Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction for entertainment purposes only. The characters and concepts of Hardcastle & McCormick do not belong to me, but to their creators.

Author's Notes: As Arthur Farnell once said, "Busted is not convicted." After the dust has settled, there are still a few more steps before justice is completely served, and that can get tricky when you've got an ex-convict on the State's witness list. I offer many, many thanks to L.M. Lewis, who provided this plot bunny, title and all. Now that's what I call service.

Several aired episodes are referenced; they are: Rolling Thunder, School for Scandal, You and the Horse You Rode In On, If You Could See What I See, and, A Chip Off the Ol' Milt.

And, as always, many thanks to the faithful betas who catch my typos, offer up encouragement, and basically keep me balanced.

Expert Witness



"Whatta ya mean, they're not gonna use me?"

Hardcastle looked across the room at the figure now sitting a little straighter in the chair. The surprised anger on the kid's face made him realize that he should've broken this news a long time ago; it's not like he hadn't known it was coming. Of course, two months ago, when they were wrapping up their first case together, who could've predicted that he was going to give a damn what Mark McCormick thought, one way or the other?

"It isn't necessary," the judge answered matter-of-factly, hoping to maybe get out of this conversation with just the bare facts. "Vetromile's information has opened a lot of doors for them, and they've got their bases covered. It's a solid case; don't worry."

McCormick leaned forward in his chair. "But I want to testify," he insisted. "I want to help put Cody behind bars."

"You did help," Hardcastle replied, his own insistence softened with an unusual gentleness. "You risked everything to make this happen. Without you, Cody would've gotten away with it. You've done your part; let the DA do theirs."

The younger man wouldn't be appeased. "But surely it's better with more witnesses? He sent his goons after me; I can talk about that."

"No, that wouldn't help. You—"

"Why not?"

And the simple question was filled with such confusion that Hardcastle had no choice but to answer truthfully.

"You'd be a risky witness, kid," he said slowly. "You've got a lot of history, and defense attorneys have a field day with people with history."

The confusion on McCormick's face was slowly being replaced with anger. "History?" he repeated. "You mean I've got a record. So what? Doesn't mean I can't tell the truth about what happened. And, besides, most of my 'history' is completely bogus, anyway. It sure as hell doesn't mean I can't be trusted."

"I didn't say—"

"And you," McCormick interrupted forcefully, rising from his chair, "you know I didn't belong in Quentin." He jabbed a finger angrily toward the other man. "You need to fix this. Talk to the DA. You tell him to put me on the stand." His eyes bored into Hardcastle's. "You tell him he can trust me."

"McCormick . . ." Hardcastle trailed off, suddenly unsure just what to say.

McCormick had crossed the room to lean heavily on the desk, still glaring at the judge. "I can do this, Hardcastle," he insisted.

Somehow, the judge hadn't expected the kid to take this quite so personally. "It isn't about trust," he assured the younger man, "and it isn't even really about your past. It's about legal games and the way the defense would twist your past. A decent attorney doesn't need much to create reasonable doubt." He looked sincerely across the desk.

"So which is more important? Your testimony, or Cody's conviction?"

After a moment of tense silence, a long breath hissed out through clenched teeth. "All right," McCormick replied, "you've made your point. And I suppose I should be glad to know where I stand."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Hardcastle huffed, even though he hadn't intended to add to the hostility in the room.

"Seems pretty clear to me, Judge. Looks like I'm good enough to go out and round up these guys, be a target when I have to be, and deliver them all wrapped up like some kinda friggin' present, but not good enough to stand up in public and be heard. Yeah, I can see where no one would think that's a problem." He turned and started toward the door.

"Where're you goin'?" Hardcastle demanded.

"I've got hedges to trim," McCormick answered shortly, not slowing his step.

"Now? You're gonna do hedges now? And we're just done with this? You don't even wanna talk it out?"

McCormick stopped on the landing and turned back briefly. "There isn't anything to talk about, Hardcastle. Your system works by keeping everyone in their place; it's my own fault for forgetting that." He turned away again. "And besides," he added loudly from the entryway, "the last time I checked, the hedges were a condition of my parole." And then the door slammed as a final punctuation to his comments.

Pulling a hand across his face, Hardcastle slumped down in his chair and hoped that two months worth of progress hadn't just been wiped out in a five minute tirade.

And, he couldn't help but wonder how he was gonna deal with this situation next time.


McCormick sat silently, doing his best to look casual about the whole thing, and hoping that no one would notice how forced his casualness really was. He let his eyes wander the courtroom just a little bit—casually, he thought—but he carefully avoided Hardcastle's gaze, having no desire to deal with 'I told you so' right now. But he knew he'd have to deal with it eventually, and honestly, he thought maybe the old donkey would be entitled to just a little bit of gloating.

The District Attorney's office had managed to keep him off the witness list for close to nine months now; case after case, they had thanked him for his help, but never put him on the stand. And, really, except for the Cody case, McCormick hadn't particularly cared. But he had thought they were all being overly cautious. It wasn't like he was a mass murderer, or anything, and it had sort of rankled that they had been so certain his past indiscretions were more important than whatever he was doing currently to help the good guys. But as he sat silently, waiting for the sidebar conversation at the bench to finish, he understood that they had been right all along.

They had decided months ago that he would have to testify against Arthur Farnell; for once, the case would be weaker without him than with him. And while the defense had spent week after week delaying the trial, Hardcastle and the DA had spent the time prepping him for the cross-examination. Even on the way to the courthouse this morning, the judge had been repeating his instructions one last time. McCormick heard the litany in his mind: Tell the truth, but don't answer more than you're asked; if they ask you anything personal, wait for the objection; and for God's sake, don't be a smart ass.

He almost grinned at the memory. That last bit of advice had been pure Hardcastle. But it had been harder to follow than he would've anticipated. The defense attorney, Weatherby, had been relentless in his thinly veiled comments about honesty and integrity, and the lack thereof in so much of society today. But he hadn't made any direct accusations, just let his sarcastic innuendos carry him through, and McCormick had had to work hard at keeping his own tongue in check. But other than an objection or two from the DA to keep Weatherby from proselytizing too much, there hadn't been much that could be done, and McCormick had simply had to force his way through it.

But finally, Weatherby had stopped tap dancing around the subject and blurted, "Did you or did you not steal a car while you were supposedly working in this undercover capacity?"

McCormick hadn't had to wait long, as the objection had been quick, and strenuous, and had led to the ongoing sidebar. But the conversation seemed to be winding down, and Weatherby was looking particularly pleased with himself, so it seemed the question was going to have to be answered. And once that question was answered, who knew what might come next. And what if the attorney stumbled into something even Hardcastle didn't know? It wasn't likely, but it could happen, and here he was, under oath, with nowhere to hide. Mark thought maybe he should've taken it a bit more seriously when they told him what a bad idea it was for him to be on the stand.

Now the attorneys were stepping back from the bench, and the presiding judge directed his comments to the witness box. "You may answer the question, Mr. McCormick."

McCormick allowed himself a quick glance at Hardcastle then, and was relieved to see that the expression was not one of worry, but encouragement. "I'm sorry," he said politely, "what was it you asked again?" And just as he turned back to Weatherby, he saw the twinge of a smile Hardcastle couldn't entirely control.

"I asked if you stole a car while you were supposedly working undercover on this 'case'."

"Oh, that. Well, Mr. Farnell had a Corvette in his crime school that he was using as a teaching aide; he asked me to steal it as part of his lesson plan."

Weatherby grimaced. "I'd like to remind the jury that the existence of this alleged school has neither been proven nor stipulated." He turned back to McCormick, and took a slightly different tack.

"Is there a reason someone would think you could steal a car?"

McCormick gave a tiny shrug. "I don't think he thought I could do it; I think he was hoping I couldn't."

"Can you steal a car, Mr. McCormick?" Weatherby clarified firmly.

Mark took a breath and waited for the objection, but apparently the judge had been clear about allowing this line of questioning. He decided on an approach, and grinned slightly.

"Probably even you could steal a car, Mr. Weatherby. Your client gives lessons, ya know." McCormick thought Hardcastle would probably have something to say later about following the rules, but he found himself unreasonably hesitant to admit anything to this man, though he knew he was only delaying the inevitable.

Weatherby pursed his lips for a half second, then apparently decided to get back to his original question. "Did you or did you not remove a car from a locked dealership showroom without permission from the owner?"

If McCormick had learned anything over the years, it was how to give the illusion of answering questions without ever actually providing information. But he had also learned that unless you intended to literally lie, it was almost impossible to evade a directly specific question. And lying was certainly not an option now.

"I was told if I didn't take the car, someone would be killed."

"So you did take the car, then? Yes or no?"


"From an auto showroom?"


"A secure showroom?"

"Apparently not very secure."

"You had to break in?" Weatherby clarified.


"And you weren't caught?"


"That seems very lucky."

This probably wasn't the time to brag about skill.

"Yes," McCormick agreed.

"And how, do you suppose, did you manage to be so lucky?"

"I'm a Sagittarius." It was out before he had time to wonder if his standard quips qualified as perjury. He flashed an ingratiating smile that he knew from experience would win over most people, and hoped it would work on the jury; Weatherby could go—

"Or maybe it was experience?" the attorney interrupted his thoughts.

The objection—something about assuming facts not in evidence—was barely out of the DA's mouth before Weatherby rephrased the question.

"Have you ever stolen a car before?"

McCormick forced himself not to sigh. He saw the jurors' expressions change instantly. They had been willing to be amused by him earlier—right up to the point that they realized he might be a criminal. He thought he hadn't had quite enough time; they weren't completely on his side yet. The only thing that would sway them now was the truth.


Weatherby looked as if he hadn't expected such a simple answer, but he didn't let his surprise slow him down. "And you served a prison sentence for that crime?"


"In fact, Mr. McCormick, is it not true that you have been convicted of auto theft on two separate occasions?"

McCormick resisted the impulse to offer any sort of justification. "Yes."

The attorney studied the witness; he still seemed as if he hadn't quite expected this sudden level of cooperation. Then he cast a quick, appraising glance at the jury box; he didn't seem pleased. He fired another question.

"Have you committed other crimes for which you have not been convicted or charged?"

"Objection!" The DA was on his feet instantly. "Your Honor, Mr. McCormick is not the one on trial here. Counsel's continued focus on his personal history is irrelevant to these proceedings."

"It is hardly irrelevant, Your Honor," Weatherby contradicted. "The State has produced no physical evidence to link my client to any criminal activity. The children they earlier presented as witnesses were admitted felons who received leniency in exchange for their testimony. Mr. McCormick is a convicted felon, who has only his word to offer as proof. This questioning goes to the character of the witness, and the jury should be allowed to make some determination as to that character in order to evaluate testimony."

McCormick had to admit there was a certain amount of logic to that idea, even as much as he hated it. The judge seemed to agree.

"I will grant you a small amount of latitude, Mr. Weatherby, but keep it brief. As opposing counsel points out, this trial is not about the witness." He shifted his attention. "Mr. McCormick, please keep in mind that you are under no obligation to answer any question that you feel incriminates you in any way."

McCormick nodded his understanding, though it occurred to him that there was a long list of things he'd rather do than plead the fifth in front of Milton C. Hardcastle. He might lose the man's case, and that would be bad enough. Losing the man's faith was out of the question. In the future, he thought maybe he wouldn't complain so much if they didn't want him to testify.

Not wanting to wait for a repeat of the unanswerable question, McCormick decided to take the offensive.

"So it's a question of character, is it, Mr. Weatherby? Well, I guess I can understand that. But you seem to think 'character' is all about a person's past. Well, I'll be the first to admit that there are some things in my past that I'd do differently. I'm not proud of the fact that I've been in prison; I'm not proud of the things that caused me to end up there. But I'll tell you what I am proud of, and that's what I'm doing now. I'm not making excuses for my past, but maybe I am making up for it just a little bit."

"That's not the question I asked," Weatherby said with a glare.

"No," McCormick answered without hesitation, "it isn't. And to answer that question, yes, there are some things from my past that have slipped through the cracks. I'm not proud of that, either. But if it's a question of character, Counselor, then the point is that I'm not doing those things anymore; wouldn't you agree?"

McCormick didn't allow himself to look satisfied as Weatherby paused, then directed his line of questioning back to the current case.


"Are you sure you're okay?"

"I said I was fine," McCormick snapped. He didn't move his eyes from the road.

"I know what you said." Hardcastle fired the response back in a matching tone, then regretted it immediately. The kid obviously was not fine, and it was starting to worry him.

McCormick sighed. "Sorry." He still didn't look over at the passenger seat.

The judge softened his tone. "It might help to say whatever it is you're thinkin'. You look like you might explode over there."

And that much was certainly true. Though, if he were honest with himself, Hardcastle would admit that he was feeling a bit of a strain, himself. They'd be pulling into the drive at Gull's Way just any minute now, and they hadn't exchanged twenty words on the entire trip. That much silence from Mark McCormick was just unnatural.

Finally, the young man sighed again, and seemed to relent just a little bit. "I guess I should've listened to you, Judge. To those guys, I'm just a con. I hope I didn't mess things up too bad."

Hardcastle thought that might not be everything that was on the kid's mind, but it was a start. "Nah, don't worry; you did fine." The only answer was a muffled snort, so Hardcastle continued. "Seriously, you held your own, even when that jack-ass tried to come after you." He grinned slightly. "Though maybe we need to have a little talk about the meaning of 'don't be a smart ass'."

"I didn't mean to," Mark said in a low tone. "Really. It's just . . ." He drifted off for a second, then finally glanced at the judge before adding, "I wasn't trying to cause trouble."

The judge shook his head once quickly; he hated it when his teasing backfired. "Ah, come on, McCormick, you really think I'm worried about that? I'm just giving you a hard time. You should know that by now."

"Yeah, I guess." McCormick paused again before continuing in a hesitant tone, "Is there anything you are worried about?"

Hardcastle considered the question for a couple of seconds, thinking maybe they were getting closer to the young man's actual concern. "Is there anything I should be worried about?"

McCormick shook his own head emphatically. "I'd tell you if there was."

"That's what I figured."

The young man looked a little bit relieved at that. He let another couple of miles go by, then asked, "So you really think it went okay?"

"Sure. And after the way you dealt with Weatherby, no one's going to be too quick to try and work you over next time."

McCormick's eyes widened. "Next time? No way. I'm never going through that again. Besides, after today, the DA's office probably won't even take a case if I've been anywhere close to it. They sure as hell aren't gonna put me back on the stand."

Hardcastle chuckled. "You're being too hard on yourself, kiddo. The good guys are going to win this one, and you're a big part of why. Next time, I'll just be more specific about the definition of smart ass."

And as they continued along the highway, Hardcastle was glad to see at least a little bit of humor returning to the younger man's eyes.


"I can't believe you talked me into this again," McCormick complained as he steered the Coyote through downtown traffic.

Up until the Arthur Farnell case, he had been genuinely peeved that no one trusted him enough to testify; after that, he was content to fade into the background and let Hardcastle be the hero on the stand. The idea that his criminal record might be used against him in court had been a calculated gamble he'd been willing to take; the idea that his unrecorded criminal activity might come into play had never crossed his mind. After that near-disaster, he'd done some discreet reading and determined that the statute of limitations was a very good thing. And Hardcastle had been content not to push the issue, which was even better.

But that only took care of things BH— before Hardcastle. There had been some more recent transgressions, even if they hadn't exactly been fraught with true criminal intent. He didn't really want to have to explain that distinction.

And at the top of that list of worries was his not-too-distant visit to the Federal Records Building just prior to their unexpected trip to Atlantic City. That was an incident the judge had deliberately chosen not to know about, though Frank Harper had issued a suitably vague and yet exceedingly clear message that if true rehabilitation was out of the question, he should really at least stick to the state statutes.

McCormick shook his head. He really didn't need that bit of history popping up in open court. Hardcastle might technically be in the dark, but plausible deniability was only going to carry a guy so far. Getting up in a court of law and swearing to tell the whole truth was really beginning to seem like a bad idea.

Hardcastle broke into his thoughts with a reassurance. "It'll be fine. Besides, you don't want Waverly to get away with it, do you?"

"Of course not," McCormick answered, wondering if the old guy had any idea what was really worrying him. Not that that was the kind of thing he could ask.

"But you're the guy he kidnapped," he continued, "I'm just the sap he conned into ripping off the innocent bystanders. Your testimony oughta be enough."

"Yeah, but your testimony is what lets us prove the fraud charges, which will give us a few more years. And every year behind bars is one less year he can rip off more innocent bystanders. We're like a one-two punch.

"Besides, I told ya it went okay last time, and it'll be even easier this time. Just see if you can get through it without telling anybody your sign."

"I'll do my best." McCormick managed a grin, and tried to find comfort in the teasing. But he told himself that if this testimony gig was going to be a regular thing, he was really going to have to give some thought to sticking to the straight and narrow.


Hardcastle was looking across the table, hoping to get McCormick's attention, but the young man's eyes were wandering the small seaside café, which Hardcastle recognized as avoidance. He spoke anyway.

"I told you it was gonna be fine."

McCormick still didn't look back at the other man. He began to mutter something under his breath, then seemed to think better of it. Instead, he answered sharply, "You weren't there," then he grabbed a menu and focused his attention there.

Hardcastle thought the words held an unusual combination of accusation and relief, and he wasn't sure exactly how to respond to either. He settled for simple truths.

"You knew I couldn't be in the audience prior to my own testimony, kid, and Burton told me yours went fine." But he didn't get an answer, so he sighed, and glanced at his own menu.

Usually McCormick loved this place. Sitting outside on the patio, enjoying a good old-fashioned cheeseburger, and watching the gulls playing in the waves was a relaxing way to spend an afternoon, and Hardcastle had discovered long ago it was an almost sure-fire way to cheer up the kid. He thought it might take all the way to the apple pie dessert to accomplish that task today.

When he thought there had been enough silence, Hardcastle made more pointless conversation. "Did you want fries or onion rings?"

He thought the question was going to go unanswered, as well, but McCormick finally lifted his eyes.

"Couldn't we just get a small basket of both?"

"Is that what it's gonna take to get you to talk?"

"Couldn't hurt," the young man said without much inflection. He closed the menu and set it aside. He turned his head to watch the waves, looking as if he was searching for a way to begin. The server came before he figured it out.

They gave the man their orders—including french fries and onion rings—and McCormick looked back out at the water. Hardcastle didn't let him drift too far.

"The DA really did say it went okay, kiddo."

McCormick rolled his eyes, then turned back to face the judge. "Burton's kind of a jerk sometimes, but he's not stupid. What's he gonna say to you, Hardcastle? That your charity case convict was a disaster? That I shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a courtroom, except maybe on the other side of the aisle? Not likely."

Hardcastle winced at the bitterness. Even now, after more than a year together, there was still so much 'us against them' in McCormick's attitude. And even though the judge knew that he himself almost always fell into the 'us' category, it bothered him that the rest of the legal system rarely did. He certainly didn't want the kid feeling like some kind of outcast, like he wasn't good enough to be one of the good guys.

"No one thinks that, McCormick," he said gruffly. "And if the cross had gone really badly, then, yes, Burton would've told me, but he said you did fine." He paused as the waiter reappeared to place their drinks in front of them, thanked the man, and then continued.

"But he did say Kincaid raked you over the coals just a little bit."

"A little bit? Yeah, you might say that." McCormick lifted his glass and took a long drink before saying anything else. What he finally offered was, "They make the best cherry limeade here."

"They do," Hardcastle agreed lightly, but he wasn't pulled off track. "You wanna tell me about it?"

"I think it's because they use real limes instead of that fake stuff."

"McCormick . . ."

"Oh, I don't know, Judge," the younger man finally gave up the pretense. "I guess the thing I really don't understand is why the fact that Waverly's been in and out of prison like it's got a revolving door gets to be some deep secret while I get hung out to dry. I mean, he belonged in jail, but nobody gets to know that. And nobody gets to know that I was just a victim of circumstance."

Hardcastle just looked across the table silently.

"Okay," Mark amended, "once I was a victim of circumstance. But I don't even get to tell my side of that story. Oh, no; I just have to sit up there like some kind of kid in a corner, all responsible and contrite, and let them make me out like somebody at the top of the Most Wanted list, or something. It's ridiculous." McCormick was working himself into quite a rant, and it seemed he wasn't finished yet.

"And what if the jury believes them? Huh? Then it's all for nothing. Waverly gets to keep ripping people off, and I got up there and let them dredge up all my past for nothing. What's the point in that?"

"It's not always fair," Hardcastle admitted when McCormick finally took a breath, "but the point would be because you have to at least try to do the right thing, even if it backfires. And, anyway, that's not going to happen this time. The case is solid, and you did fine. Waverly's going back to prison. Trust me."

McCormick looked as if he might've ranted a bit more, but then the waiter showed up with their lunch. They took a minute to get everything settled; McCormick poured a pile of ketchup onto his plate and then sampled an onion ring.

"You know what he said to me?" he finally asked, without looking up from his food.

"Hm?" Hardcastle encouraged through his burger.

"He tried to make me out like some kind of delusional loser, like none of what I was saying was true; like I had some kinda sour grapes against successful, rich people. He asked why I thought the jury would believe that anyone would ever offer a washed-up racecar driver turned car thief any kind of responsible job. And I gotta tell you, Judge, it seemed like a pretty reasonable question."

The undisguised pain in his friend's voice pierced into Hardcastle's heart, and he fought down the immediate rage he felt toward the defense attorney. Breaking into his own rant wasn't going to help anything. He slowly returned his burger to his plate and reached casually for a fry.

"Now that's ridiculous," he said calmly. "'Course, he's just doing his job, trying to make you look bad, but if that's the best he's got, Waverly's gonna go away for even longer than I thought. You're not a washed up anything, and the thief part was a long time ago. And besides, I'm pretty sure that I offered you a responsible job." Hardcastle chewed his fry thoughtfully and waited.

And finally, slowly, a grin spread across McCormick's face, and he looked up from picking at his own cheeseburger.

"Offered me a responsible job? Hah. Don't go twistin' the facts, Hardcase. You blackmailed me into slavery."

Hardcastle just smiled as he watched McCormick dig into his meal with gusto, and he was glad he hadn't had to wait for the apple pie.


"You're getting better at this," Hardcastle said across the room.

McCormick barely spared a glance over at the judge. "I've been getting a lot of practice lately," he said wearily.

"Falcon and Price probably wish you hadn't become so adept."

"Nah," Mark answered flatly, pulling a swig from his beer bottle, "they just wish they'd gotten more adept at murder."

The judge studied the other man. "Why do you do that?"

That finally got McCormick's full attention. "Do what?" he asked.

"Downplay your part. You've made the difference in a lot of cases the past couple of years. But all you ever do is worry that you might not be good enough and think that the DA got their conviction in spite of you."

McCormick stared in disbelief. "Why? You do remember all the reasons you gave me in the beginning for keeping me off the stand? None of that has really changed, ya know. And surely you've noticed that every time I've taken the stand the attorneys have taken potshots at me?"

"And every time you've handled 'em," Hardcastle pointed out. "So what's the problem?"

"The problem?" McCormick shook his head and stretched out on the couch. "Jeez, Hardcastle, you're a real sympathetic guy, ya know? Do you even listen to some of the crap they say to me?"

Hardcastle supposed he shouldn't be surprised by the hostility creeping into the kid's tone. Everything about this case had been difficult for McCormick, and it might've been easier if more time had passed before the trial had gotten underway.

"Of course I listen to 'em," he said evenly. "But I've been tellin' you for years that it's not really personal; they're just doing their job. But they didn't go on too long today. It's kinda hard to make the intended murder victim look like too much of a bad guy."

"Yeah," McCormick agreed without humor, "wouldn't want to give their client an actual reason to blow me away."

"That's not exactly what I meant," Hardcastle huffed.

"No, I guess not." Mark paused and placed his bottle briefly back to his lips, then continued sullenly, "But you know, I'm never gonna think it's fair, the way they poke and prod into my past. I mean, no matter what they come up with, is that gonna make it okay that those guys killed someone? Or that they tried to kill me? So what's the point? Why not just let it be?"

Hardcastle shrugged. "They have to do what they can, kid; that's the way the system works. But how you deal with it is the important thing; that's why you've always helped the cases, because you don't try to hide, and the truth is on your side. So why are you always so worried?"

"I dunno. It's just . . ." the ex-con trailed off.

Hardcastle waited, mostly patiently, for almost two full minutes, somehow knowing that whatever the kid wasn't saying was important. But then his patience was gone.

"Just what?" he prompted.

McCormick's eyes met the older pair. "It's not just about me anymore, Judge. And it's always a risk."

"The important things usually are," Hardcastle told him.

McCormick appeared to consider that for a moment. When he spoke again, the corner of his mouth was twitching upward a tiny bit.

"I suppose. And, really, I guess today didn't go too badly. Hutchins kept the defense pretty well in line. When they were harping on my convictions, I liked the way he said, 'Is there anything approaching a point to this line of questioning?'. I think he's my favorite ADA."

The judge smiled, too. "That's just because he's the only one in the courtroom who might actually have a smarter mouth than you."

McCormick's smile grew. "Maybe. But he gets away with it. And anyway, there should be more lawyers like him; not so stuffy, just trying to do what he thinks is right."

Hardcastle's eyebrow rose up in a moment of curiosity, but he didn't pursue it. He was just glad to see Mark pulling himself out of his post-trial funk. The kid seemed to be getting better at that, too.


Hardcastle hung up the phone and looked over into the inquiring blue eyes. "They're gonna want you to testify."

"I figured," McCormick answered. He paused before adding, "But what if I don't want to?"

The judge looked surprised. "Are we doing that again?" he asked mildly. "Because I thought you were over all that by now."

McCormick grinned ruefully. "Well, I never really said I was 'over all that', but that's not what I meant. It's just that I feel kinda bad for Malcolm."

"Well, you can't let that keep you off the stand," Hardcastle told him. "What he did was illegal."

"What he did was give me a chance," McCormick objected.

Hardcastle examined his young friend closely. "He didn't give you anything you didn't earn, kid. It's time you accept that."

"Thanks, Judge." Mark pulled a hand through his hair and leaned forward slightly. "But still, he's not all bad, you know. He just got caught up in some stuff; he made some mistakes. If anyone knows about that, it's me. Maybe I just don't want to be responsible for ruining his life."

"You've got it backwards, McCormick. You're not to blame for this. It's unfortunate, but Malcolm made his choices."

"Don't we all."

The jurist still seemed to be thinking that over when McCormick sighed loudly and continued.

"All right, you win. I'll do it." He always thought it was harder to resist a quiet Hardcastle than an angry, yelling one.

The judge nodded his head slowly. "Good. It's the right thing." He hesitated a second, then asked, "Besides, don't you think it'll be easier this time?"

McCormick raised an eyebrow. "Testifying? Easy?"

Hardcastle nodded again. "Yeah. You really have seemed more comfortable with the whole thing lately. Last time around, I think you even kept the smart remarks down to a dozen or so; that's a record for you. Maybe this time we'll try for single digits."

Relaxing back into his chair, the young man answered, "Don't get your hopes up, Judge. Last time musta been an off day."

"Well, you're not an ex-con now," Hardcastle said reasonably, "you're a law student."

McCormick smiled slightly. "I was a law student the last couple of times, too; you just didn't know it." The smile faded. "And I'll always be an ex-con."

"Yeah, okay, but that's never gonna stop you. You've shown 'em that there's more to you than that."

"Maybe," McCormick replied with a shrug, "but my past is never gonna change, Judge. What're you gonna do when someone finally opens the right door?"

"Me?" Hardcastle asked, surprised. "What're you talking about? This isn't about me."

The young man smiled again. Sometimes the donkey was unbelievably dense.

"Well, I told you a long time ago it wasn't just about me, Hardcase."

The judge was gaping. "Just what is it that you've been thinkin' might happen?"

"I dunno," McCormick admitted. "But there's a lot of questions that have never been asked."

Hardcastle swiped a hand across his face, and leaned forward on his desk. "Wait a minute. All this time, I've been thinkin' that you were feeling bad about the way they were always trying to discredit you; I thought you were taking their attacks personally."

"Well, I was. Especially at first."

"But besides that," Hardcastle went on firmly, "you're telling me that you've been worried about me? About what I was going to think?"

"Not just what you would think about me," McCormick explained slowly. He glanced away, avoiding the other's eyes. "But what others would think about you."

"And do you think I give a damn about that?" Hardcastle demanded.

"No. But I think maybe you should."

The judge harrumphed loudly. "Well, even if I was gonna, there'd be worse things than you for me to worry about." He shook his head slowly. "Let me ask you something. Are you telling me there are things that even I don't know about?"

Still not looking at the judge, McCormick spoke only a single word. "Yes."

"And you really think I never knew that?"

It was McCormick's turn to gape. After three years, he never expected the old guy to surprise him anymore, and it was annoying how frequently he still did. "But . . ."

"But what?" Hardcastle huffed. "You think I haven't been around the block enough times to know that a person's official record never contains everything? You think I haven't been around you long enough to know that you've got skills never hinted at in your rap sheet? Come on, McCormick. Gimme some credit."

"But . . . but . . ." McCormick was still staring. "But why'd you never ask?"

"Would you have told me?"

Mark drew back into his chair, suddenly more surprised. "Of course." He hoped he didn't sound as hurt as he felt.

But Hardcastle just smiled. "That's why I didn't need to ask. And I've never been worried."

McCormick relaxed and smiled in return. Maybe all surprises weren't bad.

"Yeah," he said finally, "I think maybe this time'll be easier."

Nodding, Hardcastle pushed himself up from his chair. "Okay, then, c'mon." He waved the kid to his feet. "Let's grab those steaks from the fridge and fire up the grill."

The younger man followed agreeably. "I know what that means," he said with a grin. "I grill the steaks; you sit on your butt and grill me."

"It's called prepping the witness, McCormick," Hardcastle corrected as they moved toward the kitchen. "And maybe this time you'll listen to me. See, when I say 'don't be a smart ass', what I mean is . . ."

McCormick just laughed, and pretended to listen to every word.