Author's Note: I came in just under the wire for the Truth Challenge at Gull's Way - should I mention that laptops and water don't mix? Thankfully, all was recovered. A blueberry cake doughnut goes to Owl for a speedy and helpful beta.
The characters are not mine and no money is being made.
The Consequences of Truth
Mark dried his hands on the dishtowel and tossed it on the counter he'd recently wiped down. He glanced at his palms for a moment, taking in the prune-like appearance of his fingertips with a wince. The dishwasher was broken again, and after the recent plumbing escapade involving a sock in the kitchen drain, he thought maybe hiring a professional might be a better way to go. He had no doubt his employer wouldn't see it the same way, however, so he'd taken to washing dishes by hand while trying to come up with a reasonable argument to take to Hardcastle.
'Reasonable argument' and 'Hardcastle' never seemed to work well in the same sentence, at least not in McCormick's experience. Whining about how not many other thirty-one-year-old men had dishpan hands probably wasn't going to cut it. He had the feeling there were tools and pipes in his future.
Sighing in resignation, he pushed open the swinging door of the kitchen and wandered towards the den. Hardcastle was at his desk, the early afternoon sun coming in from the windows and giving off enough light for Mark to see there were no files strewn about, just stacks of bills and the front section of the L.A. Times in the corner.
There'd been an absence of files lately, noticeable but unremarked upon. It didn't take a genius to figure out when the tides had shifted. At first, it had fallen under the category of necessary recuperation. Being gut-shot did tend to take it out of a person, and the tumble down the hill into the ravine hadn't done Mark any good either. The Lone Ranger had given his faithful sidekick plenty of time to recover by the campfire, something for which Mark was grateful, especially during those long nights when the feelings of darkness and cold permeated his sleep, and he had to forcibly remind himself that he wasn't waiting out there anymore - the judge had already come, just like the young man had known he would.
Later, though, after Millie had gone to San Antonio and Mark was back on his feet and feeling more like himself, he'd waited to see which one of the infamous two hundred cases would be the next to fall under the Hardcastle microscope.
Still no files appeared. Not that they hadn't managed to keep busy – he and the judge together seemed to have a knack for falling into things. First there had been the nightmare run-in with Melinda; then the judge's brother Gerald had shown up. Most recently had been Hardcastle's college roommate and half his basketball team. It was enough to make one not want to answer the door any more – Mark could only wonder who might be next in the lineup, but surely the worst was behind them. Even the two of them combined could only garner so much bad karma.
They didn't talk much about the incident with Falcon and Price. Hell, they didn't really talk much about anything, at least not the stuff that might border dangerously close to the rolling sea of emotions, and that was okay with Mark. Hardcastle might be one of the most emotionally stilted individuals Mark had ever come across, but he himself was probably a close second. Even if the judge was much more of a porcupine than Mark was, neither one of them went in for all that touchy-feely stuff. Besides, words weren't necessary when it came to their feelings – Mark knew how the judge felt and he was pretty sure Hardcastle also knew the lay of the land – talking about it would only serve to embarrass them both.
There were times, though, like now, when he wished maybe he could come right out and tell the older man to snap out of it, and get things back to normal. There were criminals out there who needed to be brought to justice, and time was a-wasting. He grabbed the nearby feather duster and was trying to think of a clever opening when Hardcastle spoke.
"You done cleaning up from lunch?"
"Yeah, and I've got the pruney fingers to prove it," Mark said, the thought of files temporarily abandoned in favor of the opportunity to complain about life's injustices. He absently began dusting the shelves by Hardcastle's desk. "I had to wash by hand again since the dishwasher's broken."
Hardcastle glanced up. "So fix it."
Mark shook his head. "How many times do I have to tell you, I'm not a plumber? Or an electrician, or a roofer, or any of the five million other jobs you've lined up for me since I came here."
Hardcastle sniffed. "You're a mechanic, right?"
"Not the same thing, and you know it. What was it Biff called me? A 'penniless handyman'? I'm beginning to think he wasn't that far from the truth. Can't we just for once hire somebody who actually knows what they're doing?"
"If we did that, how would you ever learn anything about how to fix it for the next time?"
Mark halted long enough to turn and look the retired jurist in the eye. "Trust me, I can live without the vast wealth of knowledge you keep trying to bestow upon me."
"Not for long if you don't get out of here and get the food shopping done. We're down to the bare minimum in there, and it's your turn to cook." Hardcastle squinted at the bill in front of him and reached for his checkbook.
Mark looked up at him in exasperation. "Now, see that's exactly what I'm talking about! I'm sick and tired of doing all the work around here, Hardcase! It might have been nice if you'd laid out the job description a little more clearly back when you launched this idea to me."
"I didn't need you doing the housework back then, McCormick – I had Sarah," Hardcastle reasoned as he began making out the check.
"Exactly!" Mark jumped in, feeling his point had been proven.
The judge gave him a sour look, pausing his pen. "You're not going to start whining about getting a housekeeper again, are you?"
"I don't whine," Mark muttered, "I just don't see how grocery shopping falls under the job description of 'fast gun'."
"That's just because you're not thinking creatively. How do you expect to finish a two-hundred-yard dash with an NFL-worthy tackle to take down an escaping felon on an empty stomach?" Hardcastle pushed the brim of his cap back and leaned an elbow on his desk, feeling the pile of bills shift under his weight.
"How about I don't do a two-hundred-yard dash and tackle, and we let the cops handle it instead?" Mark resumed dusting only to scrunch up his nose, feeling a sneeze coming.
The judge leaned back out of the line of fire, waiting until the explosion was over. "God bless you. You know there's never a cop around when you need one."
"Yeah, but there are always plenty around when you don't," Mark muttered to himself.
"Nothing." He returned to the topic at hand. "I'm telling you, Hardcase, I'm fed up with doing all the women's work around here. You keep adding to my chore list, but you never take anything away. You're going to drive me to an early grave, you know."
The moment the words were out, Mark found himself wishing he could call them back. The judge stiffened and silence fell. Mark knew it was too soon on the heels of his brush with death to make so casual a reference. An early grave was something that had seemed a certainty not that long ago, and neither man had dealt with that reality sufficiently to be joking about it now. He let his arms drop to his sides and turned to face the older man. "Sorry," he offered quietly.
"S'okay," Hardcastle muttered, though Mark could see that it wasn't really.
The ex-jurist returned to shuffling the papers in front of him, the task suddenly seeming to require his full attention.
Mark sighed and placed the feather duster on the shelf, untying the apron from his waist. "The list is in the kitchen, right?" he asked, moving toward the door. "I'll head out and get it done with."
Hardcastle nodded absently, his thoughts far away. The sound of McCormick's footsteps on the stairs brought him back as he realized the younger man was leaving to do his bidding. He raised his gaze to the retreating form and called out, "Take the truck, okay?"
Mark raised his hand in acknowledgement without ever looking back.
Hardcastle sighed as he heard the truck head up the driveway. He knew he had to get a better handle on McCormick's recent brush with the Great Beyond. It wasn't like they didn't know the stuff they did was dangerous. It had always been that way, but they'd been lucky back in the beginning. And back in the beginning, McCormick had still been just a sidekick, not . . . whatever it was he was now.
He could tell the young man was itching to get back in the saddle. For that matter, so was he. Maybe something nice and easy – a rogue accountant or dirty pencil pusher. There must be a few of those down in those files.
As much as the judge hated to admit it, McCormick was right. He had been piling on the work around the estate, all in a futile attempt to keep the younger man so busy that maybe he wouldn't notice the lack of crime-busting going on. It wouldn't do for the judge to totally back off on the chore list, since there was a ton of work that needed to be done around here. But maybe he could give in just a nudge. The files could wait for a minute or two. First, a phone call to the plumber.
Mark maneuvered the nearly full shopping cart around the display of baked beans and into the checkout aisle, trying not to think about the past hour of his life that he'd never get back. Grocery shopping ranked right up there with his least favorite chores, and while it might be slightly more fun when Hardcastle came along, it tended to be a lot less likely to produce anything of nutritional value.
He moved in front of the cart and began unloading the items onto the conveyor belt when his elbow bumped into the woman in front of him. Turning immediately, he started to apologize, only to find the words stuck on his tongue. He stared at the older woman for a few seconds before he finally found his voice.
"Millie! What are you doing here?" He put down the bag of potatoes and reached to give the ample woman a kiss on the cheek.
"Mark! What a surprise," Millie responded, her tone indicating it might not be such a happy one. Expressions of pleasure and awkward uncertainty warred on her features until the uncertainty finally won out.
"It's great to see you! How have you been?" Mark resumed unloading the groceries.
"Oh, I've been doing fine." Her eyes darted nervously to the checkout girl, as she reached into her wallet to extract the money, hoping to hurry things up. "How about you? It hasn't been that long. Are you all healed up?"
"Yep, I'm doing great. Finished up physical therapy about a month ago, and now it's life back to normal." He winced as the white lie slipped out and hurriedly moved on. "Are you out here for a visit? You should have let us know – we could have had you over for dinner or something. I know Hardcase would love to see you," Mark continued, overlooking the woman's discomfort.
"That's sweet, Mark, but I don't think it's a good idea," she hesitated.
"Nonsense! Where are you staying? I can come by and pick you up if you want. Maybe tomorrow night – I don't think we have anything going on. What do you say?"
"No, Mark. Thank you. But I can't." She didn't elaborate.
"Oh," he said, nonplussed. "Well, okay, if you're sure. I guess you need to get back to San Antonio soon, huh?"
The older woman offered a non-committal smile as she handed three twenties over to the cashier.
McCormick stopped what he was doing long enough to observe Millie load up her grocery bags into one of those two-wheeled pull behind metal carts. Something wasn't adding up. "Millie?" he asked in a serious tone. "What's going on? Is everything okay? How come you're not with your sister?"
Millie Denton sighed, knowing she'd never be able to lie point blank to this man. "It's kind of a long story . . ."
With a nod of his head, Mark indicated her shopping cart. "You're walking, right? How about if I give you a lift instead and you can fill me in?" He watched her hesitate. "I'm not trying to pry," he reassured. "I just want to make sure you're okay."
Seeing the obvious sincerity on the young man's face, she nodded slowly. She waited while he finished with the cashier, and they walked to the truck in silence. He helped her into the cab and then loaded the bags into the truck bed.
"Where to?" Mark asked, mildly surprised when she stated an address that wasn't all that far away.
Mark waited to question her further until he'd pulled out into traffic, but then he jumped right in. If something had gone wrong, he wanted to know about it, to see if he could fix it. Too much time spent in the shadow of the Lone Ranger had left him with an unexplainable need to make things right, and this situation was no different. "So what happened with your sister?"
Millie wasn't at all sure how to begin. She had little hope of explaining herself in a way that made sense, and she feared she might end up hurting the young man who'd become so dear to her. "Oh, Mark," Millie said quietly. She paused, trying to find an easy way to break the truth to him, but nothing came to mind, so she plunged ahead. "Mark, I don't have a sister."
His forehead wrinkled as he turned his head to look at her in confusion. "I don't understand. . ."
She sighed again. "No, I don't imagine you would." She smoothed out the hem of her dress over her knees, then turned her eyes to the road rather than look at the one who reminded her so much of her son. "I don't have a sister, and I never moved to San Antonio to live with her. That's just something I told Judge Hardcastle after . . . after the incident."
Mark shook his head, still not understanding. "But why?"
"Because I didn't think he'd let me leave if he didn't know I'd be taken care of. He felt responsible for me, even after such a short time. He wouldn't have just let me go without a reason."
Mark thought on that a minute. "Okay," he agreed, "I can see that. But why did you think you had to leave at all? Why couldn't you just have stayed with us?"
Instead of answering, Millie reached into the open ashtray and pulled out a cassette tape, running her hands over it almost reverently. "He gave me this to use, you know," she said in a voice not much higher than a whisper, "the night you were shot. The visions had stopped. Sometimes it helps to have a personal item that belonged to whoever I'm trying to focus on. He gave me this."
Mark was silent, feeling a chill creep down his spine. He hadn't heard any of this before. In fact, he'd heard very little about that night or the time he'd remained unconscious following his surgery. He wasn't sure he honestly wanted to know.
"He came by my place in the middle of the night, convinced that I could help him find you. I told him it was too late, that you were already . . . I told him it was too late." She clasped the tape more tightly, caught up in the memory. "He refused to believe me. He said you were still alive. All night we drove up and down that stretch of highway. If only I could have seen something. If only we could have gotten to you sooner."
"Millie," Mark interrupted, "you got there in time. That's all that matters," he reminded her gently, laying a hand on her arm.
She looked back at him, forcibly pushing away the memory. She took a moment to stare down at the tape in her hand, then placed it gently back into the ashtray. "You're right, of course."
Mark returned his hand to the wheel and his eyes to the road ahead. He had a feeling there was more to this story, so he waited patiently.
After a period of silence, Millie continued. "I told you about after your surgery, how he sat by your side all night, waiting to see if you'd be okay. He never said a word, not during the whole time. And he couldn't even look at me. I think . . . I think maybe it was just too hard for him. To know that if he had believed me to begin with, you wouldn't be lying there, fighting for your life. And I think, that somehow, knowing that you did believe me made it worse for him. Like somehow, if he lost you, it was because he was to blame. Because you'd gone with him anyway."
Mark couldn't help feeling that last part had come out as an accusation.
"I know you had to," Millie offered, as if she'd read his mind. "I understand that. Just like I understood that every time Judge Hardcastle looked at me, he was reminded of the fact that you were willing to die just to protect him. The guilt was too much for him, Mark." She looked at him imploringly. "You understand, don't you? I couldn't stay there, knowing how hard I made it for him just by my presence. So I told him the only thing I could think of that would make it okay for me to leave."
Mark pulled over in front of the address that Millie had given him and put the truck in park. He sat silently in the cab of the pickup, working to digest the information he'd been given, all the while knowing it was nothing but the truth. For Hardcastle to be faced with a daily reminder of what his lack of belief had almost cost him would have been more than the older man could handle. Never mind that the judge had been asked to place his trust in something so far outside the natural realm of possibility, something that no one should be expected to believe.
Mark had believed, and he'd gone anyway.
And Hardcastle would never be able to escape that fact.
Both hands gripped the wheel tightly as he faced the wife of his former cellmate. "Millie. I'm so sorry. Sorry it turned out that way." He didn't insult her with false assurances that her sacrifice hadn't been necessary. They both knew better. "Still, I wish you'd have said something to me. I could have helped you out somehow."
Millie smiled at him, the first honest smile he had seen since he ran into her. "You're a good boy, Mark. Buddy always told me you were special. And I appreciate the offer, but things really did work out for the best. I found a new job; another housekeeping assignment, right here in town." She gestured toward the small white house with the simple black trim and a riotous garden of flowers lining the walkway. "They have a small apartment off the back, where I live. And there are three kids, a boy and two girls. They make me feel young again. I'm happy here. I really am."
Mark returned the smile, feeling his chest lighten. "I'm glad, Millie. I'm sure they love having you around. Especially if you keep baking those cookies for them." He winked at her conspiratorially. "Will you give me your number though? I'd like to be able to check on you from time to time, just to make sure you're doing okay. I think I owe it to Buddy. In fact, I owe it to you. You saved my life, Millie, and I won't ever forget that."
She patted his hand. "Milt saved your life, Mark. He's the one who never gave up on you," she reminded him.
Mark's smile grew. He wondered if she knew exactly how true her words really were.
Mark put the last of the groceries away. He'd gotten the number from Millie when he helped her bring her bags into the house. He'd also gotten a helping of chocolate chip cookies that she'd made just that morning, and he stacked them now onto a plate and carried them into the den, setting them in front of the judge.
"Oooh, cookies!" Hardcastle exclaimed delightedly as he grabbed one off the top. "Where'd they come from?"
"Millie," Mark said innocently.
"She sent us some, huh? That was nice of her."
Mark popped a cookie into his mouth, neither confirming nor denying the judge's assumption. He didn't want to lie to this man, so avoidance was the best option. There was really nothing to be gained by revealing Millie's secret – it would only serve to make Hardcastle uncomfortable about what he felt during that dark time. Mark knew that, and he had no desire to force the man into facing things he wasn't ready yet to deal with.
Truth was a funny thing. Sometimes it was obvious enough on its own – it didn't need words to make it any more real.
Mark figured they both knew a bit about that.
"So, how's she doing?" Hardcastle asked, then scowled. "No milk?"
This, Mark could answer honestly. "She's doing great, Judge. She's happy."
"Well, that's good." He rose, grabbing the plate of cookies. "I'm goin' to the kitchen for some milk." He reached back with his free hand, snagging a manila folder off the desk and handing it to McCormick. "Take a look at this file, wouldja? There's been a rash of burglaries at this chain of stores lately, and I'm thinking we need to look into it."
Mark kept his surprise hidden as he opened the file to the first page, glancing at the information. He arched an eyebrow. "'Delectable Doughnut' shops? You're kidding, right? What, is somebody stealing all the Boston Cremes?"
"I don't know, I just got the file," Hardcastle grumbled. "Frank asked us to look into it."
"Of course he did," Mark nodded in affirmation. "I'm sure that cops everywhere are in a state of panic. We could have total anarchy on our hands at any moment. Riots breaking out and no one to wield the billy club."
"Knock it off, wise-guy. We've got work to do." The judge headed up the steps and down the hallway towards the kitchen.
Mark shook his head and rolled his eyes, following his friend. "Whatever you say, Kemosabe. I'll be right behind you all the way." He glanced at the file in his hand, suddenly hopeful.
"Hey – do you think we'll have to sample the evidence?"