Author's Notes: A few months ago I wrote Off Limits. Even at the time, I wondered if there shouldn't be something more to that story—a second chapter to round things out. But there were reasons I didn't want to pursue the logical next steps, so I talked it over with Owl and finally decided against it. But then Suzanne asked for the next part, and she didn't think my reasons for not doing it were particularly good. (Though she is ever so polite when she disagrees with you. *G*) So, after much pondering—and a long enough delay that she's probably forgotten all about it—this sequel is for Suzanne.
Oh, and though it's a sequel to one of my stories, it's also a follow-up of sorts to the episode "Goin' Nowhere Fast", with an oblique reference to one of my other stories, Goin' Somewhere Slow. Just to keep the scorecard straight, that's the ep where we meet Mark's prototype, J.J. Beale, and learn that not all of Hardcastle's judicial experiments have been a complete success.
As always, many thanks to Owl for any number of things, including proper punctuation, though considering all she's done, that comes in pretty far down the list.
One Small Step
"Look, I warned you, Judge," McCormick said, working to keep the smugness from his tone, "and now there's nothing to do but be patient." He paused for a beat, then added, "Well, that, and write the check."
Hardcastle glared across the table. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
The ex-con shook his head as he sliced a banana into his corn flakes. "Which part? Listening to you gritch every day about how long the repairs are taking and how much it's gonna cost you? Or maybe all the extra pruning and cleaning and painting and whatever else you can find for me because this is all somehow my fault? Or watching you mope around out in the garage every coupla days like you've lost your best friend?" He raised his eyes from the cereal and cast a challenging gaze back at the other man. "Exactly which part of that do you think I'm enjoying?"
"Well . . ." Hardcastle had the decency to at least give the appearance of mild contrition. "I never really said it was your fault." His own cereal bowl had already been pushed aside in favor of a cup of coffee, though he wasn't giving that much attention, either.
"Yeah, you did," McCormick contradicted, returning his attention to the bowl in front of him, "but I mostly ignored that part. The part that annoys me, though, is that you coulda saved yourself all this worry if you'd just listened to me in the first place. I mean, come on, Hardcase, what do I know better than cars?"
"Probably not pruning or cleaning or painting," the judge shot back.
"Exactly," the young man answered evenly, refusing to be badgered into an argument. "So when I told ya that you can't drive a car into the ocean and act as if nothing happened, you shoulda listened to me."
"I didn't drive it into the ocean. And anyway, I washed it."
McCormick rolled his eyes as he chewed his flakes. Finally he said, "A trip through the car wash doesn't count, Judge. I told you the whole underside needed to be washed completely and the tires shoulda been pulled to clean the wheel wells and all. If you'd done what I said, you wouldn't've gotten even that tiny spot of rust, and you wouldn't have needed an entire desalination bath and a new exhaust system." He took a swig of orange juice then added, "But I'm just the guy you keep around for yard work and target practice for the bad guys; why should you listen to anything I say?"
"Well, if it was that important," Hardcastle huffed, "then why didn't you just do it anyway?" He took a sip from his cup, then grimaced at the cool liquid.
Mark worked hard at not spewing banana bits at the jurist. "What?" His strangled cry was full of astonishment. "You mean without permission? Have I done something lately to make you think I was ready to spend a few more years in Q?"
"What the hell are you talking about now, McCormick?" the older man barked, rising from his chair and crossing to the sink. He dumped the offending coffee and poured a fresh cup. "I just gave you permission," he continued, turning to lean against the counter and look back toward the table.
But McCormick was shaking his head. "Uh-uh; doesn't work like that. You can't tell me now that it would've been okay to do something then. If you say okay first, that's permission; but saying okay after the fact is forgiveness, and you made it clear right off the bat that there wasn't going to be a lot of forgiveness when it came to the Corvette."
"I never said—"
"You said it was off limits," McCormick interrupted firmly, "and you said it pretty clearly. I may be a lot of things, but I am not stupid; I got the message—even before J.J. Beale showed up." He paused for half a second then added in a kinder tone, "I also got the idea that it wasn't exactly personal, Judge—that the car's just important to you. I get that, and I'd help you take care of it, but you're not too good sometimes at lettin' people help with things." Then he shoveled in another spoonful of cereal and left the judge to ponder his words.
For his part, Hardcastle was sipping slowly on his coffee, but he did appear to be thinking. Finally he set the cup aside on the countertop and gave a heavy sigh. "All right," he exhaled, "you're right. Is that what you want me to say? I shoulda listened to you to begin with, okay?"
The growl made the older man's words sound more like an indictment than an apology—though he wasn't even sure an apology was exactly the point anyway—but McCormick figured that was the best he was going to get. "Okay," he agreed, flashing a grin then quickly wiping away the dripping milk, "but only if you promise to quit actin' like it's the end of the world just because you had to take the thing to the shop. I told you Tony's a friend of mine. He does good work, and when I talked to him yesterday he said it should be ready any time now. It's gonna be fine, all right? Now, don't you have some files we should be poring over, or some bad guy we should go bust, or something to kill some time?"
That finally got a smile from Hardcastle. "Actually," he said with a new air of excitement, "how do you feel about a movie tonight? There's this film guy named Eddie Sands . . ."
As it had turned out, what had begun as a slightly overcast fall day had gradually given way to an all-out autumnal storm, and the only movie watching had been done in the den, listening to the wind whipping the rain against the window panes. But McCormick hadn't minded in the least; after a day of hearing about Eddie Sands, he was in no hurry to begin work on this particular case.
As if the idea of a slightly psychopathic drug runner wasn't enough, the guy's films just sounded bad, and Hardcastle seemed determined to include a few of them in the preliminary research. He wouldn't mind if they found a way to put that chore at the bottom of the list for a while. But this morning had dawned brighter, with just a bit of a residual mist in the air, and even that had burned off by late morning. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day, which probably meant a trip to the drive-in theater tonight. McCormick made a face as he pushed another group of soggy leaves toward the edge of the drive and the ever-growing pile, but then brightened slightly. At least the drive-in always had good popcorn and a decent batch of nachos.
He had all but the most stubborn leaves bagged up and was hauling them out of the way to await trash day when a familiar bellow rumbled through the air.
Mark twisted toward the voice, shifting the bag that was slung over his shoulder. "What is it, Hardcase? I'm kinda in the middle of something."
"Yeah, yeah," the judge waved a dismissive hand toward him. "But listen, I was just talking to that Tony guy and—"
"Judge, I told you to quit buggin' 'em down there. They'll—"
"Don't interrupt, McCormick."
McCormick ducked his head slightly to hide a small grin. Milton C. Hardcastle offering instruction on the finer points of common courtesy always amused him. "Sorry." He dropped the leaf bag to the ground and looked back patiently at the jurist. "Go ahead."
"Anyway," Hardcastle picked up his story, "I was talkin' to Tony, and he says my car is finished. 'Good as new' he said, and that I can come pick it up any time."
That got a less circumspect grin from the younger man. "See? What'd I tell you?"
"Yeah, yeah," the judge grumped, "I should listen to you more often. You already made your point there, kiddo." Then he flashed his own grin and grabbed a couple of the remaining bags of leaves. "C'mon; let's get these outta the way, then you get cleaned up and we'll go get my car."
"You're gonna help?" McCormick hiked an eyebrow as he slung his own bag back over his shoulder. "Maybe we should drive your car into the ocean more often."
He laughed and jumped backward before Hardcastle's swinging bag could make contact.
"I hope this is gonna be the last of the punishment chores, Judge," McCormick groused as he pulled away from the garden center and back into traffic.
"It's not punishment, McCormick; it's just chores. And I didn't say it had to be done right away; I just figured as long as we were out we'd go ahead and get the fertilizer, and the pavers were on sale, so might as well get them now, too. I've been thinking about a new path in the gardens, but that won't be until spring time, when the rains have let up a little. So quit whining about all the extra work, will ya? It's over. I'll have my car back in just a few minutes now, and then everything'll be back to normal."
Mark cast a quick glance toward the passenger side. "You mean it'll just be normal back-breaking chores and the occasional hit man or thick-necked thug with a grudge?"
Laughing, McCormick turned his attention back to the road. "I suppose I can live with that." He flipped the blinker and turned smoothly off the main street toward an industrial park and Hardcastle's long-awaited reunion with the Corvette.
On the other side of the cab, the judge had lapsed into silence, looking intently through the windshield as he leaned forward just slightly, anticipation growing in his eyes with each passing mile. McCormick smiled to himself, thinking Christmas was coming early for the old guy this year. And immediately following that idea was the flash of anger he'd come to recognize as a passing thought of J.J. Beale. He knew it was unreasonable, but McCormick thought maybe the worst part of the entire Beale fiasco was that the con had found a way to make things personal—maybe even more personal than outright betrayal and attempted murder. That angered him for Hardcastle's sake, and for his own. He thought he and the judge had come a long way in the past couple of months, but there was no denying there was still a long way to go. And if there was lingering distrust, even after all they'd been through, McCormick was certain that J.J. Beale—and all that he represented—was largely to blame.
But as he pulled into the parking lot of Tony's garage, McCormick pushed aside all thoughts of renegade convicts. Sliding into the nearest spot, he glanced quickly around the lot—and saw Hardcastle doing the same—but the 'Vette was nowhere to be seen. He was glad Tony had kept the ol' girl inside; the judge would like that.
As if reading his mind, Hardcastle was wearing a satisfied smile as he clambered out of the truck. "Nice of 'em not to leave her out here in the rain and all."
"It hasn't been raining for hours, Hardcase." Somebody had to keep the guy on his toes.
The judge shrugged, apparently not bothered by the contradiction. "Nice of 'em not to leave her in the sun, then."
Unable to argue with that, McCormick just chuckled and made his way toward the garage. He'd rather wait out in the bay than listen to the judge moan about the cost as he wrote out the check for repairs. He waved a greeting at a couple of the guys as he strolled to the Corvette. Walking around the car slowly, he bent down occasionally and checked the underside. Reaching the rear, he stretched out completely on the concrete and peered closely at the new exhaust. Satisfied that everything was in order, he pulled himself out from underneath the car as he heard the voices approaching.
"She looks good, Tony," he said as the others reached him, brushing his hand against his pant leg before extending it in greeting. "I appreciate your help."
"No problem," Tony replied with a smile. "I appreciate the business." He gestured to one of his workers. "We're all done inside, Mark; Gus'll pull it around out front and you guys are good to go."
"They don't let customers move the cars around inside the garage," Hardcastle added knowingly.
"Yeah, I get that," McCormick laughed, figuring the judge had learned that lesson just moments earlier. He thanked his friend again for the good work, then bid him farewell as he steered Hardcastle back to the parking lot.
"You're sure everything's going to be okay now?" Hardcastle asked as they waited by the pickup.
Mark nodded. "She looks good as new."
"She's a beauty," the judge agreed as the driver pulled the 'Vette to a stop next to them. They thanked the man as he exited the car and strode back to the garage.
"Okay, then," McCormick said, turning back to the truck, "I'll see you at home."
"Hold up," Hardcastle said suddenly. "I need the keys."
The younger man didn't turn back. "Keys are still in the ignition, Judge," he answered.
"I meant the truck keys," the jurist clarified. "I need those."
That stopped McCormick. Turning slowly, he faced the other man, confusion written on his face. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," Hardcastle answered slowly and clearly, "I need the truck keys."
"But—" McCormick stopped, started again. "I'm driving the truck." He left unspoken that the alternative had never crossed his mind. At least, not without the words "hell freezing over" attached. He fought down a grin at the wayward thought.
The judge shrugged slightly, and rested his hand on the edge of the car. "I just thought it'd be good for you to drive her. Ya know, make sure everything's okay, no loss of power or anything from the new pipes and all."
This time he didn't try to stop the grin as he teased, "You want me to test her power? See what she'll do?"
"No!" Hardcastle backpedaled quickly, shaking his head. "No. That's not what I meant. No. I just thought—" He grimaced a little and held out his hand. "Just gimme the keys, would ya?"
McCormick's grin faded. He'd learned almost immediately that the judge could be a surprising guy, but that didn't change the fact that not even two months earlier the man had drawn a line in the sand, and the Corvette had been firmly placed on the other side. Last month's run-in with Beale hadn't done anything to improve that situation, especially with the last ten days serving as a constant reminder of the convict's betrayal. He figured that could only mean one thing.
"Um, look, if this is some sort of guilt trip, or something, it isn't necessary."
The older man shook his head again. "Nah, it's not guilt." He glanced over at the waiting car, then amended, "Not exactly." He paused a long moment before continuing.
"It's just that I've been thinking about what you said yesterday—about my rules for the car and Beale and all. I was thinkin' there mighta been some misunderstanding."
McCormick snorted. "No misunderstanding, Judge; I got the message loud and clear." He softened his tone before continuing. "But I already told you I didn't take it personally, so not to worry." He jerked a thumb behind him. "Now can we go already?"
"I misunderstood," Hardcastle said softly, managing to keep the younger man in place. He went on quickly before McCormick could interrupt. "You know, J.J. didn't really take the Corvette for any particular reason except that it was handy and it was fast. I mean, it's not like he knew how much it meant to me; there's no way he could've." He peered steadily at the man who was only supposed to be his fast gun. "There's no way you should've known, either, not really." He took a deep breath. "I know I told ya a while back I was through comparin' the two of you, but maybe I stopped too soon. Maybe I shoulda realized I was still makin' you pay the price for something you didn't do—something you wouldn't do. I never meant to do that, kiddo, and it stops today." And with those words, he opened the car door and gestured McCormick toward the driver's seat.
But the younger man still hadn't moved. "Judge . . ." he trailed off, not certain what he wanted to say.
But Hardcastle seemed adamant. "C'mon, kid; get in. Make sure your friend got everything back together right."
A smile slowly spread across McCormick's face as he finally moved toward the car, stepping over the line that was being erased for him. "You're sure?" he asked, just before sliding in behind the wheel.
Mark handed over the truck keys as the judge leaned the door closed. Then he turned the key and listened to the 'Vette roar to life. "See you at home," he grinned.
"Just don't get too used to sittin' there," Hardcastle growled as he started toward the truck, though a smile twitched at one corner of his mouth.
McCormick didn't answer, but his grin never faded as he realized that if it never happened again, this once would be enough. Then he remembered that someone had to keep the old guy on his toes.
"Hey!" he called across the small space that separated them. "Try to keep up!"
Laughing at the look of horror that filled Hardcastle's face, McCormick pulled slowly from the parking lot and headed toward home.