Disclaimer: These characters are not mine and I make no profit from them
Author's Note: This is story number seven from Aftermath, Cheri and my collection of bits related to the episode "The Birthday Present". It resides between her "Being There" and my "Resilience" and foreshadows "The Things We Don't Talk About".
A nod of thanks to Susan Z. for a talk we had way back when about the change in blood donation rules that came in the mid-1980's.
By L. M. Lewis
It was a bizarre one, but a routine nevertheless. He'd stopped spending much of the night at the hospital. That had been at Hardcastle's insistence. Now that the man was starting to sleep through, it really didn't make much sense to stay.
And now that the verdict from the parole board was in, he ought to have been able to get some sleep himself. And he was, though it was cluttered with sudden awakenings, snatches of dreams—haunted by 'what ifs' and 'maybes'.
In the morning he would get up, do whatever needed to be done, and then head over to the hospital again. He'd bring Hardcastle food from the outside--nothing unhealthy, but snuck in with all the trappings of deep conspiracy, to give it an air of the forbidden.
After that he would just hang around, trying not to talk the man to death, and trying to stay out from underfoot when the judge had other visitors.
The first few days, in the ICU, it had been mostly him, and Frank, and an occasional old and close friend, most of whom Mark knew. Now that Hardcastle was in a regular room, the trickle had turned into a steady stream—jurists, lawyers, lots of guys from the LAPD—most of them just stopping by for a moment, but the overall effect was pretty impressive.
McCormick vacated the chair as soon as anyone showed up. If he didn't know them, he vacated the room. The part where Hardcastle introduced him ("my associate") was sometimes met with a look of puzzlement, but often something a little more knowing. Lots of people knew of him, Mark supposed. Most likely they all had opinions.
He'd gotten to hear some of those opinions, briefly voiced in front of the elevator as the visitors departed, and within earshot of his usual waiting place in the corner of the fifth floor lobby. Mostly they ranged toward the vagueness of bad influence, with occasional forays into the question of Hardcastle's mental stability before this current episode.
It wasn't as if he hadn't known this. The judge himself had told him he had colleagues who thought he was nuts for taking on his rehabilitation project. But, somehow, in the past year and a half, Mark hadn't encountered much of it face-to-face, or even off-to-the-side-but-still-within-earshot. He was beginning to think the judge had been vetting his friends pretty closely, picking and choosing who Mark would have contact with.
Curiously, no one seemed to have yet hit on the fact that he really was responsible—him and his damn birthday present—for the judge's near-death. Mark thought a few times he'd almost prefer this valid condemnation, to all the nonsense he was hearing; at least that would mean these people were paying attention to the facts.
He was thinking this all though for the umpteenth time, in the elevator on the way up to the fifth floor. He had a turkey sandwich, fruit salad, a container of clam chowder, and a very small piece of pecan pie—intended to encourage the finishing of the rest—all inside the judge's own duffel bag, though by now he was absolutely certain that Sister Mary Donovan pretty much had his number.
She was in the hallway by the nurses' station when he stepped out of the elevator. She spared him a stern smile, him and his duffel bag, too.
He gave her a quick nod and his very best Vienna Boys' Choir look of innocence as he asked casually, "How is he today?"
"Fine, just fine," her smile had become more one of reassurance, something that did not reassure McCormick in the slightest. "He was up out of bed a bit."
McCormick cast a brief, dubious look down the hallway. He knew the man had a tendency to push the edge of the envelope.
"But he got a little short of breath," Sister Donovan went on, still very matter-of-fact. "So the doctor ordered a blood count and now he's getting another transfusion." She forged ahead rapidly over McCormick's growing look of alarm. "It happens," she said. "He lost a lot of blood. He's not making it back very quickly. And this is nothing compared to what they gave him in surgery."
Mark nodded, but he knew he was still frowning. "Anything I can do?" he asked quietly.
Sister Donovan cocked her head, giving the duffle a quick, knowing glance. "Maybe less turkey and more liverwurst."
Mark shook his head and smiled. "He hates liverwurst."
"Well, if you haven't already, you can donate blood," she said cheerfully. "It's really more a symbolic gesture; the blood goes in the bank and then it's given to whoever needs it, but we like to ask the families of the recipients. We really need the blood, and it makes people feel like they're doing something."
"Thank you." Mark's smile had become a grin. There was no way he could explain it to her, but her casual inclusion of him in the term family had been the first really kind thing he'd heard in a couple of days. "I'll do that. Where do I—?"
"Third floor east. There's a donor room next to the lab. They'll take you without an appointment from noon to four." She looked down the hall toward the judge's room. "Oh, and there's one other thing." She frowned. "Maybe you could tell the judge's visitors that he needs to get some rest. He seems to think he has to entertain them."
"Ah . . ." Mark felt his face go a little blank, the grin dissipating. He hesitated a moment longer and then sighed. "Sister, I really can't; it's not my place."
The woman looked puzzled. "But—"
"See," Mark interjected firmly, "they're his friends; I'm just . . . something else."
Her look of puzzlement deepened. "Well," she finally said, "I had heard something to the effect that you were in his custody, though, honestly, I was starting to think they'd gotten the facts turned around." She reached out and gently touched his arm. "And Jackie, down in ICU, she told me you were the one he was asking for, when he first woke up."
Mark smiled again. "Maybe that's 'cause he's used to having me around, mostly to give orders to." The smile was drifting a little. "I mean, yeah, we are friends, but, those people wouldn't get it. And I sure as h—" he bit off the last word and stumbled, "heck, couldn't impose anything on them."
"Well," she shook her head, "there's one in there now. He's another judge I think. Said his name was Gault."
Mark paled. At least with Judge Gault, there wouldn't have to be any introductions. Gault had had him arrested once on suspicion of being in cahoots with the man who'd robbed his poker game. Finding out he'd been wrong hadn't improved Gault's disposition toward him any.
"Maybe I'll come back in a bit," he stammered. "It's almost noon, isn't it?" He glanced down at his watch. "I can just step over to the blood bank, get that done, right?" He backed toward the elevator, with only a nod of good-bye and a wan smile.
On the third floor he got directions, and found his way to the end of a corridor, to a door that bore the usual Red Cross posters of blood-donating exhortation. It was half open, and he stepped inside. There was one other person in the waiting area—a middle-aged man who looked vaguely familiar. The technician, behind a desk at the far end, looked up at him with a smile.
"Here to give blood?" she asked, pleasantly brisk.
He nodded. She pointed to the seat in front of the desk.
"Paperwork," she lifted a small paper-clipped sheaf from a stack on her side of the desk. "You've donated before?"
"Not here," Mark looked up. "It was for a friend, a car accident." He frowned. "That was a few years ago."
"That's how it is," the technician tsk'ed. "People don't think about it until someone they know needs it."
Mark looked a little chagrined. "Well, I didn't even think about it until someone reminded me today.
"You know," the young woman smiled, "we don't really have directed donations anymore. All the blood must be processed, checked for infection and so forth. It most likely won't be used for your designee."
"Well," Mark said, "I suppose it's the thought that counts."
"But we do like to keep track of the designees' names," she added, "just for the record."
"Ah, Milton Hardcastle."
"Oh," she jotted it down on her list, "very popular guy. I thought we'd have to put a second tech on duty last week. You would've had to get in line. We're still getting a couple a day." She glanced briefly in the direction of the other man.
Mark didn't look over his shoulder to follow her gaze. He thought he'd already placed the face, a detective from homicide named Wallace, seen only in passing a couple of times. He had a reputation for being hard-nosed; McCormick supposed he'd be just the sort of guy who'd be in Hardcastle's fan club.
"There are some questions on the first page, to determine eligibility: health problems and risk factors for blood-borne disease."
Mark had looked down. "I don't remember it being this complicated," he smiled a little worriedly.
"Oh," she sighed, "things have changed."
He could see that. His eyes had already lighted on the part about incarceration, and below that the other, even more detailed risk factors. It could be worse; she could be asking you these questions out loud.
The young woman seemed to sense his hesitance and said, "If there's something in particular you're not sure about . . ."
Now he did have to fight the urge to look over his shoulder. He was dead certain Wallace was looking at him. Instead he dropped his gaze to somewhere in the middle of the desktop and said, very low, "I think I'm not eligible." There, simple, straight out. And hopefully a quick dismissal.
"You're sure?" the tech looked disappointed. "If you have any questions."
"Ah . . . no."
He leaned down and picked up the duffel, stood and turned to go. It was impossible to miss Wallace's thin smile as he purportedly studied the copy of Field and Stream that he was holding. He had undoubtedly just finished reviewing the same list that McCormick had. Oh, we're all on the same page here, Mark thought.
He kept his face down, feeling it redden, some weird combination of anger and embarrassment.
None of this is important. What's important is upstairs. And he made it out into the hallway on that thought. Compared to all the other fears and horrors of the past ten days, this ought to barely register on the emotional Richter scale, and yet . . .there's always some damn little thing, and enough of them could bury you.
He kept walking, eyes still down, back to the elevator, hitting the button to the first floor this time, instead of up. He hadn't been gone anywhere near long enough to expect Gault to have taken his leave yet.
He was through the main lobby and out the door before he'd even given thought to where he was going next, and he might have kept right on walking if he hadn't been snagged by the arm and halted by a familiar voice.
"You didn't hear me calling you?" Frank asked, looking at him with a little concern.
"Ah . . . no," Mark didn't have to work at looking distracted. He wasn't even entirely sure how he'd gotten back outside.
"He's all right?" Frank asked the logical question first and, when Mark had managed a slow nod, Harper frowned at him and said, "You're all right?"
"Yeah," Mark answered, realizing that it sounded a little sullen, but unable to find the energy to modulate it properly. He looked down at the duffel he was still carrying. "You're going up there?" he asked slowly.
"Yeah, I was."
"Could you take this up to him? Don't flash it around." He forced a smile. "Some of the nuns get a little testy. Donovan's okay, though."
Frank was staring at him as though he'd just arrived from another planet.
"Why the hell aren't you taking it up to him?" he finally blurted out.
"I . . . ah," Mark blinked once, took a deep breath and let it out again. "I need to get some air." He looked away from Frank and added, quickly, "And Gault's up there."
"Hell," Frank cast a quick look upward in the general direction of the fifth floor windows, as though he half-expected a body to come flying out any moment. "They'll need a referee. Anyway," his gaze came back sharply to McCormick, pinning him where he stood, "you shouldn't take it personally; Gault's even wanted to have me arrested a couple of times."
"Yeah," Mark forced a smile, "but the difference is, I actually landed in the lock-up."
"Okay," Frank conceded with a shrug, "but, the point is, everyone knows he's a horse's ass, and you've never let him get to you before, so what gives now?"
Harper's expression was kind, but firm. Mark felt a standard lie catch in his throat, but he realized there was no way he was up to the complete truth. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Sorry, Frank," he finally said. "You're right. I guess it was just . . . cumulative," he twitched a small, sad smile, "the slow, steady drip of disapproval. We're not just talking about Gault here."
"Oh," Frank gave him a considering look, "that. Well, you know it's like when a cop gets shot, everybody rallies around, even if it's someone you wouldn't cross the hall to say hi to—all of a sudden, you're lining up to donate blood for him—"
Mark felt himself flinch. He wasn't sure if Frank had caught it.
He thought the lieutenant's eyes had gone a little narrower, but Harper forged ahead. "—and all those guys up there, that's what it is. Something like this, it's an attack on the system. Hell, on a good day you know half of 'em can't stand Milt. They think he's nuts."
Mark flinched again. "Yeah," he said quietly, "that's part of it."
"Hah," Frank cocked his head abruptly, "on account of you? That's what you're thinking? Oh, no, they thought that a long time before he hauled you home to Gulls Way. You're just the latest thing on his list of eccentricities." Harper grinned.
"Thanks, Frank." Mark managed to look chagrined.
"Well," Frank shrugged again, "I gotta admit even I looked at him a little cockeyed when he told me he was going to try it again. You know, after Beal." Harper was looking a little off to the side, as if he wasn't too sure how this confession was going to go over. "And then, when I found out he'd yanked somebody out of a pending case—the whole 'judicial stay' thing, and then used you to investigate a murder, oh, I really let him have it."
Mark put his hands in his pockets and dropped his chin another inch. Frank reached out and gave him a quick tap on the shoulder. They were eye-to-eye again.
"Anyway, you know what? He started telling me what you'd done, how you'd stuck your neck out for Barbara Johnson, risked everything to get that damn car back for her. Now that was nuts. Did you two ever think beyond step one on that? I mean, it was unique, a prototype. What the hell was she going to do with it?"
Mark frowned. "Ah . . ."
"Yeah," Harper smiled, "exactly. I think my second thought mighta been, 'Geez, this one's not too bright.'"
"A nice change of pace from J. J. Beal," Mark said ruefully.
"Nah," Frank shook his head quickly, "he set me straight on that. He said you weren't stupid, just too damn impulsive for your own good . . . and you had a smart mouth. He figured between those two things, you'd make a lousy liar . . . to him at any rate.
"Yeah, maybe that's what it was," the lieutenant said, after a pause, looking thoughtful for a moment. "Maybe." He went on slowly, "I think he was tired of being lied to. All that stuff in court, all those years. And the politics, you know it is a political office.
"I think he just wanted to be dealt to straight off the top of the deck for a change." Harper nodded to himself. "You can't blame him for that, and I don't think that makes him 'crazy'. That's what he was looking for, and there you were.
"Anyway," Frank exhaled slowly, looking up toward the fifth floor windows again, "does it really matter what any of the rest of them think? He's never cared, and I thought that was one thing you two kinda had in common."
"Maybe he is crazy," Mark said quietly. "Maybe we both are."
"Well," Frank grinned, "maybe . . . but if you are, I think it's a good kind." There was a pause, and then, "Wanna go upstairs? We really ought to make sure Gault's okay."
The elevator doors opened on the fifth floor and they were suddenly face-to-face with the man in question. Gault was frowning, and stepped back with an abrupt look up at the other two. The frown edged over into a scowl, then was forced back into a more civil demeanor with some apparent effort.
"Afternoon, Lieutenant." His greeting pointedly ignored the younger man. He stepped back slightly more to allow them off, then tossed a quick look over his shoulder as he entered the elevator. "He's not in a very good mood today . . . but it looks like he's getting his strength back." What followed might uncharitably have been interpreted as a sigh of regret.
Then the doors closed between them and Gault, but even before that, Frank had cast a knowing look at the man beside him. Sister Donovan was sorting out charts at the desk. She caught Mark's eye as they passed.
"You found the blood bank okay?" she asked with a smile.
"Ah . . . yes," Mark said, sounding a little hesitant.
Frank cast a quick, almost surreptitious look at the man—no cotton ball, no bandage, and it didn't take a trained detective to note that he was self-conscious, as though he'd been caught in a lie.
Harper frowned, putting it all together. He'd visited the blood bank just the week before. He'd read the qualifications list. They hadn't gone five more steps down the hallway before he pulled up short.
"Wait a sec." He put a hand beneath Mark's elbow, pulling him a little to the side. "Did I give the wrong lecture down there?"
Mark was working on a smile. It might've come across as a little weary, but he was obviously trying for sincere.
"No, Frank, I needed that one, too." He shook his head, then went on, this time more slowly. "It was such a stupid thing. But to not even be able to do that—"
"Well," Harper lifted his face and gave him a hard look. "I think he already knows you'd bleed for him." He couldn't help it, the emphasis was harsh.
Mark's smile, now patently false, stayed in place. "It's just that a person gets tired of being damaged goods," he dropped his voice to something just above a whisper, "and it's not just guys like Gault who think so."
"Well," Frank jerked his chin in the direction of Hardcastle's room with rising exasperation. "He sure the hell doesn't think that."
"I know, I know," Mark still spoke softly, "and I've figured it out, really . . . He's alive, and I'm not going back to prison, and I still get to be Tonto, and anything else I have to complain about now is just whining."
Harper frowned. "I didn't say that."
"Maybe not," Mark still held onto the smile, though it looked a little thin, "but you were thinking it, weren't you? And, anyway, all the important stuff is back in place . . . with everything else, I'll just deal."
The kid had turned away, almost abruptly, as if to indicate that the subject was closed, or maybe that it had never been open to discussion in the first place. Then the door to the room was open, and Mark had clearly set his shoulders a little straighter, as if to remove all signs of doubt.
And the man in the bed smiled as he said, gruffly, "Where ya been, kiddo? I've been stuck here half the morning with that idiot, Gault. Off flirting with the nurses again, huh?"
Frank heard the younger man; his tone was absolutely even.
"Hell, Hardcase, who has time for flirting? The damn pool doesn't clean itself."
This was accompanied by a quick grin—and with a mildness that belied the words—as Harper watched the man deal cards from the bottom of the deck as deftly as he'd ever seen it done.