Author's Note - PLEASE READ!!: Challenges can be a funny thing. I guess when you take a single starting point, it shouldn't be surprising that sometimes you end up going down the same path. But even I was eerily mystified at exactly how many similarities appeared between this story and the story posted just yesterday by L.M. Lewis called 'Hauntings'. I would like to assure you that this was in no way a case of plagiarism, just two stories going in similar directions. I also offer my sincere thanks to LML for being gracious enough to allow me to post anyway. And if you only want to read one, read hers--it's better.

A costume and a pumpkin, with a black cat and some bats thrown in for good measure—my response to the Halloween challenge. The characters aren't mine and no profit is being made.

Mischief Night – by Jaz

"I'm not wearing that!" Mark stared at the costume the judge held in his hand in something akin to horror. "No way, Jose, uh-uh, not gonna happen!"

Hardcastle laid the outfit against his chest as if to model it. "What are you whining for? This is perfect."

"I'm not whining," Mark argued, "and I'm not wearing it. Perfect? Hah!"

"C'mon, kiddo, you'll be the hit of the party. Everybody will love the joke."

Mark looked at the black and white striped prison outfit with disdain. "Trust me, judge, half the people there won't see it as a joke. Besides, I've already got my Tonto costume all set." He scooped out the last of the pumpkin guts onto the newspaper and picked up the knife to get started on carving the face.

"Tonto? Hmph. This would be much better." Milt hung the costume on one of the cabinet handles and walked over to the fridge, pulling out two beers.

"Not if you go as the Masked Man. But, hey, if you like it so much, why don't you wear it?" Mark asked, reaching for the can the judge offered.

"We're not exactly the same size," Hardcastle pointed out.

"We don't exactly have the same resume either. Tell you what," he suggested, pausing to pop the top on the can, "how about if you wear that, and I'll borrow your old robes and gavel. Now, that will be the hit of the party."

"Oh, yeah, that'll be a laugh a minute," Milt grumbled. "You know, I could just leave you home."

Mark perked up instantly. "Really?" he asked, his eyes lit up like a child on Christmas morning.

"No, not really!" Hardcastle snapped. "Mattie would hand me my head if I showed up without you. For some reason I can't fathom, she likes you." He smiled patronizingly at the younger man.

McCormick returned the smile as he thought of his favorite lady judge. "Well, she always did have good taste. Hey, I've been meaning to ask you--if the party is at her place this year, why'd you make me hang up all those decorations?"

"I told you already, I like Halloween. And the decorations are for the trick-or-treaters." The judge pulled out a chair and sat down next to Mark. "Those eyes are too close together," he critiqued, pointing to the pumpkin.

Mark brushed aside the opinion with the ease borne from much practice. "The eyes are fine," he retorted. "And what trick-or-treaters? It's a ten-minute walk up the driveway. Nobody's going to want to make that hike for the lousy packet of Sweet-tarts you're giving out. As usual, you're too cheap to get anything worthwhile. Why couldn't you get some nice Milky Way or Snickers bars?" he complained.

"Because you'd just eat 'em all anyway."

The doorbell rang and McCormick jumped up, halting the judge's griping. "Pizza's here!" He grabbed the twenty-dollar bill off the table and hustled out the kitchen door.

"Make sure you close the gate and turn the alarm back on once he's gone," Hardcastle called after him. "It's mischief night, and I don't want anyone getting in here to cause trouble."

"Yeah, yeah," Mark said under his breath as he headed to the front door. He actually agreed with Hardcase on this point, though; it had taken him days to get the toilet paper out of the trees after last year's pranksters had paid them a visit.

The judge had cleaned up from the pumpkin carving and pulled out plates and napkins by the time Mark returned laden with the pizzas. He raised an eyebrow at the second box. "Two?"

"Yeah, I'm hungry. And I'm sick of just eating your pepperoni, mushroom and green peppers. I was in the mood for the 'McCormick Special'." Mark laid both boxes down on the table, lifting the lid to see which was which.

"Dare I even ask what a 'McCormick Special' is?" Hardcastle inquired, sitting back down and pulling the remaining box closer to his plate.

"It's double cheese with sausage, mushroom, pepperoni, onions, pineapple and extra jalapeños," he grinned, pulling two slices onto his plate.

Hardcastle made an expression of distaste. "You're kidding," he stated flatly.

"Nope," McCormick answered over the first mouthful. "I never kid about pizza."

"Pineapple on pizza with extra jalapeños? I think that might be a crime against nature," Hardcastle shuddered.

"Don't knock it 'til you've tried it. Want some?"

"Ah, no. Thanks. I'd actually like to sleep tonight, if you don't mind." The judge took a bite from his own slice, more than content with his ordinary fare.

"Your loss."

The silence the men enjoyed while eating was broken a few minutes later by the ringing of the phone. McCormick, who had managed to down two-thirds of his pie by the time the judge had finished three slices, wiped his hands on a napkin and went to answer it.

"Hello?" he said, then paused. "Oh, hey Frank. What? No, no big deal; it's only pizza. You want to talk to him?"

The judge listened to one side of the conversation.

"Yeah, I can do that." Mark went silent once again. "Really?" he asked, becoming more serious. "Anything to worry about?"

Hardcastle stood up, preparing to take the phone away, but Mark waved him off.

"Alright. I'll tell him. Yeah, you too. See ya." Mark hung up the phone and turned to face Hardcastle. "That was Frank," he said.

Milt gave him a look that plainly said 'yeah, I got that already', and folded his arms, waiting.

"He said to tell you that Feliciano made bail, and at the moment they don't know where he is." The concern Mark felt was apparent in his tone. Feliciano, a local drug dealer they'd stumbled across during another investigation, was the current president of the Milton C. Hardcastle Fan Club. He'd stated his intentions to 'do the judge in' more than once during the booking process before his PD had managed to get him to shut up.

"They out looking for him?" Hardcastle asked, seemingly unconcerned.

"No. Frank said he hasn't done anything new, so they don't have any grounds to track him down. But they're still going to send a squad car by every hour or so for the night, just to be safe."

Milt clapped his hands together, eager to get back to his dinner. "Good," he said, returning to the table. "Let's finish up. "'Stagecoach' starts in ten minutes, and you know I hate missing the beginning. Grab me another beer while you're up, will ya?

Mark shook his head and went for the refrigerator. "Doesn't this stuff ever bother you? I mean, this guy is seriously annoyed, and it sounded like he had every intention of making you a part of history."

"Yeah, well, he'd have to get in line. Threats are nothing new when you've been in my line of work as long as I have, kiddo. I learned a long time ago not to let them bother me, otherwise I'd just become an old worry-wart."

Mark chuckled at the image of Hardcastle locked inside the house, wringing his hands in fear. "I guess so," he agreed, handing him the beer. "Still doesn't hurt to be a little more careful now and then."

"And I am," the judge agreed solicitously. "I told you to put the alarm on, didn't I?"

Smiling, still shaking his head, Mark sat down and worked studiously on finishing his pizza.

00000

Mark was just finishing wiping down the counters when he heard the doorbell ring. Slinging the towel over his shoulder, he headed out of the kitchen.

"I thought I told you to shut the gate!" Hardcastle grumbled from the den.

"I did!" Mark protested, slowing as he neared the front door. Taking a moment to peek out the window and make sure there were no errant alleged drug dealers coming to call, he found himself frowning in confusion at the empty porch. He opened the door and cautiously stuck his head out.

"Oh, man," he whined, surveying the damage outside. White rivers of toilet paper streamed from the trees surrounding the circular drive, with several rolls bobbing soggily in the fountain. Broken eggs lined the walkway, and Mark was glad they'd taken the time to park the cars inside the garage. Dried eggs wreaked havoc on custom paint jobs.

Hardcastle had come up behind him and started breathing heavily. "Dammit McCormick!" he yelled, "I thought I told you to lock the gate!"

"And I'm telling you I did!" he yelled back. "The little rats must have come up from the beach side, judge. If you don't believe me, go out and look for yourself. The gate's closed."

Hardcastle snorted, pulling his hand over his mouth. He took another look out the front door and made a conscious effort to settle down. "Looks like you got your work cut out for you, hotshot. I want this place restored to rights tomorrow, and it ain't gonna be easy." He turned and headed back to the den as the opening credits of the movie rolled over the screen.

Mark closed the door and followed him. "Tell me something I don't know," he muttered, flopping into one of the armchairs.

00000

The movie was nearing the end when Mark shifted uncomfortably and felt the first rumblings across his midsection. He gave it another few minutes before deciding it wouldn't be ignored, and he rose slowly from the chair.

Hardcastle barely glanced up. "Where're you going?" he asked.

"Bathroom," Mark mumbled. "I suddenly remembered why it's been so long since I've had a 'McCormick Special'."

"Told ya," Hardcastle commented, the picture of sympathy.

Mark finished his business and was making his way back down the hallway when the doorbell rang again. Feeling a surge of renewed anger at the thought of the rich punks who had nothing better to do than make his life miserable cleaning up after them, he threw the door open, prepared to catch the little rascals in the act. Stepping out onto the porch in a grand 'ah-ha' gesture, he felt something whistle past his ear and turned his gaze towards where the movement originated. The second bullet had buried itself in the doorframe before his brain could process what he was seeing, and he instinctively jumped back inside and slammed the door shut.

"Judge!" he bellowed. "Hardcastle!"

Milt had been on his feet moving toward his weapons before the second shot had been fired. He grabbed the pistol from the desk drawer and then went to the rack on the wall for a shotgun. "Did you get a good look at them?" he asked as he handed the pistol to Mark and then flipped off the lights.

Mark worked at slowing his breathing down and took the gun that was offered, ignoring the distaste that handling a weapon caused. "Yeah. It was Feliciano, and that guy Leroy that's usually hanging around with him." He hugged the wall of the den, trying to see outside the windows without getting his head shot off. The flickering screen of the television cast a strange light over the room.

Staying clear of the windows himself, Milt grabbed the phone and called Frank, alerting him and asking him for back up ASAP. He hung up and turned back to McCormick. "See anything?"

"I think so. Look's like they're camped out behind the bushes at the top end of the drive."

"Just two of them?"

Mark shook his head. "Too hard to tell. I only got a quick look, but I still see some movement out that way." He edged back away from the window, further into the shadows.

Hardcastle stood undecided for a moment, weighing the options of waiting on the police vs. allowing the perpetrators a chance to escape. Deciding once again in favor of justice, he grabbed at McCormick's elbow.

"C'mon. We're going out the back. We'll head around the rear of the gatehouse and flank 'em." He pulled the younger man along, up the steps of the den and down the hallway.

"Ju-udge. Can't we for once wait for the cops to handle it? I'm tired of being a clay pigeon."

"Don't be such a baby!" Hardcastle snapped. "We aren't going to let them get away with this!" He slid open the door onto the patio and slipped through it, knowing without a doubt that his friend would be right behind him, no matter how much protesting he did. "Now, shush," he admonished.

Mark followed him silently out the door. Mist rose off the surface of the pool and mixed with the fog that was slowly drifting in off of the ocean. Though the moon was full, it was hidden behind the gathering clouds. Mark shivered as he felt the wind pick up, rustling the leaves on the trees and adding to the eeriness of the atmosphere. He fell behind slightly, turning to make certain they weren't being followed. Holding tightly to the pistol, he felt his palms growing sweaty and fought to get a hold of his running imagination.

When he realized how much distance had grown between him and the judge, he hurried to catch up before the other man could do anything stupid. As he rounded the back corner of the gatehouse, he nearly screamed as a shadow suddenly darted out of the bushes in front of him. Whirling and bringing the pistol to bear, he stopped himself before shooting when he determined the shape of a cat making a dash across the yard. He leaned against the building, placing a hand over his pounding heart and closing his eyes, waiting to catch his breath.

"Will you quit messing around?" Hardcastle whispered directly into his ear, his face only inches away.

Mark nearly jumped out of his skin. "Jeez, Hardcase, don't do that!" His breath came in gasps as he tried to keep his voice low. "You trying to give me a heart attack? You scared the crap out of me!" He bent over, leaning his arms against his knees, working harder at breathing normally.

"They're gonna get away if we don't hurry! Not quit your foolin'. What are you so jumpy about anyway?" Milt turned and started back around the smaller house toward the driveway just as lightning lit the sky. The sound of thunder soon followed.

"Because I'm seriously creeped out here, judge!" McCormick whispered back. "It's like something straight out of 'Night of the Living Dead', and then this black cat jumps out, and..."

"Black cat?" Hardcastle interjected. "McCormick, I swear that's the last time I let you order the pizza! Now, move it!"

They continued skulking along in the darkness until they came to the edge of the gardener's trailer. Misjudging the distance in the shadows, Mark tripped over the step and banged his shoulder against the outer wall. The noise from his fall was muffled by what sounded like hundreds of tiny wings fluttering overheard.

"Jeez!" Mark uttered, instinctively covering his head. "What the...?"

"Bats," Hardcastle offered, pulling his Yankee cap more firmly onto his head.

"Bats?" McCormick asked, his voice sounding panicky. "You mean there are bats out here? That's...that's..." he fumbled for words, reaching with his free hand to pull his collar tighter around this neck.

"I wouldn't worry about my neck if I were you," the judge commented, "but if they get themselves caught in that curly hair of yours, you're going to regret it." He continued moving forward until the circular drive was in plain sight.

Definitely not interested in maintaining his current position, Mark crept along behind Hardcastle, anxious to put as much distance between him and the trailer as possible. The view from this angle clearly showed only one shadow behind the bush, with a rifle trained on the front door.

"That's Leroy," Mark stated, squinting in the darkness. "Feliciano must be on the move."

At that moment, they noticed a light going on in the den of the main house. "He's inside my house," Hardcastle grumbled, already starting to move. They both heard the sound of the phone through the open window as it started to ring.

Mark came to a quick decision. "You take care of Leroy. I'll go after him." He turned and headed back the way he came.

"McCormick!" Milt tried to make his voice carry while still whispering, but the effort was futile. If Leroy noticed the ex-con heading back, he'd have a clear shot at him. That thought alone was enough to propel Hardcastle into action, and he moved quickly up the edge of the driveway to apprehend the trespasser. He was a good thirty yards away when he heard the sounds of approaching sirens.

Leroy apparently heard them too. Using his arms to push himself off the ground, he broke into a run, heading back towards the PCH, but staying clear of the driveway.

When Milt found himself faced with the choice of continuing to chase after the armed intruder on foot or returning to the house to offer backup to McCormick, he found it wasn't much of a choice at all. Hotfooting in the direction of the house, he rounded the fountain and took the steps in record time. Throwing caution to the wind, he opened the door and dashed inside.

"McCorm..." the sound of his friend's name was enveloped in the deafening roar from the pistol. Milt felt something slam into his chest, and he looked down in disbelief. Wavering slightly, he discovered his legs felt funny, like they were no longer capable of supporting his weight, and he slid slowly to the floor, hearing a rushing in his ears. He noticed the front of his shirt was wet, and getting wetter, and as his body came to a rest, he moved his hand up to his chest, surprised to see it come away covered in blood. The lights seemed to be flickering, and he thought to himself how impossibly bright it seemed, growing brighter by the moment. He saw McCormick standing in the hallway, the pistol in his hand and a look of horror on his face. In the way one notices insignificant details at the strangest of times, he watched a small wisp of smoke coming from the barrel of the gun drift toward the ceiling, and heard the phone still ringing and the sounds of the sirens as they drew closer.

"Kiddo?" he called, his voice sounding distant to his own ears.

Mark stood, paralyzed, the gun feeling like dead weight, pulling his arm to the floor. His own chest hurt, as if someone had reached in and ripped out his very heart. Coherent thought was impossible. Over and over in his head, all he heard was 'oh God, oh God, oh God.' He became aware that someone was actually saying it out loud. He thought it might be him.

He stared at the judge, lying there bleeding to death from his own hand, and still he could do nothing.

The door behind Hardcastle opened, and suddenly a police officer was there, gun drawn, pointing it at Mark. "Freeze! Drop the weapon!"

Time stood still. Mark couldn't tear his gaze away from the judge, from what he'd done. He watched the judge's blue eyes slide closed, watched the judge's strong chest cease its rising and falling, saw the hands so at home with a basketball in them come to rest limply on the floor. The phone was getting louder and louder, only it had stopped ringing, and it was now buzzing. Darkness crept in at the edges of his vision, and still the buzzing increased. As the darkness took over, Mark felt the floor come rushing up to meet him.

00000

"Kiddo? Hey, McCormick, wake up already." Hardcastle nudged the shoulder a little more firmly, hoping to rouse the young man.

Mark came to with a shout, jumping from his chair and nearly knocking the judge down in the process. He had a wild look in his eye, and he glanced down at his hand, as if he expected to find the devil himself there.

"Whoa, hey, easy there, kiddo. You're okay," the judge tried reassuring him, reaching to grab him gently by the arm.

"Judge?" Mark couldn't believe his eyes, and he reached back, grabbing the older man by both shoulders and letting his gaze rake over Hardcastle's body. "I don't...I mean...oh God, judge, what the hell is going on?" His breath came in short gasps and his mind struggled to make sense of everything, even as he felt the solid weight of the judge's presence beneath his hands. He moved the right one, letting it roam briefly over the judge's chest, looking for signs of harm.

Hardcastle swatted the hand away, a look of irritation crossing his face. "Hey now, knock it off already. What're you doing, McCormick?" He took step backward, removing himself from the other man's grasp.

Mark took a glance around the room, noting the television still on and nothing out of place. He tried once again to get his bearings, rubbing a hand through his hair. "Feliciano?" he queried, returning his gaze to the judge.

Milt looked back at him uncertainly. "What about him?"

"He was here," Mark stated impatiently. "He was after you...wasn't he?"

"No. Not here. Frank just called a few minutes ago; didn't you hear the phone ringing? He said they picked him up down in Hollywood after he made an attempt on Bob Donovan. You know, the officer who arrested him? He's back in custody, and nobody in their right mind is going to grant him bail now." He took Mark's arm again and led him back to the armchair. "You're white as a sheet, kiddo, and you look like you've seen a ghost. Sit down before you pass out on me."

Mark allowed himself to be led back to the chair and sat down heavily. His eyes never left Hardcastle's face. To see him here now, living and breathing, when just moments ago he'd been...

"A nightmare, huh?" the judge asked, taking the seat directly across from his friend. "Must have been a doozy."

Mark leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "It was so real," he said quietly.

"Yeah," Hardcastle commiserated. "Sometimes they are." He clasped his hands together in his lap. "You okay now? Back with me?"

Mark scrubbed his face with his hands. "Yeah. Just a dream." He wasn't sure which one of them he was trying to convince.

"You, uh, want to talk about it?" The judge couldn't help it; it had come out sounding hesitant.

Mark opened one eye, and felt his lips twitch as a small smile formed. It was just like the old donkey, willing to help but hoping it wouldn't be necessary. He let him off the hook. "Nah. I'm good. Just a dream, right?"

Hardcastle slapped his knee. "Right. Too much pizza, if you ask me." He stood and stretched, resting his hands on his hips. "It's getting late. Movie's over. I'm gonna head up. You sure you're alright?"

"Fine," Mark answered. "I'm going to stay up for a bit though. Is that okay? I'll keep the volume down."

"Sure, sure," Milt agreed. "Just stay away from the late movie. Somehow I don't think 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' is a good idea right now." He turned and headed up the steps. "Make sure you close up and turn off the lights."

Mark let out a hollow laugh. "Okay, kemosabe. See you in the morning." He watched as the older man left the room, then leaned forward, cradling his head in his hands. The image of the judge dying in the hallway remained.

00000

Hardcastle wasn't sure what had awoken him, but he was definitely up now. A quick glance at the nightstand showed him it was only 2:45. He sighed deeply, wishing he could get back to sleep, but knowing it wasn't going to be easy. He rose and slipped into his bathrobe and slippers, heading for the kitchen and a glass of warm milk—Nancy's favorite cure for sleepless nights.

The den was dark as he passed by, but upon reaching the kitchen, he noticed a soft pool of light coming in through the window from the direction of the patio. Cursing McCormick's forgetfulness, he headed out to turn it off and was surprised to see the young man himself sitting in one of the chairs, apparently lost in thought. He cleared his throat to give warning of his approach, and then took a seat on the other lounge.

"What are you doing out here?" he asked, his voice still graveled from sleep.

Mark didn't turn in his direction. "Nothing. Just thinking."

The dim light barely cut into the night, and the air had taken on a chill. Thunder still rumbled in the distance though rain had yet to fall.

Hardcastle swiped at his nose and settled back into the chair, pulling up his bare legs and adjusting the bathrobe to cover them. "You sleep at all?"

"No. I think that nap I had earlier must have messed me up."

"The nap or the nightmare?" the judge probed, fairly certain he already knew the answer to his own question.

Apparently McCormick thought the same thing, because he didn't respond.

"Dreams can be funny things, kiddo. Nightmares especially. I used to have them all the time after..." he paused, not certain he wanted to finish. "Well, I used to have them a lot." He sniffed, redirecting his thoughts. "You gotta just keep telling yourself 'it's not real' and then move on. Don't let them eat at you, you know?"

"I know," Mark answered quietly, still not taking his eyes from the barely visible horizon.

"But?" the judge prompted.

Mark exhaled deeply. "It was so real," he confessed. "I mean..." he let the words hang on the air for several minutes before deciding to plunge ahead. "I shot you, judge."

Hardcastle's only response was to raise an eyebrow in question.

"I didn't mean to," Mark hurried on. "It was an accident, I swear. It was dark, and I thought you were Feliciano, and the gun just went off. God, Hardcase, you have to know I'd never shoot you, not even in a dream, not on purpose."

Hardcastle almost smiled at the desperation he heard. "Of course I know that, sport. We don't have any control over the things we dream about. I know you're not a gunman, whether you thought you were shooting me or someone else. You just don't have it in you. It was just a dream and you've got to let it go."

Mark sat up, allowing his legs to straddle the chair. "I know, I know it was a dream. But, it seemed so real...you were lying there in the doorway, and..." He refused to finish the thought.

Hardcastle allowed him a moment's silence, waiting to see if his young friend would offer more.

Mark shuddered in the dim light. "Do you remember last month? The conversation we had in that cave our first night stuck out in the woods?"

Hardcastle nodded, though he knew the other man still wasn't looking in his direction. That conversation wasn't a place he liked his thoughts going back to, and he was surprised at the change in topic.

"You said you just wanted somebody around to make sure the wind didn't blow your tracks out of the sand. I've sat here thinking about that a lot, judge."

"You telling me you're not up for the job?" he asked gruffly.

"No! I mean, it's not like you've got a lot to worry about in that department anyway, you know? Your tracks aren't going anywhere, whether I'm around to make sure of it or not. But me..."

Mark shifted, folding his arms tightly across his chest. "Seeing you die tonight, even if it was just a dream, made me realize something." He waited, unsure if his words would be welcome, but needing to say them anyway. "If you're not here, Hardcase, I don't think I'll get to make any tracks."

Taking a deep breath, he continued. "It would kill me to lose you, judge."

The silence was palpable as emotions neither man liked to recognize were suddenly laid on the table. Feeling a rising tension, Mark backtracked. "I just felt like I needed to tell you that. I know you hate it when I get all mushy on you, so I won't say anything else. And you don't need to say anything either." His words rushed together as his embarrassment took hold. "You're right, it was just a dream, no big deal."

"McCormick!" The word came out harshly as the judge attempted to break into Mark's ramblings. When they ceased, he continued in a much gentler tone. "Look at me, kiddo." He waited until Mark did just that.

"I know we don't say stuff like this often, but this is important, so I want you to listen up." Hardcastle waited until he was sure he had Mark's undivided attention. "You may not believe it, but your tracks are getting deeper every day. You've been working hard, and it shows. But it's never been about me; about whether or not I'm around. You're the one doing all the work. If anything, all I did was point you in the right direction. And I trust that's the way you'll keep heading, whether I'm here to keep an eye on you or not. You've got what it takes, McCormick, so don't ever forget that." He kept his gaze steady, willing the ex-con to believe his words.

Mark swallowed audibly, incredibly touched by the confidence of the man beside him. He swore to himself then and there that he'd live up to that confidence no matter what the future held. "Thanks, judge," he said, his voice shaky.

Hardcastle nodded. "And another thing. I'm only sixty-eight, you know. I may not be around forever, but I've still got a good long time left. Don't be thinking that you're getting rid of me anytime soon, got it?" The gentleness of his eyes belied the gruffness of his tone.

Mark chuckled, thankful beyond words for the reassurance. "Got it," he replied quietly.

They sat in companionable silence for several minutes. To Mark, the night no longer had the undertones of fear and darkness, though the wind still whistled around them.

Hardcastle slapped his hands on his thighs, shifting his legs and readying himself to stand. "And tomorrow, you can start making those tracks deeper by cleaning the toilet paper out of the trees, okay?"

Grateful for the return to normal footing, Mark nodded, rising as well. "Yes, sir, aye-aye, sir. I live to do your bidding."

"Ha!" Hardcastle barked. "Don't I wish!" He gave the young man a final once-over. "Think you'll be able to sleep now?"

Mark smiled in the darkness. "Yeah, Hardcase, I think so. Any chance of me making it past six-thirty before you start banging outside my bedroom window?"

Hardcastle grinned. "Don't push your luck, kiddo. Tomorrow's Halloween, and there's still plenty to be done around here." He watched as Mark headed off toward the gatehouse. Waiting until he was almost out of sight, he called after him. "Hey, kiddo?"

Mark turned, seeing the judge as a silhouette against the light behind him. "Yeah?"

"Sweet dreams."

Mark's smile grew as he turned and headed for the gatehouse. Whatever dreams may come, he'd face them, confident he wasn't facing them alone.

Happy Halloween