Disclaimer: These characters are not mine and I make no profit from them. The places and people in this work are entirely fictiona
Many thanks to Owl for the beta--a long piece to winnow through--and also for the long-term, no-interest loan of OCs.
Author's Note: This story has its roots in one by Owl titled "Portrait of Justice in Back and White", which introduced the Arkansas home of the Hardcastle Aunts, May and Zora, as well as Owl's own creations: the very bad Aaron Jordan, his even worse father, and the utterly quirky Dr. Brent. She graciously joined me for a continuation of the tale in "A Worden Christmas", in which Aaron returned from his first year of Army service a wiser man, and things worked out well for the heretofore out-of-luck Postgate family.
But, as we've seen, small-town life is not without its dark side, and any visit to the aunts stands a high risk of being fraught with clues and suspects.
by L.M. Lewis
It might have been the letter from Aunt May and Aunt Zora, arriving inside a package of oatmeal spice cookies and full of references to local doings and harvest home from the aunts' own very productive garden.
"They're tearing down the old shed—gonna put in a greenhouse," Hardcastle announced as he handed the missive over to Mark and headed for the coffee pot. "They've got plans for an orchard, too."
Mark squinted down at the letter. It was May's hand, which was flowery to the point of illegibility, but with a footnote from Zora—in a decisive block print that could have easily been lifted straight from a surveyor's map—in which there was a mention of the project. Mark suspected the judge had cut to the chase and left the rest of the deciphering to him.
"The Baptist church is having a fall festival," Mark said cheerfully, "and the Ladies Guild made a quilt to auction off for," he frowned, ". . . something. A worthy cause," he finished up, a little less decisively. "I don't think it's a wordy cause."
"You never know with those gals." Hardcastle shook his head. "They can talk up a storm." He grabbed another cookie from the box and leaned against the sink, over by the back window, coffee cup in his other hand.
The back door rattled in the jamb as the house was buffeted again. The Santa Ana had been in full force for two days now. That might have been part of it, too.
"You've never been to Arkansas in the fall," he said, taking another bite of cookie and a swig from the cup. "Beautiful country. That stand of trees out back of the house—you got your sweet gum over by the pines, and down by the creek there's paw-paw and serviceberry. Gold and red. It starts to get cool at night. Great weather."
"And there's more cookies where these came from," Mark added, wistfully, though there were still a half dozen left.
"And Gerald won't be there." Hardcastle smiled brightly. "Not if there's a shed to be torn down."
"A little crowbar action," Mark pondered, speculatively flexing his right hand, "beats the writer's cramp."
"We could use a break." Hardcastle had already put his cup in the sink and was moving toward the phone, filching another cookie as he passed.
"But," Mark glanced toward the window at the trees tossing in the hot wind, "what if there's a fire?" It had only been a few years since the last.
"If there's a fire, they'll shag us all out of here. What'd we do anyway?"
Mark had a notion that Hardcase wouldn't be shagged very easily. There'd be some kind of last stand involving wet burlap bags and maybe a firebreak in the north forty. Might be better to have him safely ensconced among the sweet gum and paw-paw, and make sure he stayed away from the television when the news was on.
And it was a done deal, anyway. The judge was already dialing.
"Autumn in Arkansas," he muttered to himself. And with a smile and a reach for another cookie, he went back to deciphering the greetings from Worden.
"And the Postgates are looking into buying the Kendicott place," Mark added. "I think that was about it." He frowned "Might have been something else about pigs. It was hard to tell . . . anyway," he shrugged, "Dan must be doing pretty well for himself, to be thinking about a mortgage." He remembered his first meeting of the man, only the previous Christmas, when Dan and his young wife, Lisa, had taken shelter in the ramshackle barn of the virtually-abandoned Kendicott farm.
"Aw, that place has been standing empty for a couple of years now. The heirs'll probably be glad to have someone finally take it off their hands. And, yeah, when I talked to them last night, Zora said he's got his hands full—projects backing up. He'll be glad for a little help with the shed tear-down."
The plane was coming down, through a layer of scattered clouds and into the Little Rock airport. Out beyond the center of town were smatterings of trees, starting to pick up their autumn coloring.
"And Gerald was in south Florida, last they heard, which was a couple of months ago." Hardcastle smiled with satisfaction.
"Didn't your mother ever tell you that naming calls?"
Mark grinned as the judge's expression went momentarily concerned. Then the wheels touched down and the flight attendant began the arrival announcements.
They'd already sorted it out. Mark would retrieve the luggage while the judge staked a place in the car rental line. But all those plans were cut short by a cheery hellos and much excited waving from the aunts—Zora in the lead with May coming up spryly behind her.
"Aw," Hardcastle said under his breath with a duck of his head toward Mark, "I told 'em they didn't have to come all this way."
Mark was grinning and the ladies were upon them, fussing and smiling. The judge repeated his comment, this time to them, as they headed away from the deplaning crowd.
It might have been his imagination, but Hardcastle thought he saw the two ladies exchange a significant glance. There was the merest beat of collusion, followed by May's cheerful protestations—
"It was no problem at all. Zora likes to get the Studebaker out on the highway now and then."
Zora nodded enthusiastically. "You know what Mark always says—you need to remind the car it has a third gear once in a while. Right, dear?"
Mark nodded a little less enthusiastically, as though even he could tell something was up.
"And I'm guessing you two haven't had any lunch yet," Zora continued on, undismayed by the slight tension that had arisen. "They have a very nice café here."
"Okay," Hardcastle had pulled up to a sharp halt, still a hundred feet short of the baggage carousel, "what gives? First you tell me you like highway driving, and the scraps you toss to the cats are better than airport terminal food."
May bit her lip, Zora straightened her shoulders and looked as though she were steeling for some rough weather.
"Well," she began stalwartly, "we were making the trip anyway."
"Yes," May interjected, "it really was the most amazing coincidence."
Hardcastle felt the corrugation of his forehead, accompanied by a frown.
"What coincidence?" he said sharply, unmindful of an elbow Mark had driven into his side.
"Last night, the call," May said, ever cheerful, "from Gerald, in Florida."
The elbow was back, and this time it meant business. Hardcastle grunted and then hissed, "I am staying calm."
"No you're not, Milton," Zora said solicitously. "You seem very tense."
"Very," May added. "It's a good thing you are taking some time off. A nice visit is just what you need. Maybe a cordial. Do you suppose they have cordials at the café?" This last bit had been directed at Zora, who was otherwise occupied, studying the incoming flight board.
"I'll go get the bags," Mark offered, "unless you want me to stick around and remind you to stay calm."
"You had something to do with this?"
He got a hasty shake of the head back from the younger man. "Just one of those strange coincidences," Mark assured him. "Anyway, it seemed like you two were making real progress last time."
"That was ten and a half months ago. And you remember me inviting him to the Dodgers opening day. He said yes and everything."
"A no-show," Mark said in aside to the aunts, who were listening with nervous attention.
"He cashed the ticket," Hardcastle muttered.
"Waste not, want not," May said, patting him on the shoulder.
Hardcastle stayed calm. Mark fetched the bags. They had lemonade and club sandwiches at the café, and Gerald's plane was only a half-hour late.
He trundled off the jet way, half a head taller than most in the surrounding crowd and craning a bit, finally catching site of the greeting party and breaking into an expansive grin.
"Ya beat me here," he said enthusiastically as he approached. He seemed neither surprised nor dismayed to see his elder brother. He had a peck on the cheek for each of his aunts, and a firm handshake for Mark.
The judge kept both hands in his pockets and a stern expression on his face.
Mark got to drive. Gerald had the front passenger seat, with Milt in back, an aunt to either side. The closeness was a discouragement to muttering, Mark supposed. The aunts picked up the conversational slack, and it was mostly an update of things that had been touched on in the letter.
"Daniel and Lisa are just waiting on the final approval of the mortgage," Zora said excitedly. "The Kendicott children were willing to settle for a very small down payment just to have the place off their hands, and Daniel is talking about turning it into a bed and breakfast."
"Lisa's been doing a little light housekeeping for us and picking up a few kitchen hints," May added.
Mark digested this. The aunts needed no housekeeper, by which it could be understood that Daniel's wife was being given personal tutorials on how to run a five-star kitchen.
"And Daniel wants to tear down that ramshackle barn. There's quite a market for weathered barn wood, he says, and he's already lined up a buyer here in Little Rock. The threshing floor is particularly valuable."
"Then why didn't those Kendicott kids cash in on it?" Gerald asked. "He better not let that news get out before he's got his name on the deed."
"Oh," Zora sighed, "it's no big secret. It's just that it takes a lot of effort to dismantle it properly without damaging the pieces, more than most people would be willing to put into it, but Daniel thinks he can make back most of the down payment on the place with a week's solid work."
"And we thought," May hesitated, "well, since you boys were here, and you mentioned you might help with our shed, maybe you'd like to lend a hand with the barn as well. Nothing like a good day's work to improve the appetite."
"Kind of like a barn raising in reverse," Mark said, sounding fairly enthusiastic.
Gerald didn't climb on board right away, but it wasn't too embarrassingly long a pause before he said, dutifully, "Sounds kinda interesting."
"Well, hardly that," Zora said, "but it's an old place. You never know what might turn up there—why, last year Mrs. Byrd found a tin full of paper money in her root cellar. It came to nearly five thousand dollars."
Gerald perked up considerably.
"Of course they were Arkansas Treasury Warrants—Confederate bills, sad to say," May murmured, "but her grandson brought them to school for show and tell and the ladies of the UDC wanted to borrow them for an exhibit at the county fair."
Gerald's sudden interest flagged.
"The tin was thought to be of historic interest as well," Zora added. "You just never know what you'll find in an old building."
Through all this, the judge had held his peace. Now, though, he must have felt a moral obligation to jump on the bandwagon, maybe even steer it a little.
"It's the neighborly thing to do—helping out the Postgates."
"But I live in Miami," Gerald pointed out.
"When you're in Worden, you live with May and Zora," his elder brother said quietly, with a preternatural calm that made both the aunts stare. "That makes you a neighbor."
It wasn't so much the logic as the tone of patient moral authority, Mark concluded. He'd been at the receiving end of that a couple of times, and he suspected Gerald didn't have the kind of fortitude he had. Much as he expected, there wasn't much resistance.
"Yeah, well, I suppose it is the neighborly thing—like you said."
Gerald had said it as if it were a line off a script, with very little personal conviction. Mark caught Hardcastle's satisfied smile in the rearview mirror. There was no chance that he believed it, either, but as a prelude to the man suddenly discovering he had pressing business back in Miami, it couldn't be beat.
Lisa Postgate was out on the porch a moment after they'd pulled in. Mark might not have recognized her from his brief acquaintance of ten months previous—her hair brushed and pulled back, and a contented smile on her face—and certainly not the strapping child on her hip, who was reaching for the aunts in obvious familiarity as soon as they climbed out of the car.
"I went ahead and got things started. The rolls are rising," Lisa smiled, there was still a bit of the shyness about her, but far less of the uncertainty that had shadowed her face the previous December. If he had been stuck with a one-word description for the change, Mark would have had to say she'd bloomed. No surprise there—the aunts were inveterate gardeners, and even the spindliest plants had a chance with them.
The women retreated to the kitchen in conference. Mark caught, in passing, that Daniel was at the church, catching up on odd jobs, but mostly waiting for the phone calls—one from Ms. Eisley at the bank concerning the decision on the mortgage, and one from the Kendicotts, regarding the bid they had made on the old farm.
Dinner was pork roast with harvest apple garnish, and May's famous cheese potatoes. There were pumpkin custard tarts for dessert with ice cream on the side.
"Lisa made the tarts," May advised them.
The young woman blushed prettily at the outpouring of compliments and was saved from further effusions by footsteps on the porch and a brisk knock on the door. The rhythm must have been a familiar one. Lisa was on her feet at once. "It's him."
She edged past the wooden highchair that Billy occupied—obviously a permanent fixture in the aunts' kitchen—and was through the kitchen door before anyone else could rise.
Voices were heard—hers inquiring earnestly, his a laugh, which boded well but wasn't confirmed until he came through the door, one arm around Lisa in a still tight squeeze.
"We got it," he grinned, and there was no doubt from his grin that he meant both bid and mortgage. And then, half to Lisa, "I woulda called you but I wanted to see your face when I gave you the news."
Zora looked up at the kitchen clock, and then back at him. "They kept you waiting long enough."
Dan's grin tamped down slightly. "Aw, well, I went by the place on my way here—our place, or at least it will be as soon as the signing's done—tomorrow afternoon's okay with you, Leese? I really want to get going on some of the fixing before the weather sets in."
She nodded cheerfully. He smiled down on her, then seemed to remember he'd been explaining something else.
"Oh, and, well, I was there, looking it over, and you know that loose board on the porch—just needed a couple of nails and I had my toolbox in the truck."
"So it begins," Mark said, shaking his head. "And it never ends." But he was grinning, as well. "Congratulations, you two."
The rest of the evening was spent in the convivial discussion of way and means. Dan and Lisa had every intention of having the place fixed up and running by spring, and were eager to get started.
"'Course I can't put the other jobs on the back burner," Daniel assured them. "I know I've made some commitments—you ladies'll have your greenhouse before the first of January, just like I promised."
"Don't you worry about that right now, young man." Zora reached out and patted his arm. "We've got plenty of time before we'll need it. The important thing is for you to get all that dratted paperwork done and then get that first payment made."
Then the two women were making space for him at the table, and helpings of everything were being loaded onto his plate. There was conversation, between mouthfuls, about what repairs would be needed to make the Kendicott house useable again.
"By April or May, we hope," Lisa added, with a hopeful smile. "There's the two upstairs rooms, and a bath, that we want to turn into a suite. The Ladies Guild promised us a quilt."
Dan's dinner ended with two pumpkin tarts, the first one having been so good that he just couldn't say no to a second.
"You have to keep your strength up," May admonished. "That barn is a big project."
"Hey, what about us?" Gerald asked, holding up his empty dessert plate. "We're going to help, aren't we?"
Dan demurred, and Gerald might've accepted, but the judge pushed the issue through by fiat and the matter was soon settled. But as a compromise there was a second helping of tarts all around. By the time they finished those, Billy was dozing in his mother's lap.
"Don't worry about the dishes," Zora said quietly. "You two just get home and get that little man tucked in properly. You all have a big day tomorrow."
There were murmured goodnights and jackets sorted out, and finally the Postgates were off.
"Nice kids," Hardcastle said, after the door had closed behind them. "I hope they make a go of this thing."
"Don't you fret about that," May said with sly smile. "Zora and I know the editor of that tourism magazine the state puts out—she's a former member of the Lex Portly Fan Club."
Zora clucked once.
May sighed. "Well, we can't help it that the man turned out to be a murderer—"
"And a plagiarist," Zora reminded her. "And he nearly did Milton in," she added, almost as an afterthought.
The near-victim made a rumbling noise. It might have been an unvoiced request to get the discussion back on track. May look slightly put-out for a moment but finally picked up the thread of the abandoned conversation. "Anyway, Belinda said she'd send a photographer down when it's done, and if the place has 'charm', they'll give it a two-page spread. They're always looking for undiscovered, out of the way places."
"And you can't get much more out of the way than Worden," Zora pointed out sagely.
Gerald cocked his head. "Maybe they should keep the barn. All that weathered wood—got a lot of charm there," he suggested hopefully.
"No," May shook her head. "It's a hazard. It's one of those barns they threw up in a hurry at the start of the war, when farming got profitable again."
From there the conversation rambled back to the old days, which didn't seem all that long ago for May and Zora, who had an almost encyclopedic memory, between them, for the people and events of their town and the surrounding area. Mark watched Hardcastle get drawn into it. He could see that the man's racontuering skills were a family trait. In this case judge's contributions were from the perspective of a younger man, and one who'd gone off to war while the aunts had kept the home fires burning, but many of the names they mentioned were familiar to him—the whole county had had but one high school back then.
Only Gerald seemed bored, or maybe it was that a few of the stories that had touched on him had draw looks of reprobation from his elder brother. It wasn't all that long before the younger Hardcastle excused himself. It might have been to see a man about a horse. In Gerald's case the probability seemed likely to be literally true, but Mark thought there might also be a question of filching one last pumpkin tart.
He figured he was right about one or all of his conclusions when Gerald didn't return in any reasonable interval. Eventually Mark had to do a little horse trading of his own. A quick "'Scuse me" to the ladies and he lumbered to his feet, feeling overfed and sleepy despite the relatively early hour.
His route took him past the kitchen, close enough in the hallway to hear words. He frowned, puzzled. He hadn't intended to overhear, but it was obvious that Gerald was on the phone and the conversations, though low-pitched and moderate in volume, was intense.
He's in some kinda trouble again.
"I toldja I didn't want nothing to do with her, didn't I?" There was a hiss of adamancy to Gerald's statement. It occurred to Mark that he'd never heard the man truly enraged—making other people angry was more Gerald's M.O. But this time he sounded steamed. "And then you go and tell her where I'm staying." There was a pause. It didn't seem likely that the person on the other end had gotten any words in edgewise, though, before Gerald was off again, more muttering than anything else. "At least I'm out of state. If she gets a court order, I don't think they can serve papers on me here." This time there must have been something from the other party. Gerald's voice rose a notch in both pitch and volume as he said, "Hell, no." Then he dropped it down again, in apparent self-consciousness, and said the rest in a harsh whisper, "I'm not taking no blood tests. I hate needles."
Mark's frown deepened as the nature of Gerald's current woes became clearer. He suddenly found himself not wanting to hear anymore, and with equal suddenness he understood what the judge had alluded to repeatedly since Gerald had wandered back into his life three years back—the man had an infinite ability to disappoint. Mark had made light of it. He'd encouraged Hardcastle to look past his brother's failings.
Now he finally got it. When you did that with Gerald, what you were likely to see was . . . more failings. He shook his head and tried to remind himself that it was really none of his business. Too bad that this particular character flaw was a deal-breaker for Mark. Up till now, despite everything else, he'd really liked Gerald.
He'd said nothing to Hardcastle about what he'd heard, and going to bed early had sounded fine to him, even with the two-hour time difference they'd acquired on their flight east. Despite his willingness to hit the sack, once he was there he found himself lying awake, alternating tossing and turning with periods of staring up at the shadowing darkness of the ceiling.
It must have been twenty minutes or so into that routine that he heard Hardcastle's voice out of the darkness.
"Too many pumpkin tarts, huh? Aunt May probably has an old bottle of bromo-seltzer around here, I'll bet. You want me to ask?"
Mark half-smiled to himself. It was a natural error and he didn't much feel like correcting it. Even now he didn't want to add to Hardcastle's already low opinion of his brother.
"Nah," he said. "It's nothing. It'll pass."
It did, gradually, but only after he promised himself he'd have a few words with Gerald at the earliest suitable opportunity—try to get him to see that there might be more to life than the next big win, and maybe having someone to look up to him would be worth the inconvenience of caring.
Saturday morning came bright and clear, with just a touch of fall crispness to the air. Hardcastle's bed was already vacated, but the man had let him sleep in, as befitted a vacation. Mark supposed the chances were that Gerald wasn't up either, though the man could be surprisingly unslothful when the aunts' cooking was available.
He was right; both men were ensconced at the kitchen table, the judge lingering over a cup of coffee and Gerald still tucking into his eggs and sausage.
"Thought you'd sleep clear till noon," Hardcastle said, with a glance up at the clock which, as far as Mark could see, said it was only nine-thirty—a respectable seven-thirty by Malibu time.
He didn't point this out though, feeling vaguely and guiltily relieved that this was not the morning he'd be getting a few private words with Gerald. Instead he pulled a chair out in front of an unused place setting and gave May a quick nod of his chin.
"Where's Aunt Zora?"
"She went to pick up Billy. We thought it would be nice if Lisa and Dan could have a little lunch before they headed over to the bank to sign the papers."
Mark briefly wondered if a young couple with a baby to take care of might have thoughts other than lunch when someone stepped in and took up the slack. He kept that to himself, though, and only asked, fairly innocently, "When's the closing?"
Mark smiled. There might be time for lunch and some celebrating, he supposed.
"I thought we'd get started on the shed," Hardcastle said. "Good practice for helping out with the barn."
Gerald looked up sharply, as if on the verge of a complaint. He didn't voice it, though. His older brother's expression was adamant. Mark accepted a plate of eggs and sausage from Aunt May and didn't dawdle. He was actually looking forward to using a pry bar for a legal endeavor.
He decided he had a special fondness for tearing things down. The morning went fast, after they'd gotten the shed emptied out and the tools sorted and stored in the garage. From there on it was prying boards off the frame. Hardcastle had vetoed the three of them taking turns swinging a mallet, and the pry bars really were more practical. Aunts May and Zora had promised any wood that might be salvaged to Dan, though they all agreed that "weathered shed wood" didn't have quite the same panache.
They'd reduced the place to the knee-high remains of two walls by lunchtime, and by three they'd demolished those and carefully hammered the remaining nails out of the already separated boards. That was when Aunt May came out on the back porch, summoning the sweaty crew.
Good enough reason for a break. Mark examined a blister on the palm of his right hand and tried to remember what it was that he hadn't liked about working behind a desk. He gave up, knowing it would come back to him quick enough when they returned to LA. In the meantime they were swept up in the aunts' excitement and ushered into the house.
There was only time for a quick clean-up and a band-aid before champagne was being poured in the front room for a toast to the Postgates' current and future success.
"What will you call it?" Aunt Zora asked, after they'd all tinked their glasses and sipped.
Dan frowned slightly. "We haven't talked it out yet," he said. "Maybe we we're thinking we might jinx it." He smiled down at his wife, who'd reclaimed their son and was sitting, her arms entwined around him in a loose embrace.
"Don't know," she said softly. "I think when we come up with the right name, we'll know it."
"Well," Mark said, "here's to whatever you call it. May your home always be too small to hold all your friends!" He lifted his glass in cheer and took another sip. It was matched by the others.
They sipped and chatted, with Billy finally getting squirmy and needing to be put down. Dan seemed restless, too, and Mark finally suggested they step out back to see the progress. The two older men gave that a nod, but didn't seem in any particular hurry to join them.
Mark and Dan parked their champagne glasses and donned their jackets. As an afterthought, Mark also grabbed a pair of work gloves from the mudroom. Dan glanced at his bandaged palm and grinned. "Still happens to me sometimes, too, if there's something I haven't done in a while." He held up a hand that looked thoroughly calloused. "My dad used to say he never trusted anybody who didn't have 'em."
"Somebody's got to push papers." Mark smiled. "But look," he pointed to the neatly stacked pile of boards, lying on the former shed floor. "Not too bad for a bunch of city boys, eh?"
Dan passed judgment with a satisfied nod and then glanced up at the sun, which had already taken on an orange cast as it descended into the western cloud banks.
"We could haul it back to the barn, store it all in one place. Wouldn't take us all that long."
"Give the old guys a chance to catch their breath," Mark said with a grin, not willing to admit he'd been a little winded himself. "Sounds like a plan."
Dan brought his venerable truck around, and the loading was quickly done.
"Looks like maybe two trips," Mark said.
"Yeah," Dan agreed, eyeing the sagging suspension with chagrin. "Maybe the second one after dinner." There were already tempting odors from the aunts' kitchen wafting on the late afternoon air.
There was only a quick duck of Dan's head back in through the door, long enough to inform the rest of their plan, then they started off, with Mark settling back into the passenger seat with a strange sense of déjà vu. Dan's truck was nearly a carbon copy of the one the judge had owned back when Mark had first come to Gull's Way. There was a backward drift in memory, and a lull in the conversation. They were almost to the turn-off—the dirt road that lead to the Kendicotts' former place—when Dan finally spoke again.
"Zora and May—they've been great. Nobody's ever been so nice to us. They even talked to Ms. Eisley, down at the bank. She's the loan manager." He hesitated and then, "I think there was some trouble, about us getting the mortgage."
"What kind of trouble?"
"Oh, well, we were never quite sure, but your aunt said she was getting a hard time from her dad—he used to be a banker, too, before he retired. Said we were a bad risk. Well," he grimaced, "why not? We're not from around here, and me being kinda self-employed—"
"It's more like everybody employs you." Mark smiled. "And I hear there isn't enough of you to go around, most of the time. That Eisley guy probably just didn't want you leaving the trade. He wanted to make sure there'd be somebody to add a back porch on his place or something like that. Anyway, the aunts, they're like that. They kind of adopt people."
Dan nodded. "That's what I heard." He cast a quick, almost nervous, glance sideward. "Well, you know Leese spends a lot of time over there. She never really had a mom, and they've been like that to her—showing her stuff . . . talking . . ."
"About stuff," Mark finished for him, after a long pause.
"Yeah," Dan nodded again, and then, almost abruptly, he added, "they talk a lot about you. Leese says you're sort of adopted."
"Sort of," Mark's grin was a little nervous now, too.
"Is the rest of it all true?"
"Probably," Mark admitted. "The aunts aren't too big on lying." He shook his head and let out a sigh. "'Course they aren't too big on not telling the truth, either. So, yeah, I'm an ex-con, if that's what you were getting around to."
"Oh," Dan sat up a little straighter, "I didn't mean about that. May said it was kind of a big misunderstanding."
"'Misunderstanding', huh?" Mark was grinning ruefully. "I suppose that's one way of putting it. I sure as hell never understood it."
Now Dan's expression was frankly puzzled. "Well, that's kinda at the bottom of it—the being in prison—what I was wondering about was the part after. Judge Hardcastle and you and all those stories May and Zora tell. Is all that true?"
Mark cocked his head thoughtfully and said, "Allowing for a certain amount of literary license, yeah . . . and probably then some. I think maybe the judge doesn't always tell the aunts just exactly everything."
"And the writer who was a hit man and the dead guy in the swimming pool—"
"All regrettably true."
"And the feller who wrote murder mysteries murdering the mobster who was his ghostwriter and then trying to poison the judge—"
"Yeah, it happened."
Dan frowned, staring out through the windshield as he navigated the rutted road. "I dunno, I thought being a judge was a lot more . . . ah—"
"Sedentary?" Mark interjected. "Well, I think maybe it was, and that's why he retired."
They were both considering that as Dan pulled past the row of trees that bordered his new property. The buildings cast long shadows across the autumn-brown lawn. He maneuvered the truck alongside the barn, to shorten the unloading. He'd just put it in park, and shut down the engine, when Mark heard a clattering noise. He looked sharply to the side, catching Dan's equally baffled expression.
They both clambered out. There were more noises now—scuffling and some muffled words—and then the sound of a door being thrown open on the far side of the barn.
"What the—" Dan had only half finished a shout of his own before he'd taken off at a trot, in through the door on their side.
Mark shouted, "Wait!" and, that not working, took off after him, pausing in the unlit interior, the gloom revealing nothing but Dan's silhouette against the relative light from the wide open far door.
"Kids," Dan muttered, "that's all. They skedaddled."
Mark looked around. "No damage?"
Dan glanced over his shoulder, back into the barn, and shrugged. "How the hell could you tell if there was?"
He was right. Now that they'd had a moment to acclimate there was plenty of light coming in through the chinks. The interior of the place contained only a few musty bales of straw and some rusted tools. There was a kerosene lamp in one corner, with some loosely-piled straw.
"Just kids," Mark agreed, "hanging out. How many were there?"
"Three, maybe four. Hard to tell, they were already headed into the woods."
"Welcome to the world of responsible adulthood." Mark shook his head. "A couple more years and it'll be 'just those damn kids'. What do you think they wanted?"
"Who knows, just as long as they didn't burn the place down.
Mark stepped over to the rusted implements and tentatively kicked at what looked to be a shovel and a crowbar.
"Maybe they were looking for something. Buried treasure."
"Here?" Dan smiled and shook his head.
"Well, you know how it is. Rumors get started. Somebody probably heard you were interested in the place and that got things started. The whole thing about tearing down the barn might've sounded like some kind of treasure hunt."
Dan stared out the door again, across to the now-still woods. He frowned for a moment and then shrugged and said, "Yeah, probably something like that. Let's get those boards unloaded."
They got the job done in a hurry, with thoughts of dinner for motivation, but once
finished, Dan didn't seem all that eager to depart.
"Still worried about those kids?" Mark asked. "Looks to me like we scared 'em off. We can take the lantern and the tools, just for good measure."
Dan nodded at the suggestion and the piled the items in the back. Then he gave the place one last long look.
"Come on," Mark prodded, "Biscuits. Fried chicken. We'll be back this evening."
Dan finally loosened up a grin and climbed in the truck. "You're right. I have the rest of my life to hang around here, straightening things up. Let's go eat."
There were White Lily biscuits, fluffy enough to be Aunt May's own, though full credit was given to Lisa. The fried chicken was crisp and juicy and the potatoes were definitely up to the aunts' standard—Billy crowed his approval.
Somewhere in the middle of the second helpings Mark mentioned the intruders they'd run off that afternoon. He watched Hardcastle purse his lips at the mention of "kids", undoubtedly in recollection of another visit to Worden, a few years back, in which Mark had had a run-in with a few of the town's delinquents.
May picked up on it, almost at once. "The Pickett boys—well, they aren't really boys anymore, finished up school and everything—they've got themselves a feedlot. Pigs."
"And Aaron Jordan made sergeant just a few weeks back," Zora added.
The judge raised one eyebrow in skepticism.
"There was an article about it in the Worden Gazette," May said, settling the matter.
Zora glanced up at the clock. "We'll put off the dessert until you two have finished that second load," she said to the younger men. "It's apple pie."
With that for inspiration, and no way to claim they were being turned out hungry, Mark and Dan rose from the table. Dan gave his wife a peck on the cheek. "Won't take but a few minutes."
"We'll help you load up," Hardcastle said, nudging Gerry to his feet and prodding him toward the door to join the other two.
With eight hands the loading went quickly and the truck was soon on its way. This time they took the road slower, though, out of kindness to the undercarriage. By the time they reached the clearing where the barn stood, Dan was merely creeping along, intent on not finding the worst ruts in the road.
The quarter moon seemed paltry once the headlights were cut. Mark climbed out and felt his footing carefully as he turned toward the back of the truck.
"Might need that lantern," Dan muttered, as he reached into the bed of the truck and pulled at some boards. "The electricity is still off."
"Left it back at the house." Mark grabbed the other end of what Dan had half-slid free.
The two of them headed up the short slope to the barn door—Dan in the lead and each carrying an end of the awkward bundle of boards. Mark was mostly focused on keeping his footing in the dark. There was a fraction of a second—between when the darker shape struck him and his face hit the ground—in which he thought Dan had stumbled and was falling backwards.
The second blow, this one to his head, settled that. He was reaching up, trying to defend himself against an unseen assailant, when he heard a voice that made him wonder if the whole thing wasn't some unpleasant flashback.
The threat was there—hard, implacable. "Get off 'em or so help me I'll—"
Exactly what the new interloper intended wasn't spelled out, because in the next moment there was a hard swish of air and a solid thud. Mark thought it must have been a board, swung with intent and making solid contact with one of his attackers. It was obvious that there were more than one. Another swing, and a hit, and a mad scramble of shadowy figures yelping and scattering.
Mark heard Dan, his voice coming from somewhere off to the side, a muttering, as though he'd been knocked unconscious. "Wha' the hell . . .?"
Then there was a painfully bright beam, almost directly in his face—a flashlight. Mark squinted and then shut his eyes and let his head fall back on the ground.
"You two okay?"
"Yeah," Mark said, and then rolled over on his side and retched up a good part of what had been a substantial dinner. "Ugh." He spat and wiped his face on his sleeve. "Dan?"
"Uh-huh, m'okay." Then after a pause, and a little clearer, "What the hell happened?"
"Kids," Aaron Jordan said, dropping into a crouch with his flashlight now aimed down, he tilted Mark's face to take in the damage. "Looks like they got you good." He moved over to Dan and repeated the maneuver. "Both of you. Best get you looked at before you tell Chief Sheridan what happened."
Dan was struggling to sit up. Mark gave him a concerned look and then turned back to the guy who'd rescued them. "I don't want to sound ungrateful, Aaron, but how'd you happen along? I didn't even know you were in town."
"You know him?" Dan said slowly, as though he were still a half-step off.
"Ah . . . yeah," Mark said, wondering if he should mention that Aaron had been in charge of the last gang of rural thugs who'd beaten him up in Worden, some four years back. No, he thought, let bygones be bygones. But he wasn't so forgiving as to not notice he still hadn't heard an explanation. He temporized. "This is Corporal, um, I mean Sergeant Aaron Jordan. Aaron, meet Dan Postgate."
Aaron, running his fingers through his almost non-existent hair, grinned sheepishly. "That's buck sergeant," he said. He looked surprisingly non-threatening for a guy who Mark knew personally could bust ribs. "I had a couple weeks leave since the promotion—got a tour in Korea up next—so that's why I'm home."
He'd said that last word without any note of irony. Mark already knew the man didn't get along at all with his fiercely prejudiced and explosively angry father. That Aaron had been able to tame his own violence, and harness it to the plow of military service, had been nothing short of astonishing.
"But you just happened by here tonight?" Mark prodded.
"Well . . . no, not exactly," Aaron admitted, flicking off the switch of his flashlight and plunging them all back into darkness. "like I said, I was back in town—went to visit the Pickett boys, we all went down to a road house for some beers and ran into some other folks I knew . . . heard some talk."
"What kind of 'talk'?" Mark asked sharply.
"Oh, nothing real specific," Aaron said quickly, and then he paused, as if he were trying to remember exactly what had been said. He finally added, "It was just talk, you know? The word was that some of the boys were going to go down to the Kendicott place and raise a ruckus. Try and run the new owner off. Said he was an outsider. No right to come in and start buying places up, tearing things down."
Mark cast a quick glance in the direction of the barn and then looked back sharply at the dark shape before him. "It's a barn, for Pete's sake. It's falling apart." He made a gesture of impatient disgust and then lumbered to his feet. Dan followed suit.
"I didn't say they made any sense," Aaron said gruffly. "That kinda stuff never makes much sense. It's too much beer and not enough to do, that's what was doing the talking." He got to his feet like a man who was in far better shape that either of the other two. He whacked the dust from his pants and gave the whole set-up the quick, focused look of someone who would never be taken by surprise. Then his attention came back to the walking wounded. "You can drive? Get back into town and all—see the doc."
Dan nodded, though there might have been a moment's hesitation there. He finally added, "I'm fine. Just banged up a little. Nothing a doctor can do anything about. You?"
He'd turned to Mark, who shrugged and said, "Yeah, same here. It's the police we really need to talk to." He glanced around briefly and then said, "Or the sheriff. We're outside the town limits, right?"
He could see Dan's face, now that his own eyes were adapted to the darkness. The man's expression was closed. There was a pause before he answered and Mark had already figured out what he'd say.
"Just a bunch of kids, up to no good. I didn't see any of their faces, did you?"
The question seemed to include both of them. Aaron shook his head.
Mark protested, "So you file a complaint, let the sheriff know what's going on. If you don't at least do that—"
Dan hooked a thumb in Aaron's direction. "He's right, you know. I am an outsider. Only been here less than a year. I don't want to stir up any trouble."
"Well, you're wrong about that," Aaron said. The interruption had been unexpected and Mark jerked a glance toward him. "It's true," the man continued. "You let it ride, thinking you don't want a little trouble, and eventually it becomes big trouble. That kind knows who they can mess with . . . well," Aaron flicked a sudden, brief grin, "mostly."
Mark felt a tight smile creeping up. He knew Sgt. Jordan was speaking from personal experience again. The one miscalculation of Aaron's misspent youth had been taking on him and Hardcastle.
"Listen," Jordan said, "I know how it works."
"I do, too," Dan answered grimly. "Been an outsider all my life, always moving on. I'm here to set down roots. Those . . . kids, they just wanted a ruckus. Their folks'd probably be ashamed. But if I send the sheriff after them—if he figures out who was doing the talking and hauls some of 'em in—their people'll rally 'round 'em, sure as sin. That's just how it is."
Dan took a deep breath and winced. Might be a bruised rib or two, Mark figured. Then he let it out slowly and said. "I just want some peace. I'm not aiming to start no trouble."
Aaron looked at him with stern disapproval. "Seems like the trouble's already started." But the other man didn't buckle and, after a moment, the sergeant just shook his head once and stepped back. "You want some help unloading this stuff?"
They unloaded, with Aaron doing as much as the two others together and the whole project accomplished with military efficiency. When that was done, Mark and Dan climbed into the truck. Dan looked at Aaron. "You need a lift?"
He got another quick shake of the head in return. "Nah," Jordan looked around again—those quick, assessing, alert glances, "I think I'll stick around a little while, make sure they aren't hanging around out there, waiting for you to leave."
"You sure?" Mark asked. "By yourself?"
"Yes, sir," the grin was back, feral even by the dim moonlight, "I may not know exactly who they were, but they sure as hell must've recognized me. There's got to be some profit from having the meanest sonuvabitch in Worden for a father."
Mark risked a quick smile. He didn't think Aaron's reputation entirely rested on his father's dubious laurels, but if the man felt a certain need to make up for his own past transgressions, he thoroughly approved.
"Thanks," Dan said, looking a little uncertain about his new acquaintance but willing to put some sincerity into it. "I'm grateful."
"No problem," Aaron said, as he stepped back into the shadows. "No problem at all."
The drive started out quietly enough, with only an occasional grunt of discomfort from one or both men when a patch of rough road was encountered. After the second or third of those Mark hesitantly said, "If it's a matter of money—seeing the doctor, I mean—"
"Nah," Dan said, "me and Doc Brent worked things out a while back. He takes care of Billy when he needs shots and stuff, and I haul him a load of firewood every couple of months. He's got an old woodlot, been in his family for years." The younger man sighed. "Look, I'm okay . . . leastwise, well enough. Been in enough fights to know when I'm just banged up, ain't you?"
Mark nodded then leaned forward to catch a glimpse of himself in the side mirror. "We're a pair," he said glumly. "There's gonna be a fuss when we get home. You sure you don't want to report it?"
Dan nodded, and it was too late for any more persuasion; they were pulling into the aunts' drive.
There was, as predicted, a fuss. It started with Lisa's horrified expression as they came up under the light on the front porch, and lasted through May and Zora fetching warm water, towels, and mercurochrome, while Hardcastle tried to conduct the interrogation and Gerald hovered nearby, incensed but otherwise ineffectual.
It took a united front to prevent the summoning of Doctor Brent, though gradually even Zora had to agree that the damage was more showy than deep. On the matter of reporting it all to the sheriff, Dan would not be moved, and against his own better judgment, Mark backed him up.
Sheriff Jackson's a good man," Zora said stoutly. "Even if you didn't get a proper look at those . . . villains, he'd at least want to know what's going on, so he could keep an eye on things."
May nodded her accord. "He could even have a notion who the most likely suspects might be."
"Sound's like Aaron Jordan has a good idea about that," Hardcastle said with a scowl.
"I don't think so, Judge," Mark said firmly. "He's been away most of the last four years. Anyway, he saved our hides and was pretty insistent that we ought to talk to the sheriff, too."
Hardcastle frowned, looking unhappy to be caught in any point of agreement with the Jordan kid.
"And Dan has a point," Mark added, ignoring the startled look from the man he was supporting. "He can't afford to lose any of his customers, not now while he's got to meet payments on that mortgage. If accusations start flying around without proof, it could get ugly."
"It's wrong," Hardcastle said flatly.
"I've already made up my mind," Dan said, quiet but determined. Lisa sat next to him, biting her lip but not saying anything in disagreement.
After all the excitement, everyone seemed glad to call it a night. "I'm getting an early start tomorrow," Dan said. "Get that damn barn torn down and have done with it." There was general agreement on that, even from Gerald.
But the Postgates were scarcely out the door before Mark realized he was getting an unspoken signal from the judge. It was only a slight lift of one eyebrow and a small jerk of the man's chin in the direction he then proceeded—back toward the kitchen—but Mark knew he was expected to follow, no arguments.
He sighed, realizing it had all been a little too easy up till then, but he trudged after Hardcastle anyway. No one else took any apparent notice of their departure, a polite fiction which probably meant the aunts expected their blood nephew to talk some sense into their honorary one.
In the kitchen, things seemed start off civilly enough. The judge pulled out a chair for him. Mark should have realized, before he took the seat, that this served to give him a disadvantage in height—a physical symbol of Hardcastle occupying the moral high ground.
"You know just because Postgate's being a damn mule about this doesn't mean we need a matched set. I think we ought to give the doc a call."
Mark was already gingerly shaking his head no. "I won't say I'm fine, but I've been lots worse, and all old Brent is gonna do is get your blood pressure up and tell me to take it easy for a couple days. You know the drill as well as I do. You'll wake me up every couple of hours tonight and tomorrow I'll probably have a helluva shiner."
Hardcastle looked unconvinced, but willing to accede the argument in favor of the one that was dearer to him. "Okay," he grunted, "but what about us going to see this Jackson fellow? I've heard of him; they say he's a straight shooter."
"No," Mark said firmly. "That's Dan's decision—"
"But you were a victim, too," Hardcastle pointed out patiently. "Just 'cause he won't file a report doesn't mean—"
"Yes, it does. That's exactly what it means. Look, I don't know for sure if he's right about this but he's the one who has to live here. In a week or so, when the Lone Ranger and Tonto have saddled up and headed home to Malibu, he'll be the one left back at the ranch—him and Lisa."
Mark didn't even bother with a scowl. He could tell, from the long, thoughtful pause that this notion was getting from the judge, that he'd already carried the argument. Of course that didn't mean the older man had to like it. Injustice in any form rankled Hardcastle and, much to his surprise, McCormick found himself silently sharing that sentiment.
Mark finally sighed and said, "Look, just because we can't stir up any official dust, doesn't mean we can't poke around a little ourselves, does it?"
He got no disagreement from the judge, in fact, the man's right eyebrow was up and he quirked a questioning half-grin of agreement. "Ask around a little. See what's what?"
"But subtle," Mark cautioned, to a man he strongly suspected wasn't familiar with the concept.
Hardcastle nodded once, sagely, and tapped the side of his nose with his index finger. Mark sighed. He might as well be talking to one of the aunts about the importance of "innocent until proven guilty by due process".
He covered his doubt with a simple request. "Not tonight, though. I'm tired, and you're going to be waking me up every couple of hours. The poking can wait till tomorrow."