A/N: This is for Susan B., the winner of my contribution to the Star for Brian auction. Hope I did her ideas justice. Be prepared for a rough ride.

Weapon of Choice

Written by Lizabeth S. Tucker

Story Ideas by Susan B.

1.

"I'm telling you now that I won't do it." Mark McCormick picked up the edger as he stalked across the lawn, leaving behind a group of men who wanted the impossible.

"Kid, this guy is bad news," Hardcastle called after him. "Lutrin needs to be taken off the street."

Mark grabbed the extension cord from the outside outlet and began rolling it up. "No argument there, but I'm not gonna be the one who does it. You said yourself that the last two people sent in undercover with this animal wound up dead. I don't care to make number three."

"Why are we arguing about this?" The black-suited FBI agent standing next to Hardcastle snapped. "You don't get to choose, McCormick. If you don't cooperate, I'll have the Judge pull your ticket and you'll be back inside before the day is over."

Lieutenant Frank Harper sucked in his breath, backing away from the federal agent.

Hardcastle frowned, turning his attention from the stubborn ex-con to Agent Collins. "The hell you will! If McCormick doesn't want to do this, he won't. I won't have you or anyone else trying to coerce him into this. So back off."

"Okay, okay, everybody just calm down. Let me talk to Mark for a few minutes. Alone." The last member of the group walked toward McCormick, jerking his head toward the Gatehouse.

Mark followed behind the short, stocky barrel of a man as he strode into the Gatehouse through the French doors. "Joe, I'm telling you that this is way out of my league. We're not talking some street punk here. This guy is a big time arms dealer."

"You said the same thing when the Soviets were messing around in the neighborhood and you handled that just fine," Joe Hayes said, his smile disappearing into his bushy mustache.1

Mark snorted as he threw himself down on the couch. "And what is the CIA's involvement?"

"It's a joint task due to ties inside and outside the United States. The two men who were killed, Jake Anderson and Mario DiNardo? Mario was one of ours, a friend of mine. Jake was Collins' former partner. He was married and had a baby girl born two days after his murder."

Mark's mouth twisted wryly. "You really know how to stick the knife in, don't ya?"

"Part of my charm, palsy." Joe became serious. "I think you can get the information we need, McCormick. You're probably the only one who can at this point."

"A daughter, huh?"

"Yeah, Mary Catherine Anderson."

"If I'm to do this, I'll need a decent cover. I can't go in as Mark McCormick. One phone call to check up on me would reveal my connection to Hardcastle. Once Lutrin found out, I'd be dead. From what this paperwork you've given me says, anyone in El Toro's organization is locked behind the compound doors for months at a time. That means no contact with anyone out here. And I won't be able to wear a wire either. That would get me killed immediately."

"I have no intentions of dealing with Hardcastle if that happens, so make sure you come out alive. Hear me?"

"I hear you."

"I'll not only get you a secure cover, we'll keep the details to a select few. I'm not losing another man." Joe's voice was firm and final.

After a few moments of consideration, a grim McCormick nodded. "I'm holding you to that, Joe. Okay, I'm in."

H&McC

"Where the hell is he?" Hardcastle growled, leaning close to the edge of the table where the radio speaker sat.

For Mark's last week behind the forbidding walls he had been wearing a wire passed to him by a female agent who posed as a prostitute for Vice. It was a calculated risk, but based on rumbles on the street, Lutrin was receiving a larger than usual gun shipment. Collins hoped to hear information on who had been behind the order.

"Calm down, Judge, your boy will be here when he's done with the job. He just has to get that last file from the compound and we'll be able to arrest the whole lot of Lutrin's gang." Collins glanced at his watch.

Joe paced the floor, equally worried about the man's safety. "I still think sending him back in was a mistake. We had what we needed for the arms case."

Collins was tired of going over the same ground. "We need those names. I know the CIA is focused on the international ties with terrorist factions, but the Bureau could stop some of the money going there from the drug trade if we could shut down that part of the operation."

"Quiet!"

Both federal agents turned to where Hardcastle sat hunched over the radio. The lines on the Judge's face were pronounced.

"What is it?" Joe asked.

"Something's wrong. I can hear it in the kid's voice. We need to move in now."

"Judge Hardcastle, don't overreact."

Joe stooped down next to Hardcastle and listened for himself. He heard the sound of a scuffle, then the radio ceased operation. "He's right, Mark is in trouble. We go in now."

H&McC

The raid was a success, taking Lutrin's men by complete surprise. Unfortunately there was no sign of the head man nor Mark. While the FBI started the laborious process of sorting out their prisoners, Joe Hayes and Judge Hardcastle began a frantic search for the missing men.

As they swept through the buildings, room by room, they came up empty. Soon there was only the garage and the stables left to search.

"Judge?" Joe nodded to the stable door, opened a crack, then to the garage.

Hardcastle looked from one building to the other. Would McCormick go to a horse stable when he could have grabbed a car instead? He saw Joe process the same question and start past the stables to head for the garage. The Agency man was halted by an iron grip on his wrist.

If asked, Hardcastle wouldn't be able to explain why he changed his mind, but suddenly he knew without a doubt that he would find both missing men inside the stables.

Hardcastle readied himself, tightening his grip on his pistol before he slipped through the door, followed by Joe. He could hear voices and smiled grimly. He inclined his head toward the tack room. As one they made their way between the stalls. Getting closer they could hear the specific words rather than just the tone.

"You betrayed me. I took you in off the streets and this is how you repay me? Stealing from me? What were you planning to do with that file? Sell it?"

They heard McCormick laugh before coughing uncontrollably. "You don't get it, Tomas, do you? I'm not like you. I'm not doing this for money."

"What else is there?"

Mark answered with staid calmness. "The public good. To save lives."

"The public? What has the public ever done for people like us? Spit on us, that's what, called us animals," Tomas said in a harsh voice. "I know you, we come from the same place. We've both had to make our own way, without any help from our so-called fathers. That wasn't a lie, I know it, I can feel it. No matter who you really are, that's a fact."

"Yeah, well, that might be true, but it doesn't matter where I came from. It's where I'm going. And what I do on the way there."

Hardcastle and Joe moved into position, one on each side of the tack room door. The Judge held up one finger, indicating that Lutrin was alone with McCormick.

"Maybe I'll never be anything but an ex-con, Tomas. But I can't be the cause of people's deaths. I won't let myself become what they think I am."

"Then you'll die, hero."

Hardcastle heard the click of a shotgun and dove through the door, shouting for Lutrin to drop his weapon. The arms merchant spun around and fired at Hardcastle, the scattered shot hitting Joe Hayes as he came through the door. Sharp stings told the Judge he was also struck by the pellets. He stumbled to the floor, blinking blood out of eyes, trying to focus on the dangerous man still standing in front of him.

Hardcastle heard McCormick scream his name and looked up to see the younger man throw himself at Lutrin. The two men grappled for control of the knife Lutrin pulled from his boot, having tossed the spent shotgun aside.

Taking a deep breath, Hardcastle pushed himself back to a standing position. He raised his .45 and fired a shot just over both men. "That's enough!"

The discharge of his weapon momentarily distracted McCormick, giving Lutrin the opportunity to try to stab the other man. Hardcastle's next bullet went through the fleshy part of the attacker's arm, causing him to drop the knife. One more punch from McCormick ended the fight.

Mark rolled over onto his back with a groan.

"McCormick?"

"Judge? You okay?" Mark carefully sat up, glancing across the room. He saw Hardcastle leaning over somebody else. "Who's that?"

"Joe. He caught some of the birdshot as well."

Mark got slowly to his feet, grabbing some rope from the wall hook nearby. He quickly tied up Lutrin's hands and feet. Once he was convinced the man was secure, he stumbled to Hardcastle's side.

"Hey, Mark," Joe said as he leaned against the door jamb. "Palsy, you look like shit."

Mark chuckled, holding his arm against his ribs. "You don't look that great yourself."

"Hayes? Hardcastle!" A shout came from outside the stables, startling McCormick who spun about and dropped to one knee.

"Easy, kid, it's just Collins." Hardcastle was beginning to realize just how much of a strain the last three months of undercover work had been on McCormick. "In here!"

Collins came barreling into the stables, accompanied by two black clad men carrying heavy assault weapons. Large white letters proclaiming their federal agency affiliations were visible on their bullet-proof vests.

"What happened?" Collins stopped in the doorway, his moss green eyes surveying the occupants of the room. "Who shot you, Hayes?"

Joe was helped to his feet by Hardcastle and McCormick. "Don't know. I walked in and, bam, I feel like a hundred bees are stinging me in the face and neck."

"It was Lutrin," Hardcastle said. "Luckily it was just bird shot. Gonna hurt like the dickens when it's plucked out of you, but you won't die from it." He wiped the blood off his own forehead, wincing at the sting.

"I wasn't in any danger from it?" McCormick asked chagrined.

"No, you would've been dead if he'd shot you from as close as he was. It was just that we were farther away that saved us. Of course, could've put out an eye if it hit the right place."

Mark quickly checked Joe visually, reassured that none of his injuries appeared serious. He watched Collins take charge of Lutrin, feeling strangely detached. More black-clad men arrived, their passage barely noted. Weariness enveloped Mark as he tried to help the Judge.

"McCormick? Hey, kid." Hardcastle grabbed Mark by his forearms, dragging him to a nearby crate. "Siddown. C'mon, kiddo, park it here. Everything is under control. Take a load off."

"Judge?" Mark's usually lively blue eyes were dull and unfocused.

"Yeah, McCormick?"

"I'm sorry…I can't seem to…" he slurred before his eyes rolled up and his body began to fall to the side.

"Whoa, hold on." Hardcastle grabbed the younger man before he slid boneless to the floor. "I need some help here!"