With grateful thanks to Susan Z. for the beta. The characters do not belong to me and no profit is being made.
"What the hell is that?" Hardcastle came around the corner of the gatehouse just in time to see McCormick shrugging some new-fangled contraption onto his back.
Mark grinned with the delight of a kid enjoying a new toy as he removed the straps and laid the item in question back on the ground. "This, my good man, is the answer to all our problems. It's a brand new, state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line gas powered backpack leaf blower. And it's all ours."
"A leaf blower?" Milt leaned down for a closer look at the machine. It looked like a lawn mower engine with straps on it and a long tube off to one side. "What exactly do we need a leaf blower for? This is California, not Jersey. We don't have a whole lot of leaves to blow."
"Yeah, well, we didn't have a whole lot of leaves back in Jersey, either; at least not the part I'm from. Sneakers and concrete, remember?" Mark squatted down next to the blower and adjusted the choke. "However, this little baby will more than handle what leaves we do have to deal with, and it will be so much easier than getting out there with the rakes."
The judge sniffed and put his hands into his sweatshirt pockets. The November air had taken on an edge of chill. "Looks like it cost a bundle. Where'd you get the money for that?"
Mark stood and looked at the older man, capturing his gaze. "I'm an attorney, Hardcase. I'm hardly broke."
"Oh, well 'scuse me," Milt chuckled. "An attorney, yes, but hardly a high-priced one to the stars. You're not exactly pulling down six figures working at the clinic. And weren't you the one complaining about gas prices last week?"
Mark shrugged. "Yeah, well, have you gotten a look at how high they are?"
"No argument there, kiddo. Just wondering where you got the money for a toy like this. "
Mark looked affronted. "Toy? Hah. I'll have you know this is a finely tuned machine, not a toy. And I got a deal from Benny. He'd bought one just before he moved into that condo downtown, so I took it off his hands. Wait 'til you see it in action. One good pull, strap it onto your back, and voila—those leaves are goners. I'll be able to do the whole driveway in about ten minutes."
Hardcastle shook his head. Even now, he wasn't sure he'd ever understand this kid's fascination for anything with a motor. "Isn't that what I pay the lawn service for?"
Mark looked back at him with disdain before shifting his gaze to look over the estate. "You know, for all you pay them, you'd think they'd do a better job around here. The place could use a few touch-ups, and I don't think those hedges have been straight in four years. Besides, this will be good for the times in-between their visits." He clapped his hands together in anticipation and turned his attention to the machine. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I'll get to work."
Hardcastle knew a lost cause when he saw one. "Okay, but supper's in an hour. First time you've been home for it in three days, so make sure you wash up and get your butt in there."
Mark smiled at the words. Thirty-six years old and he was still being told to wash up for dinner. At least now that he'd finally 'grown up and gotten a real job', that thought no longer rankled.
Mark grabbed a beer from the fridge and came to sit at the kitchen table. The judge had grilled a sirloin and along with baked potatoes and biscuits, it was a perfect guy's meal. It went unspoken between them that they were both starting to miss simply sharing meals together, but work at the clinic often meant Mark's time wasn't his own and he'd end up working hours late into the evening. It tended to happen on the days Milt wasn't in the clinic himself, and therefore unable to badger the younger man into calling it quits.
Today, though, with only two days until Thanksgiving, he was glad McCormick had managed to get away at all. The clinic was closed tomorrow. Closed to the public, anyway—Milt had no doubt Mark would end up there for at least a few hours trying to wrap things up before the long weekend.
"I'm telling you, Judge, this thing works great. You should give it a try. I know you're going to love it. It's way easier than breaking your back with all the raking."
"Hmmph," Hardcastle replied. "Seems to me you might be spending too much time behind a desk, kiddo. I think you're going soft on me."
Mark narrowed his eyes at the insult. "Not a chance. And I'll be glad to prove it to you later on with a game of one-on-one."
Hardcastle merely nodded. "If you're sure you're up for it," he said patronizingly.
"You're the one who'd better be sure you're up for it. We're all out of Epsom Salt, and you still haven't given in and put in that hot tub I keep nagging you about."
"We got a pool out there that hasn't been used in years, and you want me to lay down big bucks for a hot tub that won't get used either?"
"Trust me, I'd use it." Mark smiled at the thought. "Although it would have been even nicer a few years back, when I was either hurting from too much time as your yard man, or hurting from too much time as Tonto."
Milt shook his head. He was more than used to hearing his young friend's complaints. In fact, he wouldn't admit it out loud, but that was one more thing he missed now that their lives had taken on a slightly tamer outlook.
Mark broke open his potato and started slathering it with enough butter to drown in. "Anyway, I think I'll spend some time on the hedges tomorrow, see if I can't even out those lines a little bit. And the back forty looks like it could use a trim. With the holiday, I'm assuming the service won't be out until next week?"
"Monday," Milt confirmed over a mouthful of steak, giving Mark an odd look.
"Thought so. I'll pull out the mower again. Should have plenty of time to get it done before we head over to Frank and Claudia's on Thursday." He nodded decisively and took a swig of beer.
"Not that I mind, but what's with all the sudden interest in yard work? Wouldn't you rather just take it easy on your day off?"
"Nah. It will be a nice change of pace."
Something in McCormick's tone was just slightly off. Hardcastle pondered that for a moment or two. Despite the amount of time they'd spent together over the past seven years, he had yet to master the kid's mood swings, though they seemed to come fewer and farther between these days. He could tell there was something on the kid's mind tonight though, and he began a gentle probing.
"Anything interesting happen at work today?"
There it was, a simple shift of the eyes down and to the left, and the judge knew he'd started off in the right direction.
McCormick paused with the fork halfway to his mouth and wondered how exactly Hardcastle still managed to get straight to the heart of any matter, no matter how few clues the man had been given. Seems the Lone Ranger hadn't laid down his spurs just yet. He laid his fork down and rested his hands on the table in front of him. Ever since this afternoon, he had wanted to talk to the judge about something. Now was apparently the perfect opportunity.
"Yeah, sort of," he sighed. "Something came up today. I mean, I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later." He picked up his fork again. "You remember I was in court this afternoon, handling the Minelli case? I think Frank was the one who initially tossed it our way, but I haven't talked to him about it yet, though you can be sure I'll give him a piece of my mind when I see him. I'll bet he had a good laugh over it."
Milt gave him an inquiring look.
Mark shook his head in amusement. "So, this guy—just a kid, really—I think he's about twenty-three or twenty-four. He doesn't have such a hot driving record, see? A couple of speeding tickets and an accident that was his fault, plus he got into some trouble when he was younger and did a spell in juvie. All in all, he's not someone who's going to get a deal on car insurance."
Mark picked up his knife and sawed off another piece of steak, popping it into his mouth. "About a year ago, his uncle died and left him a car. Unbelievable, really—a Porsche 911 3.2 Carrera, silver convertible, a five speed. This car will do zero to sixty in 5.4 seconds, has a top speed of 150 miles an hour. It's a nice car." There was a wistful look in the blue eyes that Hardcastle had long ago learned to recognize.
Milt added a little salt to his baked potato and waited. He had a feeling he knew where this was heading.
"So, with a car like that, there's no way he's going to be able to afford the insurance. But he's living with this girl, see?"
Mark smiled. "Yeah, you can see where I'm going with this. He puts the car in her name; they have a knock-down, drag-out fight and she tosses him out on his butt."
"Let me guess—they nailed him for GTA?"
Mark's smile became a grin. "Nah. Insurance fraud. Seems she's the vindictive type."
"Ah," said Hardcastle knowingly.
Mark took another bite of steak and chewed it thoughtfully. "I guess it just got me thinking, is all," he said enigmatically.
"About yard work?" Hardcastle queried.
"No. Yes. Kind of. I was sitting there, looking over the file, when it just sort of hit me where I was. The last couple of years have been a little intense. First law school, then the nightmare of taking the bar, then working to get the clinic up and running... Now, here I am working as an attorney, a place I never thought I'd be in a million years, and as crazy as I know it sounds, I kind of miss the way things were. It was simpler back then, you know? When all I had to worry about was cleaning the gutters or getting the fertilizer down before it rained." He gazed at the retired jurist to see if he was following along with the train of thought.
The judge nodded his understanding.
"Now, don't get me wrong," Mark continued, smiling again, "I'm not saying it was all a walk in the park. I've been shot, beaten up, thrown off a train, had my car blown up...but still, back then, if I screwed something up, I was the only one who had to pay for it. Well, and maybe you, but we both know you're the forgiving type." This was accompanied by a wink and a grin.
"Now, though..." the sentence trailed off into silence.
"Now, " Milt finished gently, "you're afraid you'll screw up and someone else will pay the price?"
"Yeah," McCormick said quietly. He was silent for a moment as he stared at his hands, appreciating the fact that the judge didn't offer up any meaningless platitudes. Just knowing he understood was enough.
Lifting his eyes, Mark met the older ones across the table from him. "The point is, though, that seeing this kid today, exactly where I was so many years ago, made me realize that I never really appreciated how good I had it here." He paused, allowing a moment for the words to sink in.
"And I never really took the time to say 'thanks'."
Milt's eyes softened as his face broke into a small smile. He just might have to disagree with him there—the kid had said thanks in many ways.
It was later, after the dinner clean-up and a round on the basketball court, that they wandered into the den. Milt remembered he hadn't asked how the case had turned out.
"So, what happened to the Minelli kid?" he asked as he took a seat in one of the armchairs.
Mark followed him with the popcorn and took the other chair. "Oh, we caught a break there," he said as he tossed a handful into his mouth. "We drew Mattie as the judge."
Milt raised an eyebrow. "That's a break?" he questioned. "Mattie's a tough old cookie; I doubt she cut the kid any slack."
"Well, not exactly. But we did get her down to ninety days in County, followed by two years probation."
"Really?" Hardcastle asked in surprise. "Mattie went for that?"
"Yeah," Mark grinned. "Turned out she needed a yard man."