This is a work of fanfiction, for entertainment purposes only. The characters and concepts of Hardcastle and McCormick do not belong to me, but to their creators.

Author's Note: This story was originally found in a 'zine entitled Hotshoes. That was long ago—so long, I'd almost forgotten about it. Then, it was included on one of the STAR for Brian CD-zines, as part of a story cycle L.M. Lewis and I called Aftermath, inspired by the episode "The Birthday Present". But somehow, it got left behind in the file folder and never found its way here. Until now.

Being There

By Cheride

Mark McCormick felt his world crumbling as the recorded message wound to a close. He had been leaning against the desk for support, but he suddenly found that he had no more strength remaining. His knees buckled, and he slid slowly to the floor. Bracing himself against the desk, he pulled his legs up close to his chest and rested his forehead on his knees. His only thought was that if he could just make himself small enough, maybe all the bad stuff would simply pass him by.

He wasn't sure how long he sat like that before he fell into an exhausted sleep, and he didn't know how long he slept there on the floor of the den. But when he awoke, he thought he might have just enough strength to deal with the phone call from John Dalem.

He was surprised it had taken this long, really. After all, he had killed a man. The California Bureau of Pardons and Parole tended to frown upon that kind of behavior from parolees. And he couldn't even claim self-defense, not really. Defense of others, he thought, in a somewhat detached fashion. That's what the police had called it. Especially Frank Harper. The detective must've drilled that phrase into his head a dozen times in the last few days.

And while it was true that Sandy Knight would surely have died had no one been there to stop Weed Randall, McCormick was having a hard time completely justifying his actions. And it didn't help that he had run into Sandy again the next day at the hospital. Even with everything, the man hadn't lost much of his ignorant arrogance, and Knight had congratulated him on finally finding the courage to avenge Hardcastle's shooting.

Unable to respond, Mark had simply walked away, but questions about his true motivation swirled through his mind. He had little doubt that the parole board would have many of those same questions.

And now, only three days after the judge had awakened in his room—three days after Weed Randall's death—John Dalem was calling. He didn't hear much from Dalem these days, and that was fine with McCormick. He had spent the first six months of his parole reporting to the man, which hadn't created a lot of fond memories. In retrospect, McCormick thought it likely that if Hardcastle hadn't arranged the unusual judicial stay, he would've found himself back behind bars long ago. He and Dalem never had seen eye to eye on much, and McCormick had always been convinced Dalem would've been happier with at least one less parolee on the street.

But Hardcastle had stepped in. And though he would never have thought it possible, McCormick could at least admit to himself that it had been the best thing that ever could've happened. First, they got Flip Johnson's killer, which had been Mark's only reason for joining up in the judge's crazy justice crusade. Then they had successfully ended the careers of dozens of other bad guys, which McCormick had never intended to care about, but which had turned out to be something he somehow considered vitally important. But most surprising of all, the two men had developed a deep and abiding friendship over the last eighteen months, a bond of affection that had gotten them through more close calls than McCormick liked to remember. Now, he thought they were going to find out if that bond would last through his re-incarceration.

He shook his head and looked at his watch – 5:30. Good. He could return the call and leave a message of his own, delaying the inevitable one more evening.

He pushed himself off the floor and rounded the desk to pick up the phone, dialed the number that had been so critical to the first six months of his parole, and waited for the machine to pick up.

"Mr. Dalem," he said after the beep, "this is Mark McCormick. I just got your message and-—"

"McCormick," a voice interrupted quickly, "I'm here."

McCormick slumped into the chair and hoped his disappointment wasn't evident in his voice. "Oh, Mr. Dalem. I'm glad I caught you."

"I doubt it," Dalem said roughly.

McCormick breathed a noiseless sigh. "You said we needed to talk?"

"We certainly do, McCormick. And I'm surprised I had to contact you. The fact that you shot a man to death didn't seem like something you should report to your paroleofficer?"

"Hardcastle knows what happened," McCormick replied, trying to ignore Dalem's sarcasm. Responding in kind seemed like a bad idea right now.

Dalem snorted his disbelief. "I got an update from the hospital today. Hardcastle might've regained consciousness, but he's a long way from coherent. That makes me responsible for you now, as far as the board is concerned."

"I hadn't really thought about that, Mr. Dalem," McCormick replied honestly, gripping the phone tight. "I've had a lot on my mind."

Dalem relented slightly. "I'm sure you have. But we are going to have to meet. The board needs to understand what happened in this Randall incident."

"I did give my statement to the police," McCormick pointed out. He didn't point out that they hadn't deemed it necessary to pursue charges. Questioning Dalem's logic too much also seemed like a bad idea.

"We need to hear it from you, McCormick."

"Just tell me what I need to do," McCormick answered, resigned.

"There'll be a panel convened Thursday; I need to meet with you first. We shouldget together tomorrow."

McCormick didn't even ask why. Since the moment Randall had fired the gun in that courtroom, he had felt himself swept along by a tide of events he could no longer control. He let himself be carried along again.

"What time?"

"Noon works for me."

"I'll be there, Mr. Dalem. Was there anything else?"

"No," Dalem answered, "that's it. Just try and keep yourself out of trouble until then." The line clicked closed.

McCormick placed the phone slowly back in the cradle, staring at it blankly, whispering the refrain that had haunted him for days.

"What happens next?"


McCormick was crossing from the gatehouse to the main house, chores completed, and thinking he should have breakfast before going to the hospital this morning. He wasn't expecting the sedan that came cruising slowly up the driveway. He forced down the irrational dread that rose up in the pit of his stomach; the hospital would've called if anything had changed. He waited for the driver to park and climb from the car.

"Frank. What's up?"

"I want to talk to you," Frank Harper replied, slamming the door and striding purposefully toward the house.

McCormick tried to make himself ask the question. "Frank? Is the judge…?"

Harper turned to look back at McCormick, standing frozen in the driveway.

The determined expression on the detective's face softened. "Jeez. Sorry, Mark. He's fine. Well, not fine, you know, but he's okay. I just left there. He seems more alert today."

And suddenly, McCormick was pretty sure what the detective wanted to say, but he figured he could play dumb for a while. "Okay. Well, I was just about to have something to eat. Care to join me?"

"I'll have some coffee, if you've got it."

McCormick nodded and led the way into the house. Once in the kitchen, he crossed to the coffee maker while Harper dropped down into one of the chairs at the table. He stayed resolutely focused on his task, but McCormick quickly realized coffee making could only be dragged out just so far. When the liquid began dripping into the carafe, he turned back to the detective.

"What's on your mind, Frank?"

"Well, like I said, I just came from the hospital."

McCormick nodded slowly.

"Milt's definitely becoming more alert, though he's still pretty damn groggy. He wasn't awake all that long."

"They've got him on a lot of medication."

"Yeah. But, still, he's been awake off and on for a few days now."

McCormick nodded again. "Yeah."

"And you've been spending enough time there that the staff got annoyed and threatened to call security to have you removed last night."

"They were joking," McCormick said with something that was supposed to be a smile, though the expression lacked anything approaching humor. "I think. Besides, I took off for a few hours yesterday afternoon."

"The point is," Harper said firmly, "you've been there and he's been awake."

McCormick glanced over at the coffee pot, but it was still flowing steadily; no help was coming from that direction. He moved over to the toaster. "Sure you don't want something to eat, Frank?"

The lieutenant gave a single shake of his head. "No. What I want is to understand why—three days after he's regained consciousness—Milt still doesn't know what happened."

"I told him," McCormick answered, though his eyes didn't meet Harper's.

"Really?" the detective challenged. "Then why was he asking me about Randall?"

"It's the medication, or something. He asks every time he wakes up." That much was completely true. He paused, then posed his question almost hesitantly. "So what did you tell him?"

"I told him not to worry about it, that we had everything under control. I think he would've argued the point, but he drifted off again."

"That's the way it's been," McCormick said, slightly relieved.

"And what have you told him?" Harper insisted.

The young man shrugged. "About the same," he admitted. "He asked what happened to Randall, and I said we got him. It's worked so far."

Harper shook his head. "You don't think he needs to know?"

McCormick abandoned the pretense of fiddling with the bread. It had been days since he'd really been hungry, anyway. He gazed openly across the room.

"I'll tell you the truth, Frank. If I thought there was a way to keep him from ever finding out, I'd probably jump at it. But since there's not, I'll settle for him not finding out right now. I mean, jeez, Frank, he's barely conscious. He's weak as a baby, and the doctors are amazed he's even alive. And you want me to tell him that his favorite ex-convict went out and killed someone?"

"Mark." The detective's concern was unmistakable. "You have got to quit talking about it like that. Now, I won't try to tell you that it was the best thing—the only thing—you could've done, or that you just need to get over it, or any of that kind of drivel. But, I am telling you that you've got to find a way to let go of some of the guilt. Yes, the man is dead, but that was his choice, not yours. None of this is your fault."

"Actually," McCormick contradicted as he crossed the room and sank into the chair opposite Harper, "I'm pretty sure it's all my fault." He stared down at his hands, still holding the bread tie, twisting it endlessly, as he tried to find the words for what he didn't really want to say.

"I mean, it seemed like a pretty good idea at the time, getting the goods on Randall. And then, when Hardcase found out he was going to get to preside over the trial, my God, he was so happy." He shook his head slowly. "Even in that crappy little courtroom, it was like he was back where he belonged." He gave the tie a particularly vicious twist, but didn't even seem to notice when it snapped. After a couple of seconds of silence, he become aware of his idle hands, twisted the pieces back together, and then continued his story.

"I should've just told Sandy no; should've stayed the hell away from Weed Randall. I knew the man was crazy. I should've kept the judge about a million miles from him. And then, after . . . after the shooting, I should've kept Sandy under control. It just never occurred to me . . ." He trailed off and sat silently for a long moment, still twisting. He finally raised his tormented eyes to meet the detective's worried gaze.

"How am I going to tell him how bad I messed it all up?"

Harper stared wordlessly at the young man. McCormick's behavior over the last couple of days had made clear that he blamed himself exclusively for Weed Randall's death, but nothing in the kid's actions had indicated he was feeling responsible for the events leading up to the shooting, and there sure as hell wasn't any reason for it. The detective took a moment before trying to offer what comfort he could. "Milt isn't going to blame you for any of this. You have to know that."

McCormick shook his head. "Of course he isn't." His tone was dull, lifeless. "But that won't make it any less my fault. And, my God, Frank, I killed a man. How do I tell him that?"

"You think he would've rather woken up to someone telling him you were dead?" the lieutenant demanded. "You and Sandy both? Because that's what would've happened, you know. If you hadn't pulled the trigger, I would've had to tell him that he was alone again." He lightened his tone just a bit. "He's gotten sort of used to having you around, ya know. Seems to think you're kinda handy, or something." He winked and offered a slight grin, trying to force the kid into responding in kind. It didn't work.

"Yeah, well, we'll see how that works out for him," McCormick muttered as he rose from his seat. He stepped back over to the counter to pour the finally finished coffee, then returned with two full cups.

Harper held his tongue until Mark was seated again, then barked, "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

But McCormick was already regretting his last comment. He took a sip of the coffee before answering. "Nothin'," he said flatly. "Just runnin' my mouth again."

The lieutenant didn't seem convinced. "Mark, it's bad enough you're keeping stuff from Milt, but if you start lying to me—" He broke off as he saw the hint of fear that flashed into the other man's eyes. He examined the ex-con closely, but there was so little to see. McCormick had never seemed this closed up before, not even in his very earliest days at Gull's Way.

Finally Harper opted for a simple question. "You're not doing anything stupid, are you?"

Mark lowered his cup slowly to the table. "You mean am I doing anything illegal? No. This week I've burglarized the judge's files, stolen a car and shot a man to death. I thought I'd leave it at that."

Harper winced at the tone. Or, more precisely, the lack of tone. There was no fiery indignation at the detective's half-hearted accusation, no sarcasm in the list of wrongdoings. Only the same dull monotone that had accompanied just about every word McCormick had spoken for the last forty-eight hours. He tried again to nudge the young man back toward normal.

"Well, I didn't know about the files," he said with mock severity, then added conspiratorially, "but we'll keep that our little secret."

"Whatever you think is best, Frank," McCormick replied, raising the cup back to his lips. If he had understood the detective's light-hearted intentions, he gave no sign.

Harper heaved a heavy sigh before taking a long drink of his own coffee. After a moment of strained silence, he pushed himself up from the table.

"I'm gonna get on out of here, Mark. You're going to the hospital today, I assume?"

"Yeah, sure," McCormick answered, rising to follow the officer toward the front door, "later on. I've got a few more chores to finish and some errands to run."

The lieutenant glanced behind him as he stepped out onto the porch. "Is there anything you need me to do for you? You really don't need to be worrying about a bunch of irrelevant crap right now, you know."

"Ah, no," Mark stammered, unprepared for the guilt that swept over him from his harmless lie, "it's fine. It gives me something else to think about for a while." Well, that much was sure as hell true.

But Frank was nodding in understanding, seeming to accept McCormick's feeble excuses, which only made the ex-con feel worse. There were times he thought life had definitely been simpler before Hardcastle came around and got him all worked up with the trust and integrity crap.

"Just let me know if there's anything I can do," Harper said just before sliding into his car. "And, really, Mark, take care of yourself. You kinda look like death warmed over."

And finally, McCormick managed a tiny grin as he pressed the car door closed for the detective. He leaned down into the open window.

"Thanks, Frank. I don't know how Claudia keeps her head, with you whispering those kind of sweet nothings."

He heard Harper chuckling as the sedan pulled away, and the young man thought he might almost be ready to face John Dalem. Almost.


McCormick sat stiffly in the chair opposite Dalem, waiting for the next inquiry. So far, it all seemed pretty redundant, and he still wasn't sure why he needed to be here, but Dalem never had liked to have his decisions questioned. He watched silently as the other man flipped through the transcript of his official police statement. For an instant, he found himself hoping it wasn't too incriminating, but then he almost smiled at the thought. Not incriminating? You sat in an interrogation room with two police detectives and a stenographer and laid out all the details that caused you to kill another man. Hard not to find that incriminating.

He became aware that Dalem was looking at him expectantly. "I'm sorry," he muttered, "what was that?"

"I said, how did you get to the motel?" Dalem clearly wasn't pleased to be repeating himself.

McCormick grimaced. Why was everyone always so concerned about his transportation?

"I borrowed a car from one of the doctors at the hospital."

"With or without his permission?"

"With." The hesitation was brief, almost not there at all, but McCormick knew instantly that Dalem had noticed.

The officer narrowed his eyes. "You used to be a better liar, McCormick."

"I used to need to lie," McCormick countered.

"And now?"

But Mark just shook his head, not wanting to be lured into some battle of the wits with this man. "I had permission, Mr. Dalem." He spoke as if no further question could remain.

Dalem was not so easily dissuaded, however. "Before or after you took it?" he clarified.

Their eyes locked for several long seconds before McCormick finally sighed in resignation. "After."

"There it is!" Dalem proclaimed, forcefully closing the file folder in front of him. "That's what's gonna send you straight back to Quentin." He glared across the desk, almost daring the ex-con to try and deny it.

McCormick might have risen to the challenge, had there seemed any point at all. Instead, he just made a silent wish that the red tape would drag out long enough for the judge to be well on his way to recovery and settled back in at home before they sent him back. He was totally unprepared for Dalem's next words.

"Don't ever admit that to anyone else again."

McCormick just stared, confusion painted across his face.

"It's all in there," Dalem told him, tapping the file, "if anyone wants to read between the lines. And if anyone knows you." He shrugged. "But the panel won't know you, McCormick, so just keep your mouth shut and the details to yourself."

"What?" McCormick thought maybe the exhaustion had finally settled completely into his brain.

"There's not much doubt that the shooting could be justified," Dalem continued in a slightly exasperated tone, "but the panel has to convene; we have to look into it officially. A man is dead, after all.

"But your own statements make clear that you never anticipated Knight's actions, even though you knew he would try to find Randall. If you couldn't anticipate his actions, you couldn't anticipate the danger, which gives you no justification for illegally commandeering a vehicle. It's a felony, McCormick, and that's bad news for a guy on parole."

"I know that, Mr. Dalem," McCormick replied, sounding every bit as tired as he felt.

"So, you keep it to yourself."

McCormick raised a hand to scrub across his eyes, mostly just to convince himself he hadn't actually drifted off into some kind of dream state. "I'm sorry," he said slowly, "I don't understand." He intended to leave it at that, but then couldn't help blurting, "I thought you wanted me back inside?"

Dalem smiled grimly. "You are a long way from the model parolee you promised at our first meeting." When the other man didn't deny it, he went on, "But there is some belief that we as parole officers are responsible for the recidivism rates of our parolees. Hardcastle may have taken you off my hands, but he didn't take you from my case file."

Mark stared across the desk, letting several beats pass. "It looks bad for you if I go back to prison," he finally said, disbelieving.

"That's about it," Dalem answered without apology. "If the owner of the car can let it slide, I sure as hell can."

Shaking his head, McCormick asked, "Then what's this all about?"

"I needed to understand for myself before the panel convened."

"Decide whether or not I was worth another chance, or if you were just gonna have to bite the bullet, huh?"

Dalem didn't respond to the bitterness. "And, there's something else you need to know. The panel will actually have two questions pending. If we don't rule for revocation, we will be deciding whether or not to continue your current reporting arrangements."

McCormick was back to staring. After a moment, he said, "It's been a long couple of days, Mr. Dalem, and I think maybe I'm not following too well." He hoped to God he wasn't following.

"We're reconsidering whether or not Judge Hardcastle should retain custody going forward."

"Why?" Mark exclaimed, shocked past the point of worrying about Dalem's feelings. "Things are working fine."

The parole officer gaped at him. "Working fine? While the responsible party in this partnership was lying in a hospital bed clinging to life, the other one went out, stole a car and went crusading for revenge. I'd hate to see your idea of not working."

"It wasn't revenge," McCormick responded intently.

"Whatever it was, a parolee still ended up gunning down a man in a parking lot. Hard to build a case for responsible supervision when that sort of thing happens."

Mark threw up his hands. "You're kidding, right? I mean, how is it that the guy laying in a bed barely conscious ends up responsible for this mess? God, he's the only truly innocent victim in the whole thing." He narrowed his eyes at the officer. "You did actually read the report, right?"

Dalem ignored the question. "Can you honestly tell me that your actions—and reactions—weren't the result of your association with Hardcastle?"

McCormick took about two seconds to wonder if that was a trick question, then answered honestly, logically.

"Of course not. Everything that happened to me was the direct result of what happened to him, so if I didn't have that 'association', none of it would have happened. That still doesn't make it his fault. Hell, he might be the reason I had to go chasing off after Randall, but he's also the reason I didn't go chasing after him in revenge. He taught me better than that."

He leaned forward in his chair and gazed steadily into the eyes across the desk. He spoke calmly and intently.

"Mr. Dalem, Hardcastle is the guy who's always telling me how we have to do things right, without any loopholes. We have to do it legal. You can't blame him for this."

"You're facing a revocation hearing on his watch," Dalem pointed out blandly.

"And a couple of years ago, I was facing a third felony conviction on yours." He leaned back in his chair and waited for that to sink in. When he thought some of the wind had come out of the other's sail, he continued his thought.

"But I'm a reasonable man, Mr. Dalem. If there's some bureaucracy that needs me to report to you for the rest of my parole, that's fine. I can be here every Friday afternoon just like the old days, and it'll save the judge some paperwork."

"I guess it has been a long couple of days, McCormick, because you are missing the point. We're not talking about saving Hardcastle some paperwork; we're talking about severing the relationship."

"What?" The outraged cry was out of his mouth and McCormick was on his feet almost before he had fully processed the man's words. He leaned on the edge of the desk. "You're crazy," he said flatly.

He straightened up and took a step back before Dalem could tell him to get the hell away from his desk.

"Anyway," the ex-con continued more calmly, "you can't just 'sever relationships'. You can dictate a lot of my life, but you can't choose my friends, or where I work or live."

"It'll be added to the conditions of your parole," Dalem replied smugly.

McCormick felt his skin prickling and he took another step back, making sure Dalem stayed out of arm's reach. He tried to work backward to a reason.

"All of this just to keep you from getting a black mark if I happen to cross the line? Without Hardcastle, I would've already been back inside, and your quota would've been screwed a long time ago. Mr. Dalem, he already bought you an extra year and a half." He tried to look his most convincing.

But Dalem wasn't buying it. "The board is no longer convinced he's the best influence. The panel will make the final decision after speaking with you."

McCormick pulled a hand through his hair as he turned and started toward the door. "You are crazy," he muttered under his breath. More loudly, he went on, "You guys are the ones who dumped me on him in the first place. It might've been his insane idea, but you had to sign off on it, so now you just need to be prepared to live with the consequences."

"Where do you think you're going?" Dalem demanded as the younger man rested his hand on the doorknob.

"To the hospital," McCormick replied, "to visit a friend. We're done here. You're gonna do what you wanna do, so there's no point hashing it all out like this. But you're mistaken if you think this is something you can win."

"In case you've forgotten," Dalem said coldly, "I brought you here to try to find a way to keep you out of prison. You should be more grateful."

"Probably," the young man conceded as he opened the door. He cast one last look behind him. "But you might've wasted your time. Because if you really try to keep me from Hardcastle, I'll be racking up the violations so fast it'll make your head spin."

Dalem didn't appear concerned. "Then you'll go to jail."

McCormick's jaw set. "That's what it's gonna take," he replied evenly, and pulled the door closed behind him.


McCormick spent the time in the elevator making sure his emotions were under control. He'd done a lot of muttering and cursing between Dalem's office and the hospital, but he didn't intend to tell Hardcastle any of what was going on. There would be plenty of time for that later. He hoped.

When the doors dinged open, he stepped briskly down the hallway, plastering a smile on his face just before he stepped into Hardcastle's room. "Hiya, Hard—"

The greeting died on his lips and the smile fell from his face as he stared at the empty bed, neatly made up and standing wait for the next patient. He took a hesitant step closer.

"Judge . . ." He felt his breath catch, and wondered fleetingly if he would ever be able to breathe again.

And then there was movement behind him. He turned to find Hardcastle's lead nurse closing the few steps between them.

"Jackie, what-—"

"Mark," she began, "I'm sorry I didn't see you come in, I—"

"I thought he was getting better? I thought—"

"I was trying to watch for you, but I must've—"

He was turning away from her, moving to the bed. "Someone should've called me this morning; I could've—"

"It's not what you—"

"I should've been h—"

"Mark!" She grabbed his arm and pulled him forcefully back away from the bed. "It's not what you think. Judge Hardcastle is fine."

He snapped his mouth shut, simply looking the question at the woman.

"His doctor released him from ICU this morning," she explained. "They've moved him upstairs to a regular room, up on five. Just a couple of hours ago."

He opened his mouth again, but nothing came out. He swallowed, then tried again. "He's upstairs?" he asked quietly. "He's okay?"

The nurse nodded emphatically, a smile on her face. "Yes. Yes. I wanted to catch you before you came in; tried to watch—" She was interrupted one last time as McCormick pulled her into a quick embrace.

"Thank you!" he told her happily. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" He was moving briskly toward the door when her voice stopped him again.

"That police officer left something for you."

He turned to find her thumbing through the scraps of paper in her pockets. After a second, she found the one with his name written across it and passed it to him.

"Thanks," he murmured as he took the paper.

He turned away again and was out the door as he heard her call after him, "Oh, he's in 528."

Another elevator ride, another chance to pull himself together. The cold emptiness that had settled immediately into his soul as he'd looked at that empty bed had lifted almost as quickly, but its memory was nearly tangible. He let the wall support him as he closed his eyes and took a calming breath.

As he stepped off the elevator, he took a moment to examine the placards on the wall, then turned to the left. Only then did he think about the paper in his hand, and he wondered why Frank hadn't mentioned leaving him a message. Curious, he unfolded the page, then stopped cold at the single neatly-printed sentence.


Standing silently in the hallway, Mark put the pieces together quickly. Frank had come back by for lunch, and the judge was even more alert than this morning. Hell, they'd let him out of intensive care less than a week after taking a chest shot that should've killed him, so he had to be significantly improved even since yesterday. Thank God.

But a more alert Hardcastle meant a Hardcastle that wouldn't easily take a brush-off, and he would've had questions. Frank Harper was a lousy liar, especially when he didn't believe in the lie. Part of him might believe that this was McCormick's story to tell, but he did believe it should be told, and the judge would've badgered it out of him. So, he had done the only thing he could do: left a warning so that Mark wouldn't be completely blindsided.

McCormick put a hand to his forehead as a small smile of rueful resignation played across his face. What am I gonna do with those two? He stuffed the paper into his pocket and continued down the hall.

McCormick strolled into 528 as casually as possible. This really wasn't a conversation he wanted to have, but the idea that five minutes ago he thought he'd never be able to have any conversation with Hardcastle again was weighing heavily on his mind, and was serving to keep things in pretty good perspective. This was doable.

"Hey, kiddo," Hardcastle greeted, still weak, but already so much better.

McCormick smiled at the older man, sending up another quick prayer of thanks. "Hey, Judge." He moved to the bedside chair. "How are you?"

"Better. Might have to lay off the basketball for a while, though."

"You get to keep your money longer that way," McCormick answered lightly.

Hardcastle almost laughed, but even the small sound that came out caused his face to contort with pain, and he closed his eyes to let the moment pass.

"Sorry," McCormick said sincerely, and laid a hand gently on the judge's arm, offering what support he could.

"Never," Hardcastle admonished a little breathlessly, "apologize for making people laugh."

It took a few seconds more, then he opened his eyes again, and McCormick immediately moved to lift his hand away, but Hardcastle clapped his own hand down on the young man's wrist, pushing them back into contact. He left his hand there, covering McCormick's, then turned his head to look directly at his friend.

"Are you okay?"

That wasn't quite the interrogation McCormick had anticipated, and he forced down the lump in his throat before answering quietly, "I'm fine, Judge. Please don't worry about me."

"You wanna talk about it?"

McCormick shook his head firmly, thinking that he had probably never wanted to talk about anything less. He ignored the corner of his mind that insisted he had never needed to talk about anything more.

"Not really," he finally said softly. "Can't I just . . . can't I just be here?"

Hardcastle exhaled slowly. "Of course you can be here." He began rearranging his sheet, in the process managing to give the young man's hand a single, reassuring pat before releasing it. "Where else would you be?"

"Exactly," McCormick muttered as he settled back into his chair.

Then the silence settled, which was okay with McCormick, except that he figured that just meant Hardcastle was planning his next question. But after about two minutes, Mark recognized the almost rhythmic breathing coming from the bed. Still a little shallow, as far as he was concerned, and not exactly easy breathing, but getting stronger every day.

He turned his head to look at the judge, then rubbed at his eyes wearily. It was still sort of unnerving, the way the guy just drifted off like that. So unnatural, a Hardcastle with no energy. Still, it was more progress than he had ever dared hope for, so he would accept it gratefully.

With a silent sigh, he settled back again, and closed his eyes, finding comfort in just being there.


When McCormick awoke again, Hardcastle was already awake and propped up in bed, watching him sleep.

Well, that's a little backwards, he thought disgustedly as he straightened up, ruffling fingers through his hair and rubbing at his eyes.

"Feel better?" Hardcastle inquired.

"Isn't that my line?"

The judge offered a small smile. "I'm fine."

"Hah. Only if you have a really liberal definition of 'fine'."

A couple of beats passed before Hardcastle spoke again.

"You know, I'm not really sure what I was thinking," he began in a low tone. "About the gun, I mean. I sure as hell never meant—"

"Judge, please." The weariness in McCormick's tone was more than a match for that coming from the patient, and it stopped Hardcastle's words for a moment.

After time for a bit of contemplation, the older man continued. "Well, I'm sorry I wasn't there to help you, but I'm glad you weren't alone."

That stopped McCormick. He sat silently, blinking a few times, wondering if maybe he was still more asleep than he realized. He finally forced a reply. "You mean Sandy?" If Hardcastle noticed the surprise, there was no indication.

"Yeah." Hardcastle gave a small nod. "I know you were only hanging out with him for me, and I know it didn't turn out so good, but I do appreciate it, and I hope he was able to help you just a little." He paused, then added, "Though no one explained to me yet how he managed to let Weed get the drop on him."

McCormick was silent again. So Harper had told him the truth, but not the whole truth. Well, he could live with that. He doesn't need to know that, anyway. At least not right now.

The young man shrugged. "Who knows? Things happen so fast sometimes, Judge; I doubt if even he could tell you exactly how it happened. But it happened, and it's over." He paused. "But do you remember the part where I said I really didn't want to talk about it?"

"Okay," Hardcastle agreed instantly. Then, with the tone of someone deliberately making idle conversation, he said, "What'd you do today?"

McCormick's eyes widened. "What?"

"Frank said you had some things to do?"

Mark tried to relax, recognizing that this really was just conversation. "Yeah, just some normal stuff, nothing earth-shattering." Idle conversation or not, he never had been all that good at keeping things from Hardcastle. But he saw the too-knowing suspicion beginning to dawn in the older eyes, and he got himself together.

"I hadn't touched the pool for a few days," he began, following his long-standing practice of sticking to the truth whenever possible, "so I took care of that. And I'd been meaning to pick up the fuel filter for the Corvette; you know it's been running a little rough." Still true; he just wouldn't mention the fact that he was still in the 'meaning to' stage, and hadn't actually made it to the auto store yet. "Everyone's been telling me I need to quit spending so much time here, so . . ."

"So you finally thought you'd listen?" Hardcastle concluded, but the grin on his face didn't quite reach his eyes.

"Something like that," McCormick answered with a small grin of his own, though he was suddenly sure that the judge wasn't really buying his well-intentioned brush-off. He tried his own redirection.

"So, since you're in a regular room, are they gonna let you have regular food? I could go get you something."

"Tempting, kiddo, but I don't think so. If the lunch tray they brought around was any indication, they're not ready for me to try anything you would think of as regular just yet."

McCormick shrugged. "Okay. Want me to see what's on the TV, then?"

And after just the briefest hesitation, Hardcastle agreed.


Hardcastle was silent, watching the other man fiddle with the remote control, surfing through the channels. He was trying to recall if McCormick had ever successfully lied to him. Of course, he recognized the problem with that line of questioning: if it had been a successful lie, he probably wouldn't know about it to recall.

Still, it had always been something of a mystery to him, the way that Mark McCormick—natural born con artist— seemed so incapable of an outright lie, at least when aimed in the judge's direction.

Hardcastle pulled a hand across his mouth, hiding the small smile. Mystery or not, he was pretty sure that one fact said more about the young man's loyalty than almost anything could. Except maybe for the idea that he was just forced into killing a man, to protect your friend, with a gun you gave him, and he isn't even hinting at blaming you. That says quite a bit, too.

Yeah. But what's he hiding now? The smile faded quickly.

"The news is fine," he growled on the third cycle through the channels.

"Sorry," McCormick mumbled a little self-consciously and put down the remote. "Just don't get yourself too worked up, okay? I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure your typical ranting and raving at the set is on the no-no list, even if you are out of intensive care."

The smile was back. Not so good at a lie, maybe, but no one was better at strategic change of direction.

"I'll be good," Hardcastle promised. Whatever it is, he'll talk when he's ready.

He spent the evening watching television and following McCormick's direction.


"So where's Mark?"

Hardcastle rolled his eyes at Harper. "Who knows? He's been in and out all day. It's like he's perfectly content to be here and watch me sleep, but when I wake up, he's ready to find an excuse to leave." He paused, then added, "He seems worried about something."

"Yeah, you."

The judge shook his head. "No, it's more than that."

"Did you talk to him about the shooting?"

"He didn't have much to say."

"That's the way it's been," Harper confirmed. "He's pretty shut down, but I thought maybe he'd open up to you."

Hardcastle had a sudden insight. "Hey, you guys aren't leaning on him about that, are you?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" the lieutenant demanded.

"You know what I mean. A parolee kills a man who just shot his . . . his . . ."

"Best friend?" Harper suggested quietly.

"It might raise some questions," Hardcastle finished.

"We asked our questions, Milt, and he had all the right answers. This wasn't some kind of homicidal vendetta."

"I know that," Hardcastle huffed. "I just want to make sure there isn't someone sittin' behind a desk somewhere who hasn't figured it out yet. He doesn't need that kind of pressure."

"Well, he's not getting pressure from us," Harper assured him.

"Okay. Then maybe he's just— What about the parole board?" the judge asked suddenly.

"What about them?"

"They were notified of the shooting, right?"

"Sure. A report would've been forwarded to them as a matter of routine. But, Milt, really, we closed it out right after Mark's official statement. We didn't look any further; there isn't anything else to find. The only report we sent over said clearly that he was justified in his actions."

Hardcastle nodded slowly as he rubbed at his temple. "Okay. But there's somethin' bothering him, and it's something he won't talk to me about. Maybe you're right, and he's just too worried about me, or maybe he's taking this whole shooting thing harder than he should, but I think there's more than that."

"Whatever it is, he probably just doesn't want to worry you right now. And, really, I don't know if he's wrong about that. You need to be taking care of yourself, not looking for problems. If it's important, he'll tell you about it in his own time."

"That's what I thought yesterday, and I tried to let it be; I really did. But today was just as bad, or worse, even though I thought maybe after a good night's sleep he'd be ready to spill his guts. But, honestly, Frank, he barely talks to me. Oh, he makes comments about whatever we're watching on TV, or some article he's reading in a magazine, or whatever, but everything is so . . . flat. He doesn't joke around about anything, doesn't even call me a donkey. It's like he's completely in his own world, and I can't get through to him. Something has him spooked and I can't figure it out."

Harper sighed. "Have you tried just asking him?" he inquired reasonably.

"Only about a dozen times," Hardcastle replied in exasperation. "The kid can't lie to me, but I've never met anyone better at evading the truth. And when he gets tired of tap dancing, he just goes out for a while.

"I'm trying not to push him too hard, because . . ." He trailed off for a moment, letting his eyes wander to the view outside the window, though that wasn't what he was seeing. He looked back at Harper.

"I don't really remember much about the courtroom," he said slowly. "It's like a blur. But I remember he was there. Sandy, too, but it's Mark that I really remember. God, Frank, the look on his face. He was so scared. Scared for me. He thought I was gonna die." He shook his head. "He's not over that yet."

"No," the officer agreed, "he isn't. And I don't imagine he will be for a while. So what makes you so sure there's anything else?"

"Have you ever asked him a question, and the answer was so precisely correct that you just knew there was more to it? Or noticed the way that he can take about fifty words to say something that should've taken ten, and it's like half an hour later before you realize it wasn't even the answer to the question you asked?"

Harper laughed slightly. "Well, yeah."

"That's how I know. When he keeps stuff from me, it's for a reason, and when I look in his eyes for that reason, the only thing I see now is fear. Something has scared him, and it's not just the idea of me riding off into the sunset for the last time. Not too many things scare him, Frank, but if someone downtown is giving him a hard time about this shooting, that would do it."

"Well, it isn't us," the detective assured him again, "but I'll see what I can find out. I'll make some calls."

"I'd appreciate it. I hope I'm wrong, but I'd like to know for sure."

"Whatever it is," said a voice from the doorway, "he doesn't need to know right now."

The men looked around to see McCormick entering the room, carrying a small duffel bag. He had a grin on his face, but there was no light in his eyes, and Hardcastle knew again it was all just pretense. The kid was keeping up appearances, nothing more.

McCormick glanced over at Harper. "Hey, Frank, figured you'd be here. What's going on?"

"Don't be buttin' into things you don't understand," Hardcastle growled, keeping up his own end of the deal. Then he gestured at the bag in the young man's hand. "You movin' in here, or what?"

This time, the grin was a little more real as McCormick rounded the bed and dropped into the chair opposite Harper. He put a finger to his lips. "Shh. The food people are out in the hallway. It looks like fish, maybe."

Hardcastle grimaced. "Didn't I have fish last night?"

"I don't know what that was last night," McCormick answered. "But I was here for dinner, breakfast and lunch, and I have never heard so much complaining. You better never talk to me about my whining again."

"I don't whine," the judge objected immediately, then glowered at the others when they only laughed.

"Anyway," McCormick continued, "I stopped at the deli and got some sandwiches. I thought you were probably ready for a break from the meal cart."

Hardcastle rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Pastrami?" he asked hopefully.

"No," Mark answered firmly, "not pastrami. A nice lean roast beef, mustard, no mayo, and just a little bit of cheese. But it is on a fresh roll, and it didn't come with a side serving of mystery casserole or tapioca pudding. And if you're very good, I'll let you have one or maybe two of my chips. Okay?"

The kid was still trying so hard to make everything seem normal, even though the shadows in his eyes betrayed him, that Hardcastle just smiled and said, "Okay."


Hardcastle made it through his sandwich, but he never saw the beginning of the evening's John Wayne feature.

"C'mon, Mark," Harper said, rising from his seat, "we can walk down together."

But McCormick just shook his head as he gathered up the trash from the takeout. "He'll be awake again in about three or four hours, and he'll want a glass of water and a pain pill, but the donkey won't push the damn button and ask. If I'm not here, he'll just lay there, thirsty and hurting, until he finally falls back asleep." He shook his head again. "It's unbelievable, really, how one man can be so stubborn."

The lieutenant grinned, but didn't make any pointed comments about pots and kettles. "Then let's just take a trip down to the cafeteria. I'll buy you a cup of coffee."

McCormick turned back from dropping the papers into the wastebasket. "What's going on, Frank?" he asked suspiciously.

"As I think I might've mentioned a time or two before, I don't think you need to be spending every waking moment worrying at his bedside."

"I just got back!" McCormick objected.

"Then humor me."

Harper must've understood that McCormick intended to argue further, because he added in a low voice, "Unless you'd prefer I ask my questions right here."

McCormick sighed heavily and wondered just when something—anything—would become his choice again. He gave in as gracefully as possible.

"Let's go get that coffee."


They had taken their coffee to the small enclosed patio area, and were sitting quietly in the gathering dusk.

"So you wanna tell me what's going on?" Harper asked after a moment.

McCormick shrugged, but didn't look at the other man. "Don't know what you mean."

"Whatever you think you're protecting him from is worrying the hell out of him. And he's got me making calls tomorrow, so he's gonna find out, anyway."

McCormick didn't answer, but found himself trying to calculate whether his ten o'clock hearing would be over before Hardcastle could find out anything about it. He decided it would be really close.

"I'm not trying to worry him, Frank," he said softly, "and there's nothing he needs to know about."

"Hmph! You wanna try that again?"

Mark grinned in spite of himself. "'Hmph'? Is that a new interrogation technique?"

"If it works," Harper said, returning the grin.

But McCormick gave a single shake of his head. "It might, if there was anything to tell."

"Well, then, let me tell you what Milt thinks is going on."

McCormick cocked an eyebrow and waited expectantly.

"He thinks the parole board is leaning on you."

McCormick willed his face to remain impassive, but he thought it might've already been too late. "I don't know why he'd think that," he said, hoping his voice didn't sound as strained as it felt. "Didn't you tell him I was in the clear?"

"Yep." Harper paused, then asked the question McCormick dreaded. "Are they? Leaning on you, I mean?"

McCormick took a breath. "No."

But Harper didn't say anything else, and didn't release the young man's gaze. Their eyes were locked for several long seconds before McCormick finally stammered, "Not exactly. I mean, it depends on your definition of leaning." He dropped his forehead into his hands. "God, Frank, I don't want him to know about this. He can't deal with anything else right now."

"I might even agree with you on that, Mark," Harper said slowly, "but is there a reason you haven't told me?"

"Yeah. Because you're a cop, he's a judge, and I'm an ex-con. Not hard to figure whose side you're on."

"Is that really how you see all of this?" Harper asked, a little sadly. "Even after everything that's happened the last coupla years?"

McCormick let out a long breath, then forced himself to look up at the older man. "No," he said simply. "I'm sorry." He rubbed at the back of his neck, willing the tension away more than anything.

"I know he has a right to know. I mean, he is technically my parole officer—"

"No," Harper interrupted strongly. "That's not why. He deserves to know because he's your friend. He cares what happens to you, not what happens to his parolee. And in this case, he could probably help you out."

McCormick shook his head slowly. "You don't understand."

"No, I don't," the detective agreed, "mostly because you haven't tried to explain any of it. So I will ask you again: you wanna tell me what's going on?"

"Will you—" McCormick broke off suddenly. There was no sense putting Harper in the middle of this thing. He would do whatever he wanted with the information he had. But still . . .

"I got a call from John Dalem the other day." Always lead with the truth.

"Ah, your official PO, right?"

McCormick nodded. "Yeah. He said they had a few questions before they could make a decision about possible revocation." He saw the anger building on Harper's face, and he continued quickly. "But he did say there wasn't much doubt the shooting could be justified."

Harper seemed to relax, though he still seemed confused. "Then why are you so worried? And why are you keeping it from Milt?"

"Why am I—? Honestly, Lieutenant, if you have to ask that, then you really will never understand. And I guess someone who's never been inside probably never could." Sometimes it was amazing to him that he considered this man such a good friend, when there was clearly such a gulf between them.

"They control my life, Frank. They could pull my ticket if they didn't like the way the wind was blowing. That's the kind of thing that makes a guy nervous.

"And as for why I'm keeping it from Hardcastle . . . I told you; he doesn't need anything else to worry about. If he knew, he'd get himself all worked up, want to start making phone calls or something, and he just can't do that right now. Better if he not know. I'll probably talk to Dalem again tomorrow; maybe he'll have an answer for me. But I promise I'll talk to the judge as soon as it's over, okay?"

He let a beat pass, then added, "Besides, I know you know what I mean. That's why you didn't tell him about Sandy, right?"

Harper grinned, a little shamefacedly. "Well, yeah, something like that, I guess."

And McCormick nodded knowingly. "Exactly. We're just protecting him from himself. There's plenty of time later for the whole story." He glanced down at his watch.

"But I should get back upstairs. They won't kick me out after visiting hours, but if I get there too late, they don't like to let me in."

Harper nodded and rose with the other man.

"Okay, we'll hold off on talking to Milt, but you need to quit holding out on me."

"Okay," McCormick agreed easily. He wished the detective goodnight, then started down the hallway. As he stepped onto the elevator, he tried to take some comfort in the fact that he hadn't actually uttered one single lie.


The next morning, Frank Harper glared at the phone in his hand. He'd been trying for half an hour to get an answer out at Gull's Way; neither the phone in the gatehouse nor the main house had been picked up.

He punched the button to get another dial tone and dialed again, giving the room number to the answering operator. After a couple of rings, the line was answered again.

"Milt, did I wake you?"

"Nah, they just dropped off my breakfast tray a while ago, so I'm enjoying that."

Harper grinned at the mild sarcasm, but didn't get distracted from his reason for calling. "Is Mark there?" he asked, trying not to sound too anxious.

"No, he was here early this morning when they came by for my regular poke, prod, and stick; I guess he slept here again. I think I tried to send him home last night, but he doesn't always listen, you know."

"Yeah, I know," the lieutenant muttered.

"What's that mean?" Hardcastle asked warily. "Is something wrong? Did you find out anything?"

"A little bit. I talked to Mark last night, and there's nothing to worry about. That Dalem guy asked him a few questions. All pretty routine, apparently, but Mark understands the idea of possible revocation a little too well. It shook him up.

"But I made some calls, and the board seems convinced the shooting was likely justified. They just aren't gettin' in a hurry to say so, so the kid's left hanging. I just wanted to talk to him about it a little more, now that I've made my calls."

"I'll try talking to him again," Hardcastle offered.

"No, you should wait for him to bring it up," Harper cautioned. "He doesn't want to worry you, so I told him to tell you about when he was ready."

"So you're a double-agent?" Hardcastle's grin was audible.

"Sometimes with you two, it feels that way," Harper replied seriously. "You get some rest, and I'll see you later today."


McCormick stepped off the elevator and walked slowly down the hallway. It occurred to him then—though not for the first time lately—that his problem was that it had been a long time since he'd really been on his own. He'd let himself believe that he had people now—people to care for him, people to protect him. But when you started believing that sort of thing, it made you careless, not at your best when you suddenly found yourself alone again.

And the time always comes, he thought wearily, there's always things you gotta face alone. And it's not even anyone's fault; it's just the way it is.

He turned a stern thought on himself. You're just gettin' soft, Skid.

He rounded the last corner into a new hallway, almost to the designated room, but pulled up short when he saw the man in front of the doorway. His wide, delighted grin faded quickly as he understood the implications. He forced himself to take the last few steps.

"Frank," he greeted hesitantly, "what're you doing here?"

"Why don't we step out of the way and have a chat?" Harper suggested, gesturing to an unoccupied end of the hallway.

"I should probably get inside," McCormick stalled.

"You've got plenty of time," the detective said firmly as he grasped the other man's arm and steered him toward a relatively private corner.

"I thought we agreed you weren't going to lie to me," Harper accused as soon as they were away from possible passers-by.

"I didn't lie," McCormick responded automatically.

"Well, you sure as hell didn't tell the truth."

"I'm sorry, Frank," the young man conceded, "but I didn't want the judge to know, and I didn't want you to have to choose sides. I figured you couldn't tell him what you didn't know."

"And you thought I wouldn't bother to ask?"

"I hoped." McCormick paused, then asked, "So what did you tell him?"

Harper glared silently for another moment, then finally let out a loud sigh. "I told him the same non-lie you told me: a few questions, and no reason to believe the shooting won't be ruled justifiable."

McCormick slumped back against the wall. "Thank you."

"Well, you're right about that part of it; he doesn't need to be worrying about this right now." The lieutenant fixed his young friend with a stern glare. "Now, you want to tell me why you thought you needed to try to handle this alone?"

The truth behind the words sank in, and McCormick's fears came out in a rush.

"I don't know what I'm gonna do, Frank. They want to rescind Hardcastle's custody arrangement, do you know that? It's like they think this whole thing is his fault, or something.

"Dalem really did say they probably won't revoke the parole, but, God, what do they think I'm gonna do if they take me from him?

"And what's he gonna do? If they do this, you know they'll never approve another custody arrangement, and who's gonna ride shotgun for him then? He'll be out there, working those damned cases, and he'll end up getting himself hurt, or worse. How do I stop that?

"And they say I won't even be able to see him. Can you believe that? And they can do it, too. I checked some of the judge's books this week, and they can really make this happen. I don't know what—"


Harper's raised voice and insistent tone managed to stop McCormick's ranting, so that he simply stared at the officer, wide-eyed and frantic, for several long seconds.

"What am I gonna do, Frank?" he finally whispered hoarsely.

"The first thing," Harper replied, his firm tone now laced with compassion, "is take a deep breath and pull yourself together. When we go in that room, you need to be in control."

McCormick nodded numbly, then seemed to register the comment. "We?"

"You're not the only one who was reading up, and you're entitled to request witnesses. Even if I don't have to say a word, it'll get me in the door. I told you, Mark; you don't have to do this alone."

The kid almost managed a smile of relief. "Yeah, okay. Thanks." Then he shook his head. "But there's a problem. I've been thinking about it a lot, and, Frank, I don't know what they want to hear."


"I'm pretty good at the spin, ya know—"

"Ya think?" Harper interrupted dryly, which did pull a genuine grin from McCormick, though it was short-lived.

"But the thing about the spin," Mark continued seriously, "is that you need to have some idea what the other person wants to hear, and I don't have a clue. This whole thing is so screwed up, I can't begin to guess what the right thing is to say."

His words were coming faster again. "I mean, jeez, Frank, the only person in this whole world who wants to make me toe the line, and they want to blame him for this insanity? What the hell is up with that? They might as well just ship my ass back to Quentin if they think they're gonna keep me from him. They can't—"

"Stop." This time, the word was spoken quietly, but no less firmly, and Harper had grabbed the younger man's arms, adding emphasis to his direction.

McCormick took a breath. "The truth is that they can do whatever they want. I told you, I checked. They can make me leave the estate. Dalem called it 'severing the relationship', and they can do it. And I don't even know what they want to hear," he concluded bitterly.

Harper tightened his grip. "Listen. You don't need to spin this, Mark, you just need to tell the truth. If you try conning your way out, they're gonna be all over you. You're too worked up to be up to your normal smooth-talking tricks. Hell, you thought you gave me the brush-off, and here I am."

"You do have a point there," McCormick smiled.

"So don't be trying to second-guess and worrying about saying the right thing. Just answer their questions honestly, and you'll be fine."

The young man thought for a long moment, then finally nodded. "Okay, got it. Nothing but the truth. You sound more like Hardcase every day."

Harper grinned and released his hold. "Now you're cookin'," he said, and pointed McCormick back toward the hearing room.


"This is a closed proceeding," said a man just inside the door.

McCormick looked at the brown suit, white shirt and tan tie, and tried not to think too negatively about the man. He was undoubtedly a member of the panel, so McCormick just smiled politely.

"He may need to call me as a witness," Harper said, jerking his thumb at McCormick.

"Character witness testimony should be presented in writing."

"Well, I could do that, too, but in this case, it's evidentiary." Harper offered his own polite smile. "Lieutenant Frank Harper, LAPD."

That seemed to surprise the man, and McCormick had the immediate impression that this one already saw him behind bars in basic blue. But the man recovered quickly.

"We do require that the parolee advise the panel of any potential witnesses prior to the hearing."

"Your office was notified this morning," Harper replied calmly, and McCormick fought to keep the grin off his face.

Yep. More like Hardcase every day.

Out of arguments, the man stepped aside. "Just take a seat," he muttered as he turned to stalk over to his own chair.

"Nice work, Frank," McCormick whispered as they slid into two of the straight-back chairs.

"I told you I was reading up."

McCormick just grinned as his eyes examined the room. A conference room by design, it had a more ominous feeling to it now. There was one short conference table, pulled almost to the far wall, with three chairs along one side, facing the door. On the other side of the table, but several feet away from it, was a single chair, facing the others. He wondered briefly if there was a glaring spotlight somewhere that would be brought to bear if the testimony didn't seem to be progressing as planned. Slightly behind, and a little to the left of the apparent witness stand, was a grouping of about half a dozen wooden chairs, which was where he waited now with Harper.

"Cozy," he whispered to the officer. He leaned closer. "Hey, I know what you said out there in the hall, but I'm a little bit worried about the gun. I think I have a pretty good explanation—"

"The truth," Harper whispered back harshly. "Nothing else. Got it?"

McCormick snapped his mouth shut and nodded, managing to look just a little bit ashamed of even making the suggestion.

The door opened and John Dalem walked in, followed by a middle-aged, blonde woman. He was in a gray suit and charcoal tie, she in a navy skirt and blazer with a bright white blouse.

McCormick watched them gather at the conference table, and looked at the three of them together. He shook his head slightly, hoping it wasn't noticeable, but the image they created—in their brown, gray, and blue—was not exactly one of imagination or new wave thinking. He thought it likely that this group already had opinions concerning his rather unusual parole arrangement, and he thought it even more likely that this Weed Randall incident was simply going to be an excuse to un-do what they believed should never have been done.

"It's gonna be fine," Harper said quietly.

But when McCormick glanced that direction, he could see the detective was doing his own appraisal of the panel members, and it seemed Harper's conclusion was not all that much different from his own. "Yeah," he answered sullenly, "it'll be fine."

After another couple of seconds, the members had completed whatever conversation they were having, and were taking their seats behind the table, file folders open in front of them, pens in hand. Brown Suit was in the center, with Blue Blazer on his left and Dalem on his right.

It's like something out of a nightmare, McCormick thought, and hoped the grimace didn't show on his face.

Then Brown was speaking. "Thank you all for your attendance in this matter," he said to the room at large, though Mark thought that was a bit grandiose for the four people he was addressing, especially given that two of them were being paid to be here, and he himself would've faced a bench warrant if he'd chosen not to show.

Then the man looked at McCormick. "Mr. McCormick, my name is Matthew Miller, this is Joyce Robinson, and you know Mr. Dalem. We hope to make this as quick and painless as possible; we're just seeking a greater understanding of circumstances surrounding recent events.

McCormick nodded. "I understand," he said evenly, but he doubted if the man cared one iota about making this painless.

Miller glanced at his folder, then said, "Why don't we hear from Lieutenant Harper first?" He gestured to the empty chair.

They just want to get rid of him, McCormick thought, as he watched the detective cross to the middle of the room.

"Thank you for taking the time to join us, Lieutenant," Miller began, as Harper seated himself. He looked again at the papers in front of him. "You were the lead officer on the Weed Randall case?"

Harper shook his head. "No, but I was familiar with his case, both the original one and the new charges, so I offered to help the detectives assigned to this case. I assisted in gathering statements from witnesses and involved parties, including Mr. McCormick. Detective Riley, over in homicide, is the officer of record."

"Of course Mr. McCormick's statement of events, along with the resulting departmental findings, is the heart of what we're following up on here today. So let me just ask you: do you share the official view, that Mr. McCormick acted in the only way possible to save innocent lives? Do you believe his actions were justified when he shot and killed Weed Randall?"

"Yes," Harper replied without hesitation.

"Lieutenant Harper," Joyce Robinson spoke for the first time, "do you feel qualified to answer questions of a more personal nature concerning Mr. McCormick? Perhaps concerning his emotional state or his motivations? Perhaps even outside the scope of this particular incident?"

"Well, I'm not a shrink or anything," Harper answered with a small smile, "but if you're asking me what makes the kid tick, then, yeah, I might have some thoughts on that."

I'll bet, McCormick thought, and rubbed a hand across his face to hide his own smile.

"In terms of the Randall shooting," Robinson continued, "you say that Mr. McCormick was justified. Does that mean you believe he was truly forced into the shooting?"

"I'm not sure I understand the distinction," the detective said slowly. "To be justified in taking another life typically implies there was no other course of action. We like to think of it as a last resort. When action is required, and all other options have been removed, is a person not forced into the final choice?"

"You don't think he might've been hasty in ruling out other options?"

"Hasty? I think he almost waited too long. I know he waited longer than most police officers would've, probably myself included."

"Judge Hardcastle is important to Mr. McCormick," Robinson said suddenly, "correct? Responsible for the judicial stay that kept him from returning to prison approximately eighteen months ago, currently the custodial party in his parole agreement, provides a home, and a salary? An important part of Mr. McCormick's every day survival?"

"He's important," Harper agreed, "though I'm not sure you've got the reasons right. They're friends. The rest of it is . . . circumstantial."

"Given that, is it possible that at least some small part of Mr. McCormick was simply angry at Randall for Judge Hardcastle's shooting? Is it possible that he was happy to be 'forced' into killing the man?"

"I have no doubt he was angry," the detective replied evenly, "and probably not just a little bit. I'm angry, too. I've got a friend lying in a hospital room in more pain than anyone should have to be because of Weed Randall. You bet I'm angry. Lots of people are angry at Weed Randall right now.

"But let me tell you about something else about Weed Randall." His voice took on an extra layer of intensity. "He didn't intend to go back to prison, and he didn't intend to live on the run. The man shot a judge in the middle of his courtroom with about twenty witnesses, and then he decided to have a little stopover at a motel not fifty miles up the road. Then he was gonna blow away a cop in the parking lot in broad daylight with no regard as to who might've been around to see it. He never intended to get away. Randall was going to keep killing people until someone stopped him permanently. As it turned out, that someone was McCormick."

Harper was picking up speed as he continued. "As a cop, I've had to fire my weapon from time to time. A couple of times, people have died. It's not an easy thing, and it takes something from you, but you wrap your mind around it and go on, because you know you had no choice, and because it's part of the job sometimes. It's what you signed on for.

"But McCormick didn't sign on. He's not a cop. He did what he had to do—what any of us would've done—but he hasn't wrapped his mind around it yet, even though he knows he had no choice. He wishes there had been another way. He's still second-guessing, trying to figure out what he did wrong, even though there isn't anything to figure. And knowing him, he's gonna be second-guessing for a long, long time. He hates what he had to do. No part of him is happy about what happened. In fact, no part of him is particularly happy about anything right now, because that's what it takes from you, when you have to take another life. He should never have been forced into that position, and I'm pretty angry at Weed Randall for that, too."

Harper stopped talking abruptly and looked across at the panel members, awaiting further questions. McCormick thought the man might've looked a little embarrassed—Frank Harper didn't usually get worked up about things. But emotions had been running pretty close to the surface lately for all of them. And, for himself, he doubted if he'd ever be able to explain how he felt about the detective's testimony.

You've got people now, Skid, and he's one of 'em.

And then Dalem was speaking, laying out the question in black and white. "Lieutenant Harper, does all that mean that you believe we should leave the state of McCormick's parole intact?"


Dalem appeared satisfied, though it looked as if the other panel members might've preferred a different response.

But if Miller was disappointed, he kept it out of his voice when he said, "Thank your for your comments, Lieutenant, and your candor." And it was all business as usual when he added, "You are dismissed with the thanks of the panel, and excused from the proceedings."

They really are going to kick him out, McCormick thought, and he was surprised by how troubling that thought suddenly was. He had been ready to do this alone right up until the moment he'd seen Harper in the hallway, but now he was almost paralyzed by the idea. His rescue came from an unexpected source.

"Actually," Dalem interjected as Harper rose from his seat, "if the lieutenant has the time, I might request that he stay for the remainder of the proceeding. Depending upon Mr. McCormick's testimony, we may have additional questions that arise. He seems well versed with the parties involved, and could prove invaluable if additional information is needed."

"My calendar is clear," Harper assured them, and moved to reclaim his seat next to McCormick.

McCormick wasn't clear if Dalem really believed they might want to question Harper again later, or if the man had done the unthinkable and actually helped him, but he flashed him a quick look of gratitude either way.

"Thanks, Frank," Mark said softly as the detective sat.

"Mr. McCormick," Miller said, "if you would join us."

Taking a deep breath, McCormick rose from his chair.

"You remember what I said," Harper whispered.

Sitting in the isolated chair, waiting for someone to speak, McCormick thought this might be worse than a trial. At least in a courtroom, there wasn't quite so much pretense. There, you had no doubt about who wanted to put you in jail.

Dalem spoke first. "Mr. McCormick, you understand the purpose of this hearing?"

"Yes, sir."

"Would you mind explaining what you believe is the point?" Miller asked.

McCormick tried not to sigh. This was going to be more grueling than he imagined if they insisted on playing these games.

"As I understand it," he began, "the primary question before this panel today is the revocation of my parole. If you find in the affirmative, I will relinquish the freedoms currently afforded me and be returned to a penal institution of the state's choosing.

"If that question is disaffirmed, and the state of parole is continued, the secondary question will be the status of the custodial arrangement with Judge Hardcastle and whether that arrangement will remain in effect."

He looked back directly at Miller. "Does that about sum it up?"

"Nicely," Miller said dryly. "I'm glad that you have a firm grasp of the magnitude of the decisions before us."

"It's my life," McCormick replied seriously. "I don't take it lightly."

"So let's start with the gun," Miller said abruptly, and McCormick wished very briefly that they had actually made Harper leave the room.

It wasn't hard to understand the interest in the weapon. Primarily, no gun meant no shooting, and none of this would be necessary. But then there was the idea that simply being in possession of the thing was a fairly serious violation of his parole, and he'd gotten it from the guy who was supposed to be overseeing that parole. Yeah, he could definitely see the interest.

Aloud, all he said was, "What about it?"

"Don't make this difficult, McCormick," Dalem interrupted before Miller could reply. "You know what we want to know."

McCormick thought the hard stare that accompanied the words probably meant 'Don't screw with us', and from the fire in Miller's eyes, he thought he might end up grateful for the warning.

"Sorry," he mumbled with a quick glance at Dalem, then looked back at Miller.

"The gun belonged to Judge Hardcastle," he explained. "He always wore it under his robes. The hospital wasn't really equipped to handle firearms, so they gave it to me." Maybe they'd let it go at that.

"Why give it to you instead of Officer Knight?" Miller continued, dashing any hope that they would let the subject be. "You were both there, correct?"

McCormick hesitated, tempted. One simple lie could deflect all the blame from Hardcastle onto himself, but he caught a movement from the corner of his eye and saw Harper slowly shaking his head. He drew a slow breath and spoke the truth.

"The judge told them to give it to me."

"Can you tell us why Judge Hardcastle would give a weapon to a parolee?" Robinson inquired. "Does he routinely allow you to use firearms?"

"No, ma'am," McCormick answered, "he doesn't. He's even threatened to lock me up himself for having a gun in my possession."

"So you do routinely have firearms?"

"No," McCormick corrected quickly. "Not routinely. It was one time. I used it to stop a kidnapping; I didn't have to fire. And then I gave it right back. But Hardcastle made clear it was off limits." And that's the truth, he thought silently.

"And yet he gave you a gun this time?" Miller clarified.

"Look, he'd just been shot. He probably thought . . . probably thought he was dying. The doctors wanted to get rid of the thing; he told them to give it to me. He knew I was there. I'd think he could be forgiven a slight lapse in judgment. Maybe there's, like, a blood loss clause or something."

Almost matching daggers flew from Dalem and Harper's eyes, so he closed his mouth over anything else he might've said.

"But didn't he know Officer Knight was there?" Robinson insisted. "He was with you at the courthouse, right?"

"Yeah, but I don't know if the judge remembered about Sandy being there. He had a lot on his mind, ya know."

"He remembered you were there."

McCormick locked his eyes on hers. "I'm always there."

"Why don't you describe for us the events that happened next?" Miller suggested, breaking into the heavy silence that descended.

"It's all in—" McCormick broke off his objection quickly. He pinched at the bridge of his nose, then began his recitation.

"I needed to find Randall. In retrospect, I know that seems like a questionable idea, but you have to understand: tracking down the bad guys is what I do now. Granted, I don't usually do it alone, but not doing it wasn't even an option. Especially this bad guy.

"I made a quick trip back to the prison to get some more information and got a lead on where Randall might be. I did some driving and found the right motel. But Officer Knight beat me there. Randall shot him once, just as I drove up. I still had the gun with me. It wasn't intentional. I had it when I left the hospital; I hadn't had a chance to get rid of it yet. I aimed it at Randall, and I gave him the chance to put his gun down."

McCormick paused. He could hear himself, low and steady, no emotion, just the facts. He wondered briefly if that would help or hurt him with this group, but he knew he didn't have the energy to change it. He told them the end.

"He wouldn't lower his weapon. He looked at me for what seemed like a really long time, sizing me up, I guess. I'm not sure if he thought I wouldn't do it, or if he hoped I would, but then he made his move. I asked him not to. I practically begged him not to. But he was going to kill Sandy. I stopped him. It was really loud, louder than I ever remember a gun being before. And, really, it happened so fast, but it seemed like time was standing still. When he turned that gun on Sandy, and I knew I was going to have to fire . . ."

McCormick trailed off, and sat silently for a moment. Somehow, he thought he'd gotten off track. They hadn't really asked him about that part, about what it was like; they only wanted the details. He focused on the story.

"Then he was down. I checked on Sandy and asked someone to get an ambulance. I asked them for two, but Weed died just a minute later. Then the cops came, and people were asking questions and taking notes. They took Sandy in the ambulance. And that part seemed to drag out forever, but then Frank—Lieutenant Harper—was there, and the other detectives were done with me, so he took me to the hospital to be with Hardcastle. Sometime later— I couldn't even tell you which day, I don't think—he drove me back to the station and I gave them my statement. They let me leave. I guess whatever I said to them made sense. None of it makes a whole lot of sense to me. But that's how it happened, and here we are."

"Mr. McCormick?"

Robinson spoke almost hesitantly, and that's when Mark realized how rigid he had become. Jaw set, fists clenched, and board straight in the chair—he figured he made quite the picture.

He forced a smile and deliberately relaxed his posture. "Sorry. I'm fine. Did you say something?"

"No," she replied, watching him closely.

"What can you tell us about Judge Hardcastle?" Miller prompted, apparently not concerned with the parolee's obvious strain.

"What about him?"

Dalem cleared his throat rather loudly.

"Sorry, Mr. Dalem," McCormick said sincerely, "but that was an honest question. I mean, can we narrow it down a little? I've been living with the guy for almost two years, so when you say 'what can you tell us?', I don't know where to begin.

"I can tell you he's up at six o'clock every morning shooting baskets right outside my bedroom window. Or that he likes mustard on his ham, but mayo on his roast beef. And that he keeps Lone Ranger comic books on his bedside table. I mean, really, what do you want to know?"

He thought Dalem might've gotten the point, but Miller was scowling. He hoped suddenly that the panel didn't have to reach a unanimous decision regarding his fate, because he thought he might just be out of luck with this guy. But Miller kept talking.

"I understand that when Hardcastle first approached you about the stay and explained the particulars of his offer, you had to be persuaded to accept?"

What all has he told these people?

"Persuaded? Yeah, I guess that's one way of putting it."

"You didn't consider it a fair trade?"

"I was stupid."

"But you would've preferred to continue your parole without the restrictions of living and working with Judge Hardcastle?"

"Sure," McCormick admitted easily. He let a couple of beats pass before adding, "But it would've been my loss."

"You don't find it unreasonable, the work you do for him?"

"Occasionally. But I figure he puts up with some pretty unreasonable stuff from me sometimes, too."

Ms. Robinson spoke up again. "Would you consider Lieutenant Harper's description a fair one? Are you and Judge Hardcastle friends?"


"Do you think he might be inclined to grant you certain . . . leniencies because of that friendship?"

McCormick laughed. "Leniencies? Maybe he loans me a few bucks when I blow all my money before payday, or tolerates my smart mouth more than he should, but if you mean leniencies with my parole, you couldn't be further from the truth. I think Hardcastle is the only guy with more rules and regulations than even you people have."

"How many times have you been in jail since you've been in his custody?" Miller asked suddenly.

"Not many more than he has," McCormick shot back.

He heard Harper trying to turn the surprised chuckle into a polite cough; Dalem was openly grinning, and even Robinson seemed slightly amused. But Miller was still looking at him with that damned scowl. And the man was clearly waiting for a different answer.

Trying to hide his exasperation, McCormick replied, "I don't know, Mr. Miller, a few. Some things have happened, I won't deny it. But you obviously know none of those arrests were particularly legitimate or relevant, or we would've been having this meeting a long time ago."

"So it would be legitimate if we revoked your parole over this incident?"

"It's legitimate to ask the questions," McCormick countered, "though I wouldn't presume to tell you what the ultimate decision should be. I will tell you that I didn't do anything wro—illegal." The thought flashed into his mind that Harper had been correct: he wasn't up to his usual standards. Hell, even telling the truth was proving difficult.

He waited for Miller to pounce on the word choice, but it was Dalem who asked the question. "That's an interesting distinction there, McCormick. Even if it was legal, did you do the right thing?"

McCormick collected his thoughts before answering. "I killed a man, Mr. Dalem. I do believe it was necessary, and I do believe it was within the boundaries of the law. And, as horrible as it is, I do believe I would do it exactly the same if the situation presented itself again.

"But I don't believe that one human being should ever be in the position of making that life or death decision for another. I don't know that I can honestly say that there's anything fundamentally right about that, even if that's what you want to hear."

"That's fair enough," Dalem responded. "And all we want to hear is the truth."

"Though I'd still be interested in hearing something that would convince me that being with Hardcastle hasn't caused you more trouble than it's saved," Miller added.

McCormick sighed slightly and ran a hand through his hair. "Mr. Miller, if you would tell me what it would take to convince you of that, I'd certainly say it. Because the truth is that nothing—nothing—could've been better for me. You've all seen my record; you know my past. There are a lot of circumstances that led to that past, but I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that when there was a choice between the hard way or the easy way, I never had a reason to choose the hard way. Hardcastle gave me that reason."

"The man sent you to prison."

"Yes, he did."

"And so this reason that you're talking about, it's because you know he'd do it again?"

McCormick shook his head. "No."

"So he wouldn't send you back to prison?"

"That's not what I meant."

"Then what do you mean, Mr. McCormick? Would he or would he not be willing to send you back to prison?"

"He would do it if he had to," McCormick answered slowly. "I'd never make him have to."

"You seem very sure of that, Mr. McCormick," Robinson said.

"There's very little I've ever been so sure of," McCormick agreed solemnly.

"So you're such good friends with the man who sent you to prison once, the man who would be willing to do it again, that you've been keeping your nose clean just for him? Hardcastle himself, and not the threat of prison, is what keeps you straight?"


Miller stared at him, disbelief radiating from every pore.

Robinson spoke again. "What will you do if the custodial relationship is altered?"

"I don't know," McCormick said simply. "I hadn't intended the custodial relationship to be altered for a long time yet." He paused. "But I guess I'd do what people do: find a job, get an apartment. Though that seems kind of pointless. I mean, I have all that stuff now."

"But you would willingly adhere to the new conditions of your parole?" Dalem clarified.

After a brief hesitation, Mark said, "Not willingly. If it was up to me, I'd ignore it right up until the day you came and hauled me back to San Quentin. But Hardcastle would never go for that." He shook his head. "He's got this thing about the law. He'd make me leave, for my own good. And if you say we can't be in contact, then he'd make me follow that rule, too." The young man gave a small shrug. "He'll do what you say, and I'll do what he says, and that's the way it would go for the next year."

"And then?" Miller prompted.

"And then, the minute my parole is served, I'd pick up the phone and we'd go have dinner and a beer and catch up."

"Just pick up where you left off?" Miller didn't seem convinced.

How to explain? McCormick met Miller's eyes.

"Mr. Dalem said the other day that you guys were considering 'severing the relationship'. But you can't do that. You can make me leave my home, make me work for someone else, keep me away from him while I'm on parole. You could even send me back to prison. But, Mr. Miller, you can't really sever the relationship. That belongs to me. So, whatever this panel decides today, please don't let it be because you think that you're going to erase Hardcastle from my life. You're wrong if you think that's the best thing for me, but you're just crazy if you think it's something you can actually accomplish."

For a moment, McCormick thought Miller was going to challenge him further, but Dalem stepped into the breach.

"I don't believe that I have anything further," he said, closing his folder. "Joyce? Matt?"

"I don't think so," Robinson answered, also closing the file in front of her.

Miller took his time, examining his notes, and then looking closely at McCormick himself, but he finally shook his head and closed his own folder.

"Mr. McCormick, we thank you for your time and cooperation." Miller was back to his proper voice again, somehow managing to hide what McCormick thought was a very real—if unwarranted—dislike. "You will be notified of our decision. Please ensure that you are prepared to immediately comply with our ruling."

McCormick nodded. "Yes, sir, I understand." He rose from his chair, already wishing he had said more, been more charming, something. He turned to find Harper with a small smile on his face, looking much more confident than he himself felt.

Yeah, but he's the optimistic kind.


Mark looked back to face Dalem's voice.

"Wait for me outside for a moment."

"Yes, sir," he mumbled quietly and continued out the door, Harper at his side.

"He's gonna tell me to start packing," McCormick lamented, dropping into a chair just outside the conference room.

"Nah," Harper shook his head. "I think it went okay. You did well." He offered a small grin. "And you told the truth, and everything."

McCormick grinned a bit himself. "Yeah, imagine." He sobered. "I really appreciate your help today, Frank."

"I just told the truth, too," Harper answered. He dropped into the chair next to the younger man. "I really do think it went okay," he added sincerely.

"I hope you're right," McCormick said.

They sat silently for a few minutes until the door opened and the panel members exited. Robinson and Miller continued down the hall toward the elevator without comment, but Dalem turned to stand in front of McCormick.

"It's gonna be close."

"Yeah," McCormick agreed as he rose to face the parole officer. "Is there anything else I can do?"

"No, it's done now. But you should talk to Milt."

McCormick raised an eyebrow.

"There's no statement, and he didn't even call. The man's conscious; if he knew what was going on, I would've heard from him. He should be prepared."

McCormick nodded. "I'll tell him." He hesitated, then said, "Thanks for your help in there, Mr. Dalem."

"I told you," Dalem said gruffly, "you're still my responsibility."

"Yeah. So you'll let me know?"

"I'll call you. But, McCormick . . ."

Mark nodded. "I know. I'll be ready."

"Okay. I'll let you know." Dalem turned and strode away.

Harper stood next to McCormick. "You really gonna tell him?"

"Yeah, I guess it's time."

"I'll be down there later this afternoon."

McCormick grinned at the subtle warning. "I'm going there now, Frank. I'll tell him."

The detective clapped him on the shoulder and they moved together down the hall.


"I was beginning to think you were ignoring me," Hardcastle accused lightly when McCormick stepped into the room.

"Nah," McCormick grinned, "that never works too well."

"What's with the monkey suit?" he asked, looking the young man over. "Have they made visiting hours a formal event?"

McCormick pulled off his tie and jammed it into his jacket pocket as he dropped into the bedside chair. "We need to talk."

Hardcastle propped himself up slightly in the bed and turned a concerned glance on his friend. "What's wrong?"

"There was a hearing this morning." McCormick watched the other man process the information, then continued. "They might pull my ticket, I'm not sure. I think they mostly think the shooting was solid, but at least one of the board doesn't seem to be a real member of my fan club."

Hardcastle's face was slowly reddening. "You should've told me."

"I didn't want you to worry. If I was sure everything would be okay, I wouldn't be telling you now."

"I thought you said they thought the shooting was solid?"

"I said mostly," McCormick corrected, "but that's not the whole problem."

"Then what's the rest of the problem?" Hardcastle growled.

"They may revoke your custody."

"They what?"

That was the most energetic thing McCormick had heard the judge say since he'd awoken, but the pain on his face made clear the response had taken its toll.

"See? That's why I didn't want to tell you," McCormick said softly, after giving Hardcastle a couple of minutes to get himself together.

"Well, you've told me now," the judge replied more calmly, "so you might as well tell me the rest."

"There isn't really any more, Judge. I met with Dalem the other day and he said it looks like the shooting is probably justified, as far as they're concerned, but they're less comfortable with the circumstances of it all, I guess. He said they don't think you're the 'best influence' anymore."

"It's all because of the gun, isn't it?"

McCormick shrugged. "They seemed a little bothered by that," he admitted, "though I'm not sure if they're more concerned with you giving it to me, or just with me having it. They get kind of hung up on the whole parole violation thing. But mostly I think they're just looking for an excuse. They think you might've lost your objectivity and would be inclined to go easy on me if I ever cross the line again." He looked at his friend seriously. "I made sure to set them straight on that."

Hardcastle grinned. "I bet you did." But the grin faded quickly. "Seriously, kiddo, what do you think?"

"Dalem said it's going to be close. He thinks I should be ready, just in case. He said you should be prepared." McCormick tried to deliver the answer stoically, but he doubted if Hardcastle missed the stress.

"He thinks it's gonna be bad news."

"Yeah," McCormick breathed heavily, "I think so. Surprisingly, he'd prefer I not go back inside, but he's only a third of the vote. And I honestly don't know what he thinks about the rest of it. Though he didn't seem entirely unsympathetic today, I guess."

They sat silently for a few minutes, then McCormick said, "To tell you the truth, Judge, I don't know what scares me the most. One of the guys is voting against me all the way; his first choice is going to be incarceration, no doubt about it. But if he doesn't get that, I think he'll push that much harder to have me removed from your custody." He let his eyes meet the older man's. "I don't want to leave, Judge, no matter what they say."

Hardcastle smiled gently. "And I don't want you to leave, McCormick. But if the board says you can't stay . . ." He paused. "It's better than you going back to prison."

"I'm not sure about that," McCormick whispered.

Hardcastle's eyes hardened. "Don't," he said firmly. "Don't ever say that. You don't belong behind bars, McCormick, not for this shooting, and sure as hell not for violating some ridiculous parole condition." He reached to the side and pulled the telephone onto the bed with him. "So I need to see what I can do about making this whole thing go away."

McCormick's hand came down on the receiver before it could be lifted. "No."

The eyes looking back at him widened in surprise, though the anger wasn't gone. "What do you mean, no?"

"I mean, no. This is exactly why I didn't tell you about all this before, because I don't want you making calls and getting yourself worked up. You just need to lay there in your bed and worry about getting better. Dalem says it's all over now, anyway; there's nothing to do but wait."

"Well, that's crap," Hardcastle said harshly. "How many times do I have to tell you that it's not over until it's over? And, anyway, I'm not gonna get all worked up, I'm just gonna talk to a few people. Now, besides Dalem, who was on your panel?"

"Judge . . ."

"Who?" The tone didn't really allow for much dissension.

"A woman named Joyce Robinson, and the guy's name was Matthew Miller."

"Miller?" Hardcastle exclaimed. "Well, no wonder you're having such a hard time, kid. Miller's not my biggest fan, either."

McCormick almost grinned. Hardcastle knew everyone, but they weren't all friends. "So, what did you do to Miller?"

"Well, it started a long time ago, when I had sentenced, I don't know, three or four of his parolees in a really short time. I mean, guys still actively on parole and engaged in seriously ongoing criminal activity. And in all the cases it came out that they were falsifying the information they provided to Miller about places of employment, skipping meetings, everything. You know, just basically blowing off their paroles entirely, but, somehow, it had never occurred to him that he could check the information every once in a while to make sure it was accurate, and he hadn't reported their absences to anyone. He was blowing them off, too."

McCormick rolled his eyes. "There's POs like that out there, and I get stuck with a gorilla like Dalem? Where's the justice in that?"

Hardcastle grinned. "Yeah, first Dalem and then me. Life's a bitch, huh?"

Mark winked at him. "Oh, it has its moments." He took the opportunity to move the phone back to the bedside table, and Hardcastle didn't object. "Anyway, what'd you do about Miller?"

"Filed a complaint with his office, of course. If he'd been doing his job, maybe some of those guys would've managed to keep their noses clean. And even if they didn't, they sure as hell should've had their tickets pulled before they managed to get into some of the trouble I saw them for; the courts are busy enough without adding to them with people that could've been taken off the street for about eighteen different parole violations, if only someone had bothered to notice.

"I don't know, I guess he's gotten better since then, but he's never been particularly fond of me. Then, a few years back, when I first started working with ex-cons individually—it was different than what you do, ya know—he recommended a couple of his guys. I didn't even consider them, and he was kinda pissed. It's possible I missed out on some folks I might could've helped, but I was afraid the transition from his kind of supervision to mine might've been more than any of us wanted to live through."

McCormick laughed slightly. "Sounds like. Though I'm not sure the transition from anyone to you is particularly smooth." He settled back into his chair. "No offense."

The judge grinned, but then he sighed slightly. "You'd think someone might've kept him off your panel, all things considered."

McCormick shrugged. "I guess if it was that long ago, no one gave it much thought, especially if he really did get better at his job as a result. But I guess if they rule against me, maybe we can use that as grounds for appeal, or something."

"That might work, if parole revocation could be appealed. It's kind of a done deal once they decide."

The young man gave a sigh of his own. "Yeah, but I meant if they rule against me on the other thing. I figure that's a little less black and white." He slumped down further in the chair. "I just wish I knew how long it might take." He renewed his silent hope that he'd have enough time to get the judge out of this place and safely back home before his life was ripped apart.

They were quiet for a long time after that, neither of them really having much to say. Finally, Hardcastle's eyes started drooping again and McCormick took that as his exit sign.

"Judge, I'm gonna leave for a while. I didn't get much done at home this morning, and I'd really like to get out of this get-up." He gestured at the suit with a nasty expression calculated to make Hardcastle smile. When he succeeded, Mark rose from his seat. "You get some sleep, and I'll be back later."

Hardcastle nodded. "Okay, I'll be here. And, kiddo?" He looked at his friend sincerely. "It's gonna be fine; we'll get through this."

McCormick swallowed hard. "'Course we will," he mumbled, then disappeared out the door. He never saw Hardcastle reach again for the phone.


It was hours later, and Hardcastle was glaring at Frank Harper. "What do you mean, you were there?" he demanded.

"I was there," the detective repeated. "What isn't clear about that?"

"I'll tell you what's not clear," Hardcastle snapped. "The part about why you knew about the damned thing and didn't bother to tell me. I thought I was the one who specifically asked you to find out what was going on?"

"I did find out," Harper answered coolly, "and then I took care of it. He didn't need to be alone, but you couldn't be there, so I was. And, by the way, he was right not to tell you. Look at you now, all worked up. It's a good thing they took all those contraptions off of you, or you would've been setting off every alarm in the place."

Hardcastle took the hint and forced himself to calm down. Harper was right, anyway; it took a lot out of him to be angry these days.

"All right, then, how do you think it went? McCormick didn't outright say, but he's worried. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if he's back at the estate right now packing his things."

Harper nodded slowly. "Yeah, I could see that."

The judge looked at him in alarm. "You think he's right?"

With a shrug, Harper said, "Dalem told him it would be close, but I think maybe he just didn't want to get the kid's hopes up. I'm not sure. I think it went pretty well. It didn't really take too long, though, which bothers me a little bit."

"You think they already had their minds made up?"

"Two of them did, at least on the matter of revocation; I think that's gonna come down to the lady. As for the other . . . that's a little less clear. Mark did well, though. He managed to get through the whole thing without calling you a donkey."

"Well, I suppose that's something," Hardcastle huffed, then grinned. "Seriously, though, Frank, he didn't give any details. Did he hold himself together? You know sometimes his mouth gets him in trouble."

"He was fine, Milt. If a smart remark didn't slip out every now and then, he wouldn't be McCormick, but it was fine. Dalem kept him mostly in line. Don't worry about that part."

"Then what part should I worry about?"

"That's not what I meant. But you have to admit; your whole situation is a little strange. I think mostly they think a guy on parole should never find himself in some of the situations Mark's been in, especially things like confronting crazed killers in a motel parking lot."

"Well, I can't disagree with that," Hardcastle said, with some feeling.

"Well, yeah, but they can read his file. With you, it happens from time to time."

There really wasn't much to say to that, so Hardcastle just nodded and said, "Yeah." After a moment, the judge said, "Well, anyway, I appreciate you being there, Frank."

"No problem. I just wish there was more I could do. I called Dalem after, just to see, but he said there really wasn't anything."

"Yeah, he told me pretty much the same thing; though he did say he was glad to officially hear from me."

"You talked to him?" Harper asked in surprise.

"What? You think I'm just gonna lay here and not try and fix this? I made some calls. I'm not sure it helped, but it sure can't hurt." After a pause, he said, "I found out some other stuff, too, by the way, besides about the hearing."

The lieutenant raised an eyebrow. "Like what?"

"About Sandy."


"Just how much crap have you been keeping from me, Frank?"

Harper looked back at his friend. "I think that's about it. We didn't think you needed to be worrying about that right now."

Hardcastle shook his head. "I can't believe you guys sometimes. Although I sort of expect McCormick to do whatever the hell he wants once he starts in on his mother hen routine. But you're supposed to be the guy with the straight answers."

"I guess I learned the mother hen thing from him."

"Hah. You start taking too many lessons from him and we're all in trouble." Hardcastle tried to smile, but then he sobered again. "You know what I told him, Frank? I told him I was glad Sandy was there to help him. Can you believe that?" He pulled his hand across his chin. "And he didn't say a thing. Just let me go on thinking the guy was some kind of model citizen or something."

"He knows Sandy's important to you."

"McCormick's important to me."

Harper smiled. "He knows that, too."


Hardcastle awoke, confused. He took a moment to take in his surroundings. Oh, yeah, the hospital. He glanced at the television; looked like Rio Bravo was just about over.

Slept through the movie again. Dammit. How long is this gonna take?

His mind cleared a bit more, and he wondered where McCormick had gotten off to. The kid had been here just a while ago, and they had talked. Now that all the secrets were out, he hoped maybe McCormick would be able to move past some of the things that were bothering him about this whole thing.

That might take a while, too, he told himself.

He made a silent wish that they were going to have the time together for both of them to heal.


When he awoke again, it was dark in the room, just a tiny trickle of light coming from the bathroom, and Hardcastle felt like he'd been sleeping forever but could still sleep more. He shook his head in disgust. And then he realized that it hurt to move. It took another few seconds before he realized it hurt to lie still, too; hurt to breathe. "Dammit." Even that whispered, raspy word hurt.

But then there was movement, and he recognized the sound of water filling the small bedside cup. He turned his head, but there was no doubt what he'd see.

"I'll call the nurse for your medicine," McCormick said, then handed him the cup.

A while later, after his water and his medicine, Hardcastle was settling back in his bed, ready to sleep again. "Thanks for being here, kiddo."

And it was minutes more, when he was sure the kid probably thought he was sleeping, when he heard the murmured reply. "It's where I belong, Judge."


"Why don't you go home and get some rest, kiddo?"

It was mid-morning, and Hardcastle didn't like the drawn look on the kid's face. Though, honestly, he doubted it was entirely a lack of sleep that was responsible, even though the kid had been awake both times he himself had awoken in the night. And then, with the sunlight barely peeking through the blinds, the morning shift had disturbed whatever sleep he had managed to get. But the response was fairly typical.

"I'm fine, Judge."

"You should at least go have some breakfast."

"I'm not hungry," McCormick answered, not looking up from the magazine that he'd been studying for the past hour.

"McCormick . . ."

The kid did glance up then. "You trying to get rid of me, Hardcase?"

Hardcastle thought the grin looked a little forced. "Never." And McCormick turned his attention back to the pages.

"You didn't do anything wrong, you know," Hardcastle said when he couldn't stand the silence any longer.

"I'm not sure it's going to matter," McCormick answered, as his eyes met Hardcastle's.

The judge breathed out slowly. "They aren't going to be able to find a way to blame you for this, kiddo."

"It's not all that hard to find a way to blame ex-cons for things, Judge; even you must realize that." He gave a ghost of a smile. "But do you think we could go back to not talking about this?"

Hardcastle tried to force his own smile. "You just wanna be here, huh?"

McCormick leaned his head back against the chair, staring at the ceiling. "As long as I can."


"I can't believe they make people eat this stuff," McCormick complained, picking at a soggy green bean. "If you weren't sick when you came here, this might do it." He had talked the staff into giving him a lunch tray so he wouldn't have to leave the room, but he was beginning to wonder if that had been such a good idea.

"You get used to it," Hardcastle grinned as he ate from his own tray. "Though I think I did ask you to go get us a pizza."

"You're still not up to pizza," Mark replied. He stabbed another bean. "Besides, I told ya I didn't want to go out."

They ate without conversation for a while, then McCormick looked over at the other man. "How long do you think it will take, Judge?"

"I'm not sure, kiddo. But from what Frank said, I think it'll be a good sign if they take a little while."

McCormick nodded. "I think they might've had some preconceived ideas," he agreed.

"Well, you're pretty good at changing people's minds about stuff like that," Hardcastle told him.

And McCormick felt a little better, soggy vegetables and all.


"So what's the big finale for John Wayne week?" McCormick asked as Hardcastle flipped through the channels on the television.

"The Shootist."

"We're gonna watch the Duke die?" McCormick didn't seem too fond of that idea.

"It's a movie, McCormick," Hardcastle answered, propping himself up more fully in the bed.

"Yeah, but it's his last movie."

The judge glanced over at his friend. "Try not to read too much into the symbolism of it all, would you, kiddo?" But now that the kid mentioned it, he realized he would've preferred a story where the good guys were easily identifiable and the hero lived to save another day. Especially since there was a pretty good chance that he was gonna fall asleep before the thing was over and that would leave McCormick sitting there alone, making God only knew what kind of correlations to life.

Earlier, McCormick had been glad to believe that it was a positive thing if the panel took its time reaching a decision. But when five o'clock had come and gone, and he had realized he would have to wait until at least Monday to know, he had withdrawn even further into himself.

Hardcastle had tried to point out again that extra time for deliberation only meant they were weighing their decision carefully, which was certainly preferable to hastily throwing him back into a cell, but McCormick wasn't convinced. His take had been that Dalem probably had better things to do with a Friday afternoon than process one of his parolees back into the system.

For himself, Hardcastle was certain they would never revoke the parole over Randall's shooting, even if he hadn't completely convinced McCormick of that. But he was less confident that the kid would be allowed to stay in his custody.

For about the thousandth time, he recognized the phenomenally poor judgment in sending that damn gun out to McCormick. But that train of thought always led to the exact same conclusion: McCormick would've gone after Randall one way or the other, and without the gun, both he and Sandy would've died. What kind of choice was that? He just wasn't sure the panel was going to see it that way.

Or maybe they understood it entirely, and it was the very idea that McCormick would've gone after Randall no matter what that they found troublesome. There was little doubt that McCormick's involvement in his crime-fighting activities had raised some eyebrows over the last couple of years, though Hardcastle mostly thought that was just people being narrow-minded. It seemed to him that chasing bad guys was a significant step up from being a bad guy.

He settled on a station just to pass the time, then stole a glance over at his young friend. The problem, of course, was that McCormick had never really been one of the bad guys. He just got caught up in some circumstances that made it seem like he was, and sometimes the system didn't recognize that distinction. If they took the kid from him now, it would be because the panel was content to let the label stand.

Hardcastle closed his eyes. As difficult as it would be if he had to give up custody, it would be a thousand times better than watching McCormick go back to prison because of this insanity. Of course, he hadn't quite convinced the kid of that, either.


"Mr. Dalem."

Hardcastle hadn't even realized he had dozed off again, but the words, along with the sudden movement from the bedside chair, woke him instantly.

McCormick was standing, uncertainty painted on his face, staring at the man who had walked into the room. The younger man slid a tiny bit closer to the bed, and Hardcastle suddenly thought his heart might break at this small revelation of his friend's fear.

"I've been trying to call you, McCormick," Dalem broke into the silence.

"I've been here," McCormick said unnecessarily.

"Do you want to step outside?" Dalem asked.

"No." McCormick and Hardcastle spoke in unison.

Dalem looked between them, then his gaze settled on McCormick. "In regards to the killing of Weed Randall," he began, "the panel agrees with the police findings that no other action was possible.

"In the matter of illegal possession of a firearm," Dalem continued, "it seems clear that Officer Knight—and perhaps you as well—would've been killed had you not been able to act, so access to a weapon seems somehow fortuitous, even if contravened by parole stipulations. Because of these circumstances, we are including a formal citation of warning in your file; there will be no exceptions made should there be any further incidents."

McCormick nodded. "I understand."

But Hardcastle wasn't sure he did. He shook his head once and shot a meaningful look at Dalem.

"We're not revoking your parole, McCormick," Dalem said clearly.

Only then did Hardcastle see any measure of tension slip from the young man at his bedside, though it wasn't much. McCormick was still bracing himself for bad news.

"What about . . . the other?" McCormick asked.

"That was a longer conversation," Dalem answered. "We are very concerned that the type of work you do for Judge Hardcastle is likely to place you in tenuous situations again and again. While paroled in his custody, you are not really in a position to refuse participation, even if it may cause you to violate the primary conditions of your parole."


Hardcastle grabbed the young man's wrist, breaking off the objection. He'd delivered a lot of decisions in his lifetime, and he knew Dalem hadn't reached the primary point yet. "Let the man speak, McCormick."

"Also," Dalem went on, "there is the very real fact that your physical safety could frequently be in jeopardy while in Hardcastle's employ. By condoning your participation through this most unusual arrangement, the board does open itself up for some liability, which is not a trivial consideration."

McCormick's tension was increasing; Hardcastle could see it in every inch of the man's bearing, and he wished Dalem would just spit it out.

"However," the parole officer went on, "we also had to consider the fact that—even with your various escapades —these past eighteen months seem to have brought a stability to your life that was missing prior to this. We couldn't find another equal stretch of time where you held the same job, or lived at the same address, except when you were incarcerated."

Hardcastle thought that was a positive thing, and he could see that McCormick thought so, too. There was the faintest beginning of hope in the eyes that hadn't moved from Dalem since the man had started speaking.

"And none of us," Dalem said, "could doubt your sincerity concerning the level of your commitment to Hardcastle. Therefore, while we certainly offer a cautionary word concerning the suitability of some of your practices, we see no reason to alter the terms of your parole in any way, nor to alter the existing custody arrangement between yourself and Judge Hardcastle."

McCormick continued to stare, and Hardcastle wondered if the young man had understood, though he thought Dalem had been exceedingly clear this time. He opened his mouth, but then McCormick finally spoke.

"I can stay?" He turned the question to the judge. "I can stay?"

But before anyone could answer, Hardcastle saw the grin break out onto the young face as the truth sank in for him. "I can stay!" McCormick repeated, no longer questioning.

McCormick turned back to Dalem, and the grin didn't fade. Hardcastle knew the ex-con had never been overly fond of his parole officer, but he also knew that Mark McCormick was better than anyone at recognizing a good deed, no matter what the source.

"Mr. Dalem, thank you. Really, I can't thank you enough."

"Just stay out of trouble, McCormick," Dalem said sternly, "and that'll be thanks enough for me. This kind of stuff makes for a lot of paperwork, you know."

"Yes, sir," McCormick agreed happily. "From now on, I'm as far from trouble as you can imagine."

"I'm holding you to that," the officer said, then turned and left the others alone.

McCormick was still grinning when Hardcastle looked back over at him. "So you're still stuck with me, huh?" he said to the kid.

"Or vice versa," McCormick laughed, and dropped down into his chair.

Hardcastle smiled, relieved at the ruling, but more pleased just to see some genuine laughter from his friend; it had been far too long for that.

But almost as quickly as it had appeared, the animation drained from McCormick's face, and he slouched down into the chair.

"You okay?" Hardcastle asked after a moment.

"Yeah, fine," McCormick answered, but without much conviction.

He forgot about it, Hardcastle thought. For just a minute, he forgot what he'd had to do; but now it's back.

"Probably not just yet," Hardcastle contradicted, "but you will be." He picked up the remote control at his side and turned off the forgotten television. "It's a while before the movie. Maybe if I take a nap, I'll stay awake to see the ending." He glanced back at the chair. "You should go home; you need rest, too."

A flicker of emotion ran across McCormick's face, not entirely identifiable, but enough to stop Hardcastle from insisting the young man go home now.

"Well, whatever you're gonna do," the judge went on gruffly, "could you start by turning off that light in my eyes? I'm gonna sleep a while."

McCormick reached over and pulled the cord, diminishing the glare and sending the room into shadows. "You rest," he said, settling back into the chair. "I'll be here."

Where you belong, Hardcastle thought with a small smile, just as he drifted off to sleep.