little bar crawling later. In a few selected bars that he knew were big with the gambling crowd. Places where you could bet on anything from college football to the likelihood of royal marriages lasting. But first, he wanted to talk to McCormick.

He knew how McCormick thought. He wasn't going to be a passive pawn in this game, and he would try to pass on some information. How was the question. Any calls would be recorded so they'd be able to listen as many times as it took. The phone rang, and Hardcastle practically leaped across the room to answer.

"Hardcastle," he growled.

"Nice to hear from you too Judge," said the voice that he had heard the night before. Still familiar, but no bells rang. "Here's the rules. You got two minutes, after that the phone goes dead. You make nice, and you get another call tomorrow night."

"What do you mean make nice?"

"We want a little affirmation of your agreement. Tomorrow Discraft will be making a motion to disallow a presentation by Hastings. You disallow the presentation, and tomorrow you get to talk to your friend again, and your fellow panel members get the same courtesy. I'm sure three judges like you can come up with a good reason."

"Fine," Hardcastle growled. "Let me talk to McCormick."

"Ok Judge. The next voice you hear and all that. Remember, two minutes."

There was a pause, and then, "Judge that you?"

"It's me. You all right?" Hardcastle had to swallow hard before he could answer. He was so damn glad to hear the kid's voice.

"Yeah I'm ok. We all are. They say we'll stay that way as long as you cooperate."

"I'm doing what I can," Hardcastle replied, knowing that the call was probably being monitored. "How are they treating you?"

"Well, you know how it is. I get a little rusty Judge, when I can't get my morning yard work done. Course it would be nice if they had a VCR or something. Maybe get them to rent that Jerry Maguire movie you wouldn't let me finish watching. At least it would pass the time. Of course you got me used to doing time, sending me up and all. This isn't much worse then Quentin."

Hardcastle listened as McCormick rambled on. It seemed to be just chatty stuff, but he knew it was more. He couldn't think about that now though. He felt an urge to let McCormick know that he was missed, let him know that Hardcastle cared that he was gone. That he was valued. There wasn't much time. Seconds remained before they were cut off.

"You know you could have made that meatloaf before they took ya last night. I was looking forward to that and 'Rooster Cogburn'. I even bought the extra butter popcorn that you like." There, he had complimented the kid's cooking, and told him that he had bought something for him special. That should do it.

He could hear the smile in McCormick's voice when he replied, "Gee thanks Judge. Next time I get kidnapped, I'll think of you first and get the dinner on. I hope you enjoyed the movie anyways. If I recall you've only seen it ninety times since..." The phone went silent for a moment then the buzz of the signal came on. McCormick was gone. He listened for a moment, as if the kidnappers would allow them more time, and then spoke into the phone.

"I hope you got that. I'll be down at the Laundromat at 8:00. Get me tapes on all the calls would you?"

He put it down, knowing that the police could hear him, and assured that the tapes would be waiting for him at the small Laundromat in the strip mall about 5 miles down the road.

He sank into the chair next to the phone. His socks from yesterday were draped over the arm of the sofa, and the morning paper was spread over the cocktail table. Dinner, what he had forced down of it, had been another cold sandwich, accompanied by a newscast he didn't really watch. He realized as he had gotten up to throw out the rest of his meal that he had only turned it on to have some noise in the house. It was too quiet without it. He had gotten used to McCormick's chatter. He had gotten used to McCormick's BEING there. This is how it had been before. He didn't want to be alone again. He pushed a hand through his hair.

Damn but he missed the kid. He was going to do something about that. He rose to get ready to go out.

An hour later he returned to the house with a bag of laundry, not his, and three tapes. He had listened to the tape of the little girl in the truck on his way home. Nothing there. He was anxious to hear the one on Lila Wilmington. He hadn't seen the woman since his wife had died, and he had stopped going to social events. He hadn't liked her much anyways, since she was something of a snob, and tended to look down her nose at anyone who wasn't just like her. She would be having a fine time with McCormick, Hardcastle thought with a grin.

He tossed the bag on the floor, might as well use it next time they needed a drop, and went into his study. He popped the tape in the recorder, and turned it up. The male voice was first, saying pretty much the same things he had said to Hardcastle. Then Lila Wilmington was on.

"Jackson, are you there?"

"Yes I am. Are you all right?" Jackson Wilmington said.

"I'm fine. They're not mistreating us, so to speak. Mr. McCormick is proving to be quite the gentleman, and is taking care of us the best he can. He is making sure they do not molest us in any way. Are you well?"

"I'm doing fine. It's you I'm concerned with. I'm doing what they say. We all are."

"I'm glad. I would like to come home. I have that rose show next week; I don't want to miss it. You are having that man, Maguire is it not, fertilizing properly are you not? If he gives them too much they'll end up with those rusty red spots on the leaves and I'll lose points in the judging."

"Lila, don't be concerned with that now. We need to..."

"Nonsense. I am not going to let these men disrupt our lives anymore than they already have. I am not some convict that is to be told what to do and how to do it by the warden. Make sure that you are having your lunch packed daily, and that you are taking your pills. I do not want your health to suffer from this. I will be fine." There was a pause, "This obnoxious man is indicating I must get off. I love you Jackson. Be well."

The tape ended there. A paper that had accompanied the tape added an interesting note. Lila Wilmington did not participate in any rose show. The whole rose riff was something besides what it seemed. Wilmington and the police were at a loss to explain what however.

Hardcastle sat back, and then leaned forward to put the tape of McCormick's call in the recorder. Something was niggling at the back of his mind, and he hoped he would find it there.

He listened for a moment then sat up with an exclamation. There it was. Both McCormick and the Wilmington woman had mentioned the name Maguire. They had both used the word rusty, and both had made reference to prison. Hardcastle's mind flew. He had convicted a man for aggravated assault and attempted murder, about five years ago that had gone by the name Rusty Maguire. He would have been at San Quentin about the same time McCormick was.

That had to be it! McCormick had recognized one of his captors, and had figured out this ploy to get the information out, counting on Hardcastle to hear and understand. The kid had learned something from him after all! He reached for the cell phone that Frank had arranged for him to pick up at the laundry. It was untapped, and he could talk to the police without worrying that the kidnappers would know. Now they were cooking!

Chapter Eleven

McCormick settled down on the mattress once again. It was almost 9:00pm, and he wasn't really tired yet. It had been a long, boring day. They had found cards, a coloring book, crayons, magazines, and a few books in a bag by the cooler. Most of the day had been spent quietly, with a few tearful moments from the little girl when she remembered that she couldn't go home. Mark had tried his best to keep her occupied, playing games, and comforting her as best he could. Lila Wilmington had proven herself to be a cutthroat Old Maid player once she had understood the rules. Later Mark had found out that her card sharping continued to poker. Playing for pennies, he now owed her $9.00.

He hoped the messages had gotten through. Lila, she now insisted on him calling her Lila, had been unsure that Hardcastle would understand what they were trying to tell him, but Mark had assured her that the Judge was on the ball. Not only would he understand the message, he would act on it. McCormick worried about that a little as he lay listening to the even breathing of the child, and the slow tread of the guards footsteps outside their door.

Hardcastle tended to act first and think a little later. McCormick wasn't kidding when he called him the Lone Ranger, always riding into danger, and leaving Tonto to pull his sorry butt out of it. That was Mark's job with Hardcastle, but this time he wouldn't be there. He hoped Frank was keeping a tight rein on the Judge, though he knew that few people besides him had much luck in that. He was almost the only one Hardcastle couldn't intimidate into doing things his way.

Aside from the message, he had figured out an escape plan, but there were problems. Number one of which was that he couldn't go. A little poking and prying had revealed that the remaining cabinet in what had been the kitchen was not attached to the wall. In moving the cabinet he had found that the flooring underneath it was gone, leaving a hole through the floor of this apartment and through the ceiling of the apartment below. It was about a six-foot drop down to the counter top of the kitchen below. The hole was definitely large enough for the little girl, and just large enough for Lila Wilmington, who was small framed. Mark would never fit through without a lot of noise being made.

He had no objection to getting them out and staying behind, but that was when the second problem arose. He wasn't sure where they were, but he suspected it wasn't a part of town that a woman like Lila Wilmington had ever been in. And if he was right in where he thought they were, even HE wouldn't be caught down here after dark without Hardcastle and his .45. In fact there were certain parts he wouldn't go into during the day. He thought they were not that deep in the projects though. The kidnappers were obviously moving about at will, and even payoffs only went so far. So he had to figure out how to get them out, during the day, and make sure that they could get to somewhere safe. He was working on that.

The kidnappers had established their pattern he thought. They came once in the morning and once at night. There was obviously someone in the hallway, and they had spotted the man in the central yard. If the women were to go down a floor, and then stay to the outside of the building they should be good. Then it was a matter of finding a cop, or a phone so they could call a cop. They needed to be off the street as soon as possible so that they weren't spotted by the kidnappers or harassed by the neighborhood toughs. That was another reason that the escape had to be made during the day. There had to be some form of business around that they could go into to use a phone, and stay off the street. Once they were surrounded by others, and had called the cops, then it was just a matter of time until it was all over. If they did it right, then the cops could be here at the apartments and taking control before the guards knew what hit them.

He would talk with Lila in the morning, and after the kidnappers had made their drop of food the plan would go into action. Maybe he would give Hardcastle's number to Lila. It would be good to see the old donkey again, and he was sure that Hardcastle would be there just about as soon as the cops regardless of where he was when he got the call.

He paused for a moment, thinking about that. He really would be glad to see the older man. He had not really thought about it before, but this forced separation was about as long as he and the Judge had been apart for almost two years. He missed the man. It was beyond all belief. Somehow the stubborn, pushy, nut of a judge had gotten under his skin. Who'd a thought it? He missed the killer basketball, the bets on the pulse rates, the complaints about the cooking, or the cleaning, or the yard work. He even missed chasing around town in his Coyote chasing crooks with Hardcastle howling instructions from the passenger seat.

He had gone totally mad! This must be some weird twist on the Stockholm Syndrome he had read about. Instead of coming to like his captors, he was longing for a life of slavery! He needed to see a shrink or something. Maybe he could convince Hardcastle he needed therapy. Shouldn't be too hard. He was half way nuts now.

He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. He wasn't aware that he was smiling a little as in his dreams he and Hardcastle went after the kidnappers in a rousing chase that led to their capture and imprisonment.

Chapter Twelve

It was 6:00am and the sun was just poking its edge over the mountains to the east as Milton Hardcastle bounced the basketball off the side of the gatehouse, missing the basket. He was dressed in his sweats and a t-shirt missing its arms. He'd have to go in and get ready soon to go to another day of that farce of an arbitration. He wasn't sure how much longer he could stand to sit there with a straight face and watch the lawyer for Discraft smirk.

He retrieved the ball, and his eyes glanced at the window near the basket. On any other day, McCormick's tousled head would be poking out yelling at him to knock it off. A few minutes of snappy conversation would precede a quick game of ball, and a bet on pulse rates. He bounced the ball a couple more times and took a shot. Missed again. He sighed and collected the ball, and headed into the house to shower.

His barhopping hadn't turned up anything the night before. He hoped that today Frank would be calling back with some information on Rusty Maguire. Most specifically his whereabouts. The man was still on parole, according to Hardcastle's files, and so there should be a verifiable address and some information on where he worked.

Hardcastle was getting his tie on when the cell phone rang. He gave up on the knot and answered.

"Hardcastle," he growled. McCormick had always told him that he should try to answer the phone a little differently, a little nicer, but he didn't see any reason to change. This got the job done and there was no confusion about who the caller had reached.

"Milt, this is Frank. We got a lead on Maguire. Guess who hired him as a security guard right out of prison?"


"On the nose. We're setting up surveillance. He's not at home now. But we'll pick him up there or at Discraft. As soon as we have something we'll let you know."

"Thanks Frank. You're set up for the calls tonight?"

"Yeah, same as last night. This time we'll get you some take out though, instead of laundry. Are you eating at all?"

"I am perfectly capable of feeding myself, you know."

"Sure Milt. What kind of sandwich did you have for breakfast?"

"Bologna. And what's wrong with a sandwich for breakfast? It's got all the food groups."

"You just keep telling yourself that. Talk to you when we have something." He hung up.

Hardcastle looked at the other half of the bologna sandwich on white that lay on a plate on the dresser. Some wilted lettuce peeked out around the edges. Bread, meat, and a vegetable. Ok so there was only three food groups, but that was pretty good. He could grab a banana on the way out. He went back to tying his tie, and finally settled on a close approximation of a half Windsor. That would have to do. It wasn't like he had to impress anyone. He wouldn't be doing this again. He and McCormick got into enough trouble without help from some crooked company. He had plenty of criminals to chase without new ones popping up on his horizon by themselves.

He grabbed the banana and went out to the truck, tossing the banana and his briefcase onto the seat. He started the truck and started out of the driveway. He was tired of this job already. It had been several years now since he had a structured job, and he was now finding out why he didn't miss the day-to-day sameness. He had grown a taste for adventure and adrenaline.

He looked into the rear view mirror at the Coyote sitting parked in the driveway. He put on the brakes, and sat there for a moment. He then threw the truck into reverse and parked it back where it had been. He dug out the key to the Coyote and moved his briefcase and the banana into the low-slung racecar. Something told him to take it, and he had learned to listen to that little voice over the years. Hopefully McCormick would be back at the wheel soon, and they could get on with chasing the criminals and bad guys that they already knew about. Then all would be right with the world.

He roared down the driveway.

Chapter Thirteen

Mark had gone over his plan with Lila Wilmington. She had agreed to his plan, and had surprisingly offered some good ideas about how they would go about escaping the building once they were out of the room. She had protested when she realized he would have to stay, but had realized that if things went as planned he would be fine, and they would all be going home.

She stripped off her pearls and gave them to him to keep in his pocket. Jewelry probably wasn't a good idea. He had found 5 dollars and some change in his pocket, and he gave it to her for the phone, and a very small bribe if the storekeeper needed more to let them stay inside. The little girl, listening to them talk quietly, had come up with another dollar that she said she had gotten from the tooth fairy last week. Mark had had to blink rapidly when he took it from her and gave it to Lila. Meeting the older woman's eyes he had seen the same moisture. This had to work.

Their kidnappers had come and gone. Breakfast had been another sandwich, and they were all full, if not satisfied. They had decided to wait about an hour for the men to move away from the door, and to let the neighborhood get awakened and moving. It was important that there were people about. Normal, semi-law abiding people they hoped.

Having waited, Mark went to the cabinet and pulled it out from the wall as quietly as he could. The hole was revealed, and he motioned for his fellow captives to approach. He was getting in position to lower Lila Wilmington when she surprised him by giving him a quick hug, and a peck on the cheek. He pulled back astounded, and stared at her.

This was not the same woman he had woken to find sitting in the chair. This woman had no fancy hairdo, and her suit jacket had been discarded to show a slightly soiled white shirt. Her pearls had been removed and put in a pocket. No makeup remained on her face, and she had removed her nylons. But the biggest change was in the eyes. Before Mark had seen only contempt in those eyes, but now there was a certain fondness. He grinned at her and was rewarded with a smile.

"You take care of yourself young man, I expect a ride in that car of yours. I used to love to go fast when I was a girl. I haven't had that fun in years." They had discovered a shared 'need for speed' over poker the night before.

He nodded and working awkwardly with the handcuffs he lowered her to the full extent of his reach. She had to drop only a few inches to the countertop. He then turned to hand the little girl down, but instead found himself with an armful of weepy child.

"Why can't you come too Mr. Mark. You don't like it here. You could come to my house instead."

"I'd really like that honey," he soothed, smoothing back her hair. "But I have to stay here for now. You and Mrs. Wilmington are going to go and call for some help, and then we can all go home. Okay?"

The little girl nodded doubtfully. "Mr. Mark you're not gonna forget our date are you?" she asked.

"No way, I'm not gonna miss going out with my best girl! I can almost taste that pizza now," Mark said smiling at her. After one last hug, and an admonishment to do whatever Mrs. Wilmington told her, he lowered her into Lila's waiting arms. The two waved up at him and then disappeared. He quietly moved the cabinet back over the hole, and picking up the deck of cards he moved back to the mattress and sat down. It was going to be a long wait, and he might as well practice some solitaire.

He had played three games and an hour had passed when he heard the lock being engaged. 'Damn it!' he thought, 'I need to buy some time.' He sprang up from the mattress, and grabbing the chair managed to wedge part of the back support spindles under the door. It wouldn't hold for a long time, but it would slow them down. He looked around the room. He had to find something else. He pushed the cooler over in front of the door too, and then pulled the mattress over. He saw the door moving as they tried to open it, but the chair held for now. He retreated to the window seat, and watched the door rattle. It was all up to the women now.

Chapter Fourteen

Hardcastle was passing the time during the presentations idly counting the holes in the acoustic tiles in the ceiling. He was trying to determine if each tile had the same amount or if it was random. So far random was winning out. They had squashed the proposal by Hastings, the company that was in arbitration with Discraft, and now the company lawyers were giving their closing arguments. As far as Hardcastle was concerned this whole process was moot since there wasn't going to be a decision.

They were going to get the hostages back, and then if any part of Discraft remained, they could start the whole arbitration thing over again with another board, one the Hardcastle would not be participating in. They could find another stand in. Hardcastle was going back to chasing criminals the old fashioned way.

He jumped as the cell phone in his pocket vibrated. He raised a hand to signal the lawyer to stop and he conferred with the others. A brief recess was called, and he answered the still ringing phone.


"It me," Frank said. "You need to get down to Eighth and Figaroa. We just got a call from a grocery store there. The woman told the dispatcher she was Lila Wilmington and that she and the little girl had escaped."

"I'll meet you there." He hung up the phone, and without a word to anyone left the room. He went quickly down to the parking lot. He revved up the Coyote, and with a roar and a grinding of gears that would have had McCormick screaming, tore out.

He made good time across town. He seemed to have picked up an escort about halfway there. First it was flashing light, then a few blasts of the siren. After a while they got the idea that he wasn't stopping, and turned it on full bore. He worried that they would try to ram him, but someone must have recognized the car when they called it in because soon they had moved ahead of him and were breaking trail through the traffic with the siren. He was happy to note that they broke off and turned off the siren before they approached Eighth. He waved as he went by.

He pulled into a spot and parked. Climbing out he looked around. This was a part of town he was not familiar with. Here most of the buildings were boarded up, and small crowds of people had formed to watch what was going on.

The grocery was on the corner. It was a small storefront with a barred window. He went inside to find Frank and several other detectives talking with Lila Wilmington. She was seated on a chair, and a small girl was sitting on her lap, watching everyone with big eyes. When Hardcastle entered, Frank came up to him, and led him to the chair. Lila Wilmington was pale, and she didn't look anything like the society matron that Hardcastle remembered, but when she saw him she moved the girl off her lap. Keeping one small hand in hers she rose to meet him.

"Milton, I'm glad you're here. These men do not seem to understand the urgency of the situation. Mr. McCormick is alone in the room. They may come back at any time, and I do not believe that they will be pleased. The one man, the one Mark thought was Maguire, already hurt him once. He'll kill him this time."

Hardcastle could feel his hackles rising when he heard that. "Hurt him how?" he growled.

"He hit him, with a gun," she replied matter of factly, as if she discussed people hitting other people with guns regularly. "Now can we stop talking and go?"

She knelt down and spoke quietly to the little girl who listened solemnly, and then nodded. She looked up at Hardcastle, and bit her lip. After another nod from Lila Wilmington she sidled closer to Hardcastle and spoke in a hesitant low voice.

"Are you Mr. Mark's papa?"

He was taken aback for a moment, but then caught the stern look from Wilmington. He knelt down to the little girl's level, and shook his head.

"No. I'm not his father, but I am his friend. My name is Milt Hardcastle."

"You'll get him away from the bad men?"

"Yes I will."

She nodded. "Good. We'll bring you back some pizza when we go out, like Mr. Mark said we should. He said you couldn't cook nothing and that if we didn't save none, you" she looked at Lila Wilmington, not remembering the word.

"Gripe," The older woman supplied, a smile twitching her mouth.

Hardcastle frowned as several of the detectives in the room suddenly developed a cough, and Frank turned away for a moment.

"Yeah well, if you go out with McCormick you'll have to remember not to believe everything that he says." He looked around as a female uniformed officer came forward. He read her nameplate, and turned back to the little girl. "You go with Officer Miller now ok, and we'll go get McC...Mr. Mark." He stood back up, and watched the officer and little girl head out to a squad car.

"We called her parents. They're on their way down."

Hardcastle nodded and looked at Frank. "What are we waiting for?"

"We wanted to have S.W.A.T go in. We're waiting on them to deploy."

"The heck with them. By the time they roll the van and set up a perimeter, we could have been in and out with McCormick."

"Milt, Mrs. Wilmington says there are at least two armed men in the complex where they are holding Mark. If one of them should get to Mark before we do, it might get ugly."

"And do how do you figure it is going to be for Mark if they find out two of their hostages are gone. They'll know that help will be coming, and may just kill him out of hand."

"They've only been coming in twice a day with food, and to let them call out. They probably won't..."

"Probably isn't good enough! I'm going now, with or without your help." He looked at Lila Wilmington. "Where is he?"

She smiled gently at him, and patted his arm. "It's nice to know that you care for him too, Milton. You needed someone, and I think he did too. I'll show you where they are." She led the way out of the building. Hardcastle stared after her for a moment before following. What had she meant about him needing someone? What had McCormick been telling the woman? What had she meant when she said that McCormick cared about him? She must be confused. He was going to have to talk to the kid.

He marched out of the store, hearing the cops coming behind him. Frank was giving rapid orders to the men with him, and over his walkie-talkie. Lila Wilmington led them down the street and stopped at the corner. She looked around the corner cautiously, and motioned Hardcastle forward. He moved up to stand beside her, just far enough forward to be able to see down the street, but not all the way out in plain sight.

"It's the tenement with the condemned sign on it. They kept us on the north side, fifth story, third apartment from the east side. There are stairs on each corner. There's a metal door, with a lock. There was no handle inside, so I'm not sure what the outside looked like, but it was the only new thing in the building so it shouldn't be hard to spot."

Hardcastle absently patted her on the back murmuring his thanks, not even considering whom he was dealing with. His gaze was fixed on the building, and his mind was already working out the best plan of attack. Frank had moved up to see the building, and they put their heads together and came up with a working plan.

They sent Mrs. Wilmington back to the grocery store with an escort, and started to move out. Hardcastle, Frank, and two detectives would approach the building from the corner. Other groups were coming from the other directions. They would move into the stairwells, and the central yard. Hardcastle's group would be going straight up to the 5th floor. They were just getting ready to move when Frank threw an arm out in front of Hardcastle and stopped him from stepping around the corner. Hardcastle looked at Frank questioningly, but then saw Frank was looking down the block. He shifted his gaze.

A car, it looked like a Mercedes, had pulled up in front of the building. A tall man in a business suit exited the car, and after a quick look around entered the building. Hardcastle looked at Frank.

"What do you figure the chances are of someone parking a Mercedes in this area are?"

"You mean one they didn't steal? Very low. I would say that management is paying a call on site."

"The question is are they going to go in the room? We need to get a move on," Hardcastle growled and took out his gun. He was on his way down the block before he finished speaking.

Frank shook his head, and motioned the other men to follow. It wasn't easy keeping up with the Judge when he was set on a goal. They worked their way into the building taking advantage of as much cover as they could. The walls of the stairwell were covered in gang tags, as had the outer walls been. No doubt some type of deal had been made with the local gang for use of the building. Nothing was done without their ok in this area, and the cops were well aware of it.

They went up the southwest staircase, so that they could see what was going on in the hall without being seen. They were coming up on the corner when a fusillade of shots could be heard. Frank only just barely managed to grab Hardcastle before he could run around the corner and down the corridor where the sound still echoed.

"Damn it Milt, we're a little outgunned. That was an Uzi. We can't just run in there. They'll slaughter us!"

Hardcastle's eyes turned to him, and he saw the fear flare for a moment, before it disappeared behind a burning anger. The bulldog jaw clenched, but the gray head nodded, and they cautiously approached the corner. Frank hoped that McCormick was all right, because he had a feeling that he wasn't going to be able to restrain Hardcastle much longer.

Chapter Fifteen

McCormick threw himself into the corner farthest from the door as bullets tore through it tearing up the chair, cooler and mattress. He heard bullets ricocheting around the room, and hoped he would not be hit. After the bullets stopped pouring through the door he raised his head and watched as after a few heaves the door pushed inward.

Three men wearing masks entered. Two in jeans and t-shirts and one in a suit. 'Oh great,' Mark thought, 'management again. This probably isn't going to end well for me. Sorry Judge.' He wasn't sure why he thought that last thought. He wasn't really sure the Judge would even notice he was gone. After all there were other fish in the sea. There had been cons before him, and there would be others after him he was sure. A few phone calls and poof, someone else was driving the Coyote and chasing criminals with the Lone Ranger. Tonto was always expendable. Plenty Indians where he came from.

The men looked around. The one in the suit swore and went to look in the bathroom. He came out swearing even more. "The other two are gone. Where the hell did they go?"

"Whatya mean gone? Where could they go, the door's been locked, and they can't fly," the second masked guy said.

That was Maguire. McCormick was sure of it. He stood up, determined to face whatever came on his feet.

The man in the suit strode over to him and grabbing his shirt threw him against the wall. McCormick could feel his teeth rattle. He looked blandly at the man.

"Problem?" he asked casually. The other two men had moved in until they were close behind the man in the suit.

"Where are they?"

"Who?" He barely got the word out before a fist sunk into his stomach. He doubled up, only to find himself straightened by the two men grabbing his arms. He couldn't even catch his breath before a fist slammed into his face, splitting his lip. He spit blood on his attacker, and looked defiantly back at him. The man looked down at his ruined suit, and growled. He pulled a huge pistol from behind his back, and with a vicious backhand swing, lashed it across Mark's face. He stayed on his feet only because of the wall at his back and the two men holding him up. Blackness edged his vision. He barely saw the hand coming back at him, but as he sank into the blackness he swore he heard Hardcastle's voice calling his name. Weird.

Chapter Sixteen

Frank had to physically push Hardcastle behind him as they went down the corridor. He ignored the glare, and kept his eyes on the doorway ahead. No further shots had been heard, but they could hear voices, and as they got near the door, they heard sounds that could only be from someone being hit, hard.

He looked at Hardcastle, who had his .45 ready, and the older man nodded. Frank signaled that he would go in low and to the right. Hardcastle nodded again. He would go high and to the left. They both sprang into the doorway, guns ready. Frank was prepared for what he saw, based on the sounds they had heard. Two men were holding Mark McCormick against the wall, and as they entered the room a third man lashed a gun across McCormick's face.

Frank heard Hardcastle growl like a bear, and then yell McCormick's name. As the three men realized that they had been invaded, things happened very quickly.

As the man who had hit Mark began to turn, gun in hand, Frank knew Hardcastle was going to take him out. He turned his attention to the two men who dropped McCormick's arms and started to reach for guns in their belts. He vaguely noticed that McCormick had fallen limply to the floor, and lay unmoving. He could only spare a moment to hope he was okay before the room reverberated with the sound of guns firing.

Hardcastle had also heard the noises from the corridor, and had known what they had to be. That didn't help any when they entered the room, and saw what they were doing to McCormick. He felt the anger boiling up inside him, and even as he yelled McCormick's name he was bringing his .45 to bear on the suited figure who had pistol-whipped his friend.

Years of training held his trigger finger until after Frank had yelled out the requisite warning to drop the weapons and identified them as police officers. It was immediately obvious no one was dropping anything. As the man's gun came around to him, Hardcastle fired. He was moving forward toward McCormick's still form even as the sound of the guns was starting to fade. He didn't spare a glance at the still, masked man who was laying sprawled on the floor.

He knelt beside McCormick, and gently turned him onto his back. The normally handsome face was a mess. His face was already bruised and swollen on one side. One of the recent blows had reopened the older cut, and it was bleeding badly. He also had a split lip, and a second cut, probably from the blow they had seen, was seeping blood above his hairline.

Hardcastle ran a roughly gentle hand through the curls. He cradled the unconscious younger man against his chest. He looked up to find Frank standing over him. "We need an ambulance. He's really out of it." Frank nodded and lifted his walkie-talkie.

Mark's head was against his shoulder, and Hardcastle studied the battered face. The kid looked even younger unconscious. Sometimes Hardcastle forgot how young McCormick was. He often looked at him as a contemporary. The kid had been raised hard, and had a street wisdom that was as good as what Hardcastle had garnered in the over 30 years as a cop, lawyer, and judge. Their outlooks on things often came from two opposite directions, but more often than not, they ended up in the same place.

He looked up as one of the detectives handed him a handkerchief and he started daubing at the blood, trying to be gentle. Hardcastle had taken enough injuries in his time to know that the kid was gonna hurt when he woke up, and he didn't want to add to the misery. He cleaned off as much as he could, then folded the material and held it against the head wound. He found himself rocking a little. As he thought about it, he realized that this was how he had comforted his young son when at age five he had come in crying after having been flung over the handlebars of his bike. He had held him close and rocked him gently. It had comforted both child and father. It confused him that the instinct remained with this young man. He didn't consciously think of Mark in that way, but perhaps it was time to reevaluate just how he DID think of the younger man.

Milton Hardcastle liked to think that he didn't hide things from himself. He knew he had shut himself off from others after his wife died, and even before that he had been reluctant to form close relationships with anyone, lest he lose them as he had lost his son. That had been a pain he had never experienced before. The death of his parents had been at an advanced age and expected. To find out that your child was dead was a pain that had never faded. A piece of himself had gone, and he had buried any feelings along with it. Now he found himself feeling those things again for this brash smart alec kid from New Jersey. So different from his own son, but still the same in many ways.

He was shaken from his self-reflection by the arrival of the ambulance. He helped them lift McCormick's limp form onto the gurney. He went out with them, and watched them load him into the back of the vehicle. He would follow in the Coyote. McCormick would have his head if he left the racecar down here without a large police contingent to look after it.

He watched as they closed the doors and then left. He glanced back at the tenement, looking on impassively as the Coroner took out two black-bagged bodies. Two? There had been three of them. He looked around and spotted another ambulance. They were wheeling another gurney out, and as he watched Frank broke away from the side of it, writing in his notebook. He approached Hardcastle, and looked up smiling.

"We got'em Milt. That guy blabbed like there was no tomorrow. He's desperate to make a deal. The guy in the suit was Roger Hazeltine, chief of security for Discraft. He was the one they dealt with, but this guy overheard Hazeltine calling in, heard him ask for a particular office, and give a report on the hostages. He's willing to testify. I'm going to get warrants, you want me to call you when we're ready to go?"

"Oh yeah. I'll be at the hospital. Have them page me."

"Keep the cell. We don't need it back now, you might as well keep it for today."

"Thanks Frank." He started back to the Coyote, turning as Frank called his name.

"Let me know how Mark is, ok? And keep it under a hundred on the way to the hospital will ya!" He grinned

Hardcastle smiled and waved. He glanced at his watch, it shouldn't take over five minutes to get to the hospital, and he could keep it under eighty all the way. Perfect.

Chapter Seventeen

Mark was back in that pool of molasses again; only this time he had a lead weight tied to his leg. He had to stop coming here. He struggled to figure out where he was. The last thing he remembered was being beaten in the small room, being held by two thugs. He also remembered hearing Hardcastle calling his name. Almost as if the memory had called him forth, he heard Hardcastle again.

"Come on McCormick, I don't got all day here. If you're going to wake up this time lets get it done, huh."

Always the voice of sympathy, that was Hardcastle. McCormick could always count on him to make his headache worse. He put as much mental effort as he could garner into opening his eyes, and was rewarded by a piercing wave of light that felt like it tore what was left of his head off. He snapped his eyes closed and groaned.

"Come on McCormick, you can do it. Lets see those eyes." Hardcastle again.

"I really don't believe that is helping Mr. Hardcastle," another voice said. McCormick agreed.

"Yeah," he croaked, without opening his eyes, "you're not helping."

"Quit goldbricking McCormick!" came Hardcastle's reply. "Open those eyes. The doctors are trying to determine if any part of your hard head is busted, and they want to know how it feels from inside."

"Like there's someone in here with a hammer. Are Lila and Cecily OK?" He still didn't open his eyes, but he was sounding better as he spoke.

"LILA?" Hardcastle echoed. "I don't think even Jackson Wilmington calls her 'Lila'. What went on in that room?"

"That's for me to know, etc. Now answer the question."

"They're fine. Both are at home. If you'd quit lollygagging around in here looking for sympathy we could get this thing wound up and go home too. I'm gonna miss 'McQ' if you keep this up. It's on at 6."

"Gee Judge and you've only seen it what, 100 times?" He tried to turn his head on the pillow, zeroing in on the sound of Hardcastle's voice. It felt like his neck was in a vice. He cracked one eyelid and looked into Hardcastle's grinning face. He groaned.

"Knock it off McCormick. We'll get you a few aspirin and get out of here. You'll be doing the lawn by tomorrow."

"I don't think so," said a new voice from the doorway of the exam room. They both looked at a white-coated figure who strode into the room with x-rays under his arm. "Mr. McCormick we haven't met, I'm Dr Shaw. I've looked at your x-rays, and you don't have a skull fracture, but you do have a fine example of a concussion. Not serious, but enough that I want you here overnight. All things being good in the morning, you can go home then, but only to REST." He looked sternly at Hardcastle. "No work, no play. Rest."

Hardcastle glared at him for a moment, then nodded. "Don't worry, I'll make sure he rests," he said somewhat insincerely with a fake smile.

The doctor looked at him with a narrowed gaze and then turned his attention back to McCormick. "Now that you're awake, I'd like to do some neurological tests. Your...friend will have to leave, then we'll get you situated in a room and you can get some rest. I'll be able to give you some painkillers then too, once we determine that there are no surprises."

Hardcastle scowled at the doctor. "Why can't I stay?" He had tenaciously ignored all the subtle and not so subtle hints that he should wait out in the waiting room up to now, and he didn't see why that should change. He wanted to be sure that McCormick was all right, and he wanted to take him home where he could keep an eye on him. It was a weird reaction, no doubt a result of the kidnapping and injury, but he couldn't help it. The doctor however was not intimidated. He scowled back.

"Mr. Hardcastle, I need quiet, and so does Mr. McCormick. Frankly that doesn't seem to be your best thing. The tests will take about an hour, and it'll take another half hour to get him settled in a room. My nurse will let you know which room when he gets there. Now if you don't mind." He gestured at the door.

It was as polite a bum's rush as Hardcastle had ever gotten. He glared at the grinning McCormick. "I'll see you later," he grumbled.

"Don't be going off on your own Kemosabe," McCormick said as Hardcastle was heading out the door, "take Frank with you." His only answer was a growl. He looked at the doctor who was looking at him consideringly. "He's a little impulsive. Usually we don't let him go out alone. Kind of a managed care deal."

The doctor nodded doubtfully, and took out his small penlight. McCormick lay back on the pillow, happy to be free, even if he had to stay in the hospital overnight. He hoped his nurse would look good.

Chapter Eighteen

Hardcastle pulled up in front of the Discraft Industries building. Frank and two squad cars were already there, drawing glances from the passing executives and secretaries. He climbed out of the Coyote and went to lean against the side of a squad car next to Frank. Frank was grinning like a Cheshire cat. He started speaking, and as he did Hardcastle also started to grin, though his had a bit more vindictive pleasure in it. After he finished, they gathered the various uniformed men and entered the Discraft building.

A security guard at the front desk started to protest their march to the elevator, but sat back down as Frank waved a warrant at him. Frank detailed one of the uniforms to make sure that no calls were made upstairs. They piled into the elevator and went to the top floor. A secretary, sitting behind a nearly empty desk was filing her nails as they entered. She raised an eyebrow at them.

"We have an arrest warrant for Nicholas Weaver. Is he in his office?"

She nodded, and pointed one long nail at the door behind her. She popped her gum and went back to filing her nails, uninterested. Frank and Hardcastle exchanged glances, and then went to the door. Frank tried the knob, and when it turned under his hand he pushed it open to reveal the posh office.

As they entered, the large leather chair behind the huge desk turned, and a balding middle age man looked at them angrily.

"What are you people doing in here, get out! Marcy call security, now!" This last he shouted toward the door.

Frank held up his badge. "Security already knows we are here. Are you Nicholas Weaver?"

"Yes I am, and this is my company, my building, you can't just come in here..."

Frank held up the warrant. "This is a warrant for your arrest, please come out from behind the desk," he said, interrupting the executive.

"What?! Arrest what for?"

"Kidnapping, assault, grievous bodily harm, and extortion. Further charges might be filed at a later time."

"What the hell are you talking about? Kidnapping whom, assaulting whom? I know nothing about any of this!"

Hardcastle stepped forward to stand by Frank. "Don't play dumb, you'll ruin the image. It may, or may not, interest you to know that Roger Hazeltine is dead, as is one of the goons he hired to help in kidnapping and assaulting the family of the arbitrators in your dispute with Hastings. I'm sure you'll be very interested to know that the other one is talking his head off and has named you as the man who is paying for everything in order to be sure that Discraft comes out ahead in the arbitration."

"I don't know what you are talking about. I have no idea what Hazeltine might be doing. If he took illegal steps to affect the arbitration that's not my concern. It sounds as if he paid the price. As for some criminal making false accusations, my lawyer will have false arrest papers filed before you can get me down to the jail." Weaver sneered.

"Well, that might be so, if it weren't for your brother in law," Hardcastle said slyly, and then grinned as he saw the color drain from Weaver's face.

"I...I don't know what you mean," he stammered, taking out a handkerchief and daubing his forehead.

Hardcastle moved forward and sat down in one of the chairs in front of the desk. He leaned casually back and propped his feet up on the desk. Frank ducked his head to hide a smile.

"Let me refresh your memory. Your brother in law. The one that is married to your sister. A two time loser with a gambling problem, who just happened to show up at the track today to place a large bet on a sure thing. However he didn't quite make it to the window. We picked him up, and he was so afraid of going back to the pen that he started telling us about all kinds of things he had done for his dear brother in law, who as a matter of fact was bank rolling his relocation to Las Vegas, without his wife I might add. Does that clear things up for you?" Hardcastle smiled at the angry face of the executive. He continued to smile as Frank had the uniforms handcuff the man, read him his rights from the card, and take him down to the car.

"A good afternoon's work, don't you think Milt?" Frank said as they were heading down in the elevator.

"Yep," Hardcastle replied. "I think the district attorney has a good case, and everyone is home safe."

"Well not home yet, not everyone. You say Mark will be able to go home tomorrow?"

"Yeah, the doctor says he should be able to go home in the morning. He won't be able to do any work for a while, but I don't think he'll complain about that," Hardcastle replied, scowling.

Frank smiled. No he didn't imagine McCormick would complain about being able to loaf with no repercussions, and despite Hardcastle's grumbling he knew that the older man would be glad to have the kid back where he belonged.

Once they reached the cars, they watched as the patrol cars drove off with the prisoner, and Frank got in his car.

"Are you going back to the hospital?"

"They should have McCormick in a room by now. Guess I better stop by and fill out the paperwork. The kid couldn't remember his insurance information to save his life."

Frank hid another grin. He had no doubt that Hardcastle was taking care of all of Mark's hospital bills, and also that the hospital would have a heck of a time enforcing their visiting hours when it came to one particular patient. He toned down the grin, and shook Hardcastle's hand. "Thanks for all the help. I'll keep you updated. You let me know about Mark, Ok? Say hi to him for me."

"You got it. I'll call tomorrow." Hardcastle watched Frank drive off, and then got into the Coyote. He was satisfied with the arrest, and wasn't all that upset about the two men who had been killed. It had been their choice. Now all that remained was to get McCormick back home, and back to work. Then everything would be right with Hardcastle's world. He started the car and headed back to the hospital.

Chapter Nineteen

McCormick once again was waking up. He was getting better at it with practice. He had spent most of the previous day in a kind of drugged stupor. The painkillers they had given him for his head had worked really well, but he didn't remember most of yesterday after the doctor's exam. He vaguely remembered Hardcastle showing up after he had been moved to the room, but he had been very woozy, and had slept most of the time. He had woken once in the middle of the night, to find his mind surprisingly clear for once. He had heard a strange noise, something like a fork being ground up in a garbage disposal he thought, and turned his head to find Hardcastle asleep in a chair at the side of his bed. He had felt very touched, and very safe for the first time in days. It was nice. He had snuggled back down in the blankets and gone back to sleep.

He opened his eyes, and turned his head. He was somewhat disappointed to see the chair empty. Hardcastle must have gone home to shower or something. Just then he heard the sound of the door opening, and Hardcastle came in, reading a newspaper as he walked.

"Did they spell my name right?" McCormick asked, causing Hardcastle's eyes to jump to him. Hardcastle snorted, and tossed him the paper. A headline and story was on the front page. McCormick read through it, learning about the arrests and deaths. Hardcastle had tried to tell him the details yesterday, but facts hadn't been sticking too well. This brought him up to speed quickly.

"Well Kemosabe, it seems we've kept America safe once again."

"We?" Hardcastle asked, raising an eyebrow. "I seem to recall that Frank and I did all the work while you sat around in a room loafing and playing cards."

"Oh yeah and like you would have done something about this if I hadn't been there. You wouldn't have even known that a crime was being committed."

"So you're saying that getting kidnapped was all part of your plan to stop Discraft from influencing the arbitration," Hardcastle demanded, unbelievingly.

"Well, I kinda let them take me, and I helped the women escape in the end, or you and Frank would still be chasing your tails somewhere. So yeah, it was sorta part of a plan."

"I don't believe you McCormick! How much brain damage did they find in there anyways? You're nuttier than a fruitcake if you expect anyone to buy that load of..."

Hardcastle cut off as the door opened and Lila Wilmington, followed by her husband walked in. Right behind them was Cheryl Grant and Cecily. Also tagging along were two young people who Hardcastle guessed were the parents of the little girl.

Cecily ran forward and bounced in place at the side of McCormick's bed, smiling up at him. McCormick pushed the button to raise the head of his bed, and motioned Cecily forward to sit with him on the bed. The young man helped her up. The others arranged themselves around the bed, and exchanged introductions.

"Hardcase didn't say that you all were going to be dropping in, I would have at least tried to spruce up a little," McCormick said, rubbing a hand over his whiskery face, and tangled hair.

"I didn't know they were coming McCormick, and I don't think a shave is going to help you look pretty about now." Mark's face was bruised and swollen, and the bruises were an interesting range of green and blue.

"He doesn't think I look pretty!" Mark whined to the little girl sitting next to him.

"Oh he's just silly!" she said, patting Mark's knee. All of the adults except Hardcastle and Jackson Wilmington hid smiles. She reached into a little purse she had slung over her shoulder and took out a little brush. "I'll fix your hair, you can take off the whiskers later." She suited action to words and crawled around so that she could start brushing at Mark's curls. He gritted his teeth as she pulled through the tangles, but waved off the attempt by the child's mother to make her stop. He scowled at a grinning Hardcastle and turned his attention to Lila Wilmington.

She was back in her regular immaculate dress. Everything that was proper for visiting an invalid in the hospital, Mark was sure. He wondered if she had regained her snooty attitude as well. He got his answer quickly as she came forward and kissed him on the cheek. He saw the startled looks on the faces of Hardcastle, Grant and Mr. Wilmington, and grinned at her.

"You do look dreadful dear. I don't think those are your best colors," she said, smiling back at him gently. "I think we should have waited to see you until you had gone home."

"No, it's no problem. My headache is almost gone, and I should be getting out of here today anyway. I'm glad you came." He stopped speaking, as he had to stifle a yell as a particularly tangled area was reached. The mother stepped forward, and gently removed the brush and suggested that Cecily should stop.

"What we all came for," Cheryl Grant said as she smiled at the pouting child, "is to say 'Thank you'. Lila had told us what you did. Protecting her, and making sure that Cecily was distracted. Then helping them escape while you had to stay. We can't thank you enough for that." Cecily's parents nodded in agreement.

McCormick waved a hand, "Hey, all I did was what anyone would have. I couldn't stand by and let them hurt anyone, and I kept myself busy too, so no big deal. As to the escape, they were the brave ones. I just stayed in the room, they are the ones that took the big chances and saved me."

Lila snorted and leaned forward to give him another kiss. "Don't be stupid. I imagine you'll be convalescing for a while, so I will come by to see you at Gulls Way." She gave him an evil grin. "I'll give you a chance to win back that $9.00 you owe me."

"Hey, most of the card sharks I know don't dress as good as you. You took me off guard. I know to be wary now. I'll take you to the cleaners."

Laughing, Mrs. Wilmington waved and left the room.

Cecily's father stepped forward. "I understand that you've asked Cecily out for dinner. I didn't expect to be vetting dates for her for a few more years yet, but I think I can trust you." He handed Mark a card from one of the more prestigious law firms in LA. His name was in raised black letters. All in all an expensive calling card. "Cecily is looking forward to the pizza night. Just give a call when you are ready to go, and we'll set it up. Also, if you ever need any legal advice, my door is always open, free of charge. I can't tell you how grateful we are." Cecily's mother nodded in agreement, with tears in her eyes, as she ran a fond hand over Cecily's hair.

Mark grinned at the family, and reached a hand out to shake the man's hand. Then he presented the unbruised cheek for kisses from Cecily, her mother, and Cheryl Grant. After some goodbyes they too left.

Mark grinned at Hardcastle who was scowling at him. "What?" he asked.

"Like you needed all that. Your head was big enough before now."

"Oh come on Judge you gotta admit everything worked out ok in the end. The bad guys are dead or in prison, and we're all back in one piece. Justice and right have prevailed. I get to go home today, and you can hire someone to take care of the yard until the doctor says I can work again."

"I'm not hiring anyone McCormick! It'll all be there waiting for you when the doctor lets you off the sick list."

"But Judge, the lawn will get too high, the roses won't get their daily dose of feed, and the pruning...the pruning is due now. You're always telling me how important it is that these things get done on time. We wouldn't want things to get off schedule, now would we Judge?" He looked innocently at Hardcastle who was glaring at him. "And you know, I won't be able to cook or anything, and I'll need something more nutritious than sandwiches so we'll have to hire a cook and maid too. You better get on that."

"Maybe I can find someone to kidnap you again until you're well. It would probably cost less!"

"Now come on Hardcase, you wouldn't want me to be kidnapped and beat up again would you?" He gave his best hangdog look, knowing that he was feeding the Judge a straight line. It felt good to be bantering again; he had missed it.

"Only if I could do the beating McCormick," the Judge replied with a toothy grin.

Everything was back to normal.

The end