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A/N: This story was originally published in the second zine released to support the S.T.A.R. for Brian Keith. If you're unaware of our efforts, or would like to check the status of the campaign, please visit our website.
Mark McCormick jerked his head up at the tapping on the door to his room in the ER. "Come in," he called sharply.
The door opened just a bit and Lieutenant Frank Harper peered around it cautiously. "Hey, Mark. You ready for some company?"
McCormick sighed almost imperceptibly and nodded. "Yeah, Frank. C'mon in." He waved his visitor to a chair, then ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "How's Hardcastle? You hear anything yet?"
Harper shook his head as he sat. "Nothing more than we already knew. Broken collarbone and possible concussion. How are youdoing?"
Mark leaned back against the small, flat pillow on the examination table. "Me, oh, I'mfine. Just a couple of bruises." He turned his head to look at Frank. "I mighta jammed my shoulder a little, but no big deal. They're getting a release form signed and I'm done."
"Just bruised, contused and confused, huh?" said Harper with a grin.
McCormick lay there stony-faced.
"Mark, he'll be okay. They're always a little fussy about concussions, you know that." The lieutenant grinned again. "You've had enough of 'em yourself to know the drill. They'll want to keep him for observation, run some tests, then he'll be home crabbing at you for not getting the leaves out of the pool."
"Yeah, yeah," said McCormick wearily. "I just want to hear it from the doctor. No offense, Frank," he added hastily.
"Yeah, I don't even looklike a doctor, much less play one on TV." Harper passed a hand over his receding hairline. "They're still checking out the guy you hit, too. No new word on him, either."
Mark glared at Harper. "I didn'thit him! He jumped out in front of me and I braked and swerved and missed him!" He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them to stare at the ceiling. "Frank, I swear I'll make a formal report as soon as I'm outta here, okay? But I'm telling you now, for the record, that the guy jumped out from between two parked cars and I never touched him, so what the hell he's doing in a hospital, claiming some kinda back injuries, is beyond me."
Harper pursed his lips and looked at his friend thoughtfully. "Really? You never heard of this kinda stuff? Guys who cause accidents so they can get a big insurance settlement? Usually there's a crooked lawyer involved in it, too, though it looks like this guy was working with just a couple of pals."
McCormick had raised himself onto his elbows. "Are you serious? He coulda been killed. We allcoulda been killed. Hardcastle hit the damned dashboard, he coulda gone through the windshield, and you're telling me this guy did it on purpose?"
A nurse peeped around the door to see if the shouting meant the call-button wasn't working. Harper waved her back out with a smile, then turned a serious face back to McCormick.
"Mark, listen to me. There's a ring of these guys specializing in fake accidents. They make a good living from insurance companies who'd rather cough up a substantial settlement than face a guy in a cast in a courtroom and pay a buncha lawyers to argue it out." He stood up and started to pace restlessly. "We think this is an independent. All he's got for witnesses are two buddies of his who, for some reason, just happened to be standing on the sidewalk when he did his act. Now, what we need from you, and Milt, is testimony that he --" Harper held up one finger, "appeared from between two legally parked cars, and --" he extended a second finger, "he never made contact with the Coyote."
"You got it," said McCormick grimly. "In fact, you can check the hood for prints, or dings, or scratches because there aren't any. And the headlights, too. Frank, I never touchedhim." He looked away. "That's why . . ."
Harper waited a moment, then prodded, "That's why what?"
"That's why you swerved and missed him?"
"Yeah. Look, Frank," McCormick hauled himself to a sitting position, "you think you could check on the judge again?"
The lieutenant sighed, then smiled. "Sure. The doctors are probably bored stiff right now and want somebody to interrupt them and ask them the same old questions all over again. You bet." He went into the hallway, closed the door softly behind him and muttered, "What?"
"Just do what the doctors told you, Judge." Mark carefully closed the passenger door of the truck. "You got your pills?"
"I don't need the damn pills. Just get in the truck and let's go." Judge Hardcastle settled himself uncomfortably, adjusting the sling on his right arm with distaste. "Come on, McCormick! Let's get moving! I've had enough of this place." He grunted as he tried to fasten the seatbelt one-handed.
McCormick reached across to help, saying, "Well, I'm sure they've had enough of you, too. That okay? Pills in your pocket?"
"Yeah, yeah, everything's hunky-dory, can you just start the damn truck andgo?" Hardcastle tugged at the edge of the sling and continued to grumble as the truck pulled out of the parking lot. "I don't need this damn thing and I don't need the damn pills and I sure as hell don't need you fussing all over me."
"The sling is so you won't forget and use that arm for a couple of days, Judge, as you know very well since the doctor had to spend twenty minutes talking you into it." Mark glanced over at him, still fidgeting with the sling. "Now leave it alone and I may let you take it off after dinner."
The judge grunted at him, but left the sling alone.
"How's your head feel?" McCormick asked as he turned left onto the Pacific Coast Highway.
"Okay. Maybe a little sore just at that spot." Hardcastle turned a bit to look directly at Mark. "So how come I haven't been asked for a statement yet? They waiting for me back at the estate?"
"Nah." McCormick shook his head slightly. "I gave them all they needed to get moving. Frank said he'd stop by maybe tomorrow and --"
"Stop by? I'm not some kinda invalid!" The judge scowled fiercely. "Take a right up here and head back into town. I can give a statement with a sling on and there's nothing wrong with my head!"
"Judge, it's not necessary," said Mark calmly, checking his rearview mirror, then moving into the fast lane. "They've got what they need to get the investigation started; they've got my statement, they're checking the neighborhood for witnesses, they've got the Coyote in for a microscopic examination --"
"Hold it." Hardcastle held up his left hand. "Frank filled me in on what they're doing, and that's standard procedure. But --" he lowered the hand and used it to point a finger at himself, "it'salsostandard procedure to get a report from any individual involved in the incident, and that includes me. Now, what --"
"'Individual involved in the incident'," said McCormick. "You got a real way with words, Judge."
"Not up to your usual level of distraction, kiddo. What's going on?" Hardcastle assumed an expression of the utmost reasonability and waited.
Mark sighed, flipped the left turn signal and pulled the truck slowly into the driveway and on under the arch. "Frank did say he wanted to talk to you, but it could wait until you'd been home a day or so, okay? Look, Hardcase, you've been in an accident and you just spent the night in a hospital. Do you think you could maybe hold off for a few more hours on the report-filing and the bad-guy chasing and the whole Lone Ranger routine? Huh?" He pulled the truck up in front of the steps and hopped out to open the passenger side door.
"I can get it," groused Hardcastle, fumbling at the handle with his left hand.
"So can I," McCormick replied, holding the door with one hand and reaching in to support the judge with the other.
"All right, all right, I can get out by myself." Hardcastle waved the younger man away, then lowered himself carefully to the sidewalk. He stood there and glared at McCormick. "Look. See? I'm fine. Now stop worrying and don't hover."
The judge came into the kitchen just as McCormick took the frying pan off the burner.
"Smells good. What is it?" Hardcastle looked around for the plates, but saw the small table had already been set.
"Green chili omelet." McCormick dished out the omelet and put the frying pan in the sink. He took a pan of potatoes from the oven and divided them between the two plates. "Hash browns on the side."
"Looks great." The judged seated himself and picked up his fork with his left hand, then frowned at it suspiciously. "You fix this stuff on purpose because it's easy to eat with one hand?"
Mark poured two cups of coffee, set them on the table, and sat down opposite Hardcastle. "I fixed it because it was fast and we had eggs to use up. You get hold of Frank?"
"Yep. He said he's got a statement from the alleged victim and he's already talked to our insurance agent about what's going on and they may . . . mayhave a witness that'll testify the guy never touched the Coyote." The judge sampled the omelet and raised his eyebrows. "Mighty good."
Mark shrugged off the compliment. "Who is it, one of the people who live around there?"
Hardcastle nodded and ate hash browns. When he had most of the bite down, he answered, "A woman who spends most of her time looking out her living room window." He took a sip of coffee. "Says she likes to 'watch the world go by'. Huh." He scooped up another forkful of potatoes. "Guess it beats watching soap operas all day. Frank's gonna stop by this afternoon for my statement."
"Yeah, that's great," McCormick said absently. "Did you take one of those pain pills before you left the hospital?"
The judge looked at him sternly. "You're hovering. Eat your lunch."
"I am, I am." Mark pushed a few shreds of potato around for a moment, then said, "But it wouldn't hurt you to take it easy for a couple of days, you know. And we are notgoing to investigate this. I'm one of the parties involved and it would look really great for a defense attorney to go before a judge and tell him I was stalking his client before the trial."
"I never said we would get into this," said Hardcastle calmly. He ate another bite of omelet before continuing. "We'll let the cops handle the whole thing. Frank seems to have a pretty good handle on it already and the department's been wanting to nail some of these guys for a couple of years now, ya know." He looked at Mark's nearly-full plate. "What's the matter with you?"
"Huh? Nothing." McCormick took an enormous forkful of hash browns. "See, I'm eating."
The judge squinted at him closely. "Wait a minute. You got banged up a little, too, didn't ya? Are you okay?"
"Judge,Iamfine. You're the one that almost --" Mark broke off abruptly. "Look, I gotta get going if Frank's coming over this afternoon. I 've got groceries to buy and fertilizer for the roses and . . . and all kinds of stuff. You leave those dishes alone, you hear me? I'll clean up when I get back." He put his plate and coffee mug in the sink and headed out the back door.
Hardcastle was staring after him when Mark poked his head back in the door to say, "And don't you dare doanything, you got that? Go take a nap!" and was gone.
"Looks like we got a pretty solid case on this one, Milt." Harper leaned back in the armchair at the end of the desk in the den and smiled contentedly. "Mrs. Sanchez is willing to testify that Mark's car never touched Herndon, and that he and his brothers had been hanging around on the sidewalk for at least forty-five minutes before you came along." He lifted his eyebrows significantly at Hardcastle. "You realize they were waiting for a car that looked like money, don't you?"
The judge snorted. "Hah. Then we come along in a hot red sports car and they think they've hit the jackpot."
"Yep. If it wasn't for Mark's racing background, they might've pulled it off, too. They just weren't counting on a driver with his reflexes and experience."
"Yeah, Frank, speaking of McCormick . . . is he okay?" Hardcastle rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "They told me at the hospital that he was just shaken up a bit, but he's acting kinda . . . I dunno, weird. Like something's bugging him."
The lieutenant nodded slowly. "I know what you mean. Like he's not paying attention, thinking about something else all the time, right?"
"Right. Abstracted, that's the word." The judge shifted slightly in his chair to favor his right side. "If I didn't know better, I'd say he was feeling guilty about something."
"About the accident? Come on, Milt, no way!" Harper shook his head. "Not even Mark could blame himself for some jerk jumping out in front of him like that."
Hardcastle cocked his head and screwed up his face. "I don't know. The boy's world-class at blaming himself. Seems sometimes like he --" The judge listened intently for a second, then grabbed for the sling he'd removed earlier. "He's back. Now you never saw me take this off, okay?"
"Accessory before and after the fact on that one, Milt," grinned Frank. "I gotta get home anyway. We'll keep you informed on this, but right now it doesn't look like we'll have too much trouble getting a confession from these bozos."
"Yeah, thanks for coming by, Frank. I appreciate it." The judge waved him up the steps as the front door slammed.
Harper and McCormick exchanged greetings, brief inquiries and goodbyes in the hallway, then McCormick peered into the den and said, "How long did you have the sling off?"
"Aw, Frank never told you that!"
"Judge, I knowyou."
Hardcastle got out of his chair carefully and followed the younger man down the hall to the kitchen.
"Okay, just for a few minutes. Frank was here to catch me if I passed out from the pain, all right?" he groused.
"I'm just trying to get you to follow doctors' orders, Judge." Mark proceeded to unpack the two bags of groceries he'd lugged in. "Why don't you sit down and I'll get you something cold to drink?"
Judge Hardcastle's only response was to stand directly in front of the refrigerator and glower.
"Fine. I'll just put the meat over here. We're having beef stroganoff tonight and it can marinate at room temperature." McCormick took the other items from the paper bags and lined them up on the counter.
"Beef stroganoff? I thought you said that was too much trouble to make again." The judge bent a penetrating gaze on McCormick and nodded. "Ah-ha. I knewit. You're making beef stroganoff because it's one of my favorites and you're trying to be nice because you feel guilty about me breaking my collarbone because some criminal jumped in front of your car!"
"That's not true, Judge," said Mark quietly.
"Oh, yeah? You've been tiptoeing around here, hovering, telling me to rest and not eating anything and now you're letting me yell at you without yelling back and you're telling me you don't feel guilty? Hah! You said you know me, McCormick; well, I know youpretty damn well, too, and youfeelguilty!"
"No, I don't!" Mark shouted back. He turned away with a goaded expression on his face. "Not about that, anyway," he added in a lower tone.
"Well, then what?" asked the judge peaceably.
McCormick rubbed his forehead with one hand and sighed. "If I tell you will you at least sit down? You just got out of the hospital, Judge, and . . . and you could've been killed and it would've been my fault."
Hardcastle sat slowly, looking puzzled. "Okay, you're gonna have to spell that one out for me."
Mark pulled out the chair opposite and sat. In a weary voice, he said, "You haven't seen the Coyote, have you? You put a dent in the dashboard where you hit. Another couple of inches and it would've been the windshield, instead. You'd probably have gone right through."
The judge thought about that for a moment. "Okay, and I cracked my collarbone because I had my arm braced on the doorframe. How is any of that your fault?"
"I'm a professional driver, Judge. Or, at least, I was." McCormick was completely expressionless. "I hit the brakes and you hit the dash."
"Yeah, but . . . I don't get it, kiddo. You did what anybody else would've done, but faster, right? I mean, that's how come we got these clowns." Hardcastle was clearly still puzzled.
"No, I did what anybody else would've done, but it was the wrong thing to do." Mark closed his eyes briefly. "Don't you get it? Everybody slams on the brakes; it's instinctive. But I should'veknownbetter. I'm supposed to be able to thinkin situations like those. It's what I was trained to do." He rubbed at his forehead again and added disgustedly, "But it all came down to reflexes, didn't it?"
The judge sat silently, trying to figure out the ramifications of not braking. "Hold it." He blinked, then blinked again. "You're saying the right thing to do was to run over the guy?"
"I knew what would happen if I braked and swerved at that speed. I knew we'd hit, hard, and I did it anyway." Mark looked at the judge unhappily.
"I don't believe this. I just do notbelieve it. I mean, I told Frank you could blame yourself for anything, but this . . . this is just nuts." Hardcastle shook his head emphatically. "No way. Not in any conceivable way, form, shape, whatever can you possibly be blaming yourself for this. No!"
McCormick smiled unhappily. "You always say you don't get into the Coyote, you put it on. There's just not enough passenger space inside to allow for an uncontrolled brake."
The judge took a deep breath, then paused and took another. "Listen. I understand that you're feeling bad because I got hurt. That's okay, that's understandable and I appreciate it. But you can't blame yourself for being human. And that's all it was. All that training stuff and racing background and experience and all . . . it doesn't mean you respond differently in an emergency."
"Yes, it does. It should."
"Well, that's a buncha hoo-ha, if you ask me. There's only so much training can accomplish and you did that. You prevented the 'accident' from happening. That's where the training and experience came in. You're only human, McCormick. You can only blame yourself for so much before you start being a martyr." Hardcastle swiped at his nose and half-smiled. "And I'm not real crazy about martyrs, kiddo. They tend to get on my nerves a little."
"Look, Judge, I know what you're trying to do. But you could've been killed, and there's no way in the world that I wouldn't have blamed myself for it. Because I was driving so I was responsible." Mark sighed. "Okay, that guy – Herndon – he's responsible, too. But I knew what the car would do, so what happened was my responsibility."
"Hmm. If we're gonna trade responsibilities, then I'm responsible, too. I mean, I got into the car knowing what kind of driver you are, didn't I?" Hardcastle snorted. "In fact, if you take this back even further, I'm responsible for you driving that car in the first place, and for you being out on parole, but then Martin Cody's responsible for the car existing in the first place, and Herndon's folks are responsible for raising him to be an idiot, so where do we draw the line?"
McCormick rested his elbows on the table between them. "I don't know. All I know is that I feel like you got hurt because . . ."
"Because you didn't want to run down a complete stranger. Think about that for minute, wouldya? You're saying you woulda traded running the guy over to keep me from being hurt, right?" The judge adjusted his sling meaningfully. "So how would you have felt if you'd killed the guy, but I was fine?"
Mark started to answer, then froze.
"So, if I'm happy with the trade-off, how can you bitch about it?" Hardcastle smiled at him sympathetically. "How about we get that meat marinating and have a beer?"
"I need to think about that some more," said McCormick slowly.
"But ya got a sneaking suspicion that I got a point there, don't ya?" The judge rose and went to the fridge, patting Mark on the back as he went by. "Not everything bad that happens is your fault. I know that's hard for you to accept, but work on it, okay?" He opened the refrigerator door awkwardly and stuck his head inside. "Tell ya what, we'll split the responsibility from now on, deal? We'll be responsible for each other."
"What are you doing? Sit back down and let me do that!" Mark stood and grabbed the beer cans from Hardcastle. "You're supposed to be taking it easy." He looked at the judge, then grinned suddenly. "You can supervise while I fix the stroganoff."
The judge sighed. "If I ever heard a straight line . . .".