A/N: A challenge from Owlcroft that must involve a character other than Mark and Milt and the point has to be truth. I missed out on the earlier ones, but I wasn't about to miss this one as well.
By Lizabeth S. Tucker
"Mark, will you stop fussing. Milt will be here before the ceremony begins." Claudia Harper leaned forward to tweak the graduation gown back into shape. "I told you that Frank went to pick him up after he called."
"I told him the truck's alternator was coming loose. He promised he would have Benny fix it. Donkey probably thought it cost too much." Mark frowned, stretching up to look over the others wandering outside the auditorium, trying to spot Frank Harper's silver sedan.
Looking to distract the anxious graduate, Claudia began to chuckle.
"What's so funny?"
"You. Did I ever tell you about the first time I heard that Milt had brought another of his potential Tontos home?"
"No, but I can imagine what your reaction must have been," he replied with a wry smile.
"Oh, you have no idea. After that horrible J.J. Beal, I was truly convinced that Milton C. Hardcastle should be committed."
Mark couldn't control his burst of laughter. "I've been saying that for years!"
"Well, how could I imagine that he would find someone like you? But we came around." She shook her head as the memories flew back.
Claudia Harper's jumped when the front door slammed. "Frank, is that you?"
"Yeah. Sorry, honey."
She walked out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a bright blue and white checkered towel. "It's a good thing I wasn't baking." Claudia took a closer look at her husband. "What's wrong?"
Frank growled for a moment, pacing the living room as he shed his jacket and tie. "He's done it again!"
Claudia frowned, trying to understand the source of his anger. "Who has done what? Not the police commissioner?"
"No, I mean Milt. He's done it again."
"Done what now?"
"He's taken on another con."
"Oh, no." Claudia sank into the closest chair. "After that awful Beal character? You know I like Milt, but I'm beginning to wonder about his sanity."
Running a hand through his already thinning hair, the police lieutenant couldn't help but agree. "I told Milt that I want nothing to do with his crazy scheme, not this time. If he so much as steps into my office, I'm having him arrested."
Although concerned about Judge Hardcastle's safety as well as his sanity, Claudia couldn't prevent the giggle from escaping her lips. "You wouldn't, Frank. Would you?"
"Damn right I would!" After a moment, he began to relax, his own impish sense of humor making a reluctant appearance. "No, of course not. But I think Milt will be going to Carleton for any help, at least for a while. I can't just watch him betrayed again."
Claudia sat across from her husband at the dining room table, amused by the confused look on his face. It was something that she didn't see often. "Are you planning to tell me what happened?"
"I…I don't know what to think, much less what to say. You know that Milt went down to some Central American country after Peter Avery?"
"I remember constant remarks about Ahab and the White Whale."
"Okay, I might've put it a little strongly." Harper's lips twitched with amusement.
"Well, seems that Avery had a lot more influence in this country than even Milt knew. Judge Milton C. Hardcastle was arrested for possession of drugs." He sipped at his coffee.
"What!?" Claudia half-rose from her seat. "We have to do something."
Frank waved his wife back into her seat. "He's out now. In fact, he and McCormick should be landing in a couple of hours."
"He took that ex-con with him? Out of the country? I bet those drugs were actually his!"
"Nope, it was definitely a setup. And, get this, McCormick apparently broke Milt out of the prison there."
Claudia was appalled. She was also confused by her husband's cavalier attitude. "You don't seem upset by that. I thought you and Milt agreed that the law should be trusted, that justice needs to be given a chance."
"If it happened here, I'd agree. But in a third world country like this, not a chance. Seems like Mark McCormick tried to go through channels, but only got told that the American Embassy couldn't help. He got a friend to help fly Milt right out of the prison without anyone being hurt." He shook his head in reluctant admiration. "And then they managed to lure Avery over the border to a country that has an extradition treaty with us."
"No one was hurt?"
She watched as her husband resumed eating the homecooked meal. "Why are you so confused?"
"Think about it, hon. McCormick could've run, just left Milt in that prison. No one here would've known for ages."
"Hmmm, you're right. He could've been free. I think I want to meet this young man."
Claudia's brown eyes sparkle. "I didn't know what to make of you, Mark. You were so defensive, so closed off whenever you met someone who was friends with Milt. But then I saw your face when you both came home from Clarence. You tried to hide it, but I could tell that thinking he was dead, even for one night, had almost destroyed you. At that moment I knew I liked you. I also knew that you really cared for Milt."
"I can understand your doubts. I would've had them as well." He nudged her gently with one shoulder. "I'm glad you changed your mind. I wouldn't have missed our friendship for the world."
"Neither would I." She smoothed the black gown gently before standing on her toes to kiss Mark on his cheek. "It's time."
"Milt's not here. He's gonna miss it."
Mark spun around to see a grinning Frank Harper standing next to a slightly greasy Milton C. Hardcastle. "What have you been doing? Trying to fix it yourself?"
"Not now, Mark. You have a graduation ceremony to do. C'mon, I'll get the wayward boys to their seats." Claudia began to tear up. "I'm just so proud of you."
"Aw, Claudia, stop fussin' over the kid. You'll spoil him." Hardcastle's protest wasn't up to its usual standards, the pale blue eyes filled with warmth as he looked at the younger man. "She's right about you gettin' your tail in gear."
His face split wide with his smile, Mark nodded, bussing Claudia back on her cheek before running off to catch up with the rest of his classmates.
"And you two thought I was out of my mind, getting another ex-con."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Milt," Frank protested.
"We never had a doubt," Claudia chimed in. "Once we met Mark."
If Milt noticed the woman's crossed fingers barely hidden behind her back, he didn't think it was worth mentioning. Instead he walked with his two oldest friends to watch his newest become an attorney.