Disclaimer: These are not my characters and I make no profit from them.
Author's Note: In the first season episode The Georgia Street Motors, Mark and the judge stage a confrontation in a bar in which Hardcastle hauls off and slugs McCormick for a touch of verisimilitude.
This one might have to go under the category of AU, for the speed with which McCormick is able to get dental appointments.
Many thanks, storyfan101, for the bunny.
by L.M. Lewis
At first it was hard things, then cold things, too, but after a few days it was anything at all, and sometimes nothing whatsoever. He tried not to let on, did all of his chewing on the right side, and hoped things would get better eventually.
But the swig of coffee caught him by surprise—it was hot things now as well—and the wince must have had an audible component to it. He realized, when he caught his breath and opened his eyes again, that Hardcastle wasn't watching the Bedermann house anymore; he'd turned his attention to his fellow surveiller.
"That tooth bothering you?"
Mark shook his head determinedly.
"Looks like it's bothering you. It's the one I loosened up for ya last week, huh? You ought to get it looked at. You shouldn't let those things fester."
"'Fester'?" Mark opened his mouth slightly, stuck a finger in, off to the left and up in the back. He touched the tooth in question and winced again. "Uh-uh," he said, probing a little more, then taking his finger out. "Not festering. Just one of those stupid wisdom teeth. It's always been jammed in there sideways. It'll settle down again."
"Probably cracked it." The judge frowned. "Then it's only a matter of time before the infection sets in—they can turn into big trouble. You might need a root canal. A crown."
Mark slumped down lower in the truck's seat, crossing his arms and looking determined. "It's just a little loose, that's all."
"The infection can even spread into your jaw," Hardcastle added with an air of grim satisfaction. "You ought to at least have it looked at. I've got a dentist, terrific guy—"
"They're expensive," Mark muttered, "crowns and all that."
The judge gave him a sharp look of disbelief. "I'm the one who loosened it up for ya; I think we got us a workman's comp situation here. Look, tomorrow morning I'll give Shelly a call. Great guy. You'll like him."
"Shelly Cooperton, D.D.S. He's got an office over on Sepulveda. I think I've put at least one of his kids through college already. What's one more crown?"
Another sharp twinge, and this one was worse than the last. Mark kept his mouth shut but finally gave the suggestion one reluctant nod.
If it had been up to him, the call would have been put off for a few days, just to see if things got better. By then they might have gotten busy; maybe the Bedermann thing would have come to a head.
But that was the problem with bad guys, there were never any around when you needed one, and Hardcase had made the phone call right after breakfast. It probably hadn't helped that Mark had stuck to Cream of Wheat, and that cooled to nearly room temperature and eaten very tentatively.
"He can squeeze you in this afternoon." Hardcastle turned from hanging up the phone and clapped his hands once. "I told him it was an emergency."
"Just a little loose."
"Hah. I got twenty that says you get a crown out of this."
"It's gonna cost you a lot more than that," Mark muttered without opening his mouth much more that what had been needed to get the cereal in. He was glad that the betting line had shifted from pulses to dental procedures. He didn't think he was going to win any low counts until after this visit was over.
But there wasn't anything he could do about that now. Things were moving along under their own momentum. That's how it was when Hardcastle made up his mind about something. Best not to think about it, out of his hands, like being on the bus to San Quentin.
He'd skipped lunch. The twinge had turned to throbbing. He swallowed two aspirin and stuck a third one back where he thought it might do some more direct good. Hardcastle volunteered to drive. Mark supposed he was along to handle the payment, rather than in the capacity of custodian. He hoped he hadn't looked that reluctant to keep the appointment.
They arrived at their destination with time to spare. It was a modern, glass and steel building with a serious leavening of dentists among the lawyers and C.P.A.s who dominated the lobby directory. Third floor, suite 308, Dr. S. Cooperton. His waiting room was done in calming shades of pale mauve and blue. There were ferns, and an aquarium and the whole place was a far cry from the dispensers of industrial dentistry that McCormick had previously encountered.
Hardcastle had immediately glommed onto a recent issue of Sports Illustrated. McCormick found it hard to relax, even watching fish. He was almost glad to hear his name announced, though the pain had almost miraculously diminished almost as soon as he'd set foot in the office.
X-rays were taken. The hygienist interrogated him on the subject of flossing and he gave the answers he thought she wanted to hear. Poking and prodding was deferred for Dr. Cooperton himself, probably a bad sign. The man finally entered, already staring down at the x-rays and making the unfortunate and dreaded tsking sound.
Mark skipped right past the introductions and said, "A crown, huh?"
"Let's take a look," the dentist replied, somewhat evasively.
Lights were adjusted and peering was done, accompanied by more clucking sounds and what might have been a sigh. Mark was in no position to ask what it all meant, but he thought he most likely was going to lose the twenty to Hardcastle.
"No," Cooperton finally said, "no crown."
"Looks like it'll have to come out."
The dentist barely got fingers and probe out of the way before McCormick's mouth snapped shut. "Out?" he said nervously. "You can't maybe just patch it up?
"'Patch it up?'" He shook his head. "You've got a vertical crack through the middle of the occlusal surface—the whole tooth is angled forward at 45 degrees. It can't be patched. Hell, I can't even pull it."
Mark allowed himself a brief, wan smile, though he suspected this announcement was only a temporary reprieve.
"You're going to need an oral surgeon. I see you only have the two third molars left—the wisdom teeth—the ones on top. What happened to the other two?"
"Yanked," Mark said tersely. "One in Jersey, one in, um . . . up near San Francisco."
"Any problems with anesthesia?"
Mark stared at him for a moment, wondering if 'not enough' could be considered a problem. He didn't remember them using any in the juvie facility back home, but he'd been kind of busted up in that fight, so the tooth had probably been pretty loose. He had some vague notion that he'd been jabbed with something for the second one, and that that had hurt almost worse than the extraction. The common joke was that the dentist there wasn't too happy about being assigned to Quentin for his community service.
He shoved all that to the back, behind the aquarium and the mauve and blue drapes.
"No," he said. To himself he sounded unnaturally calm. "No problem."
Technically, though, it wasn't going to be a crown, so he supposed Hardcastle owed him twenty on the bet. But he felt guilty enough, what with the appointment with the oral surgeon. The guy's name was Velios, and his office was only two floors up from Cooperton's. After a direct call from the dentist's office, they'd squeezed him in for a preliminary evaluation.
Another waiting room, another aquarium, the same issue of Sports Illustrated. Mark wondered if Hardcastle had pinched it from Cooperton's waiting room so he could finish the article about the Dodger's coaching staff.
This time the wait was a little longer, but since the verdict had already been handed down, he felt calmer. Maybe resigned was the better word. He'd already chided himself repeatedly for having the willies. Didn't bad guys regularly take pot shots at him and Hardcastle?
This was different. There were fish tanks and posters on the importance of flossing. Still, he couldn't help it. When his name was called this time he jumped slightly. He hoped Hardcastle hadn't noticed.
"I'm Melody, Dr. Velios' assistant." She was wearing a white smock and a smile that was a tribute to proper dental hygiene. She ushered him into the back and got him settled in a chair. "Nervous, huh?" she said, with a half nod that seemed to accept it without requiring any admission out loud. "First time?"
"No," he shook his head tightly. "I think that's why I'm nervous."
"Ohh." She gave him a knowing nod. "Bad experiences. Don't you worry. Doctor V is the best. You won't even know what hit you."
Mark smiled. He already knew what had hit him; it was the consequences that were looming large.
Velios turned out to be the tall, silver-haired, professional type who could say, with an air of perfect believability, "The other one's got to go, too. Impacted. I'm surprised they haven't caused you more trouble up till now."
They had, of course. They'd also taught him to lead with his right and duck faster. None of this could he say with his mouth open and a bite block in place, so all Velios got from him was a non-committal 'Uh', which he apparently took as agreement.
"Good. This one on the left is going to be tricky but we'd better get on top of it before it breaks off completely and we're left with just the roots."
Mark was pretty certain there'd be a remark about festering to follow that, but the doc merely sat back, turned on his stool, made some notations in a chart, and looked up over his shoulder at Melody. "See if we've got a spot on the schedule for Friday."
Mark yanked the bite block out and said, "This Friday?"
Velios looked at him and nodded complacently. Mark had the impression that he was supposed to be happy, perhaps even grateful. Instead, it was back—the fear, festering.
But he didn't get a chance to embarrass himself by stuttering out a protest. The doc was already on his feet and tossing off a chatty and unconcerned, 'See you then,' and Melody was unsnapping the little paper bib from under his chin.
"Nothing to eat or drink after midnight on Thursday," she said, "and you'll need to bring a responsible adult who can drive you home afterwards."
The responsible adult looked up from the magazine as Mark re-emerged into the waiting area. "So?"
"Friday. Two of 'em." He was rather impressed by the casual way he'd said that. He sounded for all the world like a guy for whom dental work was no worse than confronting armed felons. "You'll have to drive me."
Hardcastle gave that a nod and then said, "Two, huh? I didn't think I hit ya that hard."
"Hah, and one of them's all the way on the other side."
The nothing after midnight rule turned out to be easier that he'd expected. By Thursday the ache had given way to sharp, lancinating pains, triggered by even room temperature food. He realized, with some chagrin, that he'd escaped the 'I told you so's' by the skin of his teeth.
Instead, on Friday morning he watched Hardcastle eat. It was just toast and cereal. Smelling bacon cooking would have constituted cruel and unusual punishment. After that they climbed into the truck. Mark had already given up hope of a last-minute reprieve—a call from Frank about a slip-up by some desperado on the judge's short list.
He was calm, like a man who'd made his peace with the Fates. Hardcastle, on the other hand, was upbeat, talking about their upcoming trip to his hometown in Arkansas.
"So it's a good thing you're getting this out of the way."
"Yeah," Mark murmured, trying to let as little air as possible pass over that tooth. "No modern dentistry in Clarence yet, huh? Doc Holliday comes through in a wagon twice a year. In between that it's a string and a doorknob."
"And a bottle of whiskey," Hardcastle added with a sharp nod, "if you have to resort to the doorknob."
Mark gave him a sideward horrified glance. "You actually did that?" He looked forwards again, muttering, "I thought I had it bad."
He was vaguely aware that it was Hardcastle doing the staring now. "Nah," he finally said, after a moment. "No doorknobs. Had a dentist two towns over."
McCormick cupped the left side of his face gently and hoped for a change in subject. No such luck. The judge only let the silence stand for a moment before he said, "What about you?"
He had no intention of swapping dental horror stories with the man, not when his own rendezvous with destiny was only a half an hour away. "Not many cavities," he offered vaguely.
Hardcastle frowned. "Then how come you're so scared of it?"
McCormick frowned back at him. It didn't seem fair to have put so much effort into the brave front, only to have someone see straight through it.
"A couple got knocked loose," he grudgingly admitted. "Some weren't permanent ones, and yeah, you're right, if they don't have 'em taken care of, they get to be a problem."
The judge took his eyes off the road again and squinted briefly in his direction."They look okay now, though," he said, not that there was much to see with Mark's current tight-lipped expression.
"Hmm," McCormick said quietly. "It's the system—they're pretty thorough. Ruthless, but thorough. Teeth are easier to fix than a lot of other stuff." He was finding this whole conversation mildly aggravating and he wasn't sure exactly why.
Fortunately, that seemed to be the end of it. Maybe his aggravation had finally conveyed itself, maybe Hardcastle had finally put two and two together and realized this belonged by in that part of his record that had been sealed, put away, inaccessible.
They got to Velios' office with no further revelations. This time he was guided to a room that was further to the back. He was told to make himself comfortable. The chair was more like a recliner.
"Nothing to eat or drink this morning?" Melody asked him, the very picture of calm, professional concern as she tied on the tourniquet and swabbed a spot on his forearm.
"I got to smell the judge's coffee," Mark said, staring absently at the IV needle she was now holding. It took a moment before he glanced up and took in her puzzled expression. "Hardcastle," he added, "my 'responsible adult'. He's a retired judge."
"Oh," she said. "Sounds . . . responsible." She smiled a little awkwardly. There was only the briefest of pains—nothing compared to his tooth—as she slid the needle in. "That wasn't too bad, I hope?" It might have been his imagination, he supposed. Maybe he was projecting his own fear, but the woman now seemed a bit tense.
He smiled reassuringly. He hoped nervousness wasn't contagious.
Velios strolled in, looking ready to work. The IV was connected now, and he was told to lean back and relax. He felt something running into the vein. He wondered what it would feel like, not feeling anything.
He opened his eyes, not exactly sure when he'd closed them. He was alone. He reached up, slowly, encountered his arm in front of his face and saw a piece of gauze taped there. No IV. He wondered about that for a moment, then wondered where everyone had gone.
He heard someone talking. Two people. They sounded far off, muffled, or maybe through a door. He couldn't make out the words but the tone was urgent. He sat up slowly, put his feet down, and finally stood up. He thought he might be smiling but he was having a little trouble feeling his mouth.
He wandered out into the hallway. He heard the voices again, still muffled but coming from his right. He turned that way, steadying himself on the wall and taking slow, careful steps. Another doorway, open, some equipment and a sink. No people. A disappointment. He spanned the gap and half stumbled against the wall on the far side.
The next door was closed. There was a sign on it. Letters. He frowned at them. They meant something but he was a little fuzzy on the details. The voices were definitely more audible now, though the words were still not distinct. A man's voice alternating with a woman's. The woman sounded familiar.
Scared? No, upset. Worried. The man sounded upset, too, maybe even angry, but he was mostly trying to calm her down.
Something bad happened.
He reached for the doorknob, failing to connect on the first try but then getting it right. It was hard to grip and turn at the same time. And balance. And push the door once he'd gotten the knob to turn. When he'd finally succeeded, the door seemed to open with a surprising swiftness. He heard the man's voice sharp and clear—'You tell them now and we're both screwed—you'll never work again; you'll probably end up in prison."
Then he felt the door swinging further away from him. He tried to shout as he started to fall, but it came out as a mumble and a grunt. He'd hit the floor but barely felt it. There were footsteps on the stairs, voices behind him in the hallway. All hell breaking loose, it seemed. He closed his eyes again.
He woke up in the reclining chair. He wasn't alone. He heard Melody, still sounding worried but this time near at hand. "I was putting the instruments in the processing room. I was only gone a moment. I don't know how he got by me."
"No harm." That was Hardcastle. "Not even a bruise. Lucky, though, another two feet and he would have gone down the whole flight of stairs."
"Exactly." It was Velios' voice, stern. "Which is why we never leave the patient alone post-procedure."
Melody must've nodded her agreement. Mark pried his eyes open to confirm this. He wondered, drowsily, if he was in trouble, too, but so far it seemed Melody was the only one catching it. He felt obligated to take his share of the blame.
"Just got up to see what was happening." That's what he'd set out to say. He'd gotten everyone's attention, but he thought maybe it had come out a little blurry. Melody didn't look all that grateful for his assistance.
"It's okay, Mr. McCormick. My fault, really," she said nervously. "You were pretty confused when you came to. I should have made sure you stayed put."
He frowned. There had been something he'd gotten up to see about, though he wasn't sure exactly what. "Are you all right?" he blurted out.
It took a moment for her to launch a nervous smile. "Me? I'm not the one who almost fell down the stairs."
Mark nodded, still frowning. He tried to pin down what he'd been thinking earlier. What he'd heard. It eluded him. He sighed.
"Can we go home?" he asked the responsible adult.
They'd made him hang around for another forty-five minutes, with Hardcastle taking over in the 'not leaving the patient alone' department. Mark did his cause no good by once again closing his eyes. He heard snatches of a litany from the judge. There were frequent returns to the refrain that nothing was ever simple when it involved McCormick.
"I just got up to see what was going on," he interjected after what must have been the third round. This time he thought it had come out a little clearer. He opened his eyes again suddenly with the recollection. "I heard voices. They were coming from the stairwell."
"Yeah," Hardcastle nodded. "I suppose so. People use the stairs."
"Two people," Mark said, more insistently, "and one of them was Melody."
"That was probably when you almost took a header. She saw the door half open and you lying there and she started hollering for help."
"No," Mark shook his head with slow insistence. "Before that. When I first got up. That's why I headed that way."
Hardcastle was frowning. It was pretty evident that he wanted to disagree with Mark's view of what had happened but was holding back.
"Go ahead," McCormick muttered, "tell me I'm nuts."
"Not 'nuts'," the judge said quietly, "just half out of it. You had a lot of drugs on board."
Mark had to concede that, but not out loud.
"How you feeling now?" Hardcastle asked with a tone that indicated he was still worried.
Mark had a sudden realization that he was going to get out of this place sooner if he recanted. It didn't help any that, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't actually recount anything specific from the conversation he'd not-quite overheard.
He sighed. "Better," he said. "Not so out of it. Really. Lots better. When can we go home?"
He could hear his voice, still thick. The gauze packs were gone but there was some swelling, and numbness. No pain to mention, except for his pride, which had taken a couple of heavy hits—wandering around, falling down, saying goofy stuff. It was no wonder everyone was looking at him as if he were crazy.
"Okay," the judge said doubtfully. "I'll ask. Think you can walk?"
"Already did that once," Mark muttered insistently.
"I mean without falling on your face."
Mark grunted, sat up, and swung his legs over the side again, but waited patiently for Hardcastle to give him the nod before he stood up. He took a couple of fairly steady steps, making it all the way to the doorway before he glanced over his shoulder and said, "How's that?"
Hardcastle grunted, already on his feet and looking mildly disapproving. "You sit down." He pointed to the chair he'd just vacated. "Stay put. I'll get the papers."
He went off in search of those. Mark stayed where he was supposed to. He didn't hear any voices this time but a moment later Melody was in the doorway, giving him a cautious look.
"I'm okay," he said cheerfully, in full recantation mode. Then he backslid for a moment and added, "You're alright, aren't you?" It might have sounded like concern over having gotten her in trouble with her boss, but he thought it had come out a little different.
"I'm . . . fine."
Both the hesitance and the emphasis gave her response a ring of patent falsehood but she didn't look like a woman who could be shaken from her convictions. And, anyway, Hardcastle was back.
"Just who I was looking for," he said. "You got anything for him to sign?"
"Instructions," she said, brandishing clipboard and pen. All the worry and nervousness Mark had noticed a moment earlier had now been banished.
The papers were presented and he signed. Melody handed Hardcastle the one copy and gave Mark a quick nod that might have been intended for reassurance. Then she departed.
Mark sighed and, figuring he was irreversibly discharged now, risked saying, "I hope I didn't get her in any trouble."
"Nah, Velios says she's usually very careful. He's not going to fire her or anything."
"No," Mark said quietly, "not with Velios . . . with the guy in the stairway."
It was an uneventful trip home. Mark was half surprised he didn't get another lecture on not going looking for trouble and curbing his imagination, but he must have looked as unshakable in his convictions as Melody had. He was more than half-glad it hadn't come to an argument. He didn't think he would have won it. He was starting to realize he'd had a couple of teeth extracted. The one had apparently been dug out with a backhoe, from the feel of it.
He ended up on the sofa in the den, saying yes to pain pills and no to soup and even ice cream. He hadn't slept much the night before and he didn't think Hardcastle puttering around was going to keep him up now. The slow downward drift had started, almost before the pain stuff kicked in.
His eyes snapped open. He must've been at least momentarily asleep. He had acquired a blanket somehow and Hardcastle was seated at the desk, reading something. He didn't think he'd been down long, and the word, which had startled him awake so suddenly, had apparently not been said out loud.
You'll probably end up in prison.
It came back to him in a cold flash. A male voice, angry, insistent. Scary enough words but they hadn't been directed at him.
"He was threatening her."
"Huh?" Hardcastle looked up. "You awake? Want something to eat?"
Mark frowned and shook his head. "In the stairwell," he said. "It was Melody, and some guy."
"You saw them?" Hardcastle closed the book and sat back, looking weary.
"No," Mark admitted. "I heard them. Melody and a guy. He said, 'You'll end up in prison.'"
"Did he say why?" the judge asked, sounding calmly accepting, or maybe it was complacence.
Mark thought about that one and then shook his head.
Hardcastle let out a long, windy sigh then said, "You know how this sounds, don'tcha?"
Mark nodded slowly.
"You go in there, all worried and maybe a little paranoid. They give ya some happy juice, you half wake up and the first thing you do is stage a breakout."
"I wasn't that out of it," Mark said, trying not to sound defensive.
"Okay," Hardcastle admitted, "you heard something. You heard people talking. Can you give it some kinda context? Why was he telling her she was going to the pokey?"
McCormick frowned. There was more, he was sure of that, but he couldn't quite make out the words, just the tone, and that had been worrisome. But he wasn't ready to lie to get his point across.
"No," he finally said, an admission of defeat.
"Does Melody seem like the kind of person who'd be looking at that kind of trouble?"
"No, not really," Mark said glumly.
"You want some ice cream?"
"No." He let his head fall back onto the pillow. He pulled the blanket up. He closed his eyes, still frowning. He tried to remember the rest of the words.
But unlike a dream, sharp and layered on first awakening, and quickly fading to something insubstantial, what memory he had of his misadventure seemed fixed, despite every attempt to either enlarge or dislodge it.
"He said she'd lose her job and go to prison." Mark said, gesturing with his spoon between sips of soup.
"Why?" Hardcastle looked unconvinced from his side of the table.
"I dunno—that's when I did the swan dive. They probably heard me. The guy must've run off and Melody came up the stairs and called for help."
"You looked pretty out of it when we got there. Kinda pasty."
"I heard them talking. I didn't imagine it, and Melody said she was in the processing room, so she was lying about that."
"Okay, so maybe she was in the stairway taking to someone. And she was supposed to be keeping an eye on you. Makes sense she might lie about what she was doing, to make it sound a little less damning. Doesn't mean anything too hinky was going on."
"It must've been something important, to make her leave like that. Velios said she's usually responsible, right?"
Hardcastle only hesitated a moment before giving that a grudging nod.
"So she sneaks off and meets someone in the stairwell. She's involved in something and she's worried. Maybe she wants out. Maybe the guy is telling her what'll happen if she goes to the cops."
"That's a couple of 'maybes' right there," Hardcastle pointed out.
"The part where he told her she'd go to prison wasn't a maybe. I heard that."
"So what do you want me to do, talk to Velios?"
"No," Mark looked momentarily shocked, "then she really will be in trouble."
Hardcastle stared at him for a moment and then shook his head. "See," he finally said, "That's the problem. I keep hoping maybe you're with the program, but you still think like that. If she's doing something hinky, then the people in charge ought to know about it."
"You said she didn't seem like the kind of person who'd be in that kind of trouble."
"And you said she was in the stairway with some hood, getting warned to keep her mouth shut."
Mark put his spoon down, stared at the bowl for a moment and then said, "Not Velios. What if I'm wrong? What if there's a perfectly rational explanation?"
"Yeah. She was out there practicing her lines for the community playhouse. It's the musical version of 'Midnight Express'."
"Well, you got a better explanation?" the judge said, quietly insistent.
"No, not really. I heard what I heard. But not Velios, please. Maybe I could talk to her again." He paused. "But I don't even know her last name."
Mark looked up sharply.
Hardcastle shrugged. "I asked the receptionist when I went to get your discharge papers. I looked it up; she's in the directory. Unless you think there's two Melody Sticklemans in LA."
"Call her at home?"
Another shrug from Hardcastle.
"No," Mark said, after a very brief ponder. "That'd be creepy."
"Since when? She was kinda cute, wasn't she? Nice smile, friendly. So maybe you're interested. And you're worried that you maybe got her in trouble."
"That's two 'maybes' right there. And she'll see right through it. She'll know I'm still trying to figure out why the hood was threatening her. No. She won't even talk to me."
"Okay, so, I'll ask Frank to run a check on her. See if she's got any history."
"Hell no," Mark said insistently. "That's worse than going to her boss."
"Why? Just a routine request. He doesn't have to know the rest. I'll put her on this week's list. Frank likes to feel useful."
Mark stared at him dubiously. "Okay, maybe," he said grudgingly.
He took another spoonful of soup. He winced.
He didn't hear Hardcastle make that call. He'd returned to the sofa after the soup and two more pain pills. He slept through both the phone call, and most of a John Wayne double feature. It was almost eleven when he woke up.
"Ice cream?" Hardcastle asked.
Mark swallowed once, tried to open his mouth, decided that was a bad idea, and then shook his head. The judge nudged a water glass a little closer to him on the coffee table. He took up that offer, grateful for the straw.
"Looks swollen?" he murmured, as he set it back down.
"Yeah, like you went ten rounds with Jack Dempsey. 'Specially the left."
Mark watched the closing credits starting to roll. "Everything come out okay in 'Stagecoach' again? Ringo gets the girl and they ride off into the sunset?"
"Yup," Hardcastle said with an air of satisfaction. "But it was a sunrise . . . and that was no girl, that was Claire Trevor." He reached for the remote and clicked off the TV. "How ya feeling?"
"Like I went ten rounds with Dempsey." Mark reached up and felt his left cheek. "A chipmunk, huh?"
"A beat-up chipmunk."
Mark made a face, which he suspected was no improvement over the one he was stuck with. Then the rest came back to him.
"What'd Frank say?"
"He said he's stopping by the office in the morning. He'll run it."
"Not till tomorrow, huh?"
"He was already heading out the door. And tomorrow is Saturday. You should be grateful he's not taking the whole weekend off." The judge leaned back in his chair. "The amount of work they get out of that guy—he oughta have made captain by now."
"But half of it's for you."
"He gets a pretty good return on that, ya know," the judge pointed out gruffly. "Anyway, I couldn't ask him to put a rush on it, not without giving him more of an explanation."
"I suppose." Mark's frown was somewhat lost in the general stiffness. "Well, it's a good thing I didn't try and call her."
McCormick looked at him impatiently. "'Cause I look like a chipmunk who went ten rounds, that's why. Who'd wanna date that?"
"Aw, she's used to seeing that kind of stuff . Heck she saw you with your mouth open getting your teeth yanked. How could this be any worse? Besides, she was gonna see right through ya, wasn't she?"
"I dunno," Mark muttered. "I've got charms. I can be devious. You never know. She mighta told the hood to take a hike."
"So now the guy is her boyfriend, too?"
"Yeah, probably. Who else does a nice girl risk going to prison for? There's always some creep talking her into something."
"Why did I bother calling Frank? You've got this all figured out."
Mark shrugged. "Lots of practice." He sat up slowly. "Ice cream," he said.
Saturday morning came and went. Oatmeal was eaten. Frank didn't call and Mark was reluctant to risk making a bigger deal over it by having the judge call him back. Lunch came and went, too. Soup. Again.
Mark, considering it all and wishing he had a straw for his soup, mumbled, "I remember this. It's the part where it gets worse before it gets better."
"Yup," Hardcastle agreed, "but if you didn't look as bad as you do, I'd be telling you to go mow the lawn, so there's something to be glad about."
Saturday afternoon he spent partly moping and partly on the sofa—moping horizontally, alternating with dozing off. Dinner came and went. Applesauce and mashed potatoes. Hardcastle had a steak.
"I offered to put one in the blender for you," he said very righteously to the younger man's not too stoic expression.
"It wouldn't be the same,' Mark said, aiming for some righteous of his own, but seeing it miss the target and land somewhere off-side as a whine.
"Well, a guy can only have soup so many meals in a row," Hardcastle gestured with his knife. "I gotta keep my strength up in case we have to go after a rogue dental assistant."
"It's not her," Mark said. "I don't think Frank's gonna find anything. I think it's the guy. He got her into something."
"What? She's a dental assistant."
"Velios said she was very conscientious—"
"Not for herself," Mark said. "It's never for themselves. You've seen that, haven't you? The guy comes along, acts nice, the girl falls for it, and pretty soon she's doing whatever he asks. There she is in a medical office; the cabinet's full of drugs. She's the assistant; she maybe even keeps the records. And the prescription pad . . . she knows what his signature looks like—"
"Then she's guilty."
Mark frowned at this rush to judgment. He forged on. "Maybe she slipped just a little, gave him a little help, 'Something for a friend . . . my sister. Just this one time.' Then he had her. She had more to lose than he did. He could turn her in and then skip town. She'd be left holding the bag."
Hardcastle seemed to be giving that a slow consider. "Maybe," he finally said. "Might've happened that way. But even if that is what went down, she can't go on doing it."
"But if she turned the guy in first—"
"She might get off pretty light," the judge said, "but she'll still lose her job. Her license, too."
Mark put his elbow on the table, and his chin on his hand, gently.
"It's better than prison," he said. "And maybe none of it's true. Maybe I was just having a reaction to the happy juice, like you said."
"Hmmph," Hardcastle said doubtfully, putting his knife down and pushing away what was left of his steak.
Mark understood completely. He'd lost his appetite as well, and they were both still sitting there a moment later, contemplating Melody's unhappy prospects, when the phone rang.
McCormick reached for it, barely getting the hello out before he heard Frank ask, "Is he there? No, wait, never mind. I wanna ask you how he does it. You're around there all the time. Hell, as far as I can tell she was fine when he asked me about her yesterday. So when the hell did he start getting the psychic vibes about LA's next victim of senseless violence?"
It might have been the silence that followed on that, or maybe the fact that he'd gotten all the way though his rant without a single interruption from the usually less patient McCormick. Whichever, Frank broke into the momentary pause with a 'You still there?'
"What do you have, Frank?" It had come out brief and dull and a little flat, but it got the message across and Harper cleared his throat as if he was starting over again.
"Melody Stickleman, 27. A dental assistant. Milt asked me to look her up in the computer yesterday. You know her?"
"I met her," Mark said quietly. "Just a couple days ago."
"Sorry," Frank said, equally quiet. Then he started up again. "No record. Nothing."
"That's kinda what we were figuring." He still was managing to keep everything out of his voice, and Hardcastle was sitting back, with only a look of average curiosity. Mark didn't think that was going to hold through the next part, but he really needed to hear it for himself, unvarnished. "What happened to her?" he asked, and even though he'd kept it absolutely flat, the judge as now leaning forward as Mark added, "You said 'victim'?"
Hardcastle was out of his chair now, but didn't grab for the phone. Instead he headed out of the kitchen. Frank had only gotten a few words into the story before Mark heard the phone in the den being picked up. The judge uttered 'I'm here,' in something approaching a growl.
"Good," Frank said, "you can fill me in, then. It was getting the routine treatment last night—a janitor found the woman in the stairwell of the office building she worked in. Looked like a fall. She was alive, but barely. The paramedics arrived, noticed the pupils, gave her the stuff they use to treat narcotic OD's. Her breathing got better for a while but she still didn't make it. Massive head injury."
"Evening. Her employer said she stayed after to finish processing some instruments and lock up. He left at six p.m. She was found a little after eight, when the night cleaning crew comes in."
"That's what the investigating officers thought. Employee stays behind, samples the goodies, falls down. It wouldn't be the first time. They handed it over to the M.E., of course, but it didn't have any red flags on it."
Mark heard Hardcastle's long, slow exhalation interrupted by Harper, impatient. "So now you tell me, why did my records search cross paths with the detective's who was tidying up the paperwork on Ms. Stickleman?"
"'Cause I asked him to ask you to check her out," Mark said, reaching up to rub his temple.
"No," the judge interjected, "I kinda think it was my idea."
"Why?" Frank repeated.
They took turns explaining. It took a while even though Frank, with twenty-four hours of hindsight, was much easier to convince.
"It fits," he finally said. "They asked the guy who runs the place—that'd be your Dr. Velios—if anything besides the narcotics had been disturbed. He told 'em no at first, but then this morning he called back and said the receptionist found her record book in the wrong drawer. She asked the doc if he'd used it. The detective didn't make much of that."
"I scared Melody," Mark said, half to himself, "and when she told the guy about it, and how scared she was . . ."
"He knew he had to stop her from turning herself in," Hardcastle finished solemnly.
"He hit her over the head, then injected enough stuff to finish her off." Mark shook his head. "But he didn't count on the cleaning crew."
"They may have interrupted him. You'll need to talk to them again."
"Milt, they saw a woman in the stairwell. They weren't paying attention to anything else. But the record book—"
"I don't think he meant to kill her right there. That was just stupid. Might've started out as him just trying to keep her from running out on him. She must've finally said she'd had enough. And she must've told him why—she told him about McCormick."
"And now he's winging it," Mark said. "He knows even if I didn't overhear much, once I find out she's dead, I'll get suspicious. So he needed an address to go with the name."
"He's going to have to move fast," Hardcastle said.
"Me and you both, if he's smart. I told her who you were, that you were a retired judge. I think she was nervous about that, too."
"I'll get a squad car over to you—"
"No." It was both forceful and nearly simultaneous, but it was the judge who got to the backfill first.
"We don't even know who this guy is. A boyfriend, maybe, but no way to nail him. Prints in a public stairwell like that? In a reception area? There's gonna be a million of 'em. And if he was smart, he kept his distance from everybody she knows—"
"The only way we're gonna get this guy," Mark said, low and intense, "is if he make another bonehead play."
"And it'll have to be soon," the judge added. "He'll want to take us out before we find out what happened to Melody."
"Tonight?" Mark asked, looking out at the last rays of sunlight, red-gold across the yard.
"If he wants to be sure about it."
"And you think I should leave you two sitting out there with no back-up at all?" Frank said incredulously.
"Only if you want to get this guy," Hardcastle said gruffly. "If he sees anything that looks like cops hanging around here, he won't risk it. And by the time you guys put together a list of suspects, he'll be long gone."
"He may do that anyway," Mark said glumly. "It's probably a long shot to think he'll even try something."
"I'd feel better if I didn't know how often you guys buck the odds. Nothing, not even an undercover car?"
"He might already be out there, trying to figure out if the coast is clear," Hardcastle said insistently.
Mark had moved over by the window. "I dunno, Judge, inside like this, it's gonna be hard for him to get a crack at us. Maybe I should skim the pool."
"You're both crazy," Frank said. "I'm coming over there."
It took a while after that—even with the two of them employing maximum persuasion and sincere promises not to get back lit by the pool lights—before Frank could be dissuaded from his intention.
By the time they'd convinced him, and said good-bye, it was full dark outside, long past any chance to go out and reconnoiter for intruders. Mark hung up the receiver, looking out again with a sense of disappointment.
He strolled through the house and up the hallway to the den. The judge was over by the window, not backlit, but damn close.
"If I can't skim, you can't stand there like a Macy's Christmas display." Mark stepped over and pushed the shutter closed. He looked at the judge sternly. He suspected the effect was slightly diminished by the chipmunk factor.
"Probably we should stick to the routine," Hardcastle said.
"Except he doesn't know what the routine is. Maybe it's routine that I go down for a stroll on the beach every night."
"Maybe he's got a rifle with a sniper scope."
"You know these guys are always crappy shots. That's why there's a job market for professional hit men. This guy's some small-time hood, schmoozing a girl to get blank scripts and maybe some morphine on the side. He'll have a handgun, at best. You know that."
That was all he got from the judge for a few seconds. Eventually it was followed by, "Yeah, well, there's knowing, and then there's knowing—and maybe I'm the guy who goes for a walk on the beach every night."
"No, you're the guy who stays up here with the shotgun and the bad attitude. I'll lure him out—he'll have to be somewhere along the back of the lawn to get a clear sightline—and you reel him in."
"I'll be fishing and he'll be hunting," Hardcastle said, sounding dissatisfied.
"A shotgun. He's gonna have some pipsie Saturday night special."
"You sure you aren't feeling guilty about that woman?"
"No," Mark said, with as much sincerity as he could muster, "I don't even think you should feel guilty. It was just bad luck, that's all. Next time I'll try and be a little more persuasive and you can be less stubborn."
"And this time we'll nail the guy," the judge added decisively.
"That's all we can do."
It was one thing to stand inside of four secure walls and talk strategy, Mark concluded, another matter entirely to wend one's way, efficiently, but without looking anxious or hurried, to the temporary security of the steps leading down to the beach.
He felt an itch between his shoulder blades and the throb of his faster-than-normal pulse in his jaw. He was glad he hadn't taken that last dose of pain pills before Frank had called; he preferred to have his wits about him, even when doing his imitation of a duck at a penny arcade.
Ten more yards, but these were across an expanse that offered no cover. It was necessary, he knew, in order for his potential pursuer to have no cover either. But he hated the idea of not even having a chance to know when to start ducking.
He stepped out from the shadows, walking with calm purpose, grateful for the clouds that partly obscured the nearly full moon. He thought he could hear Hardcase, up there in the house, muttering at him to get a move on. Haste makes waste. And still, he concluded, it wasn't as scary as a guy working inside your mouth with a set of pliers.
That thought had gotten him nearly to the edge of the lawn. Six steps down and he'd be out of range for anyone who didn't follow him to the cliff's edge. He let out a breath of relief and resisted the urge to break into a jog. It would hurt too much, he decided, and besides, he was there. He pulled the wire gate inward, and stepped out onto the landing, latching it behind him. He already felt marginally safer with it behind him. The reasoning was obscure. It certainly wouldn't stop a bullet.
It was also premature. He was two steps down when a break in the clouds drifted past the moon and the sudden increase in light illuminated the inner edge of the stairway. The guy was looking up, obviously just as startled as Mark was to see he had company. He might not have heard anything except the waves on the rocks below. Hardcastle was just as unlikely to hear a shout from there, especially one coming from a beat-up chipmunk.
He tried anyway and then aimed a kick for the nickel-plated .22 in the guy's right hand. That was the more successful maneuver. He watched it sail out, twinkling in the moonlight and falling down onto the rocks below. Maybe he watched a moment too long. He remembered, a second later, that this guy hadn't even used a gun the last time.
The moon ducked into the clouds again, and the man, already in mid-lunge, was on him. He felt hands grappling for his throat. He'd missed—his aim was too high—but the pain was galvanizing.
He bit down. It was pure reflex and no bite block to impede it. He thought the other guy's shriek had probably carried where his own shout had not. He was vaguely aware that he was getting pounded with the man's free hand, but there comes a point where everything else is just background noise.
"Don't move, dammit."
It was Hardcase, at last, so Mark assumed the prohibition didn't apply to him. He unclamped his jaw. That probably hurt his attacker almost as much as the initial biting down had, at least that's what he concluded from the way the man slumped, whimpering.
Mark skittered off to the outer edge of the steps, getting out of the line of fire. He wiped his face on the back of his sleeve. Blood. He wasn't sure he wanted to know whose.
"His name is Hastings L. Lupont. Minor drug beefs. He's pulled this stuff before," Frank said.
The guilty party—trespassing and assault with a deadly weapon for now, further charges to follow—had been transported to the nearest hospital. Mark had heard a smart remark—one of the ambulance attendants asking about rabies tags. He'd ignored it. Now he was back in the den, after two more pain pills and an ice pack.
Frank looked down again at the notes he'd jotted. "He cozied up to an office nurse over in Anaheim a few years back. Prescription blanks and everything else she could get her hands on. She claimed he'd coerced her but of course there was no evidence. He made sure everything was transited through to third parties. She got a stay in Frontera; he walked."
He looked up again, flipping the notebook closed. "Oh, and the docs say he'll probably get to keep both fingers."
"In a jar?" Hardcastle asked grimly.
"Hah," the man with the icepack retorted, and then, a little muffled, "He had a gun."
"I know," Frank said. "We found it. A shiny one. Nice moonlit night." He frowned, then shook his head. "Anyway," he turned to Milt, "I think you ought to feed him a little more."
"He pointed it at me," Mark said.
"His finger?" Frank asked.
"No, the gun dammit. And the part with the, ah . . ."
"Teeth?" Frank offered helpfully.
"It was pure reflex."
"It's okay. He deserved it." Hardcastle patted him on the shoulder. "Too bad it was only his left hand."
Mark caught himself in a half-nod of agreement. Obviously the pills were kicking in. He reached up, probing gently and a bit absently, to see if the bleeding had stopped. He grunted.
"What?" Hardcastle came around the chair, looking down at him.
"Nothing," Mark said, too late to be effective.
"No, what is it?"
"Another one," McCormick muttered. "Just loose. It'll settle down."
Frank shook his head and spoke with an air of wisdom. "You shouldn't neglect 'em—you can wind up with complications."