8.

"It was the guards, not the inmates?" Warden Evans, sporting a black eye, sat behind his oak desk, questioning McCormick.

"There were a couple of trustees there, but, yeah, it was mostly guards." McCormick's face was nearly concealed by tape and gauze. Stitches ran even with his left eyebrow, the doctor assuring him there wouldn't be a noticeable scar. His right arm was in a sling and thick bandages were wrapped around his chest and midsection. Hardcastle hovered nearby without seeming to, lending McCormick aid when needed and wisely refraining when aid wasn't necessary.

"We'd like to identify them, but frankly, I doubt if anything will be done about them – except for a few suspensions and transfers. Kyle Jackson and Frank Bennings will be fired, but as for any charges… Well, it's your word against theirs, and I don't have to tell you whose will be believed, do I?"

Hardcastle exploded. "He's almost killed and all the men responsible will get is a suspension?! That's a pile of sh--!"

"Judge! Calm down. I'm only an ex-con, nobody will believe me," McCormick interrupted.

"I believe you," Hardcastle protested.

Mark smiled. "I know. And I think the warden does, too. But all a prison review board will see is another ex-con with a grudge. It's a fact of prison life, Hardcase, live with it. I did. For two years I was nothing. And once a con, always a con." McCormick fixed Hardcastle with an unreadable look. "Wonderful, isn't it?"

"That's bull, and you know it." The Judge waved a hand towards the window overlooking the main yard. "You were here and now you're out. Hopefully having learned something. You won't make the same mistake of doing anything that would send you back here, willya?"

"No, sir, not if I can help it. That still doesn't change the facts though. Aww, Hardcase, don't get excited about it. It doesn't bother me, not really. 'Cause you see, those guys are marked now. If anything comes up about them again, it'll be believed, and they'll be charged for certain. No sweat."

"That's a fine attitude, Mr. McCormick, a fine attitude. We'll be calling you for the hearings, probably later in the week." Evans rose, shook hands, and escorted them out of the office.

As they walked down the hallway, the Judge gazed at his companion. McCormick looked back uneasily. "What's wrong, Judge?"

"I don't know, kid. I don't think the doctors were right about your injuries. I think you got a bad knock on the head, because what I heard in there wasn't the Mark McCormick I know." He snorted. "'A fine attitude'? Christ! Nearly burst out laughin' right then and there. If you'd been any more servile you'd've been polishing the guy's shoes."

"Aww, Judge…"

"Don't 'aww, Judge' me. What are you up to, McCormick?" Hardcastle stopped at the gate to the outside, grabbin McCormick by the right shoulder.

"Nothing. Really!" Mark slipped loose, walking through the gates as the guard buzzed them open.

Sludge Carlonii was standing in the waiting room and signaled McCormick over to him.

"Wait here, Judge. I have to speak with him for a minute." McCormick's face was set, eyes evasive.

Hardcastle watched as the two men spoke quietly, then Mark nodded reluctantly. Carlonii started an embrace, but McCormick's stiff posture stopped him. Contenting himself with a hearty handshake, Sludge called out to the Judge as McCormick rejoined him. "Take care of my boy, Hardcastle. I want him in one piece when I get out on parole, got that?"

Hardcastle noted McCormick's tight lipped silence and paused, turning toward Carlonii. "You won't ever make parole, not if I have anything to say about it. You're in here for life, Carlonii. I appreciate the help earlier, but that's where it ends. Understand?"

"Sure, Judge, I understand. And I see that you do, too."

McCormick rushed outside, nearly running to the GMC's passenger side and climbing in. He didn't speak the entire trip back to the estate, staring out the window at the passing traffic and scenery without seeing any of it.

As they stopped in front of the Gatehouse, Hardcastle could contain himself no longer. "McCormick, did you make a deal with Sludge Carlonii?"

"I don't know what you mean," McCormick muttered in reply, reaching for the door handle.

Hardcastle caught his arm. "Answer me."

For long seconds the only sound was the quietly idling motor of the GMC. The interior of the cab was dimly lit with a greenish glow from the dash, the outside darkness a welcoming refuge. Then the tenseness drained away. McCormick slumped back against the seat. "What does it matter if I did or didn't?"

"It matters to you, enough to make you go all cold and distant on me. Look, I'm not gonna sit here and pretend I know what it was like for you in there, but I think maybe I have a pretty good idea – "

"No! No, you haven't any idea what it was like!" There was more bitterness in McCormick's voice than anger. "All you had to do was sit in judgment and pass sentence. You didn't have to live through it, and you don't have to live with it. You want an answer, Hardcastle? How's this? I did what I had to do to survive. Because prison is survival and the guards aren't there to protect inmates, but to keep them from getting out. There's only three ways to survive in prison: you buy your life with drugs, money, or sex. And there are very, very few exceptions." McCormick swung the truck door open, slammed it as he headed for the Gatehouse.

Hardcastle followed him inside, found him sitting on the couch in the semi-darkness of the living room. Only the light on the lower landing glowed faintly, and the Judge didn't bother with the other lights. He simply sat down in the chair opposite the couch.

"You didn't answer my question about Carlonii."

"What about him?"

"What were you talking about in the waiting room?"

"He said he'd take care of the guys who worked me over. That's all."

"And what did you say to that?"

"I asked him not to. Okay?"

"Okay. What was your deal with him?" Hardcastle wasn't really sure why he was being so persistent on that subject, but he felt he had to know. "I know you don't do drugs, and you sure as hell haven't any money…" The question was left unspoken.

"Judge, I don't need this. I mean, if I say 'no', you won't believe me. And if I say 'yes', there isn't anything you can do about it, so why bother? Does any of it make me any less a person?"

Hardcastle watched the ex-con settle back wearily into the deep cushions, rubbing a hand over his face and wincing at the pain in his side. McCormick never talked about his time in prison, with the exception of a sarcastic comment here and there, but he held a deep terror of ever returning. Hardcastle felt it was important that he knew the cause of that terror. "McCormick, were you and Carlonii…I mean, did you and he ever…well, you know…" It was becoming more difficult than he thought.

There was almost a smile. "No, Hardcase, we didn't 'you know', willingly or unwillingly."

"Someone else then? Or gang rape? I know that happens a lot."

The younger man shrugged slightly. "A few attempts, but I was lucky. None of them were successful."

"How about the 'someone else'? Was there someone bigger, stronger, more important than Carlonii? Someone who took you as a lover?"

"No!" McCormick knew his response came too quick, but it was true. Well, half true. He made an effort for calm, for indifference. "There was someone else who protected me then, but didn't want anything from me. If you can believe that. It was hard for me to believe at first. Stefan Carlonii was the number two man and he had me picked out the first day that I arrived at San Q. I was twenty-six, nice looking, and fresh meat…it was only a matter of time. But it never happened, and Carlonii never forgot me. When I was paroled, it was like I had been given a second chance at life. I knew I could never afford to go back to San Quentin."

"Why not? What happened to your protector?"

There was another heavy silence. When he did answer, there was a note of regret in Mark's voice. "He…killed himself. Last Christmas Eve."

"Oh."

"Right, oh. That left Carlonii as the main man. I had to deal with him, however he might want it. And if he ever makes parole, I'll have to pay up, again however he wants it. That's what he was reminding me about back in the waiting room. I had sought out his protection and help. I agreed to the terms, even after I asked him not to retaliate, he told me that the deal was still on as far as he was concerned. After all, he did keep his side of the bargain, even if it was different than I expected. So, if I ever get tossed back inside or he gets out, that's it."

It was Hardcastle's turn to sit back in silence, mulling over everything that McCormick had said. And he knew he couldn't guarantee that Carlonii wouldn't make parole. Parole boards could be irrationally unpredictable at times. That left one other avenue, but he had another question to be answered before he considered that route. "Tell me something, kiddo, now that I know why you're so terrified of going back inside, why the hell didn't you tell the cops where to find me? Could have saved yourself a lot of grief."

"I know. When they first took me in, I figured Carlton would check in pretty soon, clear things up and that I had a better chance of squeaking through than you did if I blew your cover. And I take it that things worked out okay at the hospital, seeing as you showed up at Quentin when you did." At Hardcastle's nod, he continued. "I admit, I wasn't so tough when they shut that cell door on me, but by then no one was listening to anything I said. Same old story."

"Hmmm. Tell me, would five grand buy off Carlonii?"

"Probably. But I don't have five grand."

"Well, I do. We'll just put it on account."

McCormick felt as if the weight of the world had just been taken off his shoulders. He couldn't help the chuckle that escaped or the smart remark. "On account of what?"

Hardcastle rose, stretched. "On account of it's 3 a.m., I'm tired, I wanna go to bed – without," he added, "taking your problems with me. But mainly 'cause I need the peace of mind."

He was out the door before McCormick could reply, tossing back a final, "Good night."

The End