Author's Note: A rather late entry to the challenge for The Black Widow – sorry – been out having too much summer fun! Beta thanks going to Lynn and Deb, I'm grateful for their support in spite of obstacles like real life and lousy internet. They are working hard to make me a better writer (and I give them plenty to work with!) As always, the characters aren't mine and no profit is being made.
More Than a Pretty Face
Mark closed the front door of the gatehouse behind him, making his way through the darkness across the expanse of lawn towards the main house. He stopped a moment to kick the small hedge that lined the driveway. It was slightly more mature than kicking a dog, but since canines were scarce and he really had nothing against them, he settled for the shrub. It was only a half-hearted effort and did nothing to relieve his frustration with himself.
It seemed his track record with women wasn't improving.
He knew he had no one but himself to blame. Always a sucker for a pretty face, always willing to believe the best about a female member of the species. You'd think after his disastrous outings with Kiki and Melinda, he'd have learned at least something about the way they operated. Even Hardcase had enough sense to recognize Tina Grey for what she really was, and he probably hadn't been in the game since Mark had been in diapers.
McCormick glanced up at the darkened house. He hadn't felt much like company by the time they'd wrapped everything up at the police station. Feigning exhaustion, which didn't really take any effort, he'd headed for the gatehouse, skipping dinner. With Sarah off this weekend, it wasn't like he'd be missing much, and he had enough fixings in the fridge at the gatehouse for a sandwich if necessary.
He'd puttered around for most of the evening, and once he was certain the judge was in bed, he'd thrown on a shirt and headed over. It wasn't that he didn't want to talk, it was just . . . well, he wasn't interested in admitting what a schmuck he'd been. The woman had turned out to be everything Hardcastle had said she was, and then some.
Mark opened the kitchen door quietly and slipped through. He cocked his head and listened intently in the darkness. Hearing nothing, he flipped the light switch, surprised at the disarray that met his eyes.
He should have realized the judge wasn't going to clean up the kitchen after their role-swapping exercise last night. There was lettuce everywhere, wilted and brown at the edges. It looked like no attempt had been made at keeping it actually in the salad bowl. Dishes from the dinner preparation were scattered about, and the soup pot was still on the stove. Mark walked over to examine it more closely.
He was glad the judge had at least turned off the burner – the thought of trying to scrape the blackened gunk off the bottom of the pot was not appealing.
You should learn to appreciate Sarah more, he thought to himself as he grabbed a dishrag. Pulling over the garbage can, he began methodically sweeping the limp green leaves into the trash.
She might be on the old-fashioned side, and her tongue could certainly be sharp, but at least you knew where you stood with Sarah Wicks. No coy attitudes, no deliberately misleading comments, and she wasn't one to change her mind on a whim just to suit her situation.
Tina Grey, however, seemed to be trying to develop relationship-forming into an Olympic sport. He doubted anyone would beat her times. Her portrayal of a damsel in distress hadn't even been that good, but Mark had fallen for it without a backwards glance.
What an idiot he could be.
At least he took some comfort in the fact that he'd wised up to her wicked ways at the end. Had she really thought he'd just drop everything and run off to Switzerland with her after she'd tried to bury him only moments before?
That particular phrase pricked his mind a bit too sharply, and he felt an involuntary shudder run down his spine. He hadn't been kidding when he'd told the judge back at the quarry that he'd thought it was over. He'd never been so sure his number was up, and it wasn't a feeling he wanted to repeat anytime soon.
Despite never having touched the grave itself, he'd felt covered in dust all afternoon, as if the miss he'd experienced had been so narrow as to leave its mark. He'd showered already, but couldn't escape the feeling, and the adrenaline rush that came from knowing the heavenly choir wouldn't be welcoming him home just yet was probably what was still keeping him awake at this hour, even though he hadn't had any sleep at all the night before.
If he weren't careful, he'd allow himself to start re-thinking this whole arrangement. Hadn't Hardcastle said the same thing just yesterday? At the time, Mark had shrugged it off. After all, he'd had no interest in calling the game just yet.
Funny how a near-brush with death could change your perspective.
Mark walked into the dining room and surveyed the damage in there. Not too bad, actually, as most everything on the table hadn't been used. He left the dishes to be put away tomorrow, but grabbed the wine glass out of the ice bucket and grimaced, momentarily annoyed with himself for pushing the issue with the bottle of Rothschild. He'd really only pulled it out to see if Hardcastle would be willing to let it slide. Now, however, he felt a certain amount of perverse pleasure over the fact that this case hadn't come without cost to the captain of this outfit. He took the glass with him and moved back into the kitchen to start on the dishes.
Thinking back on it, he realized this was the first time his coming within spitting distance of the Pearly Gates had been the direct result of the judge pulling out one of his files, though he wasn't sure it made any real difference in the long run. Teaming up with Hardcastle was apparently hazardous to his health, whether it was manufactured trouble, or the kind they just managed to wander into unaware.
He wouldn't mind that too much, if he could be sure it was worth it. His mind had been relentlessly gnawing on the uncertainty of that idea for the past few hours. Not that taking some of these guys off the streets wasn't a good thing, but it was still up in the air where that benefited Mark himself. Other than staying out of prison.
Which he supposed was enough motivation for most things. But maybe not for being dead.
He ran the hot water in the sink, watching absently as the bubbles formed over the piled dishes. Grabbing the rag, he dove in.
Though there wasn't much that was worse than being dead, Mark could think of a few things, but that was a path he'd rather his mind not go down tonight. Dead was bad enough. In fact, he'd spent most of his life trying to avoid it. Putting himself in harm's way just to further this little justice crusade of Hardcastle's seemed like a bad trade-off.
The sound of the door opening into the kitchen was the first warning he had that he wasn't alone after all, and he swung his head toward the noise, looking just the slightest bit guilty for his thoughts.
"Trying to give me a heart attack here?" he asked, immediately going on the offensive.
Hardcastle ambled over toward the refrigerator. "Nope. Just getting some milk." He pulled out the carton to demonstrate the point. "Can't help it if you're faint-hearted."
Mark shook his head and returned his attention to the job at hand. "You know, you could have at least made an attempt at cleaning this place up last night. Would it have killed you to wash a dish?"
Hardcastle refrained from answering as he grabbed a glass from the cabinet. "I thought you went to bed," he stated, though it was clearly a question.
"Uh . . . no. Couldn't sleep."
Hardcastle raised a weary eyebrow. "You couldn't sleep? Didn't think that was possible."
"Yeah, well. Happens to everyone sooner or later."
The retired jurist seemed to think on that for a moment. "How come?"
Mark looked at him blankly. "How come what?"
The jurist rolled his eyes. "How come you couldn't sleep?"
"Oh. I don't know. How come you're awake?" He went back to an offensive position.
The question had the desired effect, as the judge didn't answer, but went and sat silently at the table, sipping the milk.
Mark abandoned the dishes and grabbed a towel, drying his hands. He pulled a saucepan out from the drawer beneath the oven, grabbing the milk and pouring a healthy amount and placing it over the burner. "You're supposed to heat it, you know. If you want to get to sleep. Warm milk, not cold."
Hardcastle smirked. "You believe in old wives' tales like that?"
"Sure. How do you think they got to be old wives?"
The judge waited while McCormick prepared the warm milk and carried it over to the table in two steaming mugs and removing the glass of cold milk from the jurist's grasp.
"Sarah would have to pick this weekend to visit her niece," Mark complained, surveying the remaining damage as he lowered himself into a chair.
Hardcastle followed his gaze. "You think she would have been willing to clean all this mess up?" he asked skeptically.
Mark pondered that. "Well, no. Probably not."
"Darn right. She'd have given you what-all for even suggesting it." Hardcastle managed to look affronted on her behalf. "It was your date. You should clean it up."
McCormick didn't bother to point out that was exactly what he was doing. "My date, sure, but it was your case! I wouldn't have been there at all if you hadn't wanted to chase her down."
"You wouldn't have been there at all if you hadn't butted your nose in where it didn't belong! You knew I had every intention of setting myself up with her, but no-o-o – you had to come charging in, ready to rescue the fair maiden from the clutches of the evildoers! I was just the deranged kitchen help, remember?"
"Deranged is right," Mark muttered under his breath. "Anyway," he said a little louder, "you probably couldn't have handled her. She was something else, Judge."
The tone was just slightly off.
Hardcastle looked closely at the weary man across the table before stating the obvious. "You liked her, didn't you?" The question was rhetorical.
"No – no, not really," Mark hedged. "I mean, sure, she was pretty and all, but . . . " He stopped, suddenly aware that if he wasn't buying his own answer, there was no way the judicial legend beside him would. He sighed.
"Yeah. Okay. I liked her." He thought about elaborating or defending his position, but decided it wasn't worth it. There wasn't a whole lot of explanation he could give. Tina Grey had snowed him, one hundred percent, and he'd been dumb enough to fall for it.
"You were right, Judge. The whole time, she was only looking out for number one. Just in it for the money, and she didn't care who she used or got killed to get it. She was just as dark as you said she was, and I never even saw it." He took a sip of the warmed milk and placed his mug down gently. "Guess that makes me an idiot, huh?"
Hardcastle appeared to be debating the rare opportunity to agree with the young man, but something led him to refrain. "Nah. Not an idiot. Maybe just a sucker for a pretty face."
Mark gave a tight laugh. "Yeah, you got that right. I don't know what I was thinking."
"Well, kiddo, you were probably thinking she cared about you." He held up a placating hand as Mark looked ready to jump down his throat. "I'm not saying that's a bad thing. It doesn't make you an idiot, anyway. That was the way she operated. She wouldn't have gotten where she was if she weren't good at her job." Now it was the judge's turn to look pensive.
"Besides, I think maybe it might have been my fault," he admitted quietly.
McCormick looked up sharply at the older man's face. "Your fault? How do you figure that?"
Hardcastle inhaled deeply. "She set you up. You were supposed to be her new patsy. Her fall guy."
"Okay," Mark drew out the word, following him so far. "How does that make it your fault?"
"It was Filapiano's suggestion. He's the one who told her to set you up." The jurist's gaze remained on the table.
"So, what difference does that . . . oh," he said, stopping abruptly as things became clear. The only reason Filapiano would have had for suggesting McCormick as the patsy would be to get back at Hardcastle.
And the only reason that would have been revenge at all was if it would have mattered to Hardcastle if something were to happen to Mark.
Mark wrapped his hands around his mug, aware now that they were treading dangerously close to admissions that perhaps neither one of them was ready to face. He gave a sideways glance toward the man across the table, remaining silent, listening to the suddenly deafening tick of the clock on the far wall.
Hardcastle cleared his throat but said nothing, clearly uncomfortable and not wanting to confirm any suppositions.
The ex-con sat still for a moment, reviewing the evidence at hand. He'd made light of the comment Hardcastle had made yesterday when Mark hadn't returned. McCormick had teased the older man about caring, chuckling over the immediate denial the judge had given. Here in the wee hours of the morning, it didn't seem like such a laughing matter.
Somehow, he didn't think that had been part of Hardcastle's initial plan. Hunt 'em, hear 'em and hang 'em, sure – but caring whether his new Tonto bit the dust, literally speaking? He figured that might have been an unforeseen development. Truthfully, it was rather unexpected for him as well.
It didn't take more than a second for him to decide it wasn't a bad thing. Not from his perspective, anyway. It was a rather common notion for most people – the desire to have someone care about them. Mark had been looking for that for quite a while in pretty faces that didn't have anything backing them up. He wasn't picky enough now to turn away honest concern, no matter what quarter it came from.
He stifled a wholly inappropriate laugh over the thought of Hardcastle as another pretty face, but the smirk still broke through his control. He watched as the judge's eyes narrowed and knew he had to do some backpedaling.
He feigned ignorance of the revelation that had occurred to him, opting for half-truths. "Maybe . . ." he contemplated. "It could have happened like that, but I don't really think it was your fault. If Filapiano hadn't made the suggestion, she'd still have come up with it on her own. She had a habit of using whoever happened to be handy, and I kind of served myself up on a platter."
Hardcastle's gaze remained on him, scrutinizing him, looking for signs that the young man was conning him. Mark's features remained innocent, years of practice coming to his rescue now.
After a few moments, Hardcastle grudgingly nodded. "Yeah. I suppose you did at that. What were you thinking anyway?"
Mark grinned and waggled his eyebrows at the judge. "You really want to know?"
"Ack! No, Romeo, I don't want to know." Milt pushed himself away from the table and carried his now empty mug over to the sink. "Spare me the gory details," he said in disgust.
"You're missing the best part, you know," Mark continued, smiling.
"I'll survive," Hardcastle said, shaking his head. "I'm heading off to bed. You ought to think about it too."
"I will. Soon. But you go ahead. Beauty sleep is definitely called for in your case."
He watched the older man wander out of the kitchen, but he remained where he was, in no hurry to walk back to the gatehouse. He had no doubt there would be plenty of times when his life would be in danger working alongside the Lone Ranger. Maybe friendship was reason enough. And yeah, he had fallen for the wrong woman once again. Wasn't the first time, and probably wouldn't be the last. But he'd survived before, and he'd done that on his own. There was no doubt he'd recover from this one as well.
It was just nice to know he'd be doing it in the company of a friend. That was worth much more than just a pretty face.