Epilogue: You Don't Hear the One That Gets You
Disclaimer: These are not my characters and I make no profit from them.
Author's note: This was the very first Epilogophilia entry I wrote and that was way back in early summer 2006. It appeared in STAR fpr Brian 'zine 2.
Epilogophilia: You Don't Hear the One That Gets You
Mark wins the Arizona Modifieds and heads for home in the Coyote with Hardcastle, and his twenty thousand in winnings. They don't know that a couple of locals on a crime spree, Melissa Kantwell and the hapless Arvin Lee, have targeted them.
McCormick is shot during the robbery. The Coyote and his prize money are taken. He is determined, against Hardcastle's better judgment, to go after the miscreants. The two men seek help from the local sheriff, Billy Blackstone, and discover Melissa is the sheriff's wife.
The plot thickens. The Coyote is recovered from the dealer who bought it on faith from Arvin and Melissa. Meanwhile Melissa manipulates her partner in crime, while her husband is actually calling the shots. Eventually Blackstone murders Arvin Lee, and is cornered when he and Melissa hole up in a motel room. Mark's money goes up in flames when Blackstone refuses to surrender.
Mark, back to square one and appearing resigned to his misfortune, lets Hardcastle do the driving as they head for home.
Epilogue by L.M.Lewis
It was a small diner, and Hardcastle figured that was in its favor. He preferred a little local color to the monotony of the big restaurant chains. Besides, this one had a couple of trucks parked outside, and truckers usually knew where the food was good.
But, truth be told, he'd already made up his mind that they'd pull off at the next town, home cooking or no. McCormick had been dozing on and off since they'd set out for home. But the past fifty miles or so he'd been awake, shifting restlessly and still looking about done in.
Now he was frowning at the surroundings as the judge pulled into the lot.
"Dinner," Hardcastle said. "You look like you could use some."
"You always pick these weird places. What's wrong with burgers once in a while?"
"Whaddaya mean 'weird'? This is a diner; it's Americana."
"Yeah, so was that place with the goat chili. Remember that?"
"It was a local specialty," Hardcastle sniffed.
"That place had a lot of bean sprouts, too, and I know you don't like bean sprouts, but you'd picked it out, so you couldn't complain. Hah." Mark started to pull himself up out of the seat, then halted, stiffly, and settled back down, reaching across slowly with his good arm for the door handle.
"Hang on, I'll get it," the judge said firmly, already out of the car and heading around to the passenger side.
McCormick gave him a very thin smile, but waited, and even accepted a hand up, the smile gone. "Don't say anything," he muttered.
"What was I gonna say?" the judge asked defensively.
"Anything, nothing. Just don't," Mark repeated. The frustration carried him into motion with no further assistance. "Let's just go get us some goat chili and then head home."
"'Bout that," Hardcastle hesitated. "Six more hours." He looked at the younger man doubtfully. "Might be a good idea to put up for the night."
"Yeah, except that I kinda took a solemn vow this morning, Judge. I decided I wasn't going to spend one more night in Arizona, ever. So either you're driving us home, or I will." His expression was grimly determined.
"Okay," he shrugged reluctantly, "just don't complain to me if you can't get up out of the car when we get there."
Mark said nothing more, merely trudged ahead, still cradling his right arm. The judge shook his head and followed.
The place was brightly-lit but nearly empty. The two truckers were down at the far end of the counter, either friends or new acquaintances. There were three guys in one of the booths. Hardcastle pegged them for locals. One waitress was behind the counter. Another, who looked to be in her very early twenties, snapped her gum once and picked up a couple of menus as they walked in.
McCormick nodded and she led them over to one. He probably wasn't even looking in the girl's direction, the judge thought. He hadn't caught the puzzled expression that she'd given him. Instead he sat down a little heavily, and reached for the menu left-handed, without even looking up.
"Coffee?" she asked.
The judge said 'yes' and then heard McCormick ask for a glass of water, still frowning down at the menu. The waitress skittered away, but then seemed to be taking a bit longer behind the counter than might have been expected, exchanging some words with the other waitress that seemed to involve a gesture toward their booth.
"How do you like that—no goats." Mark shook his head in disappointment, then leaned back and closed his eyes briefly.
The waitress returned, putting the cup and glass down and peering at the younger man a little more closely.
"You 'bout ready to order?" she asked. Her tone was friendly, more than meeting Hardcastle's expectations for a small-town eatery.
"The meat loaf sounds good," he smiled up at her, "with mashed potatoes."
She gave that a quick nod as she jotted it on the pad. A moment of silence followed; Mark's eyes were still shut. Hardcastle frowned, then gave him a nudge with one foot under the table and said, "You want that burger or what, McCormick?"
The younger man started, looking momentarily surprised, and then said, "Ah, yeah, sure." He lifted his gaze briefly to the waitress, who was now smiling a little more broadly. "Cheeseburger—mustard, onions."
"Fries?" she chirped.
"Ah, yeah." He closed his menu and handed it back up, apparently oblivious to smiling and chirping. Under ordinary circumstances, Hardcastle would have expected this much obvious interest to at least warrant a quick and friendly rejoinder. He thought the kid did that practically at the reflex level.
And at least one guy in the other booth had taken notice. He was watching the whole thing with what looked like annoyance; whether it was on general, or specific terms, the judge couldn't be sure.
But now the waitress had retreated back behind the counter again. She'd passed the order to the kitchen man, and was locked in deep conference with the other woman.
"You've never been through here before, have you?" Hardcastle asked quietly.
Mark opened his eyes again and looked around a little blearily. "Nope. Well, last Thursday, with you. By here. We didn't stop. You were too busy searching for the perfect bowl of goat chili . . . Why?"
"Nothin', never mind." Hardcastle shook his head. Paranoia, that's what it is.
The guys at the other table had gone back to talking. The two truckers paid their bills and departed.
"Maybe we'll drive a little further, but not all the way back tonight."
"Past Needles," Mark said firmly.
"There's nothing past Needles," the judge protested.
"Oh yes, there is. California is past Needles," McCormick shot back, with what seemed to be his own fair share of paranoia
The waitress was on her way toward them, beaming and bearing food. She set the plates down with more than a little flourish. Hardcastle frowned again and Mark looked at his food with no apparent interest. He barely glanced up at the woman as he asked for another glass of water.
She scurried off to get it. Her enthusiasm seemed in no way discouraged by McCormick's lack of response. The guy at the other table had stopped talking again, and gone to straight out staring.
"All right," Hardcastle grumbled, taking a fork to his meatloaf, "we'll stop in Needles, that's California; don't tell me it isn't far enough inside for you. And I don't want to hear any of this 'it's only another four hours' stuff outta you once we get there, okay?"
McCormick nodded, not looking very chastised. He was picking the burger up one-handed. The waitress returned and set the glass down, but didn't immediately leave again.
It was only a second before she said, "You are him; I know it."
Mark looked up at her quizzically.
"That guy from the Modifieds. His name was McCormick. And the hair." She looked back over her shoulder toward the counter. "It is him; the hair's the same." Then, fixing Mark with her gaze again, she smiled and said, "I was there. Me and Billy, we went. Hey, Billy?" The guy at the other table was frowning outright. "Billy, this is that guy, remember?"
Billy might have responded with a quick nod, but he didn't look too thrilled. One of the other guys at the table had given him a jab of the elbow and a grin.
"You are him, right?" There didn't seem to be much doubt in her tone.
Mark nodded once and set the burger back on the plate.
"I knew it," she gushed. "See?" she said to no one in particular. Then she frowned down at him and added, "What happened to your arm? I didn't think you got hurt."
Mark was staring hard across the table. Hardcastle wasn't exactly sure what it meant beyond a general desire to be somewhere else as quickly as possible. The judge thought somebody ought to field the question and replied, with a rather flat smile, "It happened after the race."
"Oh," the woman said, almost sounding disappointed. Then she brightened quickly and said, "Well how weird is that? To go through a whole race like that, win it, not a scratch, and then have an accident driving home." She shook her head lightly, "It's just weird." She stood there, apparently contemplating life's vagaries and showing no signs of leaving them to their food.
"Must be nice," she continued on, a little wistfully. "Fast cars, everybody cheering, all that money."
McCormick didn't have anything to say to this, either, and once again the judge stepped in. "We still got a ways to go tonight; maybe we could have the check when you get a chance—"
"Sibby, we could use some more coffee over here." The guy from the other table was giving her a sharp look.
The woman rolled her eyes, but then smiled back down at Mark before turning to go. He didn't raise his head, but let out a breath once she'd departed.
The judge gave him a concerned look and said, "You oughta eat some of that." He pointed to the still-untouched burger.
McCormick made a face. "What I was really in the mood for was goat chili."
Okay, well, as long as he can joke, things aren't that bad. Out loud he said, "Eat it anyway," and watched as Mark picked it up again and took a desultory bite.
Hardcastle made short work of his meatloaf, keeping one eye on the other man and his halting progress. Their waitress had returned twice, the first time with refills on the coffee and yet another glass of water, unasked for, for McCormick. The second time she brought the check, and again lingered for a moment.
"Anything else I can get you?" She was clearly directing her words at the younger man. "We got a nice lemon meringue pie. Peach, too."
"I think we're just about done," Hardcastle smiled up at her and fished for his wallet as he edged out of the booth. "All real good."
She edged back a step to allow McCormick to get up, but didn't leave enough room for a graceful exit. Billy was doing some serious frowning.
"'Scuse me," Mark said, as he got to his feet. He appeared to be trying for maximum clearance. She finally seemed to get the hint and stepped back reluctantly, letting out a little sigh that might have been disappointment.
"Sibby," Billy said, low and impatient.
"All right, just a sec." There was a hint of impatience in her voice, too.
Hardcastle dealt with the tip and the bill. Mark was already moving toward the door and through it, not waiting. The judge hustled to catch up with him. From the direction of the other booth he heard the waitress loudly sigh in agreement as Billy said, "Them racecar drivers—they's all stuck up like that. Rich as hell, too."
Then he was outside, and Mark was standing next to the Coyote, opening the passenger door and easing himself cautiously into the seat.
Hardcastle stepped over and lowered the door back down, then climbed into the driver's side, giving one quick glance back at the cheerfully-lit diner before shifting his gaze to the man sitting next to him.
"She was just being friendly, that's all." There was the slightest edge of doubt to his voice.
Mark had his eyes closed again. He grunted once and opened them slowly, turning his head a little. "'Friendly', huh?" A shake of his head was halted by apparent discomfort.
"Lemme tell you about that kind," Mark continued, sharp and low. "They're just checking out the alignment. That's what they're doing. They come on to you, nothing real obvious, just enough to get the boyfriend pissed off. Then after they've got him ready to swing on you, it's 'It don't mean nothing.' Hell, you're lucky if it's only fists. And . . . anyway, I'm not much in the mood for a brawl tonight. Americana . . . hah."
He turned his head and stared back out the window as the judge eased the car into gear and out onto the road. Silence for a few moments.
"Well," Hardcastle said, hesitantly, feeling it was his duty to be a little contrary, if only for show, "she might've been, you know, just a racing fan."
McCormick grunted again.
The judge picked up a little speed. "And, anyway, I never realized you were such a cynic."
"Hah," Mark was still gazing straight ahead, "shows how little you know. I've always been one . . . it's just that I try to be cheerful and upbeat about it."
Hardcastle risked a quick glance to the side. There hadn't been any smile to go with the retort. 'Upbeat' seemed to be wearing thin just about then. He finally sighed. "Okay, how bad is it?"
"Ah . . ." McCormick had his eyes closed again, "pretty bad." He'd reached across to touch his right shoulder with his left hand. There was a visible wince. "Might be infected. Might," he prevaricated with very little real enthusiasm. There was a long, guilty pause and then, "That was kinda juvenile, me throwing those prescriptions away, huh?" He didn't sound like he was much looking forward to the lecture.
"Well," Hardcastle glanced in his direction again, "s'pose so. But, hell, somebody robbed you, and shot you, and left you for dead in the desert. I guess you were entitled to, ah, get riled up some."
The lights of the rest of the town were now off to their right. He slowed at the next intersection and turned that way, rather than onto the entrance ramp. Mark opened his eyes at the change in course.
"I saved 'em—the prescriptions," the judge confessed, in answer to the younger man's questioning look. "But we'd better not wait until Needles; everything's liable to be closed by then."
Mark nodded once, then turned his gaze straight ahead again, still looking a little embarrassed. There was a moment of silence before he said, "Thanks," and then, "I guess I'm not that much of a cynic. It's just been a kinda lousy weekend."
Hardcastle raised one eyebrow at the younger man's interpretation of the past few days.
McCormick missed the meaning and frowned. "Well, it has been."
The judge laughed, and then, before the confusion could deepen, added hastily, "Oh, kiddo, you gotta make sure you let me know when we have a really lousy weekend. Okay?"
Mark nodded, and then, looking half-serious, said, "We'll probably be all right if we stay out of Arizona."