Disclaimer: These are not my characters and I make no profit from them.
Author's Note: This fortnight's episode is "The Crystal Duck", in which Hardcastle shoots the weapon from the hand of a bad guy who's pointing it at an unarmed McCormick. The next fortnight's adventure is "Goin' Nowhere Fast", in which the same retired judge can't hit the broadside of a barn during target practice. Different gun, or what?
This one's for Suzanne, who is waiting patiently for a different story entirely.
And thanks, Owl and Cheri, for being such fast and supportive betas through all these pieces.
by L.M. Lewis
Mark had decided that the reward for a job well done in Hardcastle World was to end up a day and a half behind on the chores and way behind on sleep. The cops were leaving with J.J. Beale and his accomplices in custody and, in a just universe, Mark figured right now somebody ought to be slapping him on the back and offering him a cold beer or a chance to take a nap—maybe even both.
Instead, Sarah had retreated into the house, and Hardcastle had climbed into the truck—announcing that he'd be back eventually, once he got all the paperwork started and a preliminary statement given. Mark stood there, pretty sure he wasn't getting invited along on this outing. Anyway, there wasn't anything important he'd seen that Hardcastle hadn't.
Just as well, he figured. Maybe he'd get a nap in after all. Then he turned and saw Sarah through the window, wielding a broom in the den, still in her robe and with a determined air about her. He hoped she'd at least put on some hard-soled shoes, cleaning up glass shards like that.
Of course she'd at least had some sleep, not having spent the past twenty-four hours shuttling back and forth from LA, to Strykerville, to Las Vegas, and back again, with only a brief rest on a bunk in the Vegas lock-up. Mark frowned and cast one last glance at Hardcastle, pulling down the drive at the end of the cop parade. He hadn't caught any naps—not even in jail. He'd been too busy getting the low-down from that career con.
Mark sighed. If he couldn't beat Beale in the pulse department, he'd at least win in endurance. At any rate, he was still too keyed up from the morning's activities to be sleepy. He trudged around the side of the house, looking at the window damage and shaking his head. He had a feeling Sarah knew the board-up service number by heart.
He scanned the yard, which looked entirely undisturbed by recent events. There was the target, still tacked up where they'd left it yesterday morning, though it seemed much longer ago than that. He strolled over to it, smiling at his credibly tight grouping and Hardcastle's scattershot misses. He unfastened it and started to roll it up. He had no plans to throw this one away. Maybe he'd even have it framed and hung in the gatehouse, somewhere prominent so Hardcase would see it regularly.
He frowned suddenly, thinking about something else—only a week earlier, when they'd gone after Teddy's dirty PO and cornered him in a bus yard out by the airport. He stopped rolling the paper, frozen as he relived the terrifying moment when he'd faced Quinlan's drawn gun, at nearly point-blank range in the hand of a desperate man.
He'd frozen then, too. There wasn't anything else he could have done, unarmed and taken by surprise. The only thing that had kept it from becoming a hostage situation—or worse—was the sudden appearance of Hardcastle off on his left, and a shot taken from a bus-length away that had knocked the weapon from Quinlan's hand.
It'd been the judge's semi-automatic, the one he called 'Old Henry' and said brought him luck at the poker table. Mark wasn't so sure about poker, but after that bus yard incident he would have been willing to apply for membership in Henry's fan club.
He shook his head ruefully and finished rolling up the target. Maybe he'd just stow it in a closet over at the gatehouse.
He worked on the side hedge for a while, having noticed earlier, while he'd been climbing down to break in through the window, that it wasn't all that straight. Sarah had apparently finished her sweeping up. He saw no one in the study. He wondered if she was feeling okay, having been a kidnap victim and all, though he had a suspicion that she was made of pretty stern stuff.
Once he finished that project, he wandered around the back of the house, intending to finally get to the pool before the algae declared victory. From there he could see Sarah through the kitchen window, She'd found the time to get on one of her uniform dresses and was now at the sink, looking pretty intent on whatever she was doing. He hoped it was food.
He'd moved on to the pool house, straightening out Hardcastle's secret stash of weaponry.
Why the pool house? Most people just kept a spare key under a rock, not the arsenal of the free world in their back yard.
He figured he'd have to deal with the garage door pieces eventually, though repairing it would require someone with greater carpentry skills than he possessed. He'd gotten no further than that thought when he heard Hardcastle's truck returning.
Mark turned, and strolled back up to the drive, watching him pull in and climb out of the vehicle. The judge stood there, surveying the damage to his garage—a Corvette-sized hole in the middle of the door.
Mark came up next to him, hands on his hips, looking around at the wildly scattered splinters of wood. "I was gonna do that next."
Hardcastle seemed briefly startled, as if he hadn't realized anyone else was there. He spared a stare for him and had just opened his mouth to speak when there was an interruption—Sarah's voice from the kitchen door.
"Lunch is ready."
Mark glanced down at this watch. It had stopped. He frowned at Hardcastle. "What time is it?"
"Nearly noon. You been up all this time?"
"Yeah, guess so." Mark shrugged, not really wanting to admit that he'd tackled any chores voluntarily. "Hard to sleep after a commando mission," he grinned.
"I s'pose." Hardcastle rubbed his now bristly chin thoughtfully, looking as if it wouldn't be a problem for him.
"Are you coming?" Sarah asked
"Be right there," Hardcastle replied as he turned toward the steps.
He was trudging, too, Mark noted with some satisfaction. Of course Hardcase had thirty-odd years on him, but trudging was at least a start on having the man act his age.
Sarah wasn't trudging. She moved efficiently between counter and table. "I called the board-up service—"
Mark suppressed a smile as he stepped to the sink to wash his hands.
"—and Mr. Mooney, the man who did that little door on the side of the pool house. He can come over this afternoon to take a look at the garage."
Hardcastle frowned. "I was going to take a nap." He glanced sharply at McCormick, as if daring him to make something of that.
Mark smiled blandly and kept his mouth shut, not having any retort at hand except 'Me, too.'
Sarah solved that by waving it away. "I'll tell him to be quiet about it. He'd most likely just be taking measurements today. The board-up people said they can't come until after four."
They sat and ate—three bean salad and chicken casserole. It all seemed surprisingly domestic for a household that had fought off armed intruders only a few hours earlier and Mark realized, once he'd started eating, that he'd missed a couple of meals in all the excitement.
When they'd done it all justice, he got up to start clearing the table—his usual contribution to the process. Sarah intercepted, taking his plate from him.
"Go on, now. You'll be perfectly useless if you don't lie down for a bit." Her glance had taken in Hardcastle, as well.
The judge got up from the table. Mark followed him out of the kitchen, intending to go straight on through to the front door and across the drive to his well-earned bed. He saw Hardcastle turning left, though, rather than ascending the stairs on his right.
"Gotta clean the shotgun," the older man announced, over his shoulder. "Not good to leave 'em sitting around dirty. Won't take long."
This was pure showmanship, Mark decided. Thirty hours on the move wasn't enough unless you could also out-last the hired help. He stood there in the doorway, then crossed his arms and leaned against the jamb, watching him taking the supplies out of the cabinet.
"Least we have some good ventilation," Hardcastle nodded toward the wide-open window. "You can't complain about the smell."
"This really could wait a couple more hours," Mark pointed out patiently. "It's not going to pit the barrel that fast. Besides, it's a shotgun. All you need to do is point it in the general direction of a chandelier and bang, it's history." He smiled wickedly. "I mean, we're not talking about accuracy here."
He heard Hardcastle's hmmph, but Mark's mind had already moved on to a related subject. The older man had the newspaper spread and was setting out the solvent and brushes.
Mark took the two steps down into the room and lodged himself in the chair opposite the desk, as if he intended to be an audience. Hardcastle glanced up from his activities, looking mildly annoyed.
"I thought you needed a nap."
Mark managed a shrug from his sprawled repose, one leg hitched over the arm of the chair and his hands folded casually in his lap. "Watching other people work is very restful."
"I can find you something to do," the judge rasped. "Heck, you could do this."
"Is that fair?" Mark whined cheerfully. "You fired it."
"Yeah," Hardcastle grumbled, "all you did was bust up a window."
Mark snapped a sharp salute and grinned again. "Only on direct orders from the Überführer."
"Yeah, yeah," the judge sighed, "always the same excuse."
There'd been only a hint of a smile to ruin the deadpan effect. He lapsed into the silence of concentration as he lifted the weapon onto the desk and dismantled it.
Mark felt his eyes drifting shut, and was nearly too far gone to catch the quietly muttered, "Thanks . . ."
"Huh?" His eyes jerked partly open in surprise
" . . . for following orders. For once."
"Hey," Mark protested mildly, "I always follow orders . . . well, mostly, anyway."
"What you mostly do is think of ways to make me crazy. Getting yourself arrested. That's twice now."
Mark had to grant him that point. Though he'd sort of hoped they'd already finished thrashing that one out. He groped around for a change of subject.
"Hey," he said again, "I was wondering . . ." he paused for a moment, not sure he wanted to go on, but it really had provoked his curiosity, "how come you couldn't hit that target yesterday?"
"I told ya, the gun pulls to the left."
"Come on, Judge. You put those shots everywhere but where they were supposed to go."
At this he sneaked a look at the other man, who was sliding the rod out of the barrel and studying the blackened cloth with some satisfaction—a good enough mood for the second part of Mark's thesis.
"And besides," he continued on, "a week ago you shot a gun out of a man's hand at a distance of fifteen yards. That's twice as far as we were standing from that target. What gives?"
It was Hardcastle's turn to shrug. "Different gun."
"Yeah," Mark admitted, "but still—"
"And, anyway," Hardcastle added in an offhand way, "I never miss when the shot's important."
It was stated so casually that Mark might've missed it. As it was it took him a moment to work through the implications and produce a smile, which he quickly doused.
He settled for closing his eyes again, and muttered, "Thanks."