Disclaimer: These characters aren't mine and I make no profit from them.
Author's Note: This story takes play in the spring of 1985, shortly after "Angie's Choice", and therefore about seven months before Mark officially meets Dr. Friedman in the episode "Do Not Go Gentle". Sorry, been doing that for a while now. Charlie Friedman is so dang useful. I keep hoping no one will notice the anachronism.
The Guy in Charge
By L.M. Lewis
It had been an unusually cool and rainy March and early April, more like a spring back in Jersey, and now--the day after Angie Bloom and her brood had vacated the premises—it looked as if the weather was settling in for good. Mark stumbled out of bed, parted the shades enough to see that the shades were hardly needed at all, and pulled on a pair of jeans that were already flecked with mud down below the knees.
Along with the weather, riding herd on the Bloom kids had done nothing for the maintenance schedule on the estate, and Mark had learned from previous experience that ignoring it never made it go away. He pulled on his least-preserved pair of gym shoes and prepared to squelch his way to the main house. The very least he needed before tackling the "to do" list would be a hot breakfast.
He arrived via the back door, shedding his rain gear just inside. Hardcastle was already at the table, coffee cup before him, along with some toast that looked mostly untouched. There was a paper, too. The judge had ventured out to get it. Despite it's now-discarded waterproof wrapping, the top edge was damp.
"I would have brought that in," Mark said with a nod to the open pages as he headed toward the fridge.
"Yeah," Hardcastle rasped, "but it's the morning edition."
Mark glanced up at the clock. "Nine a.m. is still morning where I come from, and what's the matter with your voice? Ahh, I knew all that yelling at the hired help would catch up with you someday." He shook his head as he reached for the eggs. "Want some?" He opened the carton. "Scrambled, I think. Hey, we got some cottage cheese in here?"
Nothing from the guy at the table but an interpolated 'hmmph' somewhere between the time and the observation on why he was hoarse. Mark had found the cottage cheese, but rejected it on the grounds of fuzziness, before he looked back at the older man again with a more curious expression.
"You okay?" he said, with a sudden shift in tone. "Something wrong with your throat?"
"Just a little sore." The judge had dropped down to a whisper, still harsh.
"You probably caught it from one of those kids," Mark admonished. "Kids are like cesspools, you know? They cough all over you and the next thing you know—"
"They weren't sick."
Mark considered this and then shrugged. "Then the bad guys, maybe. That hand-to-hand combat stuff, it's deadly."
This time the 'hmmph' was accompanied by a shake of the judge's head, as he bent back over the paper.
Mark gave him another hard look—he was wearing a sweater over one of his usual flannel work shirts and it seemed like overkill even for this unseasonable weather.
"You got a fever—the chills or something?" Mark asked cautiously.
He didn't get yelled at for sticking his nose where it didn't belong. Instead, there was a quick and slightly guilty shake of Hardcastle's head and no further whispering.
Mark registered a 'hmmph' of his own and turned back to the counter—eggs, milk, bowl and whisk. It would be easier to eat than toast.
The eggs got scrambled, and Mark dished up for both of them ("I don't need what you've got") but Hardcase was apparently off his feed.
Mark kept his mouth shut all the way through the cleaning-up phase and then only opened it to make a slightly hesitant and entirely reasonable suggestion.
"You should give Charlie Friedman a call."
"It's just a cold," Hardcastle snapped back, with a little more volume and vehemence than he had shown up till then.
Mark knew better than to raise the fact that it'd barely been three months since the judge had taken a bullet to the chest. That was definitely one of the things they'd stopped talking about, and that had been almost before the pill bottles had been finished and Hardcastle could take the steps at a steady pace. Mark couldn't say he was all that keen on the subject, either but, still—
"Better safe than sorry," he said quietly. "You never know."
Both of these admonitions were apparently bland enough to go down without aggravating the judge further, but there were no indications that he'd be taking the advice. Mark turned toward the sink and the small collection of breakfast dishes. It looked like the rain was letting up.
"You should go put your feet up. Take some aspirin or something. Storm knocked a lot of stuff into the pool. If we get a break in the rain this morning, I'll get at it."
There was no comment but a grunt from the judge who had gotten up and was making his way stiffly toward the hall. Mark cast one long look at him over his shoulder, then shook his head as he turned back again to the dishes.
The pool got skimmed—though with another rolling bank of clouds off to the west, it seemed pretty pointless. The grass was still too wet for mowing, and at the rate things were going might eventually need a machete. Mark, hands on his hips, surveyed the domain critically as the next batch of rain started to fall. He shook his head and retreated up the steps and through the back door.
It wasn't lunch time yet, but he'd seen Hardcastle, earlier, picking at breakfast in a way that was wholly unlike him. Mark briefly investigated the fridge and the freezer, and then headed toward the den to make a report.
"We've got ice cream. Want some?"
The judge was sitting at the desk with a collection of opened letters and other current business spread out before him. He looked up blearily and finally shook his head.
"You oughta. It'll make you feel better . . . Hey, maybe some ginger ale." Mark pondered. "Not sure we've got any, but I could go get some. We need cottage cheese, too." He leaned over the desk and snagged a note pad and pen, then sank into a chair, contemplating their other needs. "What else? Oh, did ya take some aspirin?"
The judge frowned, swallowed once, with obvious discomfort, and carped hoarsely, "Ya think maybe I could have a little peace and quiet—just long enough to get the bills paid? I'm fine; it's just a cold, for Pete's sake." This last protestation was ruined by a long, hacking cough, after which he'd pulled his sweater tighter around himself and looked both miserable and stubborn.
Mark ignored the request, which was the unreasonable product of a probably fevered brain. He got stern as he rose from his chair. "I'm getting you the aspirin right now, then I'll run out for this stuff. I'll be gone a half-hour, tops. You finish up your chores there. I'll make lunch when I get back and after that you should take a nap."
It was a plan, and he didn't hang around for the argument, retreating into the hallway and off to the kitchen for what was needed. He snagged a thermometer and the bottle of aspirin on the way past the bathroom. He'd gotten pretty good at reading it a few months back, and he didn't leave it open to debate when he returned.
"No cheating," he said firmly. "Under the tongue." He installed it, shutting off all further protests temporarily, then sat down and hastily finished scribbling the list.
He checked his watch, waited for the last twenty seconds to tick down, and removed it, twisting it slightly until the mercury stripe flashed wide, its far end at the 102 line precisely. He issued a long, low whistle.
"That's a pretty hot 'cold' you've got there . . . Aspirin," he said firmly, shaking two out and handing them over.
Hardcastle looked down at his hand with a dyspeptic expression but finally opened his mouth gingerly and popped the pills in. This was followed by sips from the glass of orange juice Mark had set on the desk, and a glance down at what was now a grocery list. He shifted slightly off his backside and got his wallet out, forking over what was needed.
Mark picked up the money carefully between thumb and one finger, as though it might be radioactive. "You know this stuff is filthy. Germs all over it."
"You can run it through the laundry before you go," Hardcastle croaked.
"Take too long," Mark muttered, shoving it heedlessly into his pocket. "We've got a ginger ale shortage here."
The judge made a shooing motion with his hand.
With Mark gone, Hardcastle felt at liberty to give in to the shaking chills he'd felt coming on for the previous half-hour. He thought about heading upstairs to start the nap part of the program early, but part of him still stubbornly refused to give in to that. He even thought about ringing up Charlie Friedman's office, but he was fairly certain that McCormick had already hit on the main points of what would be the doctor's advice: aspirin, fluids and rest. That would make the call a double concession to the younger man's overbearing attitude this morning.
Instead of any of that he stayed at his desk and did bills, hoping his handwriting looked fairly normal and he wasn't sending out the gift of flu in every envelope. He was done with that, and back to pondering what it was that was annoying him so, by the time he heard the GMC in the driveway.
He takes over. It had happened a few months back, right after he'd been hospitalized with a bullet in his chest. He'd lost a few days in there, and when he'd been back with it enough to hear what had happened, the whole thing had shaken him to the core: Tonto riding the high plains, dispensing justice with the Lone Ranger's own gun. Not that it hadn't been absolutely justified . . . but the possible consequences. The judge shivered again, though he'd mostly gone over to sweating by that point.
He heard the front door opening and quickly collected himself before the younger man appeared in the doorway, a bag in each arm.
"Lots of ginger ale," Mark said, eyeing him closely. "I couldn't remember which brand you liked best, so I got both . . . and chicken noodle soup." He set one bag down on the desk and fished the change out of his pocket. "You call Charlie yet?"
"Fever broke," Hardcastle replied.
"Hmm, well, that's the battle, not the war, if you ask me."
"It's just the flu."
"Yeah," Mark nodded, "maybe, but that can be serious—"
He'd broken off suddenly, as if he didn't want to discuss just why it might be more serious in some people. Hardcastle appreciated his reticence and extended himself a little in return.
"Soup sounds good."
Mark nodded once and gathered the bags up again. "Only take a minute."
He was gone, leaving the judge pondering, for the umpteenth time, if things could ever get completely back to normal with the two of them. It wasn't more than a few minutes before he heard Mark's announcement, but, of course, it wasn't the usual "soup's on" from the far end of the house. Instead, he was in the doorway again, bowls in hand.
"I coulda come in there," Hardcastle grumbled. It'd lost some of its force, uttered as a whisper.
He was down to his shirtsleeves, damp with sweat, and the idea of hot soup had lost most of its appeal by then anyway, but McCormick had wordlessly turned around and departed, reappearing a short time later with the crackers and the ginger ale.
He cleared a spot on the desk for all of that, then pulled his own chair up, sideways and across from him. There was no escaping the close inspection from there. The judge tucked into his soup with what was intended to be a show of enthusiasm, marred only by a grimace with the first swallow.
Mark waited a few moments before he innocuously asked if it was too hot.
Hardcastle didn't waste valuable words on a yes or no question. He just shook his head and reached for the ginger ale.
He made it through an even dozen spoonfuls of soup—no crackers—and a half-glass of the soda before Mark's sternly concerned expression relented.
"The bed is made up in Sarah's room, if you think going upstairs in the middle of the day is too decadent," the younger man suggested casually.
It was obviously intended to look like a concession, when in reality the bed in question was closer at hand for being hovered over and nagged at. Still, the thought of the stairs was intimidating; the last time he'd tried to stand up, his knees had felt like water.
"Charlie probably wouldn't mind stopping off and seeing you here, on his way home."
"He'll just tell me to drink lots of ginger ale and get some rest," was Hardcastle's whispered protest, "and that's what I'm gonna do."
It came out sounding mostly like his own idea, which he liked, and he followed that up with getting to his feet decisively, then clinging to the edge of the desk for a moment while the room righted itself. Mark was at his side, after a second or two that had involved purple spots and a rushing noise. That part must not have been evident, though, because he got off with having an arm to lean on, rather than being admonished to sit back down.
He tried to lean not too heavily, and to keep his breathing even, though the urge to cough was strong. He had a brief fleeting thought, quickly suppressed, that if he gave whatever he'd come down with to McCormick he'd be cooked, and that—just like the last time he'd been invalided—there'd be no way he'd make it through this without someone to help.
To fetch and carry, though, not be in charge.
He took some comfort in that distinction as he shuffled down the hall, leaning more heavily than he'd hoped, while at the same time fighting a feeling of not being firmly connected to the ground.
"Harder than you thought," Mark muttered, mostly under his breath, after he'd deposited his charge in the chair in Sarah's old room. Out loud he said, "Maybe you'll wanna put on a clean t-shirt and some sweats before you climb in."
The items in question had already been fetched in from the laundry room, further indication that command decisions had been made, even before the judge's agreement had been obtained. Mark looked barely conciliatory at this point, and the "maybes" were strictly pro forma.
That's how he is, Hardcastle conceded. When he's not taking charge, it's all grousing and fussing, but when he is, then it's "maybe you'd like to . . .?"
He felt inexplicably pleased with himself for having figured all that out. Obviously he was still hitting on all cylinders, despite the now-irritating tendency for little gaps to appear in time. Mark was back; he'd been off somewhere and fetched another glass and the cup with the thermometer in it.
"You need some help with getting out of that stuff?"
Maybe he did. It was possible, since all the buttons were still buttoned and he'd started to shiver again.
Another lapse, marked only by an uncertain recollection of having tried to stand and nearly falling down, but now he'd made it into bed, was in a dry t-shirt, maybe even starting to warm up a little. Mark was still there, putting things on the nightstand.
"Under," he younger man said, by which Hardcastle knew he was supposed to put up with the thermometer again.
This time he didn't remember the thing having been removed and there was no long exclamatory whistle, only a concerned look. It was placed back in its cup without being shaken down. He'd been about to point that out, but Mark was gone again. He turned his head slowly, not even trying to lift it off the pillow, and surveyed the room. There were quiet noises and indirect light—both from the hallway and the kitchen beyond—all too mysterious to make sense of.
A cool rag on his forehead. Too cold. He cussed grumpily and it was removed after a moment. Fine. But then he was being propped up—a firm arm behind his neck—and being told to open his mouth.
"Not again," he muttered. "Just did that."
"Drink," Mark said insistently.
It was a straw, not a thermometer. He did as he was told. "'Nuff," he said.
"Pills," Mark insisted again, apparently determined to keep the commands short and easily understood. Two of them were coaxed in, followed by the straw again. He swallowed and heard Mark say, "There," as though he were self-satisfied.
He was lowered back down and tucked in. The rag was back, not feeling quite so intolerably cold this time. He put up with it, vaguely aware that all this annoyance was in his best interest.
More time had passed, obviously, and again he'd gone from shivering to dripping wet. He woke up to the sound of voices in the other room—Mark's and someone else's, speaking a little too quietly to make out. He blinked a few times, trying to fill in the gaps in the afternoon. The storm seemed to have passed but the cloudy sky had hastened the dusk.
The voices sounded nearer. The other one was Charlie; he could make that much out, though now that they were just outside the room, the conversation had stopped.
"Just the flu," Hardcastle turned on his side and greeted him as he entered. His raspy whisper sounded perfectly lucid, he hoped. He was damned if he'd let anyone hornswaggle him into the hospital over something like this. "You made the trip over here for nothing."
"It's on the way home," Charlie assured him, setting his comfortingly old-fashioned black bag on the chair and fishing out his stethoscope and a blood pressure cuff.
Mark had slipped in after him, not looking otherwise very guilty about overreaching his place in the scheme of things. He took the thermometer out of the cup, gently, and passed it over to Charlie who twiddled it for a moment. The doctor didn't whistle, either, but his eyebrows went up just before he said, "I see what you mean."
"Didn't think you'd believe me," Mark admitted, finally taking the thing back and shaking it down.
"Well, whatever it was," Hardcastle groused, "it's down now."
"And we hope it stays that way," Friedman said reassuringly, wrapping the cuff around his impatient patient's arm and inflating it. The taking of the pulse followed, and the peering into the throat and listening to the heart and lungs.
"No," he said confidently, "no pneumonia so far."
Hardcastle accepted that judgment with a nod, then glanced toward Mark and said, "Told ya. Just a virus."
Charlie lifted his eyebrow again and cast a piercing look at Hardcastle. "But you do understand—there are scars, and you're prone to things. Even if it is 'just a virus', you're only three months back on your feet and you ought to treat these things with respect . . . and you might want to stay away from kids."
Mark stifled a laugh. "We'll try."
The doctor had his prescription pad out and was jotting on it. "Something a little stronger for the fever and pain. It'll last longer too." He looked up from his writing and spoke directly to Mark. "You'll be next if you don't wash your hands and get a lot of rest."
Mark tucked the proffered script into his shirt pocket and then held one hand up in a mock Boy Scout oath. "Absolutely. Reverent and clean is my motto . . . and no kids."
Charlie chuckled and then turned back and patted his patient on the shoulder. "No problem coming out, Milt. I'd rather see you here than hear you'd let things get out of hand and ended up in the hospital. It's good to see you having a little common sense for a change and taking care of yourself."
Hardcastle grunted noncommittally, not particularly willing to take credit under the circumstances. Mark said nothing, nor did his face reveal anything, either. He merely stood by while Friedman gathered up his things and then escorted him out.
Mark walked the doctor to the door and saw him shaking his head.
"He must finally be getting some sense in his old age," Friedman reasoned quietly. "Or maybe what happened back in February gave him a notion of his own mortality."
Mark fumbled for the latch on the door.
"Either way," Charlie mused, "it's pretty remarkable, him asking me to stop by. I thought he'd be on death's door."
"A hundred and three's not serious enough for you, Doc?"
"Couldn't tell if it was serious without looking," Friedman conceded. "I'm just glad it's not, so far."
Mark nodded along with that, opening the door and looking out at the rain-slicked drive and water-laden tree branches. "Thanks for stopping by, though. He wasn't in any shape to take a car ride and he's definitely not got enough of a sense of mortality to go back to St. Mary's again." He grinned narrowly at Friedman's nod back and watched the man navigate the steps down, then turn and wave before getting into his car.
He finally stepped back in, closing the door behind him and considering how long he could stay out here on the grounds that he was seeing off their guest. Not long, he figured, and it might be that the longer he stayed away, the bigger the head of steam Hardcastle would have built up. At least he'd have a hard time snarling and snapping with his voice in such poor shape, and surely his weaken condition had to be a plus right now.
Mark drew his shoulders back and took his hands out of his pockets, trying to look wholly innocent and completely justified in his actions. He couldn't help it if the man didn't have the sense God gave donkeys when it came to being sick. He sauntered into the kitchen, listened for grumbling, and, hearing none, continued on into the back bedroom.
Hardcastle was sitting up, perhaps the better to launch a frontal attack, but not looking all that inclined to do so. Mark thought a neutral topic might be in order but he was having trouble thinking of one, what with the man giving him his patented considering stare, so he shrugged and confessed, straight off.
"I told the receptionist that you wanted to speak to him. I figured that was the only way I'd get through to him at all. He's your friend—I'm just the hired help."
"And, anyway, when I got him on the line and told him your symptoms, he must've just assumed you'd told me to call—on account of your voice being so bad."
"You didn't correct him or anything."
Mark grinned. "Course not. I wanted him to come see you. And he thought it was a good idea, too."
"And you didn't ask me, first."
"Definitely not. You would've said no."
He sat there, considering that. The cheerful expression that went along with it was utterly unassailable. But this was not the attitude of a guy who thought he was in charge of things, merely the last resort of someone who was willing to do what he thought was right, no matter what, and would do so even if he couldn't get permission, only ask forgiveness afterward.
He shook his head slowly in bemused disbelief. Mark seemed to relax slightly. It was only now a matter of granting pardon. He supposed he could do it in a superior sort of way. After all, Charlie had pronounced him in need of nothing more than rest and medicine for the fever. He ought to avoid setting any precedents here, make sure the kid knew who was in charge.
He opened his mouth. The words were right there but, instead, he heard a different one come out.
And then, in part to counteract the utter surprise on McCormick's face, he added, "I might not have been myself this afternoon. The fever. Not thinking too clearly." There, enough concession, he thought.
It was certainly enough for McCormick—he looked dumbfounded, then suddenly pleased. He fumbled in his pocket for the piece of paper Friedman had given him and said, "You'll be okay for a while? I'll run down to the drug store and get this filled."
A quick getaway was McCormick's specialty. The judge nodded once benignly and the younger man was off. He heard the front door, banged slightly in his haste to be gone . . . but somehow Hardcastle was certain that there'd be just as much haste on the return trip.