Disclaimer: These characters are not mine and I make no profit from them
Author's Note: It's set early on, maybe three months. And this was first published in the STAR for Brian 'zine number two.
By L. M. Lewis
They'd spent the day in Cedarville, questioning everyone from the mayor on down about one of their native sons, Martin Dalrymple. Actually, Hardcastle had done most of the questioning, along with a fair amount of cajoling and raconteuring. They'd drunk endless cups of coffee at several diners, and finally hit pay dirt in a sporting goods store on Taylor Street.
A gun had been sold, not to Martin, but to a cousin of his—a guy named Crowell—but Dalrymple had been with him in the store, had even looked the merchandise over himself. The judge seemed pleased at the discovery; though McCormick thought it was a pretty thin thread to hang a murder rap on.
"It's a start," Hardcastle said, standing on the curb outside the store, rocking back on his heels and smiling. "And probably all we're gonna get today."
It was sunset, or would have been, had it not been for the cloud cover moving in from the west. The first drops of rain hit them just as they made it back to the truck.
The rain had turned into sleet by the time they were on the outskirts of town and twilight had turned to night soon after. Hardcastle was behind the wheel as they headed up into the San Bernardinos, with Mark gritting his teeth and trying hard not to make suggestions that would only get him into trouble.
The first one, of course, was impractical, at least at the moment. McCormick had no idea why a recently retired judge, who lived on an estate in Malibu, had to drive around in a rattle-trap of a truck that didn't have a functioning heater, or any hope of ever seeing sixty on the speedometer again.
It was only a matter of time before the thing died, but Mark sincerely hoped that wish wouldn't come true tonight. They were still three hours out of Malibu, but it would be a lot longer on foot.
He watched the sleet turn into fat, wet flakes, batted aside ineffectively by the wipers. He couldn't help himself; it wasn't possible to grit his teeth and bite his tongue at the same time.
"Maybe you should let me drive."
This got him a quick sideward look from the judge—exactly the effect he had hoped it wouldn't have—and a nearly-silent huff. Traffic was light; no one in their right mind would pick a night like this for a casual drive, but, of course, there was one guy behind them, pushing a little harder, the way locals do on roads that are familiar to them.
"I mean," he figured he was already in up to his knees, didn't matter if he dug the hole a little deeper, "I am the professional driver here, right? "
"In case you hadn't noticed, kiddo, this isn't a race track."
"Besides," McCormick ignored him and forged ahead in his argument, "you pull over and it'll give this yo-yo behind us a chance to go around. Get the damn headlights out of our mirror."
He saw the judge cast another quick glance, this time up to the rearview mirror with a grimace of annoyance. "He oughta just go around if he's in such a hurry."
"On this road?" Mark leaned forward and peered out the window at the next switchback ahead. "He'd have to be nuts."
"Well, then he'll just have to wait until we hit another straight-away. I'm not pushing this any faster."
Mark had opened his mouth again, to say something that probably would have included 'donkeys' and 'stubborn', when there was a loud noise and something rattled them hard enough to jar his teeth.
He had time for one quick, random thought, must've been a rock in the road, then things got a little confusing, and they were moving downward steeply with the thwack of branches against the windshield. Mark reached over instinctively for the wheel, though it was obvious that steering was no longer an issue.
Silence. Pretty dark, too, but still enough light to see the outlines of things. His head was resting on something too hard to be a pillow. McCormick pushed away from it slowly—a dashboard, but at a crazy, kiltered angle. The edge of the steering wheel was not far in front of him, though obviously off to his left, and his hand was caught between it and something else.
He heard some mumbling, but the weight shifted off his hand as the man leaned back.
Mark pulled his hand free, ignoring the sharp pain. He shook his head, trying to clear it, decided that was a mistake, and then said, "You okay?"
"Ah . . ."
At least it wasn't just a mumble this time. It was too dark to see what the damage was. Though there was still some light from the headlights, it seemed to be muted, as though they were up against something. The switchback road, the drop-off—Mark reassembled the pieces slowly.
"We hit something?" he asked it out loud, but didn't get an answer. No, something hit us. The headlights that had been blazing behind them since they left town were gone now. "I think we got run off the road," he said in quiet indignation. This time there was a little more mumbling—something about a flashlight.
"Oh," Mark muttered, then tried to push back further so he could get at the glove compartment. It was jammed, and it took a little doing to get it open. He finally succeeded. More fumbling before he managed to fish the flashlight out, one-handed, and got it turned on. "Ow."
"Well, don't shine it right in your eyes," Hardcastle reached over slowly and took it from him. "What's the matter with you?"
"Messed up my hand," McCormick eased himself back down against the dash and closed his eyes. The flashlight was shining on him again, still painfully bright. "Hey," he protested.
"You got a lump on your forehead." Hardcastle's voice was sharper now. "Open your eyes."
"Get it outta my face." He reached out to push the flashlight away, realizing a second too late that it was his bad hand. He cussed once, then squinted his eyes open. "There," he said, with more than a hint of annoyance. "Now will you point that damn thing somewhere else?"
The judge seemed temporarily satisfied, maybe more with his protest than his appearance. He lowered the light but he didn't seem to be making any other quick moves.
"You okay?" Mark asked tentatively. He half turned, and fumbled for the light again, this time with his right hand.
He took it, pointing it a little forward of where the judge had settled, wedged half-sideways against the driver's door—no blood, at least, and the only visible damage was a bruise to his right cheek. But there was a stoic set to the man's face, and he was staying rigidly propped up where he was.
"What's the damage?" Mark asked in an unequivocal way that let the donkey know he wasn't going to get away with anything.
"Ah," Hardcastle didn't bother to shrug, "My knee. Must've smacked it under the dash." Mark dropped the beam down; not much to see there, except that the judge wasn't moving it.
"And?" he asked pointedly.
"Oh," Hardcastle seemed to be giving this more consideration than it ought to have needed. "Might've stove a rib or two. Maybe just bruised, though."
Mark didn't like the term 'stove'. It sounded more serious than merely cracked, and he'd kind of gotten the impression that Hardcastle wasn't given to exaggeration. But the guy was breathing and making sense, so he let it be for a moment.
He turned to gaze out the windshield. The wipers had stopped in mid-swipe, jammed against branches. Snow was starting to fill in the few remaining bare spots.
"So where are we?"
"Over the side, off the road. That idiot rear-ended us."
"I know that," Mark said impatiently. "How far off the road? How far down?" He paused worriedly. The vehicle hadn't shifted since they'd settled here, at least not that he'd been aware of, but the angle was troubling. He noticed he hadn't gotten any immediate answer from Hardcastle.
"Hold this a sec." He passed the flashlight back over and braced his feet on the floorboards, turning to his right and reaching for the door handle.
"Whaddaya think you're doing?" the judge asked.
"Taking a look . . . there." He got the door open a few inches; nothing appeared to be obstructing it. "Now, gimme the light back."
Hardcastle held it out, but wasn't apparently able to lean forward. Mark unzipped his own jacket partway, tucked his left hand inside, and reached back for the flashlight, trying to make it look like it was all pretty easy.
"Be careful," Hardcastle said.
"I won't drop it."
"No, I mean you be careful. You don't know how far down it is out there and I don't think your head's screwed on too straight yet."
"I'm just looking." He got his left knee wedged against the door, leaving his hand tucked in. He flicked the flashlight back on, getting a good grip on it before he pointed it out and down.
The drop-off was steep, but not quite a cliff—he figured maybe forty-five degrees right at this point. How much further down it went was a mystery, but Mark thought that seeing the tops of the trees, out at eye level not far beyond where they were, was a bad sign.
There were two pines a little forward of them, their branches twisted up against the windshield and the front bumper wedged, solidly he hoped, against their trunks. He studied them silently. It didn't appear that either one alone would have been sufficient to stop their descent. And there weren't any other trees to their left or right.
He looked back over his shoulder at the older man and said, "We got lucky."
Hardcastle grunted doubtfully. "How far back up?"
"Oh," Mark turned the flashlight back out onto the slope, casting the beam up into the swirling flakes. It was a little steeper than forty-five degrees in the upward direction, and the snow was starting to stick to the few projecting rocks, but the rim was still within the reach of the beam. "'Bout twenty feet, give or take." He tried to make that sound like a nonchalant estimate.
He twisted back, facing forward, and put the flashlight carefully between his knees before pulling the door shut. He checked his watch, shook it, frowned, and then said, "You know what time it is?"
"A little after seven," Hardcastle said glumly. "Whaddaya think? Can they see the headlights from the road?"
Mark considered that question for a bit. "Pointing down," he finally said, "against a tree, and they'll all have their headlights on, too . . . not assuming there's going to be a whole lot of thems to not see us." He sighed. "But the guy who hit us knows we're down here."
"He rammed us," Hardcastle said a little sullenly.
"I think it was on purpose."
"Or maybe he just tapped us and you hit the brakes," Mark suggested. "It's a reflex."
"Rammed. Intentional. He followed us all the way out of town." Hardcastle frowned. "How far do you think we came?"
"Oh, five miles, tops," Mark lied easily, then tried to get more comfortable, leaning against the door instead of the forward-angled seat. "An hour and a half's walk." He let that one hang there for a moment, while he watched Hardcase study it with growing disbelief. He worked it a little further, "Go talk to the sheriff, get a tow truck. Get your ribs checked out."
"And your hand," Hardcastle said pointedly.
"Just bruised." Mark left it tucked in. "How's your knee?"
"Sprained." The judge frowned. "Might not be up to a climb, though."
"Well," McCormick said with a casual tone that was a shade too studied, "No reason for both of us to go. You can stay here and make sure no one steals the truck."
Hardcastle snorted. Mark saw him reach for the left side of his ribs and wince.
"Sorry," he said, "shouldn't be making you laugh."
Hardcase squinted at him, or maybe past him, out into the increasingly snowy night. Then he let out a slow, cautious sigh, and said, "There's not all that much to laugh about."
"Yeah, well," Mark shrugged again, "I like a challenging audience." Then he frowned again and added, "You really think he rammed us? Not like, maybe you braked going into the turn and he didn't?"
This got him a silent shake of the head from the older man.
Mark reached over with his right hand and killed the headlights. Then he flicked off the flashlight as well. In the nervous darkness he said, "Maybe that guy Crowell, huh? You think he'll be back?"
"Probably not," Hardcastle said firmly. "It was a dumb move anyway, even if we'd gone all the way to the bottom. We talked to a helluva lot of people back in that town today and everybody knows what we were talking about."
"Well," Mark said quietly, "the only really important one was the guy who owns the sporting goods place. If it weren't for what he knows, this could just be an accident. You think now that Crowell figures he got us, he'll head back there? Try and take him out, too?"
"He won't have to turn around. I got the store keeper's address and number for the LAPD. It's off this road, further up. Bet Crowell knows that, too. It's a small town."
"So that's why he kept going; he's gonna ambush him, maybe?" McCormick frowned.
"Another accident, most likely."
Mark ran his fingers through his hair, then turned again and reached for the door handle.
"Wait a sec," the judge interrupted the motion. "You really think you can get up there?"
"I dunno, but I guess I better try."
"And then what?"
"I'll flag down the first person who goes by."
"And if it's Crowell, heading back?" Hardcastle said impatiently. "You better take the gun. It's behind the seat over here."
"What do you want me to do, shoot him?" Mark said. "I don't even know what he looks like. I don't know what his truck looks like. I might recognize the front headlights, that's about it." He shut his eyes tight for a moment, then opened them. "A Chevy, maybe, but I wouldn't bet money on it."
"Listen, hotshot," Hardcastle said grimly, "here's what you do. You take the gun, you head back toward town. You flag down the first car you see. If it's the guy from the store, great, you're halfway home; if it's somebody else, you pull that old McCormick charm on 'em, the stuff you're always flinging at me."
"And they'll take one look at a banged-up guy with a gun and believe every word I say," Mark snorted. "The gun should stay here. What the hell am I gonna do with it?" He'd wound down to a mutter, the door already open and one foot out.
He stepped out, sank down almost to his knees, and got himself back up, looking chagrined. Then he reached in, behind the seat, giving the momentary impression that he'd had a change of heart.
"Here," he said, pulling it out by the tangle of straps that were wrapped around the holster. He pushed it across the seat. "You hang onto this."
"I don't need it."
"You might," Mark said grimly. "If he runs into me walking down the road, it won't take him long to figure out that you might have made it, too."
Mark briefly regretted the use of the unfortunate term 'runs into', but he didn't give the old donkey a chance to raise further objections before he shut the door firmly and reached for the next rock up to steady himself.
Truth was, he'd tried to draw this line in the sand before—that he was better with cars than guns. Not to mention the simple matter of parole violations; he was fairly certain that if he ever did wind up shooting someone, even in self-defense, the parole board would have a whole lot of questions to ask.
Better to avoid the temptation entirely, not that he felt very much tempted. He pulled himself up, feeling the dull, throbbing pain in his sheltered hand as he tried to keep his balance. It almost masked the similar pain in his head. He felt something approaching gratitude for the cold flecks of snow on his face and forehead.
He reassured himself. The accident might merely have been an accident after all, and he was pretty sure-footed. He slipped and slid down a yard—well, fairly sure-footed. He got his feet under him, looking over his shoulder to see if Hardcastle had noticed. The truck, less than a tree's-height below the edge of the road, was still clearly in sight, though it would eventually become part of the snowscape.
But they won't find it if they don't know they're supposed to look.
The judge strained, listening for the muffled sounds of McCormick's ascent. There was nothing to hear, and probably wouldn't be, whether there was success or failure. The inside of the truck was chilled and silent, too, only his own breathing, shallow and a little too fast. He got his right foot free from under the dash. The lancinating pain in his knee had dulled to a steady throb that suggested a good wrenching, rather than anything more serious. The ribs, though . . .
He took a slow, slightly-deeper breath and halted, just at the point of sharp pain. He settled back, none too patiently, to wait.
Mark stumbled again when he was nearly to the top, then over-balanced and ended up sprawled in the road. The only saving grace was that he'd managed to keep his left hand buried in his jacket. He gathered himself up slowly, turned, and looked back down the slope. From this vantage, he was relieved to see, it was evident that something had left the road—bushes broken and knocked askew, even if the evidence of the skid disappeared under the snow.
"Told'ja you hit the brakes," Mark muttered righteously. But, most important, he was certain he'd be able to find the spot again.
He considered shouting down to the truck, to let Hardcastle know he'd arrived safely. Problem was, any shouting at this point might be construed as difficulties. McCormick wasn't sure about a lot, but he was pretty sure that if the old donkey thought he'd gotten into trouble, he'd be out of the truck on the double. He shook his head and frowned. His frown deepened as he considered his next step.
The part about it being five miles back to town had been the whitest of white lies, strictly in the interest of esprit de corps. Mark estimated it at closer to seven, maybe eight. And even on a downhill course, which would rapidly become more interesting as the snow accumulated, he doubted that he could get to town in much less than two and a half hours.
He squinted back down through the damaged bushes, then up the road in the direction they'd been heading. Crowell, if it had been him, was up there somewhere. If the store manager had already gotten past, if Crowell finished the job, he might very well come back this way and notice the same spot.
Then he'll stop, and he'll see someone climbed back up. He pulled the flashlight out of his pocket and shined it down. There were impressions on the rocks below; it might be an hour before the snow evened them out. Good thing you left him the gun.
Of course, this was assuming Crowell didn't have a gun of his own.
No, he doesn't have a gun, otherwise why would he have had to help his cousin buy one? It was good reasoning. He liked it. Though he was always suspicious of logic that resulted in answers he liked.
And the store manager might have one. Lots of guys have gun racks in their trucks around here. He might have already been waylaid, taken by surprise. Crowell could have a rifle or a shotgun by now. With something like that . . . he paused. The rest of it was a mental image, with Crowell firing down into the truck on the off chance that there was someone there who still needed killing.
And you'd be two miles down the road, heading for town.
He stood there in frozen indecision. Worse yet, frozen was becoming a little too literal. His pants and shoes had gotten thoroughly soaked from the slips in the snow, and the jacket he had on was more suited to lowland weather. He figured he'd be all right as long as he kept moving.
And with that imperative in mind, he turned and headed further up the road. The impulse had already carried him about twenty steps before the question caught up with him. And what are you gonna do if you find him? Another frown, but he didn't stop walking.
He thought McCormick would have probably hollered down once he'd made it up to the road. The silence was more than discouraging; it had taken on an air of the ominous. He sat, still half-turned with his leg up on the seat. He thought maybe he'd just take a look out there, see what he could see. Couldn't hurt. Not much anyway. It wasn't that he didn't think McCormick had enough gumption; it was just that he'd seen the kid trip over a flower pot on a sunny day with otherwise level footing.
He took the gun from its holster and stuffed it into the waist of his pants. Getting into the holster straps seemed more effort than he was up to right then. He eased across the seat toward the passenger door, trying not to bend his right knee. He managed to get the door open, then edged halfway out, looking into the swirl of snow.
Not much to be seen in either direction. He saw one spot, not very far up, where Mark had obviously lost traction and plowed all the way to the dirt line, but it looked like he hadn't lost more then a few feet that time.
He considered hollering, but he supposed if he did that, and McCormick actually had made it some ways down the road, that would bring him back in an all-fired hurry to see what was wrong. The kid worried too much.
But, it was pretty clear he wasn't going to get any answers from where he was sitting.
Mark paused to get his bearings. It was an uphill trudge, planting each foot carefully and minding his one-armed balance. So far, though, he'd encountered no traffic. Now he was almost to the next switchback, and though he saw no headlights shining past the curve, native caution asserted itself.
He edged up to it, close to the inner side of the road, along a rock face that rose from that side. It wasn't sheer; there were stepwise projections that he could scramble up, if need be.
He eased a look around the point projecting out furthest into the sharp curve of the road. It stretched on, rising higher, with another switchback a few hundred yards ahead. There was nothing else to see at first, but standing silently, he became gradually aware of the distant sound of an engine.
He was holding his breath. He would guess, from the timbre of it, that it was a truck, moving slowly, but not with a low-gear, upward strain. He wasn't quite good enough to tag it as a Chevy, but he had suspicions that he'd find out soon enough.
He caught a glimmering of light, seen indirectly from a spot past the next couple of curves in the road. Now what?
He climbed hastily, up off the roadway, and sat down, panting, considering his options. From his new sightline he could see it now—a pick-up, decades younger then that heap of the judge's. He couldn't make much more out at that distance, except that it was moving at a crawl and an uneven shape was visible at the driver's window.
He would have guessed it was rolled down, and the driver was leaning partway out, studying the road just ahead or maybe the shoulder. There was nothing in the weather that demanded that much caution. It was obvious that he was searching for something.
McCormick looked around at his small ledge and quickly found what he wanted. Then he stood up, bracing himself against the cliff behind him, suddenly aware of the height and feeling slightly dizzy.
He took a few breaths. It was a slow-moving target and he'd have the benefit of gravity, which was good, because he hadn't had that much pitching practice since he'd left Quentin, and he'd never been in the ten-pound-rock league. He was beginning to find the wait annoying, but he didn't want to throw prematurely and lose the vital element of surprise.
It was in clear view now, just at the turn. He heaved his missile almost gently, letting it drop nearly straight down. He heard a metal thud, not glass shattering, but it was satisfyingly loud and followed by a shout of surprise. The truck wasn't moving anymore. He doubted that he'd incapacitated it, though he glimpsed it directly below him now. The rock had struck just ahead of the windshield, leaving a sizable indentation in the hood.
The driver was out, studying it and then looking up, nervously. Mark tried to decide if he looked like a Crowell. Hard to say, but he acted like he wasn't sure if it had been an accident or an attack.
Good, keep guessing. He had an urge to drop one more rock, but he wasn't willing to aim for the guy, and he doubted that he could render the truck undrivable. Besides, a second one would remove the uncertainty.
But it would also get his attention. He saw the man below shake his head once, and start to open the driver's side door again, as if he'd made up his mind to move on. None of that. He hefted another rock and let it fall. This time it struck the roof of the cab—a higher tone with more resonance. The thing bounced once and landed on the road. The guy had jumped back as well, with a string of cusses that carried up into the night.
But this didn't stop him for long. A moment later he was back at the side of the truck, its door still open. He leaned in briefly and then stepped back again, now with something in his right hand.
It wasn't a rifle, just a hand gun. Mark supposed he ought to be grateful for that. He edged a little further back on the ledge, trying to stay out of sight. He still had the high ground, but it had to be fairly obvious to the guy below that his mysterious assailant had brought rocks to a gun fight.
McCormick looked up and behind where he was standing. It wasn't promising. Maybe another rock; maybe he'd get lucky. He picked up a suitable one and leaned forward again.
The guy was gone.
He peered out further. The truck was still there but with no sign of its owner. Maybe he was circling around, looking for higher ground still—some place from which he could pick him off. Mark studied the dark cliffs above him and shivered. Even if the guy didn't manage that, another twenty minutes of standing still, up in the cold, and he wouldn't be in any condition to climb down.
He crept back to the edge, lowering himself to the next flat spot, and then picked his way back down. It was slow going and his good hand wasn't so good anymore—almost numb—but he hadn't seen any more movement below. He was starting to harbor some hope that he might make it as far as the truck undetected.
Back on the roadway, he let out a nearly-silent breath and studied the damaged vehicle. It was a Chevy, he was idly pleased to note, and it looked still drivable. He was circling around to the driver's side when a low and aggravated voice said, "Hold it right there. Hands out where I can see 'em and turn around real slow."
He started to comply, but had some trouble getting his left hand loose from the jacket. The guy stepped out suddenly from the shadows down the road, cussed again, and let off a shot—a sharp crack in the night air and a smattering of rock dust from the wall alongside Mark's head. He jerked aside and yelped, his hand coming free.
"Now we're even for the damn rocks," the guy sneered. "Where's the old guy?—the one that was askin' all the damn questions."
"Dead," Mark said flatly, not expecting he'd be believed, but willing to give it a try until he could come up with something better.
"This is a SIG," the guy gestured casually with what he had in his right hand, "I got nine rounds left. I can afford to waste a couple on your knees."
McCormick sighed heavily. "What, as long as you have a kill shot left, right? What kind of argument is that?" He shook his head sadly. "I dunno, all he had on you a couple of hours ago was that maybe you bought a gun that maybe got used by another guy in a murder in another county. Now it's driving too fast for conditions and negligent homicide, and next you want to go for murder one. You're just too damn ambitious for your own good."
Mark tried to keep his stance loose. Crowell was giving him a puzzled look, which was better than pulling the trigger, and it appeared that, at least temporarily, he'd forgotten what question he'd been asking. But it was only a matter of time before he waded through all those new arguments and got back to the crux of the matter, and he still had nine rounds.
McCormick, on the other hand, was completely out of ideas.
"And I only have six rounds." A sudden and crusty voice from out of the deeper shadows interrupted their impasse. "So I'll just have to put the first one right in the middle of your back."
Mark saw Crowell startle at the first words. It almost seemed as if he might pull the trigger then and there, but instead he started to turn. Hardcastle stepped out, to where he and his own weapon could be clearly seen, and, McCormick was pleased to note, changed the angle of fire so as not to include Tonto.
"You're gonna wanna drop that," the judge added with a fair amount of assurance, before Crowell could even complete his move and bring his gun to bear again. "Drop it and kick it away," he added, impatiently. "McCormick's right, so far you've at least left your lawyer something to work with. Give the D.A. what he needs on your cousin and you might do all right."
Mark thought the guy was hesitating, but personal safety apparently had taken a lead over loyalty. Crowell's hand slowly dropped to his side, the gun falling with a muted clatter to the ground. McCormick felt himself sagging with relief and wondered if all this adrenalin could really be any good for a person.
Hardcastle hobbled up. He was close enough now so that Mark could see the almost shark-like grin that had apparently convinced Crowell that he'd meant business.
"I'm glad I brought these."
He was fishing something out of his other pocket. He skirted Crowell and worked his way around to where McCormick was still standing.
"You wanna hold the gun for a sec or can you work them one-handed?" He held up a set of cuffs.
"Those," Mark reached for the cuffs, "really." Then he looked the older man over. "And how'd you get up to the road?"
"Slowly." Hardcastle said it with some emphasis, then added lightly, "I got tired of waiting."
Mark looked at him, puzzled. "I wasn't gone that long. You didn't even last five minutes, I'll bet."
The judge shrugged. It was pretty evident that he wasn't going to let any money change hands on that one. Then he changed the subject with a sharp grunt. "And next time, take the damn gun."
"Hah." Mark grinned. "Next time, let me drive."