Disclaimer: I may have taken slight liberties with the time line; my apologies if that disturbs anyone. The characters aren't mine and I'm making no money.
Author's Note: While attending my nephew's recent graduation ceremony, I heard them announce 'Mark Ryan McCormick', and when I looked down at the bleachers next to me, lo and behold, there sat this little plot bunny. Well, really more of a plot-less bunny, but it still wanted a home...
Pomp & Circumstance
Following a long afternoon spent refereeing an argument between Judge Milton C. Hardcastle and Lieutenant Frank Harper, Mark McCormick had his mind on autopilot. The argument itself, focused on the merits of private surveillance vs. the sworn duty of an officer, had become more than a little heated after Mark and the judge had inadvertently stepped into the middle of an ongoing investigation of the Williams family and the money laundering operation they were running out of their chain of Laundromats. The irony of that only appeared to be obvious to the ex-con, as the other two apparently found nothing humorous in the entire situation. Though Hardcastle had put up quite a fight, in the end Frank had come out the winner, and had ordered the two of them to step down and turn over anything they had to the task force that was handling the operation. Mark had to agree with the outcome of this one—after all, Frank's badge was more than just honorary. To his credit, however, Hardcastle seemed to be willing to accept defeat graciously (when there was no other option left available to him) and he let it go. He spent the first half of the drive back from L.A. talking about finding a new case.
They were heading home for dinner when Mark turned the Coyote right ontoMorning View Drive to avoid some road work on the PCH, but they only managed to go about 100 yards before coming to a dead stop. Traffic was no longer moving, as cars lined both sides of the roadway while others were jockeying for a spot to park. Moving in and amongst the vehicles, nearly overtaking the roadway itself were people by the hundreds, all of them dressed well and hurrying in the same general direction. Many carried balloons or flowers, and the noise of conversation filtered in through the open roof of their car.
He glanced over at the judge in the passenger seat as he shifted back into second gear. "What's going on?" he asked, intrigued. "Maybe it's like a wedding for some star? Oohh, who do you think it is?"
The judge turned slightly to see the crowds. "Nah, not a wedding," he replied. "Looks like they're heading towards the high school. Must be graduation night."
"Oh," Mark returned, slightly disappointed. "It's like a mob scene out here. Look at all these people! Just how many graduates can there be, anyway?"
"I think there's around one hundred fifty, maybe two hundred. If you add in all the families of those kids, you get..."
"A mob scene," Mark finished for him. "A preppy mob scene. It's like a prison riot with the cons decked out in Lacoste. I don't think I've ever seen so many little alligators in one place. Not even in Florida, though down there we used to see them sometimes crossing the sidewalks around dinner time. Or maybe those were crocodiles," he mused. "I never could tell the difference."
"Just watch where you're driving, will ya? You're gonna end up taking out an entire family in one shot."
"Huh, I should be so lucky. To rid the world of one rich, preppy family has got to fall under the category of public service," Mark groused, though he did slow down to a near crawl.
Hardcastle narrowed his eyes. "That sounds like sour grapes talking, kiddo. What have you got against rich folks anyway?" he queried, trying not to take any personal offense from what had been said.
McCormick made a noise high in the back of his throat and smirked. "Rich folks? Nothing really. But preppies—ick. I mean, c'mon. No self-respecting guy would ever wear pink, or that indescribable shade of puke green. It's just wrong."
Hardcastle chuckled. "Yeah, but this is Malibu. It's a preppy town. And it's graduation. Don't you remember your own graduation?"
Mark's smile faded slightly. "Uh...not exactly," he hedged.
"Why not?" the judge asked, curious. "You did graduate, right? Where'd you tell me you went to school again?"
"Beauregard Vocational High. In Florida. Class of '71. And yes, I graduated. I just wasn't there for the graduation." His tone increased slightly in intensity.
"Why not?" the judge repeated.
"I was...busy," came the terse reply.
Heedless of the warning signs that he should have recognized easily after the past ten months spent in the company of his young friend, Hardcastle pressed on. "Too busy for your own high school graduation? What would make you miss that?"
Silence prevailed for a moment before Mark finally caved. "A night in lock-up."
"Ahh..." Hardcastle snapped his mouth shut and allowed another moment's silence, hoping his misstep wasn't going to put the younger man into one of his classic funks. He sighed. "Sorry kiddo. I wasn't trying to pry."
McCormick navigated the Coyote through the last of the traffic, grateful for the distraction, before glancing over at his passenger. He sighed in return. "Look, it's no big deal. It was just a misunderstanding."
Hardcastle was grateful that the kid seemed to be handling the conversation in stride. "Misunderstanding, huh?" He felt a smile form at the familiar territory.
McCormick returned the grin. "Yeah. Of the 'repossession' variety."
"You were repossessing cars in high school? Child prodigy, hmmm?"
Laughing now, McCormick explained. "Not exactly. I was eighteen, nearly nineteen when I graduated." Seeing the look of confusion on the older man's face, he continued. "See, school wasn't that big a deal to me. I pretty much could do without it, and did, whenever I had the opportunity. But during my stint in juvie—well, they don't give you a choice, so I had to go to classes. I got out sometime after my 17th birthday, just a semester shy of graduating, but I wasn't sticking around. That's when I cut out and headed for Florida."
The judge found himself listening intently to this unexpected glimpse into McCormick's past—something they rarely shared with each other. But he looked forward to gaining some insight into anything that had shaped the young ex-con in his custody into the enigma that he was today: a not-so-hardened criminal with an extreme soft spot and a sense of justice almost as strong as his own.
"About six months later, I was spending most of my time at the speedway in Lake City. I'd met up with Flip, and he'd kind of taken me under his wing. You know, giving me work in the pit whenever he could, letting me crash on his sofa, things like that." His eyes softened and his face took on a wistful expression as he remembered his friend and the tragedy that had followed; the same tragedy that had been the catalyst for his current life at Gulls Way.
After a moment or two, Mark continued. "But see, Flip, well, he was a firm believer in creating your own destiny. He was always on me to do the best I could, no matter what that might be in. And he also thought that most guys would end up nowhere without an education."
Hardcastle nodded to himself, wishing once again he'd had the opportunity to meet Johnny 'Flip' Johnson. He had little doubt that he would have liked the man quite a bit.
"So he made me a deal: he'd let me continue to sleep on his couch, as long as I went back and finished up school." McCormick shook his head, realizing now that he'd never adequately said 'thank you' to Flip for that. Sometimes the best things turned out to be the ones you were blackmailed into.
"Anyway, by then I was already over 18, so I didn't have to worry about getting tossed back into the system in New Jersey. He requested a copy of my birth certificate for me, got me enrolled at Beauregard, and as they say, the rest is history." He pulled into the turnoff for Gulls Way and waited while Hardcastle found the remote for the gate before pulling into the circle and shutting off the engine.
Hardcastle lifted himself onto the window ledge and swung his legs over, waiting for the younger man to join him. He found himself in the unusual position of not quite knowing what to say, secretly hoping Mark would continue his story. He headed up the front steps and held the screen door aside to give McCormick access, as he already had his keys out. He followed him into the kitchen and watched as he went straight for the refrigerator, pulling out the meatballs he'd made earlier in the day, along with the jug of orange juice from which he took a long swig.
"Hey!" Hardcastle fumed in indignation, reaching in the cabinet for a glass. "Do you mind? Some of us prefer our juice without backwash." He handed the glass to McCormick, who smiled evilly before obediently pouring the juice into it.
"Ah, this is the kind with the pulp still in. You'll never even notice the backwash."
Hardcastle grimaced and reached around him for the milk, pointedly ignoring Mark's offer of OJ.
Mark laughed and put the jug back in the fridge, pulling out the makings of a salad. "Why don't you make yourself useful and put on some water to boil?"
Hardcastle put down his glass and wiped off his milk mustache, pulling out the requested pot and moving to the sink. He was hoping to resume their conversation, and not knowing how else to handle it, he jumped right back in. "So you missed your graduation."
"Yeah. But I told you, it was a misunderstanding. It really was a legit repossession; it just took a while for the paper work to come through." He rinsed off the lettuce and began shredding it by hand while the judge searched in the cabinet for the box of spaghetti.
Finding the box and pulling out a jar of sauce to go with it, Hardcastle set them down on the counter and looked at the man busily preparing his meal. "Didn't it bother you?" he asked quietly. "To miss the ceremony and all?" The thought of the young Mark McCormick working hard to overcome some of the obstacles life had thrown his way and being denied the reward that went with it left a sour taste in his mouth, and a feeling in his chest that he didn't want to examine too closely.
Mark stopped his meal preparations and looked closely at the judge, an expression of bewilderment on his face. Seeing the solemn expression staring back at him, he shook his head emphatically. "No, Judge. It didn't bother me. I mean, I wasn't crazy about spending the night in lock-up, but other than that..." His attempt at humor fell flat, and seeing the other man wasn't convinced, he continued. "Look, I wasn't doing it for the ceremony. I was doing it...well, mostly I was doing it because I needed a place to stay and Flip laid down the rules. I'd only been at the high school for a few months, and I wasn't interested in making friends there. Most of my free time was spent down at the track, and there wasn't anybody there who cared much about coming to see me get my diploma. Well, maybe Flip," he corrected himself, "and Barbara. But me; well, I was just glad I could say I got it, you know?"
Hardcastle looked pensive for a moment, and Mark wondered if he was going to be able to let this thing go. Most of what had been shared so far was surface stuff, but there were plenty of things in his past that he'd just as soon not have the Honorable Milton C. Hardcastle knowing about. This conversation had started out innocently enough, and he'd been willing to walk a few strides down memory lane with the judge in tow, but maybe it was time to redirect the conversation before he found himself making a wrong turn.
"Besides, that wasn't the end of my stellar academic career," he tossed out, waiting to see if the judge would bite.
"No?" Predictably, the judge's interest was sparked.
Mark resumed making the salad, reaching for the tomato and grabbing a knife from the drawer. "No. Turns out I wasn't that bad a student." He turned back to Hardcastle with a grin on his face. "Shocking, isn't it?"
Hardcastle snorted. "I suppose now you're going to tell me you have a Bachelor's degree, right? Maybe a Master's tucked away somewhere? Cause I gotta tell you, sport, none of that showed up in your file."
Mark chuckled. "Yeah, well, I'm full of surprises."
"You're full of something, alright," the jurist muttered, reaching to place the spaghetti into the now boiling water.
Mark ignored the aside and continued. "Well, no, no degrees hidden away. But I did actually take some courses. See, there was this girl..."
"Oh, of course," Hardcastle interrupted. "Should've known sooner or later it would come down to a girl."
"Come on. I'm not that predictable," Mark whined.
Hardcastle's only response was to stare blandly at the other man.
"Fine," Mark capitulated, grabbing a cucumber and waving it in the other man's face to emphasize his point. "But this was different. See, her name was Cindy, and I met her almost as soon as I got down to Florida. We dated for quite a while; almost two years. In fact," he mused, "I think that may be the longest I dated anyone." He started peeling the cucumber.
"You know, you should leave the skins on that. That's where all the nutrients come from," Hardcastle observed.
Mark looked at the cucumber as if it held the answers. "Um, I think that's potatoes. Or carrots. Anyway, I'm pretty sure it's just an old wives' tale." He went back to peeling.
"Maybe that's how they got to be old wives."
Hardcastle smiled insincerely.
"Okay, I'm dating Cindy, see, and she was going to school, so I figured maybe it was a good way to spend time together. So I took some courses here and there, in between working for Flip. And the occasional completely legitimate repossession," he added. He assembled the rest of the salad and placed it on the table, returning to the refrigerator for the dressing. "Did those meatballs get hot enough in the microwave?"
Milt gave the pasta one last stir before moving to the microwave to check. "Nope, I think they need a little more." He reset the timer and pushed the power button. "What kind of courses?"
"Oh, the usual general studies stuff. Some math, English, science. Nothing fancy." He grabbed the dishes and began setting the table.
"How'd it go?"
Mark smiled enigmatically. "It went."
"Did it work?"
Mark paused, not following the judge's train of thought. "Did what work?"
"Your plan to spend more time with Cindy."
"Oh. Um, well maybe not quite like I planned. But yeah, we got to spend some time together. Until she dumped me for another guy. Somebody she met in her anthropology class, can you believe that?"
"She dumped you?" Hardcastle echoed.
Mark held the plate he'd been placing down halfway above the table, glancing up at the judge. "Did I say that? I meant 'we-mutually-agreed-it-might-be-for-the-best-if-we-saw-other-people'," he recited in an innocent monotone.
Quick decisions based on the facts happened to be the judge's specialty, and he wasn't buying. "She dumped you," he confirmed.
Mark grinned again. "Like a rock. For some idiot in a pink Izod."
"We're back to that again, are we? Is this the reason for your deep seated hatred of all things preppy?"
Mark grimaced, still slightly uncomfortable after all this time with how well the judge could read his thoughts. "Maybe..." he trailed off. He took the spaghetti off the stove and poured it into the strainer before returning it to the pan. Placing it on the trivet in the center of the table, he took his seat while the judge brought the meatballs and sauce over. "Oh, hey, grab the Italian bread will you're up, would you?"
Hardcastle gave him a dirty look, but complied with the request.
Silence reigned while the men dug in, but it was comfortable, like a favorite well-worn t-shirt. It wasn't long before Mark picked up the conversational thread.
"I don't think I hate preppies," he considered. "I just don't see much point to them, that's all."
"I wear Izods," Hardcastle pointed out unnecessarily.
"Yeah, but not pink ones. And you don't turn up your collar either."
"You turn up your collar. I've seen you do it on that sport coat you have."
Mark felt his cheeks redden. Trust the old guy to call him out. "Not the same thing," he muttered.
The judge merely raised an eyebrow.
"Besides, I already said I don't hate all preppies. Just one in particular." He shoveled another forkful of spaghetti in.
"The one who she dumped you for, right?"
"'xac-ly," Mark agreed, though the word could hardly be made out for the food in his mouth. He swallowed. "Clayton Pasternak. Waste of space if I ever saw one. I mean, this guy had all the personality of a throw pillow. And no wonder, with a name like that. Clayton Pasternak. What kind of parents would saddle their kid with a name like Clayton Pasternak?"
The judge's mouth tightened imperceptibly. "What's wrong with Clayton?" He asked, his voice low and quiet.
"What's wrong with Clayton? C'mon, judge, what do you think? Clayton? Nobody deserves to be called Clayton no matter what..."
He broke off suddenly as he noticed the older man's face. "What?"
Hardcastle said nothing, merely jabbed the lone remaining meatball on his plate with more force than necessary and kept his gaze toward his meal.
Mark did a little mental calculating, not at all sure he liked the direction his mind was taking him. "No. No way. Uh-uh. Don't tell me...that's what the "C" stands for? Milton Clayton Hardcastle?" He put his fork down quietly, wondering if backtracking was possible or if it were too late. The silence coming from his dinner companion left him doubting it would be enough.
Hardcastle raised his gaze and stared directly into the other man's blue eyes, noting the mild tension there and smiling inwardly.
"Gotcha!" He chuckled, obviously quite pleased with himself.
"Oh, nice." Mark sat back in his chair as the sudden tension drained from his face. "Give me a heart attack, why don't you. Isn't making fun of your parole officer's name grounds to revoke?" He shook his head, though he had to give the old guy points for that one. He'd had him, but good.
"It is in this house," Hardcastle agreed soberly.
Mark picked up his fork and returned his attention to his meal. "What does the 'C' stand for anyway?"
"Hah! Like I'm gonna share that with you," Hardcastle dodged the question.
"C'mon, Hardcase, I've been here nearly a year already, and you still haven't told me."
"And I never will."
Mark glared at him. "You're a donkey, you know that?"
"So I've been told." He shifted gears. "You know, kiddo, maybe you should think about taking some more courses. We're not too far from the community college. Maybe some of those credits from before would transfer."
Mark shrugged. For some reason, he didn't want to tell the judge he'd already been thinking about it and had, in fact, looked into the possibility. Maybe it was the old fear of failure, but he figured he'd keep that information to himself for now.
"Besides, it's always a good way to meet girls, right?" Hardcastle stood, carrying his now empty plate over to the sink. "Hey, get these dishes finished up, okay? There's a good movie coming on in a few minutes." He walked over and laid one hand on the swinging door.
"Let me guess, another fabulous John Wayne double header? 'The Searchers', followed by 'The Sons of Katie Elder'?" Mark headed to the sink and turned on the water.
"Nope," the judge smiled, "something different. An old Dustin Hoffman movie. I think you're gonna like it. It's called 'The Graduate'."