Disclaimer: These are not my characters and I make no profit from them.
Author's Note: It's the sequel to "The Guy in Charge".
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
By L.M. Lewis
By the third day the fever was mostly gone and Hardcastle had decided he'd be up to handling the stairs. He'd already been to the kitchen for breakfast and lunch. Although his appetite wasn't all the way back yet, he was grimly determined not to make more out of this than it had to be.
He made the announcement shortly after dinner. He'd decided to move back to his own bed in the second floor bedroom. Much to his surprise, he didn't catch much flack for it. If anything, McCormick seemed a little distracted, and he wasn't chowing down with anything approaching his usual abandon. It didn't take all that long for the judge to make the connection.
"You're coming down with it, huh?" He didn't wait for a response before he plowed into the laundry list of symptoms, "Headache, throat hurts, knees feel like jelly . . . and there's a weird feeling in your back."
Mark looked at him in mild alarm and, after a moment's thought, finally admitted, "Sort of."
"You've been running around here doing all the fetching and carrying, up half the night checking on things; it's no wonder you came down with it," he blustered. But that was followed, a half-moment later, with a hesitant but sincere, "Sorry. I was tryin' not to cough on you."
"'S okay," Mark assured him rustily. "Just a virus."
"You wait," Harcastle said grimly. "Feels like you got hit by a truck." He furrowed his brow. "Oughta get the bed stripped and remade. You're gonna need it."
"Same germs," Mark muttered. "What's the point?"
"Some Florence Nightingale you are," Hardcastle harrumphed. "'Course you need clean sheets."
Mark sat there, having abandoned his dinner entirely, looking bleary at the notion of laundry. He finally nodded in resignation and started to push himself up from the table.
"Where you going?" Hardcastle asked, already also on his feet.
"Sheets. Laundry." Mark pointed back past himself toward the recently vacated first floor bedroom.
"Nonsense. You sit down and finish that soup. I'll tackle the laundry. They're my sheets, ain't they?"
He might have said it with a note of proprietary pride. Whatever it was, it was convincing, and Mark slowly sank back into his seat with a look of mystification on his face.
The older man was back in a moment, arms laden and taking steps that were only slightly shuffling and uncertain, mostly, he would have assured, because he couldn't see the floor.
"You should just leave them in the laundry room." Mark's voice had taken on a husky edge. "I'll do 'em in the morning."
"That's what you think," Hardcastle said ominously over his shoulder as he disappeared through the doorway. Then, a little more muffled, "Think you can wait for these? Otherwise there's a clean set in the linen closet somewhere."
Mark got up, tested his knees and then headed into Sarah's old room and the closet where the first floor linens were kept. Even stripped to the mattress, the bed looked enticing and he wanly wished Hardcastle hadn't had a sudden notion to do things right. His throat was getting sorer by the minute and his back was tightening up. He reached up into the closet and retrieved the sheets and pillowcases. He frowned. No spare mattress pad.
Sarah had been strict about proper bed making, and even in absentia her word remained law. He'd have to wait for a full washing and drying cycle after all. Still . . .
Hardcastle found him there curled up on the mattress with the abandoned blanket cocooned around him, still shivering slightly.
"Uh-uh, not ready yet. Gotta take your temperature. Charlie's gonna want to know."
Mark opened his eyes marginally in response to the steady jostling. The thermometer loomed blurrily.
"Under," Hardcastle said insistently.
Mark wasn't a model of compliance. He drew his head back, eyeing the thing suspiciously and then, as if he'd suddenly connected with what had just been said, he said, raspily, "Charlie? It's just a virus and, anyway," he brought his wristwatch up closer, to where he ought to have been able to read it; failing that, he settled for, "it's late."
"It's just a phone call," Hardcastle said, with practical insistence. "Open."
Mark did. It was either that or risk eating his own teeth. The thermometer was jammed in firmly.
"And we're gonna need to do a better job with the bed." The judge stood there with his hands on his hips.
He swatted at the younger man's legs, getting him to vacate the spot, and then steering him over to the chair, the blanket still wrapped around him and dragging on the floor. He had the mattress pad and the fitted sheet unfolded and applied, and was only slightly out of breath, when he heard some grunting signals from behind him.
"Oh, yeah." He turned and reached for the thermometer. "Gotta have been long enough. He held it up at a decent distance, then closer.
Mark finally grew impatient and reached for it himself, turning it with a practiced hand and finally grimacing.
"What is it?" Hardcastle grabbed for his wrist but it was too late, Mark was already shaking the tube down.
"High," Mark said. "We've got some aspirin in the kitchen."
"Maybe that stuff from the prescription. Got a few pills left."
"Your name's on the bottle." Mark looked slightly shocked. "You're not supposed to share that stuff."
"It's for fevers, right? And that's what you've got, a fever."
Mark didn't look placated.
"All right," Hardcastle acquiesced guiltily, "we'll call Charlie and ask him."
"In the morning," Mark rasped. "That's soon enough. Just a virus."
He hadn't added, "And I'm thirty years younger than you; I can handle it," but it hung there, unspoken, between them.
Hardcastle managed to not look too peeved as he shuffled off to the kitchen and the aspirin supply, returning a few minutes later with the bottle and a glass of ginger ale. He put the glass down on the night stand, pried the bottle open, liberated two tablets, gave some serious thought to the notion that if two were good, three might be better, figured McCormick might have something to say about that, and finally handed over the two pills.
He was standing by with the glass as the pills were swallowed. As soon as that was done, he grabbed the dangling end of the blanket and gave it a tug.
"Need it, for the bed." He gestured with his free hand toward the half-made surface.
Mark grimaced but didn't look too willing, still shaking so much that the straw looked like it had been a good idea. Sighing, Hardcastle grunted, "Never mind," and turned toward a cedar chest on the far side of the room.
He rummaged in it, finally pulling out a seldom-used quilt—something Nancy's grandmother had made back in Iowa, what his own grandma would have called a log cabin pattern, done in bright yellow prints, edging off to creams and whites. It was a cheerful finish to the job, and as he unfolded and spread it, he half-wondered why he didn't get it out more often. He supposed family heirlooms, having survived the family, ought to be properly stored away.
He stuffed the pillows into their cases and turned down the quilt and sheet. By the time he was done, Mark was nodding, his glass nearly slipping from his fingers. Hardcastle rescued that, put it back on the nightstand, and nudged the kid back up.
"Under," he said, and this time he meant the covers.
Three steps over there, disentangling him from the blanket as he went, and the job was done, with the blanket incongruously atop the quilt. They could sort that out later, Hardcastle concluded, too winded from his chores to do anything but sit down in the chair McCormick had just vacated. He pulled it closer to the bed and settled back into it, raising his feet one at a time and stretching them out on the foot edge of the bed.
Mark was oblivious, already curled up on his side, occupying as little surface area as possible, for the sake of preserving his heat. The shivering had subsided, though.
The judge checked his watch. It was still too early for anyone's normal bedtime, but too late for a reasonable call to Charlie Friedman for anything less than a dire emergency, and it looked like things were pretty much under control here. It could wait until morning, he'd decided. He was no worrywart like some people he could name.
On the other hand, his plans for returning to his room seemed temporarily scotched. "We'll play it by ear," he muttered, pleased with his decisiveness. Settling back further in his chair, he tipped his head against the backrest and let his eyes drift shut.
It was colder than he thought it ought to be, even for late winter in LA. Indoors, too, though it was only a makeshift doublewide, the kind they used in overcrowded school districts. The whole thing had a sleazy, slapped together feel to it, but that wasn't what was bothering him.
Something was . . . wrong. There was a sense of foreboding, a clenching feeling in his chest, only compounded by the shivers. Not cold, it was fear. He wanted to stand up, tell someone. Maybe the bailiff, though the man looked otherwise occupied, and, anyway, what could he tell him? "Something is wrong; something bad is going to happen." They'd throw him out of the courtroom.
Things jumped ahead. He'd missed something important, he was sure. Some clue to what was going on—what was going to happen. And then, just as unexpectedly, everything slowed to a crawl. There he was, Weed Randall, spewing his venom, but none of the words were understandable.
He's got a gun.
He knew it, though no one else seemed to be aware of the danger. The bailiff was simply standing there, at a complacent parade rest. It was only when Mark had finally stumbled to his feet that his eyes shifted sharply right and he lurched into motion.
There was a railing. He needed to get over it but his feet seem mired in molasses. Stop him. He has a gun. No one was listening. The bailiff was in front of him now, blocking his path, holding him back, telling him to settle down; putting on the handcuffs.
"No," he shouted, but it wasn't anything close to a shout and even that had been painful. His chest hurt; his heart was pounding.
"It's okay, shhh, settle down." The words didn't make any sense at first and he tried to push the man away, to get past him.
He blinked. It was Hardcastle's voice, and, in his deepening confusion, the florescent-lit courtroom had faded into a dim, only vaguely familiar place. Sarah's room.
He was half out of the bed, one foot on the floor and his arms raised with the judge's grip on both his wrists. He sank back down. Once he had, the grip was released on his left wrist and the judge reached over to flick on the nightstand lamp.
"You okay?" Hardcastle asked, and for the first time, Mark realized the man sounded shaky, maybe a little out of breath.
He nodded and looked around, still worried. The sense of foreboding still hovered over him.
"Bad dream," Hardcastle said cautiously, and Mark noticed he wasn't loosening his hold on the other wrist. "You awake now?"
Mark nodded again.
The other hand finally eased its grip and then he was patted on the shoulder. He lay back down, clumsily, still keeping an eye on the shadows in the corners of the room. Things seemed capable of change without notice. Hardcastle pulled the covers up from where they'd fallen to the floor. Mark's eyes soon drifted shut, despite his best efforts to keep watch.
One minute he'd been asleep, having dozed off in the chair—there'd been a little mumbling and muttering from McCormick, talking in his sleep, it seemed—the next minute, everything was up for grabs. He wouldn't have thought the man could move that fast even when he was hale and whole, let alone out of a fevered sleep.
He'd lurched out of bed and looked on the verge of pitching himself over the chair, maybe through the window. There'd been a wild look in his eyes and absolutely no comprehension when Milt had shouted at him. He'd had to physically restrain him.
And that was when he'd realized he wasn't quite up to it. In fact, now that things were calm again, he wondered if he would be up to it on a good day. He had weight on his side, and could undoubtedly pack a more serious punch, but McCormick was faster, and had a wealth of experience with fighting strategies not recognized by the boxing commission. He was lucky this hadn't gone any further than it had, and all it had taken was some persistent reassurances and a minute or so for the kid to come to his senses, more or less.
But it had been a long minute. Now that he'd caught his breath, Hardcastle risked leaning forward again, but kept his balance on his feet, ready to either pull back or tackle if the situation warranted. He put his hand on the other man's brow—it seemed like an inopportune moment to haul out the thermometer.
Singeing hot. Hotter than before, he thought. He sat back again, but only for a moment. Then he was on his feet, moving as quietly as possible, heading for the kitchen.
It was happening again, in slow motion, like some Greek tragedy that, the more you tried to stop it, the deeper in you got. He plunged over the railing, ignoring the shouting around him. This time he'd knocked the damn bailiff over, gotten past him, but the problem was distance, and even in slow motion, the bullet was far too fast.
"No, no, no . . . " He heard his voice. It sounded deep and husky, as though he were already mourning the inevitable, and still he lunged forward, never seeming to be able to cross that infinite expanse between him and where he needed to be. "Not again."
He was down on the floor, which was hard and astonishingly cool. Someone had pinned him down. Handcuffs would be next he figured, but the panic had gone out of him now that he'd clearly been defeated, and it was replaced with a deep grief.
He was staring at the bottom of a cabinet, and then blinking, trying to make the clues fit. The kitchen. The weight on his back eased off, with one firm hand still levering his arm up, firmly but not painfully, in a cop's come-along move.
That was easing up, too, and he was finally able to roll over on his back, shielding his eyes with one hand.
"You okay?" Hardcastle asked.
It seemed like a ridiculously commonplace question, but he had to think about the answer. The judge waited with what seemed like unusual patience.
Mark finally decided the answer was "Yeah," and, having said it, was helped to his feet by a guy who looked a little frazzled himself. They were back in the room—Sarah's old room, not the Sutter Annex—and he found himself sitting on the edge of the bed, trying to puzzle it out.
"Take this." Hardcastle was back in front of him, holding out a pill. "Don't worry, I talked to Charlie; he said it's fine. Either we get the pill in you or I'm calling an ambulance. I'm not going for the best two falls out of three."
Mark took it, followed by a couple of sips through a straw, all done with mute docility.
"Heck of a bad dream," the judge muttered, as he sorted out the bedding. Mark felt himself being firmly encouraged to lie back down. "Persistent, too."
"Sorry," Mark rasped. Everything seemed a little less tenuous, now. The aching chill had temporarily departed, and the dream, whatever it had been, along with it.
Hardcastle rubbed his side where he'd hit the arm of the chair on the way down. He'd felt nothing at the moment, barreled over by a man who looked entirely determined to be somewhere else. He should have known better than to turn his back on McCormick before the fever was well and truly broken.
Oddly, though, both times he'd appeared out of control, he'd only been determined to get past the judge, not attack him, and the words he'd been uttering had been full of anxious warning.
It was no great leap of deductive reasoning to calculate the time and place of McCormick's fevered imaginings. Hardcastle considered it all, sitting back in his chair with pursed lips and a furrowed brow.
"It's only been three months, kiddo," he said so quietly that it might have been directed solely toward himself. "Bound to be some scars . . . makes a guy prone to things." He nodded once in utter conviction. It'll pass . . . but I think we oughta stay away from kids.
Morning came, bringing with it an unusually piercing sun, rising into a blue sky with no clouds whatsoever. It was easy to understand why Sarah had been an early riser. Her room had a southern exposure and a picture window with only the gauziest of curtains, which almost intensified the light.
He turned over—away from it—curling on his side, but, having done so, he encountered Hardcastle, slumped in a chair with his feet up on the mattress, snoring softly, apparently unaffected by the brilliant morning light. Mark blinked, got his eyes to stay steadily open, and frowned in disapproval at what had obviously been an overnight camp out.
Then his frowned suddenly deepened, fueled by hints of memory. Not real, he assured himself. Look, the guy is fine. He was, mostly—no gaping wound, at any rate, though he wasn't making any great strides in looking less haggard and that bruise on his right temple—
Mark sat up abruptly and immediately regretted it. His shift on the mattress in turn woke Hardcastle, whose expression sharpened at once into something that included both concern and caution.
"You're okay?" Mark croaked, his voice splitting up a half octave on the second word. He dropped to the necessary whisper. "I hit you?" and then, "Damn, I did. I'm—"
"I fell over, that's all," Hardcastle said in gruff exasperation. "Ya didn't lay a hand on me, for Pete's sake."
Mark halted, staring at him dubiously, but there was no arguing with him, especially since his own recollection of what had happened was studded with gaping holes.
Hardcastle had reached for the thermometer, standing in a cup on the nightstand. "Under," he said.
That imposed a several minute pause in the conversation, Mark sitting there with the covers wrapped around him and the thermometer propped firmly in his mouth. Hardcastle apparently felt at liberty to interject a monologue.
"You got kinda spacey, okay? Nothing serious. You weren't violent or anything like that, just . . . determined. I kinda had to shoo you back to bed a couple times. And after I got one of Charlie's pills into you, you slept a lot better and so did I."
Mark frowned again—obviously at the venue—and gave the last part a disagreeing grunt.
"I've slept in places a lot less comfortable than a chair," Hardcastle assured him. Then he reached forward and extracted the thermometer. He held it so they both could take a stab at reading it and, to both their satisfaction, the mercury was just below the 98.6 mark.
"There," Hardcastle said, "you bounce back pretty quick, I'd say, not like us old geezers." He shook it down and reinstalled it in the cup.
"I think I'm gonna get up," Mark whispered hoarsely. "And you should maybe lie down."
"Nah, too much lying down the past couple of days." Hardcastle frowned. "Maybe some breakfast."
"Eggs . . . scrambled," Mark croaked, almost audibly, then dropped to a whisper again. "At least we've still got some cottage cheese, and," he looked over his shoulder, "the paper will be dry."
"And the lawn," Hardcastle observed, "eventually . . . might need a machete, though."